San Francisco Ballet’s Programme 8 is an homage to George Balanchine, the company’s tutelary spirit. For although the company is located on the West Coast and has been following its own path since its separation in 1942 from the Opera Ballet, its affinities have always been with the modernism and the technique of Balanchine.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Glass Pieces © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Glass Pieces
© Erik Tomasson

Perhaps that’s splitting hairs. It could be argued that much of American ballet is dominated by Balanchine’s preference for speed, lyricism and an abstract fusion of heterogeneous dance movement, at the base of which lies the Russian technique of the 19th century. Americans prefer the athleticism that can be found in companies like Kirov and the Bolshoi. But we lack their adherence to tradition, and are easily distracted by the odd, the individual and the possibilities of the everyday.

The first of the ballets presented in Programme 8 is Agon. Choreographed in 1957, it is set to music at a time when Stravinsky was experimenting with atonal music. In his 2007 New York Times review of the piece, critic Alasdair Macauley comments that the piece plays with the idea of 12-tone music in a number of ways. Not only are there 12 dancers – four men and eight women – but there are 12 parts with a Coda. And he notes the black-and-white tights, leotards and T-shirts of the dancers, spare and precise, as well as the fact that the pas de deux was one of the first pieces featuring the brilliant Arthur Mitchell:

It’s possible that Balanchine introduced the black-and-white coloration of the Agon casting in response to Stravinsky’s atonal music. Himself an excellent pianist, [Balanchine] was dramatizing a new relation between the piano’s white and black notes.

Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Balanchine's Agon © Erik Tomasson
Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Balanchine's Agon
© Erik Tomasson

What strikes me most about this piece, though, is its vocabulary of movement, which continuously combines unlikely partners: there are the gorgeous leggy extensions of ballet, unfolding from the body to reveal the arch at the end of the straightened knee and ankle. There are flexed feet and wrists recalling the grounded concerns of modern dance. The long splashy diagonal windmill moves of arms and legs that would have done Gene Kelly proud, and the bent, turned-in knees of the showgirl, which is both virginal and suggestive. The mixture serves to dislocate each of these moves from its origins, making the whole surprising, and transforming the cliché into the unusual.

And all of it is performed in a constant shifting of rhythm and speed, most often constantly kinetic but punctuated by the staccato of isolated moves confined to a single joint, whether foot or hip. Feet tap, hands clap.

Although symmetry abounds in the patterns traced by the dancers across the stage, there is something kaleidoscopic about the particulate moves that follow the witty gestures of the music.

Even at this date and after so many performances, Agon retains a freshness that is unanalyzable and unremitting.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet
© Erik Tomasson

Not so, the Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. Similar to Jewels, this piece, which premiered at New York City Ballet in 1966, is actually several short ballets, each set in a “type” of traditional ballet. The music is an orchestration by Arnold Schoenberg of Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor.

As if to remind us that we were being cast back into an earlier imperial form of ballet, the sets of the ballet were two chandeliers hanging in an otherwise barren stage, except for a wash of colored light. There is lots of chiffon, rhinestones and a flood of tiaras.

For the most part, the ballets, which move from neo-classical through Romantic and classical, are fairly bland in their dynamics, though they encapsulate what most people think of when they think of ballet: beautiful princesses gliding ethereally across the floor. The third ballet is a tribute to the bourrée – those tiny little steps taken en pointe to move the dancer across the stage as if she were a hummingbird. The final ballet is full of wild Gypsy dancing, from its prettified folk costumes to its clicking heels and classic character dancing moves.

Glass Pieces, choreographed by Jerome Robbins to music by Philip Glass, was choreographed in 1983. With a minimalist backdrop reminiscent of an Agnes Martin grid, the piece begins with dancers in leotards and tights walking across the stage as if they were pedestrians in midtown Manhattan. Everyone has somewhere to go. No one touches or makes eye contact.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Glass Pieces © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Glass Pieces
© Erik Tomasson

Suddenly, two dancers – a man and woman – in monochrome body tights flash through the crowd, they are dancing and they connect in a flow of exuberant energy. This happens three times, the six dancers finally gathering into their own momentum.

The second movement is a pas de deux set in front of a line of women, turned into silhouettes by the lighting, who repeat a series of movements while travelling slowly across upstage. Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets danced the stunningly vibrant pas.

Interestingly, the vocabulary of steps throughout the piece show how closely linked Robbins was to Balanchine, not only as a colleague and co-founder choreographer of the New York City Ballet, but also as a choreographer.

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