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S.F. Ballet serves a splendid neoclassical mix

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New work: The San Francisco Ballet premiered Edwaard Liang's "Symphonic Dances" on Program No. 5

While diverse, the three works in San Francisco Ballet's Program 5, which opened Wednesday at the War Memorial Opera House, share a characteristic: They are blends of neoclassical and modern dances solidly based on ballet conventions.

They have a more contemporary feel than George Balanchine's neoclassical works (on Program 7, April 12-18), but each is balletic, featuring en-pointe dancing.

Jerome Robbins' 1983 “Glass Pieces,” the oldest offering on the program, delightfully combines casual movements – dancers walk across the stage or sway in half dark upstage – and explosive action.

The piece requires the entire company – principal dancers, soloists and the corps. Out front, Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba made a terrific impression Wednesday.

Philip Glass' music isn't everybody's favorite, but Robbins selected works that are easy to take, especially the hypnotic “Facades.” On opening night, Jim Dukey played a ravishing saxophone solo over the gently pulsing orchestral background. Under conductor Martin West's direction, the orchestra had a grand night.

The program opened with Helgi Tomasson's 2006 “The Fifth Season,” one of the company artistic director's best works. Karl Jenkins' music and Tomasson's choreography fused exceptionally well, enhanced by Sandra Woodall's sets and costumes.

In the opening and third sections, Frances Chung (noticeably underweight, looking impossibly young and bursting with energy) and David Karapetyan turned in one of the evening's most appealing performances.

They had fierce competition with the quartet in other movements: Yuan Yuan Tan, Sarah Van Patten, Damian Smith and Vilanoba. The Tan-Smith pas de deux in the “Largo” section was remarkable for its fluid grace.

The evening's world premiere, Edwaard Liang's “Symphonic Dances,” set to Rachmaninov's work of the same name, was promising, but still needs work.

Richly costumed by Mark Zappone, it featured the company's best in pairs: Tan and Vito Mazzeo, Sylve and Tiit Helimets, and Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz.

While Liang has excellent ideas, at times, especially in duets, substance seemed to be lacking.

Surprisingly, in the opening scene, with its fast tempo, the typically excellent corps was not unified or precise, and a similar misadventure in ensemble work occurred later on.

Another problem was a delay in going to a blackout after a brilliant climactic lift, clearly meant to be dramatic. But when the ballerina struck a pose reaching for the sky, then had be to eased back to the floor, it was awkward.  

San Francisco Ballet Program No. 5
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. March 22, March 27 and March 30; 2 and 8 p.m. March 24, 2 p.m. April 1
Tickets: $20 to $285
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org

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