In these straitened times for the arts, San Francisco Ballet’s Paris tour this month happily defies belief. Instead of the warhorses trotted out every summer by the Bolshoi or the Mariinsky in London, Les Etés de la Danse, the local festival celebrating its 10th edition this summer, has allowed the American company to present 18 short ballets, half of them recent creations and Paris premieres. (Add to that the opening gala, and no fewer than 15 choreographers were represented.)
The three-week season is a feast only SFB, a relentlessly creative company under longtime director Helgi Tomasson, could serve, and a rare précis of recent neoclassical ballet history. Recent trends seemed to crystallise on the stage of the Théâtre du Châtelet as the company moved from Balanchine and Robbins to works new this year. The rise of the pas de deux as the ultimate form of choreographic (and emotional) expression was perhaps the most worrying symptom: the effect was deadening in a programme of works by Tomasson himself, Liam Scarlett and Edwaard Liang, where a small corps set the scene time and again for a series of heterosexual encounters. The formal variety on display in earlier works – from the group dynamics in Robbins’s Glass Pieces to Mark Morris’s intricate Maelstrom, where the seven couples are both soloists and corps – was nowhere to be found.
With the possible exception of Alexei Ratmansky, no choreographer working today is exempt, and any contrast comes down to their mastery of the duet form. The best among the current generation have honed it to the point where its internal range compensates somewhat. Christopher Wheeldon is one of them, and both Within the Golden Hour and Ghosts (a wonderfully gothic confection) showed him at his most evocative, with distinct leitmotifs: dancers moving as if underwater, a ghost-like arm extending behind Sofiane Sylve to offer a hand.
Britain’s Liam Scarlett, meanwhile, contributed one of his finest works to date. Hummingbird is reminiscent of Asphodel Meadows, his first success; here again, three couples embody three movements, their suspended, elegant world designed by John Macfarlane in shades of grey. The lush texture of Scarlett’s style is particularly evident in the first half, and small details add layers to his characters: Frances Chung prodding her partner forward, Yuan Yuan Tan’s flicks of the wrist when she stands alone on stage. Philip Glass’s Tirol Concerto is ultimately too repetitive to sustain the flutters of emotion Scarlett favours, however, and the third movement suffers.
San Francisco Ballet acquired Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy earlier this season, and brought two of its three parts to Paris. The Piano Concerto #1 was shown first. It features two central couples, but Ratmansky isn’t concerned with their personal relationships; instead, he gives us diachronic choreography on an architectural scale, shot through with references to Soviet history and ballet, from the athletic brilliance of the soloists to triumphant lifts evoking Ratmansky’s Bolshoi past.
The repertoire relies heavily on San Francisco Ballet’s principals to carry almost every ballet, and in Paris they showed themselves to be one of the strongest, most versatile groups in the world. The men Tomasson has nurtured are uniformly outstanding; the women, meanwhile, are all intriguingly individual, from Chung’s minute precision to the quirky versatility of Maria Kochetkova. Sarah Van Patten was all mysterious, moonlit beauty in Ghosts and MacMillan’s Concerto. Paris also welcomed back two French ballerinas, the commanding Sofiane Sylve and Mathilde Froustey, who has grown immensely since she left the Paris Opera and was full of mischievous energy at the Châtelet. Where ballet goes from here is anyone’s guess, but as dancers and choreographers continue to flock to Tomasson, the tell-tale signs may well be found in California.