Moving with grace & ease

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday January 24, 2017
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San Francisco Ballet dancers in Benjamin Millepied's "The Chairman Dances".  Photo: Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet dancers in Benjamin Millepied's "The Chairman Dances".  Photo: Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet took possession of the entire Civic Center last Thursday for a Gala opening night that ran from dinner until well past Midnight, and tout le monde was there. The entire evening was sold out, all the dinners, the show at the Opera House, and the ball afterwards. The last dance came around 1 a.m. It was a glorious evening; in fact, it felt kind of like a blow-out, since there was nobody there who didn't know that tomorrow would come, the Inauguration of a new President whom our town despises. After seeing the wonderful dancing " on stage, and from the crowd of dancers tearing it up on the dance floor in City Hall after the show " it was hard not to be appalled by the following day's staggeringly graceless "First Dance" for the First Couple at their inaugural ball.

The performances at the ballet's 84th anniversary gala were designed to show off the fabulous motor skills of the troupe, which has made itself, in the last few decades, internationally famous. It seemed like a mighty long time since we'd seen them ourselves, they've been out of the Opera House so long, not counting Nutcracker, which though of course it is ballet, has become such a chestnut there's no novelty left.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Aaron Robison in the pas de deux from La Cathedrale Engloutie. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Ballet is a vanishing act " like a fireworks display, it relies for its most brilliant effects on creating an image that flashes like a meteor in the dark and then is gone. The miracle is that we see human beings in the midst of this dizzying whirl.

A gala's aesthetic is that of a benefit. It's a first-class entertainment, with solos, duets, and small ensembles succeeding each other rapidly in contrasting styles, to create a vision of an ideal peer group and an image of the diversity of the city they represent. Coming from widely mixed backgrounds, these dancers make a community of talent who exhaust the possibilities of moving with grace and ease through every possible physical challenge. They look as light as the sparkles in a fireworks fiesta.

Amid the stars on the show, the warm humanity of Sarah van Patten stood out in a disarmingly simple duet by Trey McIntyre about high-school sweethearts. "Presentce" [sic] is the awful title of a wonderful dance that seemed custom-made to welcome her back after a year's absence. Did McIntyre know when he used "Hello Stranger" that the song would be revived by the movie Moonlight and return briefly to the top of the charts? From the first "She bop, she bop, my baby," the audience fell into a swoon, and as she danced with her very hunky guy (Luke Ingham, who looks great in jeans and a white shirt), everything floats in a sock-hop dream until one especially ecstatic lift brings her down with her skirt having drifted down over his head. Her smile as she unveils his face revealed such love, we all laughed, but only to keep from crying, it was so sweet and so touching.

The other romantic duets of the evening all paled beside that. They displayed fantastic motor skills, and the "Flames of Paris" pas de deux revealed colossal brio from both Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro, but the expressive content did not match the heroic spirit with which the physical challenges were met.

The second half of the program unleashed a storm of brilliant dancing by the corps de ballet in Benjamin Millepied's setting of John Adams' "The Chairman Dances," a spin-off from his opera Nixon in China. Elizabeth Powell was a thrilling member of the corps, the principals were Maria Kochetkova and the astonishingly light and fleet Carlo di Lanno. Joseph Walsh dispatched "The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" with the flair it requires, but also with the poignancy that Paul Taylor built into his great ballet Company B, from which it is an extract. It's a portrait of the world on the verge of WWII, of many soldiers going to their deaths. Walsh jumped, darted, spun and whirled, he snapped his fingers with a world of cool, and as he made his exit he fell down dead.

The evening ended with a magnificent whirl of corps dancing in the Polonaise from Balanchine's Diamonds. The stage is crowded with corps dancers moving in a controlled chaos of interlaced vectors, with the ballerina Sophiane Sylve gleaming in majesty, making the whole picture compose.

It was all a foretaste of the brilliant season to come, which begins next week, with alternating triple bills of contemporary work. In an evening of quick star turns for all the company's top-ranked dancers, many performers stood out. From the lower ranks, Francisco Mungamba, Diego Cruz, Deniel Deivison-Oliveria, Anthony Vincent, and Angelo Greco stood out in happy dazzle, and the new principal dancer Aaron Robison promises great things. I look forward to seeing them in the repertory season ahead.