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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: San Francisco Ballet, 2024 Opening Night Gala, War Memorial Opera House, January 24, 2024

Updated: Jan 30

“The future of ballet begins now”, declared San Francisco Ballet’s (SFB) new Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, during her front of curtain remarks at SFB’s 2024 Opening Night Gala. This is an auspicious night for Rojo.  Tonight’s celebration and the upcoming 2024 repertory season will be the first bearing her artistic stamp.


I wish I could say the whole event shined as brightly as the plentiful Swarovski crystals on haute courtier Christian Lacroix’s costumes for Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alas much of the evening’s proceedings seemed precarious and under-rehearsed.  I’m likening it to first date jitters with a friend of a friend, when you are overexcited, full of goodwill, anticipating great possibilities, but don’t yet know each other well.


San Francisco Ballet company bow 2024 Opening Night Gala, scenery from Christian Lacroix's Midsummer Nights Dream production; photo J. Norris


SFB is undergoing a generational change. As those who had worked with Tomasson, during his 37-year tenure, seek well-deserved retirements, less seasoned folks are stepping forward, both on the stage, and in the offices and studios. The calendaring of a season is an artform in and of itself.  Returning post Nutcracker with limited stage time, has often meant a recombination of some classical gems for the initial repertory program, rather than a new work. 


Mere Mortals, a world-premiere and SFB’s only full-length commission choreographed by a woman (Aszure Barton), is set to open two days hence.  It is by all accounts an ambitious undertaking, a 75-minute dance merging artificial intelligence and the myth of Pandora’s box.  Has it absorbed all the resources these past weeks?


Upon entering the War Memorial Opera House lobby, I am greeted with the bubbling chatter of gala goers in their festive finery. Regrettably, the complimentary bubbly-for-all, which in the past greeted opening night ticket holders, has been eliminated. Patrons not attending the swells’ dinner at City Hall must now purchase a drink or go without.  

On my way into the auditorium, I snap a picture of the displayed cast-sheet only to discover the choreography for a piece is miscredited.  This is not an auspicious start, though luckily the printed program is correct.


In keeping with tradition, this fundraising season-opener is set for the fourth Wednesday in January.  The night also retains the greatest hits variety show format of old. In this case seven star-turn duets, followed by the finale of Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, with four more lead couples sharing the stage with thirty-two soloists and corps members. It seems disingenuous to call this program “the future of ballet” when only two of eight pieces were created in the last twenty years.


Rojo’s program offers us a preview of much of the coming season, including the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake, with generous portions of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings and Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand.  There is risk in this strategy. If you show us too much, or if it is not to are liking, we may not feel compelled to return.  Already there is a slot held at season’s end for a reprise of whichever presentation most strikes a chord with audiences in the coming weeks. 


Alongside the 2024 sneak-peeks are Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and pas deux from Tomasson’s 7 for Eight, Justin Peck’s Hurry Up We’re Dreaming, and Diana and Acteon (choreography after Agrippina Vaganova).


As the dancing begins an air of tentativeness is present and the technical precision, for which the company under Tomasson was known, is too often lacking. Emotional richness and dramatic flair were present in larger servings, which could bode well for the future, but a world class company must excel in all levels. Even the stagehands have a bumping ride, with several pieces of snagged scenery eliciting gasps from the audience.


Despite the opening night butterflies, there is still much to celebrate. Sasha De Sola and Isaac Hernandez bring deep feeling to their Swan Lake Odile and Prince Siegfried coupling.  She tempestuous and flirtatious, he ensnared and enraptured.  


Wona Park and Aaron Robison dance a thrilling rendition of ballet bravura in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Park leaps and twirls with great confidence, punctuating the end of each of her movements.  The variation ends with a daring “fish dive” in which Robison catches Park as she leaps into his arms at a swooping angle so her face is near the floor and her legs extended upward.


I am not familiar with Diana and Acteon, which may be the most difficult assignment of the evening, though one wouldn’t know it for tonight’s splendid delivery.  In short red chiton, Nikisha Fogo is Diana goddess of the moon and the hunt. Unfurling a seemingly endless stream of Fouetté turns, at an impressive variety of speeds, she is well-matched in Wei Wang, as the hunger, who enters with a trio of sky-high stag leaps.  Wang’s joyfulness is contagious and I often find myself smiling as he dances.


