San Francisco Ballet Celestial Gala Performance
Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno in Liang's Letting Go. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet Celestial Gala Performance

War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, Calif.
Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
Jan. 18, 2018

“San Francisco Ballet will be the epicenter of world ballet!” Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson predicted in announcing “Unbound,” a festival of new works from Apr. 20-May 5, to celebrate the 85th anniversary of this, the oldest ballet company in the United States. So move over, Royal Ballet of London, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky, Paris Opera, and Cuban National Ballet: Tomasson is making [North] America great, if not the greatest, and if not again, then for the first time in ballet history.

Given the quality and spirit of Thursday night’s Celestial Gala program, his is not an altogether immodest assertion. Neither is it a jingoist one, when one considers the international composition of the company. Refreshed with a new quotient of corps de ballet members, two new principal dancers, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Ana Sophia Scheller, and a cohort of young, internationally renowned choreographers, Unbound may indeed set off an aftershock or two in an otherwise smug ballet world.

The evening’s showstopper was a bravely reimagined version of “Rodeo,” by New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck, to the sonorous Aaron Copland score. It’s a vibrant, gutsy showcase for the company’s athletically gifted, many of them virtuosic, male dancers. In it, the still-coltish Estebán Hernández breaks free of manicured technique to lead a trio of himself, Steven Morse, and Hansuke Yamamoto, in explosions of pure joy. The slyly insouciant Sofiane Sylve gives chase to the exceptionally gifted Carlo Di Lanno, triggering him to equably give chase to her.

The most poignant work of the evening, “Letting Go,” comes courtesy of Marin County-raised Edwaard Liang, now Artistic Director of BalletMet. He pairs Di Lanno with Yuan Yuan Tan, achingly lovely in a cerise bodice and gray skirted costume. Set to Max Richter’s violin repetitions, melodically more arresting than Philip Glass arpeggios, Liang’s choreography wraps itself around the music so deftly that it renders the violin theme the spine of the entwining couple.

Similarly, the now-dark, now now-light “Pas de Deux from Children of Chaos,” by Robert Binet, danced by Joseph Walsh and Frances Chung, to complexly counterintuitive music by John Kamel Farah, delivers the most engaged and inspired partnering of the evening.

The opener was “Little Waltz,” staged by Patrick Armand. Upper-level San Francisco Ballet School students performed amiably and lower school children, sweetly, even as they were corralled into their lines and spots by older students and ribbon props.

Jerome Robbins’ “In the Night,” a dancer favorite, experiments with innovative casting. Principal Mathilde Froustey partners with corps de ballet member Benjamin Freemantle, as the couple with intractably perfect timing; Jennifer Stahl and Tiit Helimets are the duo joined by lockstep precision, and Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham are the overwrought pair whose indecisions hasten the approach of approach-avoidance. Dramatically and balletically intrepid, the work is a fine vehicle for beta-testing new partnerships. Jennifer Stahl impresses stunningly, in spite of the piece overall looking tension-fraught as if scanted adequate rehearsal time.

The “Pas de Deux from The Sleeping Beauty” Bluebird Variation represents another casting experiment. The cautious Wei Wang and Dores André pair in a work that offers not a scintilla of the forgiving. If birds are to soar, they must be uncaged and free. That range of liberty requires dedicated time and coaching. It doesn’t serve to treat all rehearsal hours equally and parcel them out in identically-sized rations.

Balanchine’s eponymous “Pas de Deux from Stars and Stripes” offered Ana Sophia Scheller a chance to make her company debut partnered by spit-and-polish wizard, Vitor Luiz. Her mastery of the subtly coquettish, and his more-bounce-for-the-ounce elevation and speed, worked to express the all-American Balanchine essence. That it is achieved so roundly by two non-U.S.-born dancers, is what authentically makes America great, whether in Balanchine’s era or the present day.

The “Pas de Deux from La Sylphide,” Bournonville’s signature work, joins Copenhagen-trained Ulrik Birkkjaer with Russian-trained Maria Kochetkova. Starting with scene-setting and sparse dancing, it more than compensates for its slow build-up when dancers step into their characters. Flirtatious bravura and quick-witted footwork stamp the dancing with the Bournonville seal and zeal. We expect greatness from Kochetkova, but when a kilted, towering Birkkjaer takes the stage by storm, we discover our appetite for more Bournonville repertoire.

Angelo Greco and Sasha De Sola dance the Riccardo Drigo virtuosic classic “Pas de deux from Le Corsaire.” De Sola imparts the charm and confidence she has internalized more and more with each passing season. It shows up as seasoning of its own, piquant yet mature and all-encompassing. Greco is reliably placed and paced, a dynamo with a dashing bearing, complementary to De Sola’s sparkling elegance.

Tomasson’s season forecast invokes the Richter Scale. Given the sequence of natural disasters we’ve endured recently in Northern California, we’re way past due for groundbreaking that carries a culturally positive charge. If the gala is any indication, big rumblings may be thundering our way.

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.