San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2 opened on Wednesday, featuring an eclectic selection of pieces from three riotously different choreographers: George Balanchine, Mark Morris and the British choreographer Liam Scarlett.

The 29-year-old Scarlett, who is Artist in Residence at the Royal Ballet, choreographed the company’s closing piece and world première to the music of John Adams’ Fearful Symmetries.

Sofianne Sylve in Scarlett's <i>Fearful Symmetries</i> © Erik Tomasson
Sofianne Sylve in Scarlett's Fearful Symmetries
© Erik Tomasson
Unlike the program’s preceding pieces, which emphasized the playful and the joyous, Fearful Symmetries was an insistent and driving work that strove to capture the emotional power suggested by Blake’s poem: the ppower seated in the metaphor of the tiger’s fiery eye and the poet’s questioning of the enigmatic motivations of the dread Creator of terrifying power.

The piece opens on a stark black stage with a huge grid of white rods of light. The grid is incomplete, though, with some of the long rods unlit. In sync with the opening phrases of the music, segments of the LED tubing light in a seemingly random pattern. The lighting grid, designed by David Finn, was huge, inhabiting three-fifths of the upper air of the stage and about one third of the horizontal dimension of the stage. The harsh light and the darkness emphasized by that intense grid of lights hung oppressively over the dancers. Outside the theater a sign had warned that strobe lights would be used during the performance. Usually that means a minute or two of flashing lights. But having enough LED light to light a village for one year blasted into the faces of the audience for 33 minutes rendered the warning sedately useless. For those susceptible to headaches and migraines, the lighting is a neurological disaster. And to what point? It hampered the audience’s perception of the dancers, and it made the repeating minimalism that is part of Adams’ compositional form lose its subtlety, thereby overemphasizing its dynamics. (As an aside, the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of Martin West, did a terrific job holding the tension of the music.) Only at the end of the ballet, during the pas de deux between Yuan Yuan Tan and David Karapetyan, when the grid was for the most part shut down, were the dancers visually accessible. By that time, however, the viewer’s nerve cell fatigue robbed the dance of the emotional delicacy suggested by the dancers’ moves and the more lyrical qualities of the music. To ask this one duet to counterpoint the fevered vigor of the piece is to ask the impossible.

The larger complaint is that fairly judging either the choreography or the dancing was not feasible. The aesthetic choices did, however, emphasize the drama choreographed into the ensemble work. The dancers moved most effectively when moving in lines in and out of the lighting grid’s enforced shadows. They appeared and disappeared like apparitions. And the most forceful dancing had the greatest impact.

San Francisco Ballet in <i>Rubies</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Rubies
© Erik Tomasson
 The pas de deux between Luke Ingham and Lorena Feijoo had a quality of sexual daring that seemed slightly passé, like late ’80s Russian modernism. And it was only the vividness of the dancers’ attack that made the choreography appealing and brought it to gripping life. Gennadi Nedvigin had a thrilling solo: sleek and muscular, quivering on the edge of darkness. It was not unlike that burning tyger. (Gennadi had a thrilling night altogether. Those turns in Mark Morris’ tango section were as perfect as whipped cream on a sundae.)

All of the darkness in Fearful Symmetries was in direct counterpoint to the program’s opening works, which began with the ever-popular Rubies by George Balanchine . The oldest of the three ballets, it premiered in New York in 1967 and is a ballet that never grows old. Set to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra and with dancers garbed in sparkly red costumes by Karinska, it is an homage to a uniquely American world of dance, with its jazzy rhythms, swaying hips, and prancing runs.

At one point the two partners of the pas de deux, Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh, zoom past each other circling their hands as they skip invisible ropes across the stage. This is just the kind of dancing that Kochetkova excels at, it’s fleet and innocent, playful and buoyant. It’s also way difficult, demanding at the same time unending energy and flawless precision. Sofiane Sylve danced the lead Ruby, and added an edge of decorum to the restless energy of the ensemble.

Morris' <i>Drink To Me With Only Thine Eye</i> © Erik Tomasson
Morris' Drink To Me With Only Thine Eye
© Erik Tomasson
The Mark Morris piece, Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes (1988, ABT) was set to piano music by Virgil Thomson. With the piano on stage, this ballet without ballet wended its lighthearted way across open time and space. It began with an etude to dissonance, played deliciously by Matal’ya Feygina. The music was followed by the appearance of a dancer carrying a ballerina stretched horizontally over his head across the stage. He handles her a bit like a plank, and when he exits on the other side of the stage, the audience laughs. All of the steps are simple, innumerable échappés and passés, walks here, walks there. Some mind-bending turns à la seconde. All of it exuding Morris’ wry humor. The technique is also difficult, what it requires is the opposite of that of Balanchine. What it presents is the casual beauty of natural human movement.

***11