Ever since that fateful day in 1987 when two female Paris Opera Ballet dancers glanced up from a bare stage at the Palais Garnier at two golden cherries mysteriously hung In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, choreographers have delighted in suspending all manner of arcane gizmos from the rafters – meant either to cast a dark spell over the dancers, or inspire them to jump higher and spin faster. William Forsythe changed the face of ballet forever with that iconic work, and his influence is palpable in Christopher Wheeldon’s Ghosts, starting with the sculptural debris that hangs over the stage. At the opening of the ballet, Wheeldon’s women glance up at the debris, and faint dead away. Resembling the wreckage from a collision between a garbage truck and a Lamborghini, the sculpture is best ignored in favor of the luscious, enigmatic choreography, impeccably executed by San Francisco Ballet on Thursday night at the War Memorial Opera house. 

Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Wheeldon's Ghosts. © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Wheeldon's Ghosts.
© Erik Tomasson

The splendid ensemble of 17 whirled on and off stage conjuring up the ghosts of choreographers – most long dead, one or two very much alive – to whom Wheeldon graciously nods. Whiffs of George Balanchine’s Serenade, Jerome Robbins’ Antique Epigraphs, the opening ritual in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring, Jiří Kylián’s Bella Figura, and the Rockettes all percolate agreeably through the piece, with Wheeldon’s fluid and inventive partnering stitched together by lots of busy rushing back and forth. Both the over-engineered lifts and the simpler movements – women executing a downward dog on their pointes; a couple lying on their backs, bicycling their legs in the air – are marvelously effective, often poignant, in the vaporous lighting by Mary Louise Geiger and filmy, floaty attire by Mark Zappone.

Wheeldon's Ghosts © Erik Tomasson
Wheeldon's Ghosts
© Erik Tomasson

Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz dazzled in an extended duet, impassioned yet restrained. Their most riveting moment: Luiz running backward with an outstretched Kochetkova face down in his arms, her feet fluttering rapidly at the ankles in one of many swimming motifs of the piece. She bends her knees and arcs her back, suddenly becoming a bow in the hands of an archer.

Clips from Nancy Buirski’s recent film on Tanaquil LeClercq still fresh in my mind, the mysterious, brooding trio of Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets and Shane Wuerthner evoked LeClercq, muse and lover to both Balanchine and Robbins. The stunning Sylve makes an abrupt exit – LeClercq was tragically struck by polio at age 27 – only to return at the very end of the ballet, carried aloft by the two men. (Balanchine devoted himself to Leclercq’s rehabilitation for years, though she would never walk or dance again.)

The evening opened with a different kind of ghost – 24 of them – descending a long ramp in the Kingdom of the Shades scene from the Russian classic La Bayadère, staged by the legendary Natalia Makarova, who was on hand at the curtain call. The unearthly beauty of these wraiths, of their spare and timeless choreography, was not dimmed in the least by a few wobbly ankles. But the First Shade Down The Ramp – chosen no doubt for her ample arabesque and the aplomb with which she steps into it – urgently needs to get in a huddle with the other 23 and, together with their coach, agree on whether they are going to step into an arabesque à terre before lifting the leg, or just go for the lift as they step. The lack of unison on this point, and the difference in the height of their arabesques, was distracting.

Mathilde Froustey in The Kindom Of The Shades © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey in The Kindom Of The Shades
© Erik Tomasson

Of the three nerve-wracking Shade solos, only Mathilde Froustey convinced us to relax, with the lovely comportment of her head and shoulders, fluid upper-body and unaffected smile. Her travelling relevés in arabesque sailed across the floor like Oracle Team USA up on its hydrofoils. Frances Chung and Simone Messmer, technically very competent, wore looks of utter panic on their faces during their variations, their shoulders stiff, and Messmer’s hands paddling the air in a distinctly unwraithlike manner.

Davit Karapetyan was a magnificent Indian warrior prince, with soaring leaps that seemed to hang in the air, and bold, sweeping arms that slashed the air like scimitars. He brushed off an encounter with a slick spot on the floor, obsessed only with the recently assassinated temple dancer Nikiya, who appeared in an opium-induced hallucination. Yuan Yuan Tan was absolutely fearless as the object of his obsession – wistful yet steely, sorrowful and distant – undaunted by the under-caffeinated solo violin that accompanied her ethereal veil dance. 

Rounding off the evening was a Firebird Lite, by resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov, set to a compressed version of Stravinsky’s epic score. There was much to admire in this staging, starting with the streamlined set and pop-inspired backdrop projections by Yuri Zhukov, witty abstractions of Alexandre Golovine and Natalia Goncharova’s painted backdrops for Michel Fokine’s original ballet. Other highlights include the sensational whirling jumps by Pascal Molat in the role of the villain Kaschei, Tiit Helimets’ naïve but endearing young prince, and Sasha De Sola’s sassy princess, who wears her heart on her sleeve – and on her expressive pointe shoes.

San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov's Firebird © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov's Firebird
© Erik Tomasson

Disappointingly, Possokhov transforms this Russian-Slavic allegory into a conventional love triangle – conventional in ballet terms: man falls in love with bird and princess and must choose one – avoiding the fascinating, and topical, political overtones of the original libretto.

Fokine’s 1910 Firebird was groundbreaking in several ways: musically, choreographically, and in its revisionist depiction of Russia’s struggle for hegemony in Central Asia, particularly in the second half of the 19th century. The evil Kaschei embodied a feared Asiatic despot, while the Firebird represented a supernatural force of good on the side of the Russian nobility. The Firebird’s duet with the prince was not romantic; it was about power: she promised to use her power to help him defeat Kaschei, free the imprisoned princesses, and consolidate his rule over the Asian lands.

The most compelling feature of this ballet in its various incarnations over the decades has been the depiction of the Firebird: her dance vocabulary, her costume, her pas de deux with the prince.

Pascal Molat in Possokhov's Firebird © Erik Tomasson
Pascal Molat in Possokhov's Firebird
© Erik Tomasson

Weakened by a prosaic costume design – flat-ironed orange wig and a tie-dyed scarf pinned to the back of her unitard – Sarah Van Patten’s Firebird looked like one of the many colorful denizens of San Francisco’s Haight Street, a famous hang-out during the Summer of Love. No plumage on this bird, and yet somehow she produced a magic feather to bestow on the prince. Possokhov’s choreography for her is singularly uninspired – more exotic dancer than exotic creature – and a waste of Van Patten’s considerable skill and artistry. That Tiit Helimets’ starry-eyed prince would fall for a Gypsy Rose Lee is hardly credible.

One longs for a choreographer to come along and remake Firebird for the 21st century, commenting on Russian incursions into Afghanistan and Chechnya, portraying Kaschei as a modern-day terrorist, and casting Sarah Van Patten as a sexy undercover operative for MI-5 with supernatural powers.