S.F. Ballet review: The joy of dancing at 75 

America's oldest ballet company celebrated its 75th birthday Wednesday night with grace, power, Americana and youth. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson could have opened the gala with some of the company's top stars dancing in a 19th-century French or Russian classic, but instead he opted for something brave, meaningful and "right."

The stars came out later, shining brightly, but the enchanting opening piece was a quintessentially American work, set on Stephen Foster songs (performed gloriously by Thomas Hampson on an Angel recording), and danced to a T by students of the Ballet School. It was thrilling to see the Ballet marking three-quarters of a century with American music, choreography, and the old company's explosive young talent.

This was the local premiere for excerpts from John Neumeier's 1996 "Yondering," funny and affecting choreography to "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," "Molly, Do You Love Me?" (the best piece of the suite), and four other Foster songs. Born in Wisconsin, Neumeier has been heading the Hamburg Ballet for over three decades, but in spite of his residence in Germany, he is still apple-pie authentic in every way.

Americana as a theme continued with a wonderful surprise: following an excerpt from Kenneth MacMillan's "Elite Syncopations" (OK, he is a Britisher), to a Scott Joplin rag, Tomasson appeared onstage (something he rarely does), to introduce a dozen major former company members, such as Evelyn Cisneros, Joanna Berman, and even the Snow Queen from the company's 1944 U.S. premiere of "Nutcracker" _ Jocelyn Vollmar, who danced here until 1972, and has been teaching at the Ballet School for the past two decades. How long ago was that historic "Nutcracker"? Top tickets cost $3.50 _ that's how long.

The three-hour-long program was chock full of talent and peak performances, Martin West conducting the Ballet Orchestra in big, gala-sized numbers, climaxing in the George Balanchine "Diamonds" finale to music from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3.

The only possible misgiving about the evening was a certain thematic monotony, piece after piece matching a pining male with a truculent or resisting (but eventually yielding) female.

Among the best of that motif were performances by Katita Waldo and Gennadi Nedvigin, in Tomasson's "Two Bits" (to Aaron Jay Kernis' percussive music); Sarah van Patten and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon's "Carousel," and by the exquisitely graceful Tina LeBlanc, with Ruben Martin, in the Adagio from Tomasson's "Sonata," to music by Rachmaninov, performed live by Roy Bogas (piano) and David Kadarauch (cello).

In the boy-and-girl-outdo-each-other category, Joan Boada and company newcomer Maria Kochetkova both showed world-class technique and consummate artistry in the classic "La Esmeralda" pas de deux; the duo of Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan dazzled in the José Martinez "Delibes Suite" (Zahorian floating in the air in a way never seen before); and prima ballerina assoluta Yuan Yuan Tan was brilliant in Edwaard Liang's "Distant Cries" (to Albinoni's music), partnered by Damian Smith.

The evening's most acrobatic show came from Nicolas Blanc and Pascal Molat scorching the stage in an excerpt from Renato Zenella's "Alles Walzer," to music by Johann Strauss Jr.

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