Last updated: September 17, 2012 6:01 pm

San Francisco Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, London

Works by Balanchine and Wheeldon are among the highlights as Helgi Tomasson’s troupe returns to London
San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Number Nine’©Simon Tompkinson

San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Number Nine’

A season could not begin more gloriously than did San Francisco Ballet’s on Friday night, with Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15. Here is the ideal plotless ballet, the dance a conjoined twin with its other self – the music. Balanchine shows us Mozart, and we rejoice.

In this return to London after eight years, the San Francisco dancers are happy, bright with California’s sunshine, albeit with fewer of the half-lights that can give ballet its sophistications. Assured, slightly unrelenting, SFB’s casts danced and smiled through Balanchine/Mozart with a rictus of delight that made one long for them to learn that a favourite canary had dropped off the twig.

About Edwaard Liang’s realisation of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances which followed, I prefer not to comment save to say that this intense score was intended for Fokine but not realised by him, and that Liang uses it as an excuse for a nasty attack of the yearns. Costuming here, and in the concluding Number Nine by Christopher Wheeldon, has an unhappy trust in the bathing suit as suitable dress for male dancers, and a child-like belief that female dancers can, as they say, “carry off” trailing chiffon skirts. (The troupe’s costuming is provincial when not actually malevolent.) But Wheeldon’s dances, exploring the quirky baroque manner of Michael Torke’s Ash, are ever-resourceful, sit featly on their music. Throughout the evening, the dancing of such artists as Vanessa Zahorian, Sofiane Sylve, Davit Karapetyan, was a special pleasure.

The second SFB programme on Saturday night offered creations for the troupe made during the past three years. Here, in an illuminating conjunction, were choreographies in the current classic-academic manner from Helgi Tomasson (director of the troupe), Wheeldon and Ashley Page – by turns honourable, inventive and cussed.

Trio, Tomasson’s realisation of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, was well made, exactly what one might expect given Tomasson’s former identity as a superb Balanchine dancer. Wheeldon’s Ghosts was not Ibsen, but a response to the sonorities and spectral implications of Kip Winger’s intriguing orchestral suite – music that spoke to its choreographer of uneasy revenants, of eerie disquiet. I thought the piece suitably haunting, though the dance was chained to too much music.

Page’s choice of John Adams’ Guide to Strange Places, which begins with the sonorities of Petrushka’s Butterweek Fair, and ends with a steelworks in labour, was a response to orchestral racket – though there was fine playing throughout these evenings under Martin West – and made for disjunct, clogged dance. The San Francisco casts smiled, moped, deserved medals for their energy in the tiresome staging.

4 stars

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