Review: Mixed blessings at the Ballet

San Francisco Ballet's Program 5 is varied in the genre and quality of its components. Against three works with large casts, the shortest piece, with just two dancers, is the most memorable and satisfying.

Christopher Wheeldon's “After the Rain” pas de deux featured Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith at the Sunday matinee in a mesmerizing performance: two bodies joining and separating as if aspects of a single entity.

Spellbinding too is the music, Arvo Pärt's meandering, serene miniature, “Spiegel im Spiegel” (Mirrors in the Mirror), played with loving care by Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Roy Malan and pianist Michael McGraw.

There is an object lesson in the hokum of musical labels when comparing Pärt's ethereal minimalist work with Steve Reich's elephantine rattling used in “Eden/Eden.”

Reich has never progressed from the primitive ostinato school, which figured initially in the careers of such important musicians as Philip Glass and John Adams. (Pärt is minimalist in the sense of simplicity, not endless repetition.)

Wayne McGregor's “Eden/Eden” is an interesting work, reminiscent of — but unequal to — William Forsythe's landmark pieces (to Thom Willems' exciting electronic “soundscapes”), but it is challenged by more than the Reich score.

It's far more ambitious (and convoluted) than its otherwise imaginative choreography could support. Including Ravi Deepres' film about cloning, carbon- vs. silicon-based life forms, evolution, the nature of technology, Ursula Bombshell's bizarre bald/naked costumes, “Eden/Eden” virtually masks the determined efforts and spectacular athleticism by some of the company's best dancers.

The world premiere of company director Helgi Tomasson's “On a Theme of Paganini” (to Rachmaninov's music, featuring pianist Roy Bogas, splendid as ever) has a great quintet of soloists: Maria Kochetkova, Joan Boada, Davit Karapetyan and Pascal Molat shone at the matinee, while Vanessa Zahorian was not at her usual best.

They and the corps had a difficult task, because this, unlike other recent Tomasson works, comes in two flavors. For most of the piece, there is no credible connection between music and movement; for the rest, the relationship is too literal, mechanical, “step-per-note” kind.

“On a Theme of Paganini” is short on inspiration, long on routine — a not altogether critical observation, as Tomasson's choreography for men is always impressive.

The corps also figures prominently in the program-opening Wheeldon “Carousel (A Dance),” to music from the great Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.

Dores Andre and Joan Boada are featured as starcrossed lovers Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow. While the dance version lacks the dramatic weight and heartbreak of the musical (a veritable American opera), it is romantic and joyful.

Under Martin West's baton, the Ballet Orchestra eventually settled down to good work, but during the opening “Carousel Waltz,” the musicians seemed to be getting ready for the Reich piece by playing heavy and noisy — qualitiesinherent in a carnival setting, but not in line with Rodgers' transformation of the outwardly raucous to the gently affecting.

IF YOU GO San Francisco Ballet Program 5

Where: War Memorial Opera Building, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. March 12; 8 p.m. March 13 and March 18; 2 and 8 p.m. March 15

Tickets: $25 to $235; standing room: $25, discounts for students and seniors

Contact: (415) 865-2000 or www.sfballet.org

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