San Francisco Ballet’s second program of the 2020 season, Classical (Re)Vision opened with Australian choreographer Stanton Welsh’s Bespoke, a piece set on SFB to two violin concertos by JS Bach. Violinist Cordula Merks played the violin, lovingly supporting the dancers with her excellent playing.

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

The piece starts in silence with a solitary male dancer center stage. He extends his right leg in tendu and then his left arm, continuing with steps that resemble dancers’ center floor work, the technical combinations done after class warm-up that emphasize strength, balance and precision of technique. Esteban Hernandez moved with grace and fluidity through ronds de jambe, attitude promenades, and a series of demanding steps. At last he jumped, and as he did the music began.

Couples flowed on stage, short combinations of steps repeating and staggered as if they were phrases in a musical canon. Staccato arm movements imitated the small hops of a clock’s second hand. Time was central to the choreography: “Your love affair with ballet, your time with ballet, is short,” explains Welsh, “Eventually you lay down, and dance keeps moving. It’s a bittersweet thing.”

Bittersweet indeed was the duet that comprised the ballet’s second movement. Comprised of tightly worked partnering performed by Carlo Di Lanno and Mathilde Froustey, the duet began with synchronized steps and was decorated with some truly terrifying lifts, all deftly executed.

A trio of women was followed by a quartet of men, highlighted by a solo requiring quick footwork and virtuosic turns, joyously performed by Wei Wang. In the last movement the twelve dancers divided into pairs, each in turn dropping to the floor where they lay, entangled and spent, until the last note of the music and the lights faded.

Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham in Morris' <i>Sandpaper Ballet</i> © Erik Tomasson
Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham in Morris' Sandpaper Ballet
© Erik Tomasson

The three short ballets after the first intermission contrasted bravely. Val Caniparoli’s Foreshadow opened. In a narrative love triangle, the dancers are named Anna Karenina (Jennifer Stahl), Count Vronsky (Tiit Helimets) and Kitty (Elizabeth Powell), but the trio bears little resemblance to Tolstoy’s novel and the ballet bears even less. Nonetheless, it’s elegantly staged, set to the driving “Choros” by Einaudi, heated and unrelenting, the music built on a repeating phrase, with violins growing fervent alongside the innovative percussion. The ballet moves from solo to duet and back, with the dancers exalting frantic emotion as their steps shifted in and out of sync.

The mood changed with a delicate pas de deux from After the Rain, choreography by Christopher Wheeldon set to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel; Cordula Merks, violin, with Natal’ya Feygina, piano. The gentle duet started with Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham side by side, swaying first to one side then to the other, following the slow rhythm of the music. This very metered pace was maintained throughout, and seemed perfectly suited to the slow progressions of Pärt’s music, the dancers moving deliberately from one position to another, the transitions between positions considered. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Tan dancing this piece, with her long limbs and mind-bogglingly flexible back and strength-of-iron abdomen. At one point the dancers faced each other and Tan began to bend backwards until she was in a high arched backbend, Ingham then picked her up and moved her like a table as she maintained the position, her hands and feet flexed. He turned around then placed her down, so that she could unfold back to standing. It erased the stereotypes of ballet beauty and replaced them with something so deeply architectural as to cause wonder.

Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco in Tomasson's <i>Soirées Musicales</i> © Erik Tomasson
Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco in Tomasson's Soirées Musicales
© Erik Tomasson

The final ballet, with Angelo Greco and Misa Kuranaga, was a celebration of classical bravura. Set to Britten and choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, Soirées Musicales was all you could wish for in classical pastiche. Lots of big jumps, leg extensions as high as the ballerina’s ear, whirling jumps around the stage and pirouettes, pirouettes, pirouettes. Greco was in his curly-haired element here and he looked great. As did his lovely be-tutued companion.

The final long ballet was Mark Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet, set to music by Leroy Anderson. Anderson’s unfailingly bright music, with dazzling orchestration, fun percussion and sassy brass, was everything that Morris could possibly love. His choreography was also fun – what else? – and looked like it was fun to dance. All running, walking and prancing in synchronized exercises in pattern recognition. It was a bit of a throwback to the June Taylor Dancers, a little banal, a little corny but riveting in its orderly escapades. Isaac Mizrahi clothed everyone in springtime green from the tips of their toes to the tips of their fingers. Clouds in a blue sky crossed their shoulders and chests. Oooh, those dancers were springtime alive!

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