San Francisco Social Diary: SF Ballet’s 74th Opening Night

Molly Smolen in Ashton’s “Five Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan.”


The Oscars have nothing on San Francisco when it comes to glitzy, glamour- filled fetes. Just when the post-holiday blues settle in, the annual San Francisco Ballet’s Opening Night Gala arrives to shake off the mid-winter doldrums. The black-tie, red carpet event brings out SF’s boldest, brightest and most beautiful—all dressed to impress.

This year’s sold-out affair, themed “Spanish Splendor,” drew over 1200 balletomanes from the Bay Area, old and new guard alike: socialites, dot commers, venture capitalists, and a chic younger set.

The Auxiliary Gala Committee is responsible for organizing all the fabulousity: Gala Chair Shannon Cronan, Dinner Chair Stephanie von Thaden, Décor Chair Cheri Spolin, and Honorary Chairs Dr. Stephen and Marlene Gill.

“I just love this gala as it’s the first big event after the holidays and I get to see all my friends!” exclaimed O.J. Shansby. “The women are so glam—I’ve never seen so many trains.”

The committee: Betsey Vobach, Cheri Spolin, Stephanie von Thaden, Shannon Cronan, Jane Mudge, Peggy Newton, and Lisa Grotts.

Many of the gorgeously attired women supported local couture designers like Colleen Quen and Lily Samii this season. According to a San Francisco Chronicle internet poll, however, it was Angelique Griepp who garnered the most “Best Gown” votes for her black and white Oscar de la Renta gown with train. Could it be that ball gowns and trains are coming back into style?

A whopping $3,550 price tag (that’s per person, not couple!) guaranteed a center box seat at the ballet performance. It also included prime seating at the pre-performance cocktails and the dinner extravaganza for benefactors and patrons, which was held in the Rotunda of the gold-domed Beaux Arts City Hall.

In attendance were of course the Ballet’s Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and his wife Marlene, Board Co-Chair Pamela Joyner (wearing a Colleen Quen couture ivory satin gown with a 10-foot train) and her husband Fred Giuffrida, and Co-Chair James Herbert with his wife Cecilia.

Ringside table seating went to philanthropist Jeannik Méquet Littlefied, who last year donated $35 million to the San Francisco Opera, one of the largest donations to an American opera company from a single benefactor. She was accompanied by her daughter, Denise Sobel, of New York.

Board Co-Chair Pamela Joyner in Colleen Quen’s 10-foot train.

Right next to them were Nancy and Chris Hellman (Chair Emeritus), Ken Rainin, Dede Wilsey with Charles de Guigne, Nancy and Joachim Bechtle, and Richard and Katie Gibbs. (I imagine the Ballet honchos are hoping Jeannnik really enjoyed the ballet performance!)

Front and center also sat longtime ballet angels Lucy and Fritz Jewett III with family members Sam Jewett, son George Jewett, and daughter-in-law Brenda (it was her 25th opening night); Genie Callan; and Chief of Protocol Charlotte Schultz with hubby George Schultz, former Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan.

The place was loaded with arts patrons: Ingrid Hills, Art Caisse, Barbara Brookins-Schneider and James Schneider, Maria Manetti Farrow, Tom Perkins of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, and Christine and Pierre Lamont of Sequoia Capital, famous for its early tech bets on Apple, Oracle, Cisco, Google, and the ubiquitous YouTube.

So what’s the news on Tom Perkins? The Renaissance man is not only a venture capitalist, yachtsman, and collector, but also the author of “Sex and the Single Zillionaire.” Phew. His former publisher Judith Regan recently got the axe at Harper Collins over that O.J. Simpson debacle. Meanwhile, Tom is in the process of writing an autobiography that will hopefully give us the scoop on the Silicon Valley world.

Marlene and Helgi Tomasson, Ballet Artistic Director.

Gala Chair Shannon Cronan, in Oscar, with husband Dan Cronan.

Cecilia and Ballet Board Co-chair Jim Herbert.

Philanthropist Jeannik Melquet Littlefield and daughter Denise Sobel.

SF Ballet Exec Director Glenn McCoy and General Manager Lesley Koenig.

Ballet angels Fritz and Lucy Jewett.

