When Willam Christensen took over the five-year-old San Francisco Opera Ballet in 1938, he thought big, staging the first complete American Swan Lake two years later. Perhaps he envisaged the world-class company that plays City Center through October 13. The San Francisco Ballet honors the heritage of classicism that the three Christensen brothers brought to it, along with the Balanchinian ideals understood both by Lew Christensen, who had been Balanchine’s first American Apollo, and Helgi Tomasson (another great Balanchine dancer), SFB’s artistic director since 1985. The current repertory mingles 19th-century classics with works by Balanchine, Robbins, Christensen, and Tomasson; commissions by hot—and very, very good—choreographers such as Mark Morris and Christopher Wheeldon; and prudently chosen acquisitions. Tomasson also sponsors in-house talent.
He has turned the company into a jewel box of talent. The dancers are lucid, spacious; they neither tighten up when called on to be quick nor push their steps at you like overeager hosts with a surplus of hors d’oeuvres. They’re ardent yet somehow modest. Their port de bras can practically bring tears to your eyes. Watch Damian Smith, fluent and serenely focused as the Tortoise in Tomasson’s gilt chinoiserie bauble Chi Lin. Watch Parrish Maynard (fondly recalled from his American Ballet Theatre days) glinting like a knife in the intricacies of William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, or Gonzalo Garcia, a sunny young lion in the Morris and Wheeldon ballets, or Yuan Yuan Tan, fragile-looking with a tensiIe strength powering her extravagant extensions. I could name many more. Kristin Long, dancing with Yuri Possokhov in Tomasson’s lovely Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers, is a marvel of clarity. Instead of making one of those twining, clambering pas de deux in which the woman is seldom on her own feet, Tomasson keeps the dancers tenderly conversing in sympathy with Handel’s limpid questions and answers.
Morris’s Sandpaper Ballet and The Garden are governed, as expected, by his always refreshing take on music. The first, to Leroy Anderson tunes we could all sing in our sleep (“Jazz Pizzicato,” “The Syncopated Clock,” et al.), rings changes on drill teams, but also on the ensembles of 19th-century ballet. Except that whenever the company, all clad in Isaac Mizrahi’s part green, part white unitards with green gloves and shoes, musters itself into four lines running from the footlights to the back of the stage, there’s always someone out of place or craving another spot or arriving late (not the only Balanchine joke in the piece: Midway through it, tall, elegant Muriel Maffre is partnered by one, then two, then three men, who wittily weave and duck around her while she balances on one toe; she leaves and they play it again with an air ballerina). Morris seems perfectly at home with pointe shoes and brisés, and I love the way this bright work gives many dancers a chance to shine in a flood of ingenious little episodes. To Morris a “light work” doesn’t mean a simple-minded one; he lavishes on Sandpaper all the rich, deep strategies at his command.
The Garden takes its tone from Richard Strauss’s Tanzsuite for Orchestra, after keyboard pieces by François Couperin. In this garden of delights, the dancers are the statuary, the arbors, the vines; occasionally they are also, despite the women’s plain short black dresses and the men’s black tights and rust polo shirts, baroque courtiers—placing their hands just so on the air in front of them, flourishing a wrist, copying one another’s steps and manners. Amid the dance-party formations—a circle of four, tricky contradance lines for eight on the other side of the stage—Kester Cotton and Guennadi Nedviguine spring by in a bounding, contrapuntal dialogue and Sherri LeBlanc and Smith indulge in a long love dance.
Continuum is Wheeldon’s second ballet to the music of Gyorgi Ligeti; he explores with dazzling ease Ligeti’s musical thickets and long, dark silences. Like his marvelous Polyphonia for the New York City Ballet, Continuum features four couples (Julie Diana and David Arce, Long and Garcia, Tan and Smith, Maffre and Benjamin Pierce); yet their duets emerge from a variegated array of experiences. While a dark curtain at the back rises, descends part way, or falls, the green-clad couples bathed in Natasha Katz’s fascinating lighting parse the intricacies of the music and Wheeldon’s tersely elegant, slightly screwy phrases as if they were a group of like-minded friends and lovers.
Yuri Possokhov’s second group work for the company, Damned, cries out for a dramaturge. For one thing, opening this version of Medea with Ravel’s Pavane Pour une Infante Défunte means he had to begin sweet, so we see Jason (Nedviguine) frothing ecstatically around with his princess (Nicole Starbuck) before we even meet Medea (superbly crazed Lorena Feijoo) or see what Jason is to her. The chorus is promisingly clad in white skirts, bare (or faux-bare) tops, white half-masks, and pale yarn wigs, but they mostly do ballet steps that distinguish them by gender, creating an extremely curious effect. Chi-Lin, gorgeously decorated with lighting and projections by Clifton Taylor and set to music by Bright Sheng, isn’t Tomasson’s finest work, but exhibits its dancers (I saw Tan, Smith, Maynard, and Sergio Torrado) in attractive solos with semi-Chinese touches. Clad in gold by Sandra Woodall, they represent mythological characters of good omen: unicorn, tortoise, phoenix, and dragon. And perhaps ensure a deservedly fine future for SFB.
If you took in Maura Donohue’s Rip It Open at its opening-night fundraiser at P.S.122, you caught the three guys of Slant Performance Group selling raffle tickets in goldfish suits. At every performance, though, you’d have seen Donohue jump rope for a very long time and maybe gotten an Asahi from Brian Nishii, while he slapped away thirsty Peggy Cheng for attempting to get a hand in his cooler. Although Nishii hawks his wares in rapid-fire Japanese, once the piece starts (or has it started?), he tells us he has fantasies about beating up Japanese people.
In this smart-messy work, often very funny, sometimes pornographic, Donohue—half American, half Vietnamese—butts together and slams apart the perps and vics of race and gender violence, while pop music assails us and videos (one’s of a fish being dissected) flicker on a small screen. Just before Donohue attacks a punching bag with fists and karate kicks, we hear, “Try not to slip on the blood.” Cheng may crawl in leashed and hand one end to Nishii, but she and Nancy Ellis, recalling giggly junior high days, also throw powder and reduce this charming, boastful hunk to a cowering thing. Men take a lot of raps, but Donohue, bouncing in a harness, affirming she believes in peace, gets off on her prayers for a good fuck (the cry “Jesus Christ!” could be an invite).
Amid the melee, Donohue plays with actual reality and illusory realities. Ranting about neurosis, Ellis wanders into the audience. Performers talk to us if they feel like it, and the crude roles they play contrast with their obvious affection for one another. Oh, I forgot, right at the end they dance.