San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson’s The Fifth Season, photo by Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet‘s engagement at City Center came to a close this weekend after presenting three diverse programs. The two that I saw illustrated artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s dedication to preserving Balanchine classics while incorporating newer choreographic voices, including his own, into the repertoire. Not everything was successful, but one thing was clear: SFB dancers have impeccable technique and clarity of intention, and the men in particular are some of the strongest I’ve ever seen.
One program opened with Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, and the other closed with The Four Temperaments. The former showcased the dancers’ clean lines and pure technique. Frances Chung, in the second variation, had a lovely, engaging presence that made the challenging choreography look effortless. But this ballet felt dated and uncomfortably formal, especially when compared to the black-and-white Four T’s, set to Paul Hindemith’s wonderfully moody Theme with Four Variations for String Orchestra and Piano. I had forgotten how many high leg extensions and battements are in this ballet, all of which were performed with simultaneous control and attack. The highlight, however, was Taras Domitro in the Melancholic variation. Not only did he amaze the audience with his unbelievably flexible back, but he also infused the variation with lyricism, passion, and a subtle spiritual quality. Perhaps he went against Balanchine by showing so much emotion, but it only enhanced his performance.
Mr. Tomasson contributed Concerto Grosso and The Fifth Season back to back on one of the programs. Set to a strings composition by Karl Jenkins, The Fifth Season included a waltz, a romance, a tango, and a largo for a variety of couples. While the dancers – dressed in blue-gray leotards and tights – were in command of the movement, it was unclear what they were attempting to convey, which left me wondering: What exactly is the fifth season? Mr. Tomasson packed as much choreography as possible into the music, but the result was still bland. Concerto Grosso showed the technical prowess of five men who performed a series of solos and duets. They were all superb, and their technical strengths clearly inspired Tomasson enough to make a ballet about just that. Poise, elegance, and artistry played a role, but this was mainly about technique.
Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in Within the Golden Hour, photo by Erik Tomasson
I had mixed feelings about Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company’s recent season at City Center, so I was prepared to be disappointed by Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, which he created for SFB last April. But this ballet, set to Ezio Bosso‘s music for strings, revealed the choreographic complexity and emotional depth that reminded me why I’m drawn to Wheeldon’s work. Three pas de deux were framed by ensemble dancing that again emphasized the strength of SFB’s men. Golden lighting, costumes in various earth tones, and Bosso’s mysterious compositions created a delicate, otherworldly atmosphere. At the heart of the ballet was a lyrical duet for Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba that conveyed the distant longing for something far beyond their reach. Wheeldon interwove the music and movement to create a pure, organic whole, with the slow tempo allowing the dancers to luxuriate in every stretch, extension, and detail of the intricate partnering. This is one of the strongest Wheeldon ballets I’ve seen in a while, but it would be so refreshing to see some independent women in his works. Within the Golden Hour, like many of his other pieces, relied on the men manipulating the women from one movement to the next. The shapes and lifts that they created were stunning, but it was always the men initiating the movement. And while there were a series of duets and solos for the men, the women were rarely featured on their own.
Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Yuri Possokhov’s Fusion, photo by Erik Tomasson
At the beginning of Mark Morris’s Joyride, digital number plates that were attached to the dancers’ shiny metallic costumes caught the audience’s attention, but the piece eventually wandered from one grouping of witty movement to the next. John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony contributed to the flatness of the piece, continuing along without ever gaining momentum. Yuri Possokhov’s Fusion, on the other hand, was focused on building – or rather, fusing – several parts into a greater whole: old and new, ancient and modern, east and west. Unfortunately, the piece was formulaic in the way it went about conveying this cultural merge. First, four men danced who represented the “old”; then several couples illustrated the “new”; and then they danced together, with Possokhov incorporating choreography from both the old and new. The only truly enlightening part of Fusion was a duet for Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith. With sweeping lifts and lunges, the dancers seemed to set aside the piece’s agenda and just immerse themselves in the movement.
Both programs showed musical and choreographic range, but what was most memorable were the superb technical and artistic abilities of SFB’s dancers.