In its second mixed bill here in New York, San Francisco Ballet once again impressed with its vitality and the depth of its bench, as well as with its pleasantly unified look. [Review of the first program] There are stars, for sure – with Sofiane Sylve right at the top of the list – but they don’t upstage the company as a whole. Each ballet brings new discoveries; in this program, I was particularly struck by the men, among them Gennadi Nedvigin, Rubén Martín Cíntas, Hansuke Yamamoto, James Sofranko, and, especially, Pascal Molat, but also, by the imperturbable porcelain quality of Yuan Yuan Tan, who conceals deep reserves of power behind that cool, otherworldly exterior. Tan did not bat an eye during the tricky pas de deux created for her by Edwaard Liang in his Symphonic Dances, not even when it required her to hoist practically her entire body weight while swinging from the arm of her partner, the steadfast Luke Ingham (built like an oak). She must have molten steel running through her veins.
There was perhaps an over-emphasis on such tricky manipulations in the second half of last night’s program, which contained both Symphonic Dances and another recent creation, Classical Symphony, by the company’s resident choreographer, Yuri Possokhov. After a while, the accumulation of novel techniques for lifting, swinging, flipping or carrying a ballerina can begin to suck the life out of a ballet. Up she goes! Both works are busy and grand and calculated for maximum effect, crammed with bravura steps and – not inconsequentially – set to sonorous symphonic Russian music (Prokofiev and Rachmaninov). Of the two, Possokhov’s Classical Symphony is the more self-consciously contemporary, contrasting sinuous torsos and undulating arms with demonstrations of an almost exaggerated Imperial classicism. Its pairing of grandiosity – the Baroque courtliness of the arms and hands and haughty looks – and quirkiness gives it a slightly ironic, meta- quality, in the manner of early Forsythe. (Also, the ballerinas wear saucer-like tutus, as they do in Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.) The energy never flags. A particular highlight is a section in which the men do nothing more than jump in great flying arcs across the stage. (It is set to a familiar gavotte which Prokofiev later included in his ballet Romeo and Juliet). Possokhov does well to show off the company’s male dancers – they are splendid.
This fact was also brought home by Mark Morris’s Beaux, which, along with Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands, formed the first half of the evening. Beaux, for nine men, is a delight, one of the most laid-back ballets ever made. Its whimsical pastel camouflage unitards and backdrop (by Isaac Mizrahi) may be a bit much, but at the same time, their teasing anti-macho look echoes one of the piece’s most appealing qualities: a kind of overarching gentleness one doesn’t usually associate with male dancers. Like a kind of Platonic posse, the nine men partner each other and play around without pretending to be hunks or hotshots. These are guys with nothing to prove, and that very fact creates a luminous space for Morris’s swinging patterns, lilting, rocking steps, and amicable passages of cooperation. The music sets the tone perfectly: three pieces for harpsichord and string orchestra by Bohuslav Martinů, all of them with a kind of swinging, neo-Baroque feel. (Each time a particular discordant chord is played, the dancers cover their faces, as if to say, “oh no, please no!”) In its serenity and superficial simplicity, Beaux has a lot in common with Morris’s Socrates, from 2010. In addition to some hints of soft-shoe and folk dance, there is a slow, stretchy solo reminiscent of Paul Taylor’s famous solo in Aureole. Morris is getting back to essential forms. The steps are precise without being finicky in that way ballet can get sometimes. And for this very reason, it’s a very exposing work: there’s nothing to hide behind. But the dancers pull it off, even managing to reveal hints of their own personalities along the way. Pascal Molat, in particular, comes across as a real charmer, a kind of brilliant, but unpretentious guy-next-door type you’d like to bring home to meet your mother.
The opener was From Foreign Lands, Ratmansky’s homage to Igor Moiseyev and the suites of ersatz national dances one finds in Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. The audience didn’t seem to warm to it much, and it’s certainly a light, frothy work. But there’s more to it than at first meets the eye. In a way, it’s a kind of inside joke about the artifice of ballet, in the manner of his Namouna for New York City Ballet. But it’s not Ratmansky’s style to rub the joke in his audience’s face. In groups of threes and fours, the small cast does a series of dances riffing on various “folk” idioms (Russian, Italian, German, Spanish, etc) to a suite by Moritz Moszkowski. But the “national” touches are very slight, intentionally so. Only the color of the women’s skirts (by Colleen Atwood) change. The Spaniards twist their wrists like flamenco dancers, the Italians hold their hands in fists and tap out light, teasing steps, a kind of modified tarantella that also make a winking reference to something more specific: Balanchine’s Tarantella. But the most pleasing details in Foreign Lands are purely dancerly: the way two men mirror each other as they travel across the floor, a Coppelia-like doll-walk, an un-supported pirouette that unexpectedly turns into a playful lift. The German dance, set to a sentimental folk song (heavy on the horns) is the jewel, with Sofiane Sylve as a kind of femme fatale served and revered by three slavish men, who nevertheless find time to dance with each other when she’s not paying attention. Other sections are less inspired, and this was the only ballet so far in which the dancers were not completely convincing. Perhaps, like the audience last night, they’re not quite sold on From Foreign Lands either.