Each of the current San Francisco Ballet programs can be described with a single word. Program 3: variety. Program 4; consistency.
Both are excellent, revealing more strengths than weaknesses. Both, featuring unusually long pieces, are challenging.
Program 3 ranges from Yuri Possokhov’s energetic neoclassical choreography for Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony,” to one of artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s most dramatic and affecting works, “Nanna’s Lied,” to William Forsythe’s intricate, bold “Artifact Suite.”
Possokhov, whose new “RAkU” on Program 2 is so far the sensation of the season, created joyous, abandoned dancing in the 2010 “Classical Symphony.” On opening night, Gennadi Nedvigin seemed free of gravity, partnering a graceful Vanessa Zahorian, with Frances Chung, Dores Andre, Isaac Hernandez and Jaime Garcia Castilla dancing the solo parts.
The 1993 “Nanna’s Lied” is a condensation of “The Threepenny Opera,” with Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife,” “Surabaya Johnny” from “Happy End,” and other Weill songs. The vocalist was Melody Moore, an alumna of San Francisco Opera’s Merola program who does not need amplification, but had it, resulting in her voice falling behind the live orchestra by a half a beat.
In the title role, Sarah Van Patten’s pathos and lyricism newly defined the character. Anthony Spaulding’s cruel Johnny and Val Caniparoli’s slimy Jacob Schmidt burned into memory.
The Forsythe revival, from the 2006 U.S. premiere here, got the same reception as at prior performances. Dozens of audience members departed halfway through, and those who stayed shouted bravi at the end.
Although carrying Forsythe signatures — a bare, open stage; plain leotards; dazzling, occasionally blinding lighting; a running time twice that of a typical piece; a huge cast in constant motion — “Artifact Suite” is newly fascinating. With the fire curtain dropping repeatedly, loudly and unexpectedly through the course of the dance, it’s also startling.
Accompanied by a deliberately over-amplified Bach Chaconne and Eva Crossman-Hecht’s numbing piano ostinato, Yuan Yuan Tan, Lorena Feijoo, Damian Smith and Pascal Molat were outstanding.
It looked like the entire corps de ballet was onstage in the second half of the 50-minute piece, swirling in strange patterns, coalescing, parting and coming together again. The events, configurations, inventions, intensity and surprises of the piece added up to a great, if challenging, experience.
Program 4 offers three romantic, neoclassical pieces, all to Tchaikovsky’s music: George Balanchine’s regally elegant “Theme and Variations,” the San Francisco premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s over-long “Winter Dreams,” inspired by the Chekhov play “Three Sisters,” and the world premiere of Tomasson’s “Trio,” set to Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence.”
Various ensembles comprise “Trio,” and as typical with Tomasson, male soloists had spectacular opportunity to shine. In the Balanchine piece, the corps triumphed, as it has recently in dances by the master choreographer.
Many of the company’s principal dancers have solos in “Winter Dreams,” and they performed well, but the material is too thin to sustain interest for 50 minutes, much of it taken up by posing, walking and conveying Chekhov’s quiet pathos.
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: Program 3 at 8 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; Program 4 at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Tuesday
Tickets: $20 to $260
Contact: (415) 865-2000 or www.sfballet.org