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SF Ballet’s ‘Bright Fast Cool Blue’ stutters

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San Francisco Ballet performs George Balanchine’s “Serenade.” (Courtesy Erik Tomasson)
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San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson has a nose for putting a show together but he’s less adept at building a night that accumulates meaning or power, as we saw Tuesday in the opening night of “Bright Fast Cool Blue” — Program 2 of the 2018 season.

Here, Tomasson juxtaposed one of ballet’s most exquisite neoclassical dances, George Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade,” with a sweet and well-crafted but ultimately weightless San Francisco premiere by Justin Peck, “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes,” and a sassy but aimless elaboration on a gala offering, “The Chairman Dances — Quartet for Two” (2017) by Benjamin Millepied — a dance with a GPS system that sent it wandering off-road. The program would have us believe that contemporary ballet is beautiful dancing mixed with appealing distraction. “Serenade” proves it’s not.

“Serenade” was Balanchine’s first American ballet, and it was made at a point in history when American-made ballet barely existed, and the only dancers available to Balanchine were his gaggle of budding students. He turned those limitations into a strength by building a near-perfect work that investigates the mechanics of classical dance form as its ground, then takes us on a journey into sparkling images of fireflies on a warm summer night, eddying moonlit water and mysterious and shadowy loss.

SF Ballet nails nearly every element, from the soundless sweep of dancers in diaphanous blue ankle length chiffon skirts moving in liquid formations to the wholly naked technical challenges Balanchine set for them. Yuan Yuan Tan brought quiet angst to her Giselle-esque figure, while Mathilde Froustey skimmed the air like a dragonfly. Carlo Di Lanno, Jennifer Stahl, Luke Ingham, along with a radiant corps de ballet, appeared to capture the dance’s beauty and melancholy in their bones.

San Francisco Ballet performs Justin Peck’s “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes.” (Courtesy Erik Tomasson)

This is a tough act to follow, and Benjamin Millepied’s “The Chairman Dances” didn’t survive the comparison well, despite getting off to a lively start. Set to composer John Adams’ propulsive score based on the African-American-inspired foxtrot, this very American dimension gets submerged in a flurry of competing and opaque ideas, including a touching but left-field paean to LGBT rights. Meanwhile, Maria Kochetkova’s dancing was technically sharp but emotionally self-important, leaving partner Carlo Lanno out of the emotional equation.

Peck gets some things right in his “Rodeo.” He knows how to move ensembles beautifully, with youthful lightness and verve, and he is able to use music without jarring, even if he misses the obsessive muscularity of Copeland’s score. But his new look at the hearty “Rodeo” posits a world of American male types who never emerge from a general bland mass. What iconic qualities do guys dressed like pretty soccer players, gymnasts, and farm hands have that tell us about U.S. men?

Not much.

Talented Peck ignores the potent feminism of the original “Rodeo” at his own peril, too, because he loses the foil used by the ballet’s first choreographer, Agnes DeMille, to help define men and women in relation to the feminine. His one lone out-of-place woman (Dores Andre) seems perfectly content with her phantom status; DeMille’s “cow girl” tom-boy fought the status quo. Peck also lacks DeMille’s grasp of spatial volume or bodily weight, of physicalized morality play, or character study. And he can’t hold a candle to her understanding of the place in America of the underdog.

IF YOU GO: Bright Fast Cool Blue
Presented by San Francisco Ballet
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: Feb. 14 and Feb. 22, 7:30 p.m.; Feb 16 and Feb. 24 8 p.m.; Feb. 18 and Feb. 24, 2 p.m.
Tickets: $29 to $275
Info: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org

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