Ashton’s ballet Marguerite and Armand is a tragic love story, inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Dame aux Camelias, from which Verdi’s La Traviata also originates.  Misa Kuranaga pulls at our heartstrings as the dying courtesan, who must sacrifice her own happiness and bid adieu to her lover, portrayed affably by Joseph Walsh, at the insistence of his demanding father, SFB Principal Character Dancer Ricardo Bustamante.  All three performers display strong acting chops and the choreography, circa 1963, is surprisingly engaging.  I look forward to seeing a number of pairings in these roles during the British Icons repertory program (February 9 – 15), which will include Prima Ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan’s final SFB performance.


The Midsummer’s Night’s Dream snippet is suitably grand, offering an opportunity to appreciate both the production’s grandeur and a full stage of extraordinary talented dancers. It whets our appetites for the upcoming full-length presentation (March 12 -23). 


Surprisingly, it is the old guard who shine brightest.  Recently Retired SFB Principal Dancer, Tiit Helimets returns to partner Yuan Yuan Tan in her penultimate SFB appearance.  They dance as if a single being, in a too short section of Tomasson’s neoclassical ballet 7 for Eight. The poignancy of Tan with her limbs folded into a fetal position, held at Helimet’s hip, is palpable. Unfolding into long diagonal reaches, and daringly tilted carries, we are spellbound. 


Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet orchestra carry it all off with joie de vivre.  This part of the well-oiled Ballet machine remains in tip-top shape. It is too soon to tell what the future of San Francico Ballet may be, but it is a privilege to be along for the ride.  Merde for Mere Mortals.


Review by Jen Norris, published January 25, 2024

Production Credits/Casting

SAN FRANCISCO BALLET

TAMARA ROJO, Artistic Director

Martin West, Conductor

Osterweis Capital Management, Presenting Sponsor

 

Pas de Deux from SWAN LAKE, Act III

Sasha De Sola, Isaac Hernández

 

"La Llorona" from BROKEN WINGS

Frida Kahlo: Isabella DeVivo

Diego Rivera: John-Paul Simoens*

Skeletons: Samantha Bristow, Thamires Chuvas, Raphaël Brunais Besse, Rubén Cítores Nieto, Parker Garrison, Dylan Pierzina, Nathaniel Remez, Alexander Reneff-Olson

"La Llorona" performed by Geo Meneses and Los Macorinos

 

TCHAIKOVSKY PAS DE DEUX

Wona Park, Aaron Robison

 

Pas de Deux from MARGUERITE AND ARMAND

Marguerite: Misa Kuranaga

Armand: Joseph Walsh

Armand's Father: Ricardo Bustamante

Footmen: Eduardo Cazarez, Dylan Pierzina

Britton Day, Piano

 

Pas de Deux from 7 FOR EIGHT

Yuan Yuan Tan, Tiit Helimets*

Mungunchimeg Buriad, Piano

 

Pas de Deux from HURRY UP, WE'RE DREAMING

Katherine Barkman, Esteban Hernández

 

DIANA AND ACTEON PAS DE DEUX

Nikisha Fogo, Wei Wang

 

Excerpt from A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, Act II

Frances Chung, Angelo Greco

Jennifer Stahl, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira

Norika Matsuyama, Cavan Conley

Jasmine Jimison, Steven Morse

Kamryn Baldwin, Jihyun Choi, Elizabeth Mateer, Carmela Mayo, Leili Rackow, Seojeong Yun

Benjamin Davidoff, Luca Ferrò, Andris Kundzins, Joshua Jack Price, Alexis Francisco Valdes, Mingxuan Wang

Sofia Albers, Samantha Bristow, Olivia Brothers, Jacey Gailliard, Gabriela Gonzalez, Blake Johnston, Swane Messaoudi, Pemberley Ann Olson, Hui-Wen Peng, Anatalia St. Clair, Tyla Steinbach, Angela Watson

Eduardo Cazarez, Rubén Cítores Nieto, Lleyton Ho, Davide Occhipinti, Simone Pompignoli, Nathaniel Remez, Alexander Reneff-Olson, Jacob Seltzer

 

*Guest Artists

 

 

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