Shining Evening at the Ballet

Opening Night Gala
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
January 27, 2007

by Paul Parish
copyright 2007, Paul Parish

For the last twenty years, since he took over the company, Helgi Tomasson has always started out the "real" ballet season with a gala opening night, an evening a la Versailles, with a dazzling series of star turns in the opera house following a massive fund-raiser dinner across the street at City Hall, followed by a ball back at City Hall. It serves to put a stopper on the sentimentality of "Nutcracker" season and launch the big ship of serious ballet.

The first year, twenty years ago, we came out of the auditorium and found spectacular dancing going on in the lobby. Khadra Folk Dance ballet were doing tarantellas in one corner, and other Bay Area dancers were making festive moves in another. About half the audience then walked across the street to a ball in City Hall, and the whole evening made a non-verbal argument of an impressive sort, placing San Francisco Ballet amidst a community of dancers that included a large professional and semi-pro presence, embedded in a city where "everybody" loves to dance. This year the ball was omitted, which seemed a depressing economy, the wrong way to end a festive evening — but the social promenade and above all the performances gave reasons for civic pride — the evening was a great success.

Tomasson's galas are not star-turns by visiting artists but rather a display of his own big guns; it's an occasion to show the company's donors and the large fan-base just what these dancers can do, and the range of expression and style they're capable of. All 17 principal dancers appeared, most of the soloists. The company hypes itself as world-class, and this gala made the case that we're no longer a terrific regional company but now ranks as a national-level company — not in the tier of the Kirov or City Ballet, but still world-class. The level of talent is fabulous in this company.

Not everything was great, and the one truly classical entry, the grand pas de deux from “Sleeping Beauty,” looked stiff rather than regal. Vanessa Zahorian was not having a comfortable night, and though her partner, Gonzalo Garcia, did dance with remarkable ease and style, that cannot make up for rigidity in the ballerina. Her lines were fine, but her first promenade was unsteady, and one of the fish dives bounced around quite a bit. It was an unfortunate assignment — Zahorian is an exuberant American dancer, so strong it’s said she has trouble to stop turning; radiance amidst aristocratic restraint does not come naturally to her. Had she gotten to do one of the splashy contemporary numbers, she could probably have stunned us as thoroughly as Davit Karapetyan did in his own choreography for “Last Breath,” an explosive bare-chested solo to music from “Matrix Revolutions.” Three minutes of high-test testosterone. The guy packs a wallop. His classical technique is impeccable, but in contemporary material he’s truly thrilling — he’s sensational in this updated-Babilée mode.

Which was balanced by our new ballerina Molly Smolen’s larger-than-life, overwhelmingly lush femininity in Frederick Ashton’s “Five Brahms waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan.” It’s wonderful to have San Francisco’s own Isadora represented in our own opera house with such conviction. One hopes that this ballet will be added to a regular-season program, though it might be a stretch to find anyone else here who could dance it with the sumptuous style of Smolen, who was taught the ballet by Lynn Seymour and comes to us from the Birmingham Royal ballet. She made you feel at moments that you were seeing the diva herself. Ashton “adored” Isadora and would famously imitate her at parties. As for Smolen, the lady is melting, her action is creamy,  she plunges her hands up to the wrist into an urn standing next to the piano, lifts them as if in prayer clenched to the heavens, turns, raises her breastbone, and in the pose of the Nike of Samothrace runs towards us scattering rose petals in her wake. She pulled it off, to bravoes and waves of applause. (The waltzes were beautifully played by Roy Bogas).

Helgi Tomasson choreographs best perhaps in pièces d’occasion. His new pas de deux to Britten’s “Soiree musicales” was a marvel of charming invention, full of surprising moves that happened at high speed at the last possible moment. Kristin Long has never looked more in her element — she is one of Marcia Dale Weary’s brilliantly trained, thrillingly accurate technicians, but her strengths and power sets her free to listen to the music and dance from the unconscious. She’s a gleaming demon on pointe, spooling out long glorious phrases, juicy, shining, and then suddenly arrested, totally still, and happy. Joan Boada has become an elegant partner. There’s no trace of the coarseness that used to bother me. He’s no longer top dog, but rather he’s sleek, cat-like, warm, subtle, and, like Long, an extremely likeable personality, as well as a wizard in allegro.

