George Balanchine was just a fledgling choreographer, new to the U.S. when he crafted the now iconic Serenade. Choreographed in 1934, it predates even the New York City Ballet. It was created for students of the newly founded School of American Ballet, and, a year later, performed by the short-lived American Ballet (a decade would pass before the establishment of the New York City Ballet). Balanchine’s works have gone on to define the essence of neoclassical ballet and pave the way for much of today’s contemporary ballet. It’s a fitting way for San Francisco Ballet to start its 2015 season, celebrating Serenade’s eightieth anniversary, as artistic director Helgi Tomasson, himself a former New York Cty Ballet principal dancer, celebrates his thirtieth season as director of the company.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's <i>Serenade</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Serenade
© Erik Tomasson

Serenade delivers in true neoclassical style, with few embellishments to the set, and tamed lighting. Dancers are dressed simply in pale blue leotards and long tulle skirts. The nod to Romantic pageantry comes only from the sweeping score, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, which the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, led by Martin West, delivered in a superlative fashion on Tuesday’s opening night. Balanchine’s plotless ballets offer no grand story arc, nor deeper meaning to seek out. Instead, it is movement, poetry, from an ensemble of seventeen female dancers and five soloists. Staged by Elyse Borne, San Francisco Ballet’s splendid corps de ballet form geometric patterns, moving, at times in unison, other times peeling off, one by one, creating a sinuous line of movement across the stage and off. San Francisco Ballet’s principal dancers are equally noteworthy, and new principal Joseph Walsh (formerly of the Houston Ballet) created an appealing first impression as partner to the ever-brilliant Maria Kochetkova, as the Waltz Couple. Mathilde Froustey, last year’s newcomer from the Paris Opera Ballet, danced Russian Girl with the playful delicacy and razor-sharp technique that won her so many local fans last year. Frances Chung, as the Angel, demonstrated her trademark steely strength, tempered by a more relaxed, upper-body elegance and energy that serve her well.

If Serenade, with its female ensemble and ephemeral lighting, suggests all things feminine, the night’s second ballet, RAkU, delivers the masculine, in high-octane intensity. Choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokhov created this powerful piece in 2011, based in part on the story of the 1950 burning of Kyoto’s Golden Temple. Here we have six men, and one lone female. The ballet opens with an ensemble of four Japanese warriors in Japan’s feudal past (Gaetano Amico, Steven Morse, Sean Orza, Myles Thatcher) preparing for battle, whose lunges and sharply articulated unison movements exude testosterone. Yuan Yuan Tan, as the princess, is one of those dramatic performers whose silence, stillness and solemn face can convey so much, as it does in her opening, ritualized pose. Choreographer Yuri Possokhov created the part on her, back in 2011, and here, like then, she excelled.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlos Quenedit in Possokhov's <i>RAkU</i> © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlos Quenedit in Possokhov's RAkU
© Erik Tomasson
Pascal Molat, reprising his role as the nefarious monk who ultimately destroys the temple, was sensational, fibrillating with energy and dark power, as he flung Tan through a gorgeous, yet violent pas de deux that left no doubt in the viewer’s mind that this would all end terribly.

Scenic and projection design (Alexander V. Nichols ) brought a cinematic quality to the ballet. and Christopher Dennis’ lighting and Mark Zappone’s costumes enhanced the scenes, as well. Music by composer Shinji Eshima, a longtime double bass player with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, beautifully evoked ancient Japan and its culture without ever compromising the score's classical foundation.

Completing the evening’s program was Val Caniparoli’s 1995 Lambarena, an Africa-inspired ballet with scenic and costume design by Sandra Woodall, consultation by African dance experts Zakariya Sao Diouf and Naomi Gedo Washington. Music was an intriguing fusion of Bach and traditional music (arranged by Pierre Akendengue and Hughes de Courson). Lorena Feijoo was perfectly cast as the lead and carried the ballet; her moves finding that balance between clean ballet technique and sensuous, African-style hip undulations. Among the men, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira was a standout, although Joseph Walsh, pairing up with Feijoo, here again demonstrated versatility and great partnering skills.

Lorena Feijoo and Joseph Walsh and Caniparoli's <i>Lambarena</i> © Erik Tomasson
Lorena Feijoo and Joseph Walsh and Caniparoli's Lambarena
© Erik Tomasson
Corps de ballet members Kimberly Braylock and Ellen Rose Hummel danced a trio with Feijoo that flowed nicely. Throughout, the dancers’ energy was infectious, the music and costumes bright, and yet, something about the ballet felt lacking. Having lived in Africa—Lambaréné  no less—I’d hoped I’d feel and see “Africa” in this piece. Not really. Cuban and Brazilian, perhaps. Caribbean.... Just not Lambaréné.

In recent times, a concern has been expressed that ballet is losing its relevance in the world. Not so here. The company performed to a sold-out house, offering flavors from around the world. The whole evening thrummed with vitality from performers and audience alike. Ballet, in all its forms and manifestations, is very much alive in San Francisco.

****1