San Francisco Ballet
Infinite Romance: 2015 Season Opening Night Gala
Défilé, excerpt from Alles Walzer, act II pas de deux from A Cinderella Story, pas de deux from On a Theme of Paganini, pas de deux from There Where She Loved, Concerto Grosso, Souvenir d’un lieu cher, pas de deux from Bells, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Borealis, act III pas de deux from Onegin, pas de deux from Le Corsaire
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
22 January 2015
After a very long year of being unable to write due to a concussion, I am thrilled to be back. Even the thought of yet another gala (not my favorite way to see dance) doesn’t dampen my mood as I find the spectacle of the audience at such events high in entertainment value. At this San Francisco Ballet gala, opening its 82nd season, my favorite moment is watching a couple being photographed in the lobby – she in a full-length gown and he in a suit. Both outfits were made from fabric that was printed with multiple photos of themselves. Takes the selfie to a whole new level.
Now on to the show we really came for. The evening commences Défilé, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson to introduce the company members, students and trainees from the SF Ballet School. Costumed in dramatic black and white, with sparkling diamonds on the ballerinas, it is impressive for its sheer visual elegance and number of dancers, who individually get to do very few steps as more than a hundred make their entrances during the seven-minute piece. Next up, veterans Joan Boada and Pascal Molat breeze mirthfully through Renato Zanella’s Alles Walzer to a score by Johann Straus II. Molat has lost none of the attack and joy in movement that he has always shown since he joined the company thirteen seasons ago.
Continuing in this lighter vein is the second act pas de deux from A Cinderella Story by Val Caniparoli, a former dancer with, and longtime choreographer for, SF Ballet. The music arranged by Ron Paley, based on themes by Richard Rodgers, provides the backdrop for Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz to perfectly portray a romantic couple in this mid-twentieth-century-style take on the fairy tale. Feijoo, now in her early forties, is still at the top of her artistry and doesn’t appear in danger of losing her crisp technique or emotional nuance any time soon. Luiz is excellent and matches her on every level.
Moving into more serious territory, Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini offers a serviceable vehicle for Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets. They are both beautiful dancers technically, but their partnership lacks spark; in contrast to the romantic music of Rachmaninoff, they are dispassionate, where passions should reign. Tan’s loose hair, while lovely, is often a distraction when it accidentally covers her face. They could possibly learn something from the dancers who follow. Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham perform Christopher Wheeldon’s pas de deux from There Where She Loved with the appropriate dramatic intensity. Kurt Weill’s song, “Je ne t’aime pas” (“I don’t love you”) performed by mezzo-soprano Erin Neff and pianist Natal’ya Feygina, is a multi-layered study of a relationship, and both dancers lucidly expose the complex and conflicting emotions.
Closing the first half of the program is another Tomasson ballet, Concerto Grosso, to a score by Francesco Geminiani after Corelli. This work, from 2003, is a showcase for five men, Esteban Hernandez, Diego Cruz, Max Cauthorn, Francisco Mungamba and Wei Wang. I saw this piece at its premiere, with an all-star cast – including Molat – and this younger generation is every bit as brilliant. Precise ensemble work and tour de force solos, all effortlessly and artistically danced, make for a very impressive display.
After the intermission, Alexei Ratmansky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher makes its U.S. debut. Two couples – Sarah Van Patten with Luke Ingham and Mathilde Froustey with Carlo di Lanno – get caught meandering in some pointless choreography that cannot bridge the gap between the “Meditation” and “Scherzo” sections from Tchaikovsky’s work of the same title. One or the other part would have been fine on its own, but the abrupt change in tone between the two, for no apparent reason, is baffling. Van Patten and Ingham hold their own dramatically in the first section, while Froustey needs more depth. Her buoyant, sunny presence is much more at home in the “Scherzo”, where the other dancers are excellent as well.
The SF Ballet premiere of choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokhov’s pas de deux from Bells is my all-round favorite of the evening. Sublime dancing from Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan, paired with unusual movement and striking composition, holds my attention unabated. Possokhov never fails to provide at least several steps I have never seen before, quite a feat in these days of generic modern ballet where everyone seems to be appropriating material from everyone else. A case in point is the next ballet on the program – William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. When it first premiered here in 1998, it was exhilarating: the importance of its impact is shown by the sheer number of imitators of Forsythe’s style in the ensuing years. But, despite the high level of performance here by Gennadi Nedvigin, Mungamba, Dores André, Jennifer Stahl and Sasha De Sola, the work’s legacy of innovation has vanished and now it even appears dated. How cruel the passage of time can be to artistic endeavours.
Christopher Wheeldon offers up the world premiere of his Borealis, a pas de deux to composer Gavin Bryars’s “The South Downs”. Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh dance with precision, but vague choreographic intentions of a modern persuasion don’t give them much to work with. In sharp contrast, the act III pas de deux from John Cranko’s Onegin is completely clear about where it’s going. The casting is a mismatch, however. Yuan Yuan Tan’s overly-emotional interpretation of Tatiana, now a mature woman, doesn’t provide the foil for Vitor Luiz’s Onegin, who is living in the past. More restraint would go a long way in making sense of her final rejection of him.
To end the evening on a very formal note, we get the old standby, the Le Corsaire pas de deux. Vanessa Zahorian brings pure lines and elegant, yet warm, classicism to her role, while Taras Domitro pulls out the pyrotechnics for his jumps and turns. The illusion is only marred by the choice of costumes. Zahorian’s plain white tutu hardly evokes any character or period, and Domitro’s pants, instead of beautifully draped silk, are too tight and made of thick fabric. With all the costumes in the wardrobe department, surely something more suitable could have been conjured up.
The gala also marks Helgi Tomasson’s 30th year as its artistic director. Tomasson can rightfully claim credit for raising the technical level of the dancers and placing the troupe on par with other internationally prestigious companies even if recently the repertory seems to have drifted toward the doldrums. The choice of pieces for both last year’s and this year’s galas was definitely more inspired than usual by foregoing the mainly classical pas de deux format, that has become an unfortunate norm, and spicing things up with modern choreography, but the season itself offers only two premieres on separate mixed bills. The balance includes three full-length ballets (Giselle, Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet) presumably to help fill the coffers, three ballets that were new last season, and an assortment of old repertory pieces. The dancers, however, need fresh food to feed on. They need to explore new directions with new choreographers in order to grow as artists. Given the financial stability of the company, especially in light of a current capital campaign with a goal of $65 million, it is ironic that the most artistically creative period of the company was back in the 1950s and ’60s when they were operating on a shoestring. I’m not advocating for the starving artist syndrome, but hopefully some of those millions will provide a fertile environment for developing new ballets of high quality.