San Francisco Ballet’s 74th season began Wednesday in the War Memorial Opera House with an evening of excellence, delivering even some of the promised “gala.” One meaning of the word is a “really big show,” and — rather strangely — that arrived only at the very end of the program, with the grand finale of George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.”
The Ballet Orchestra in fine fettle, under Martin West’s baton, eight soloists and the entire corps de ballet — here was the size and scope of a gala event, made all the more remarkable by fulfilling Balanchine’s near-impossible requirement of not a single dancer sticking out from the intricate movements of the massed corps.
Thrilling … and puzzling: with most of the company already in white tutus and black leotards for the Balanchine, why was the rest of the evening restricted to solos and pas de deux (plus one pas de trois)? When you have it, flaunt it, one would think.
Another “gala” event, however, came about in the brilliant performance of “just two” dancers, treasured company veteran Tina LeBlanc dancing Gerald Arpino’s “L’Air d’Esprit,” partnered beautifully by Gennadi Nedvigin.
LeBlanc was Arpino’s longtime star at the Joffrey Ballet before she joined the San Francisco company 15 years ago. The wonder of LeBlanc is that she still marshals the physical part of performance, but what makes her a gala-maker is grace and warmth. At one point, she executed a simple turn by seemingly melting into her partner, apparently defying the laws of physics.
Gala also means razzle-dazzle, and the finest example of that came from a newcomer to the company, Davit Karapetyan, who stormed through his own spectacularly physical, downright scary work, called “Last Breath.” In the imaginative novelty department, Yuri Possokhov choreographed “Bitter Tears” for Muriel Maffre, with countertenor Mark Crayton performing Handel’s music onstage.
Musically, the evening had much to offer. A hypnotic piece by Arvo Pärt inspired Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” performed with fluid precision by Yuan Yuan Tan and Damien Smith, and featuring concertmaster Roy Malan. Roy Bogas played five Brahms waltzes for a striking newcomer, Molly Smolen, performing a Frederick Ashton “in the manner of Isadora Duncan.” Michael McGraw was the pianist for Bach works used by Helgi Tomasson in his “7 for Eight,” performed by the excellent-exotic Thai-French duo of Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun and Pierre-François Vilanoba.
Vilanoba also danced in the program-opening Jacque Garnier “Aunis” (French with Irish-Argentinian elements, if you can imagine that), along with Nicolas Blanc and Pascal Molat. Vanessa Zahorian and Gonzalo Garcia danced a “Sleeping Beauty” pas de deux. Kristin Long and Joan Boada shined in “Soirées Musicales,” even against Britten’s music being choreographed into generic pablum by Tomasson.
Lorena Feijoo’s technique impressed, even as her ghostly Giselle remained properly yet disappointingly bloodless in the final pas de deux from the Tomasson-Petipa treatment of the Adolphe Adam classic.