THE landscape is spare but far from serene in "Eden/Eden," Wayne McGregor's ambitious and compelling ballet, which made its American premiere at San Francisco Ballet this week.

Part of the ballet repertory season's Program 4, "Eden/Eden" is risky work for SFB, but ultimately rewarding and haunting.

Created originally for the Stuttgart Ballet, "Eden/Eden" is ostensibly about cloning, but, never simplistic, it's also a meditation on the seductive intersection of technology and the human machine.

"The process is as follows," intones one of the five unseen vocalists in a scientific drone. Over a pulsing Steve Reich score taken from his opera "Three Tales" — conducted here by Gary Sheldon — the measured monologue sets us initially in the midst of the cloning debate.

Muriel Maffre, all androgynous, hairless muscle in flesh-colored skivvies and skullcap, ascends into a stark spotlight while projections assembled by Ravi Deepres unfold like a universe behind her.

Maffre makes the most of a torqued spine and limbs yanked in every direction. She's joined in a weirdly agonistic duet by Gonzalo Garcia, as they create a vision of biology gone haywire.

The dancers seem to multiply, eventually filling the stage with flails. Bathed in Charles Balfour's sickly green-gray light, the figures in this fearsome gymnasium are nearly impossible to tell apart.

And the whole exercise becomes even more disturbing when they shed their skullcaps and don Ursula Bombshell's tunics to become individuals.


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McGregor has his own lexicon of movement that is far from ballet-based. Curiously, though, he utilizes the women's pointe work effectively, perhaps because his understanding of the technique stems from expediency rather than tradition.

If you find yourself seduced by the physical beauty and apparent perfection of the alien uber-humans before you — including dancers Katita Waldo, Pascal Molat, Rory Hohenstein, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Moises Martin, and notably corps members Dana Genshaft and Hayley Farr — you might notice that there are no apples on the silvery tree hovering in this Eden. That fruit has been plucked and we've all taken a big bite.

SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson has taken an enormous risk in presenting McGregor's unpretty but absorbing work, and we can only hope that more of these sort of challenges lie in the future.

In a different vein, two other works premiered when the ballet unveiled its program two nights later on Thursday. And none was more anticipated than Christopher Wheeldon's "Carousel (A Dance)," made originally for the New York City Ballet.

Set to excerpts from Richard Rodgers' "Carousel" — the grand "Carousel" waltz and "If I Loved You" — this version offers a sketched, dream ballet of Julie's ill-fated romance with smooth-talking carny Billy, danced on Thursday by Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba. In a lemon-colored dress with matching ribbon, Van Patten brings a lovely unsuspecting freshness to her role, although Vilanoba is perhaps a little too likable to convince as her no-account beau.

The main weakness in this "Carousel," though, is the choreography. Wheeldon jam-packs every count with steps, and the result, while impressive, hasn't quite nailed the feeling of giddy freedom. Many of the lifts in Van Patten and Vilanoba's duet were lovely, but with all the swooning and swooping happening early in their waltz, there was very little room for emotional build.

Wheeldon might do well to take a look at Jerome Robbins' "Fancy Free," which got more than a little lift from Molat, Anderson and Garcia as a trio of roguish sailors on shore leave. The young Robbins, who reportedly refined and pared back the more cartoonish antics of this larky 1944 vignette, offers more bang for your buck with a twitch of an eyebrow than all the swooning lifts in the world can accomplish.

If the dancers (and the orchestra) could have been a little looser and jazzier to match the bounding Leonard Bernstein score, it was nonetheless a delightful excursion that brought an instant smile to the lips from the first burst of energy onstage.

Filling out Program 4 were the Arcadian gambols of Paul Taylor's "Spring Rounds," led on Tuesday night by Vanessa Zahorian and Garrett Anderson, and Tomasson's "Chi-Lin," with an inscrutable Yuan Yuan Tan in the title role. Program 5 saw the return of Mark Morris' "Pacific" and Tomasson's "The Fifth Season," with the music delivered under the capable baton of Martin West.