Ana Sophia Scheller and Vitor Luiz in George Balanchine's Rubies
© Erik Tomasson
Many opulent jewels glittered in the audience at San Francisco Ballet’s 86th season gala, but none could eclipse Ana Sophia Scheller’s onstage Rubies. The Argentinian former principal of New York City Ballet, who decamped for San Francisco in 2017, brought a distinctive lustre, elegance and edge to the pas de deux excerpt from the larger work. Along with the pas de trois from Agon, both works by George Balanchine looked more modern than the remaining program fare which – with the exception of the Harald Lander war horse, Études – came decades after Balanchine’s.

Scheller was ably partnered by Vitor Luiz – though he danced his part with a princely air ill-suited to the jazzy, sharp-elbowed New York vibe of Rubies. This is, after all, a quintessentially American work, for a country established by adventurers who braved the perils of the open sea precisely to escape the aristocracy.

Benjamin Freemantle, on the other hand, perfectly embodied the rule-breaking ethos of Agon. The pliancy of his torso, sharply etched lines, and effortless jumps made a vivid impression. Luxuriating in her movement, Jennifer Stahl matched Freemantle’s fusion of abandon and control, jauntiness and aloofness. The normally bulletproof Wanting Zhao, third constituent of the trio, pushed a little too hard, with a tendency to spring onto pointe rather than roll up. Her expressions veered from coquettish to street-smart, neither quite appropriate to the moment.

Études explodes the concept of a ballet class into an abstract piece of theatre, requiring extra doses of precision and stamina. The staging of this gala excerpt was too brightly lit, but even in dimmer, more artful lighting conditions, there is no place to hide in this ballet. The men’s cabrioles looked particularly labored, and conductor Martin West propelled the dancers too fast into their fusillade of grands jetés, so that they looked like they were shot out of a cannon rather than sailing on a brisk wind. The entire company, with the exception of the serene and regal Sasha De Sola, looked winded by the close of the glorious multiplicative finale. There was no shortage of fierce 21st century athlete-ballerinas at this gala, as Scheller and DeSola ceded the stage to Misa Kuranaga (guesting from Boston Ballet) and finally to Gabriela Gonzalez and Dores André.

Benjamin Freemantle in George Balanchine's Agon
© Erik Tomasson

Kuranaga and Angelo Greco electrified a tidbit from Helgi Tomasson’s cheery, red-velvet-wrapped Soirées Musicales to Benjamin Britten’s music. Greco scaled sensational heights in his jumps, without sacrificing classical lines. Toward the end of one heroic sequence en manège he picked up power and speed at the point when the average superhuman dancer would flag. Kuranaga boasts a remarkably strong core that anchored her zippy turns and lengthy balances. Their daredevil partnering brought down the house.

Gonzalez and André sparkled, literally, in the lurex athleisure-wear of Justin Peck’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, excerpts from which closed out the evening. Set to an unmemorable electronic pop score, the piece was a hot premiere at last season’s Unbound Festival. Against a stage stripped down to lighting fixtures, the white-sneakered, pony-tailed ensemble gave us plenty of attitude, in a vocabulary that owes much to social dance and street dance. In the vastness of that industrial space, Gonzalez and André took no prisoners, aided and abetted by Ulrik Birkkjaer and Joseph Walsh.

At the other end of the caffeine spectrum was a morsel from Tomasson’s 1989 Handel­–A Celebration. Tiit Helimets valiantly hoisted and spun a fragile-looking Mathilde Froustey, to little effect, against a syrupy orchestration of Handel’s ‘Ombra Mai Fu.’

Angelo Greco in Helgi Tomasson's Soirées Musicales
© Erik Tomasson

Diving Into the Lilacs, a more recent invention by Yuri Possokhov, showcased the magnificent arcs made by Yuan Yuan Tan’s stretchy torso, hyperextended limbs, and dramatic insteps. At times, the Byronic Carlo Di Lanno would launch himself into an enormous jump from a deep knee bend. This is very Russian, and proved impressive the first time. Among myriad lovely sequences were some flickering kicks on pointe executed by Tan as Di Lanno propelled her from point A to point B.

The one world premiere of the evening came from Danielle Rowe: a duet for Sofiane Sylve and Aaron Robison.

Sofiane Sylve and Aaron Robison in Danielle Rowe's UnSaid
© Erik Tomasson
Titled UnSaid, the piece was reportedly inspired by the quote "We had everything to say to each other, but no ways to say it," from Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. That was a rambling and melodramatic novel crafted around the 9/11 tragedy. While Sylve and Robison command our attention in anything, the dance itself is rambling and melodramatic. Sylve appeared to be haunted by loss; Robison tried to rescue her but ended up being drawn into her trauma. There was much dashing around, frustrated gesturing, and tender, exquisite but unoriginal partnering to yet another minimalist piano-and-cello composition, this one by Ezio Bosso. The audience ate it up.