One of the real pleasures associated with attending performances by the San Francisco Ballet is the opportunity of hearing what in nearly any other city would be considered its top-rank orchestra. SFB’s pit orchestra might be overshadowed by the world-class San Francisco Symphony just down the street, but at the opening night gala on Thursday, January 19, SFB’s principal conductor Martin West and his musicians amply demonstrated that they’ve mastered the art of placing music in the service of dance.
A gala performance such as this, kicking off San Francisco Ballet’s 2012 season, is inevitably programmed with virtuoso showpieces, designed to show off the extraordinary capabilities of what is undoubtedly a world-class company and arguably the finest dance organization in the U.S. The temptation must be strong to pile on the razzle-dazzle, fleet footwork and aerial acrobatics set to furious allegro tempi. And while there was plenty of that, it’s entirely to SFB’s credit that the dial was also turned in the other direction to emphasize depth and drama, as well.
If anything, this is where the SFB orchestra excels. Conductor West is capable of stretching out andante melodic lines to virtual states of suspended time, allowing the dancers complete opportunities to display their control and lyricism. This was amply demonstrated in the pas de deux from British choreographer David Bintley’s The Dance House, with principal dancer Sarah Van Patten partnered by Tiit Helimets. West and the SFB orchestra also had the advantage of having pianist Michael McGraw in their midst as they spun a fine thread from one of the tenderest moments of Dimitri Shostakovich’s first piano concerto. (A lot of long-time SFB attendees consider McGraw to be one of the company’s secret weapons, with treasured memories of his attaca opening chords in Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, for the company’s performances of Balanchine’s Rubies from years past.) Buoyed by conductor, orchestra, and pianist, as well as Helimets’ sympathetic partnering, Van Patten exhibited all of the technique and fluid, music-embodying grace that have made her a favorite with San Francisco dance audiences.
Of course, West and his crew can put the pedal to the metal when needed, with the orchestra hitting the accelerator for the pas de deux from Flames of Paris. Composer Boris Assafiev isn’t remembered for much more these days than this serviceable Soviet-era bombast, tied to a plot line that essentially consists of “Hey, it’s the French Revolution — let’s dance!” But its cheerful and relentless tunes were perfectly suited for principal dancer Frances Chung racing on-stage in flat-out party trick, “Look what I can do!” mode. And she can do a lot — Chung has technique and energy to burn, spending astonishing amounts of time en pointe, while radiating an open-hearted charm that’s hard to resist. She is often the company’s go-to girl when sheer brilliance is called for, so SFB audiences will no doubt happily see a lot of her in the coming season. Fortunately for Chung’s gala stint, her partner Taras Dimitro had more than enough speed and stage-spanning leaps to keep up with her.
Principal dancer Maria Kochetkova, ably partnered by Joan Boada, delivered a similarly impressive performance in Voices of Spring, set to music of Johann Strauss II. Frederic Ashton’s choreography predictably emphasizes a ballerina’s lyrical qualities over sheer virtuosity, but its technical demands are no less demanding in that regard. Kochetkova delivered on every nuance embodied in the music, which is too often dismissed as lightweight Viennese fluff. Conductor West and the orchestra gave it the respect it deserves, dialing down their big tutti passages to match Kochetkova’s soft expressiveness, a highlight of the gala’s post-intermission performances. It was a visual delight to see her sprinkling rose petals from both hands while smiling and floating atop Boada’s seemingly effortless one-handed lifts.
Both halves of the gala opened with showpieces for the company’s men. Choreographer Hans van Manen’s Solo, set to a skittering Bach violin piece, gave Gennadi Nedvigin, Garen Scribner, and Hansuke Yamamoto a chance to display not only the speed of their footwork, but also the sly humor contained in the street vernacular of the piece’s upper-body gestures, lightly tossed off by all three men. The evening’s opener, an excerpt from choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s setting of Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, suffered a little by comparison, coming across as glibly athletic without letting the male dancers’ distinctive personalities come through.
Where the total forces of San Francisco Ballet, dancers and musicians alike, came together with devastating effect on the gala audience was in the penultimate performance, the pas de deux from choreographer John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias masterpiece. Principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan is one of SFB’s dramatic specialists, matching superlative technique with interpretive abilities that have made her performances some of the most intense to have taken place on the San Francisco Opera House stage. This time, it was pianist Roy Bogas combining with the orchestra, rendering the obsessive neurasthenia of Frederic Chopin’s music to great effect. Yuan Yuan Tan and her partner Alexander Riabko, guest artist from the Hamburg Ballet, progressed hypnotically through the pas de deux’ series of unhappy physical yearnings and elevated dying falls, hammering the audience into its seats. That SFB has the confidence, both in its artists and its fans, to program such a relentlessly dark piece for its opening night gala, is a tribute to the unique place that the company has carved for itself in San Francisco’s cultural life. That SFB has also cast the superb Yuan Yuan Tan, along with fellow stars Vanessa Zahorian, Sarah Van Patten, and Maria Kochetkova, as the female lead in a different but equally dramatic full-length ballet, John Cranko’s 1965 setting of Pushkin’s Onegin, gives rise to the expectation that its 2012 season might be one of its strongest yet.
If the evening’s closer, Christopher Wheeldon’s Number Nine, seemed a bit light by comparison to the preceding duet, costume designer Holly Hynes’ bright colors and composer Michael Torke’s rapid if somewhat mathematical score ably suited the purpose of getting a lot of talented, good-looking dancers moving on the stage at the same time. San Francisco Ballet might be a premier performing arts organization, but it also has enough show business savvy to send its big ticket donors and other opening night attendees out the door with their moods well elevated.