Anyone who attends San Francisco Ballet knows that the dancers regularly do spectacular and inspiring things at the War Memorial Opera House, but we aren’t often aware of the feats they accomplish off-stage. In their spare time between company class, rehearsal, a packed performance season, and touring, SF Ballet soloists Garen Scribner and James Sofranko—both touched by cancer diagnoses within their families—decided to produce a benefit for the Cancer Prevention Institute of California. The first-ever Get in Front Performance gala on June 6th sold out the Herbst Theater and raised $100,000 for cancer research. Besides this service to public health, the show provided an ancillary service to the Bay Area dance scene by bringing together 33 dancers who truly rank among this country’s top artists, representing 11 local companies.
San Francisco Ballet was represented in abundance, and its stars were dependably astonishing: Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in the uber-elegant opening duet of Helgi Tomasson’s Bach suite “7 for 8;” Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in a tender section of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour;” Sarah Van Patten giving a thoroughly felt rendition of the climactic “I Can Dream Can’t I?” solo from Paul Taylor’s “Company B,” a role in which her awareness of the wartime gravitas shaping the work’s context is unparalleled. Frances Chung and Matthew Stewart also pitched in, lending artful commitment to a sturdy if generic post-modern duet by Sofranko.
The standouts from other companies shone just as brightly. Katherine Wells of Robert Moses’ Kin was the evening’s greatest highlight, lending virtuosic fluency to Moses’ signature hip-hop inflected ballet language in the 1998 solo “Doscognio,” which had her squiggling her knees and rolling her spine to the strains of Chopin’s sonata for cello and piano. AXIS Dance Company’s Sonsheree Giles and Rodney Bell also burned themselves into memory with their extraordinarily intimate duet from Alex Ketley’s “To Color Me Different.” And the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company closed the evening with a densely layered section from her recent “Light Moves,” with Ryan T. Smith sphinx-like, imperturbably balanced.
Then, too, there was the evening’s major discovery: tall, outrageously supple Babatunji Johnson, in a roiling solo by former LINES Ballet dancer Maurya Kerr. The costuming—street-ready black trousers paired with red T-shirt and green vest—was perhaps more inspired than the choreography in the way the clothes made Johnson’s tip-toe twistings appear spontaneous and casual.
It was also pleasing, symbolically, to see Smuin Ballet in an excerpt from former SF Ballet leader Michael Smuin’s “Tango Palace,” and to feel that any old rifts had been fully healed. Also donating their talents were members of Ballet San Jose, Zhukov Dance Theater, Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, LINES Ballet, and ODC/Dance. I left the performance feeling we must be in a golden age of Bay Area dance. The evening was a total success, and I hope it will become an annual event.