I love ballet gala performances. I love the idea of them, the look of them, the air of anticipation. Although some ballet company galas occur during the regular season, at San Francisco Ballet, the Gala happens a few days before the opening program. And it’s excitement personified. The audience has endured an eight-month drought, relieved only by one foggy outing at Stern Grove and the annual Nutcracker, and attendees are thrilled to see new company members and favorite performers alike.
As usual for these events, Wednesday night’s audience came in their finest duds — men in tuxes and dress suits, women in satiny slip-style evening gowns, feathery cocktail dresses, and way too many fluffy tulle numbers with guaranteed-to-trip-the-guy-behind-you trains. Champagne flowed, and the buzz was heartfelt and genuine.
This year’s Gala featured two world premieres, one U.S. premiere, and one SFB premiere interspersed with a couple of old chestnuts, some work unique to the event, and a preview of things to come, all leading up to the feel-good finale from Balanchine’s Symphony in C.
The energetic opener, a selection from The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude (Forsythe), takes the basic look of classic ballet and turns it on its side. It seems sort of traditional, but somehow isn’t, with its deconstructed poison green tutus and off-balance steps. The five dancers made the tricky choreography look light and breezy and tons of fun. Special kudos to new corps member Nicole Ciapponi, who not only executed the steps with precision, but managed to catch the often-illusory Forsythe “swing.” I’m looking forward to seeing more of her this season.
Galas are normally stuffed with duets and trios, and this night was no exception. It’s always great to see a new work from Val Caniparoli. His Double Stop, set to a section of the Glass Songs and Poems for Solo Cello showed his amazing aptitude for creating complicated lifts that look just as good coming down as they do going up. And Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets had the strength and presence to pull it all off.
The two classical pas de deux — the Don Quixote wedding duet and the Black Swan — were the only uneven part of the evening. In the Don Quixote, technically secure Vanessa Zahorian fluttered her fan, yet did not engage with her character; Taras Domitro, while exciting to watch, often gets caught up in the moment to the detriment of the steps. The duo brought it all back together, though, for a satisfactory conclusion.
The Black Swan was danced by principal Sofiane Sylve partnered by newly arrived soloist Vito Mazzeo. Sylve, who dances with great strength and security lacked attack, rounding off the finish of her movements. Mazzeo’s elegant bearing made the most of the clean, unembellished choreography in his variation. It was nice for a change to focus on the dancer’s line rather than on pyrotechnics.
The hottest moment of the evening came with Yuri Possokhov’s new Talk to Her. Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz managed to find the core romance in the steaminess of the choreography and Iglesia music.
But for sheer loveliness, my vote for the standout work of the night has to go to Somewhere in Time, a San Francisco Ballet premiere by Edwaard Liang to music by Ravel. Pianist Roy Bogas and conductor Martin West synched into the atmosphere generated by Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith, whose partnership increasingly discovers new depths. So beautiful and dreamy, the audience stopped for a beat at the end, took a collective breath, and burst into vigorous applause.
Program pacing is always a problem in evenings like this, but Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson sensibly leavened the evening with two appealing contemporary pieces and a character romp. The first contemporary work, an excerpt from Alles Walzer by Renato Zanella to Strauss, was a bravura outing well-suited to the combined talents of Joan Boada and Gennadi Nedvigin. For the second, Vanessa Zahorian, Taras Domitro, and Jaime Garcia Castilla charmingly embraced their inner character dancer for the U.S. premiere of John Neumeier’s New Pizzicato Polka. The other light piece, the Russian Variation from Swan Lake, Act III, is always fun, and soloists Courtney Elizabeth, Dana Genshaft, Garen Price Scribner, and Hansuke Yamamoto danced with a lovely controlled abandon.
The closing work, the fourth movement from the Balanchine Symphony in C, is a true test of the corps de ballet. This movement is like a football half-time show times ten. The geometric shapes and lines have to be spot on or the entire effect is muddied and the soloists and principals get lost in the mess. This night, the spacing was about as perfect as I have ever seen it. The full ballet is part of Program 2 running February 3 to 11 and shouldn’t be missed.
The orchestra, led by Conductor Martin West, handled the challenges presented by the wide variety of musical periods and styles with its usual polish. SFB audiences are lucky to have such an ensemble accompanying the company.
San Francisco Ballet 2011 Gala
January 26, 2011, 8:00 p.m.
San Francisco War Memorial Opera House