If San Francisco Ballet’s programs had names and themes, Program 3, opening last Tuesday could well have been “exploring the boundaries of classicism—from both ends.” The night offered, at one end, an irresistible Petipa classic excerpt dating from 1877, while at the other end, three shorter works, of the last two decades, served up classical-based fare with a decidedly contemporary twist.

Opening the program was Variations for Two Couples, a 2012 piece by Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen. Having created over 120 works for the innovative Nederlands Dans Theater and the Dutch National Ballet, van Manen’s distinctive choreographic style offers daring, sharply contemporary dance, from within a classical foundation. Variations for Two Couples employs music from four composers, from Britten to Piazzolla, that merges seamlessly for this contrasting study of flow and stasis, interpersonal tensions and synergies. Couples Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit, Frances Chung and Davit Karapetyan, all displayed the power, sharp articulation and attack this piece requires. Van Patten, in particular, excels at this kind of precise, short-paused movement. It was delicious to watch how she nailed each pause in arabesque, each partnered step, holding herself perfectly still for a millisecond. Bert Dalhuysen’s set added to the clean, minimalist effect, with an arcing line of light against the dark blue backdrop. 

William Forsythe’s 1996 The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude explores the boundaries of classicism in a different manner. Here, we sense a strong 19th century Petipa influence, except that it’s Petipa hopped up on caffeine, moving his dancers double-time, and free from excessive mannerism. Set to Schubert’s  “Allegro Vivace” from his Symphony No. 9 in C-major, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude races and never lets up for twelve propulsive minutes. Witty irony sets the tone from the start, with a blue backdrop onto which the words “sky blue backdrop” are projected. The women’s costumes, designed by Stephen Galloway, are adorable and unforgettable: lime green, saucer-like tutus, the men in red-orange shorts and tops. Italian newcomer soloist Carlo Di Lanno is an exciting addition to the company roster, and worked well alongside principals Gennadi Nedvigin, Frances Chung, Vanessa Zahorian and Sofiane Sylve. Di Lanno, with his height, powerful legs and supple footwork, has a danseur noble presence that hints at 'principal' in the future. Compelling among the women, all of whom delivered excellent performances, was Sofiane Sylve, who often seems under-used within the company for sunny, brisk roles like this. 

The evening’s program offered a taste of the very new: a world première of company member Myles Thatcher’s Manifesto. Thatcher, a recipient of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, has profited from a mentorship with acclaimed choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, and the results are impressive. Thatcher uses Bach's music, mixing selections from his Goldberg Variations and “Musical Offering,” playing with the contrasts the two offer. He emulates, and then manipulates Bach’s use of the canonic form, breaking up its precision within his choreography, and subsequently, breaking choreographic expectations of the sequences that ensue. Costume designer Mark Zappone gives the women dusk-colored, flowing skirts, appealing crisscross back-straps, a cut in front that allows the audience to enjoy the expansive scissoring of their legs in partnered leaps. Jennifer Stahl, partnered by Sean Orza, delivered an impressive performance; the past year seems to have marked extraordinary growth in her skills and presentation. It’s exciting to watch Stahl continue to grow, in ability and potential (she was promoted to soloist in 2013). The same can be observed in Dores André as well, who, along with the ever-competent Hansuke Yamamoto, excelled here. Newcomer Norika Matsuyama and partner Steven Morse, both corps dancers, held their own admirably well as the third soloist couple amid a cast of twelve dancers.

Natalia Makarova’s 1980 restaging of Petipa’s “The Kingdom of the Shades,” from La Bayadère, Act II, completed the evening’s program. To the ethereal strains of Ludwig Minkus’ haunting score, the image of the twenty-four Shades descending a ramp, one at a time, arabesques in synch, is one of classical ballet’s most gorgeous, soul-stirring scenes. Some opening night wobbles and lack of synchronicity robbed the opening scene of perfection, an unfortunate facet of this classical choreography, where any movement outside of the ensemble effort gets noticed, but the corps admirably rebounded. Taras Domitro, as the grieving Solor, on fire through every jump, leap and gesture, delivered a thrilling performance. Yuan Yuan Tan, too, as Nikiya, was peerless in technique and nuance. Mathilde Froustey, one of the trio of lead Shades, with her poetic épaulement and classic technique continues to be pure delight to watch. Fellow lead shades Dores André and WanTing Zhao also had strong performances.

Throughout the evening, the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, with Martin West conducting, provided stellar accompaniment to this evening of classicism re-explored through a contemporary lens.