Back in 1999 when San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director Helgi Tomasson saw William Forsythe’s Pas/Parts, set on the Paris Opéra Ballet, he decided it would be a great fit for his own dancers. But Forsythe wanted to revise before restaging, resulting in a wait for Tomasson, through Forsythe’s tenure as director of the Frankfurt Ballet and a decade of running his own company. Finally, in 2015, Forsythe had the time to devote, resulting in the North American premiere of Pas/Parts, revised and fine tuned for San Francisco Ballet’s dancers. Combined with revivals of Tomasson’s 7 for Eight, and Yuri Possokhov’s Magrittomania, San Francisco Ballet’s opening program at the War Memorial Opera House offered an exciting start to a promising season.

Mathilde Froustey and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's <i>7 For Eight</i> © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's 7 For Eight
© Erik Tomasson

Starting Sunday afternoon’s program was Tomasson’s 2004 7 for Eight, a collection of seven pieces set to J.S. Bach keyboard concerto excerpts. It’s an elegant, nuanced dose of neoclassicism that begins in silence, with two dancers (Tiit Helimets and Mathilde Froustey) under a spotlight. Sandra Woodall’s black costumes, elegant chiffon and lace for the women, provided the perfect aesthetic touch. Helimets and Froustey looked gorgeous together, and danced just as beautifully in the spare light (design by David Finn). Later, Vanessa Zahorian bounded through her variation with Gennadi Nedvigin, joyous and buoyant. A trio of Elizabeth Powell, Koto Ishihara and Taras Domitro offered a smooth, satisfying result, as did Domitro’s solo in the fifth movement. Pianist Mungunchimeg Buriad provided lyrical accompaniment, along with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, Martin West conducting.

Magrittomania is choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokhov’s tribute to Surrealist painter René Magritte. Created in 2000 while Possokhov was still a principal dancer with the company, it’s rich with imaginative detail and whimsy, alongside a darker undertone that hints at pathos. Scenic and costume design by Thyra Hartshorn are equally imaginative. Bowler hats, oversized green apples, and superimposed images on the backdrop gave the ballet a cinematic quality, assisted by the ever-changing lighting (Kevin Connaughton). Music, arranged by Yuri Krasavin after Beethoven, was, for the most part, effective. Krasavin’s own compositions, excerpted from film scores, which incorporated Jewish folk melodies, worked well. Whimsy, however, when it clashed with the Beethoven, notably the iconic Seventh Symphony, felt jarring, even annoying. Intentional, most likely.

Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang in Possokhov's <i>Magrittomania</i> © Erik Tomasson
Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang in Possokhov's Magrittomania
© Erik Tomasson

Magritte, in his art, strove to present “images that are beautiful in their clarity and simplicity, but which also provoke unsettling thoughts,” a feeling that both Possokhov and Krasavin efficiently relayed. Here, as in the first ballet, the quality of the dancing was top notch. Davit Karapetyan, with corps dancers Esteban Hernandez, Wei Wang and Max Cauthorn, displayed a great sense of ensemble. Yuan Yuan Tan, as the lead woman in a bright red dress, proved mesmerizing, particularly in her pas de deux with Karapetyan. The ballet’s closing image, Tan in her red dress, holding an oversized green apple, while men in bowler hats and suits faded into silhouette against a deep blue backdrop, was as inspired and thought-provoking as a Magritte painting.

The North American première of Pas/Parts nearly became its own world première: Forsythe, having sent his stagers out to teach the dancers their parts, came for his own two weeks of work, and promptly re-choreographed 75% of the ballet, coaxing out more of the classical and reducing where it felt unnecessarily modern. The end result is tremendously satisfying, with Forsythe’s signature use of syncopation and flowing counterpoint pairing well with the dancers’ classical épaulement throughout the ballet. Here, as in the rest of the performance, every dancer delivered an inspired performance, a delight to observe, in particular, since Forsythe ignored hierarchy and paired corps dancers with principals, soloists in ensemble work, casting solos unilaterally.

Maria Kochetkova and Francisco Mungamba in Forsythe's <i>Pas/Parts</i> © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova and Francisco Mungamba in Forsythe's Pas/Parts
© Erik Tomasson

Amid an intriguing set of a cream colored three-sided room (designed by Forsythe) dancers offered here a solo, there a trio, followed by an ensemble, and back to a solo, for a total of twenty-one vignettes. Sofiane Sylve commenced the ballet with both mystique and panache, followed by great performances by Carlo Di Lanno, Yuan Yuan Tan and Wei Wang, Julia Rowe with Di Lanno and Joseph Walsh. A robust ensemble of six men and Jennifer Stahl. Solos from Frances Chung and Walsh. Dores André and Chung as playful antagonists. Maria Kochetkova and Francisco Mungamba. James Sofranko in a solo, Mungamba in another. Each vignette, one after the other, was accomplished, exuberant. Thom Willems' electronic score offered a variety of accompanying sounds: atonal passages, drones, hums, rattles, synthesized voices, some effective, others annoying. (Least favorite: a train horn sound blaring loudly, and not just a train horn, but one bearing right down on you. Twice.) Fortunately, the dancers fleshed out the unstructured music, made it all work well, which is when you realize how talented and versatile San Francisco Ballet’s dancers truly are.

****1