Would you care to dance with me, Wendy Whelan asked Alejandro Cerrudo, Joshua Beamish, Kyle Abraham, and Brian Brooks.

Hell, yes, they said.

With her racehorse physique, technical facility – barely diminished after 30 seasons with New York City Ballet, despite injury – and “bring it on” attitude, Whelan was dynamite on stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Thursday night, kicking off the American tour of a newly refurbished Restless Creature.

W. Whelan and Alejandro Cerruto in <i>Ego e tu</i> © Rose Eschinbaum
W. Whelan and Alejandro Cerruto in Ego e tu
© Rose Eschinbaum
In Ego et Tu, Cerrudo and Whelan appeared to be fellow wanderers. He arrives on stage first, searching for her, in a solo that tells us that he doesn’t really know her, but imagines what she must be like. When she finally emerged out of the darkness, gorgeous and pale in the barest of shifts, her movement echoed his in a confirmation of his imagining. Their dance was lush and sweeping, low to the ground, with fluid undulations of the torso, arms that soared and hovered like the wings of an arctic tern, and gentle head butts in place of Hello and Hey There. When Whelan first materialized, she stood in a tight ballet fifth position but then proceeded to pivot on her heels – rather than on the ball of her foot as one does in ballet – perhaps to signal the End of Ballet. Much of this dance is missed connections: they carve space around each other but rarely touch. Voyagers whose paths happened to cross, their partnering is birdlike, not romantic, or sexual. At the end, they walk upstage, their backs to us, arms nonchalantly around each other’s waist. We get the feeling that even though they are well-matched, this is not commitment – they are too free-spirited.

At another end of the movement spectrum, grounded in hip hop and street dance, Abraham is not seeking common ground with Whelan. He opens The Serpent and the Smoke alone on stage – like Cerrudo, he is waiting, searching for Whelan. But he is readying for battle, and once she appears, they square off like combatants. The lighting is harsh and minimalist, the dancers’ faces mostly in shadow. The score by German pianist Hauschka and Icelandic experimental cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, full of clanging and creaking, is ominous and prison-evoking.

W. Whelan and Kyle Abraham in <i>The Serpent and the Smoke</i> © Rose Eschinbaum
W. Whelan and Kyle Abraham in The Serpent and the Smoke
© Rose Eschinbaum
The vibe is kill-or-be-killed. At one point, Whelan wraps her arms around Abraham’s hips, their pelvises lock, and Abraham executes a slow backbend while Whelan looks down at him, reversing the more common power dynamic between men and women in ballet. Later in the piece, whiplash turns and spinning jumps cause Whelan’s ballerina bun to unravel. The stage gets darker, the dancers are confined to a narrow corridor of low light. We hear pings. Are the dancers at the bottom of an ocean? Are they searching for the black boxes of a downed plane?

The bleakness was bracing, particularly in contrast to the other three pieces.

Beamish’s Conditional Sentences was the one world première of the evening. The other three belonged to an earlier incarnation of Restless Creature that premiered at Jacob’s Pillow last summer then traveled to London. They may have been tinkered with since then (I didn’t see the originals) but Beamish repurposed his entirely. Set to Glenn Gould’s iconic recording of Bach’s Partita No. 2, complete with the pianist’s breathing and grunting, the choreography was playful and opened with great wit. Whelan enters with her hands propped on her head as if to indicate a giant tiara. Beamish starts to play puppet-master, but she turns the tables on him. The piece sank like a stone, however, under the weight of Beamish’s hyper-self-consciousness. Whelan’s captivating cockiness could not resurrect our interest, nor distract us from the tiresome inside pirouettes that Beamish insisted on trying to perfect.

W. Whelan and Joshua Beamish in <i>Conditional Sentences</i> © Christopher Duggan
W. Whelan and Joshua Beamish in Conditional Sentences
© Christopher Duggan
The “come as you are” costuming didn’t help either – specifically, his light grey sweatpants with an athletic stripe down the side (which made me wonder whether the airline had lost his luggage.) Toward the close, they walk upstage, hand in hand. Then he suddenly, inexplicably, falls to the ground. She gives him a quizzical look – “What’s up with that?” – which pretty much sums up how we felt about the piece by then.

Brooks is the only one of the four who chose to efface himself almost entirely, to become a support for Whelan – not in the traditional storied role of prince or cavalier to the ballerina, but in a more literal sense. In a dark unitard against her lemon yellow frock, he could have been Peter Pan’s shadow, with Whelan in the role both of the magical boy who refuses to grow old, and the more mature Wendy Darling, who looks out for the Boys. In Brooks’ First Fall she was also a leaf floating down a river, caught in swirls and coursing eddies. Brooks was the rock that provided haven from the most dangerous currents, but also the gentle stream that kept her afloat and moving downstream with purpose. This was a demonstration of pure humility, no ego, beautifully set to Philip Glass at his glassiest. Striking images – of Brooks bent over, supporting Whelan as she held her body rigidly at an angle; at other times breaking her fall, then the two of them inching along the floor together – provided a metaphor for what is so hard about ballet. And above all, a metaphor for an enduring relationship. First Fall was not without lightness and humour (which started with the title.)

W. Whelan and Brian Brooks in <i>First Fall</i> © Christopher Duggan
W. Whelan and Brian Brooks in First Fall
© Christopher Duggan

In between tumble-and-catch, Whelan and Brooks got their arms tangled up, in a blurred, urgent form of dialogue. At one point, this degenerated into a comic swiping at each other, like an old married couple who can’t stop bickering. Throughout, the absorbing dialogue between Whelan and Brooks lifted this piece above the others.