An Enchanted Evening at the Ballet

Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan in Balanchine’s Jewels
Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan in Balanchine’s Jewels

Photo Credit: ©Erik Tomasson

As the New Year opens, no night is more important in San Francisco than Thursday, January 19. On this evening, politicians, socialites, tech impresarios, and charity benefactors come together to celebrate the upcoming 84th season of the San Francisco Ballet.  The Opening Night Gala is the social soirée of the year and the 2017 event promises to be bigger and better than ever. “This year’s theme is Ever Magical,” gala chair Avé Seltsam told Haute Living. “I must say that at every level we have experienced true magic, from the incredible Gala Committee to SF Ballet Associates and all those who have enthusiastically collaborated on this important and special event. At present, we are at record ticket sales!”

The program the dancers perform is always dazzling. Helgi Tómasson, the San Francisco Ballet’s legendary artistic director and principal choreographer over the past 32 years, says the most nerve-racking part of the gala is selecting the performance pieces. “I’m actually calm on the night of the event. The challenge for me is more beforehand, when I have to put the program together,” Tómasson says. “But usually, by the night of the event, I can relax and enjoy presenting some new work that audiences haven’t seen before. This year, I am very pleased that [the world-renowned choreographers] Benjamin Millepied and Trey McIntyre are creating world premieres for the program.”

Meg Ray and Avé Seltsam at a fundraiser for the ballet at Tiffany’s in late November
Megan Ray and Avé Seltsam at a fundraiser for the ballet at Tiffany’s in late November

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

The Gala is organized by the Ballet Auxiliary, a group of 100 women who help raise more than $2 million for the company each year. The auxiliary is an exclusive invite-only group that includes such notables as Brenda Leff, Jennifer Brandenburg, Christine Leong Connors, Trecia Knapp, Patricia Ferrin Loucks, Marie Hurabiell, and Deborah Taylor Barrera. Seltsam is, of course, a member as is Megan Ray, the event’s dinner chair and a food professional who owns Miette Pâtisserie, one of the city’s most successful bakeries. Both Seltsam and Ray credit Nutcracker with getting them interested in the ballet.

Seltsam got involved after she took her young children to see the classic ballet: “We were amazed at the brilliant performance. I read in the program that there were students from San Francisco Ballet School performing. Our daughter, Sarah, had been taking ballet lessons at a local ballet school since she was three years old,” she says excitedly. “The following Monday, I contacted the San Francisco Ballet School to find out about lessons. We enrolled her immediately and that was the beginning!  She continued in the program for six years and left at Level 5 to attend high school.” Ray, a native of Palo Alto, grew up going to see the story ballets. “One of my most vivid memories is holding my mother’s gloved hand as we walked up the stairs of the War Memorial building to see Nutcracker. When the snow started to fall,” she says. “It was my first experience with magic.”

A transformed City Hall at the 2016 Opening Night Gala
A transformed City Hall at the 2016 Opening Night Gala

Photo Credit: Nikki Ritcher

Now this dynamic duo is in charge of creating a little magic of their own. With hundreds of twinkling lights, 400 gorgeous floral arrangements (that’s 16,000 flowers), and billowing swathes of fabric, City Hall will be transformed into a majestic location for a party by event designer J. Riccardo Benavides and décor chair, Claire Stewart Kostic. Once the stage is set the night of the gala, the event proceeds with choreographed precision following a very specific timeline. The gala starts at 5 p.m. with a cocktail reception. A seated dinner follows, then everyone moves from City Hall, crossing the street to the War Memorial Opera House for the performance.

After the show, guests return to City Hall for the afterparty. No detail is overlooked and, according to Ray, the meal will be delicious and the champagne flowing. At last year’s gala, 75 cases were consumed. “I lead the collaboration with the rest of the gala team to decide on the menu. Following the Ever Magical theme, we designed a menu to have ethereal qualities in flavor and color, grounded by satisfying ingredients and portions,” she says. “Our dinner sponsor is Tiffany & Co., a company that is truly magical. We had a delightful time coming up with a signature salad featuring ruby beets and [golden] ‘karats.’ As a pastry chef, I made sure the dessert course will not be skipped….The entire culinary experience, from the appetizers to the bountiful buffets at the afterparty, is going to be sensational.”

John Macfarlane designed the set of Liam Scarlett’s new full-length ballet, Frankenstein
John Macfarlane designed the set of Liam Scarlett’s new full-length ballet, Frankenstein

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Royal Ballet

The evening kick-starts the 2017 Repertory season, running from January 24 through May 7. There are eight programs, three of them story ballets, and several thrilling premieres. “This season is particularly exciting,” Tómasson says. “The highlights include the North American premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein; our all-Balanchine program; four world premieres by very different, exciting choreographers; and two other full-length ballets—Cinderella and Swan Lake.” Program One, the Joy of Dance, features Fragile Vessels, a new work by Czech dancer and choreographer Jiří Bubeníček. Program Two, which is all about Modern Masters, includes Optimistic Tragedy, a new piece choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, a former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer. South African choreographer Arthur Pita’s Salome debuts in Program Five featuring Contemporary Voices. Program Three, with a full-length story ballet by British choreographer Liam Scarlett, is not to be missed. His Frankenstein is a coproduction with the Royal Ballet, premiering May 2016 in England. This season, it makes its U.S. debut in San Francisco. The score was composed by Lowell Lieberman; designer John Macfarlane created the costumes and the 18-century Geneva set.

Tómasson has great respect for original works, and the company is internationally recognized as a pioneer in contemporary choreography. “I really appreciate that our local audiences here in the Bay Area are so supportive of ballet and my vision for the company, which emphasizes new work while being respectful of the classics,” he says. “I feel grateful we have such engaged and passionate patrons”—patrons who will be dressed to the nines and having the time of their lives come January 19.