San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Program 2’ showcases intricate choreography, celebrates power of dance

Photo of two ballerinas performing during the SF Ballet's Program 2 event
Erik Tomasson/Courtesy

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There is no better way to celebrate the unequivocal power of dance than to spend a night watching San Francisco Ballet. On Feb. 3, audiences gathered in the War Memorial Opera House, ardently anticipating “Program 2” featuring Helgi Tomasson’s “Caprice,” Jerome Robbins’ “In the Night” and William Forsythe’s “Blake Works I.”

The triple bill program pushed the limits of ballet, highlighting the talent of its Company with intricate choreography that thrived in its poignant display of three distinct narratives. While each performance certainly varied in tone and design, they each captured the core essence of “Program 2” — ballet is a timeless art that brings communities together and presents the human experience to audiences in surprisingly subtle ways.

In Tomasson’s 37th and final season with the Company, SF Ballet began the evening with a brief video describing the artistic director and principal choreographer’s renowned impact having choreographed over 50 ballets during his time with SF Ballet.

Tomasson’s stunning choreography and artistic direction are profoundly demonstrated in “Caprice,” the night’s first performance. Principal dancers Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco initially graced the stage with flawless technique, donned in breathtaking cream-colored costumes that shone against a backdrop of gold pillars.

The neoclassical ballet — set to Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Symphony No. 2 in A minor” and the adagio from “Symphony No. 3 in C minor” — highlights a wide variety of dancers, each showcasing different skills. The ballet’s primary focus lands on its two leading couples (Kuranaga and Greco along with Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham), who perform delicate choreography with ease. Yet, Tomasson also utilizes a range of ensemble dancers who assist these couples’ presentation, providing compelling performances that demonstrate the magic of classical ballet.

Though Robbins’ “In the Night” utilizes fewer dancers, the piece feels rather grand in its staging and exploration of love and intimacy. A black backdrop adorned with piercing blue stars and the music of Frédéric Chopin set the stage for 25 minutes of breathtaking lines and lifts. Capitalizing on the simplicity of a pas de deux, the ballet experiments with inventive choreography that employs the entire stage to explore the intricacies of relationships.

Six dancers compose the piece, each representing couples at different stages of their relationships. Each dancer invites the audience to take a peek into their romantic pursuits, performing choreography that physically echoes both the lust and flaws embedded within each affair.

Though the piece’s foundation is rather simple, “In the Night” is incredibly profound. It vividly points to parallel experiences that eventually converge, representing the ways in which the stately scope of the universe does not prevent individuals from undergoing painful yet still beautiful forms of love.

The final performance of “Program 2” was SF Ballet’s premiere of “Blake Works I,” which further expands on this simplicity by showcasing dancers’ fantastic extensions, pique turns and pirouettes with plain blue leotards and a black backdrop. Yet, Forsythe’s 2016 contemporary ballet toys with classic ballet technique, molding it with captivating modernity. Music from James Blake’s album The Colour in Anything frames the piece in a contemporary light that diverges from the neoclassicism of Tomasson’s “Caprice.” Blake’s echoing vocals increase the intensity of the piece, allowing for playful artistic experimentation.

The choreography is high-energy, blending contemporary and modern dance techniques to push the limits of ballet. Flexed palms and eccentric arm movements may not correspond with the images of pointed toes and elongated fingers commonly associated with ballet, but in Forsythe’s “Blake Works I,” these unexpected, eccentric movements aid the piece’s hold on its audience.

At its core, “Blake Works I” is an ode to dance as an art form. Considering the company initially rehearsed Forsythe’s piece in pandemic-safe pods due to COVID-19, performing the piece for a live audience at the War Memorial Opera House feels all the more gratifying. Given its creative influence from other dance styles, this performance introduces new beginnings for contemporary ballet — a hopeful future in which the style will continue to evolve.

Certainly, San Francisco Ballet will continue to celebrate the power of dance, utilizing inventive choreography and the unmatched technique of its Company to relay the significance of ballet as a means to relay emotional experiences through movement.

SF Ballet’s “Program 2” will be performed from Feb. 3 to 13, 2022.

Sarah Runyan is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].