It’s a rousing tradition at the season opening gala of San Francisco Ballet for the audience to sing the national anthem, and this year the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ rang out with seeming defiance in the War Memorial Opera House. In recent months, San Francisco has moved farther out of step with the powers-that-be in the United States government, proud of its ‘sanctuary city’ status and secure in the economic power that it continues to wield with Silicon Valley in its back yard.

Ana Sophia Scheller and Vitor Luiz in Balanchine's <i>Stars And Stripes</i> (Ch: George Balanchine) © Erik Tomasson
Ana Sophia Scheller and Vitor Luiz in Balanchine's Stars And Stripes (Ch: George Balanchine)
© Erik Tomasson

Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet’s long-reigning artistic director, appeared onstage at intermission to herald his coup in corralling 12 of the world’s most renowned ballet choreographers, whose new commissions will be unveiled in the span of one week in April. His bold assertion that this festival of new works will shift the “epicenter of the dance world” to San Francisco earned robust applause.

With companies in some of the world's capitals of ballet in some turmoil, will San Francisco indeed prove to be a ‘sanctuary’ for ballet?

Gala programming is typically not the place to look for innovation. But amid the fluff, the crowd-pleasing spools of fouettés and big corkscrew jumps en manège, a handful of individual performances and pairings glowed. And two newcomers made waves.

Ana Sophia Scheller, a new transplant from New York City Ballet, deserved a more elegant introduction to San Francisco than the sassy, cartoonish pas de deux from Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes. But she knocked it out of the park anyway, with superb assist from Vitor Luiz.

Also new this season, Ulrik Birkkjær, a paragon of Bournonville technique from the Royal Danish Ballet, landed right in his wheelhouse with the pas de deux from La Sylphide. His elevation, light, crisp beats, and purity of technique instantly raised the bar in San Francisco. (In contrast, Maria Kochetkova gave a disjointed portrayal of the titular role, her buoyant and precise stylings of legs and feet at odds with her stiff upper body and arms that did not remotely conjure up the wings of a woodland sprite.)

Sasha De Sola and Angelo Greco in Petipa's <i>Le Corsaire</i> © Erik Tomasson
Sasha De Sola and Angelo Greco in Petipa's Le Corsaire
© Erik Tomasson

Ballets whose narratives center around pirates, slaves and harem girls should be outlawed, but this audience understandably went wild for the snippet of Le Corsaire that showed off Sasha de Sola’s ebullient bravura technique and Angelo Greco’s bare-chested heroics.

The program’s breath of fresh air this year turned out to pack gale-force winds: Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes for New York City Ballet blew doors in 2015, and did likewise here.

This abstract reimagining of the Agnes DeMille-Aaron Copland classic comes to San Francisco at a watershed moment for ballet worldwide. Rodeo’s rejection of tired ballet tropes of gender and intimacy suggests that – even as New York City Ballet and other companies grapple with charges of harrassment, transphobia and despotism – the art form itself is evolving in the hands of an enlightened new generation. Peck’s exhilarating exploration of masculinity was well-illuminated by the men of San Francisco Ballet, who beautifully balanced the demands of sheer athleticism with emotional openness and vulnerability – none more so than the soulful, magnetic Jaime Garcia Castilla.

San Francisco Ballet in Peck's <i>Rodeo</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Peck's Rodeo
© Erik Tomasson

And yet the integrity of the choreography was slightly diminished by the Euro-stylings favored by San Francisco Ballet. Extra flourishes of the arms and head, deeper plié preparations for the allegro moves, and delicate twists of the torso robbed San Francisco’s staging of some of the original zip and zing.

Similarly, the glamorous Sofiane Sylve gave a distinctly Parisian sexiness to the sole female character in Rodeo – all that pronounced hip and wrist action setting it a world apart from the tough American streets inhabited by New York City Ballet ballerinas Sara Mearns and Tiler Peck in their articulations of this role.

Carlo DiLanno – my candidate for the evening’s MVP (Most Valuable Player) – was the perfect foil for Sylve, his devil-may-care attitude barely masking a tenderness for Sylve’s fiery renegade.

DiLanno made an equally striking match with Yuan Yuan Tan in Edwaard Liang’s Letting Go, the pair’s physical beauty elevating the otherwise generic tangling and detangling of limbs set to Max Richter’s trademark mournful strings. 

Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno in Liang's <i>Letting Go</i> © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno in Liang's Letting Go
© Erik Tomasson

A more intriguing score, by John Kameel Farah, uniting piano and wind chimes, fueled the pas de deux from Robert Binet’s mysteriously titled Children of Chaos. Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in shimmering ruby and teal fluttered like exotic birds imperiled in an unfamiliar jungle.

Two other intoxicating pairings emerged in Jerome Robbins’ In the Night – the ballet equivalent of a psychological thriller. Mathilde Froustey unleashed her lush backbends in an attempt to loosen up the remote and poetic Benjamin Freemantle. The smoking Sarah Van Patten and equally tempestuous Luke Ingham gave a no-holds-barred account of the final duet. Positioned upstage in the shadows, pianist Roy Bogas aided and abetted the heart-rending enterprise with eloquent lashings of Chopin.

It’s unfair to ask for a company signature to emerge in a gala evening in which the fundraising imperative reigns supreme and many tastes must be catered for. There was enough on view at this gala performance, however, to expect great things from this season.