It is San Francisco Ballet's 80th season, and on Tuesday at the War Memorial Opera House, the company pulled out some big, shiny dances in a flourish that reveled in wit, daring and neoclassical tradition. This is a ballet troupe that can dance anything, and on opening night it nearly did, from a big, cheeky 70-year-old ballet right for a Parisian nightclub to a strobe-filled dystopic/utopian premiere to a neurotic beauty from 1970. That's quite a range for any performing arts group.
But as versatile as the company is, and as thrilling as it is to watch in all its parts, there is still something this octogenarian can't do: lead us into a daring new future of dance. The birthday news from S.F. Ballet is that the company lacks a reliable radical edge, and that's despite the valiant efforts over the years by artistic director Helgi Tomasson to find one.
Tomasson seemed to have located a new dance maverick in Wayne McGregor in 2007. He is resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet in London, and six years ago he premiered his brainy collaboration "Eden/Eden," created with path-breaking minimalist composer Steve Reich and videographer Beryl Korot. It was a hit. But stripped of mesmerizing text and visuals, last year's "Chroma" by McGregor turned out to be built on a dance language much thinner than the earlier work promised, even if the overall conception dazzled.
McGregor's newest work, "Borderlands," is in the same league -- captivating, obliquely topical, but not the game changer one might hope for. Mostly, it tries too hard. Weighed down by allusions to the German Bauhaus, "Borderlands" puts the dancers into a beautifully illuminated cube of light (designed by Lucy Carter) and launches them into action like so many poisoned worms squirming in a giant box that changes colors and moods.
The movement breaks the body into fragments -- an elbow, a rib cage, a bottom, a foot -- but the physical squiggles and protruding body parts fail to coalesce into a point of view. The too-tame score by Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney reinforced the timidity of the project.
Yet "Borderlands" offered dancers extreme physical challenges, and stunning moments abounded -- Pascal Molat dancing like a dystopic 21st-century Petrouchka, Frances Chung giving new meaning to the passé position of the leg, four dancers walking in sensuous, rocking lock-step along the wall, like soldiers, prisoners or mourners. And eye-popping blasts of purple or green or blue grey light.
By contrast, the night's opener was an entertaining and ravishingly outré one-act ballet, "Suite en Blanc," by expat Serge Lifar, who left Russia in 1921, and beautifully mounted by Maina Gielgud, former dancer with the London Festival Ballet among others. It promised nothing more than amusement and delight but offered more. The "pure dance" ballet, propelled by its Spanish melodies and Russian mazurkas, was arranged as a series of dance numbers, and set to Edouard Lalo's "Namouna."
This "white" ballet, which refers to the classic-era ballets of dying swans decked in white tutus, was surrounded by black and leavened by the spirit of the Folies Bergere while inspired by the ingenious designs of Busby Berkeley. Lush, rigorous Russian classical and neoclassic dance from the ballets of August Bournonville, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to George Balanchine undergird it all. The result was a dance arranged as a show number that brought ballet into new terrain, where the endless quotes from the 19th-century classics were made fodder for modernist wit and expression.
It also gave us a parade of stunning individual and Hollywood-big corps performances. Tiit Helimets and Shane Wuerthner partnered with a radiant Vanessa Zahorian in "pas de trois." Sasha De Sola in "serenade" made herself queen of the black stage with its hidden stairs as she executed leg extensions and fouette turns with imperious femininity. The bounding quartet of Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, Steven Morse, Myles Thatcher and Hansuke Yamamoto sprang into the air in relentless beats, jumps and turns. Frances Chung talked with her legs, and Sarah Van Patten danced a subtly witty "cigarette" with signature steel-like clarity. Maria Kochetkova nailed the silkiness of "flute," and Davit Karapetyan was wonderfully sultry in "mazurka," as eight men danced on the ingenious upper landing that gave the whole its nightclub aura.
Between these two concept ballets came Jerome Robbins' Chekovian study set to Chopin nocturnes (impeccably played by pianist Roy Bogas) that examines love at three stages of its arc. It is embodied by a trio of couples whose costumes, deepening in color from couple to couple, reinforce the trajectory from innocence to propriety to volcanic rupture. Despite its 19th-century trappings, this is a 20th-century ballet of interior life made public, and it is a slightly neurotic beauty set against a backdrop of dreamy stars -- a welcome whisper between two claps of dance thunder.
san francisco ballet
Presents the world premiere of Wayne McGregor's "Borderlands," the S.F. premiere of Serge Lifar's "Suite en Blanc" and Jerome Robbins' "In the Night"
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 30, 8 p.m. Jan. 31 and Feb. 1-2, 2 p.m. Feb. 2 and 3
Tickets: $20-$135, 415-865-2000, www.sfballet.org