San Francisco Ballet
Opening Night Gala
Provocative: Coppélia excerpt, Bartók Divertimento, Carmen excerpt, Carousel (A Dance), Gentle Memories, Solo, Rubies excerpt, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Don Quixote excerpt, Swan Lake excerpt, Pas/Parts excerpt, Theme and Variations excerpt
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
21 January 2016
A ballet company’s season-opening gala can inspire anticipation or trepidation. It depends a little bit on the works presented and a lot on how well they’re performed. San Francisco Ballet’s gala, titled “Provocative” and performed Thursday, January 21, at the War Memorial Opera House, featured entertaining repertory but uneven performance quality, and provoked mixed emotions.
By way of a défilé, the evening opened with the “Waltz of the Hours” from Balanchine and Danilova’s Coppélia, which will be performed in its entirety mid-season. Soloist Jennifer Stahl led two dozen girls from the SFB School, adorable in cotton-candy tutus. Artistic director Helgi Tomasson likes to showcase older students in the Gala, and this year gave the spotlight to teenage trainee Natasha Sheehan; backed by corps men Max Cauthorn, Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang, in Tomasson’s Bartók Divertimento, she showed promise as a contemporary ballerina and has an engaging stage presence. Confident attack and mastery of complex rhythmical structures will surely come with time.
The principal portion of the evening was divided between tasteful amuse-bouches and meatier classical and contemporary fare. In honor of his tenth-anniversary year as choreographer-in-residence, Yuri Possokhov created a steamy adagio for married principals Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz, setting it to a selection from Carmen Suite, composed by Rodion Shchedrin for his late wife, Maya Plisetskaya. We rarely get to see them dance together outside of gala performances, but every time their pleasure in dancing together is apparent.
Joan Boada and newly promoted principal Dores André outdanced Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography for Carousel (A Dance), conjuring Julie and Billy’s fateful romance to Richard Rodgers’ refrains. These dancers make a beautiful pairing that I hope to see more of during the season, and André’s supple musicality and emotional presence bode well. Boada will retire at season’s end.
Created for the 2012 YAGP gala and here given its SFB premiere, Jiří Bubeníček’s Gentle Memories was a fourteen-minute showcase for Yuan Yuan Tan, in her twentieth season with SFB. Pianist Ming Luke accompanied Tan, Tiit Helimets, Vitor Luiz and Carlos Quenedit onstage. The men vied for her affections with subtle classicism, deep upper-body flexion and comic timing, but she ultimately fell for Luke – Johan Kobborg’s Les Lutins came to mind.
In Hans van Manen’s Solo, Joseph Walsh, Gennadi Nedvigin and soloist Hansuke Yamamoto deftly interpreted the zippy bowing of the Correnta and Double (presto) from J. S. Bach’s Violin Suite No. 1 in D minor, recorded by Belgian Baroque specialist Sigiswald Kuijken. All three dancers are wonderfully musical, and each has the virtuosity to deliver the piece’s speed and abstraction along with its exultance.
The bill also comprised neoclassical and classical selections, with uneven results. More temperamentally than physically suited to Balanchine’s Rubies, Maria Kochetkova and Pascal Molat, who will also retire at the end of the year, danced its pas de deux with showy verve. Kochetkova now divides her time between SFB and American Ballet Theatre, where she is also a principal; the challenge of holding down two full-time commitments seems only to make her better – more precise, more in command, hungrier to devour everything she can.
Nedvigin partnered Frances Chung in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, whose variations highlighted her whip-cracking diagonales and his lofty jumps and catlike landings. Another great jumper, Taras Domitro flew through the Act III pas de deux from Don Quixote, but Vanessa Zahorian’s renowned balances weren’t enough to steady her Kitri, particularly in the fouettés; her sang-froid returned in time to close the show with Luke Ingham in the finale from Theme and Variations.
Zahorian’s husband – there are quite a few couples in the SFB ranks – Davit Karapetyan was a stoic and stalwart Prince Siegfried in the Black Swan pas de deux. He has become a powerful, expressive yet humble presence onstage, and a gracious partner who lets his ballerinas shine. Here he played the straight man to Mathilde Froustey’s Odile, whose overt seductiveness, emphatic gestures and bold-italic timing were camp instead of classical.
A coup this season is the North American premiere of Pas/Parts. The abstract ballet was choreographed by William Forsythe for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1999, with an original electronic score by Dutch composer Thom Willems, who also scored in the middle somewhat elevated. No other company has performed the work until SFB, this season. On Thursday night, Sofiane Sylve and soloist Carlo Di Lanno performed a moody four-minute adagio of inverted extensions, intertwined partnering and color-block Lycra. It was over almost before it began, but the complete contents of this postmodernist capsule temporelle will be revealed when the season opens this coming Sunday.
In addition, musical director Martin West led the orchestra in a musical interlude of “Infernal Dance,” from Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird, honoring its 40th-anniversary season as an exceptional ballet orchestra.