War Memorial Opera House
January 22, 2014

A wonderfully substantive, often serious, season-opening gala at the San Francisco Ballet last night. I appreciate the risk artistic director Helgi Tomasson took in the full U.S. premiere of Hans van Manen’s “Variations for Two Couples,” and a lengthy excerpt from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Concerto.” These were both ballets with shadowy lighting, stark costuming, and tense relationships playing out to challenging music: a peculiar potpourri of Britten, Piazzolla, Rautavaara, and Tickmayer in “Two Couples;” the adagio from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in “Concerto.” Sarah Van Patten commanded both of these ballets, growing into a stately simplicity of stage presence in this prime of her career.

For crowd-pleasers, we were treated to Taras Domitro slashing his way like Tarzan (well, Tarzan with unfailing turn-out) through that old Russian bonbon, the “Diana and Acteon” pas de deux. And Gennadi Nedvigin offered charm and virtuosity with equal ease in Johan Kobborg’s “Les Lutins,” a little romp of rivalry with Esteban Hernandez and the gymnastic Dores Andre. Kobborg himself, a Royal Ballet star, also danced in the gala, with Maria Kochetkova, in the odd central boudoir scene from MacMillan’s “Manon.”

The major discoveries of the evening for me were two. One, the new principal Mathilde Froustey with her matchstick limbs and freakishly perfect mechanics in Victor Gsovsky’s regal-yet-flirty “Grand Pas Classique”—she reminds me of Gelsey Kirkland. And two: the new soloist Simone Messmer finding a juicy partnership with Ruben Martin Cintas in “The Man I Love” pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” The loose, almost tap-dancer arms, the filly-like speed, the jazzy hips—I don’t know when I’ve seen such a seemingly effortless exemplar of the Balanchine style on the War Memorial stage. Messmer’s repertoire at her first company, American Ballet Theatre, suggests she is a stylistic shape-shifter; I can’t wait to see her range this season.

And as for rediscoveries: Sasha de Sola in the Act 1 pas de cinq from “Giselle.” What hands! Her lines are always moving—she’s like a skywriter of calligraphy—and yet her lines are always classical. There were so many other pleasures of the evening: the live flamenco singing and clapping in Yuri Possokhov’s “Talk to Her,” the strong arms of Frances Chung in a solo from Val Caniparoli’s “Lambarena,” the slashing gypsy freedom of Sofiane Sylve in the fourth movement of Balanchine’s “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.” But de Sola’s hands keep trailing through my memory.

PS: Froustey has been cast as Giselle and Messmer as Myrtha in the Sunday 1/26 matinee and the Friday 1/31 evening performances. Casting here.

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