On the second night of San Francisco Ballet’s second visit to Beijing, Helgi Tomasson international company treated the company's Chinese audience to a varied programme in four parts. Tomasson’s own Caprice opened the event, followed by Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush and Hans van Manen’s Variations for two couples, the evening closing with George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's <i>Rush</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Rush
© Erik Tomasson

Wheeldon’s Rush was fantastic fun. Seven couples filled the auditorium with vivacity and dynamism as they sped through brisk on-the-spot duets and dashed across the stage at one another as if caught up in playground games. Jon Morrell’s costuming brimmed with a vast array of bright, fiery colours, heightening the vibrancy of an already energetic piece. An eighth couple (Dores André and Joan Boada) in dark indigo emerged to dance an emotionally charged pas de deux expressing love, passion, desire and strength. The earlier madness of seven other couples gathered again while the duet remained, an island of calm resilience undisturbed by the frantic rush around them.

Van Manen’s Variations for Two Couples was slower, but equally delightful. The two couples contrasted intriguingly: where Wan Ting Zhao and Tiit Helimets were off-kilter and humorous, Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham were slower and more serious. The first pair larked about the stage with peculiar looking lifts featuring a side-to-side head waggle from Zhao as she floated a foot above the floor, suspended there by Helimets. One moment Zhao slid her toe from Helimets' collarbone, down his torso, along his inner thigh and then planted her foot down, only to turn and strut off stage, head held high, the next. The second pas de deux portrayed a couple seemingly intent on making their relationship as smooth and efficient as possible. They seemed to be trying out new methods, slowly and logically testing what worked best then swiftly moving on, all the while ignoring their playful counterparts. The colour rich unitards by Keso Dekker – Zhao in bright purple with Helimets in grey, Sylve in electric blue and Ingham in brown – made surprisingly appealing pairings. 

Tomasson’s Caprice had some beautiful moments of exquisite detail and impressive dancing, but was overall a fairly tame opening to the night. Yuan Yuan Tan danced opposite Luke Ingham in Caprice as one of several couples in white. They made a wonderfully graceful pair, she looking as light as a feather as he twirled her around, her elegant feet gently skimming the floor. Lifted above him, her hips at his head height, she bent all the way back over him, her head reaching down to the back of his shoulders. I found Tomasson’s Caprice choreography somewhat uninspired – lovely, not challenging – but the dancers performed it with a high level of panache.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Tomasson's <i>Caprice</i> © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Tomasson's Caprice
© Erik Tomasson
Balanchine’s Theme and Variations rounded off the evening with a blast from the past. Finishing the evening with tutus seemed like an odd choice – particularly as the pomp of puffed sleeved jackets and rigid net followed the electric blue and bright purple unitards – but it was no less memorable. Soloists Vanessa Zahorian and Vitor Luiz performed with vigour and skill amidst the ensemble. Luiz’s jumps were particularly memorable – he seemed to spring up, hang weightless in the air for a second then land softly every time whilst Zahorian seemed to spend hours on pointe during the piece. With the female corps dancers around her, she became the centrepiece in a blooming wreath of white. The slow pas deux between Luiz and Zahorian was well paced and gentle, living up to all the grandeur expected. The entire cast presents well in this Balanchine ballet; with San Francisco Ballet harmoniously attuned to the style's intricacies – certainly a legacy to Tomasson’s New York City Ballet background.

At curtain call, San Francisco Ballet met the enthusiasm of their Beijing audience with ceremony, Yuan Yuan Tan, huge bouquet in hand, inviting conductor Martin West to the stage so that he and the orchestra could partake in the cheering applause. If Thursday night’s response was anything to go by, I predict that San Francisco Ballet will be welcome again in China in the not-so-distant future.