Opening Night Gala of the San Francisco Ballet – 23 October 2008
By balletgeek

Review of the San Francisco Ballet’s 2008 Season Opening Night:

Diamond Gala Celebration: A Tradition of 75 Years of Excellence in Dance

Opening Night of the 2008 San Francisco Ballet displayed a spectacular showcase of nine stellar performances in three acts, a fitting beginning to the 75th anniversary season of the oldest ballet company in the United States.

The SF Ballet’s “Diamond Gala Celebration” included surprises like appearances of SF Ballet alumni dancers such as Jocelyn Vollmar, the first ballerina to perform as the “Snow Queen” in “The Nutcracker” in the United States. Vollmar danced with the SF Ballet from 1939 – 1948 and later taught at the SF Ballet School. While she no longer danced across the stage, Vollmar still appeared a queen on opening night with her snowy white hair and glowing white gown.

In colorful costumes, principal dancers Rachel Viselli and Damian Smith performed “Elite Syncopations” a playful number set to ragtime music composed by Scott Joplin. A very special treat for the crowd, the duo danced as 15 SF Ballet alumni watched from the stage. I was thrilled to see SF Ballet alumni dancer Yuri Possokov take a turn on the Opera House stage once again. A strong and powerful Russian, Possokov was one of the world’s most talented male dancers before he retired from the stage two years ago. These days, Possokov is setting the world on fire with his innovative choreography as the SF Ballet’s Choreographer in Residence. And I was pleased to get a glimpse of another beloved alumni dancer, the majestic Muriel Maffre, who retired from the SF Ballet last year at the top of her game and after an amazing 17-years of dancing with the company.

It’s always a treat to watch the company’s French men dance together, and opening night was no exception. Principal dancer Pascal Molat had the audience on the edge of their seats as he called “maestro” to conductor Martin West to queue the musicians for the SF Ballet premiere of “Alles Walzer.” “Alles Walzer” is an exciting and energetic ballet choreographed by Renato Zanella, set to Stauss, and performed by Molat and fellow Frenchman and principal dancer Nicolas Blanc. The duo reached impressive heights as they bounded across the stage and demonstrated their usual precision-timing with fast and furious turns that left me breathless just from watching them. Molat romanced the adoring audience with his charismatic smile and giant leaps across the stage.

Opening night’s break-out performance came from Pauli Magierek in the world premiere of “The Energy Between Us”, an edgy modern ballet choreographed by one of today’s hottest choreographers, 25-year-old Wade Robson. The ballet also marked the debut of new soloist Julianne Kepley, who recently joined the SF Ballet from Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. Regular San Francisco dancers Jaime Garcia Castilla, Frances Chung, Rory Hohenstein, and Matthew Stewart also gave inspired performances in this exciting new ballet, and the audience loved it. The funky bright red and blue costumes were designed by Amanda Robson, wife of the Emmy-award winning choreographer. The ballet’s fresh “trip-hop” music was composed by the French electronic music group TelepopMusik. “The Energy Between Us” is a ballet to watch for. Indeed the energy between the artists and the audience in San Francisco’s Opera House during the world premiere of this ballet was electric — and I felt lucky to be there.
In the pas de deux from “La Esmeralda,” Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson showcased his company’s newest principal dancer, Moscow-born tiny Maria Kochetkova, who trained at the Bolshoi School and danced with the Royal Ballet and the Russian State Ballet before joining the English National Ballet in 2003. Kochetkova was well-paired with spicy Cuban principal dancer Joan Boada; and the couple exhibited great athleticism, including a breath-taking series of pirouettes on pointe by Kochetkova, and a number of ferocious leaps and powerful turns from Boada.

No SF Ballet Opening Night Gala would be complete without a performance from San Francisco’s prima ballerina, Yuan Yuan Tan, who was born in Shanghai and has danced with San Francisco since 1995. In the third act, Tan danced with her frequent partner Damian Smith in the SF Ballet premiere of “Distant Cries” a beautiful pas de duex from choreographer Edwaard Liang, with music by Albinoni. The pairing of Tan and Smith continues to get better. Smith seems to lift Tan higher each year, providing all the more air with which to showcase Tan’s remarkably long, straight lines.

Another high point of opening night was the San Francisco Ballet premiere of “Secret Places”, a romantic, almost dreamlike dance choreographed by Parrish Maynard and set to Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 – andante adagio”. A native of Thailand, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun danced with grace and elegance, her lovely shoulders and arms moving musically with pianist Roy Bogas’ fingers. A new addition to the company in early 2007, Molly Smolen gave her best performance yet on opening night in “Secret Places” with pirouettes so smooth, she seemed on glass. SF Ballet corp dancers Aaron Orza and Brett Bauer matched Smolen and Pipit-Suksun with fine performances in this inspired, gentle piece.

A welcome revival from the 2007 season, the pas de deux from “Carousel (A Dance)” with its popular music (“If I Loved You”) by Richard Rodgers, and its dramatic choreography by Christopher Wheeldon was enchanting. The lithe body of principal dancer Sarah Van Patten handled the challenging back-bends with ease, as Pierre-François Vilanoba ably lifted Van Patten meters into the air. Perhaps the only drawback to this lovely pas de deux was that we didn’t get to see enough of what else Vilanoba can do with this choreography’s focus on dramatic lifts.

Principal dancers Katita Waldo from Spain and Russian Gennadi Nedvigin were in fine form opening night with their performance of Helgi Tomasson’s sexy ballet “Two Bits”. Quick-paced pirouettes by the pair and spectacular leaps from Nedvigin did justice to this local favorite.

Noticeably missing from opening night’s casting were SF Ballet principal dancers Estonian Tiit Helimets and Lorena Feijoo, originally from Cuba and reportedly out with an ankle injury. 2007 season stand-out, soloist Elizabeth Miner, was also disappointingly absent from the 2008 season opener. The company’s loss of Gonzalo Garcia was also felt after the talented principal dancer left at the end of last season to dance with the New York City Ballet.

Other noteworthy performances from opening night included the pairing of principal dancers Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan in “Delibes Suite”, a ballet in which Zahorian hopped across the stage on pointe with remarkable grace. Zahorian and Karapetyan were successfully paired again in Balanchine’s “Finale from Diamonds”, an appropriate finale to the Diamond Gala Celebration.

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