San Francisco Ballet 2015 Gala
Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's On A Theme Of Paganini.
© © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet 2015 Gala

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director

San Francisco War Memorial Auditorium

Jan. 22, 2015

The 2015 San Francisco Ballet Gala marks the 30th anniversary of Helgi Tomasson’s tenure as Artistic Director. All three events of the evening, the pre-performance dinner, performance and after-party, were sold-out weeks in advance, and the event, which rallied members of San Francisco’s wealthiest social set, opened with Martin West, conducting the “The Star Spangled Banner,” followed by a défilé of the company’s academy’s students, who were joined onstage by its principal dancers. SFB board president John S. Osterweis welcomed the audience by announcing the launching of a $65 million capital campaign, aimed at expanding all its divisions, including the school. Diane Wilsey, a prominent San Francisco socialite and arts benefactor, will chair the campaign. Osterweis said that $43 million of the goal had already been raised, even before word of the campaign had reached the public.

Principal dancer Pascal Molat enters, cues the orchestra, shouting, “Maestro!” and an “Excerpt from Renato Zanella’s Alles Walzer” [Everyone Waltzes] to music by Johann Strauss II, begins. Molat and fellow principal Joan Boada dance the segment with spectacular verve, exiting and entering by turns, leaving us with mimed poses, jet-stream pirouettes and a streak of a manege or two that end up in the realm of the unforgettable. The music is the calliope-larded stuff of 19th century carnivals, and in their black sleeveless vests, the dancers are a pair of devil-may-care carnie virtuosos.

The husband-and-wife team of veteran principals Lorena Feijóo and Vitor Luiz give us a charming duet from Val Caniparoli’s “A Cinderella Story.” Feijóo wears a black top and flouncy white skirt, and Luiz, black tights, a white dress shirt and black bowtie (costumes by Sandra Woodall). The selection opens with a gently cosseted pas de deux to Richard Rodgers’ “Isn’t it Romantic?” In its coda, it goes jazzy, pointing up Feijóo’s inclinations toward rhythmic, stylized, old school pizazz.

“Pas de deux from On a Theme of Paganini” by Helgi Tomasson, to music by Sergei Rachmaninov, with Roy Bogas on piano, showcases a pair of the company’s most watchable partners, Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets. Costumed in silvered white leotards, they dance a complex of magisterial lifts. Then Helimets drags Tan, hair loosed, along the floor, only to set her free to go grander, as the familiar theme spools out its crescendos and diminuendos. Over their years with the company, these dancers have matured following distinct paths that cross in this piece. Tan, a fastidious technician, has grown more daring and dramatic, looking like the ingénue schoolgirl one moment, and a stately queen the next. Helimets, secure with polished technique in his early years, is today ever more expansive and doting as a partner. This duality is best seen here in an en dehors lift and turn, during which Tan, held high, arches her back in cambré as Helimets whips her acrobatically around his spine.

Luke Ingham, a newcomer to the principal roster, has worked very hard to gain ground, having come as a demi-soloist two years ago from Houston Ballet, where there are a modest number of principals, to a company where there are 20. In “Pas de deux from There Where She Loved” by Christopher Wheeldon, to music by Kurt Weill, he deftly partners the treasured Sofiane Sylve, who without meaning to, can upstage her partner by simply standing still. Swathed in soft-fold plum-colored costumes by Holly Hynes, the duo dances at a slowed bistro-style pace, evoking the Weill-y bohème sensibility, and announcing each new phrase with a small relevé balance. Tucked in between are close-quarter lunges and elastic bends away, as they step over and around each other. Chases low to the floor end in Sylve’s high extensions, celebrating her independence within the tight frame.

“Concerto Grosso” to a score by Francesco Geminiani after Corelli, presents a cast of five men. Tomasson melds ensemble solidarity with a spirit of fraternal competition underscoring distinguished contributions by each dancer, all musically lush. They begin with a slow manege that ends in passé sautés. Esteban Hernández emerges center stage in a red unitard, coltish but determined. He is a bright spark plug of youthful energy, dispatching tricks like ball tosses. By way of contrast, Fernando Mungamba, in light blue, offers a stunning arabesque line, Diego Cruz, in indigo, imports a presence that is both moody and sprightly, Wei Wan, in cobalt blue, is limpid in technique, yet frothy, and Max Cauthorn, in green, is a dancer’s dancer, drawing together all of the piece’s qualities as its renaissance man.

