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Pierre-François Vilanoba and Karen Gabay retire.
Pierre-François Vilanoba’s final week as a member of San Francisco Ballet was filled with challenges gracefully navigated. Last April, the veteran French danseur rose above last-minute injuries to give a rousing performance in Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, capping a 15-year career with SFB.
Trained in Lille and at the Paris Opéra Ballet School—he danced in the company for eight years before joining SFB—Vila-noba was one of SFB’s true danseurs nobles, effortlessly gracious in classical roles like Albrecht in Giselle and Siegfried in Swan Lake, and heartbreaking in dramatic leads in Petit’s L’Arlesienne, Lubovitch’s Othello, and as the title character in Cranko’s Onegin. Vilanoba danced contemporary works with aplomb, making a lasting impression in ballets like Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated, Elo’s Double Evil, and Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight. Always a gallant partner, his tall, dark good looks and courtly demeanor added a romance to Robbins’ In the Night and Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet. In real life, Vilanoba’s Juliet is Tomasson’s assistant Regina Bustillos, whom he married in 2011. He is currently finishing his degree through the LEAP program at Saint Mary’s College and plans to pursue studies in psychology.
Fellow principal Vanessa Zahorian, who danced with Vilanoba in his final performance, says that she is most struck by his always attentive and caring support of her, from her first duet with him as a young soloist in Wheeldon’s Sea Pictures to their more recent pairing in Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid.
“Pierre is someone who looks you in the eye onstage and makes you feel confident and comfortable,” she says. “He brought out the best in me artistically. He would always laugh and smile at me and I’ll miss that lighthearted presence.” —Mary Ellen Hunt
Vilanoba as Apollo. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
On April 21, during a tribute at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, principal dancer Karen Gabay stepped onto the stage for the last time with her colleagues from Ballet San Jose.
Thus ended a remarkable career. Gabay’s four older siblings opted for college, but Gabay had seen calls for auditions in Dance Magazine. So when in 1980, artistic director Dennis Nahat’s young Cleveland Ballet happened to come to Los Angeles, Gabay decided to go for it. “It was my first professional audition,” she remembers. She was 18. Nahat also recalls the moment. “I saw her bright face, her beautiful young presence, so I hired her on the spot.”
Gabay danced Maria in Nahat’s The Nutcracker during her first season at Cleveland; last December she choreographed a new Nutcracker for that company’s successor, Ballet San Jose—and danced Marie in one of the performances.
During her three decades with the company, Nahat choreographed dozens of roles—both classical and contemporary—on the petite Gabay. Again and again, she captivated audiences not just with her strong technique and radiant smile, but with the range of her expressive abilities. Nahat describes her as a dancer “who can bite into any kind of repertoire.”
Even though she had job offers—from Australia Ballet and Broadway, among others—she happily stayed at what became her home. For many summers, however, she performed with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Chautauqua Dance Com-pany. “He had full access to the Balanchine repertoire, and I danced a lot of Balanchine with him.”
When Gabay joined Nahat’s company—“a choreographer’s company,” she emphasizes—she was young, and so was Ballet San Jose. They have grown up together. It has been a happy partnership. “ I have been very lucky,” Gabay says. “I also still love to dance.” —Rita Felciano