San Francisco Ballet, Sadler's Wells, London

Eat as much as you like - San Francisco keeps you hungry
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The Independent Culture

Twenty years ago when Helgi Tomasson went up for the job of directing San Francisco Ballet, he told them he wasn't interested in running "a nice little ballet company". And nor has he. It's now a blazingly good big one, which for the past six nights has been blowing away Sadler's Wells audiences with no fewer than 11 substantial works, six of them created for the company in the past two years. It's a record that leaves British ballet standing. But what clinches San Fran's supremacy is the palpable pleasure in the task that beams from every person on stage. There were moments in Balanchine's Square Dance on opening night when you wanted to laugh with the sheer uplift of all those smiling feet.

One of Tomasson's skills as director is the building of great programmes. Like a perfect meal, a mixed bill wants contrast, bite, texture, and something to tickle the palate. Yet the week's three menus offered an extra refinement: a sense of the very particular mix of European history and West Coast exuberance that makes the city of San Francisco so unique. With its courtly grace notes and its American folk form, its classical virtuosity and ripping speeds (Vivaldi and Corelli, courtesy of the English Chamber Orchestra in the pit), the 1957 Square Dance that opened the run became a manifesto for the week, ballerina Tina LeBlanc gloriously unstressed by the twiddliest pointe work and Joan Boada, a Cuban principal, the very image of the brooding, Renaissance manhood that the piece glorifies.

Another knack of Tomasson's is his ability to snare some of the hottest creatives in the business. Mark Morris has made more work for this company than for any bar his own, and this visit we were offered a bumper package of Christopher Wheeldon, the British choreographer everyone wants of a piece of. London audiences have already applauded a number of his coolly inventive works, yet Continuum, made last year, surpasses even the best of them. Set to the jagged keyboard writing of Gyorgy Ligeti (pianist Michael McGraw), this suite of small pieces for four couples makes an impression beyond the sum of its parts. This is the choreographer's art honed to the point where each fresh, engrossing image ratchets the spectator's temperature up a notch, and then another, till one is almost giddy with suspense.

Strikingly lit by Natasha Katz, Wheeldon's couples flicker mysteriously in and out of shadows or align their bodies with slivers of coloured light. Torsos fold into one another like hands in prayer, or, as in one indelible moment, form a row of human swingboats, rocking joyously as one. Just as memorable is the way in which Wheeldon underscores the quirks of individual dancers: one minute tall Muriel Maffre is a wading bird, the next she's the face of a clock, her legs tick-ticking the minutes.

Alexei Ratmansky's Carnival of the Animals, another SFB commission, is almost throw-away with its cartoon humour and mugging larks. Its saving grace is that the dancers don't pretend to be the animals described in Saint-Saens' slightly sticky score: they glancingly suggest them, making a joke of ballet itself. Lorena Feijoo in her garish pink tutu is half elephant with imagined lumbering appendage, half heroine from Petipa's Raymonda. Muriel Maffre's catatonic swaninevitably references Pavlova's dying one, though it's still not as funny as The Trocks'.