At the beginning of Dances at a Gathering, the opening piece to San Francisco Ballet’s Programme 4, which opened at the Opera House on February 26, a man in brown tights and shirt enters the bright stage. Its sole decoration is the sky blue–lit backdrop at the back of the stage. Scraps of detached clouds in the form of delicate pink filaments float and disappear in the cerulean blue. The man’s steps are slow and thoughtful: he appears contemplative, perhaps nostalgic.

M Kochetkova and J Walsh in Robbins' <i>Dances at a Gathering</i> © Erik Tomasson
M Kochetkova and J Walsh in Robbins' Dances at a Gathering
© Erik Tomasson

Then the solo piano begins a series of Chopin Mazurkas and Waltzes, both of which use the formal and lyrical triple meter so ably interpreted by pianist Roy Bogas. The man in Brown, Joseph Walsh, begins to dance and his dancing is like that of any solitary dancer in the studio going through his paces. In fact, all of the subsequent pieces, through their many configurations of dancers moving through duets and multiple duets to trios to the entire ensemble of ten are reminiscent of the closed but focused and absorbing world of the dance studio.

The movement vocabulary is pure ballet, with a heavy smattering of character dancing, that subset of classical ballet whose steps and épaulements are based on European folk dance. There are a fair number of stamps, turned-in knees, folded arms, and flicked wrists; all sly nods to the nationalistic flavor of the composer’s mazurkas. But the steps are so seamlessly woven into the classical ballet choreography as to be almost unnoticeable. Like so much of Jerome Robbins’ choreography, the movements might not deviate from known steps but the way they are assembled is always unexpected and forever watchable.

A girl in Pink (Maria Kochetkova) and a man in Purple (Davit Karapetyan) enter to perform a slow and achingly romantic Waltz. A girl in Yellow (Mathilde Froustey) flashes onto the stage in another Mazurka. Later, she appears again like a lit match, quick footed to Chopin’s racing rhythms. Mauve studies the beauty of elliptical turns, and Green and Brick thrill with beautiful lifts.

Here and there short narratives appear, though overall there is no story. Rather, moods are suggested. But the significance of the moods is always clear. There is the competitive challenge between Brown and Purple. Brown repeating the steps of Purple with a bumping-up-against-you vigor. And the late appearance of the girl in Green (Lorena Feijoo) who poses to Chopin’s pianistic runs, her few and minimal steps studied gestures. Later she coquettishly entices three men, one after the other, as they walk across the stage, self-absorbed and indifferent. What man, after all, chases a girl who chases first? Eventually abandoned, she exits the stage with a toss of her head – who needs them, eh?

F Chung and G Nedvigin in Scarlett's <i>Hummingbird</i> © Erik Tomasson
F Chung and G Nedvigin in Scarlett's Hummingbird
© Erik Tomasson
With its bright costumes and balletic purity, it’s a sweet reminiscence of the dance world. Exquisitely danced, as San Francisco Ballet presented it, Dances at a Gathering, which premièred at the New York State Theater, in 1969, is irresistible.

The second half of Programme 4 offered a contrast in style, content and music to Robbins’ much admired piece. Choreographed by Liam Scarlett to Philip Glass’ Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Hummingbird is a virtuosic interpretation of music featuring the keyboard. Pianist Brenda Tom featured in this more intensely, and perhaps surprisingly, emotional music.

Using a palette of grays, the abstract set is made of a huge illuminated sheet that falls from the lights and fills the stage, displaying abstract spills of gray and black across glowing white. The sheet curls back at the bottom away from the audience, allowing a covered stage floor to curl up behind the sheet. The dancers are dressed in greys, the women in calf-length skirts that swayed and flowed. I’d give my back teeth to have those costumers redo my wardrobe.

Frances Chung opened the piece with her partner Gennadi Nedvigin rolling out from the hidden recesses of the set. Their duet, like the music, is confrontational. And the dancing, in the manner of today’s choreography, is restless, challenging and compelling.

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett's <i>Hummingbird</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett's Hummingbird
© Erik Tomasson
The choreographer is artist in residence at the Royal Ballet and a bright and rising star in the dance world. Hummingbird was created for San Francisco Ballet, and it’s clear that Scarlett was sensitive to the particular dancers of the company. He created a sparkling and complexly conflictual role for Chung to dance and made picturesque use of Yuan Yuan Tan’s leggy lyricism, who, dressed in white, achieved an exceptional and elegant rendering of the music with her partner Luke Ingham, swapping the human sexual conflict for a vision of Divine Woman. Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada seemed to summarise both of the other couples in their closing duo, dancing a vibrant and humane version of love – quick and bright as a hummingbird.

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