San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
January 18, 2018
by Rita Felciano
copyright © Rita Felciano 2018
Galas exit is to raise money — lots of it. The people who give the money took, until recently, hefty deductions, and get to dress up and socialize with their peers. They also fill the house with an audience determined to like everything. That’s a given. More importantly, we get to see what the artistic director has up his sleeves for the new season. Helgi Tomasson, at the beginning of the 85th year of San Francisco Ballet, did not disappoint. The mix of the “must-have” with the “let’s try-it” made for another glamorous evening at the ballet, the storm outside the Opera House not withstanding.
Photo: San Francisco Ballet in Peck's "Rodeo"
Photo Credit: Erik Tomasson
Former New York City Ballet dancer, now SFB Principal Ana Sophia Scheller and SFB’s Principal Vitor Luiz enthusiastically tore through their first “Stars and Stripes” Pas de Deux, spicing exactitude with élan and confidence. Striking once more was the brilliance with which Balanchine choreographed the score. (The SFB orchestra, particularly, the brass, was in top form.)
The Gala also shone with three company premieres. None was more welcome than Justin Peck’s 2015 “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” to an arrangement of the Aaron Copeland’s music for Agnes De Mille’s Americana Ballet. This “Rodeo” is certainly one of SFB’s happiest acquisitions. Much has been written about male ballet dancers coming into their own. They have. But it is also rare that a ballet embraces entertainment as vigorously as Peck here does and yet resonates with a complex perspective on our common humanity. Peck’s fluid use of space, both elastic and knotted with dancing that exploded and was still, showed stagecraft on a refined level. The quintet cavorted exuberantly; the dancers held on to each other companionably and also proceeded from a common purpose, maybe a longing, maybe a loss. In the Pas de Deux Sofiane Sylve, magisterially, yet with a touch of curiosity, allowed herself be partnered by Carlo Di Lanno. Their duet allowed for just a touch of hand-holding tenderness. Fortunately, “Rodeo” will be seen again on this year’s second program.
Edwaard Liang’s “Letting Go” contained little of choreographic interest. A showpiece for Yuan Yuan Tan’s still extraordinary limbs, it reduced Di Lanno to ballet’s oldest stereotype: the male dancer as the enabler and porteur. I wish I had not seen the title of “Children of Chaos” from which Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh performed a tension-filled athletic duet that ended on top of a breath.
In the pas de deux from "La Sylphide's" second act, Maria Kotchekova, brilliant dancer she is, and Ulrik Birkkjaer, new to SFB, left me wanting. Though charming as the flirtatious sylph, I had hoped for a softer quality to her skimming steps. Birkkjaer’s James convinced with his clean footwork and the increasing ardor and impatience he brought to pursuing his dream. He showed his Bournonville heritage most clearly in the elevation and precision of his beats, but he caught my heart with the exquisite en couronne. SFB has great male dancers; they will learn from Birkkjaer.
No Gala can exist without the “Le Corsaire” pas de deux. And what fun it was to see Angelo Greco as the humble, modest slave in a split second turn himself into pyrotechnical wonder of elevation, speed and spinning turns. Sasha de Sola more than held her own in the rapid bourrées, balances and furiously travelling fouettés. When carried aloft she just about looked like an assoluta. “This too is ballet,” my seat partner whispered.
The evening opened and closed with a perspective on Ballet’s future. Peck — with this wondrous control yet ease of formal patterns—tells us something about the future of non-narrative dance. The Gala started with Tomasson’s charming “Little Waltz” which showcased students, perhaps a future ballerina among them. Most touching were the smallest girls who, in a simple walk, tried so hard to point their feet and keep their port de bras from wobbling.