San Francisco Ballet "75th Anniversary Gala"

2008.01.23

San Francisco Chronicle
Review: Gala dancers hold exciting promise
Rachel Howard, Chronicle Dance Correspondent
Friday, January 25, 2008

"Maestro!" Pascal Molat shouted with a mischievous grin before launching himself into a dizzying whirl of jetes. Soon Nicolas Blanc rushed the Opera House stage to give Molat a run for the money, stopping pirouettes with the surreal physics of a cartoon character, capering effortlessly through an excerpt from Italian choreographer Renato Zanella's zany "Alles Walzer."
It was the kind of moment to make you sit up and realize that San Francisco has one of the world's leading ballet companies, a revelation that Wednesday's San Francisco Ballet gala supplied in overwhelming variety. From the company's consummate actress, Sarah Van Patten, girlishly swooning in the duet from Christopher Wheeldon's "Carousel (A Dance)" to the tiny Russian recruit Maria Kochetkova teasingly tambourine-tapping through the tricks of "La Esmeralda" and the debut of guest artist Sofiane Sylve, there was no shortage of star turns to remind us why San Francisco Ballet's 75th anniversary is a big deal: Not because of its novel past (America's oldest professional ballet company, as you'll hear ad nauseam this season), but because of its promising present.
These were welcome moments in a Champagne-fueled celebration that suffered a curious Big Moment by-product: big anniversary bloat. It wasn't that the Ballet indulged undue pomp, with balloons and confetti raining upon the final curtain call. The speechifying was brief, with a rightfully beaming Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson flanked by recipients of the company's Lew Christensen Medal before board co-chair James H. Herbert was inducted into their ranks. Never verbose, Tomasson let the dancing speak to all that he has accomplished since taking the helm in 1985, reshaping a once-regional company into a collection of internationally distinctive dancers. But the dancing spoke haltingly, hampered by programming that never hit the whiz-bang pacing that ballet galas trade in.
Launching with U.S.-premiere excerpts from John Neumeier's "Yondering," danced by students of the San Francisco Ballet School, was a nice nod to the future, and the students performed with heartwarming emotional maturity, but five minutes would have sufficed. Closing with the finale from George Balanchine's "Diamonds" seems only fitting for a diamond anniversary, except that "Diamonds" is one of Balanchine's least-interesting grand showcases, and principals Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan had already been seen in José Martinez's "Delibes Suite" to far greater effect.
But those who watched with patience through the middle were rewarded with both surprise and substance. I will never forget Sylve and Anthony Spaulding in Hans van Manen's "Two Pieces for Het (For Rachel)," set to music mostly by Arvo Part, chillingly imparted by the orchestra under Music Director Martin West. French-born Sylve, most recently of New York City Ballet, is a rare paragon of womanliness in today's ballet world, both sexy and strong. Spaulding, brand new to the corps, is a searing wonder of sculptural sublimity. "Two Pieces for Het" is a masterful portrait of the perils of intimacy, always unpredictable but never arbitrary, sending Sylve and Spaulding orbiting each other in frenzied but also oddly ordered turns, boldly stopping them dead on a musical surge. Sylve and Spaulding danced it with menacing yet vulnerable chemistry. Best of all, Sylve will be appearing through the season's first five programs.
There was newness, too, in an odd gamble: a commissioned ballet by 25-year-old Wade Robson of the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance." "The Energy Between Us" left an impression of spiked hair (wife Amanda Robson's hip costuming), high-energy flailing, music-video slickness and Pauli Magierek tossing her blond mane with the allure of a fashion model. More gala-typical was the evening's parade of short romantic pas de deux, but if they tended to meld into a blur of lyricism, the dancers in them were always strikingly individual, from silken Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun in Parrish Maynard's "Secret Places" to ethereal Yuan Yuan Tan pouring herself like water into the arms of serene Damian Smith in Edwaard Liang's "Distant Cries."
Gennadi Nedvigin took the prize for technically pure suaveness in Tomasson's "Two Bits," alongside a saucy Katita Waldo, while beloved veteran Tina LeBlanc made a happy comeback from an injury in Tomasson's "Sonata," cradled by a blandly worshipful Ruben Martin. For those readying their preseason scorecards, Lorena Feijoo is out with a hurt ankle but reportedly recovering speedily. Meanwhile fellow Cuban Joan Boada struck up a heated new partnership with Kochetkova, he dashing with usual recklessness through tours while she delighted the standing-room die-hards with her fouette turns, not only tossing in ample doubles but rotating her spot (a gyroscopic feat much harder than it looks).
If a gala's only goal is to start things with a bang, Wednesday's succeeded only stutteringly. But Tomasson isn't playing this 75th anniversary season by the usual nostalgia expectations, and rather than starting with a bang, this season is designed to end with one. Its climax and its crowning comes in April with Tomasson's audacious New Works Festival: 10 world-premiere ballets by 10 world-renowned choreographers. Wednesday was mere warm-up. But then, it's important to warm up when you're running a marathon, not a sprint, and when the prize - a step into the future - is so worth it.
San Francisco Ballet: Program 1: Lew Christensen's "Filling Station," Helgi Tomasson's "7 for Eight" and George Balanchine's "Diamonds." Tues. through Feb. 9. Program 2: Yuri Possokhov's "Firebird," George Balanchine's "Divertimento No. 15" and Mark Morris' "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes." Thurs. through Feb. 10. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets: $15-$265. Call (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org.
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle




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