Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Ballet closes its season with “Don Quixote”—all new costumes and scenery, this Friday through May 6, 2012

Vanessa Zahorian, a principal with SF Ballet since 2002, dances the lead role of Kitri on opening night of Tomasson/Possokhov’s “Don Quixote,” at SF Ballet through May 6, 2012. Photo: © Erik Tomasson

Driven by stories of ancient rivalries and his vision of female perfection—Dulcinea—the wildly romantic aging nobleman Don Quixote sets off on an epic journey with his trusty squire Sancho Panza in tow.  When he encounters the lovely Kitri in a gypsy camp, he is smitten believing that he has found his Dulcinea.  Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov’s staging of Russian master choreographers Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky’s 1869 Don Quixote returns to San Francisco Ballet this Friday, April 27, 2012, with spectacular all-new scenery and costumes by Tony Award-winning designer Martin Pakledinaz.   There are just 10 performances of SF Ballet’s highly anticipated season closer and if you are going to be impacted by this weekend’s Doyle Drive closure, you can skip the opening weekend and attend the following week, which offers 7 performances, starting Tuesday May 1, through Sunday, May 6, 2012, including convenient Saturday and Sunday matinees.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson/Possokhov’s “Don Quixote,” which includes live animals on stage, at SF Ballet through May 6, 2012. Photo: © Erik Tomasson

Miguel de Cervantes’ romantic and witty story, placed in the colorful streets of Spain, comes to life with comes to life with a lively cast of characters and the bravado and excitement of some of classical ballet’s most technically demanding dances.  Under the expert conducting of Martin West and David Briskin, Austrian composer Léon Minkus’ lushly light and melodic music with its clear dance rhythms will be brought to life.

Traditionally, the scene stealer in this ballet is the live horse or donkey that makes a stage appearance, delighting the audience to no end.  Most of the dancing glory in this sweeping classic ballet is in the lead role of Kitri.  Vanessa Zahorian will dance the opening and Maria Kochetkova and Frances Chung will alternate thereafter.  All eyes will be upon Kitri as she executes dozens of fouteé turns and triple pirouettes in the grand pas de deux which will also see her Basilio put through his paces.  Joan Boada, will dance the role of the barber Basilio for the opening, with Taras Domitro, Vitor Luiz, Davit Karapetyan and Gennadi Nedvigin alternating in subsequent performances.

Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s Artistic Director, discusses  Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes for Don Quixote:


SF Ballet’s 2013 Season:  San Francisco Ballet is the oldest professional ballet company in America and, in 2013, will celebrate 80 years of performances.  SF Ballet’s 2013 Repertory Season will begin with Nutcracker, which runs December 7 through 28, 2012 for a total of 31 performances.  Following the Opening Night Gala on Thursday, January 24, 2013, the season will consist of eight programs performed in alternating repertory, from January 29 to May 12. The season includes the U.S. premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s full-length Cinderella; the Northern California premiere of Nijinsky by Hamburg Ballet Artistic Director and Chief Choreographer John Neumeier, which will be performed on Program 2 by the renowned Hamburg Ballet; the SF Ballet premiere of Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc; plus world premieres by Wayne McGregor, SF Ballet Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov, and Alexei Ratmansky. The season will also feature works by acclaimed choreographers such as George Balanchine, John Cranko, Edwaard Liang, Mark Morris, Rudolf Nureyev, Ashley Page, Jerome Robbins, and San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson. For detailed programming information and subscription and ticket information go to SF Ballet’s  2013 season announcement.

Details: Don Quixote opens Friday, April 27, 2012 and runs through May 6, 2012 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, in San Francisco’s Civic Center.  (415) 865-2000 or

April 27, 2012 Posted by | Dance | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Standing for Valhalla: the passion, endurance and strategy it takes to stand through the Ring at SF Opera

Lauren Knoblauch's special ergonomic shoes have trekked to Bayreuth and now they're in San Francisco standing for San Francisco Opera's Ring. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 Those attending the full Ring cycle at San Francisco Opera will spend 17 hours just watching the 4 performances but for those who choose the standing room ticket option, the hours multiply.  One hundred and fifty standing room tickets for last night’s opening performance of Das Rheingold went on sale at 10 a.m. yesterday morning at the War Memorial Opera House.  An additional 50 tickets went on sale at 5 p.m. and all 200 were sold.  Charlise Tiee, of Alameda, arrived “before 7 a.m.” and stood for 3 hours to buy the coveted #1 standing room ticket.   That allowed her to stand again–at the side of opera house– and enter 70 minutes before the performance and select her place to stand for the two hour and 40 minute performance.   Her standing-in-line to standing-in-performance ratio: roughly 2 to 1.  “It will get better with the 4 and 5 hour performances.”

