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SF Ballet goes boldly into the future

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Yuri Possokhov’s timely and affecting “Optimistic Tragedy” is a highlight of San Francisco Ballet’s 2017 Program 2. (Courtesy Erik Tomasson)
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For artistic director Helgi Tomasson and San Francisco Ballet, it’s not enough to be the country’s oldest and consistently excellent ballet troupe. As exemplified in 2017’s first two programs, the company also is vying for a top spot among innovators.

World premieres last week at the War Memorial Opera House included Jirí Bubenícek’s “Fragile Vessels,” set to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in Program 1, and Yuri Possokhov’s “Optimistic Tragedy,” with Ilya Demutsky’s fascinating commissioned score, in Program 2.

“Fragile Vessels” — although handicapped by the inexplicable beige-on-beige look of Uros Belantic’s body-suit costumes (they looked a bit like Band-Aids) against scenic designer Otto Bubenicek’s huge, geometric sets (which resembled mummies) and yellow-hued lighting — boasts an unseen impressive soloist: Mongolian-born, Moscow-trained company pianist Mungunchimeg Buriad, formerly with the Joffrey Ballet, who performed the grand concerto beautifully.

A sinuous, passionate first movement duet between Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno on Tuesday’s opening night, and Koto Ishihara and Wei Wang on Wednesday, made a lasting impression.

Bubenícek creates eye-catching sculptural formations for the dancers; an extended pas de trois — showcasing skillful Dores André, Joseph Walsh and Wang — was interesting; still, the piece felt repetitive.

Possokhov’s Program 2 premiere provides a bold contrast to the non-narrative “Fragile Vessel.”

His stunning “Optimistic Tragedy,” a mash-up of different influences including the 1933 play of the same title by Vsevolod Vishnevsky and Sergei Eisenstein’s film “Battleship Potemkin,” is about the Russian Revolution, but speaks to the sacrifice inherent in all conflicts.

The work opens dramatically, with the words “dedicated to those who gave their lives for future generations” projected onto the stage.

During the piece, scenes from the Eisenstein film are projected, as the dancers illustrate fighting between loyalists, revolutionaries and anarchists.

On opening night, Lorena Feijoo, Luke Ingham and Taras Domitro were smolderingly passionate in the lead roles. The rest of the cast — male dancers as sailors, defying gravity — was superb as well.

SFB choreographer Possokhov (whose past successes include “Magrittomania,” “Damned,” “RAkU” and “Rite of Spring”) knows how to move a group of male dancers, and SFB’s men have one of the deepest benches in ballet.

The original score by San Francisco Conservatory of Music-trained Russian composer Demutsky — Shostakovich meets Richard Strauss, yet still all his own — and scenic and visual projection design by Alex V. Nichols were especially affecting.

Given today’s troubled political climate, “Optimist Tragedy” couldn’t be better timed. (Hopefully, international dancers in the troupe won’t be affected by possible future restrictions in immigration laws that may come up under the new president.)

Program 1 was rounded out by revivals of Tomasson’s classical “Haffner Symphony,” set to Mozart (Angelo Greco was a leaping dynamo opening night); and Justin Peck’s contemporary, uplifting “In the Countenance of Kings,” set to Sufjan Stevens (with Walsh standing out in solo work as The Protagonist at the opening).

On opening night, Program 2 began with six dancers — Sylve, Walsh, Greco, Di Lanno, Lauren Strongin and Frances Chung — who playfully and elegantly paired off to the music of Domeninco Scarlatti in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas,” with Buriad providing live piano accompaniment onstage. Intimate, light and pretty, it was the confection of the evening.

Program 2 closed with William Forsythe’s “Pas/Parts,” set to Thom Willems’ unpredictable electronic score.

Sylve, Wang, Di Lanno, Chung, André, James Sofranko, Sasha De Sola and Francisco Mungamba stood out among the marvelous cast, executing the rhythms and patterns with joyous precision and brilliant technique.

The stage was bare and white, the costumes very simple, but the masterful choreography made for a full, rich, witty experience.

Programs 1 and 2 bode well for San Francisco Ballet’s future. The 2017 season includes four world premieres, and Tomasson has announced a festival of 12 new ballets for the 2018 season — a bold, commendable move for a large performing-arts organization that relies on audience attendance attracted to what’s tried and true.

REVIEW
San Francisco Ballet Programs 1 and 2
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
Tickets: $25 to $375
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org
Program 1: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2; 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 4
Program 2: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31 and Feb. 1; 8 p.m. Feb. 3; 2 p.m. Feb. 5

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