Tuesday, February 3, 2009

when lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd

San Francisco Ballet opened its 76th season this week with the quiet elegance artistic director Helgi Tomasson has been carving into the company's character for more than two decades.

With three big, structurally complex works Tuesday evening in Program 1 and three bittersweet studies of romance in Program 2 Thursday at the War Memorial Opera House, Tomasson showed us again that he is a director who shapes his programs with understated yet fierce curatorial care. As admirable as this is, the result is often uneven — sometimes sublime and at others uptight. This week produced a bit of both.

Program 1 offered a lineup of big dances that happened also to be subtle color studies, which is where they were most interesting. Opening the program was Tomasson's "Prism," a grand ballet he created for the New York City Ballet Diamond Project in 2001. Alternating between sweeping blocks of ensemble dancing and duets and trios, it was warmly bathed in apricot and red tones and set to Beethoven's Concerto No. 1.

At its heart "Prism" deployed an array of triangular formations, essential to some prisms, danced boldly by Kristin Long, Ruben Marin and Hansuke Yamaoto and later by Sofiane Sylve, Ivan Popov and Tars Domitro, the puckish wonder of the night. Still, emotionally, none of it quite struck home.

George Balanchine's "Four Temperaments," was Prism's bookend. This is an ascetic ballet but it can pack a wallop when
performed with the right quality of ironic austerity. Built from jazz-inflected, hip-thrusting movement and set to a commissioned score by Paul Hindemith in 1946, the ballet Tuesday was ably but too squarely and decorously danced. Lacking the elegant edginess Balanchine intended, "Four Temperaments" devolves into a series of impressive academic exercises.

In between was the night's delicate premiere, "Diving into the Lilacs," by Yuri Possokhov. This ballet not only seemed to tremble with designer Sandra Woodall's lilac hued costumes, Benjamin Pierce's color-shifting lilac flower projection, and lighting designer David Finn's dusky lighting, but allowed the exquisite lineup of dancers an emotional depth missing from the other two works. It hardly mattered that the sum of the parts didn't add up to more.

Thursday was altogether cheekier. The night wrapped with William Forsythe's still-sexy and wonderfully defiant "in the middle, somewhat elevated," set to Thom Willems' brash industrial music score. The dancers, in what looked like practice attire, thrust their legs and checked their hips, while the still extraordinary Katita Waldo presided, alternating between pedestrian and virtuosic movement.

Stanton Welch's "Naked" was just as elegantly cheeky. It opened the program with the choreographer's signature wit, elaborating on the pinpoint precision of Italian ballet technique, classical form and modern insouciance. Like Forsythe's work, "Naked" upended the classical idiom, though its effect was sweet rather than Promethean.

Val Caniparoli's "Ibsen's House," the centerpiece, was a beautifully disappointing study of five of playwright Henrik Ibsen's gothic couples, danced sublimely by each one. Ironically, the very propriety Caniparoli set out to attack seemed to keep his cast from the entanglements — the lies, syphyllis, and suicide — that Ibsen fearlessly portrayed. This suggests that a little less propriety would do San Francisco Ballet a lot of good.

all photos ©erik tomasson

what: San Franciso Ballet, Programs 1 and 2
WHERE: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. (at Grove Street), S.F.
when: Program 1 repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 7, 8 p.m. Thursday and Feb. 7; Program 2 repeats at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Tuesday and Feb. 6, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, and 2 p.m. today and Feb. 8
tickets: $20-$250; 415.865.2000, www.sfballet.org

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