This is Tiee’s 6th Ring cycle and the 34 year old, who studied viola and piano, started her ring thing when she was 26.  Tiee was a stand-out in last night’s line because she came dressed in a green satin brocade gown as Erda, the goddess of earth and mother of the three Norns.  It is Erda who warns Wotan to give up the ring after taking it from Alberich.  It is Erda who sees into the future and possesses great wisdom.  “I’ve been planning this,” she said. 

Charlise Tiee, dressed as goddess Erda, arrived before 7 .m. and bought standing room ticket #1 for $10 for yesterday's Das Rheingold at SF Opera. Photo: Geneva Anderson

At 7:30 a.m., there were 4 people in line for the $10 standing room tickets.  By 10 a.m., there were 40 people, and the line was growing.  Tiee is an SF Opera subscriber but also enjoys the thrill of nabbing the first standing room ticket and the flexibility of standing “I can move around more.”  Her strategy for the special evening was simple—she was going to stand on the orchestra level, on the right side by the pillar “to enhance the contrast with my outfit.”   Tiee is also well known for her lively blog– The Opera Tattler—that tracks her experiences attending opera performances as a standee in San Francisco and beyond.  Her writing is not limited to the performance but to what she sees and hears and “tattles” about the audience as a standee.  Tiee also presides over the Opera Standees Association, a social club for people in the Bay Area who love opera and met in standing room.  OSA meets and also financially sponsors a Merola Opera Program summer participant.  

This really isn’t about saving money, it’s about experiencing opera,” said Tiee.  “A lot of people who attend are in it for the social experience, which is fine.  It’s not easy to keep standing and the people in standing room tend to be more serious and very well-informed about the performances.  I have attended most of the dress rehearsals and will go to all three cycles.  I am interested in how it all evolves–you hear and see things at one performance that you won’t experience again because it’s live art.”  

Members of the standing group consider themselves “exceedingly lucky” because the SF Opera Company is so good and because the people in the box office are friendly and supportive of standees.  This is not the case at other opera venues where standees are valued “at about the price they pay for their tickets.”  

Having secured their numbered sanding room tickets, standees then cue outside the opera house. Many make productive use of their time studying the Wagner libretto in German. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Lauren Knoblauch drove straight from Seattle on Monday evening, leaving right after work, and took a chance on standing room tickets, “Oh, I knew I could get them—they’ve got 200.”  She decided to nap some but still managed to snag standing room ticket #119.  Knoblauch has been to Rings all over the world and likes to travel light.  Wotan has his spear and Siegfried has Nothung and she has her special ergonomic shoes—with separate toes—that make standing easy.  “I haven’t heard too much about the production itself or Zambello,” said Knoblauch.  “I know it goes from different ages—starting in one period and ending in another.  I try not to let the production bother me.  I go for the music and the singing and the acting and let the director do whatever he or she is going to do.  Afterwards, I’ll tell you what I think.”

After securing her place inside the opera house on the orchestra level, Knoblauch began texting and lo and behold, Charlise Tiee, standing next to her was the recipient.  As it turns out, the two have tweeted and texted each other about the performance for some time and met in person that evening.  When asked about Das Rheingold’s opening video projection scenes, by Jan Hartley, of billowing clouds and waves of water, Tiee responded “I do like an interesting production.  To me it looks like a video game and I’ve played a lot of video games and seen a lot of movies that feature CGI (computer generated imagery).  That stuff is competing in the opera for our attention but it’s a much better match with the music than what they used in 2008.”   

 Ring Schedule Cycle 1:  last night (June 15, 2011), Das Rheingold (2 hours, 35 minutes, no intermission); tonight, Die Walküre (4 hours, 30 minutes with two intermissions); Friday Siegfried (4 hours and 50 minutes with two intermissions); Sunday Götterdämmerung(5 hours and 15 minutes with two intermissions). The cycle repeats two more times, June 21-26 and June 28-July 3, 2011. 

