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San Francisco Ballet slid into a slump just after the season opened, with two programs of mixed bills, one of them above average and the other - well, the best said about Program 3 is that the dancers saved it. Dancers are always saving the day, and in fact, a ballet does not need great choreography if it offers wonderful opportunities for exceptional dancers. And that's what SF Ballet has: champion dancers. Sasha da Sola, Dores Andre, Luke Ingham, Jennifer Stahl, Myles Thatcher: all of them tore it up on both programs and turned in performances that lifted Program 2 into the ranks of the memorable, and made you think that at least Program 3 went down fighting.
Over and over, it's yes and no. The male corps in "On a Theme of Paganini" lined up in effacee attitudes more beautiful than the women can do at New York City Ballet. In the ballet that opened Program 3, Da Sola and her two cavaliers made brilliant work of everything. On the other hand, Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luis, the main couple, blurred a lot of things, and made you wonder: Had they nailed their steps to Rachmaninoff's music, would the choreography have shone through? Or are those steps not really what the music is asking for? And that question, why isn't the choreography better than serviceable, plagued everything all night.
Especially if you'd seen Program 2, which also opened with a neo-classical ballet, "Serenade," set to great Russian music, Tchaikovsky, where every move they make seems miraculously wedded to the music. The dance is in love with the music, even though the ballet is now almost 80 years, it's still inspiring the dancers of today to outdo themselves. The harmonic structure of that music is guaranteed to stir hearts. The cry from the heart that you hear in the very first chord, with its searing dissonance, lets you know that in the end she's going to die a tragic death and be borne off into the heavens. Sarah van Patten met her fate with a tragic masque, and it was all implicit in the first chord of that music, which we heard before the curtain went up.
She was not in top form til then, and was outdanced in the waltz by her partner, Luke Ingham, who without grandstanding or seeming to try to pull focus danced with the clarity, elegance, modesty and exquisite form of a ballerina in every move he made. Sasha de Sola gave one of the greatest readings of the Russian Girl I've ever seen. I could complain that she keeps her toes slightly flexed in entrechats, which would be reasonable in any dancer other than one at her world-class-challenging level. But it spoils the line; Kyra Nichols did not do them that way. On the other hand, her trajectories have such glorious intent to them, as if Picasso had put his pen to the page. She goes where she's going, it is unbelievably clean, clear, shining. The great thing about ballet is that any child can see this, that the whole audience sees it.
Or the great balance at the end of that evening: when Dores Andre in Justin Peck's "Rodeo" took a balance facing away from her partner (brilliant Ulrik Birkkjaer), whose hands were outstretched near her waist but not touching. She stayed where she was, then let herself fall forward into his hands in one of the great moments of dance drama I've ever seen. That is a ballerina.
But there is also the sheer physical thrill of seeing so many magnificently fit people moving so fast, so accurately, with such momentum and precision that the activity itself summons up their beauty and makes them all seem immortal, as if time and gravity and space had yielded to this time and this space, where now feels like forever.
So those are the big Yes's. The weirdest of the No's is the stab at gay-friendliness made by Benjamin Millepied in the brand-new postscript he added to "The Chairman Dances [Quartet for Two]." During a blackout in "Quartet," Yuan Yuan Tan metamorphoses into Benjamin Freemantle, and a pas de deux continues that's no longer heterosexual. Of course, I applaud the sentiment. But it reminds me of the way that in Afghanistan, when a new conqueror overruns the country, all the mothers put little flags in the hands of their children and send them out to wave. It felt completely phony to me. Others may have been touched or moved, and I don't want to call them fools.
But nothing else in that ballet so far had seemed to require this new addition. Millepied has a facile hand at getting people moving, but his ideas are flashes in the pan. He also has a gift for publicity. In case you've forgotten, he is not only married to Natalie Portman, he was also for a nanosecond director of the Paris Opera Ballet. It was a bad idea to add the "Quartet"; the only connection is that it's more music by John Adams. You can't win them all, not even Steph Curry can win every time. "Chairman" was fun on the SFB Gala several years ago, but it cannot stand up to having pride of place on a serious program, despite the sweet-natured dancing of the leads, Maria Kochetkova and Carlo di Lanno. Especially not following "Serenade." Technically, it's a premiere, so no-brainer, it gets pride of place.
"Rodeo" is an affectionate reuse of music from the great midcentury ballet "Rodeo," which starred the choreographer herself, Agnes de Mille, in music she commissioned from Aaron Copland, whose party trick was making Americana music. Fabulous music, lovely new dances about male bonding, framed as a capriccio for dancers by from Justin Peck, who has given everyone a chance to shine. Esteban Hernandez shone brightest of all, but noble Jaime Garcia Castillo stood out, as did Hansuke Yamamoto and the all-able Wei Wang, and in smaller roles Henry Sidford, Lonnie Weeks.
If everyone in "Ibsen's House" had projected the intensity and pain of the characters they were portraying as Jennifer Stahl and Myles Thatcher did, I might have a very different view of that exhausting spectacle. The audience loved it: the cheering was loud and long. Certainly the dancers threw themselves into the kinetics of the churning phrases. Caniparoli has too many ideas, good ideas many of them, but the effect is chaotic, like Hollywood junipers in a high wind.