Theatre du Châtelet, Paris, France; July 26, 2014

Stuart Sweeney

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in 'The Fifth Season'.  Photo © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in ‘The Fifth Season’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

The final day matinee of San Francisco Ballet’s Les Étés de la Danse season opened with Helgi Tomasson’s “The Fifth Season” – one of his most attractive works. In the programme notes, he describes discovering the music of Welshman, Karl Jenkins, and when he read the score of his “String Quartet No. 2”, he knew this was the music he wanted for his next ballet. Jenkins has an eclectic background, including jazz saxophone, progressive rock band, Soft Machine, and live performances of “Tubular Bells”. He turned to orchestral music in his 50’s and creates attractive scores in a variety of styles. “The Fifth Season” is the name of the first movement of the Quartet.

The stage design employs large vertical rectangles with indistinct painted shapes, maybe trees, perhaps mountains in blue and grey, the colours dominating all the designs and costumes by Sandra Woodall. It’s harmonious and modernist and accords with Jenkins’ minimalist first movement. Tomasson picks up the insistent energy of the score and creates dynamic ensemble work for ten dancers in his characteristic neo-classical style, with Dores André and Vitor Luiz to the fore. In “Tango”, Mathilde Froustay makes playful, sinuous movement to the Latin rhythms and relishes the opportunity to dominate three male partners – delicious. But in this work of many moods, “Largo” from Jenkins’ “Palladio” is at the heart of the ballet. Yuan Yuan Tan and Damien Smith enact a slow duet with heartbreaking emotion. Tan combines breathtaking virtuosity with movement quality of the highest order. Smith has written that when they dance this duet they are almost a single figure and it is as if he is performing Tan’s steps. Rarely apart, Tan ends draped across Smith’s knees, as if retreating from the world. The stately “Finale” provides a return to the full company and an exquisite final image of seven couples in a transformed fish dive with the girls on their backs across their partner’s knee.

Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in MacMillan's sublime 'Concerto'. Photo © Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in MacMillan’s sublime ‘Concerto’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Kenneth MacMillan’s “Concerto” is a delight with “Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No.2” providing great inspiration to one of England’s finest choreographers. Here we saw the extended pas de deux to the slow second movement and an impressive interpretation of the score by Roy Bogas. The woman mostly has her back to her partner and there is a melancholic air throughout. Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets performed the steps dutifully, but I don’t think I have ever seen it performed with less emotional contact between the dancers. I remember Leanne Benjamin at the end slowly turning her head to look at her partner. Here Van Patten merely looks out to the audience. San Francisco Ballet dancers usually use their high skill levels for expression, but this was an exception.

“Solo” by Hans van Manen is a fine crowd pleaser in the best sense. Three men dance primarily solo, as you would expect, to J. S. Bach’s lively “Partita No. 1” for violin. The men spin, bend and carry out their own distinctive steps with humour never far from the scene. I particularly enjoyed this trio’s efforts to differentiate the three roles. Wei Wang accentuates the quirkiness of his steps, especially wobbling his head. James Sofranko is macho, emphasising his character’s pugnacious nature with clenched fists. Pascal Molat uses the raised hands of his movement to signify puzzlement at what it is all about. At a mere seven minutes, it is a brief and witty wonder.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Maria Kochetkova in 'Piano Concerto#1'. Photo © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Maria Kochetkova in ‘Piano Concerto#1’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

“Piano Concerto #1” by Alexei Ratmansky is set to the eponymous score by Shostakovich and that presented the first problem for me – it is not as nearly as rich and attractive as the composer’s second, as described above. Ratmansky has set his ballet firmly in the Soviet era with stars, hammers and other iconography embedded in the backdrop. We see martial formations from a corps of twelve and two couples: Yuan Yuan Tan and Damien Smith, Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz. Tan is as impressive as ever in primarily slow steps, whereas Kochetkova is like a firebrand speeding around the stage. Despite the energy and the skill of the dancers, the ballet never really pulled me in. Some reviewers have suggested that it is parodic, but I didn’t see the joke.

San Francisco Ballet have strong, expressive dancers and a fine repertoire assembled by Artistic Director, Helgi Tomasson, over nearly 30 years. I hope we don’t have to wait too long before they return to London.