San Francisco Ballet at 75: The American Tour

At New York City Center on Sunday, October 12.

I went to see the San Francisco Ballet because I wanted to diverge from the Balanchine-heavy repertory of the New York City Ballet, but perhaps inevitably, my favorite element of San Francisco’s program was Balanchine’s classic “The Four Temperaments.” What’s more, San Francisco felt somehow softer and less crisp than New York. I enjoyed the program—the dancing was lovely—but I think the New York City Ballet has brainwashed me more than I realized.

The Balanchine closed a program otherwise devoted to newer works, two of them New York premieres. My favorite was “The Fifth Season,” choreographed by the company’s artistic director, Helgi Tomasson. Lush, neo-romantic strings provided a sonorous landscape for sections that hinted at different styles of dance: “Waltz,” “Romance,” “Tango,” and the like. The choreography was always balletic, but the dancers’ bearing and gestures, the rhythms of their movements, colored the steps. The resulting meld was fun and stylish (certainly more fun than the stark, almost dour backdrop paintings had suggested to me), and even if I never figured out what “The Fifth Season” is supposed to mean (is it death? eternity? does it encompass all four seasons? I don’t get it), I enjoyed the work tremendously.

Mark Morris’s “Joyride” was similarly opaque yet entertaining. I have no idea how Morris and the company managed to work with composer John Adams’s shifting beats and incongruent rhythms (even Stravinsky’s seemingly wild Rite of Spring sorts out evenly every sixteen beats, as I recall), but somehow they did. The garish metallic costumes with LCD random number screens were another mystery (and a less pleasing one, frankly), but Morris’s familiar patterning was energetic and spirited, even if the weird martial arts kicks didn’t fit well with the rest of the brisk choreography.

Tomasson’s “Concerto Grosso” (so named for its accompaniment, a Baroque concerto grosso) was subdued by comparison. An elegantly robust showcase for five male dancers, it featured all the leaps and such one would expect, and it earned an enthusiastic reaction, which I happily joined. (That sent me into a flashback: Back in high school, I sang in the chorus, and the other girls and I always resented how the women’s chorus drew only token applause while the much simpler works sung by the men alone received riotous approval from the audience. All they have to do is show up, we’d whisper bitterly from the wings. And though the male dancers of the San Francisco Ballet obviously have much more talent and skill than my old adolescent counterparts, I sometimes wonder whether such scenarios are a little bit analogous.)

But back to “The Four Temperaments.” One of Balanchine’s earliest experimental works, it uses as inspiration the medieval belief in humors—black bile, blood, phlegm, and bile—as the determinants of health and mood; too much of any one humor would make the unbalanced person melancholic (gloomy), sanguinic (headstrong), phlegmatic (passive), or choleric (irritable). The ballet’s four movements reflect those four unbalanced states with wit and coolly refined steps. The bare stage and simple black-and-white costumes provide a completely blank state, so the dancers—and Paul Hindemith’s modernist score—must create each mood on their own. And they did. Watching Balanchine’s inventive angular movements was a joy—one that made me eager to see my New York City Ballet again in the coming months.