The San Francisco Ballet celebrated its 89th season in 2022 with the first in-person season gala since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Called “La Grande Fête,” the event honored Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson.

After a two-year hiatus, more than 3,000 patrons packed the sold-out San Francisco Opera House to attend “La Grande Fête,” as the evening was called. Once again, the gala upheld its reputation as one of the city’s most fashionable and magical evenings.

The evening grossed over $3.3 million, a record in the Company’s 89-year history and an astounding achievement.

The evening was held at the War Memorial Opera House.

The sold-out gala began with a Champagne reception in the foyer of the War Memorial Opera House before the performance.

Parisian-inspired floral displays designed by J. Riccardo Benavides embellished the lobby of the opera house.


“Don’t stand still … let’s move forward … This town inspired me to always look forward, and I’m so grateful.” — Helgi Tomasson

Legendary Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, who will step down after 37 years at the end of the 2022 Ballet season.

This year’s gala was a don’t-miss occasion, as 2022 is the farewell season for the legendary Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, who has been at the helm for a record-breaking term.

The evening was described as “a celebration of Helgi’s trailblazing, intrepid artistic vision that shaped San Francisco Ballet over the last 37 years into one of the leading, world-renowned ballet companies today.”

The much-admired Tomasson has developed the SF Ballet into a celebrated troupe second only to the New York City Ballet in size, with a typical (non-pandemic year) budget of $52 million.

At the 2021 ceremony for Tomasson’s receipt of the Museum of Performance + Design Arts Medallion: Helgi Tomasson with dancers Wei Wang, Nikisha Fogo, Frances Chung, Esteban Hernandez, and WanTing Zhao.

Helgi Tomasson with SF Ballet dancers onstage in the Théàtre du Chàtelet, Paris.

Accolades for Helgi Tomasson and members of the SF Ballet after their performance in his homeland of Iceland in 2016.


Portrait of Helgi Tomasson during ballet rehearsal in 1984.

Born in a small town in Iceland, Tomasson was a young boy when his talent became evident. In 1959, when he was 17, his dancing caught the eye of choreographer Jerome Robbins, who helped him earn a scholarship to the New York School of American Ballet. In 1962, he joined the Joffrey Ballet, and later in 1964 the Harkness Ballet.

In the 1969 First International Moscow Ballet Competition, Tomasson won the silver medal to Mikhail Baryshnikov’s gold. The following year, Tomasson joined the New York City Ballet.

One of the most respected classical dancers of his generation, he eventually became a principal dancer at NYC Ballet. Working under the legendary choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins clearly influenced his classical style.

Helgi Tomasson (front) with conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins in 1974.

Performing in George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes in 1970.

A NYC Ballet production of The Goldberg Variations, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, in 1971.

Melissa Hayden and Helgi Tomasson in Stars and Stripes, choreographed by George Balanchine, in 1973.

Rehearsing Coppélia, with choreography by George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova after Marius Petipa, in 1974.

A NYC Ballet production of The Nutcracker starring Gelsey Kirkland and Helgi Tomasson, in 1974.

Gelsey Kirkland and Helgi Tomasson in Four Bagatelles, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, in 1974.

Helgi Tomasson as Lennox in Union Jack, choreographed by George Balanchine, in 1976.

Dancing in Harlequinade, with choreography by George Balanchine, in 1979.

Leaping into the air during Vienna Waltzes, choreographed by George Balanchine, in 1981.

Helgi Tomasson, Maria Calegari, and Kyra Nichols rehearsing Menuetto, with choreography by Helgi Tomasson, in 1984.


Tomasson retired from NYC Ballet at age 42 and came to San Francisco in 1985, replacing Michael Smuin as SF Ballet’s artistic director. Under his leadership, the Company has become recognized as one of the finest in the world.

Helgi Tomasson outside San Francisco’s City Hall in 1985.

