San Francisco Ballet’s strength in depth is amazing and gratifying. The three demanding works that opened the company’s 2016 repertory season at the Sunday matinee in the War Memorial were all cast with dancers of unflagging energy and effortless grace, all in peak form even at the very beginning of the season. There are six more performances through Feb. 5.
There are few ballet companies in the world that can present SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s 2004 “7 for Eight” with stars in every one of the seven scenes for eight dancers. Large casts for Yuri Possokhov’s 2000 “Magrittomania” and the North American premiere of William Forsythe’s 1999 “Pas/Parts” were similarly without a weak link, featuring big-name dancers in every role. Official distinctions between “principals” and “soloists” paled in the light of equally brilliant performances.
Tomasson’s fine neoclassical work is set to excerpts from keyboard concertos by Bach, played impressively by Mungunchimeg Buriad, Martin West conducting the Ballet Orchestra (which was yet to meet its big challenge in “Magrittomania”).
The dancers, in Sandra Woodall’s short black costumes of ingenious simplicity, were sensational, from the opening to the closing duet with Mathilde Froustey and Tiit Helimets, Vanessa Zahorian, Gennadi Nedvigin, Elizabeth Powell, Taras Domitro, Koto Ishihara, and Lonnie Weeks all shining in turn, in a variety of solos, duets, a trio, and a pas de quatre.
Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan followed in the parade of stars, dancing leading roles in “Magrittomania,” along with Esteban Hernandez, Wei Wang, and Max Cauthorn. West’s orchestra conquered Yuri Krasavin’s devilish variations/spoofs of Beethoven scores with ease, enhanced by Natal’ya Feygina piano solos, and Eric Sung’s cello.
Possokhov and scene/costume designer Thyra Hartshorn only begin invoking the Surrealist art of René Magritt with the obvious: apples, pipe (which is “Not a Pipe”), men with bowler hats and umbrellas falling from the sky. The real meaning of the work is in the integration of sets, lighting, costumes, and movement. Just as Magritt doesn’t say anything simple or easily summarized, Possokhov provides impressions, feelings, an atmosphere, and something to remember. The more you see “Magrittomania,” the more you get out of it.
Once again, performances were brilliant in the last work, Maria Kochetkova, Frances Chung, and Dores André joining a dozen dancers from the first two pieces. Athletic, sinuous, dazzling movements promised much to old fans of Forsythe, but…
Beyond world-class gymnastic floor exercises, there was not enough here – in this work rarely produced since introduced in the Paris Opera Ballet 17 years ago – for those of us with fond memories of “In the Middle Somewhat Elevated” and “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude”… too much of the same thing, and yet something missing. Even those used to Thom Willems’ jarring electronic scores might have found the one for “Pas/Parts” uninspired.
Still, it’s possible to sit back and admire the gorgeous lines and perfectly executed poses on stage, however repetitive. As Cheryl Ossola’s program notes say, “For audiences, perhaps the most familiar aspects of Forsythe’s works are his use of syncopation and counterpoint and the expansive three-dimensionality of his movement, in which épaulement (use of the head and upper body in opposition to the rest of the body) figures large.” While those characteristics are evident in “Pas/Parts,” some intended variations appear as repetitions, and the result is disappointing.
Indicating a new spirit in the audience (or just progress), unlike dozens leaving in past years during Forsythe/Willems performances, on Sunday, there were only a handful giving up, even against the work’s substantial length.