Dance Innovations was the theme of San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3, which opened Thursday night at the War Memorial Opera House. A world premiere of Trey McIntyre’s The Big Hunger delivered not just innovation but philosophical themes, as did Edwaard Liang’s The Infinite Ocean. And while Harald Lander’s 1948 Études might not seem innovative today, it was in its day, when the Royal Danish Ballet performed mostly narrative story-ballet works.

Dores André and Benjamin Freemantle in McIntyre's The Big Hunger
© Erik Tomasson

Highest on the innovation ticket was the world premiere of Trey McIntyre’s The Big Hunger. If “the little hunger” represents the minutia we fill our daily lives with, the “big hunger” is our existential search for purpose, meaning. Dores André and Benjamin Freemantle, in fuchsia wigs and matching cropped unitards, opened the work with a taut, explosive pas de deux. Movements were rapid, ever changing, sometimes supporting, sometimes restraining. The backdrop displayed a green exit sign, its stick-figure man in mid-stride, a directive of how to find safety, how to keep safe. Later, rooms and signs will decay and crumble, implying that none of the minutia can save us. The ballet is set to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2, a stunning, complex concerto (performed by 2017 Van Cliburn competition gold winner, Yekwon Sunwoo) that complements the sense of relentless, whirling energy, melodic beauty followed by chaotic dissonance.

Memorable moments include a militaristic male corps de ballet wearing fuchsia wigs, complete with bangs and swinging hair. The unexpected wit of it drew laughter and yet, when humor didn’t make a return to the ballet, it seemed ominous in retrospect. Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham were mesmerizing in their pas de deux, as were Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang, the latter couple curiously clad in Quaker-like grey dresses and bonnets, a choice that garbled more than supported a “big hunger versus little” theme. That message seemed to get lost, although Thomas Mika’s sets and scenery changes were very effective, and, along with Jim French’s lighting design, told a more comprehensive story than the dancers’ movements.

San Francisco Ballet in Liang's The Infinite Ocean
© Erik Tomasson

Edwaard Liang’s 2018 The Infinite Ocean, opening the program, was another thoughtful, philosophically dense work. It's a meditation on that space between life and death, a physical demonstration of transition, of letting go, or resisting. Dancers move in unison, in pairs, sometimes at odds, other times clustered close. Alexander V. Nichols design of a giant golden sun and an upward tilt to the stage in back created an otherworldly mood, aided by James F. Ingalls’ lighting design and Oliver Davis’ elegant commissioned score. Violinist Cordula Merks offered a beautiful solo voice, accompanied by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra (Martin West conducting). Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno, one of two lead couples, shared a compelling pas de deux. Tan seems to operate on a different plane of existence, one with different laws of gravity, with her long-limbed extensions and the way her torso remains calm even as she is being flipped around. Carlo di Lanno danced superbly as her partner and in his own right. Later, Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets delivered their own magic. An inventive acrobatic move had her curving beneath him and then taking the movement in reverse, eliciting gasps of pleasure and approval from the audience. Noteworthy too was the strong ensemble of eight dancers. The entire cast, center stage, clustered as a group in Mark Zappone’s costumes – glittering pale leotards with patterned bolts of white – was an affecting sight.

The dancers’ departure at the end created a haunting moment, when Yuan Yuan Tan, the last to resist the inevitable, finally turned and ran upstage, where, at the edge, she leapt, turning midair, and disappeared.

Joseph Walsh in Lander's Etudes
© Erik Tomasson

Harald Lander’s Études celebrates the study of classical ballet. Created in 1948 when Lander was artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, utilizing Carl Czerny’s piano music arranged for orchestra by Knudåge Riisager, the work begins as a ballet class, a dozen females immersed in tendu exercises at the barre. Craig J. Miller’s lighting design cleverly focused light on legs alone, the dancers in their black pancake tutus otherwise shadowed. The ballet continues through barre exercises and beyond, making effective use of a corps ensemble of forty. Lead dancers Sasha de Sola, Angelo Greco, Joseph Walsh and Carlo Di Lanno delivered solos and duets in classic Bournonville style, which emphasizes clean, impressive beats and jumps, gracefully curved arms. Sasha de Sola offered a beautiful La Sylphide interpretation, her épaulement and arabesques a picture of loveliness. Kudos, as well, to the men for their sky-high jumps, dizzying beats, dazzling brisés volé. The ballet culminates with fouettés, bravura leaps from the whole cast and a rousing finish with everyone onstage. It was an exuberant end to an intelligent, satisfying production, both of thought and movement.