A few thoughts came to mind as I found my seat at Ballet San Jose’s opening night of Neoclassical to Now at the city’s Center for the Performing Arts. That’s a big hall they have to fill, and a lot of deserted-looking sections. That was a dazzling gala they put on last November to welcome new artistic director José Manuel Carreño, and what would tonight’s performance be like, on the heels of news that there would be no live music, nor any more Saturday matinees, due to budget cuts? But when the curtain opened on the iconic image of seventeen women in position for Balanchine’s Serenade, none of it much mattered because there they were, dressed in palest tulle skirts, signature poses of angled gaze, right arms up, wrists bent, and it was time for art, not analysis.

Serenade, set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, was Balanchine’s first American ballet, choreographed in 1934, when he himself was new to the country. It’s an unforgettable sight, the moment the seventeen dancers, standing in parallel, slip their feet into first position, all in unison. One disadvantage to such a well-known ballet is that there’s the inevitable comparison to how a more prestigious company might have done it. And the performance did feel rough around the edges in comparison; noisy, clacking pointe shoes, a corps dancer falling during ensemble work, recorded music versus live. But these soon became minor details in an otherwise impressive effort. The lovely geometric patterns, smooth flowing lines and ripples of movement were a pleasure to watch, as were principals Alexsandra Meijer and Ommi Pipit-Suksun, from the moment each of them stepped on stage. Both display world-class technique, beautiful feet and extensions, and complete each movement down to the tips of their fingers and toes, making every landing soft and soundless. Observing them, you know that this is a company with viability and world-class potential. Newcomer Nathan Chaney, formerly a soloist with the Zurich Ballet, joins the company as a principal this season, and appears to be a strong addition, with elegant upper body presentation, long lean lines – a male danseur quality that says “principal” in the way it should. (His training included time at Russia’s Vaganova Academy and Washington DC’s Kirov Academy.) Joshua Seibel, replacing soloist Rudy Candia on Friday night, presented himself as a natural in the role of leading man, leaving us to wonder how soon he will be moved up the ranks from the corps de ballet.

Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo’s work provided more contemporary fare in Glow-Stop, a reprise from its company première last season. The ballet features a six-couple ensemble, crimson costumes and shadowed lighting. The dancing is lightning quick, incisive, and highly articulated, with much interplay between couples. I’d been looking forward to this since seeing an excerpt performed for the company’s November gala, and found this performance to be equally satisfying. Music by Mozart and Philip Glass (Symphony No. 28 and Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, respectively) served the piece well – particularly the Glass, which is sumptuous and dreamy, yet sharply intelligent. This time there was no need to compare the dancers to more illustrious counterparts; Ballet San Jose shone here on its own merits. Amy Marie Briones (who also performed strongly in Serenade) joined Meijer and Pipit-Suksun in exceptional dancing, with all three well supported by their partners. 

The evening’s third piece, Israeli choreographer’s Ohad Naharin’s ultra-contemporary Minus 16 began in an unlikely fashion. Corps de ballet dancer James Kopecky, dressed in a dark business jacket and dress slacks, provided high entertainment with a solo that commenced during intermission. The trick was on the audience; we didn’t know the show had resumed. House lights were on and the stage was relatively unlit. Kopecky, alone onstage, engaged in impromptu dancing, at once grandiose, eloquent, and comically theatrical. As other audience members returned to their seats, puzzled at the performance that seemed to have started without them, other dancers joined the stage, attired in the same dark suits, each one slipping into their impromptu dance groove (a key component of the movement language Naharin created, known as Gaga). And so begins Minus 16, a collection of vignettes culled from Naharin’s previous works. The music is a startling amalgam, including cha-cha, the traditional Echad Mi Yodea arranged and performed by rock group The Tractor’s Revenge, Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, the lone tick-tick of a metronome, and a techno-rendition of Over The Rainbow, to name but a few. In the first vignette, the dancers are sitting in a wide semi-circle on metal fold-up chairs, dressed in suits, hunched over, weary-looking, elbows on knees. To the lively, effervescent Echad Mi Yodea arrangement, the dancers throw their bodies and heads back against their chairs, one by one, eyes and arms to the sky, before returning to their hunch, creating a ripple effect. The exercise repeats itself, adding more exuberant synchronized movements each time, including pulling off clothing items and throwing them into a communal heap in the center. Anything goes in Gaga-land, we are discovering.

In the work’s final vignette, dancers come down and select audience members to bring onstage and dance with them. The end result was rather painful to watch; a professional dancer never looks more refined and fabulously gifted than they do when placed next to self-conscious, middle-aged non-dancers trying to keep up. But the audience on Friday night ate it up, utterly engaged and charmed. However I felt about it, something was very much working there. 

Less than a year on the job, artistic director José Manuel Carreño is proving himself up to the task, dealing with the challenges of reviving a struggling, cash-strapped company, providing thoughtful programming, casting, and opportunities for the dancers to grow and thrive. These are great dancers, and watching Friday night’s opener was a pleasure and an assurance that this company is doing the right things for the right reasons.