In a weekend full of dramatic performances, San Francisco Ballet concluded its season at the War Memorial Opera House on Sunday night with a superb gala performance in which Muriel Maffre bid farewell to the company after 17 years as a principal dancer.

If emotions ran high for the final shows of the company's 74th season, the atmosphere for Sunday night's celebration for Maffre -- surely San Francisco Ballet's most respected artist -- was at a fever pitch. Audience members seemed to be conflicted, torn between anticipating the unrivaled feast of seeing Maffre reinvent six of her best-known roles, and dreading the knowledge that her commanding presence will no longer grace the Opera House stage.

The 41-year-old Maffre joined San Francisco Ballet in 1990 as a principal dancer and during her tenure she has danced more than 75 ballets, creating 21 of those roles -- more than any other dancer currently in the company. Her range includes everything from classical and Romantic roles such as "Sleeping Beauty" and "La Sylphide," to Balanchine works like "Bugaku" or "Rubies." Known for her dedication to her artistry, and an inventive approach to her work, she is a favorite with choreographers such as William Forsythe, Mark Morris, Yuri Possokhov, Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, and as she danced many of those choreographers' works this season, they took on an extra poignancy.


Time is inexorable however, and the lights dimmed as conductor Martin West led the orchestra in Philip Glass' portentous thrum, which heralded the excerpt of Jerome Robbins' "Glass Pieces." This adagio duet juxtaposes a faceless line of automatonlike dancers, who gently sway across the back of a dark stage, against the spectacularly alien couple of Maffre, partnered by a steady Pierre-Francois Vilanoba. And as with most of the evening's pieces, it offered not only a meditative beauty, but also a chance to examine Maffre's carefully calculated approach to her work.

Maffre falls into the category of what is commonly called a dancer's dancer, which is to say that the level of her work draws the awe and respect of her fellow professionals. The audience appreciates the seamless appearance, the cool composure and fluidity of her performance, while other artists marvel at how neatly and intelligently the trajectory and momentum of each limb has been plotted out.

Perhaps unknown about Maffre, however, is that she's a comedian with a sharp sense of comic timing. Partnered by a beaming, boyish and utterly charming James Sofranko, she reprised the short-guy-romances-tall-woman duet, "The Alaskan Rag" from Kenneth MacMillan's "Elite Syncopations," complete with perfectly timed dodges and near misses, ridiculously froufrou hat and an exhilarated smile.

Maffre's best roles, however, are her most considered pieces, some of which have been honed over years of reinterpretation. The mood shifted back to the introverted with the second half of the program, which began with her unusual ugly-is-beautiful version of Michel Fokine's "The Dying Swan." Her broken flightless bird with sadly faded grandeur created an unforgettable moment, and brought the packed house to its feet -- not for the last time that evening.

Perhaps her greatest gift, however is that, Maffre, whose degree from St. Mary's College has fed her interest in arts curating, offers performances that not only challenge herself and her partners, but also invite, even demand, more complex thought from the audience. Her performance with Damian Smith in an excerpt from Wheeldon's "Continuum" reconstituted the slow-moving pas de deux as a series of inquiries directed at us.

To close the program, Maffre was joined by principals Vilanoba, Pascal Molat and Kristin Long, as well as most of the corps de ballet in the first half of William Forsythe's "Artifact II." If the dancers seemed to inject an extra measure of abandon into the piece, Maffre's charges through space and wild pinwheels of legs in mesmerizing kinetic designs looked as grand they always have, only reinforcing the realization that she has never given a performance of this or any other ballet at less than 110 percent.