Hummingbirds and bargain seats at the San Francisco Ballet


Buying a $25 ticket for the ballet can be a bit of a gamble. The cheapest seats tend to be the ones furthest back, in the nosebleed section, but you’ll also find them way up close, or way off to the side. (Or, one time, this miracle bargain: Last Saturday night, my $25 seat was row G, the last seat in the row. Up close, but a restricted view. I couldn’t see any dancer entrances from stage left, and a slim wedge of the action in the upstage left corner was invisible to me all evening. Was it worth it, for the chance to see Liam Scarlett’s 2014 Hummingbird again? Hell, yeah!

You see interesting people in the bargain section of the theater. People you might call “characters” — adults that still carry a bit of the idealistic [and dazed] college student in them. Their hair might be shaggy but their eyes burn with intensity. It might not have even crossed their minds to dress up for the performance. It’s not what matters for them. They care deeply about ballet and the performance and the dance company, referring to the dancers by first name and with familiarity, as if they know them deeply, personally (which, likely, in their mind, they do). They are very, very dedicated fans. They are the ones shouting out “bravo!” the instant the ballet finishes, and the first to leap from their seats to offer the dancers a standing ovation. They clap with twice the intensity. It’s very cool being around them, actually. Their energy and enthusiasm are contagious.

Saturday evening’s program (No. 4) started with Dances at a Gathering, Jerome Robbins’s appealing creation from 1969. Allan Ulrich, dance critic for the San Francisco Chronicle loved it, and reviewed it well:

I agreed with the first part of his review: great dancing, lovely Chopin piano music, no missteps among the ten supremely talented company members, which included soloists Dores André, Carlo di Lanno, and corps de ballet member Steven Morse (nice job!). If I had any complaint with the beautiful dancing, it was that, clocking in at over an hour, such pretty perfection grew, I dunno. Un-challenging. It wasn’t soul stirring fodder. And I really, really like to get my soul stirred while at the ballet.

San Francisco Ballet © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet © Erik Tomasson

Enter Liam Scarlett’s Hummingbird. Specifically the second movement. Omigod. Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham, reprising their roles from last year, once again offered one of the most riveting, soul-stirring pas de deux I’ve seen since… well, when they performed it last year. It was so satisfying and cathartic to watch. Some movements you just don’t want to end, and this was one of them.

What was so significant in my mind about last year’s performance, was the fact that Ingham was a soloist, being paired frequently with Tan through the season, in the face of Damian Smith’s imminent departure from the company. Smith and Tan had always danced so gorgeously together, partnered up so well, you knew Smith would be a tough partner to replace. (I still miss the hell out of him this season, and I know I’m not alone in that regard.) It wasn’t until I saw Ingham and Tan in Hummingbird that the “wow!” factor kicked in, in a big way. The electricity of their performance, the onstage chemistry, left me breathless, utterly mesmerized. I walked out of the War Memorial Opera House last year in a daze, understanding that Ingham had just earned something very big that night. And indeed, within the next few weeks (days?), he was promoted to principal.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. © Erik Tomasson

Here’s an excerpt from my Backtrack review from last year, which ended up sounding pretty much identical to the review I scratched out after this year’s performance, so hey, let’s recycle.

“Hummingbird is set to Philip Glass’ Tyrol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and features a striking backdrop – a grand, sky-high canvas, designed by John Macfarlane. The floor slopes up to meet canvas and from that juncture, out creep the dancers, in costumes of various grey hues.  Effective and intriguing were the use of silhouette and shadow periodically showcasing the three principal couples, two soloist couples, and corps ensemble. Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin performed well in a physically demanding, quick-moving pas de deux laced with contention as well as intimacy. Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham were standouts in a gorgeous, electric pas de deux. It was Tan’s second memorable pas de deux for the night, and it almost seemed planned that way, the first with the longtime, soon-to-be-former partner, Smith, the second with the challenger, and indeed, the pas de deux seemed to encompass both antagonism and longing, an upheaval of the old, a fight to establish the new. Ingham’s stage presence has never seemed more powerful, particularly as he longingly pressed up against Tan, after having flung her and spun her about. The accompanying adagio movement of the Tyrol Concerto is gorgeous and hypnotic.”

Speaking of reviews, here’s one I wrote for Program 3, which I’d seen earlier in the week. This program included Forsythe’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” Hans van Manen’s “Variations for two couples” and Myles Thatcher’s world premier of Manifesto. Standout performers throughout the night included Sarah Van Patten, Carlos Quenedit, Frances Chung, Davit Karapetyan, Carlo di Lanno, Sofiane Sylve, Jennifer Stahl, Taras Domitro, corps de ballet dancers Norika Matsuyama, Steven Morse and Sean Orza.

I’ll end with a suggestion for ballet bargain hunters: check your favorite dance company’s online reservation site from time to time. Or call them. That’s how I got my $14 ticket. (Did you click on the link above? Why not? It’s a funny story. Here’s another chance: Don’t be afraid to try the off-to-the-side and way-front seats. Yes, it’s a different experience, and, if money were no object, I’d always pick center, 10-15 rows from the front. But not when they want $175 for the seat. Oh, the saving grace, in the end, of those $25 ticket options. What a great San Francisco night of entertainment — and one that didn’t break the bank.


2 thoughts on “Hummingbirds and bargain seats at the San Francisco Ballet”

  1. You give a very good description of the bargain section crowd. I have a good friend who is a real ballet enthusiast and sometimes attends two performances in a week. Obviously, she cannot afford buying expensive tickets twice a week (even if tickets seem to be a little cheaper here). She is just the kind of person you described. (I like the bargain section, too. People tend to be friendlier and often have an after-theater coffee and chat together. )

    • Oh, good, I’m glad you agreed, Trippmadam. I was afraid I was making a generalization that someone was going to lash out and criticize me for. Even if they do that now, I can say, “Hey, Trippmadam agrees with me — so there!” Yes, it’s a fun vibe there in that section. So different from my press ticket sections; it’s a treat to get to do both.


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