Opening night of San Francisco Ballet’s Program 7 was an unseasonably warm evening that seemed to carry with it a hint of season’s end, a touch of nostalgia amid the dance on display. The evening’s triple-bill program opened with artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s 2006 The Fifth Season, with music by Karl Jenkins.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Tomasson's The Fifth Season © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Tomasson's The Fifth Season
© Erik Tomasson

A tasteful backdrop featured charcoal and white abstracts hanging like oversized portraits (designed, along with costumes, by Sandra Woodall). Frances Chung and Davit Karapetyan, the first of three lead couples, opened the ballet in a fast-moving pas de deux that showcased both their strengths, Chung with her fleeting, turbo-charged movements and Karapetyan, whose finesse and control in jumps and turns produced sighs of satisfaction from the audience. In Tango, Sarah Van Patten charmed audience and her three suitors with her insouciance and spirited dancing. Soloist Carlos Quenedit, partnering Van Patten, kept up admirably with the crew of five powerhouse principals that comprised the other lead couples. In Largo, Damian Smith and Yuan Yuan Tan shared a tender, affecting pas de deux, wrapping, intertwining, circling, with a poignancy that tore at the heart. Regrettably, Smith retires this season after a long, distinguished career with the San Francisco Ballet; this is one of the last times audiences will see these longtime partners perform together, which seemed to lend even more gravitas and beauty to their performance. The San Francisco Ballet orchestra, Martin West conducting, provided impeccable accompaniment here, and throughout the night. 

Koto Ishihara in Lifar's Suite en Blanc © Erik Tomasson
Koto Ishihara in Lifar's Suite en Blanc
© Erik Tomasson

Serge Lifar’s 1943 Suite en Blanc, second on the program, offers Russian classicism and nostalgia in nine vignettes, to music by Edouard Lalo. The set design was a visual delight, presenting, upon the curtain’s rise, a kaleidoscopic view of dancers tiered on two levels and formally arranged. The ballet is classical, almost a tutorial on classicism, but not without some playful whimsy that serves the piece well, such as the way the corps women bourrée in first position across the stage and upper tier, giving one the feeling they’re skimming on air. Tiit Helimets and Sarah Van Patten, too, offered whimsy in their interaction, as Van Patten’s hands continued moving, like birds, after completing a partnered triple pirouette. Among other notable vignettes were the Pas de Trois, featuring Jaime Garcia Castilla and Vitor Luiz dancing with Sasha De Sola; Mathilde Froustey in Cigarette, and Sofiane Sylve in Flute. Corps de ballet dancer Koto Ishihara delivered a lovely, if perhaps tentative, solo in Serenade

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett's Hummingbird © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett's Hummingbird
© Erik Tomasson

The night’s program finished with the world premiere of Hummingbird, choreographed by Royal Ballet artist-in-residence, Liam Scarlett. Only 28 and, until recently, a corps dancer with the Royal Ballet, his rise to choreographic success has been swift since a 2010 debut on the Covent Garden main stage garnered rave reviews. Hummingbird is set to Philip Glass’ Tyrol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and features a striking backdrop – a grand, sky-high canvas, designed by John Macfarlane. The floor slopes up to meet canvas and from that juncture, out creep the dancers, in costumes of various grey hues. (My only complaint of the night; I found the women’s grey dresses to be drab, unflattering, rather un-hummingbird-like.) Effective and intriguing was the use of silhouette and shadow periodically showcasing the three principal couples, two soloist couples, and corps ensemble. Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin performed well in a physically demanding, quick-moving pas de deux laced with contention as well as intimacy. Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham were standouts in a gorgeous, electric pas de deux. It was Tan’s second memorable pas de deux for the night, and it almost seemed planned that way, the first with the longtime, soon-to-be-former partner, the second with the challenger, and indeed, the pas de deux seemed to encompass both antagonism and longing, an upheaval of the old, a fight to establish the new. Ingham’s stage presence has never seemed more powerful, particularly as he longingly pressed up against Tan, after having flung her and spun her about. The accompanying adagio movement of the Tyrol Concerto is gorgeous and hypnotic – the same music Jorma Elo used in Glow-Stop, leaving me equally impressed both times. Pianist Brenda Valhur delivered a virtuoso performance, accompanied by silvery strains of the orchestra’s string section. The third movement of Hummingbird shifts to lighter, jazzier fare. Dores André and Joan Boada, as the third lead couple, delivered a graceful, strong performance, marred only by the fact that they were not the originally scheduled Maria Kochetkova-Taras Domitro couple.

San Francisco Ballet concludes its 2014 season in a few short weeks, but until then, the pickings are rich, as Program 7 and 8 alternate performances.