Kicking off the ballet season

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday January 28, 2015
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For the first time in 30 years, San Francisco Ballet's opening night gala disappointed me. It's always been a community festival. In the late 1980s, we'd leave the auditorium and find more dancing going on in the lobby �" Russian folk dancers, Savoy-style lindy-hoppers, with little combos playing so you and your date could dance yourselves, or climb the stairs to the mezzanine and look down over the balustrades on le tout San Francisco rocking out around the huge marble table.

This year's Gala, which kicked off the season last Thursday night, was sold out before the press releases went out, and though standing room was full and the house was filled with excitement, and many beautiful gowns floated up and down the aisles and Prosecco had been given away in the lobby, once the curtain went up, the whole event began to resemble the roll-out of a new generation of something you should invest in.

The programming was simultaneously impressive and dreary, and confusingly anticlimactic. The curtain went up on a brilliant presentation of the entire company, from the smallest children in the school through the ranks of the professional company, ending with the stars: they all marched forward doing the Polonaise, in direct imitation of the Grand Defile of the Paris Opera Ballet.

This was fabulous, except that it was followed by the curtain going back up on a podium, at which stood poor John Osterweis, head of the San Francisco Ballet Foundation, who then talked for 30 minutes, thanking everybody who'd helped fundraise for the occasion, corporation after corporation after corporation, and hostess after hostess after hostess. It could not have been more plain that this evening was for them, not for us �" and the string of pas de deux that followed each seemed like a vicarious existence for rich ladies who'd been forced into marriages Frisch aus dem Kloster, kommandiert worden.

I haven't felt this much like one of the 99% since the tape of Mitt Romney's gaffe went viral. As one overwrought, second-rate pas de deux after another took over the stage �" always superlatively danced, but never well-enough choreographed �" you wondered if Helgi Tomasson was about to overreach himself, as Michael Smuin did with his dominatrices in To the Beatles, 30 years ago.

What were they thinking putting together a program like this? With dancers like these �" performers of finesse, skill, energy and fire, a cadre of talent that really is world-class �" to showcase them in a format of second-rate "highlights" that revealed very little of their tremendous gifts? Two of the dances were gifts from the choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, who are indeed in the first rank of contemporary choreographers. But neither of their problematic works belonged in a festive gala.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Helgi Tomasson's On a Theme of Paganini . Photo: Erik Tomasson

The numbers that did not misfire were the opener and the closer: first, a jokey pas de deux to Johann Strauss II's hilarious polka Leichtes Blut, for two of the company's premier danseurs, Pascal Molat and Joan Boada, which proved beyond a doubt that they could both do the hardest tricks in the book in perfect rhythm with the music and make it look like dancing, and gave hope that the show was going to get some zip back in it. Then, the finale, the Grand Pas d'Esclave from Le Corsaire (with which Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn used to enthrall audiences), superlatively danced by our Cuban virtuoso Taras Domitro, who deeply understands the glamor and style of this Soviet-era chestnut, dancing with the much-loved Vanessa Zahorian, who's just returned to performing after an injury that kept her off the boards for the entirety of the last season. Zahorian is a great-hearted virtuoso who turns like a tornado, and she finished the show with a blazing set of perpetual-motion pirouettes that brought the house down and almost made us forget the scissoring leaps that her partner had just thrown off before she came on. He had literally thrown himself into the air with his legs in 180-degree splits, and at the height of his jump reversed himself, scissoring the legs back through to even wider amplitude �" 190 degrees, perhaps �" before he came down. Such a sight really peels your eyes, and he did them over and over. Such heroics make your adrenaline spike, and the audience went berserk. Me, I was grateful that there'd been something I didn't have to make apologies for, and that it capped things and at least sent us out feeling good.

San Francisco Ballet dancer Taras Domitro in Petipa's Le Corsaire. Photo: Erik Tomasson

But in the meantime there'd been only small ensemble pieces that canceled each other out. Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luis were nearly wasted in Val Caniparoli's Cinderella Story pdd, which sucked the energy out of the proceedings, as were the magnificent Sofiane Sylve and her sterling partner Luke Ingham in a sad duet to Kurt Weill. Yuan Yuan Tan's terrifying extensions matched the sublimity of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, but by then it was clear that even the big things were going to be small. And of the five dancers in William Forsythe's Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, only Gennadi Nedvigin was thrilling, vertiginous, or exact. In truth, Nedvigin is one of the greatest male dancers anywhere in the world today, and it is an immense pleasure to be in the presence of such artistry; but of the other dancers, only Francisco Mungamba was ready for prime time. The piece must be performed allegro molto; the dancers meet themselves coming and going, with stylized exaggerations of the spiralings built into ballet technique. But none of the ladies came up to the standards set by their predecessors.

The five corps men who danced Tomasson's Concerto Grosso, one of his finest ballets ever, executed their magnificent steps immaculately, though without the elan that their predecessors brought to the roles. As with Vertiginous, I kept seeing other dancers shadowing them, dancing better. Diego Cruz and, again, Mungamba danced best. Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh did their very good best to realize Wheeldon's Borealis, though Gavin Bryars' music, to which the dance was set, kept the whole thing pretty desolate. The heroic Sarah van Patten made every moment of her dancing in Ratmansky's puzzling Souvenir d'un Lieu Cher seem honest and poignant �" in fact, maybe even tragic. I am eager to see this double pas de deux again, in another context, when its virtues can be appreciated. The new dancer Carlo di Lanno was thrillingly musical as the guy she wants but can't have, as he danced with the exquisite and perhaps exquisitely silly and undeserving Mathilde Froustey. Finally, Yuan Yuan Tan made a hysterical melodrama out of the final pas de deux from Onegin.

Lovers of ballet cannot be sorry that the San Francisco Ballet is in the black, nor that they are 2/3 of the way through their capital campaign, which is designed to make sure that the company will never again face the bankruptcy they did back in the 1980s, which Tomasson was brought in to stave off. The company was not operating then under sound financial principles, and the board nearly pulled the plug on them. Without the help of the Ford Foundation, we might have lost our ballet company, which was the oldest in the USA at that point, and was generally considered, already, after the two great New York companies, the third-ranked ballet company in the country.

The season ahead looks good. Some of the choreography is not inspired, but all of it will give these fantastic dancers opportunities to dance their hearts out and to make us love them again. I am particularly looking forward to Serenade and Giselle, both of which contain sublime choreography that rival Shakespeare for poetic power.