Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, France; July 10, 2014

David Mead

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Wheeldon's 'After The Rain'.  Photo © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Wheeldon’s ‘After The Rain’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

The opening gala of San Francisco Ballet’s Paris season was a little bit like one of those tasting menus that are all the rage at some restaurants these days. There were lots of mini-dishes, mostly tasty, mostly leaving you thinking ‘I must come back and try the full course sometime’. As usual, there was a slight case of taste bud overload, and the odd dip where things weren’t quite to your liking, but whatever one’s preferences, the dancing was top notch throughout.

As is usually the way on such occasions, duets and small groups dominated the evening, cleverly programmed with lighter works mixed in among the more serious fare. How nice too, to see a gala with a more modern feel, with not a traditional warhorse in sight.

An excerpt from Renato Zanella’s “Alles Walzer” got things off to an upbeat start. Taras Domitro and Pascal Molat were humorous and witty as they tried constantly to outdo each other, bringing plenty of chuckles from the audience. Both danced with lots of élan. Everything was perfectly placed, especially some great pirouettes that go straight into a developpé to second. It set the tone wonderfully.

Among the highlights was Helgi Tomasson’s “Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers” to music by Handel. The opening has a formal, courtly feel to it. Both Frances Chung and Davit Karapetyan were most elegant as they danced around each other. The sense of a courtship ritual develops as the opening grace and control gives way to speed and exuberant energy. She then shows off for him, her dance including some neat, quick footwork, before she sits on the floor, and the roles are reversed. Chung accented everything perfectly, catching, and emphasising, every breath in the music. When they finally come together, it’s beautiful. It got a great reception, and quite rightly too.

Dores André and Esteban Hernandez in Kobborg's Les Lutins.  Photo © Erik Tomasson

Dores André and Esteban Hernandez in Kobborg’s Les Lutins.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

You can do much with charm and character – and there was certainly lots of it in Johan Kobborg’s “Les Lutins”. Again, it’s two men trying to outdo each other, although this time they’re vying for a lady’s attentions. Gennadi Nedvigin strutted his stuff as the on-stage violinist and pianist played ever faster. There’s plenty of neat, quick Bournonville-like footwork, before his dance turns into a feast of fast pirouettes, leaps and more. When Esteban Hernandez arrives, the stakes are raised, not least with a great series of double tours with no pause between, each one landed on a sixpence. There are some great moments of humour too – how many ballets include a deliberate – and playful – kick up the butt? Things go up another notch when Dores André shows up. They both try to impress her, only to find that she also has eyes for the violinist!

The pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” came from the usual gala pairing of Yuan Tuan Tan and Damien Smith. It is one of the most beautiful and intense pas de deux created in recent years. The feeling coursed across the footlights and orchestra pit footlights as it hushed the audience into total silence – until the end when they roared their approval. Perfection.

Maria Kochetkova in Ashton’s Voices of Spring.  Photo © Erik Tomasson

Maria Kochetkova in Ashton’s Voices of Spring.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Frederick Ashton’s “Voices of Spring” is a duet of a very different kind. Performed to Johann Strauss’ “Frühlingsstimmen Waltz” and originally created for the ball scene in The Royal Opera’s “Die Fledermaus”, it’s joyful, light and full of crowd-pleasing flashes, even if the sense of ecstasy it once had seems to have been lost over the years. Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan showed it off well, her conveying a sense of defying gravity, and him some great, rock-solid one-arm lifts.

A few pieces produced mixed feelings. The pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Concerto”, which was inspired by the choreographer watching his favourite ballerina Lynn Seymour warming up at the barre, is one of the most beautiful, and simply staged, in ballet. It’s slow, rich and intense. Has a forward port de bras ever been made to look so sensuous? Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets didn’t put a foot wrong, but the colour scheme – oh dear. The usual orange unitards and orange background with a suggestion of a warm sun in which the ballet bathes had been replaced by blue costumes, a blue and green background, with the supporting three couples in deep purple. It made it feel just a little bit cold.

Yuri Possokhov’s “Classical Symphony”, to Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1, is a bit in and out. It’s at its best in the lighter, brighter, ensemble sections that are bold, beautifully constructed and full of clean lines. There are some unusual twists (sometimes literally) to the classical lexicon. Almost the first thing is a man going straight into a deep grand-plié from a double tour. It’s different and spectacular. The pas de deux is less convincing, although there is plenty of interest. A later section gives the men a chance to let rip with lots of leaps across the stage, although musically this section is particularly weak. Still, it will be interesting to see it again later in the season. Maria Kochetkova and Hansuke Yamamoto led the proceedings.

Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in MacMillan's sublime 'Concerto'. Photo © Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in MacMillan’s sublime ‘Concerto’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Elsewhere, Val Canoparoli’s “No Other” is a sort of a Latin-tango cross with the edges smoothed off, danced to Richard Rogers’ “Beneath the Southern Cross”. There’s an interesting turning lift, and it was danced vibrantly by Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz, but it just didn’t connect. There were also excellent performances of the pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Agon”, by Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham; and the Second Movement pas de deux from his “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” with Mathilde Froustey and Carlos Quenedit.

The evening rounded off in fine style and more Balanchine. It was tutu time, and the Fourth Movement and finale of “Symphony in C” by Sasha de Sola and Jaime Garcia Castilla. They and the whole ensemble filled the stage with sparkle, bringing the curtain down on a wonderful evening.

Bring on the à la carte!