This third programme by the San Francisco Ballet was, unhappily, something of a dégringolade, albeit first impressions of the evening made for the broadest of grins. Curtain up revealed a brightly patterned backdrop and nine chaps in no less jolly leotards embarking on Mark Morris’s commentary on male dancers, Beaux. From the pit – where the orchestral playing under Martin West has been uniformly pleasing throughout this visit – Martinu scores for harpsichord.
The men danced. Danced with no little subtlety. Danced without whizz-bang bravura or needing to play at being the physical superman that male dancers indeed are. Morris, so stylish in his observations, so generous in his dances, so absolutely inside his music, shows men dancing together. Et voilà tout! There are emotional passages, and we learn about men as dancers. A small treasure.
The succeeding Classical Symphony is set to eponymous Prokofiev by the former Bolshoi dancer Yury Possokhov. It is buoyant, playfully snook-cocking, despatched with brightest verve by a cast led by the splendid Hansuke Yamamoto and Maria Kochetkova, and the choreography sits happily, saucily in its music, given with almost tangible delight by its cast.
And then the rot set in. Raku, also by Possokhov, is altogether too Japanese for its own good – or ours. Every cliché of oriental tragedy is mercilessly invoked: armed soldiery, a wedding replete with extravagant frockery, his departure and inexplicable death, her all-too-elaborate mopping and mowing, architectural mayhem, ashes applied as dandruffy token of grief. Choral wailing, yet. As a compendium of clichés the piece had a weird fascination. As a ballet it was a non-starter.
The closing Within a Golden Hour is, in effect, Christopher Wheeldon’s guide to his craft: How to Make Choreography. With an anaemic score (bloodless Ezio Bosso and a few dismal pages from Vivaldi), Wheeldon offers a well-mannered response to music, showing how dance can sit happily on its score, how movement can be stated, developed, got decently off stage, made to seem fresh. It is Gradus ad Parnassum, polished and skilled and efficient as can be, but hardly a Wheeldon ballet. And the women’s costumes are frightful.