Program I of the San Francisco Ballet, opening Tuesday and running through Feb. 9, is quite wonderful, especially when put in context. Here is an all-neoclassic evening, splendidly performed, but somewhat lacking in variety. That’s where the context comes into play: this spring, the ballet will celebrate its 75th birthday with a unique festival of new works, all commissioned for the occasion. Any company that presents such bevy of world-class novelties is entitled to present a homogenous evening of neoclassic works by Lew Christensen (“Filling Station,” 1938), Helgi Tomasson (“7 for Eight,” 2004), and George Balanchine (the “Diamonds” portion of the 1967 full-length “Jewels”).
Now, there is nothing wrong with neoclassicism, especially in the manner of Balanchine, especially when it comes to the stately, brilliant “Diamonds,” danced gloriously by the company, with Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin up front. “7 for Eight” (seven Bach concerto movements with eight dancers) is Tomasson’s most sincere and self-effacing tribute to Balanchine, and probably his finest work.
The Balanchine theme also comes up powerfully in the Christensen’s “Filling Station,” a charming, funny slice-of-life piece taking place in a 1930s gas station.
In 1934, just four years before he choreographed “Filling Station,” Christensen started taking classes with Balanchine’s brand-new School of American Ballet, and soon became Balanchine’s star male dancer. In 1959, Tomasson joined the same school, later becoming another of Balanchine’s favorite dancers.
On opening night, Rory Hohenstein danced a sinewy, athletic Mac, the station attendant; Katita Waldo was sensational as the tipsy party girl, well supported in her hilarious collapses by Val Caniparoli. Matthew Stewart and Aaron Orza were the authentically dusty and macho truck drivers, and Margaret Karl created an endearingly obnoxious little girl.
“7 for Eight” makes the unlikely combination of Bach’s classicism and Tomasson’s romantic, ultra-lyrical choreography work superbly, offering a memorable counterpoint rather than conflict or contrast. With Michael McGraw at the piano, the orchestra under the precise baton of Martin West (who later “cut loose” in the Tchaikovsky score for “Diamonds”), eight of the company’s finest danced solos (Joan Boada), pas de deux (Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun, Tiit Helimets and Tina LeBlanc, Gennadi Nedvigin), pas de trois (Frances Chung, Elizabeth Miner, Boada), and pas de quatre (LeBlanc, Miner, Nedviguine, Nicolas Blanc).
There was fluid grace all around: All eight showed consistently beautiful, effortlessly floating arm movements — as if the ballet had engaged a special coach for this sometimes neglected part of the body. Perhaps that’s what happened; truly, here was a Hello to Arms.