There was a distinct change in the weather Wednesday at City Hall for the 76th Opening Night Gala of the San Francisco Ballet.
From the blustery blast of winter that (finally) engulfed our fair city to changing political winds sweeping across the nation, two words repeatedly passed over the lips of many gala guests: "Brrr" and "Barack."
In fact, a few gala guests (some even, noted Republicans) had just returned that morning from D.C. where they attended the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
“To see that many people on the Mall at the hour of the morning for such an historic occasion was incredibly moving,” reported San Francisco’s First Lady, Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
Also in evidence at the Ballet's Russian Treasures Gala, the kick-start of the winter social season? A not-surprising downturn in attendance to about 750 patrons from the usual 1,200 patrons.
The upside? Prior to the evening’s performance, Ballet Board Chairman Richard Barker announced their endowment campaign raised $44.7 million, almost $20 million over goal. And all gala night proceeds benefit the Ballet’s education and Ballet School programs.
Arriving as SF Ballet students (wrapped in imperial Romanov-style gold brocade and fur-trimmed robes) corralled guests to dinner, author-filmmaker Robert Mailer Anderson wondered about the gala’s theme.
“Didn’t you get the memo?” we teased. “Russia. But think, Czarist Russia. Not USSR”
“Considering I’m a Marxist at heart,” said Anderson, laughing, “That could be a funny theme!”
There was definitely no Soviet chic among these Swells. Yet the echo of President Obama’s call for belt-tightening and boot-strapping was, theoretically, in evidence.
Bouncing off marble walls and balustrades of City Hall’s glorious Rotunda was a ubiquitous phrase employed by numerous gala-goers of their gorgeous gowns: “It’s vintage.”
“Vintage,” we’ve decided, is the new code word for “recycled.” As in, “This ol’ thing? I actually wore it two seasons ago. But don’t tell anyone.”
And, ladies? It’s OK! It gets lonely in that well-appointed, walk-in closet and we loudly applaud those who boldly take out that Balenciaga for yet another ball.
Except for Ballet Trustee O.J. Shansby, whose black-lace “vintage” truly was vintage.
“This was my grandmother’s dress which I had to sew in a few places right before we got here,” explained the blonde beauty. “I feel like I need to be in a bubble in this crowd with a sign reading, ‘Don’t touch, it’s fragile’!”
Channeling her inner, non-vintage Russian, Daru Kawalkowski dazzled in a racy velvet leopard-print gown trimmed with fur that, she teased, was designed by “Mikhail Kasakhov.”
“Actually it’s by Michael Casey. The theme is ‘Russian’ so you’ve got to have fur," said Daru, daringly. "And my earrings are black-and-white diamonds in honor of Barack Obama!”
Ballet Trustee Charlotte Mailliard Shultz was a vision in layers of coral tulle. But needed to enlist the aid of her pal, longtime Ballet patron Yurie Pascarella, in divining the design of her gown.
“I couldn’t remember the designer so I asked Yurie to peek at the label,” said Shultz, pulling out a slip of paper from her evening bag. “I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget: Carmen Marc Volvo. It sounds like a car!”
“Well,” chimed in dapper David Gockley, General Director of the San Francisco Opera. “With a name like that, it must be a very safe dress!”
Guests finally tore themselves away from the cocktail gaggle, making their way to ornate tables set in the Rotunda and adjacent Lights Courts which were decked out in differing interpretations of Russian Treasures.
“I recently visited Russia and my inspiration for this gala is the Hermitage Museum,” enthused Ideas’ designer J. Riccardo Benavides. “But we didn’t want ‘Baroque.’ This is a scaled-down opulence.”
Tables were set with tapestry linens, each room aglow in different color palettes and inspired by icons such as Faberge eggs or the Hermitage’s Gold Mirror Room. Benavides also included large-screen projections of Hermitage art, from gilt mirrors to portraits of nobility, to set this stage.
McCall Associates Executive Chef Lucas Schoemaker loaded those tables with great grub starring smoked salmon Marquis, filet mignon and a dark chocolate Faberge egg filled with hazelnut mousse.
Missing from the tables (for which some patrons ponied up $17k per)? The beloved little guest “gift bag” filled with some fabulous bauble.
During rocky, recessionista times, cultural institutions are grateful for the kind of sponsorship that U.S. Trust Bank of America Private Wealth Management lent to the Ballet Gala. So gifts (which actually, are often later re-gifted), be damned!
Let’s not forget our new mantras: “Belt-tightening,” “Bootstraps,” and “Vintage.”
As well as, “Russian Treasures” -- even if only in theme or gloriously displayed onstage by the world-renowned dance troupe during the Ballet’s 2009 repertory season featuring world premieres of a new Swan Lake production by SF Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and Raymonda Pas de Deux by resident-choreographer and former SF Ballet Principal Dancer Yuri Possokhov.
“There is always something new, or a new way of looking at things,” said Tomasson, enthusiastically. “I first choreographed Swan Lake for the Ballet 21 years ago. This year, we have an all new production, new scenery and new costumes.”
Even in the midst of this new, new, NEW economy and on the heels last year's heady heights of the Ballet’s highly successful 75th anniversary, Tomasson is thrilled about this season’s curtains-up: “There is, always, much to be excited about!”