The most thrilling number in San Francisco Ballet’s 2018 opening gala was the last one: Justin Peck’s 2015 “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes,” set to Aaron Copland’s rousing score. A cadre of men ran, whirled and bolted (notably Esteban Hernandez, Wei Wang and Hansuke Yamamoto, wearing orange) across the stage, joined by an equally powerful woman, Sofiane Sylve.
It exemplified what artistic director Helgi Tomasson promised during a short speech from the curtain of the War Memorial on Thursday night: That San Francisco will be the epicenter of the dance world, particularly with the “Unbound” festival of new works in April.
Peck is among the 12 choreographers contributing to the series, which Tomasson called “unprecedented” for a major company.
Interestingly, the troupe’s veteran principal dancers appeared in the evening’s most modern, moody pieces.
Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh danced the haunting pas de deux from Robert Binet’s 2017 “Children of Chaos,” while Natal’ya Feygina gorgeously soloed John Kameel Farah’s composition on a piano at the back of the stage.
In a flowing dress, the inimitable Yuan Yuan Tan — whose evocative hands and arms are monumental unto themselves — paired with Carlo Di Lanno in Edwaard Liang’s elegant “Letting Go,” set to contemporary classical music by Max Richter.
Three couples offered nuanced interpretations of relationships in Jerome Robbins’ 1970 “In The Night,” with pianist Roy Bogas playing beautiful Chopin nocturnes as the pairs — Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle, Jennifer Stahl and Tiit Helimets and Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham — danced against a starry backdrop.
On the other hand, the evening didn’t ignore the classics, and several couples were nothing short of charming, even looking like they were having a good time.
Dores Andre and Wei Wang chirped delightfully in “Bluebird,” the pas de deux from Tomasson’s “The Sleeping Beauty” (after Marius Petipa’s 1890 premiere in Russia, and part of Program 1 next week); the animated Maria Kochetkova and Ulrik Birkkjaer (new to the company in 2017) played out the romantic scene between a Scotsman and a spirit in the duet from 1836’s “La Sylphide,” and the amazing Sasha De Sola and Angelo Greco mastered the technicalities of the pas de deux from Petipa’s 1899 “Le Corsaire” with panache.
The smiling Ana Sophia Scheller (also new to SFB in 2017) and Vitor Luiz in “Stars and Stripes” did the same in the patriotic duet from George Balanchine’s 1958 “Stars and Stripes,” impeccably and stylishly executing demanding moves in a manner to make Mr. B. proud. Meanwhile, the flawless orchestra led by Martin West played the heck out of John Philip Sousa’s marches, as well as the music on the rest of the program.
The show opened with San Francisco Ballet students showing off their basics in Tomasson’s “Little Waltz”; they, too exemplified the director’s outlook for the 85-year-old company’s bright future.
And, on perhaps the gala’s most touching note, Tomasson told the crowd, “Thank you for being such a wonderful audience — all the time.”
IF YOU GO
San Francisco Ballet 2018 Season
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
Tickets: $28 to $255
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org
Program 1 (Jan. 23-Feb. 4)
Helgi Tomasson’s “The Sleeping Beauty”
Program 2 (Feb. 13-24)
George Balanchine’s “Serenade,” Benjamin Millepied’s “The Chairman Dances” and Justin Peck’s “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes”
Program 3 (Feb. 15-25)
Tomasson’s “On a Theme of Paganini,” Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House,” Myles Thatcher’s “Ghost in the Machine”
Program 4 (March 6-11)
Liam Scarlett’s “Frankenstein”
Program 5 (March 20-25)
Jerome Robbins’ “Opus 19/The Dreamer,” “The Cage,” “Other Dances” and “Fancy Free”
Program 6 (April 3-8)
National Ballet of Canada in John Neumeier’s full-length “Nijinsky”
Unbound A (April 20-May 6)
Christopher Wheeldon’s “Bound,” Justin Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” Alonzo King’s “The Collective Agreement”
Unbound B (April 21-May 4)
Cathy Marston’s “Snowblind,” David Dawson’s “Anima Animus,” new work by Myles Thatcher
Unbound C (April 24-May 5)
Trey McIntyre’s “Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem,” Stanton Welch’s “Bespoke,” Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Guernica”
Unbound D (April 26-May 5)
Edwaard Liang’s “The Infinite Ocean,” Dwight Rhoden’s “Let’s Begin at the End,” Arthur Pita’s “Bjork Ballet”