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After Work: On The Red Carpet In San Francisco

...Once the curtain went up on this gala all eyes were on the stage for an eclectic program that ranged from the romantic to the robust. Iím always amazed by the athleticism of dancers. The leaps and pirouettes are astounding; the abstract pictures that human bodies in motion form are beautiful; the exact placement of feet, arms and torsos done in unison with grace and in perfect tempo amaze me. The only thing that reveals that this is not all pixel animation but real live human being is the soft thump of landing feet....

Dona Gibbs tells of a shimmering gala to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the USA's first ballet company.

Hereís a question for you: What is the oldest professional ballet company in the United States?

Now maybe you donít know a grand jete from a grand mal seizure. Take a guess anyway.

New York?

No.

Philadelphia?

Umm, good try.

Boston?

Way off.

Surprise, itís San Francisco. Thatís right. The San Francisco Ballet first performed June 2, 1933 in the recently completed War Memorial Opera House, an impressive structure that wouldnít look out of place in a European capital. By the way, the Golden Gate Bridge construction was begun the same year.

Otherwise, 1933 was anything but auspicious. Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a ď bank holidayĒ, freezing assets in an attempt to halt a run on the banks as the economic depression deepened.

Doesnít seem like a great time to start a ballet company, does it? But then again San Francisco is an amazing place, full of pioneering determination.

This year San Francisco is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Ever-enthusiastic Husband and I were invited to the opening, a sparkling gala complete with a champagne reception and lavish dinner. It was an intimate gathering of 1,200 peopleóthe serious patrons with serious money -- held in City Hall, an opulent building made even more festive by dramatic lighting with silver vases holding sparkling winter branches.

This was a black tie and long gown evening and once we took our seats we were part of a 3,168-member audience. Diamonds encircled necks. Diamonds dripped from earlobes. Diamonds sparkled from fingers. In the entire city there was probably not a diamond left behind in a safe.

What about the dance? Ah, the dance. Under the artistic direction of Icelandic-born Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet has become one the acclaimed companies of the world. Tommasson himself has an amazing story. He was discovered by Jerome Robbins as an adolescent and then mentored by George Balanchine. He danced professionally until he was 42 but had already choreographed several pieces.

In the past, the company was the first American company to dance Swan Lake, the first to do Coppelia and the first to present The Nutcracker. Now after 75 years, Tommason has launched a New Works Festival to take place later in the season. Ten new works created by ten different choreographers will be performed.

Once the curtain went up on this gala all eyes were on the stage for an eclectic program that ranged from the romantic to the robust. Iím always amazed by the athleticism of dancers. The leaps and pirouettes are astounding; the abstract pictures that human bodies in motion form are beautiful; the exact placement of feet, arms and torsos done in unison with grace and in perfect tempo amaze me. The only thing that reveals that this is not all pixel animation but real live human being is the soft thump of landing feet.

Of course, all this grace takes it toll. The back of the program tells a cautionary tale to boys and girls wishing to be princes and princesses of the ballet. There are six orthopedists attending to the company and four additional people with the titles of physical therapist and rehab class instructors.

I donít claim to be a critic so Iíll leave the rest of the ballet commentary to the pros, except to say that the finale ended in a flurry of glittering artificial snowflakes and a hail of balloons.

All evenings havenít gone as swimmingly as this for the ballet. Back in 1989 an earthquake rattled building and nerves in Orange County where the company was to perform. They went on anyway.

The War Memorial Opera House was closed for an entire year so it could be shored up again earthquake damage. The ballet performed in other venues.

When they company traveled to Spain in 2001, September 11th shook the world. The performance was cancelled but the dancers stayed to practice out of dedication Ė and likely as therapy.

Tonight, everything was perfection in spite of a steady, cold drizzle outside. The audience was a spectacle upon itself. The gowns were magnificent and the women wearing them were a decade or two younger on average than say in New York or Palm Beach. San Francisco is a young city. While some of the money has been around for several generations, thereís also wealth of a more recent vintage. San Mateo, the heart of Silicon Valley, is a quick BMW ride away.

Reporters and photographers turned out to document the social scene. As part of the newspaper coverage of the event, readers were asked to vote on their favorite gowns. It was society as a spectator sport.

Not being part of the San Francisco scene, I didnít recognize the bold face names, but a friend provided a running commentary in which Google was bandied about. That is, Google as source of the riches, not as in, ďYou can Google them.Ē

I did a quick estimate. I figure that it cost about a million dollars to dress these lovely ladies, probably another eighty thousand for the curls and swirls and maybe fifteen thousand for professional manicures.

Yep, San Francisco has come a long way from the rough and ready camps of the 49ers. It hasnít lost its go-for-it zest. This town often cloaked in fog is warmed by hope. Maybe itís the precarious perch on a fault line that causes the magic. You know what they say,Ē If youíre on the edge you might as well dance.Ē




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