• Ana Sophia Scheller and Vitor Luiz in the pas de deux from Balanchine's Rubies. Photo: Erik Tomasson.
  • Benjamin Freemantle in Balanchine's pas de trois from Agon. Photo: Erik Tomasson.
  • Lander's Etudes. Photo: Erik Tomasson.
  • Sofiane Sylve and Aaron Robison in Rowe's UnSaid.Photo: Erik Tomasson.

San Francisco Ballet Gala, 2019

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director

War Memorial Opera House

Jan. 23, 2019


“This is Passion” was the theme of San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 gala. Apart from excesses on display at the several-tiered after party across from the War Memorial Opera House at City Hall, the passion invested in audience attire was less visible than usual. Stage passion, however, was in ample supply.

The evening opened with an excerpt from Harald Lander’s “Etudes,” staged by the incomparable Danish repetiteur, Johnny Eliasen. With Ulrik Birkkjaer put in for an injured Luke Ingham, to partner a vivacious Sasha De Sola, the audience got to see Bournonville by the book, with its homage to academic ballet. It spun out crisscrossing cannons of grand jeté, saut de basque, barrel turns, brisé volé, and tour jeté, tucked in and bid goodnight with a deft petite sauté center stage. 

Mutual tenderness and admiration shared by Tiit Helimets and Mathilde Froustey in   Helgi Tomasson’s “Pas de Deux from Handel—A Celebration,” stole hearts as the evening’s classical ballet exemplar.  Uneasy about the prospect of George Balanchine’s “Pas de Trois from Agon,” Agon, a piece I have rarely succeeded in warming up to, Benjamin Freemantle’s self-possessed and polished dispatch, well-attended by Jennifer Stahl and Wanting Zhao, shook free old recollections. I found myself “feeling” the Balanchine dynamism more than with other versions.

Guest dancer Boston Ballet’s Misa Kuranagá refreshed the evening’s roster with her outsized charm and limpid footwork. Angelo Greco partnered her in Thomasson’s lively “Soirées Musicales.” Their gracious adagio was as endearing as the snappier segments were piquant. Greco’s aerated variation featured split-level tricks that he tossed off with contradictory virtues of modesty and aplomb. Kuranagá brightened the work with well-tended preparations, metered turns, and arabesque-to-plié that extended well beyond her footprint.

The “Pas de Deux from Rubies” by Balanchine was as glittering and Art Deco-elegant as one could wish for. At least one among my colleagues saw Ana Sophia Scheller’s elaborate rendering with partner Vitor Luiz as a welcome departure from more tedious interpretations. For me, the extended cambré and penetrating gaze tendered a mostly friendly amendment to absorb while struggling with ambivalence toward  my second-favorite work in the “Jewels” suite.

Without a doubt, the evening’s theme spoke its name in choreographer Danielle Rowe’s San Francisco Ballet debut work, “Unsaid,” danced by the company’s least-utilized, yet most versatile artist, Sofiane Sylve who partnered with Aaron Robison. Robison returns to the company after a successful season at English National Ballet. The occasion couldn’t have been better marked than with a work by his former and much revered colleague at Houston Ballet. Both European dancers and their Australian choreographer have enjoyed more than their share of career peregrinations. Perhaps a critic should detach from intimate knowledge of the backstories in the interests of objectivity, but at least in this instance, familiarity breeds nothing but admiration for this team’s fortitude. It helps cultivate an appreciation for polarities that draw the dancer more deeply into a work, the better to imbue it with levels and layers of affect that beg to be spoken, if not permissibly in words, then through movement. “Unsaid” is danced with long sweeps into lifts and descents to the floor, where plenty of temporal space is left open in the minimalist  Ezio Bosso score for meditative interpretation. This is especially apparent in a segment where Robison chases what he suspects he cannot capture in Sylve, leaving her the sightlines to envision and pursue an heuristic path of her own.

Yuan Yuan Tan makes full use of partner Carlo Di Lanno’s adroit choices to bring her cross-current of talents to bear in Yuri Possokhov’s glorious “Diving Into Lilacs.” Her gossamer yet dedicated steps could elude a lesser partner, but Di Lanno surrounds his moving target with a modular perspective that only serves to accentuate the star  quality in Tan’s work. Hers is a heavenly blend of technique acquired in her training with Goh Ballet, and artistry that she worked to achieve over the years with a succession of elegant partners at San Francisco Ballet.

The closer had two inveterate gamesters, Joseph Walsh and Dores André, stepping  onto a carousel of carousal in an “Excerpt from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.” They bobbled up, down, and all around in a carefree surround of their own making. The world went away as they joyfully coined steps that released them from even a hint of conceit. Watching was like partying in the amplitude of their sound and fury. I saw a side of André that is new in its candor, and feels like it has been waiting for the right partner (Walsh) and the right moment (now) to show itself.

“Passion” is an overused term, perhaps because, just as there are different strains of intelligence, there are many streams of passion. At this gala, with its albeit modest projections, more than a few surfaced: carefree, gracious, tender, magnetic, determined, celebrated, and dedicated. The artists who brought them come from the four corners of our ever-shrinking earth, and together they delivered what we came for, and so much other material that extends beyond the proscenium stage!

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.