It's startling how new and challenging George Balanchine's “Agon” looks and sounds more than a half a century after its premiere by Balanchine's New York City Ballet.
San Francisco Ballet's season-closing Program 8 opens with the bold, innovative work, set on Igor Stravinsky's 12-tone music, played with devotion by the ballet orchestra at the Saturday matinee.
Music director Martin West has called the score “pure music,” and the work is pure dance, showcasing angular, sweeping movement, the performers wearing black-and-white practice clothes.
On Saturday, Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets and six busy soloists mastered the piece’s athletic technique on the surface and its barely hidden whimsical subtext.
In contrast, Balanchine’s four-movement 1966 “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet,” which followed, is a colorful, romantic widely varied piece. San Francisco Ballet, only one of four companies in the world the New York City Ballet authorized to perform the work, last offered it 28 years ago.
Music guides the changing mood and choreography, from the robust first movement (featuring Sasha De Sola and Jaime Garcia Castilla) to the lyrical second (a triumph for Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz).
The slow third movement, which dragged a bit on Saturday, led to the riotous Gypsy dance of the finale’s virtuoso performance by Sarah Van Patten and Davit Karapetyan.
Jerome Robbins' “Glass Pieces,” set to three superb excerpts from Philip Glass' works, at first filled the stage with the whole troupe in a busy Manhattan street scene, with company members walking, hopping and turning.
In the second movement, Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith performed a quiet, lyrical pas de deux, against a moving line of dancers silhouetted against a dark wall. Dave Henderson's long, floating saxophone solo of “Facade” from “Glassworks” sounded sumptuous.
In the closing movement, the crowd returned, in a mad rush of what ballet master Betsy Erickson calls in the program “a folk celebration… the harvest.” Although it didn’t look agricultural, it was an enjoyable reprise of the first movement's urban rush in a different setting.
San Francisco Ballet Program 8
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Friday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $22 to $335
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org