Dance Fever! A Preview Of San Francisco Ballet’s Season & Opening Gala

Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Liang’s “The Infinite Ocean”

Photo Credit: © Erik Tomasson

Diverse yet uniform. Contemporary yet classic. Innovative yet conventional. Strenuous yet effortless. Athletic yet delicate. All of these adjectives—essentially a study of juxtaposition—can be used to describe the San Francisco Ballet (SFB). To witness these incredible contrasts all one needs to do is purchase a ticket to the company’s opening night gala and performance.

San Francisco Ballet in Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”

Photo Credit: © Erik Tomasson

The event, which takes place on Wednesday, January 23, 2019, is a demonstration of dance perfection and a preview of the juxtaposition to come during the ballet’s 86th season. “It is a unique program regarding diversity and also stylistically,” Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director, says of the evening’s show. “We have half of the program of Justin Peck’s ballets from Unbound with dancers in sneakers and another set of classical etudes. In addition, there will be two world premieres. It’s a program that exemplifies our company.”

Ana Sophia Scheller in Balanchine’s “Stars And Stripes”

The company is arguably the leading ballet organization in the United States. Tomasson is known for nurturing dancers from all over the world and for his commitment to accelerating the art toward the future. In 2018, SFB made history with Unbound, a festival of 12 world premieres—new works choreographed especially for the company.

San Francisco Ballet in Pita’s “Björk Ballet”

Photo Credit: © Erik Tomasson

“The Unbound festival was an incredible moment that put the creative process of choreography at the limelight which was incredibly inspiring and provided the platform for the whole community to investigate the direction our art form is going,” Tomasson says. “We now have one of the most diverse companies in the world, and I am very proud of the breadth of repertoire that we present as a company, both modern work from leading choreographers of the day and the timeless classics such as Giselle and Nutcracker.

San Francisco Ballet in Marston’s “Snowblind”

Photo Credit: © Erik Tomasson

This ethos is reflected in the programming of the 2019 season. It begins with the return of Don Quixote, last performed during the 2015 season, and includes two other story ballets, The Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid. The rest of the programming is an assortment of new and old favorites. Tomasson’s preferred works from Unbound—David Dawson’s Anima Animus, Cathy Marston’s Snowblind, Trey McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, Christopher Wheeldon’s Bound To, and Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet—will be danced. Liam Scarlett and Yuri Possokhov are showing world premieres, and Benjamin Millepied’s Appassionata makes its company debut.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s “The Sleeping Beauty”

Photo Credit: © Erik Tomasson

Tomasson sums up the season like this: “Don Quixote will be very exciting especially for the opportunities for the dancers to be challenged by different roles in the ballet. I’m also excited about John Neumeier [of The Little Mermaid], who is a phenomenal choreographer and storyteller. We have two new creations by Liam [Scarlett] and Yuri [Possokhov], which I can’t wait to see. And last but not the least Sleeping Beauty will be a great testament to what this company is capable of. Much of its choreography may look easy but in fact, demands a high level of technical dexterity that only the greatest companies can provide. It is going to be a phenomenal year.”

Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno in Wheeldon’s “Bound To”

Photo Credit: © Erik Tomasson

But before diving into the dance adventures that make up the 2019 repertoire, there is the not-to-be-missed opening night gala. “It is the biggest event of the entire season,” Yuan Yuan Tan, SFB’s star principal dancer, says. “It is a big night of celebration and also a night for people to get warmed up for the season.” The theme for this year’s event? This is Passion. According to the ballet’s website, the gala will celebrate “the unbridled artistry and expressiveness of SF Ballet, where passion for dance is transformative. From the breathtaking physicality of dancers to the daring originality of choreographers to the adoration of audiences—this is passion.”

Gala chair Claire Stewart Kostic and Laura Clifford

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Gala chair Claire Stewart Kostic proposed the theme to Tomasson last May. “I started researching about dance. Martha Graham, who was a choreographer and dancer from the last century said ‘Great dancers aren’t great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion for dance.’ It got me thinking about Helgi, and his whole ballet company,” Kostic says. “Helgi’s passionate, and it runs down throughout the whole organization from the dancers to our auxiliary to all our volunteers to the audience. Everyone is very passionate about ballet, and that is why SFB has been so successful.”

The scene at last year’s gala

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

The gala festivities begin at 5 p.m. with a cocktail reception at City Hall. Dinner follows at 6 p.m. with the performance taking place at 8 p.m. After the show, the black-tie-clad crowd returns to City Hall for the lively afterparty. Kostic is working closely with event stylist J. Riccardo Benavides and McCall’s Catering to plan an exquisite evening that captivates and enchants. “This year is going to be more vibrant colors that exude passion. It’s going to be bright fuchsia and reds, burnt oranges, golden, airy—just a lot of passionate colors,” Kostic says hinting at the decor. “Then we have some surprises. I can’t divulge what the menu is, but we’re doing something that we have never done before.”

Dancers at 2018’s opening night gala after party: Thamires Chuvas, Angelo Greco, Solomon Golding, Jahna Frantziskonis, Nathaniel Remez

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

When asked about a favorite memory from a past opening night gala, Kostic recounts a flash mob dance performance. She says gala-goers can anticipate this same sense of wonder and excitement at this year’s event. She’s most looking forward to the after party. “It’s the most fantastic event. Not only the fun and the décor and the magic of it but the dancing. The dancers are phenomenal, and they come to the after party, and they are all on the dance floor,” she says. Mixing and mingling with the dancers—Jennifer Stahl, Angelo Greco, Mathilde Froustey, and Joseph Walsh—is a highlight for guests as are the four DJs, silent disco, band, unlimited alcohol, and food stations including a sushi bar.

Dinner at the 2018 opening night gala

Whether you come for the show and stay for the party or come for the party and stay for the show, it will be a fabulous and extravagant evening. Ultimately the opening night gala is a celebration of dance, the San Francisco Ballet, and the glittering season to come. As Tan puts it, “I hope that everybody will come and appreciate the beautiful dancing and enjoy the evening.”

Opening Night Gala by the Numbers
Putting on the gala is no easy feat. It requires months of strategic planning. Here’s a behind the scenes look at the numbers that go into the event.

People who attended the 2018 event: 3,275
Bottles of champagne consumed at the after party: 246
Flowers purchased for the 2018 decor: 1000 bunches
Size of the crew who transformed the dinner setting into the after party: 60
Time it takes to set up the event: 22 hoursFunds raised at the 2018 opening night gala to support SFB’s artistic and education programs:  $3,158,333