On Friday, the splendid San Francisco Ballet opened its Program 6, a grouping of three ballets by contemporary choreographers Mark Morris, Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov. All of the choreographers have close ties to the company. Tomasson has been its artistic director and principal choreographer since 1985; Possokhov joined the company as principal dancer in 1994 and has been choreographer-in-residence since 2006; Mark Morris has created eight ballets for the company since 1994.

Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in Tomasson's Caprice © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in Tomasson's Caprice
© Erik Tomasson

Which is to say, the work they create for the company is based on on-going knowledge of the dancers over some 20 years. The result is that their choreography is perfectly suited to the style and strengths of the company. Even so, it’s interesting to note how each very individualistic choreographer sets their work on as complex and integral a body as a dance company.

Tomasson, of course, is closest to the dancers, not only in his role as artistic director but also as the director of the ballet school. His opinions and demands form the technique of all the dancers. He comes out of the American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet nexus, which falls very closely to the original mission, if you will, of San Francisco Ballet’s founding Christensen brothers.

Caprice, set to music by Saint-Saëns, is a neo-classical ballet work, complete with chorus of six couples and two lead couples. The columns of light designed as sets by Alexander V. Nichols underline this concept: they are clean, slightly severe, iconic and referential to a world of philosophy and spirit that is made modern and elite. The dancers move unceasingly through patterns like some gracious human rendering of the spinning galaxies of the universe.

The most engaging moment of the piece was the central adagio, where two couples – in this performance, Yuan Yuan Tan partnered by Luke Ingham and Maria Kochetkova partnered by Davit Karapetyan – perform a pas de deux times two. The choreography is very classical in that the man performs a supporting role to the woman’s exquisite movements. The lovely Tan provided a languid lyricism, in which each move unfolds slowly and elegantly; Kochetkova, a more fiery dancer, places her perfection in each achieved line. The guys were fab, too: I liked the sleeveless tunics that put their biceps in high definition. The whole section was like a dream, pulling the observer into a timeless and still place where the heart registers beauty as transcendent and guiding.

Julia Rowe and James Sofranko in Morris' Maelstrom © Erik Tomasson
Julia Rowe and James Sofranko in Morris' Maelstrom
© Erik Tomasson

Morris, on the other hand, is a choreographer of the crowd. His movement depends on dancers forming in groups that then dance in a ‘syncopated manner’. Three dancers perform the same combination while a fourth dancer either dances the same combination several steps behind the other dancers or contrapuntally. At times three different versions of the same combination appear out of time and in different almost unrecognizable shifts of emphasis.

His piece Maelstrom was performed before colorful cloud-like projections on the upstage screen designed by James F. Ingalls. Along with his crowd theory of dance, Morris also displayed his characteristic of following the music ultra closely. Not just by adhering to the composer’s count in the work ­– in this case Beethoven’s Trio in D Major, Opus 70, No, 1 – but by using movement that captures the emotional tenor of the phrases. It’s as if the emotion behind the music is realized in the dancer’s body.

He also couldn’t resist mocking, sassy and comic moments. Morris is nothing if not a satirist.

Since last year was the centenary of this great and pivotal work by Stravinsky with lost-and-somewhat-found choreography by Nijinsky, everyone took a shot at it. I’ve seen lots and lots of versions of this piece by different choreographers over the years, but Yuri Possokhov’s Rite of Spring seemed closer to the primal urges that the music reached for and grabbed.

The opening bassoon solo and woodwind echoings that begin the work are performed by the ever-excellent San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, under the direction of Martin West. When the curtain pulls back there is an inclined rectangular platform upstage right, sloping down to the stage where women lie in physical disarray. Long bare birch trees sparsely surround the gray platform.

Benjamin Stewart and James Sofranko in Possokhov's Rite Of Spring © Erik Tomasson
Benjamin Stewart and James Sofranko in Possokhov's Rite Of Spring
© Erik Tomasson

Soon the men crawl over the incline. While the women are dressed in short white shifts with large leaves and flowers painted in oranges, reds and greens, by costume designer Sandra Woodall, the bare-chested men are in loose pants that end in vivid green sock like shoes. The bright green of spring buds and vegetable growth is embodied by the dancers.

As is a kind of primitive sexuality. The women cluster throwing their shifts over their faces like little girls do, revealing flesh-coloured leotards beneath.

Jennifer Stahl gorgeously danced the part of the Chosen One. Luke Ingham, her consort. And James Sofranko and Benjamin Stewart danced the peculiarly ominous Elders, sharing a stretchable skirt on which was painted a pelvis-like image with animal-like coccyx. Clavicle bones and ribcage were painted across their leotards.

The dancing is sexy, strange and feral – almost shocking, a neat trick in this day and age. Diaghilev would be so pleased.

*****