This was the third programme in San Francisco Ballet’s exciting London season, and the second showcasing triple bills of new work, two of which were premiered in a Festival entitled Unbound, last year. It comprised twelve world premieres by leading choreographers who were asked – in the words of long-serving artistic director, Helgi Tomasson – to “offer a glimpse into where ballet is now, and where it is heading”. The odd one out on this programme was Liam Scarlett’s Hummingbird, which was made on the company in 2014.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Scarlett's <i>Hummingbird</i> © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Scarlett's Hummingbird
© Erik Tomasson

The resultant triple bill was a lively evening of pure dance, largely untroubled by any narrative inclination. It is a worry to those of us who like story-based dance theatre that the future of ballet seems to be largely abstract. The two selections given here from Unbound gave me no insight into where ballet might be heading. In Bespoke, Stanton Welch set neoclassical movement, vaguely themed around the passing of time, to some beautiful pieces by Bach (his only surviving violin concertos); and in Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Justin Peck’s nod to the future was a heavy slice of Americana based on his dancers performing in “sneakers” to a mix of electronic music. In both cases, they were works that could have been the next in these choreographers’ line of ideas, rather than meeting the specifics of Tomasson’s challenge.

Scarlett’s Hummingbird is a beautiful work, one in which he deconstructs ballet scale through John Macfarlane’s designs that create a kind of inverted triangle, with the stage sloping upwards and the backdrop billowing inwards, narrowing the space in which performers can move. The choreographic product is a soft classicism that is rigorously at one with Phillip Glass’s Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (also recently used by Stine Quagebeur as her accompaniment for Nora in English National Ballet’s She Persisted bill).

Elizabeth Powell and Jahna Frantziskonis in Scarlett's <i>Hummingbird</i> © Erik Tomasson
Elizabeth Powell and Jahna Frantziskonis in Scarlett's Hummingbird
© Erik Tomasson

Scarlett maintains a flowing momentum through 35 minutes, interlacing dances for three principal pairs, two supporting couples and a strong ensemble, totalling eighteen dancers. It is very much a group work but Yuan Yuan Tan is an elegant dance titan at the centre of this dream world (including her sumptuous duet with Luke Ingham) and it was also easy to pick out the imposing presence of Joseph Walsh (partnering Dores André). Scarlett is a regular creative for San Francisco Ballet and it is an easy, graceful match. His newest ballet, Der Toteninsel, to the music of Rachmaninov premiered in San Francisco, just two months ago.

Jennifer Stahl and Carlo Di Lanno in Welch's <i>Bespoke</i> © Erik Tomasson
Jennifer Stahl and Carlo Di Lanno in Welch's Bespoke
© Erik Tomasson

Bespoke brings wave after wave of gleeful, ebullient, quicksilver and frequently airborne movement, with stretching extensions of arms and legs, in which Welch takes a deep dive into ballet dancers’ love of their art, providing material that allows each of the twelve dancers to have their moment in the spotlight. Holly Hynes’ costume designs have the women in colourful leotards, (a nude-coloured band around their midriff falsely suggests a vest and pants), no tights and pointe shoes. Without being prudish, the effect, with frequent splayed legs, is occasionally a touch too immodest for my liking; although Mathilde Froustey could perform in a potato sack and still look stunning.

The “sneakers” are the unique selling point for the concluding ballet, by Justin Peck, which is a fast-paced ensemble piece, inspired by the music of the French electronic band M83, taken from their double-album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, which Peck felt resonated with the city of San Francisco. This unusual footwear for ballet allows a very different base to the art from which Peck provides movement of greater risk, particularly in terms of acrobatic lifts, balance and counter-balances and helter-skelter speed. The one thing these dancers don’t need to do is “Hurry Up”!

San Francisco Ballet in Peck's <i>Hurry Up, We're Dreaming</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Peck's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
© Erik Tomasson

It seems that this is a community of young people having fun, gobbling up the space like creatures in some ancient video game, and there are all kinds of subliminal dance interests underpinning Peck’s neoclassical style – you can see flavours of tap, street and jazz in his mix. The choreography is also regularly punctuated by dancers’ transitioning into geometric patterns, which seem to end each sequence, before reappearing in another place.

Finishing with recorded music from M83 gave the hard-working Royal Ballet Sinfonia an early night. They have been a joy throughout this season and special highlights here were Cordula Merks' interpretation of the Bach violin concertos and Natal’ya Feygina’s performance in the Tirol Concerto.

This was an enjoyable evening of pure dance with each of the three works etched onto a definite theme (the passage of time – perhaps aligned to the brevity of a dancer’s career; the impact of spatial transitions and constraints; and dream-like states) but I felt that this could have been a triple bill from any of a number of companies. It gave me little real insight into where ballet might be heading.

***11