San Francisco Ballet's 75th anniversary season opened in grand style with two mixed repertory programs that were clearly chosen to showcase not only the technical mettle of this, the oldest professional dance troupe in America, but the versatility of a company which the New York Times has proclaimed as "one of the most spectacular success stories of the arts in America."
Program One opens with Filling Station, a charming tribute to its choreographer Lew Christiansen. It's a sweetly appropriate piece to open this special season, as the Christiansen brothers are perhaps the most important figures in the company's colorful history. Willam was the company's first artistic director, while brother Harold was director of the San Francisco Ballet (SFB) School, positions they held for around 30 years. When Lew became co-director in 1951, he brought Filling Station into the company's repertoire.
When Filling Station was created in 1938, the piece marked the beginning of a new era of dance in the United States, a period which saw choreographers such as Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins throwing aside the highbrow stateliness of European ballet, thus creating a uniquely American form of entertainment that would appeal to far greater audiences than ever before.
In this latest staging of Filling Station, soloist Rory Hohenstein steps confidently into the leading role of Mac the gas station attendant, gliding across the stage like a modern-day Gene Kelly. It's just another day at the station -- a couple of truck drivers (Matthew Stewart and Aaron Orza) pull in, a family of tourists (Steven Norman, Courtney Clarkson and Margaret Karl) stop to ask for directions -- until a wealthy girl (hilariously performed by Katita Waldo) and her companion (Val Caniparoli) stumble in, having had more than a few cocktails. A drunken pas de deux is followed by the arrival of a gangster (Gaetano Amico), and a very entertaining "chase scene" performed with only the light of handheld flashlights for illumination -- an old theatrical trick, to be sure, but still lots of fun.
Fast-forward seven decades, with SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's gorgeously intricate 7 for Eight, which the company debuted in 2004. Although the piece is set to the somewhat formal, almost ceremonial music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Tomasson's choreography has a distinctively neoclassical, if not downright modern feel. Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun is absolutely breathtaking in the opening pas de deux with Tiit Helimets. Pipit-Suksun holds every arabesque with sheer confidence and executes every turn and gesture with an unbridled sense of joy. It's no wonder she's quickly become one of SFB's most popular performers (and one of the company's "poster-girls"). Other outstanding performances are given by Tina LeBlanc, back from last season's heart-stopping injury, and Gennadi Nedvigin and Nicolas Blanc, two of the company's strongest men, especially impressive in a grueling series of lifts in the fourth movement.
Program One concludes with Diamonds, the third of George Balanchine's four-part Jewels ballet, last seen at SFB in 2003. Set to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3, this is glittery "tights-and-tutus" ballet in all its froofy glory, with Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin leading a mammoth cast of 34 dancers through its paces. On a night when audience reactions seemed surprisingly subdued, the traditional beauty, geometric complexity and over-the-top spectacle of Diamonds -- another thematic nod to the company's 75th anniversary -- brought the house down.
Program Two begins with Balanchine's Divertimento No. 15, which debuted on the SFB stage last season. Set to a six-movement chamber musical score by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the piece is a deceptively complex work. With its soft tutus and austere tunics, minimalist music, symmetrical choreography and comparatively modest staging (only in the first and last movements do all 16 dancers appear on stage simultaneously), Divertimento No. 15 is a sublimely understated testimony to the refined beauty of classical ballet, and perhaps the perfect antidote to Balanchine's somewhat audacious Diamonds. Although the three men (Nicolas Blanc, Gennadi Nedvegin and Hansuke Yamamoto) achieved terrific performances at Thursday's opening night, Divertimento No. 15 is a showcase for SFB's luminous female dancers, most notably Rachel Veselli, Katita Waldo and Vanessa Zahorian.
Pianist Nataly'a Feygina takes center stage in Mark Morris's Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes. One of Morris's first commissions, Morris created Drink to Me for American Ballet Theater in 1988 (it premiered at SFB in 1996). Twenty years later, it's interesting to see how Morris was, even at an early point in his career, beginning to put his own quirky spin on the classical ballet idiom. And yet, Morris is unswervingly respectful to the music; every flick of the wrist or flex of the foot seems unquestionably appropriate. With a rollicking contemporary piano score by 20th century composer Virgil Thomson, Drink to Me gives the male dancers, particularly Ruben Martin and James Sofranko, more opportunities to shine than perhaps any other work in the first two programs of SFB's season.
The finale of Program #2 is the return of Yuri Possokhov's captivating Firebird, a show-stopping mélange of explosive (literally) theatricality that's destined to become a staple of the company's repertoire. With a love-struck couple, a villain, a host of monsters and villagers, and a magical creature who arrives just in the knick of time, this one-act Firebird might be described as a "mini-story ballet" -- it's like Swan Lake without all the endless gesturing and convoluted story lines which make full-length ballets so interminable for many. Damian Smith and Rachel Viselli make for a wonderfully romantic coupling as the Prince and Princess, while Pascal Molat throws caution to the wind as the evil Kaschei, but the undisputed star of the evening is Yuan Yuan Tan in the title role. Set to the quintessential Russian masterpiece by Igor Stravinsky, the piece debuted last season to mixed reviews, but it's a crowd-pleaser which finally got this staid audience off its feet.
Programs One and Two continue at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House through February 10, 2008.