San Francisco Ballet Programme 1, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

San Francisco Ballet is an outgoing company, crisp and characterful, and it opened its Sadler's Wells season on buoyant form, dancing a varied repertoire with easy, confident style.

San Francisco Ballet is an outgoing company, crisp and characterful, and it opened its Sadler's Wells season on buoyant form, dancing a varied repertoire with easy, confident style. Its artistic director, Helgi Tomasson, has an enviable reputation for commissioning new work. Back home, SFB has just put on a new Sylvia by Mark Morris. In London, it is showing recent ballets by Christopher Wheeldon, alongside other new works and plenty of Balanchine.

Balanchine's Square Dance really is a square dance - early performances even had a traditional caller to shout out the steps. That detail is long gone, and the piece is otherwise classical. The music, played by the English Chamber Orchestra, is by Vivaldi. The women wear pointes, yet the traditional American quality is still there. It's built into the floor patterns, the bows and curtsies, the companionable warmth of the piece.

It is springy dancing, each hop catching the music's lively repetitions. As the dancers sweep across the stage, they also catch its larger patterns, its classical shape. At this performance, the footwork gleams: legs crisply turned out, feet brightly articulated. In the ballerina role, Tina LeBlanc dances with witty musical detail. Her dancing is richly textured, reaching glittering high speeds without losing contrast.

Christopher Wheeldon's Continuum is a series of dance studies to piano music by Ligeti. The eight dancers walk on in single file, striding with flexed feet. As the rhythm changes, those metronome legs speed up, determined to keep up. In a feline duet, the dancers arch their backs, put out a paw and snatch it back before winding into a series of sinuous lifts. The choreography is full of extreme positions, but they aren't hurled at us. The dancers slither their way into their poses, hold them or slide lightly out.

Continuum is assured and elegant. It was made for this company, and looks tailored for this cast. But it is too long: there are studies for soloists, for all four couples, for the full cast. You notice Wheeldon's fondness for repeats, for pert details and sugary touches.

Le Carnaval des Animaux, on the other hand, lays the whimsy on with a trowel. Alexei Ratmansky's setting of Saint-Saëns puts the dancers into cutesy mode, swinging elephant trunks or letting their knees knock at the sight of the lion. The solos are full of ballet jokes - the elephant stampedes through quotes from Raymonda; "The Swan" music is indelibly associated with Fokine and Pavlova, so on comes a dying swan, in feathered tutu, flapping her arms and expiring.

It is heavy-handed but well danced - the corps moving fluently, the soloists at ease in comedy. As an elephant, Lorena Feijoo sailed over her choreographed clumsiness as though she hoped we wouldn't notice.

To 25 September (0870 7377737)

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