Other high-powered Silicon Valley representatives who were sitting together included Yahoo! Founder Jerry Yang and wife and ballet board member Akiko Yamazaki, Yahoo! Chairman and CEO Terry Semel and wife Jane, Yuri and Carl Pascarella (former president of Visa), Pam and Larry Baer, and Glenn McCoy. But where was Google?

Those were some of the players, so now let’s move on to the atmosphere. The Spanish-inspired décor was created by Riccardo Benavides of Ideas. The dedicated designer actually flew to Madrid to research his concept! “I wanted to create the feeling of a dinner at a Spanish villa during the era of Ferdinand and Isabella,” he said. “I commissioned silver goblets in Spain copied after the Pope’s, specially designed candelabras, and I used different plates for each course.”

Riccardo cleverly highlighted the architectural features of the palatial marbled City Hall Rotunda using pin-spots and lighting that cast a warm and oh-so- flattering glow on all the ladies.

The flamenco flavor was enhanced by floral designer Jun Piñon who designed opulent floral arrangements of crimson, amber, pink and gold roses that “came from Argentina and are the greatest in the world. Look at their size!”

And let’s not forget the food! Caterer Paula Le Duc outdid herself with an entrée of Shortribs de Sancho Panza, (roasted garlic braised beef shortribs, basil potatoes and crispy roots drizzled with carrot coulis). The men especially loved it. For dessert, her Executive Chef Daniel Capra, created Battling Windmills—a chocolate praline mousse tower with sugar windmill and blood orange caramel—as a reference to Don Quixote.

Jeanne Lawrence and Ron Crosetti.

Venture Capitalist Tom Perkins chats with Maria Manetti Farrow.

Publicity Chair Rosemary Baker (in Lily Samii) and Edward Baker.

Karen Caldwell wearing a Lily Samii couture gown.

Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang with wife Akiko Yamazaki, Ballet board member.

Honorary Chair Stephan and Margaret Gill.

In the meantime, the younger set enjoyed their own pre-performance dinner across the street in the War Memorial Veterans Building Green Room. The lively banquet was chaired by Laura Victoria Miller, dinner and décor co-chairs Nina Fedoroff and Alexa Harnett, and aided by President Stephanie Russell.

When everyone was well-sated, they headed to the War Memorial Opera House for the performance. The program was quickly paced with eleven pieces, many of them world premieres lasting from three to twelve minutes. It kept the audience on its toes, so to speak.

The program began with “Aunis”, performed by principal dancers Nicolas Blanc, Pascal Molat, and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, and choreographed by Jacque Garnier to the music of composer Maurice Pacher.

That was followed by a pas de deux from “Sleeping Beauty” by Tchaikovsky, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson after Marius Petipa and danced by Vanessa Zahorian and Gonzalo Garcia.

Principal dancer, the athletic Davit Karapetyan, danced and choreographed a solo “Last Breath”—a San Francisco premiere—with music by Ben Watkins and Don Davis.

Everyone looked forward to seeing newly recruited principal, Molly Smolen, dance to Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan.” How was she? Brilliant, passionate, and magnificent!

Intermission saw much mingling. Dr. Jeffrey Hays and theater producer Carol Shorenstein Hays were discussing the new musical Legally Blond that opened in February. Carol is bringing the show to Broadway in April.

Deborah Strobin, John Capizzi, and Sally Debenham.

Cartier’s Robert Atkinson with Cartier Pages.

John and Lisa Grotts, Auxiliary President Monique Lhuillier gown.

Angelique Griepp (voted best dress on the web, wearing Oscar de la Renta) and Troy Griepp.

Lonna Wais in Monique Lhullier.

Bob and Ann Fisher in Ralph Lauren.

Paul Pelosi, husband of Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi.

Richard Barker, Grand Benefactor Dinner Sponsor.

Toni Stinton and Chris Beres head to performance.

Jochim and Nancy Bechtel and George and Charlotte Schultz.

Grand staircase in City Hall.

Paul Pelosi Jr. and Allison Speer.

Jim and Stephanie Milligan.

Ralph Baxter and Cheryl Baxter in Badgley Mischka.

Board member Fran Streets and Kathleen Scutchfield.

Caterer Paula La Duc (center) and designer Riccardo Benavides with the gala chairpersons.

