As cherry blossoms blush and daisies soften in the sun, the Bay Area spring delivers a warm welcome to new beginnings. However, the 2022 San Francisco Ballet season casts a fond look to the past as it approaches the end of Helgi Tomasson’s titanic 37-year tenure as artistic director and principal choreographer.
Reverence for both the past and Tomasson’s influence glowed lambently at the War Memorial Opera House as the company dazzled in Program 6. The immersive three piece set boasted an eclectic and dazzling bill that spanned genre, style and theme, keeping audience members — as well as the dancers — on their toes.
The night opened with “Prism,” a three-movement piece set to Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” Filled with various formations, recapitulations, linework and shapes, Tomasson’s neoclassical choreography demonstrated astute attention to detail and structure.
Much like its musical counterpart, “Prism” remained true to convention, traversing a series of pas de trois, a charged pas de deux and a sweeping finale. Each group spun a story rooted in pathos. The ache of yearning emerged in Tiit Helimets and Yuan Yuan Tan’s blistering duet, and the ebbs of jealousy flowed through Lonnie Weeks, Max Cauthorn and Sasha De Sola’s trio.
Oranges waned to terracotta, yellows to flaxen, in the simple, muted costumes of the dancers. Helimets and Tan were chromatic exceptions, blistering in crimson. Yet, the overall simplicity of the setting propelled Tomasson’s evocative, sophisticated choreography to the forefront. When the ensembles converged, the dancers mesmerized in copacetic synchronicity, and “Prism” shimmered as a lustrous ode to the human form.
Laughter bubbled from the audience as a throng of dancers clad in vibrant, piebald morphsuits took the stage for “Finale Finale.” The second number in Program 6, “Finale Finale” wryly transported audiences to another world. The specifics of this setting mattered little — perhaps it was a county fairground, an underwater commune or an intergalactic pit stop out of “Galaxy Quest.”
Against a thrumming güiro, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon embarked on a whimsical odyssey that reimagined traditional ballet positions. Defamiliarizing elements of traditional ballet, Wheeldon neutered the sensual and the seductive, instead transforming the stage into a jovial playground unperturbed by the sobering tolls of adulthood.
Sporting ultramarine and avocado-colored bodysuits akin to the Little Green Men in “Toy Story,” Benjamin Freemantle and Isabella DeVivo delighted with their playful partner work, ambling through farcical tosses and zany turn sequences. The pair’s chemistry charmed as they flopped around the stage and mimed pumping each other up like tires.
As “Finale Finale” developed, the dancers’ bodysuits became clownishly adorned with tulle and frills — cuffs and collars and tutus abounded à la Pierrot. Campy and cartoonish, Wheeldon’s imagination ran an unfettered sprint to harken the joys of dance.
The actual finale of Program 6 dug into a deeper, darker thematic terrain with “The Promised Land,” a dazzling yet pensive spectacle that smoldered and ricocheted on stage. Embellished with gold and black glitz and glam, the piece meditated on dance itself, interrogating the state of the art. “The Promised Land,” self-reflexive and spectacular, exalted resilience but lingered in struggle.
Implicit in its title, the dance was charged with spiritual imagery and themes of salvation, shadowed by the threat of futility and lost labor. It depicted isolation as a deadening of time, a stilling and slinking effort to cradle what can no longer be held.
Principal dancer Esteban Hernandez led the piece and moved with the smoothness of smoke. Glittering in a gilded mesh top, Hernandez lunged and struck the stage with ferocity and frenetic desperation.
Rhoden’s choreography modulated to the piece’s music, which assembled the works of Philip Glass, Rodrigo Sigal, Luke Howard, Kirill Richter and Hans Zimmer. The orchestra’s strings seemed to haunt the characters. A languid cello brooded as dancers’ feet dragged, and the violins wept as Hernandez’s character raced in vain to join the retreating ensemble.
An episodic and emotionally rich alluvium, “The Promised Land” felt like the exemplar of a night characterized by distinctiveness and world-building. Program 6 encompassed unique textures and immersive moods, transforming the dancers into stewards of the San Francisco Ballet’s vast and varied solar system.