Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco; May 21, 2015
There was a mild earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area on Thursday night, but there was an explosion of cuteness downtown when nearly 200 students of San Francisco Ballet School took over the stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. The occasion was the annual student showcase, a three-night extravaganza with corporate sponsors, major donors and a lavish celebratory dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel. The students get fêted like principals, and the rest of us come away with renewed faith that ballet is alive and well.
Associate director Patrick Armand has led the school since 2012, and a new level of polish and showmanship is evident. Even the little ones looked focused, precise and happy to be onstage. Faculty member Parrish Maynard choreographed the grade-level demonstration to an upbeat orchestral work by Glazunov, and it was refreshing to see the different age groups flow on and off the stage in one integrated piece of choreography, and all dressed in crisp white, rather than stopping and starting at each level.
The pre-professional students tackled three plotless neoclassical pieces. SFB soloist James Sofranko choreographed Mozart Symphony for five pastel-clad couples, who danced happily to the composer’s “Paris” symphony. Fugues, counterpoints and unison steps landed right on the music, but gentle partnering, effervescent footwork and fleet changes from effacé to écarté added liveliness. Anastasia Kubanda with Daniel Domenech and Natasha Sheehan with Hadriel Diniz danced the leads, with Sheehan an eye-catching soubrette who could go far.
SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson revived his 2002 Bartók Divertimento, casting Chisako Oga and Francisco Sebastião as a sprightly couple backed up by Blake Kessler and Haruo Niyama. They danced it with impressive musicality – not easy when the score is the 1939 Divertimento for String Orchestra – and looked company-ready with their elevated jumps, zippy allegro and confidence in elaborate turn sequences.
As the grand finale, the school gave Kenneth MacMillan’s Soirée Musicale its American premiere. Benjamin Britten’s marchy music inspired MacMillan’s martial, technical steps; the students delivered the spirit if not quite the precision. It didn’t help that the stage was a third too small for the 30-strong cast, including 19 women in tutus.
There was no contemporary piece this year, a notable omission given that contemporary work is a significant part of SFB’s repertory and reputation. However, Wednesday’s opening night included the Flames of Paris pas de deux, and by all accounts Oga and Niyama burned up the stage with it. Armand and his staff have done a fine job nurturing their talents, and their names will surely appear on the company roster in the next few years.