In the fascinating and intelligent sixth program of San Francisco Ballet's 2016 season, which opened this past Tuesday, the company explores several faces of contemporary ballet. All three pieces presented were rooted in the neoclassical tradition of abstract ballet, with no overriding story, no sets, and simple costumes – the men in tights and leotards, the women in simple skirts of varying length and leotard-like tops.

In the three works, ensembles open and end the pieces and frame series of duets.

Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham in Tomasson's <i>Prism</i> © Erik Tomasson
Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham in Tomasson's Prism
© Erik Tomasson
Within this conceptual framework and minimalist palette though, a vast world of movement rose in celebration of the body’s athleticism and its subtle connection to emotions and personality, each work determined by the choreographer’s relationship to the composer of the music chosen. The ballets showed how completely crucial music is to dance.

The program opened with Helgi Tomasson's Prism set to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15. Prism was choreographed for New York City Ballet (2000), where Tomasson danced for many years. Neoclassical ballet is the spiritual mother of his choreography, and he has a particular empathy for romantic lyricism. 

Beethoven, however, does not bring out these strengths in Tomasson. And the bravura that characterizes the music, appears in Tomasson's work as a kind of choreographic stiffness. Sure, the jumps were dazzlingly executed by the company’s fine dancers, and everyone maintained the momentum of these at times tricky combinations. But there was a lingering sense of worked combinations of steps, and somehow the innovative potential of kinesis disappeared in the intricacy and conventionality of the steps used.The one place where the somewhat mechanical bravura disappeared was in the long pas de deux. Principal Sofiane Sylve, with her flawless placement, exquisitely defined back and long delicate limbs, transcended the choreography and gave credence to the belief that the dancer is all. Wisely, the stage was in shadows during the duet. Only one spotlight intensely brightened the red clad ballerina, while her partner Luke Ingham and the three duos repeating their movements upstage left remained in a soft almost hazy darkness. Taras Domitro led the third movement, clad all in black among the salmon and gray costumed dancers, and executing a brilliant turning leap that opened into splits mid air.

Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin in Ratmansky's <i>Seven Sonatas</i> © Erik Tomasson
Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin in Ratmansky's Seven Sonatas
© Erik Tomasson
 Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas was choreographed to seven of Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonatas. Originally written for harpsichord, the music is both fragile and graceful, performed on piano with superlative pianist Mungunchimeg Buriad onstage, upstage right.

There are only three couples in the piece, which adds to the work’s sense of intimacy and tenuous emotion. And although the steps are assembled with careful attention to the continuous shifting of the dancers’ weight and balance, there is never a sense of planning or of self-consciousness. The steps pass by too swiftly. All of the choreography seems based less on the conventions of balletic vocabulary and more on the realities of walking, turning and running.  This was especially true of the men’s choreography, which had a naturalness that exceeded bravura. It's a characteristic of Russian male dancers (Ratmansky trained at the Bolshoi), who have the jaw-dropping ability to make their dancing look perfectly effortless and masculine. Ratmansky often achieves wonderful choreography, but Seven Sonatas is exceptional.

Although the piece has various ensemble moments and several trios, the duets are central. What is disarming about them is that with the smallest gesture an emotional relationship is suggested in the midst of ballet’s restless action: “the departing lovers” (Mathilde Froustey and Joseph Walsh), “the lost lovers” (Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan) and “the hide-and-seek lovers” (Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin). None of the dancers lost their engagement with the viewer or their partner, even as the relationship unwound. Here, they were simply superlative.

Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Wheeldon's <i>Rush</i> © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Wheeldon's Rush
© Erik Tomasson
The evening closed with Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush©, and I hope that copyright symbol is meant ironically. The Royal Ballet trained Wheeldon, who was named Resident Choreographer of New York City Ballet in 2001, used Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu’s Sinfonietta La Jolla for Chamber Orchestra and Piano, taking his tonal cue from the jazzy rhythms and upbeat speed of the music. The women’s bright costumes were distinguished by a red band of fabric across their chests. And this red band appears in the lighting as a fuzzy bar of red light projected across the back scrim of the stage. The body was often skewed: shoulders and hips tilted at an angle, the elbows turned in or down and the focus of the dancers’ eyes down at the floor rather than up and out. This gave the dancers’ movements the silhouette of swooping flight, a metaphor that was spot on for the central pas de deux. Dressed in black to separate them from the colorful corps, Maria Kochetova and Joan Boada brilliantly enacted a dream flight of man and muse, while the ensemble cascaded around them.