San Francisco Ballet rang in its 81st season Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House with a potpourri gala program packed with dramatic mood swings, unusual choreography and fresh faces.
And before the show even began, board chairman John S. Osterweis announced that gala activities raised $2.4 million for the company.
The lineup – of works by artistic director Helgi Tomasson, George Balanchine, Yuri Possokhov, Hans van Manen, Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Johan Kobborg – alternated in mood, quite abruptly, from chirpy and cheerful to melancholic.
An evening highlight was Mathilde Froustey, a former soloist with the revered Paris Opera Ballet, who dazzled in her debut as a principal dancer with the company, appearing with Davit Karapetyan in Victor Gsovsky's "Grand Pas Classique," a flashy pas de deux in the manner of "Don Quixote."
In a sparkling white tutu with a white rose in her hair, Froustey was flirtatious, razor sharp and rock solid. She looked as if she could have balanced en pointe for an eternity.
Her teasing musicality and epaulement – the carriage of the head, arms and shoulders – gave away her European training, which stresses a three-dimensional, spherical quality to upper body movement; even dancers in the best American companies can sometimes look flat, like paper dolls.
Yet S.F. Ballet principal dancer Frances Chung doesn't have that problem. Performing a solo from Val Caniparoli's spirited "Lambarena" for the first time, Chung had the most aerobic work in the show, and owned it.
Undulating her hips to a fusion score of J.S. Bach and traditional African music, Chung embraced a rhythmic intuition while maintaining her exquisite ballet line. It was a joyous, rapturous display.
Guest artist Kobborg was a welcome surprise. A longtime favorite at the Royal Ballet in London, he danced a lively performance with Maria Kochetkova in the romantic, sweeping bedroom pas de deux from MacMillan's "Manon."
Yet Kobborg's budding choreography career is equally noteworthy. In his lighthearted "Les Lutins," the show’s biggest crowd pleaser, a trio of witty, fastidious dancers appeared to improvise to music performed onstage by pianist Roy Bogas and violinist Kurt Nikkanen. Gennadi Nedvigin and Esteban Hernandez charmingly strutted their stuff with the musicians, competed against each other and vied for the delightful Dores Andre’s attention.
By contrast, Edwaard Liang's pas de deux "Finding Light," performed by the emotive Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith, was a real tearjerker. Effortlessly fluid, Tan and Smith melded, creating a sublime, magnetic unity.
Less effective performances were the ragged "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet," a boisterous peasant number by Balanchine, and "Concerto" by MacMillan, whose chilly modernist tone felt like a requiem for a relationship.
Sasha De Sola's musicality and form made her a standout in the opening work, a pas de cinq from Tomasson’s "Giselle," and Taras Domitro's leaps and turns in Vaganova's "Diana and Acteon" pas de deux were jaw-dropping.
The season continues with Program 1, the full-length “Giselle,” opening Saturday and running through Feb. 2.