I’m amazed that someone from a small Icelandic town whose population even today is just over 4,000 can achieve the highest accolades on the world stage as both a dancer and a successful company manager. Imagine how much untapped talent exists in the world!

During his 37-year tenure, Tomasson commissioned nearly 200 ballets by both emerging and established choreographers. He himself has choreographed more than 50 works, including five full-length ballets — Swan Lake (1988/2009), The Sleeping Beauty (1990), Romeo & Juliet (1994), Giselle (1999), and The Nutcracker (filmed for the PBS series Great Performances) — the most by any Company director in SF Ballet’s history.

Tomasson also conceived the 1995 United We Dance festival, at which the SF Ballet hosted 12 international companies; the 2008 New Works Festival, which included 10 world premieres by 10 acclaimed choreographers; and the 2018 Unbound: A Festival of New Works.

Helgi Tomasson leading a SF Ballet rehearsal, circa 1990s.

Helgi Tomasson refining a dancer’s position during a Company class in the 1990s.

Principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan and Helgi Tomasson participating in a rehearsal at Tan’s former dance school in China while on tour with the SF Ballet.


Historically, the gala kicks off the winter social season in January, but due to Covid-19, this year it was rescheduled to March. Guests arrived at 5 p.m. to sip champagne and promenade in the War Memorial Opera House foyer until 6 p.m., when the curtain rose on the 90-minute program.

Guests interpreted “festive attire,” the gala’s dress code, in myriad ways — some whimsically, in one-of-a-kind outfits, and others elegantly turned out in traditional black tie and gowns.

Komal Shah and event designer J. Riccardo Benavides.

Jennifer and Bill Brandenburg.

Jack Calhoun and Trent Norris.

Lily Chen and Kate Tova.

Andreas Hofmann, Wanting Zhao, Imade Ogbewi, and Tobias Hofmann.

Courtney Dallaire and Tanum Davis Bohen.

Lisa Zabelle, who will co-chair the SF Opera Guild’s Neiman Marcus-sponsored Carolina Herrera fashion show in May, for which Creative Director Wes Gordon will come to town.

Christian Squires, Jan Berletti, and Robin Dekkers.

Barbara Brown and Allison Speer.

Isaac Hall and Orly Kadosh.

Deidre Shaw, SF Ballet Board co-chair Robert Shaw, fellow Board co-chair Sunnie Evers, and Board trustee Richard Barker.

Gregory Malin and Elena Zorn.

SF Ballet trustees John and Barbara Osterweis.

Jacob Shea, Lauren Wolfe, Roham Solasi, John Kim, Eliza Kim, Jeremy Glassenberg, and Lisa Goodman.


The evening began according to tradition, with the audience standing for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” after which Tomasson took the stage and thanked the crowd for their loyalty. He dedicated the performance to all people in Ukraine, and the audience stood as the orchestra played the Ukrainian national anthem.

In opening remarks, Tomasson said, “When contemplating the past two years of the pandemic and the situation in Ukraine, it was a reminder that we need art more than ever before, not only in this country but in the world. It’s a great healing process.”

He added that the program included four new ballets, two by choreographers with families still in Ukraine, and he urged the audience to give donations to refugees. The idea that dance can unite the globe and transcend our cultural differences is one to which this international city is very receptive.

As the Ukrainian national anthem was played, the country’s flag was projected on the screen.


What is unique about the evening is how it brings together a diverse crowd from the Bay Area, both the old and new guard and a mix of socialites, philanthropists, dot-commers, and venture capitalists.

Also in attendance were the younger set of ballet fans that are vitally important, since they represent the future of the Ballet. And who could forget the man behind the camera, our favorite event photographer Drew Altizer, who makes everyone look like a star.

Auxiliary Gala committee members: (front row) Donna Bachle, Rebecca Kaykas-Wolff, Katie Colendich, Andi Valo-Espina, René Rodman Diamond, Samantha Walravens, Freddi Wilkinson, Maureen Knoll; (second row) Hillary Baker, Irena Matijas, Holli Thier, Claire Kostic, Elisabeth Smith; (top row) Jill McNay, Patricia Roberts, Debra Leylegian, Pam Preston, and Elizabeth Mitchell.

Kudos to this year’s gala chairs, who put together another fabulous evening and brought back the crowds in the most difficult of times: Dinner Chair Andi Valo-Espina, Gala Chair René Rodman Diamond, and Décor Chair Samantha Walravens.

Board members of Encore!, composed of young professionals: Brittany Whitmer, Mackenzie Erdman, Katherine Sakoda, Kalla Vieaux, Gary Williams, Jamie Lee Taylor, Angela Zhang, Michelle Goodwin, Lauren Schutz, Jeannie Gill, and Maggie Winterfeldt Clark.

Danielle St. Germain, the Ballet’s newly inducted executive director, with conductor Martin West.

Ken McNeely and Denise Bradley Tyson.

Mark Kostic, Claire Kostic, Fred Roberts, and Patricia Roberts.

Bob Hill, Ballet Board Vice Chair Dede Wilsey, Nancy Pelosi, and Paul Pelosi.

Jerry Yang and Ballet Board Trustee Emeritus Akiko Yamazaki, with Board President Carl Pascarella and Yurie Pascarella.

Alexis Traina and former Ambassador to Austria Trevor Traina.

Mark Calvano, Clara Shayevich, and Joel Goodrich.

Olivia Hsu Decker, Dorothy Paige, Kenneth Paige, and Romana Bedi.

Ballet Board Vice Chair Dede Wilsey with Bernard and Barbro Osher, of the SF Ballet Endowment Foundation’s Osher New Work Fund.

Ballet Board trustee Jayson Johnson and Tracy Schmitz.

Dancers Kimberly Marie Olivier and Joshua Jack Price.

Dancers Jacob Seltzer, Elizabeth Powell, and Lonnie Weeks.


Founded in 1933, the SF Ballet is America’s oldest professional ballet company. It boasts a long and rich tradition of artistic “firsts” — among them the debut American performances of Swan Lake and Nutcracker and the initial 20th-century American Coppélia. Today, it presents more than 100 productions a year and has been deemed “a national treasure” by the New York Times.

In 2017, Tomasson said, “SF Ballet has long been recognized for pushing the boundaries of dance, and we understand that our art form must continue to evolve in order to keep it vital and relevant.”

SF Ballet under Tomasson has been vaunted for its who’s who roster of contemporary international choreographers. In line with this tradition, the opening night program included three world premieres — works by choreographers Alexei Ratmansky, Yuri Possokhov, and Myles Thatcheralong with the live stage premiere of Danielle Rowe’s Wooden Dimes.

The rest of the season features choreographic highlights from Tomasson’s oeuvre, from his acclaimed The Fifth Season to the world premiere of his work Harmony. On the schedule are also works by some of his closest long-time collaborators, including such big names in dance as Christopher Wheeldon, Cathy Marston, Alexei Ratmansky, Dwight Rhoden, and world premieres of Wheeldon’s Finale Finale and Rhoden’s The Promised Land.

Mandatory mask wearing didn’t deter 3,000 ballet aficionados from attending the San Francisco Ballet Opening Gala.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake.

Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in the premiere of Drum Roll, Please! by Myles Thatcher, also a SF Ballet soloist, his eighth ballet created for the Company and sponsored by Isaac Hall.

American Ballet Theatre choreographer-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky premiered Le Réveil de Flore, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1894.

Resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s new The Rising showcased the elegance of principal dancer Frances Chung.

Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham in the pas de deux from Danielle Rowe’s Wooden Dimes. Van Patten will retire after this season—her twentieth year with the Company.

Sasha De Sola and Joseph Walsh in the SF Ballet premiere of Justin Peck’s Bloom from 2021.

