From the moment the curtain went up, there was no doubt that San Francisco Ballet had another evening of fabulous ballet in store for the audience at Sadler’s Wells, many of whom had been there the night before for Programme A.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Wheeldon's Ghosts © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Wheeldon's Ghosts
© Erik Tomasson

Helgi Tomasson had set his Trio to lush Tchaikovsky; the backdrop and costumes were even lusher: battered gold for the former, satin and chiffon in plum, violet, and burgundy for the latter. The first of the three sections had all the opulence of a Viennese New Year ball, and Tomasson’s dynamic choreography was very much the kind of ballet-ified ballroom that the Vienna State Ballet use for their annual televised Strauss-fest, except – as we have come to expect from the Americans – much faster. Vanessa Zahorian gave a bravura display of quick pirouettes, and the wow factor of the difficult lifts executed with such ease in her pas de deux with Joan Boada was only mitigated by the fact that the entire corps de ballet seem to be capable of the same.

In the second section, the lighting dropped and revealed in the depths of the gold backdrop a hint of the shimmering, shadowy interior of an Orthodox church, where a young couple were having a romantic tryst. Sarah van Patten’s heartbreaking passion was not quite matched by Tiit Helmets as her lover, but in some ways that made the intervention of Vito Mazzeo (in toffee-coloured velvet) more poignant: as possibly the most handsome death figure ever seen, he drew van Patten, increasingly exhausted and desperate, away from Helmets, forcibly converting their pas de deux into melancholic trio. In the final section, the lights came back up and we were returned to the ballroom. Tomasson had changed the mood from lyrical to snappy and worked in Russian character steps, which – particularly as executed by male dancers now in rust- and chocolate-coloured velvet – made for the most gorgeous imaginable interpretation of folk dance. Soloist Maria Kochetkova had the white arms and high cheekbones of a Russian aristocrat, and the dash and snap of a Bolshoi principal (no surprise to find she trained there).

Christopher Wheeldon’s Ghosts took us to a darker, though still gorgeous place. The title suggests a mood, but not a narrative: it is not quite clear where, or when, these beautiful undead are gathering. The dancers were lit from one side only, as if by the glare of an explosion, or a dying sun, and they seemed sometimes drawn to the light, sometimes repelled by it. Recurrent motifs of sinking to the ground, lifeless dragging steps, and dark eyes in pale faces reminded us of death, but the choreography was lyrical, again at times ball-like, and the women with their soft Victorian chignons and ashy white chiffon were very much sylphs rather than zombies. If there is a hint of the nuclear apocalypse here, there is at least as much of La Sylphide and Giselle. Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith were mesmerising in an emotional pas de deux that showed unequivocally that there is love at the end of the world.

Ashley Page’s Guide to Strange Places, paradoxically, took the audience to more familiar territory: the strong, clean lines, minimalist music and squared-off positions of modern British choreography. The setting was indeed a strange place, first a monumental empty road, then a blurred satellite photograph. The dancers too seemed newly strange to the audience: gone were the smiles of earlier pieces, replaced by blank faces, slicked down hair and deep jewel colours all overlaid with black. High-necked, long-sleeved leotards made a feature, by contrast, of bare legs, starkly pale in the cold light. A single thick line down the centre of each leotard added to an uneasy sense that the dancers weren’t quite human. Their execution of Page’s complex, contemporary-influenced choreography was flawless, although I was actually relieved to note that they finally appeared to be getting a little tired towards the end – proving that they are human after all.

San Francisco Ballet really showed the quality of American ballet training in the speed, strength, and endurance that all the dancers, not just the principals, had in abundance. Their lifts were so fast and apparently effortless that I found myself wondering if even The Royal Ballet would cope (I should have asked Royal Ballet dancer Edward Watson, who was in the audience both nights). The smorgasbord of mostly new pieces was a masterclass in complementary programming, not to mention audience-pleasing, and the costumes in particular were a visual feast. Page’s piece reminded me that I like the contemporary spikiness of British ballet too; a diet exclusively of San Francisco Ballet’s masterful lyricism and physical assurance might pall after a while. But they are an enormous pleasure to watch, and a rare treat to see in London.