Bam! POW! ZAPP! The music of Sfjan Stevens has all the grandiosity of film music and the violence of popular rock and roll. “The BQE” was the music for a film on the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway (a BAM commission). The New York Times commented on the roadway: “Most days, and most hours, the dire choices faced by many drivers on the B.Q.E. are these: Bad, worse and no exit". The music makes a perfect background to a disaster.

Frances Chung, Jennifer Stahl, Dores André, Joseph Walsh in Peck's <i>In the Countenance of the King</i> © Erik Tomasson
Frances Chung, Jennifer Stahl, Dores André, Joseph Walsh in Peck's In the Countenance of the King
© Erik Tomasson

And indeed Justin Peck’s choreography for In the Countenance of the Kings, which premiered this April at San Francisco Ballet, partakes of music’s excesses. It requires pull-all-the-stops-out dancing to hold together its wandering choreographic focus with its emphatic commitment to urban aggression and shifting razzmatazz. But the company did its formidable best. Peck’s handling of the ensemble versus the individual soloist was more memorable. With a corps of 12 dancers and six soloists, the choreographer often clustered the group tightly like commuters packed sardine-like in subway cars. From these running clusters, a soloist would emerge, as if ejected, to dance. The solos used a more classical ballet vocabulary, seldom deviating from familiar steps, but requiring speed and energy from the soloists to execute steps devised in a tradition of stately grace.

Not long after the impressionistic slush that opened the music the lyric was abandoned.

Joseph Walsh led the other soloists, Gennadi Nedvigin and Luke Ingham, Dores André, Frances Chung and Jennifer Stahl, and the action at various times. It’s hard to say what is so pleasing about his dancing, highlighting the combination of energy, grace and excellent technique doesn’t really pinpoint his appeal beyond that of any other principal dancer. Even so, he was a stand-out, rocketing through his prolonged solos.

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon's <i>Continuum</i> © Erik Tomasson
Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon's Continuum
© Erik Tomasson
Walsh had a good night altogether, beginning as one of the four partners in Christopher Wheeldon's Continuum, dancingas he often does, with the fiery and fun Frances Chung. Continuum is set to the music of György Ligeti, one of the late 20th-century’s most beloved and influential avant-garde composers, who made a practice of writing short expressive keyboard pieces with intricate rhythms and wisps of melody. These difficult pieces were ably played from the pit by Mungunchimeg Buriad and Natal’ya Feygina. They made a lovely set for a series of mostly duets in the neoclassical style with surprising choreographic configurations. There were two quartets, male and female, and an ending ensemble piece, in which a spotlight from the stage illuminated the couples in elongated shadows onto the upstage back scrim. Their relative distance from the spot caused the shadows to grow and diminish in size. Lighting (Natasha Katz), and was mostly minimalist monochrome washes on the back scrim.

What Wheeldon seems to have used from Liget's original musical concept (Continuum is actually a different score to the one Wheeldon used here) is the idea of a mechanical universe, overrun by the presence of time. The dancers’ movements were often staccato. Arms and legs moved in wide circles like the hands of a clock. Legs begun in extensions bent abruptly at the knee, foot flexed, then extended out again. Vanessa Zahorian stood in second position, arms and legs out straight, and Luke Ingham flipped her 360 degrees as if she were the wheels of a clock turning. Then he revolved in a cartwheel in place. Sofiane Sylve, supported upside down by Tiit Helmuts, moved her legs as if they were hour and second hands jumping point by point, second by second across a clock face. The four male dancers, hands grasped and locked, moved in a circle.

The slow geometries of the movements lapsed now and again into mime. A dancer placed her hands, palms flat, in space as if she were feeling the solidity of a wall enclosing her. Women stepped onto the knees of the men as if they were going up a staircase. In the closing ensemble the partners danced the same steps out of sync from the other partners causing a lag in time and space. This is the world of Dr. Coppelius filtered through the abstractions of Feynman and Hawking. A metaphoric experiment into the physics of kinesis.

Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin in Balanchine's <i>Theme and Variations</i>
Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin in Balanchine's Theme and Variations
The program ended with Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (1947). Filled with girls in rhinestone-encrusted tutus and tiaras with men in princely velvet tunics, the ballet seemed an anachronism. Set to the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Suite for Orchestra No. 3, the ballet is a lustrous achievement in symmetry, following the Romantic ballet tradition. The corps acts as an exquisite somewhat exotic background to the soloists, here the glittering Maria Kotchekova and Gennadi Nedvigin. This ballet from a gentler world ended the evening on a quiet and somewhat puzzling note, reminding us how far we have come from the idealized world of love that has been ballet’s domain for so long and how perturbing and illusory the spell of romantic perfection can be, especially in the context of our contemporary life.