Kicking off!

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday January 26, 2016
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San Francisco Ballet's Hansuke Yamamoto in Hans van Manen's<i> Solo</i>. Photo:<br>Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet's Hansuke Yamamoto in Hans van Manen's Solo. Photo:
Erik Tomasson

When the San Francisco Ballet opens their season, they kick off with a Gala that ties up Civic Center for the whole evening, just like the Opera and Symphony do. The house is full for the performance with a crowd dressed to the nines, where the designer-name roll call is itself news. But this crowd is half the age of the other two, and at least some of these gowns have seen recent duty as prom dresses. Putting on the Ritz is fun for all, but it's also a kind of civic festivity that's great to have institutionalized. It's become part of the spirit of the city that reminds me of New Orleans having its Mardi Gras balls right now. This "high art" can pull in an audience of all ages, partly because of the physical excitement of the event. Galas are much more energetic shows than they used to be.

SFB's Gala is a party designed to show the hometown audience (especially the pillars of society, on whose support so much depends) how the dance troupe has been making the city famous in their wildly successful overseas tours. They come home from London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing with big headlines like "the biggest same-day sale in the history of the theater," where they've showed mostly brand-new works. Papers of the stature of the Financial Times have written that the future of ballet may well lie in the way SFB is developing.

These ballets rely for much of their dazzle on the brilliance of the men in the troupe. From the bottom to the top of the roster, SFB's men are outstanding: elegant, precise, and powerful, like big cats. In former times, a gala performance was about ballerinas. Nowadays, the company's brio shines forth from the men, who leap, dart, and flash about the stage like bombs bursting in air.

Indeed, last Thursday's gala kicked off the season with "The Star-Spangled Banner." As the snare drums rolled and the crowd stood up to sing, if you'd felt the crackle of athletic display in the offing, you would not have been far wrong. After a speech thanking everybody who had helped put on the show, and an exquisite opening number for children from the SFB School (the nation's oldest), the three corps de ballet boys might have been stars of the company, they accompanied Natasha Sheehan so fleetly. Young Ms. Sheehan, an SFB trainee, danced this role outstandingly in the School Showcase last spring, and was brought back to underline the importance of the school where they were trained.

San Francisco Ballet's Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno in William Forsythe's Pas/Parts. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Over the course of the evening it was the men who put the spice in this variety show. But ballerinas made strong showing early. Senior ballerina Lorena Feijoo tore it up in a fiery adagio, Carmen, created for her and Vitor Luiz by resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov, followed by our newest Spanish star, Dores Andre, just recently promoted to Principal, who had perhaps the best dance of the whole evening, wonderfully partnered by Joan Boada in "If I Loved You" from Carousel, by Christopher Wheeldon.

Over his 30-plus years here, Helgi Tomasson has made the Gala not just a showcase for his stars but also a taster's menu for the season to come. The children in an intricate dance to Delibes' exquisite "Waltz of the Hours" will dance that again in Program 4, Coppelia. The duet from Pas/Pars (William Forsythe) that Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno made such an incisive, cryptic affair of in the Gala will reprise on Program 1, which opened last Sunday and runs another week.

The finales of both Acts 1 & 2 were given to the indomitable powerhouse ballerina Vanessa Zahorian. She let her partner in Don Quixote amaze us with his blazing pyrotechnics, and saved her big kicks and coruscating batterie for Balanchine's Theme and Variations at the final curtain, in which she headed up a company that filled the stage with virtuoso fireworks.

Along the way, Gennadi Nedvigin stood out as the dancer with more time than anybody else. Amidst the rush of brilliant images coming nonstop, he was always clear, easy. Moving just as fast as everyone else had to in the prestissimo Solo, he alone never seemed rushed.

Not everything was great. It looked like more rehearsal might have helped both the Rubies Pas de Deux (Maria Kochetkova, Pascal Molat) and the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (Frances Chung, Gennadi Nedvigin) glow more steadily, while the famous "Black Swan Pas de Deux" had some dim moments. Davit Karapetyan receives the award for Most Gracious Partner in the "Black Swan," where he saved Mathilde Froustey from a bad night by making her seem the complete object of his devotion. Her foot was giving her trouble, but she did her best and did not hold back on the dramatic sweep of her characterization.

The Gala was a one-off evening that came just days before the opening of the winter season. Programs 1 & 2 are already up and running. I will report on them next week.