After texting and tweeting, Charlise Tiee (L) and Lauren Koblauch (R) finally meet inside the opera as standees for Das Rheingold. Photo: Geneva Anderson


Standing Room for the Ring: There are 200 standing room tickets for each performance in the Ring cycle, and 150 of these go on sale at 10 a.m. the day of the performance at the War Memorial Opera House.  The remaining 50 are sold 2 hours before the performance.  Tickets are $10, cash only, and each person may buy 2 tickets.  Standees may enter on the south side of the opera house, across the street from Davies Symphony on Grove Street, 70 minutes before the curtain time.  The tickets are numbered and sold in order.  One enters the opera house by number, and there is a numbered line painted on the ground outside.  The standing room areas are on the orchestra level and the back of the balcony.  For availability, call the Opera Box Office at (415) 864-3330

June 15, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: San Francisco Ballet Opens its 2011 season with Giselle, a ballet with staying power

Yuan Yuan Tan and Artem Yachmenikov in Tomasson's Giselle. @Tomasson

The San Francisco Ballet launched its 2011 season Saturday night with a breathtaking performance of Giselle, one of the most beloved classical ballets. SF Ballet principle dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Artem Yachmennikov in the lead roles of Giselle and Count Albrecht, danced Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s 1999 production of this venerable 170 year old classic to perfection.  If you haven’t been to the ballet lately, or are introducing a young one to the art form, the San Francisco Ballet, in its 78th season, and the oldest professional ballet company in America, is well worth a visit and Giselle is the classic to see—steeped in tradition and full of wispy white-tulled maidens seeking love with toe-dancing elevated to art.  The production run is full of roll switches—11 different dancers in the lead roles of Giselle and Albrecht.  The remarkable Yuan Yuan Tan, who seems capable of dancing on air, is certainly a Giselle to see, performing again on the closing evening, Saturday, February 12.    

Giselle epitomizes all the features of classical ballet—extensive pointe work, turn-out of the legs and high extensions– all executed in graceful, flowing, precise movements.  When it premiered in 1841, at the Paris Opera Ballet, it was a hit, exploring the relatively new theme in dance of a peasant in love with a nobleman.  It has continued to grow in statue and is now part of the repertoire of most major companies.  Tomasson has based his version of Giselle on what we know of the original 1841 French version’s choreography by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli and on Russian Marius Petipa’s later adaptation.  Tomasson has added a pas de deux for Giselle and Albrecht in Act 1 and reworked another peasant pas de deux in Act 1 to make it a pas de cinq to accommodate more dancers.   The music is by French composer Adolphe Charles Adam and is significant historically because it was actually composed for the ballet, breaking with the then common practice of piecing together pre-existing melodies for ballets.

The story is unforgettable.  Seen with modern eyes, it can be interpreted in many ways.  Like the age-old tales of Orpheus and Eurydice or Tristan and Isolde, Giselle can be about the triumph of love over death.  It also shows us the unbridgeable gap between stories repeated to us in childhood of love in far away magical places and the crushing brutality of unattainable love.  I found myself toggling between the two– viewing it in hopeful childhood mode and knowing as an adult that disaster was just around the corner.

Giselle is a simple peasant girl in a Rhineland village who loves Loys and is unaware he is really a nobleman named Albrecht who is just disguised as Loys.  Hilairion, a gamekeeper who is infatuated with Giselle, is jealous of Albrecht and tells Giselle his true identity.  Realizing Albrecht is to going to marry someone else, Giselle goes mad; her weak heart gives out and she dies. 

Artem Yachmenikov in Tomasson's Giselle. @Tomasson.


In Act II, the very essence of romantic ballet, the ethereal wilis, spirits of girls jilted by their lovers before their wedding day, appear at midnight and encounter Hilarion and toss him to his death.  Next, they encounter Albrecht and prepare to dance him to death.  Giselle intervenes and saves his life giving him the strength to dance all night.  She forgives him for his prince in disguise duplicity and rescues him from the horror of feminine vengeance.  By not succumbing to hateful ways of the Wilis, Giselle is freed from any association with them, and returns to her grave to rest in eternal peace. Albrecht watches her die again.   If danced well, the ballet’s ending is unbearably sad but it is also a celebration of the inherent goodness in people like Giselle.  

