Sometimes all we need is a stage full of bodies honed to Olympian perfection, waves of live music, and pools of moody light to have a satisfying night at the ballet.
Yet most of us go wanting more -- hoping to be moved, jolted or soothed, even confused. We want an experience, and when that doesn't materialize, the night feels hollow.
San Francisco Ballet's Program II Wednesday night at War Memorial Opera House wasn't entirely hollow. The dancing was much too sublime for that. Principals Sarah Van Patten and Pascal Molat, Sofiane Sylvie and Gennadi Nedvigin moved with liquid command of their eloquent instruments. Newcomers such as the boyishly authoritative Henry Sidford and serene Rebecca Rhodes injected spark and curiosity into the night.
But with the exception of Alexei Ratmansky's "From Foreign Lands" it was a night of strained efforts, of choreographers whose groove has become a rut, and of décor and music at odds with the movement.
"From Foreign Lands," first performed in 2013, is a delicate cameo full of humor, built lovingly from the classical and neo-classical canon. Yet even Ratmansky's charming dance is flawed. Small and finely wrought, and highly concerned with delicate patterns rather than large geometry, it suffers from problems of scale and gets swamped by the vastness of the stage, leaving us squinting to see the design. At times, it's like listening to chamber music in a baseball stadium.
Even so, its coherence and musicality, its witty allusion to various birds in the women's wonderful feathery skirts and its sweet view of the world as a cheeky but serious interaction of dances and cultures set it apart from Val Caniparoli's "Tears" world premiere and Wayne MacGregor's "Borderlands."
Caniparoli, affiliated with San Francisco Ballet since 1973, is noted for his ability to fuse classical line with sensual, weighted flow. Without pretension, he makes abstract portraits of romance, longing, culture and gender relations via rhythmically driven forms. Even though his men are stereotypical hunks and his women are traditionally elegant, the sexes are well-matched and equally strong. You feel you want to know these people.
"Tears" had many of those attributes but lacked two that are especially vital -- the deep correspondence between the movement and the music to the concept at hand -- tears.
Composer Steve Reich's "Variations for Strings, Wind and Keyboard" echoed the sound of natural events by creating a wall of pointilistic sensation that subtly, almost imperceptibly shifted. Yet those same phase patterns showed up nowhere in the dance that was clear or had an impact. Caniparoli is a fine craftsman, but here it worked to his disadvantage. The three duets were presented in traditional fashion, and Sandra Woodall's costuming never broke the ballet mode. Had Caniparoli found a way to push the traditional lyricism of his dance hard against the minimalist soundscape, he might have tied tears not only to individuals but to time, loss and change in a more cogent and haunting way.
Wayne McGregor's "Borderlands" suffered a similar disconnect between concept and execution. Here the Scottish choreographer, who is resident artist at the Royal Ballet, applied his movement, an ever-deconstructing and squiggling stew that resembles bacteria replicating and breaking apart, to the sublime ideas of simplicity that drove Josef Albers and the Bauhaus. This German art movement dedicated to forging beauty from utility and simplicity was eventually outlawed by the Nazis.
The curtain opens on a black box that turns into an almost vibrating container of white in which a giant black square hangs upstage center. Color and simple geometry for Albers connoted the power of form to link us to the mystical, and Bauhaus explorations influenced the work of such visual artists today as light sculptors James Turrell and Robert Irwin.
While MacGregor's lighting designer Lucy Carter did an estimable job re-creating optic environments of refined and otherworldly greys, purples, sulphurs and other tones, MacGregor upended it with his spastic and fractured vocabulary. These movements showcased the remarkable contortionist abilities of such dancers as Frances Chung, Maria Kochetkova, Jaime Garcia Castilla, and Francisco Mungamba. But after 10 minutes, the dislocations and Gumby action threw us into a planet of extreme, if liquidy rupture.
It was a hard place to experience the sublime.
Presents the world premiere of Val Caniparoli's "Tears"
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 21, 27 and March 1; 2 p.m. Feb. 23 and March 1
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, S.F.
Tickets: $22-$327, 415-865-2000, www.sfballet.org