By the end of the evening, when most of the company appeared in the finale of George Balanchine's "Symphony in C," we’d gone through most every style to be seen in contemporary ballet, including an unbelievably dazzling performance by Tina LeBlanc dancing Gerald Arpino's "L'Air d'Esprit," partnered beautifully by Gennadi Nedvigin. LeBlanc (also trained by Marcia Dale weary) is among the best anywhere in the world for her speed, and accuracy, which she deploys like a great violinist or pianist. I kept thinking of Joseph Levine, who famously would start a piece at breathtakingly fast speeds and then accelerate. Best of all, LeBlanc can modulate her tempo as she goes — she’ll suddenly decelerate and hover, distilling a moment even in the middle of velocities that would dizzy anyone else, and then make up for lost time as if it were nothing.

Muriel Maffre received the evening’s greatest applause. The ballerina, who’s retiring this year after a great career, came here from France in the late 80s and first appeared in Sylvie Guillem’s role in Forsythe’s “in the middle, somewhat elevated.”  She took the town by storm in that ballet. People compared her to Garbo, which is apt, for her extraordinarily attenuated body, spectacular as it is, seems nothing compared to the intensity of her soul. In this piece, Yuri Possokhov’s "Bitter Tears," perhaps it was only a parade of bruised sensibility, but still, it was a vision. She is such a “creature.” She appeared like a ghost from the 18th century, emerging from gauzy scrims to move mysteriously — sometimes like a kitten, sometimes like a long-dead lover — around the countertenor Mark Crayton, who was singing a haunting aria by G F Handel.

The tenderest dancing came in Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain," set to shining music by Arvo Pärt (featuring concertmaster Roy Malan). Yuan Yuan Tan and Damien Smith gave us an image of contemporary love, with each supporting the other in deeply intimate ways.

The gorgeously soft Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun danced "7 for Eight" (Helgi Tomasson) with Pierre-François Vilanoba. Michael McGraw was the pianist.

Vilanoba had danced in the first piece on the program, Jacques Garnier’s “Aunis,” which shows three lonely Frenchmen, in black trousers and white shirts, lonely urban workmen (perhaps waiters, perhaps fishermen), who echo each other in a dance that may be a dream. I love this little ballet. It grows on me more and more. Aunis is the ancient name of a district on the Atlantic coast, north of Bordeaux; the ballet is set to accordion neo-folk music — a polka, a waltz, a sailor’s jig – and the dancers float, whirl, advance and retreat in phrases accented with melting sideways curves, ending in fondu with “folk” arms (crossed over the breast, or across the eyes, or hands on hips). Vilanoba danced with Nicolas Blanc and Pascal Molat, all three of whom are in fact French.

The evening closed with a concert arrangement of the great second-act pas de deux from Giselle, danced by Lorena Feijóo with marvelous phrasing, partnered by Tiit Helimets (Paul Ehrlich on the viola)( and the finale of “Symphony in C,”  which was our first glimpse of the corps de ballet, which made a fabulous cascade of joyful dancing and dancers. Standouts amongst the principals were Frances Chung and Garrett Anderson, Elana Altman, Ruben Martin, Sarah van Patten, Liz Miner, and Jaime Garcia Castillo, while Maureen Choi was stunning as a demi-soloist behind Altman.

Many artists have to work together to make an evening like this happen. The ballet orchestra, itself a first-rate band (so says Mark Morris, who claims it’s the best in the country), gave noble support under the baton of Martin West.

Photos (all by Eric Tomasson) from top:
The company in Garnier's "Aunis."
Davit Karapetyan in "Last Breath."
Molly Smolen in Ashton's "Five Brahms Waltzes In The Manner Of Isadora Duncan."
Tina LeBlanc and Gennadi Nedvigin in Arpino's "L'Air D'Ésprit."
Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun and Pierre-François Vilanoba in "Tomasson's 7 For Eight."
Lorena Feijoo and Tiit Helimets in Helgi Tomasson's production of "Giselle."

Volume 5, No. 5
January 29, 2007

copyright ©2007 Paul Parish

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