The gala performance that opened San Francisco Ballet’s 80th season presented excerpts from an assortment of historically and stylistically diverse works that demonstrated the company’s breadth of virtuosity, artistic conquests and mobility, as its members take on new challenges with confidence and perseverance.
Opening with the gaily-costumed Tarantella by George Balanchine, the witty, stylish certainty and polish that Pascal Molat brings to the stage added a special patina to this folksy if flirtatious duet. Molat’s partner Sasha DeSola was promoted to Soloist last season, and is one of a shank of new and veteran soloist women who shine like newly minted gold pieces. DeSola is still coltish, but there is an uptake of buoyancy in her dancing that gives Molat something to work off of. Her dispatch of spitfire frappés is complemented by light and lively footwork that ensures that the tambourine she shakes is the focal element. The piece gives us lots to enjoy—Molat’s precise manège, DeSola’s elastic forced arch pliés and lively jumps, for example. He burns rubber, she’s saucy, and that’s what Balanchine was going for.
Pierre François Vilanoba, who is in the twilight of his career, danced the final solo from Roland Petit’s L’Arlesienne. The piece in its entirety relies on the slow buildup of a group-borne intensity, and without the corps de ballet to frame the solo, it can seem to careen from slight to self-flagellating when suddenly Vilanoba is wrapping his arms around his spine in a succession of en dedans turns, and back to slight again when he travels in circles in a small manège low to the floor. In spite of the limitations imposed by plucking it out of its context, Vilanoba dances the madness of his character with great intensity. Among the more interesting choreographic choices is showcasing the same step in a variety of tempos.
August Bournonville’s classic The Flower Festival at Genzano Pas de Deux is a very difficult piece to perform in such a way that the technical feats and theatrical charm blend into a light sauce that never breaks. Gennadi Nedvigin is astute as the squire who partners the delicate, strong, yet feminine Clara Blanco. His batterie is faultless. As he capers about, she delights in faking him out with a sudden dare to “catch me if you can.” Because she’s winsome, the eye goes to her in the pas de deux, and because she matches his masculine technical virtuosity in a girly-girl way, when the music requires it, sparkle notwithstanding, she stops on a dime.
Kudos to Myles Thatcher for sharing another committed step to stretch his choreographic reach with In The Passerine’s Clutch. A couple makes a dramatic entrance. He is swift and elegant as he lifts, turns and then places her, letting us see that it is Dana Genshaft. Genshaft and Jaime Castilla are joined by Dores Andre and Joan Boada. Susan Roemer’s filmy beige, purple and red costumes complement Kevin Connaughton’s chiaroscuro lighting, lending the piece a mystical quality. The four dancers test weight shifts in pendulum-like lifts held in single-breath moments. They fly into shapes that circle into rounds on the ground or in the air. Tempered lighting offers a contrast that underscores the movement dynamics. Genshaft carries the piece with a dramatic leading edge, and the Boada/Castilla duo is an eyeful. Genshaft and Andre reaffirm that there is a vein of richness to be mined from the soloist streambed of this company.
In her Act III Raymonda solo, company veteran Lorena Feijóo draws us back into the company’s classical circuitry with a commanding presence borne of certainty and the seasoning of two decades of brilliant dancing.
Helgi Tomasson’s Trio offers a collection of pas de deux and a pas de trois shared by principal dancers Tiit Helimets, Sarah Van Patten and Vito Mazzeo, to tell the elaborate psycho-erotic story of the shifting polarities and ensuing conflicts that proceed from a love triangle. In the partnership between Helimets and Van Patten we see confidence and continuity with no breaks in the fleet quality they achieve. Like a heat exchanger, Van Patten has brought her technique into line with that of Helimets, and Helimets has interpolated into his dancing the stunning dramatic quality that Van Patten possesses. They truly dance as one in every desirable sense of the word. Lifts are swift and seamless. This makes Mazzeo’s intervention all the more powerful, as if his very touch comes from some other dimension far afield of their insular world, lighting a fire in Van Patten that she hasn’t felt before. The hypnotic blaze she doesn’t recognize leads her astray. As Mazzeo inhales her, she tips toward Helimets, who works hard to keep his membership current with her. Trio is a finely chiseled rendering of the injustice that finds quarter in the heart.
Frances Chung and Taras Domitro dance the Grand Pas de Deux and Variations, Act III from Don Quixote energetically, with a dispatch that impresses, at the same time that it borders on the relentless. We’d like to see Chung reach for a quality that is a little more Latin, using the head and eyes to flirt with her partner and engage the audience. Domitro, as Basilio, gallops through his variation in an equine kind of way with modest sécondes. In hers, Chung finds her Kitri, so that we see not only her technical strength, but a glimpse of who the fan-wielding maja can be dramatically.
Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz capture the thrill in the dream pas de deux from John Cranko’s Onegin. The duet carries into the ballet the titillating but terrifying complications and implications of a love that arrives post-maturely, offering both too much and too little. Luiz appears in the magical mirror that suddenly opens a window of opportunity, and Kochetkova comes to him like a lost kitten. Their fluidity in the three arabesque lift-turns float her deeper into her joyful illusion. To me, this is one of the most beautiful pas de deux in ballet, offering an equality of expression to both partners to which each must contribute fully and blissfully in order for it to succeed.
Even if George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes remains a somewhat naïve, box office-opportunist tribute to a flag that represents death and destruction to most of the world’s inhabitants, Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan deserve to be saluted for doing it justice. Karapetyan brings to it a brio that sends his assemblés flying out from under him, banner-like, and Zahorian adds spit and polish to her fouettés by throwing in a triple now and then.
Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith dance the heartrending pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Their integrity as partners is an echo of the earnestness of the work . The simplicity of a slow backbend and a cloche-tocking leg capture the right-as-rain sensibility that has them surrender in harmony with what the sky releases. The plaintive stringed instrumentation in the Arvo Pärt score evokes the warm rain and slowed ionic transformation of the surrounding air, as arpeggios wiggle in contradistinction to the languor in Tan’s line. It is reminiscent of Gerald Arpino’s groundbreaking piece, Sea Shadow. This is another egalitarian pas de deux in which neither partner is subordinate to the other. Smith puts Tan at ease—so much so that she unselfconsciously gives herself entirely to the work.
Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc, staged by Maina Gielgud, has been at the center of a tempest-in-a-teapot debate in critical circles of late, and so receives more scrutiny this season than it might otherwise merit. As it name indicates, it is a tutu ballet in which the women, who file in formally, wear white. A little squirrelly in the first moments, the dancers find their spots (and their depth) and acquit themselves with care and reverence to the classical style and purity of line. Sofiane Sylve partners with Tiit Helimets, and Vanessa Zahorian with Davit Karapetyan, and with their arrival new shapes appear in a frosty kaleidoscope of movement. Men in white tops and black tights rush in and seat themselves at the feet of women who strike classical port de bras poses, so that the piece takes a turn toward a visual Ode to a Grecian Urn. In spite of the classical choreography, a neo-classical note is introduced with the set’s minimalist and modernist staircase and the women ranged on a stratum above, and the men below, a trompe d’oeil Art Deco aspect with a snowy edge.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.