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San Francisco Ballet Takes a Big Leap

January 18, 2021

San Francisco Ballet

In this crazy time, discussing what in any other year would have been a jolly, cram-jammed benefit party and performance to open the San Francisco Ballet’s repertory season must of necessity fall by the wayside.

But the things one may stumble (to use a distinctly nonballetic term) upon, along that untrod pandemic path, can make for new perceptions as well as new challenges. So it was with “Leap Into the New Year,” an entirely virtual SF Ballet gala, at least as far as the performances were concerned. (Celebrants, enthusiastically aided by the special-events committee, could order lavish arrays of food and drink to be delivered and consumed wherever their quarantine pods might take them, before settling down in front of their screens.)

But other than ready access to a restroom at intermissions, these were not benefits afforded your real-live and yet still virtual reviewer, who nonetheless had a lovely time, thank you, while fervently hoping never to have to experience it again. Doubtless that was also the sentiment on the other side of the ether.

Emceeing the proceedings was Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, looking extremely distinguished in his tuxedo. During a rehearsal video of Harmony, excerpted for the gala, he noted that September was the first time he was able to rehearse with eight dancers in the studio. The dancers, having spent months apart from each other, practicing at home in improvised studio spaces often demarked by a square of company-supplied flooring. In the company’s Franklin Street studio, dancers were at first allowed to rehearse just a few at a time. Then the city eased its restrictions to a larger but still small group. The eight dancers remained masked, and, Tomasson said, tested for COVID-19 three times a week. It was “a real team effort,” he said.

In the studio, as later on the War Memorial Opera House Stage, the team looked wonderful, as if they felt as expansive and breathed as freely as this onlooker, long deprived of seeing them move through space.

And time. The evening’s opener, Tomasson’s Harmony excerpt, set to Rameau — played onstage by company pianist Natal’ya Fegina — adhered to and tweaked 18th-century conventions and costumes. The four couples, in garb recycled from an earlier Tomasson outing, Crisscross, were pert and precise, their pas de chats alighting with catlike tread, their partnering cheery — and cannily conducted largely at a distance. The dancers were Julia Rowe, Leili Rackow, Bianca Teixeria, Natasha Sheehan, Diego Cruz, Lucas Erni, Luca Ferrò, and Lleyton Ho.

Yuri Possokhov’s Dedicated To ... set to a composition by Victor Osadchev, is a gem of a solo for Yuan Yuan Tan, still the perfect ballerina in imperfect times. Possokhov cast her adrift, writhing in anguish on the floor reaching toward the wings. Upstage, a woman in an austere jacket sat motionless on a stony throne. Without a story, it conveyed a sense of loss, despair, perhaps guilt, directed both inward and toward the older woman. Nobody said it was the ballerina’s mother, but it clearly was. And it actually was Yuan Yuan Tan’s mother, Su Zhang, who at last moved toward the daughter in a moment of love and forgiveness reminiscent of George Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son.

Danielle Rowe’s Wooden Dimes, set to music by James M. Stephenson, represented in a tiny excerpt, holds promise, here embodied in three dancers, scammed and scamming (we would say “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” but there you are, in, I think, Australia): Luke Ingham, Dores André, and Max Cauthorn.

Myles Thatcher’s upcoming world premiere is still upcoming, teased via a clip for five couples, set at SFMOMA. The camera danced through swift splices, bright colors layered on and over, abstract canvases, stair-sits and a dance on the patio with the Calder stabile and the green, living wall. Set, unsurprisingly, to Steve Reich, it’s a stylish movie with a ballet in its future.

We’ve talked before of Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson, its premiere postponed to this virtual season. A terrific clip forecasts the intense drama, the clever pacing embodied in Marston’s work. Danced by Sarah Van Patten, Joseph Walsh, and Luke Ingham, the film, directed by Lauren Finerman, was shot in two days in November at the Fairmont Hotel. Footnote here: All the ballets in the gala were recorded at various times and in various Bay Area places over the past half-year or so. Likewise, the music by the San Francisco Ballet Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martin West, with each musician in their own zoom box, added a note of extra poignancy and hope — this week after the attack on the U.S. Capitol — as they launched the evening with the National Anthem.

Sasha Mukhamedov and Aaron Robison, all legs and hauteur, captivated in the pas de deux from that crashing hypnofest, William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, set to Thom Willems, an excerpt that calls to mind a pair of knives on their honeymoon.

It wouldn’t be a gala without fine renditions of classical ballet: Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco in the cute, cute, cute Coppélia pas de deux, doing Arthur Saint-Leon and Léo Delibes proud with zestful ease, bravura, and charm to spare.

The gala, with interstitial remarks by soloist Madison Keesler, elegant in a black gown, also marked the debuts of new Principal Dancers Nikisha Fogo and Julian MacKay. She was born in Stockholm and most recently was with the Vienna State Ballet. He is from Montana, trained at the Bolshoi, and danced with the Mikhailovsky Ballet. Together, they gave impeccable accounts of the Don Quixote pas de deux and the White Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake, by Tomasson. She has endless extensions, perfect balance, nuance, glamor, musicality, dramatic chops. His partnering is solid but not stolid, and he’s a keen anticipator. His solos showed him as a superb pyrotechnician.

There’s a chance that this whole gala will make it to a wider audience as the season moves on. It’s a chance to see a treasured company in a remarkable document of a time we never want to see again and a future so worth anticipating.

Janice Berman, SFCV’s senior dance critic, has been a dance writer and reviewer since 1978, beginning at Newsday and New York Newsday. She has written on dance for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Ballet Review, and Dance Magazine, where she was editor-in-chief.