San Francisco Ballet – Opening Night Gala – San Francisco

Jennifer Stahl and Tiit Helimets in Caniparoli's <I>Foreshadow</I>.<br />© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)
Jennifer Stahl and Tiit Helimets in Caniparoli’s Foreshadow.
© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)

San Francisco Ballet
Opening Night Gala

Spellbound: Stars & Stripes excerpt, Diamonds excerpt, Foreshadow, For Pixie, Hurry Up We’re Dreaming excerpt, Bells excerpt, Swan Lake pdd, Le Corsaire pdd, Romeo and Juliet pdd, Grand Pas Classique, 05:49, Jockey Dance

San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
16 January 2020

I’ve been following San Francisco Ballet (SFB) closely for more than fifteen years and writing about them for the past decade. But in that time, I’ve never attended an opening night gala – a luxurious evening that the SFB community sets aside each January to celebrate and launch the coming season. That is until this year – 2020’s event, titled Spellbound, was a first for me! And having read commentary on past galas and seen the photos of everyone dressed to the nines, my expectations for what might transpire were indeed high.

Spellbound delivered in every regard – opulent grandeur, terrific people watching and above all, marvelous dance. Broken into two acts, the program of excerpts and pas de deux was a beautifully curated sampler. There were preview glimpses of the upcoming season, world premieres, classic throwbacks and contemporary compositions. Yes, the occasion served as a kickoff for the next five months of programming, but it was also a poignant love letter to SFB’s artists, to the choreographic voices it seeks and to its dedicated fans.

San Francisco Ballet in the "Men's Regiment" from Balanchine's Stars And StripesChoreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust.© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)
San Francisco Ballet in the “Men’s Regiment” from Balanchine’s Stars And Stripes
Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust.
© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)

The creative team, with Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson at the helm, devised a bill that had something for every taste, and once things officially got going, the performance progressed swiftly through its twelve(!) distinct offerings. Bookending the program were two ensemble sections from larger Balanchine works: the Men’s Regiment from Stars & Stripes (1958) and the finale section from 1967’s Diamonds (the entire Jewels ballet will return to the War Memorial stage in April). With its precision, sharp lines, crisp batterie and playfulness, Stars was a fitting opener. Though I’m not sure Diamonds worked as well as the program’s conclusion. Don’t get me wrong, led by Sasha De Sola and Tiit Helimets, there was elegance and regality to spare (compromised slightly by the dated costuming). But Diamonds has never really grabbed me as having any finale factor, so it seemed an odd choice to close a night that had so many special elements.

Dores André and Joseph Walsh in Rowe's For Pixie.© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)
Dores André and Joseph Walsh in Rowe’s For Pixie.
© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)

One of those elements was a strong sense of duality, particularly in Spellbound’s more contemporary offerings. Robotic shoulders met with sinuous curves in Val Caniparoli’s angst-riddled Foreshadow, a world premiere pas de trois that looked to the novel Anna Karenina for inspiration. While Nina Simone’s recorded voice sang through the air, Danielle Rowe’s For Pixie similarly toggled between two extremes. As Dores André and Joseph Walsh cycled through the duet’s mechanized motions, they seemed to concurrently land in spaces of sanitized detachment and intense passion.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in pas de deux from Possokhov's Bells.© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)
Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in pas de deux from Possokhov’s Bells.
© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)

The dichotomous trend continued in Act II with a juxtaposition of pedestrianism and intricate phrase material in the pas de deux from Justin Peck’s sneaker ballet, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. And with several postures that conjured memories of Balanchine’s Agon, the duet from Yuri Possokhov’s Bells countered small movements of the wrist and hip with large port de bras and huge lifts. The abstract piece also gave SFB fans a chance to bid farewell to Principal Dancer Vitor Luiz upon his retirement from the company.

Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno in the white swan pas de deux from Dawson's Swan Lake.© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)
Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno in the white swan pas de deux from Dawson’s Swan Lake.
© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)

But by far the highlight of the entire evening was David Dawson’s pas de deux from Swan Lake, originally created for the Scottish Ballet in 2016. Dawson’s modern take on the centuries-old narrative was vulnerable, raw and much more genuine than many versions out there. One of the reasons for this is that he committed to eliminating all the ‘extra stuff’; instead opting to focus on the emotive pull between the two main characters, embodied by the stunning pairing of Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno. Dawson’s experiment worked to incredible effect. The costumes, by Yumiko Takeshima, were distilled to a white leotard for Odette and simple greys for her prince. Though I can’t be sure of how the set/lighting is in the full ballet, here, the stage was bare, the lighting, minimal. Choreographic mirroring and repetition was employed to track the pair’s connection and bond. And there was great attention to where movements (big and small) initiated, with many coming from the solar plexus, or more accurately, the heart.

Wona Park and Wei Wang in Gsovsky's Grand Pas Classique.© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)
Wona Park and Wei Wang in Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique.
© Erik Tomasson. (Click image for larger version)

Three more classical duets, one world premiere and a lighthearted duo rounded out the Spellbound program. Sparkling technique, unbelievable jumps and positions of the body were the hallmark of the pas de deux from Le Corsaire, impeccably interpreted by Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco. Romance and young love soared from the stage in the balcony pas de deux from Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet, another work returning later in the spring. And in Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique, a duet that dramatically oscillated between subtlety and explosiveness, Wona Park’s balances and fouettés wowed. The passage, limits and ephemeral nature of time seemed to be at the heart of Myles Thatcher’s 05:49. While the enormous digital countdown timer projected on the back scrim was certainly effectual, I didn’t especially connect with the movement in this world premiere contemporary duet. Finally, Bournonville enthusiasts were treated to a hearty dose of petit allegro in Jockey Dance, a humorous romp danced by Max Cauthorn and Esteban Hernandez.

The first program of SFB’s season, Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella, opens on Tuesday, January 21st.

About the author

Heather Desaulniers

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland, California. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly and a frequent contributor to several dance-focused publications. Website:


  • The original casting posted on SF Ballet’s website was Sasha Mukhamedpv for the Diamonds finale. This review says it was Sasha Desola. Was Ms.Mukhamediv switched out or was this a misprint?

  • Yes, there were two points in the evening where there were cast changes – Joseph Walsh danced the Romeo & Juliet pas de deux, and Sasha De Sola replaced Sasha Mukhamedov in Diamonds.

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