Joy Venturini Bianchi wearing Bill Blass and Wes Carroll.

Supervisor Michelle Alioto-Pier (granddaughter of late Mayor Joe Alioto) with husband Thomas Pier.

Principal dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith.

Also spotted was publicist Allison Speer with her pal Paul Pelosi Jr., whose mom is Nancy Pelosi, the newly appointed, first female Speaker of the House. Talk about busy—she’s onlytwo heartbeats away from the Presidency!

Other balletomanes were Sally and Bill Hambrecht (formerly of Hambrecht and Quist), Mary Jo and Dick Kovacevich, Susan and Bill Oberndorf, John and Regina Scully, designer Ron Crosetti, Kimberly Bakker (who just returned from working in an African orphanage), Rob and Lisa Gallo, and Christine Haas Russell.

Also there were Eleni Tsakopoulos and Markos Kounalakis, Lucretia and John Sias (former CEO of SF Chronicle Publishing), Will Van Den Heuvel, society photographer Russ Fischella, Jim and Jenny Clark McCall, former NYer and now Ballet Board Secretary, and Cheryl and Ralph Baxter, who’s spending much of his time in NYC as CEO of the Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP law firm.

After some champagne sipping, the audience headed back to their seats to watch the moving second act, a pas de deux from “Giselle” that was danced by Lorena Feijoo and Tiit Helimets.

Next, the long and lithe French ballerina Muriel Maffre, who will retire this year at age 41 after 17 years with the company, danced the world premiere of “Bitter Tears,” a work created for the gala by Yuri Possokhov (who himself retired from dancing last year), set to the music of George Frederic Handel.

Muriel Maffre’s swan song in “Bitter Tears.”

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Wheeldon’s “After the Rain.”

Wendy Morrison, Dawn Quinlivan, Charles Williamson, and Jim Keane.

Board Member Timothy Wu and Jim Hormel.

Principal dancer Pascal Molat with Genevieve Molat.

Robyn Collins in vintage gown and Dr. Alan Malouf.

Fanfare for dinner.

Table settings from above.

Cartier favors at each setting.

Battling-Windmills created by Chef Daniel Capra.

Jenny Georges at Encore! party.

Brandt Hooker and Regina Callan.

Albert Thuesen III and Debra Leylegian in Bill Blass.

Dr. Jeff Hays and Carole Shorenstein Hays, producer of Broadway bound Legally Blond.

Patrick and Melissa Barber.

Susan and David Dossetter.

Loreen Jackson and Dana Jackson at Encore! party.

Another SF premiere followed. Gerald Arpino’s “L’Air d’Esprit,” created as a tribute to the Russian Ballerina, Olga Spessivtzeva, was danced by principals Tina Le Blanc and Gennadi Nedvigin.

Shanghai-born sylph Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith performed the mesmerizing pas de deux from “After the Rain,” created for the NY City Ballet in 2005 with music by Arvo Pärt.

While a photograph of Tina LeBlanc’s grand jeté in “Don Quixote,” which Tomasson has staged before, graced the cover of the evening’s program, one wonders why the repertoire didn’t include anything Spanish. It was a perfect outlet to add some sizzle and excitement to the program. Others expressed a desire to see the entire corps de ballet dance more, not just during the finale, which was “Symphony in C” by George Bizet, choreographed by George Balanchine.

Vanessa Zahorian and Gonzalo Garcia in Tomasson’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

Grand Finale, Bizet’s “Symphony in C.”

Committee members of Encore!.

Heading home happy.

One overhead comment, though, credited Tomasson for his mixed repertory program that highlights the versatility and techniques of his dancers and generously shares the talents of various choreographers.

Whatever people’s opinions about the program, everyone seemed to love the evening! What’s not to enjoy? An old-world glam evening, with a exquisite dinner in a romantic setting, and brilliant ballet dancing and choreography accompanied by beautiful music. Yes, it was another extraordinary opening night gala for a resplendent evening of sublime performance perfection.

Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco Ballet, a milestone for the oldest professional ballet company in America. The diamond jubilee is creating plenty of buzz and it’s sure to be spectacular. So call your couturier now, ladies. It will be here before you know it.


Photographs by Drew Altizer, Scotty Morris , and Tom Gibbons.

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