Sofiane Sylve and Aaron Robison in Danielle Rowe’s “UnSaid” were the highlight of San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 gala performance. (Courtesy Erik Tomasson)

SF Ballet opens 86th season with dazzling duets

San Francisco Ballet gave its 2019 opening gala performance an appropriate title: At “This Is Passion” on Wednesday at the War Memorial Opera House, the highlights were romantic duets showcasing the venerable company’s lovely principal dancers.

Most thrillingly, the best of the eight numbers of the evening was brand new: Sofiane Sylve and Aaron Robison were gorgeous and dramatic in “UnSaid,” a contemporary world premiere by Danielle Rowe set to a composition by Ezio Bosso played with fire by pianist Natal’ya Feygina and cellist Eric Sung. (Sadly, the piece won’t be repeated during the company’s current 86th season.)

They were rivaled by Mathilde Froustey and Tiit Helimets in the pas de deux from “Handel-A Celebration,” a flowing, beautiful dance by San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson.

Performing Tomasson’s classical “Soirees Musicales” set to music by Benjamin Britten, Misa Kuranaga (a guest dancer from Boston Ballet) and the leaping Angelo Greco were big crowd pleasers.

On a more contemporary note, company star Yuan Yan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno (backed by corps dancers in flowing lavender dresses) duetted poetically in an excerpt from Yuri Possokhov’s 2009 “Diving Into The Lilacs” (music by Tchaikovsky), while Ana Sophia Scheller and Vitor Luiz tackled the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s “Rubies.”

It was one of the program’s two Balanchine works with music by Igor Stravinksy. In the other, Benjamin Freemantle, Jennifer Stahl and Wanting Zhao, wearing basic black and white, strutted in a trio from “Agon,” an angular 1957 piece still looking fresh in the 21st century.

Led by Martin West, the usually spot-on orchestra didn’t sound confident on the Stravinsky, but was in fine form throughout the rest of the show, until recorded pop music (by Anthony Gonzalez, Yann Gonzalez, Bradley Lander and Justin Meldal-Johnsen) took over in the finale, an excerpt from Justin Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.”

The only piece in the show from the company 2018’s touted “Unbound” series of a dozen premieres, its 14 bold, athletic dancers in outfits reminiscent of 1980s workout clothes rushed around under blue and yellow lights.

It contrasted with the classical opener, an excerpt from Harald Lander’s 1948 “Etudes” with music by Knudage Riisager (based on themes by Carl Czerny), and the only dance of the night with ladies in tutus. And while principal dancer Sasha De Sola was fantastic in her solos, the typically solid corps wobbled, looking like it could use more rehearsal time.

It has it: “Etudes” is the performance’s only dance to return this season, on program three, opening Feb. 14.

San Francisco Ballet 2019 Season
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
Tickets: $29 to $399
Contact: (415) 865-2000,

Program 1 (Jan. 25-Feb. 3)
Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov’s “Don Quixote”

Program 2 (Feb. 12-23)
George Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15,” Benjamin Millepied’s “Appassionata,” David Dawson’s “Anima Animus”

Program 3 (Feb. 14-24)
Tomasson’s “The Fifth Season,” Cathy Marston’s “Snowblind,” Harald Lander’s “Etudes”

Program 4 (March 9-17)
Tomasson’s “The Sleeping Beauty”

Program 5 (March 27-April 7)
Trey McIntyre’s “Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem,” Christopher Wheeldon’s “Bound To,” Yuri Possokhov’s “… two united in a single soul …”

Program 6 (March 28-April 9)
Justin Peck’s “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes,” premiere by Liam Scarlett, Arthur Pita’s “Bjork Ballet”

Program 7 (April 19-28)
John Neumeier’s “The Little Mermaid”

Program 8 (May 7-12)
Alexei Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy”

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