The ballet’s credibility is almost completely anchored in the expressive qualities Giselle, its heroine. Yuan Yuan Tuan, now in her thirties, gave a technically striking performance, outdancing everyone on stage in Act 1, where she plays the innocent maiden, not yet a woman.   With her long limbs capable of seemingly impossible movements, she is almost too graceful, too regal to be a peasant.  In Act 2, she was riveting.  What extensions!  On one supporting foot, you see her begin to extend her other leg effortlessly to almost 180 degrees and then push even further in astounding Penchee arabesque, an absolutely grueling pose that Tuan has turned into poetry.  Paired with the dashing Artem Yachmennikov, a tall striking dancer who complements her, the two made a dazzling couple, very lyrical.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Artem Yachmenikov in Tomasson's Giselle. @Tomasson.

Can Tuan act?   If anything, that is her shortfall, more evident in Act 2 where she needed to pull off the transition to the ethereal spirit world and convey that she has been tragically broken by the loss of love.  Here, Tan played Giselle with a mental absorption that was palpable but flat in terms of dramatic tension, emotional credibility.  She executed it all with astounding technical precision though—demanding acrobatic footwork and beautiful weightless adagios with Yachmennikov where she seemed to glide across the mist-filled stage.

Elana Altman, a stand-in as Myrta, Queen of the Wilis, danced the role with the imperious queen’s role with grandeur.  The 24-veiled Wilis in their lovely dresses with outstretched arms, were graceful and precise executing their line dances against the backdrop of the deep forest.

Pascal Molat was fabulous as Hilarion, the rough young peasant with the heart of gold.  No matter how many birds he tossed at Giselle’s door, or how perfect his footwork, she had eyes only for Loys/Albrecht.  

Mikael Melbye’s set design for both acts features magnificent enormous trees, splendidly lit, giving a very organic feel to the stage. 

There are six remaining performances of Giselle (with alternating principal dancers) at San Francisco’s elegant landmark War Memorial Opera House.  The 2011 season includes two other classical performances: George Balanchine’s Coppélia and an All-Tchaikovsky program (Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams, and the world premiere of Helgi Tomasson’s Trio). There are three mixed bill programs of modern masters that include William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite, Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, and John Neumeier’s full-length ballet, The Little Mermaid,  and three mixed bill programs premiering new works by Yuri Possokhov, Helgi Tomasson and Christopher Wheeldon.  The season closes with the Nutcracker.

Wilis as Slav vampires?  In researching Giselle, I came across some interesting notes on the origin of wilis in “The Origins of Giselle” section of the Metropolitan’s Opera’s site (also mentioned on the wordIQ site in its definition of Slavic Fairies).

“…where do these mythical creatures come from? Meyer’s Konverationslexikon defines Wiles or Wilis as female vampires, the spirits of betrothed girls who are jilted before their wedding night. According to Heine wilis came from a Slav legend of maidens who are engaged to be married but die before their wedding. They are unable to rest in their graves because they could not satisfy their passion for dancing when they were alive. They therefore gather on the highway at midnight to lure young men and dance them to their death. There is a Slave word ‘vila’ which means vampire. The plural is vile, and wilis is probably a Germanic pronunciation of that word as a ‘w’ in German is pronounced like a ‘v’. (Puccini’s first opera is based on the same legend, in Italian Le Villi.) In Serbia they were maidens cursed by God; in Bulgaria they were known as samovily, girls who died before they were baptized; and in Poland they are beautiful young girls floating in the air atoning for frivolous past lives.”

Details: Remaining performances of Giselle: Tuesday, February 1, 2011, at 8 p.m., Wednesday, February 2, 2011, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, February 4, 2011, at 8 p.m., Thursday, February 10, 2011, at 8 p.m (features Principal Dancer, Maria Kochetkova), Saturday, February 12, 2011, at 2 and 8 p.m.(features Yuan Yuan Tan as Giselle) , and Sunday February 13, 2011 at 2 p.m.  Tickets: $48 to $150.00, with a variety of attractively priced thematic packages for multiple performances.  (415) 865-2000 or

January 31, 2011 Posted by | Dance | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment