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.
CELEBRATING ARTISTIC DIRECTOR HELGI TOMASSON’S 37 YEARS OF CREATIVE LEADERSHIP
“Don’t stand still … let’s move forward … This town inspired me to always look forward, and I’m so grateful.” — Helgi Tomasson
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.
HELGI TOMASSON’S CAREER AS A DANCER
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.
TAKING ON A NEW CHALLENGE IN SAN FRANCISCO
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.
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.
THE BALLET GALA CHAMPAGNE RECEPTION
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.
OPENING CEREMONY DEDICATED TO UKRAINE
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.
SEEN IN THE CROWD
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.
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 Thatcher — along 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.
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.
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.
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.