19 January 2017 – War Memorial Opera House,  San Francisco, CA

Catherine Pawlick

The theme “Ever Magical” headed this year’s opening night gala for the San Francisco Ballet’s 84th season, a black-tie event that always attracts the city’s finest, men and women decked out in tuxedos and long gowns, all eager to partake of the annual Prosecco Promenade while awaiting the true visual delights of the evening on stage. This year’s mixed program of 11 short ballets focused mainly on abstract and modern works by new choreographers. Eight of the ballets presented couples performing duets of various moods set to musical compositions that ranged from the romance of Lizst to the modern pulse of John Adams, and everything in between.

Myles Thatcher, an Atlanta native who cultivated his choreographic talents after joining the San Francisco Ballet in 2009, is locally considered a home-grown talent. He has been choreographing since then, and has been commissioned by Helgi Tomasson for both the student showcase and the company’s repertory season repeatedly since 2012. His Foragers, set to Debussy’s Clare de Lune, which won Natasha Sheehan and Angelo Greco the first prize in the Twelfth International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize, makes full use of Sheehan’s plush limbs and Angelo Greco’s precise timing in a duet where slow sensuality leads to intertwining embraces.

Unfortunately the premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Promenade Sentimentale fared less well, performed by the ever-capable Lorena Feijoo alongside Wei Wang. The continuity and pull of the Debussy score implied a developing optimism against the backdrop of romance, but the steps seemed uninspired.

Photo: Erik Tomasson

Photo: Erik Tomasson

Following a nicely synchronized presentation of Agon by Dores Andre, Sasha de Sola and Jaime Garcia Castilla, Mathilde Froustey joined Carlo di Lanno in Helgi Tomasson’s Valses Poeticos, a long set of mini duets to a musical arrangement that suggests the disjointed moods of a sometimes-turbulent romance. The world premiere of Presentce –intentionally spelled thusly– by Trey McIntyre followed, featuring Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham in a set of 1950s-type jigs. Danced in soft shoes to snappy recorded music, the cute Smuin-like tone (think  his ever-popular Christmas Ballet) is lighthearted, and endearing but lacking any concrete spark.

Taras Domitro, the resident Cuban jumper and turner, plugged into the pas de deux of Flames of Paris with the most energy of the evening. A man equipped with a bottomless reserve of slow pirouettes and pyrotechnical jumps, Domitro is always a highlight on the bill. Tonight, the red blood under his right knee at the end of the piece attested to his full-out energy, which peaked in a triple tour en l’air during the coda (perhaps the landing from that jump the cause of the scrape). Though she is retiring after this season, Vanessa Zahorian debuted in Flames this evening, adhering to the tempo during her variation, but overdoing the energy in her fouettés such that the working leg dropped to coup de pied position halfway through the set.

Taras Domitro in Flames of Paris. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Taras Domitro in Flames of Paris. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Benjamin Millipied, who retired from his post at the Paris Opera Ballet last year, set a new work, The Chairman Dances on Maria Kochetkova with Carlo di Lanno and five couples, taken from the “foxtrot for orchestra” by John Adams and based loosely on the opera Nixon in China. Though difficult to detect any libretto in Chairman‘s movements, there were a few moments of inspiration in the corps sections near the end, and Kochetkova’s honed physique is always a pleasure to watch.

Gennady Nedvegin, iconic as SFB’s Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, who unfortunately departed last season to head the Atlanta Ballet, was sorely missed in this piece when Joseph Walsh performed it, though not for lack of inspiration on Walsh’s part. Nedvegin so embodied the casual, handsome stride that anyone following him has some big shoes to fill; then too, the piece has run in at least three of the most recent opening night galas, it would have been refreshing to see something new.

The evening’s finale, the coda of Balanchine’s Diamonds, was led reliably by Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimuts with a unique interpretation of the choreography’s musicality. Diamonds is intended to be delivered with razor-sharp precision, suggestive of the brilliance of the hard gem itself.  Sylve, while adhering faithfully to the tempi, nevertheless played with the score, softening the edges in each step, making the shifts into positions slower rather than clear-cut. The result is a different feel, a dampened sensation when compared to, for example, the Mariinsky’s performance of the same sections.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Aaron Robison in "La Cathedrale Engloutie." Photo: Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Aaron Robison in “La Cathedrale Engloutie.”
Photo: Erik Tomasson

Though she danced just one work prior to the finale, Yuan Yuan Tan proved to be the most beautiful ballerina of the evening in Stanton Welch’s La Cathedrale Engloutie, where her long lithe lines personified the mood of the music and the expression of attraction to her partner, Aaron Robison. The combination of movement and her impeccable lines suggest that San Francisco Ballet has the resources for ideal casting when carefully selected. Despite the beauty of Welch’s work, it would be lovely to see Tan in a classical piece next year, for classical works are what this city’s resident company is meant to perform.