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San Francisco Ballet

75th Anniversary Gala

by Becca Hirschman

January 23, 2008 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

San Francisco Ballet’s 75th anniversary officially kicked off last night with the Diamond Gala Celebration, an evening-long tribute to America’s oldest professional ballet company. The performance portion of the evening opened with the Star Spangled Banner and a welcome and salute to past Christensen Medal awardees hosted by Board Co-Chairs Pamela Joyner and James Herbert (who was presented with his own medal onstage), and what followed was a lengthy but congratulatory tribute to the company.

First to take the stage (at least in pointe shoes and slippers) were advanced-level students of San Francisco Ballet School, performing excerpts of the American premiere of John Neumeyer’s “Yondering,” a work that examines the transition from adolescent to adult (and with nice, expressive choreography to boot). What a joy it was to see these young dancers perform on the mainstage! They leapt, sautéd, and spun with crisp attack and flowing, natural epaulment.

With 14 former SF Ballet principal dancers playing the part of onstage audience members, Rachel Viselli and Damian Smith coyly moved through an excerpt from Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s “Elite Syncopations.” Following a season-ending knee injury last year, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun returned to the stage with Molly Smolen, Brett Bauer, and Aaron Orza. All four looked wonderful technique wise, but former Principal Dancer Parrish Maynard’s “Secret Places” couldn’t quite hold it’s own. Sizzling in Helgi Tomasson’s “Two Bits,” Gennadi Nedvigin commanded the stage with his soft yet powerful persona, and Katita Waldo boldly piquéd to and fro as his female equal.

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba brought the lulls of dreams and romance to the stage in the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carousel (A Dance).” But one of the low points of the evening came with Wade Robson‘s “The Energy Between Us,” set to music by Télépop Musik. Robson, of Britney Spears/N’Sync/“So You Think You Can Dance?” fame, choreographed this thankfully short ballet, which featured Pauli Magierek and Rory Hohenstein as the slinky “Us.” Frances Chung, Julianne Kepley, Jaime Garcia Castilla, and Matthew Stewart, all of star quality on their own, overtly played the part of some funky energy (imagine red kimonos, red shoes, red striped eye makeup, and spiky Mohawks for the women), but the choreography was so simplistic that I was offended. Really, all six of these dancers deserve much more than an MTV/FOX mishmash of second-rate choreography. Luckily there were seven more pieces to make up my disappointment.

Sofiane Sylve, who has joined the company for the first five programs as a guest principal artist, and corps de ballet member Anthony Spaulding presented Hans van Manen‘s “Two Pieces for Het (for Rachel)” with intense heat. Sylve, with the requisite pillow-like feet and incredible extension, swept across the stage as if she’s been here in the Bay Area for years but it was Spaulding who exceeded all expectations, rising to the occasion and equaling Sylve in just about every way. I have high hopes for him in the future.

Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan danced José Martinez’ “Delibes Suite,” dressed in lovely deep bluish purple costumes designed by Agnès Letestu. Karapetyan moved admirably, but Zahorian stole the show with her impressive and successive display of relevés and spot-on-a-dime piqué turns. Pascal Molat and Nicolas Blanc added a little humor and wit to the evening in an excerpt from Renato Zanella’s “Alles Walzer,” and their “who can outdo the other” mentality brought jolly chuckles from the seats around me. Tina LeBlanc, another dancer who has returned after undergoing knee surgery, joined Ruben Martin in the heartfelt adagio from Tomasson’s “Sonata.” LeBlanc proved she is the epitome of a ballerina, easily fusing her amazingly fine technique with the intangible quality of performance. There was no turn, head tilt, or arabesque; instead, there was "the dance," and over and over again, you felt for her and with her. Roy Bogas and David Kadarauch accompanied them splendidly on the piano and cello respectively.

Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada brought a little tradition to the stage with the pas de deux from “La Esmeralda.” Kochetkova, with her sly échappés and forceful grand battements, captivated the audience with her charm and phrasing, but Boada didn’t quite measure up, hurrying his jetés and pirouettes while not quite finishing each movement. Changing things up, Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith flowed in Edwaard Liang’s “Distant Cries,” an ever-moving river of lifts, reaching, and grasps. Liang designed the costumes: Tan in a light colored dress and Smith in black pants, and both dancers looked effortless, moving through the cornucopia of shapes and feelings with complete abandon.

Aptly, the finale from George Balanchine’s stately “Diamonds” closed out the evening. Featuring Zahorian and Karapetyan, the company courted and promenaded, but somehow the stage looked slightly cluttered. Zahorian and Karapetyan, though, soared through, leading the evening to a close with rounding applause during the company bows, compete with confetti and a balloon drop from overhead. The evening's performance wrapped up at 11:20PM, and not a moment to soon. Forty minutes later, I would have turned into a pumpkin. But that’s a totally different ballet!

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