San Francisco Ballet’s Program 7, Made for SF Ballet, celebrates their dancers by presenting three works choreographed specifically for the company. Out of the many works that have been made for and with the company, the three chosen for this program seem to most illuminate not only the company’s formidable talents but also what we hold in mind as an essential quality of ballet: a kind of loveliness that borders on the ethereal, even as it reaches into the darker and edgier moments of contemporary dance.

San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's <i>Ghost In The Machine</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's Ghost In The Machine
© Erik Tomasson

The program opens with Trio, choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and premiered in 2011. Set to Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the ballet is a lushly kinetic work – lyrical and romantic. The first movement is an ensemble piece led by  a couple (Vanessa Zahorian and Carlo di Lanno). Both Zahorian and di Lanno have qualities of elegance and precision in their dancing, which served to electrify the dance as they led the ensemble in a series of dynamic waltzes that flooded the stage in a whirl of legs and plum and burgundy costumes. Zahorian will be leaving the company, with her husband Davit Karapetyan, after this season to take on a joint artistic directorship of the Pennsylvania Ballet.

The second movement began with a duet between Dores André and Tiit Helimets. This kind of tender and loving duet is very characteristic of Tomasson’s choreography, which favors the idealized romanticism of classical ballet. It borders on an emotional state of submission, of a kind of giving over to love. The duet is interrupted by a third dancer, Aaron Robison, who the program notes explain is a figure of Death. Ultimately, Death wrests the woman from her lover, in another form of submission – to her ultimate fate.

The third movement closed with Frances Chung and Taras Domito leading the ensemble in a sprightly homage to Russian ballet character dancing. Again, the earlier dance vocabulary has been reworked, blended into Tomasson’s dynamic lyricism. There is a thoughtfulness behind his choreography that constantly strives to make that technique fresh.

There was no submission howver in the duets of Myles Thatcher’s world première Ghost in the Machine. Vanessa Zahorian and Joseph Walsh face each other like competitors in an anger-fueled arm-wrestling match. No insistent but seductive Death lured a compliant woman anywhere. And the dance include a more casual as well as jagged approach to movement.

Four couples echoed erratically the in-your-face attack of the opening dancers. Oh, how love has changed in today’s demanding world!

San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's <i>Ghost In The Machine</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's Ghost In The Machine
© Erik Tomasson

Although the energy of Thatcher’s choreography reflects the energy of our changing world, and plays with the edgy, fierce, and raggedly dynamic, his staging is never an assault on the audience, which can’t be said of all contemporary ballet choreographers. Rather, there is a lightness in the combative duets. Even when the music by miminalist Michael Nyman sounds ponderous, the choreography keeps an ironic tinge of playfulness. And because of that it is easier to accept the ensemble’s eventual coherence and embracing.

This is Thatcher’s second major piece for the company, and he has recently completed a year-long mentorship with Alexei Ratmansky under the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Both Ratmansky and Tomasson’s influence can be seen in his work, but he clearly has a mind and direction of his own. He choreographed Passengers for The Joffrey Ballet and Polaris for New York City Ballet in 2015. His choreographic career seems set and ripe for development.

The evening closed with Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour. Also a piece that favors duets, the ballet is set to music by contemporary Italian composer Ezio Bosso and Antonio Vivaldi. Cordula Merks and Yi Zhou provided attractive solos on violin and viola, respectively.

In the center of this piece were three duets. The first with Sasha De Sola and Myles Thatcher (no rest for the wicked) was adorable. As was the second, with Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingram. Mixed into the ebullience was a rash of popular dance moves. Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz provided a change in tone with a sweet and lingering duet that bordered on the poignant.

Perhaps most surprising and knock-your-socks-off was the male duet that interrupted the procession of love duets. Athletic and dynamic, Francisco Mungamba and Lonnie Weeks broke in between the courtships with explosive energy.

Wheeldon used levels unabashedly throughout the piece, with the dancers falling to, sliding along, and leaping up from the floor, a practice not used throughout the rest of the program.

It was lovely. The dances, the dancers, the dancing...  all of it.