SF Ballet’s Sarah Van Patten coruscates in career-concluding farewell

Photo of the Sarah Van Patten ballet show
Erik Tomasson/Courtesy

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On the night of April 16, San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House gleamed with the gentle tide of adieu for principal dancer Sarah Van Patten’s last dance. As her final performance following a 20-year tenure at the San Francisco Ballet, the production was a celebration of Van Patten’s venerable career, encompassing a medley of her most exemplary roles.

The show’s opener crystallized with the quintessential Tchaikovsky, unfolding an exquisite pas de deux from George Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” Orchestra conductor Martin West drove the ambling melody of “Symphony No. 3” to swelling heights as danseur Ulrik Birkkjaer propelled Van Patten into soaring lifts with graceful ease. Picturesque in their gem-furnished costumes, the duo disseminated an idyllic milieu through soft, insistent choreography — ebbing pirouettes and stately, meandering steps uncoiled the dance with serene regality. 

The pas de deux segued into its surging climax, swathing the stage in grandeur. Unbridled expression flourished as Van Patten slipped into the wistful extension of an arabesque, evincing elegant geometry in the parabolic curves carved by her gracile arms. Ending with Birkkjaer’s tender kiss pressed to her hand, Van Patten embodied the titular diamond in full, her mesmerizing iridescence as impenetrable as the stone itself. 

In one of the show’s commemorative videos, principal dancer Frances Chung described Van Patten’s dancing as “uninhibited.” It was that kind of irrepressible vigor that overlaid the pas de deux from “Gabrielle Chanel,” allowing Van Patten’s trademark artistry to glisten with finesse. Arrestingly expressive yet never imprecise, her captivating intensity spooled into vulnerability like undone thread, funneling pathos into the eye of the dance’s theatrical needle.

Yuri Possokhov’s choreography served as a striking vehicle for the tension necessitated by the dramatic arc of “Gabrielle Chanel” — a precarious backlift plunged into interpretative footwork as Van Patten became a pendulum personified, legs oscillating as if a human Newton’s cradle. At the dance’s finale, danseur Max Cauthorn laid Van Patten’s body to exhausted longitude in the stark spotlight, retreating from the stage with the music’s exhalation. 

The performance’s penultimate dance exhibited excerpts from “Wooden Dimes,” a piece entrenched in the married life of Betty (Van Patten), a 1920s chorus girl, and Robert (Luke Ingham), her discontented husband. Brandishing feathered fans, Betty and her fellow chorus girls incarnated flamboyance with their lively, synchronized capering, navigating the chaos of backstage preparation with vivacity.

Van Patten’s black and white costume was dethroned by a vibrant dress as the performance slipped into a pas de deux, its colors embodying the evolution of Betty and Robert’s relationship. Circulating through the emotional complexity of marital life, the two dancers orbited each other with yearning desperation. Though unable to find mutual fulfillment, they drew together and repelled like flowing magnets, each configuring anguish with the perimeters of their taut bodies. Caught in irreparable despondency, Robert’s eventual desertion rendered Betty a lone silhouette, wandering silently toward an isolated beacon of light. 

The farewell program culminated in the classic balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” unveiling an elaborate painted set behind the theater’s gilded curtains. Van Patten’s Juliet materialized pensively on the elevated platform, prompted to a moment of suspended, incandescent recognition as Birkkjaer reemerged as Romeo. Cape swinging in bold flaunts, Romeo beckoned to Juliet’s descent with furtive elation, commencing the pas de deux’s vernal development.

With teasing bounds and lively movements, Van Patten’s characterization crafted the limber counterpart to Birkkjaer’s powerful, lissome Romeo, their storytelling forging the fervid allure of young love. Dialogues of emotion passed through the dancers’ bodies with each poignant embrace, their arms slotted gently in sculpture-esque entwinement. As the tranquil musical landscape lilted to its conclusion, a passionate kiss melted into reluctant divergence, heralding a farewell in more ways than one.

Aglow with enraptured applause and lustrous light, Van Patten effloresced in the bittersweet alluvium of her soulful swan song. Shadowed with finality and brimming with poignancy, her final performance was equal parts enthralling and sentimental, serving as the cathartic eclipse of an illustrious era. 

Contact Esther Huang at [email protected].