Except for Gennadi Nedvigin, “Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” a William Forsythe work and company warhorse, fields an entirely new cast this time out, with Mungamba as Nedvigin’s base-running cohort, and as the triad of women—Dores André, Sasha De Sola, and Jennifer Stahl. André and Stahl are loose-limbed, and De Sola is the diode, dispensing energy with joyous but steely focus. Bracketed by the women dancers to the left and right of her, she interpolates élan and inclusiveness with a gracious presence that cinches her standing and virtuosity.

The eighth piece, “Borealis,” by Christopher Wheeldon to a score by Gavin Bryars, overcomes the built-in disadvantage of being a slow-paced piece arriving post-Intermission. A world premiere, the program cites it as “a gift honoring Helgi Tomasson’s 30th Anniversary as Artistic Director.” The company’s newest Principal, Joseph Walsh, partners well with Frances Chung. They wear Mark Zappone-designed borealis-imprinted costumes. Jim French’s lighting is eerie-minimalist, and echoes the resonant notes of a cello that Eric Sung plays onstage. With curated balances and an adage tempo, it reaches for something that, for lack of a better term, one might call “classical blues.” It isn’t immediately clear why Wheeldon settled on “Borealis” as the title, as unlike in other works by him, circular movement doesn’t characterize this piece, though there is a mood of agony and even descent that spirals through it.

An exquisite San Francisco Ballet premiere is Alexei Ratmansky’s “Souvenir d’un lieu cher,” [Memory of a Place Held Dear] to music by Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky, and staged by Larisa Lezhinina. It is tantalizing in the exactitude of its footwork and labyrinthine combinations and permutations, as it details the zigs and zags of the primrose path taken by two couples. Mathilde Froustey, Carlo Di Lanno, Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham dance the two couples. They dance it as if they’ve lived it—both the fancy footwork and dramatic story of a twosome whose female member tempts the male member of the other couple to stray, resulting in the strengthening of the first couple’s bond and destruction of the second’s. Think Jose Limon’s “Moor’s Pavane,” but a shade less dark and several shades less Shakespearean in its tragic import, and danced luminously in Keso Dekker’s black and copper-brushed costumes. The design elements evoke the fire in the hearth at the center of domestic life, but also its potential to burn up all that it warms.

The company’s two master machinists, Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan, dance “Pas de Deux from Bells,” to stirring music by Sergei Rachmaninov. SFB Resident Choreographer Yuri Possokov set it on Joffrey Ballet. San Francisco Ballet dances it for the first time this night. Each step is a an exemplar of precision, and while the choreography doesn’t carry the pitch of such Possokhov works as “Falling Into Lilacs” or “Study in Motion,” with Mungunchimeg Buriad’s piano accompaniment, and expert rendering by Kochetkova and Karapetyan, it becomes a pleasing addition to the program.

The famous “Act III pas de deux from Onegin,” excerpted from the full version danced during two successive seasons beginning three years ago, brought Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz back in the roles of Tatiana and Onegin. One of John Cranko’s best works, it benefits from Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky’s music and in the two seasons that it was shown, from Reid Anderson and Jane Bourne’s fastidious staging. While danced splendidly by both Tan and Luiz on this occasion, Tan’s interpretation takes it far afield from others exacted under the iron hand of the Anderson-Bourne team. Tatiana’s dancing so overplays the section to the climax where she reproachfully tears up her letter to Onegin, that it robs that momentous act of its power. We don’t see the complexity of Tatiana’s conflict so much as unilateral hysteria. Without the earlier sections of the libretto in which Onegin tears up Tatiana’s letter, this excerpt has to create its own raison d’être, and that goes missing here.

The evening’s closer featured Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro dancing the “Le Corsaire pas de deux,” with choreography after Marius Petipa, to music by Riccardo Drigo. A crowd pleaser for its bravura, Zahorian was not a little sabotaged by the orchestra’s playing the music that accompanies the beginning of her variation at the slowest possible tempo. It sped up after several measures, but to turn at a snail’s pace exhausts a dancer, and it is to Zahorian’s credit that the initial slog didn’t undermine the remainder of her variation. Domitro was every inch the pirate in both gesture and characterization. The full-body sprawl to the floor, repeated several times, looked more like a home base win than a spent suitor’s collapse, but since it capped an otherwise winning evening, it seems only fair to let it slide.

By Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.