Thursday night in the opening of “Distinctly SF Ballet” at the War Memorial Opera House, three San Francisco Ballet choreographers reprised work that ran the gamut from the elegantly presentational to a well-sculpted psychodrama and a social study of tribalism and community.
Though late to the locavore party, SF Ballet self-consciously pulled from its own pool of talent and invites us to see work in a new light — and we do.
Val Caniparoli has been a dancer with SF Ballet since 1973, and his decade-old “Ibsen’s House” (2008) has worn brilliantly. It depicts five iconic couples from five revolutionary Victorian plays by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen with beautiful costuming by Sandra Woodall.
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As though echoing recent news, these couples provide an all-too-relevant study of women quietly exploding against the suffocating control of the men in their lives, while the men seethe with frustration or rage.
Jennifer Stahl, as Mrs. Alving, was a knockout, a barely sublimated embodiment of fury and anguish, mirrored by partner Miles Thatcher, as Captain Alving. Meanwhile, corps member Kimberly Marie Olivier as the woman with the freedom to choose, Ellida, moved with fleet-footed openness no other character is allowed. While all five pairs danced beautifully (also Dores Andre, Vitor Luiz, Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets, Luke Ingham, Ellen Rose Hummel and Sean Orza), their characters will come more fully alive when they plumb the meaning of each neurotic gesture to reveal the compound meaning of every swipe of the gown or stab of the chest.
Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s calm, sparkling blue-and-silver-toned “On A Theme of Paganini” (2008) by Sergei Rachmaninov, a concertante for orchestra and solo piano (played with lush elegance by Roy Bogas), opened the program. This is Balanchinian study of flying legs and signaling arms set in group counterpoint and bravura solos, duets and trios.
Max Cauthorn, Wei Wang and Luiz were fleet powerhouses, turning and leaping. Sasha de Sola channeled her limpid technique and inner light into a prismatic kinesthetic elegance. Maria Kochetkova, although technically impeccable, seemed to be going through the motions again Thursday night, engaging neither audience nor partners, as if slightly bored; the frozen base of her neck may be what keeps her from projecting.
Ghosts figured in “Ibsen,” the ghost of Balanchine lurked in Paganini, and corps de ballet member and talented young choreographer Thatcher introduced another ghost with his 2017 “Ghost in the Machine.” This is not so much a bow to philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s assertion that there is no transcendent thinker thinking our lives as much as it is an homage to a generation both set against itself and searching for unity.
At the dance’s outset, a “West Side Story” tribalism rules through hungry dancing with 10 movers facing off in punchy, jazz-inflected action. Beneath Alexander V. Nichols’ overhead design of torqued strings, as from a piano, and set to a compilation of Michael Nyman’s lush romantic minimalism (including music from the film “The Piano”), Thatcher presents a paean to disenfranchised youth, absorbed in atomizing technology and yet capable of deep collaborative bonds.
While Thatcher loses the thread and sometimes indulges in reflex theatricalities, he uses the dancers’ bodies as modern instruments that move through every plane, often with the rhythmic complexity of club dancers. That’s a sign of local and generational change at SF Ballet. It’s a welcome one.
IF YOU GO: Distinctly SF Ballet
Presented by San Francisco Ballet
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: Feb. 20-21, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 17 and Feb. 23, 8 p.m.; Feb. 17 and Feb. 25, 2 p.m.
Tickets: $29 to $275
Info: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org