The San Francisco Ballet has returned to Sadler’s Wells for the first time since 2012. They are long overdue. This was the first ballet company ever formed in the US but they are by no means resting on their laurels – or indeed on a traditional repertoire. Over the four programmes they are presenting here – and they’re promising everything from a ballet rave to Edith Wharton – you’ll see nothing that is more than five years old and many of the pieces have been premiered within the last 12 months. Under the inspired directorship of Helgi Tomasson, SFB has been commissioning new pieces from UK choreographers (Cathy Marston, Arthur Pita, Liam Scarlett, Christopher Wheeldon – all to come in later programmes), as well as in the US.
The first programme, Shostakovich Trilogy, is from US choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. As you might guess from the title, it uses the music of Shostakovich, music that is complex, often rhythmically difficult and not an obvious choice for dance. Ratmansky, though, has produced a compelling ballet, spread over three discrete parts, that is by no means a “story ballet” – though there are tantalising hints of a story, that of Shostakovich himself and his life as an artist under an oppressive regime. As Ratmansky himself says, “there’s a lot of meaning.”
That meaning comes in many forms. There is certainly a political level to this. There are Stalinist backdrops with hanging red stars, hammers and sickles, beneath which the dancers move with fear or distrust, are pursued or collapse into submission. But there are other far more personal stories, too, from Shostakovich’s own life, most particularly in the central section Chamber Symphony, where a black-suited (bare-chested) Ulrik Birkkjaer comes the closest we get to a personification of the composer. There is love and loss but also humour and flirtation. Three superb female dancers (Sasha De Sola, Mathilde Froustey and Yuan Yuan Tan) support the hero in his moments of doubt and fear but represent, too, love interest, often playfully – leaping into his apparently unsuspecting arms.
The first section is danced to sections of Symphony# 9. There are fanfares, brooding elegies and rapid-fire tempos. To this, the company dances as groups or as couples in the most perfect synchronicity I’ve seen in a long time. The opening group of men display that athleticism SFB is renowned for, side by side with a wonderful wit. Ratmansky’s ability to play with the nuances of this complex music is remarkable. He moves the dancers from intricate musical patterns through military precision to jerky robotics. In the midst of all this is the dazzling Wei Wang – last seen at the Royal Opera House as the Creature in Frankenstein.
The final section is Piano Concerto #1 with soloists pianist Mungunchimeg Buriad and trumpeter Michael Allen joining the excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Here, the mood changes again. The dance takes on a more classical tone with lovely duets and adagios, patterns freezing into sculptures, dancers moving across the floor with a casual grace. Sofiane Sylve, Carlo Di Lanno, Wona Park and Angelo Greco were particularly outstanding in this section – but this is very much an ensemble piece and this is a company full of strengths.
The lighting (Jennifer Tipton) and costumes (Keso Dekker) are both simple and dramatic and the bare stage allows the dancing to speak for itself. And it does. This is a company that’s right at the top of its game and its versatility, high-precision technique and musicality make it surely one of the best in the world right now. Highly recommended.
San Francisco Ballet is appearing with four programmes at Sadler’s Wells until 8 June. For more information and tickets, visit www.sadlerswells.com.