Wona Park and Angelo Greco in the Act III pas de deux from Helgi Tomasson/Yuri Possokhov’s Don Quixote.

Henry Sidford and Steven Morse in an excerpt from Yuri Possokhov’s Magrittomania.

The finale of the night was Helgi Tomasson’s Prism, with principal dancer Esteban Hernandez leading an ensemble of more than two dozen of his compatriots.

Sasha Mukhamedov and Luke Ingham in an excerpt from Helgi Tomasson’s Prism.


After the performance, 1,200 guests sauntered across Van Ness Avenue to the transformed City Hall, where an elegant sit-down dinner awaited. Sadly, due to Covid-19 there was no after-dinner party, always a dazzling affair. But dinner itself pulsed with energy, with guests unable to stay seated, so excited to be celebrating again and looking for friends they hadn’t seen in ages.

How great to see a return of this scene: gowned and tuxedoed guests parading across Van Ness Avenue (closed to traffic) to City Hall for the post-performance dinner.

Jane Mudge, Lisa Zabelle, Barbara Brown, and Allison Speer.

Navid Armstrong in a Georges Hobeika dress found in Paris — twirling with excitement.

Despite the many social, political, and cultural occasions that take place in City Hall, I’m always amazed how it can be transformed in so many different ways to suit very different themes.

The décor, by J. Riccardo Benavides’s Ideas Events, was inspired by one of Tomasson’s favorite ballets, Don Quixote, and included fabric-rose-covered panels in homage to a costume worn in the production.

The City Hall Rotunda and Mezzanine, where dinner was served, were particularly dazzling — awash in pink and lavender lighting that cast a warm glow over the scene.

“There are 5,000 roses on each panel and three panels overall — that’s 15,000 roses,” said the event designer J. Riccardo Benavides.

Tracy Schmitz, Ballet Board trustee Jayson Johnson, and friends.

Helgi Tomasson and wife Marlene, who he met while dancing with the Joffrey Ballet.

Principal dancer Mathilde Froustey with Mourad Lahlou, the Moroccan-born chef of SF Michelin-starred restaurant Mourad.

Shanghai-born SF Ballet principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, who in 2022 is celebrating 27 years with the Company, the longest reign of any principal dancer.

Carolyn Chang and Ballet Board trustee Jennifer Walske.

Dwight Rhoden, Clifford Williams, and SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock.

Jorge Maumer and Farah Makras.

Ballet Board trustee Kelsey Lamond, Leah Hearst, and Sapna Boze.

Erica Pearson, Anne Marie Peterson, Ballet Board Treasurer Nancy Kukacka, and Barbara Brown.

Jack and Pam Preston.

Holly Baxter and Heide Betz.

David and Mary Beth Shimmon, in a vintage Christian Dior turban and golden Marchesa caftan, a choice inspired by her fascination with the exotic costumes of the Ballets Russes.

Ballet Board trustee Kelsey Lamond and David Lamond.

Interior designer Suzanne Tucker and Michael Hormel.

Diners feasted on elegantly presented dishes catered by McCalls Catering & Events, paired with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon generously donated by JCB Collection, helmed by Frenchman Jean-Charles Boisset.

With the world in turmoil as we enter the third year of dealing with the world-wide Covid-19 pandemic and witnessing the horrors of Ukraine, humans yearn for an escape more than ever. In this difficult economic climate for fundraising, it’s especially important to give an extra thank you to the generous sponsors of this year’s program:

Presenting Sponsor Osterweis Capital Management, Red Carpet Arrival Sponsor Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Sparkling Stroll Sponsor William Blair, Wine Sponsor JCB Collection, Grand Benefactor Reception Sponsor Cast, Benefactor Dinner Sponsor KPMG, Patron Dinner Sponsor JPMorgan Chase & Co., and ENCORE! Sponsor First Republic Bank.


Photographs by Drew Altizer, J. Riccardo Benavides, Erik Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet, and courtesy New York Public Library.