Politics and inclement weather have reigned supreme in California’s headlines the past few months, but they proved incapable of dampening the spirits of San Francisco balletomanes this week at the War Memorial Opera House, as San Francisco Ballet commenced its 84th repertory season. On Thursday, opening night of Program 2, Yuri Possokhov's world première of Optimistic Tragedy, sandwiched between performances of two of last year’s premières, steered us back into a political mindset in a thoughtful and thought-provoking fashion.

The evening’s first ballet was Alexei Ratmansky’s 2009 Seven Sonatas. Featuring six dancers, set to Scarlatti’s piano sonatas, performed by Mungunchimeg Buriad, the ballet is lovely, ever flowing. A peach-hued backdrop shifts to teal as variations of solos, trios and ensemble are presented, in movements both elegant and playful. Holly Hynes’ white costumes contributed to the mood, as did Brad Fields’ lighting. Ratmansky’s choreography moves fast, but takes time to emphasize dancers’ long graceful lines, with languorous stretches and pauses. The faster pace delivers the occasional jazzy arm position, a little Russian folk footwork. Powerhouse Frances Chung seemed to hang midair in her high pas de chat. The luminous Sofiane Sylve, regal in an arched pose, held her arms in a high fifth that opened in sharp increments, a movement echoed a moment later by a second dancer behind her, and then a third. Lauren Strongin and Joseph Walsh shared a beautiful, affecting pas de deux. Newcomer Angelo Greco impressed with his strong technique and vivid presence. Winner of the Erik Bruhn prize this past year, he is one to watch. Fellow Italian and La Scala-trained dancer Carlo Di Lanno continues to refine his own considerable talent, with his smooth, effortless-looking petit allegro, strong partnering and theatrical presentation.

Resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s Optimistic Tragedy is dedicated “to those who sacrificed their lives for future generations.” Inspiration for this ballet, initially intended as abstract and plotless, struck when Possokhov heard Russian composer Ilya Demutsky’s commissioned score, a gorgeous, soaring composition packed with emotion and soul. It brought to Possokhov’s mind the 1933 Soviet play, Optimistic Tragedy, as well as Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film, Battleship Potemkin with their themes of revolution, power, and the passion of resistance themes that are painfully relevant today. 

Alexander V. Nichols’ projection design, a three-paneled backdrop that alternated between black-and-white film footage and slides, helped depict a post-World War I nautical setting. Lighting by Christopher Dennis enhanced a minimalist set of a ship’s frame and its interior. The cast of sixteen males (to one lone female), representing a crew of communists and anarchists, showed off San Francisco Ballet's impressive roster of male dancers. The sailors’ ensemble pieces were brilliantly danced, full of brio and zest. The story is spare: a new commissar arrives, a female (Lorena Feijoo) creating unease on board, particularly between the captain (Luke Ingham) and the anarchists, led by Taras Domitro. The commissar is soon forced to defend herself through scuffles and violence, shooting an anarchist who tries to rape her. Feijoo is brilliant as the feisty commissar, sporting black leather and a long slit skirt (Mark Zappone, costume design). An ensuing romantic, tension-filled pas de deux between Feijoo and Ingham featured both dancers at their best. Ingham shines in roles like this, becoming more impassioned, recklessly bold, as he lifted Feijoo high, spun her, tried to hold on to her. Taras Domitro, as the lead anarchist now pitted against the captain, stood out powerfully among the other dancers. His leaps and turns were wondrous to behold, his energy explosive. In the end, however, this was Feijoo’s ballet, and she was glorious, bittersweetly so, as her retirement at season’s end was just announced a few days earlier.

William Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016 concluded the program with fifteen sublimely talented dancers who, in twenty-one vignettes, turned, leapt, extended, twisted, interacted, filled the stage in dazzling ensemble passages before disappearing through sides of the three-sided white set. Last year’s San Francisco première of the 1999 original became its own new entity after Forsythe re-choreographed seventy-five percent of the ballet to downplay the modern and better reflect the SFB dancers’ classicism. (Thank you, Mr. Forsythe!) Thom Willems’ electronic score, however, still provides ample modern eclecticism. Stephen Galloway’s costumes – women were bare-legged, with sleeveless leotards that were black in front but colored on the back – complemented the dancers’ movements, making it feel as though one was watching two different dancers each time they turned. Standouts in this ballet included Frances Chung, Maria Kochetkova, Dores André, James Sofranko, Joseph Walsh, Wei Wang, Julia Rowe, Sofiane Sylve and Francisco Mungamba. Kudos to Skyla Schreter, the evening’s lone female corps dancer, who blended in well, in this lively conclusion to an evening of entertaining and thought-provoking dance.