There’s something of a puppeteer at play in “Manifesto,” Myles Thatcher’s impressive new work for San Francisco Ballet. Dancers emerge airily from the wings, as if suspended from invisible strings, gliding in and out in patterns symmetrical or not, their arms at odd angles. Further along, a pas de deux jerks to an end mid-phrase as a pas de trois commences elsewhere on stage. Just when you think the whole thing might collapse into a chaos of twisted rigging and mangled limbs, Thatcher pulls the right cords and everyone snaps back into lovely order. It’s a wonderful piece from a promising choreographer (he’s 24, still a member of the corps), and it’s worth seeing again.
Yes, “Manifesto” shows influences (notably, those sudden drops-to-the-floor familiar in the dances of Alexei Ratmansky, the American Ballet Theater artist-in-residence who has mentored Thatcher). But it is also original in many ways. Thatcher’s ballerinas swirl naturally into the arms of their partners (often, more than one at a time), supported in unusual places — under their calves, behind their shoulders — and then are lifted into the air (again, as if controlled by wires high in the wings, like a marionette). When five men coalesce in a pas de cinq, their vigorous interaction has an athletic fluidity and also a spontaneous charge, like teenagers horsing around. Most of all, Thatcher has a knack for groupings: His six couples in “Manifesto” enter and exit in unexpected bursts of steps and turns, none of them quite alike or intentionally repetitive. The patterns are there, however; they’re just going on in ways that upset classical notions of uniformity and balance.
And that is very likely Thatcher’s point in creating this ballet. The underlying structure of “Manifesto” centers on a number of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, sandwiched between the composer’s Musical Offering (all arranged by Matthew Naughton). Thatcher has said that this work, while abstract, is about identity and the search for artistic freedom, and it shows most clearly in the way he has choreographed the three pas de deux. The first, almost mechanical in its restraint and pointe work, gives way in the second to softer, more open movement, circular rather than angular. The third develops this sense of newfound freedom, with the dancers fully conveying exultation in their épaulement, heads back and arms extended — liberated at last from the puppeteer’s controlling strings.
Thatcher is served in his new creation by his dancers, many of them drawn from the corps (on opening night, Sean Orza paired soloist Jennifer Stahl with soulful presence; Norika Matsuyama and Steven Morse exhibited the poise and effortless grace usually associated with principals). The costumes by Mark Zappone (flowing brown skirts and unitards with black bars running across the back) and the muted lighting by Mary Louise Geiger give “Manifesto” an unconventional look that never strays too far from the refinement Thatcher achieves in the choreography.
The opener in Program 3 is Hans van Manen’s “Variations for Two Couples.” It’s a chilly piece, as opposed to romantic, set to movements of works by such disparate composers as Benjamin Britten, Einojuhani Rautavaara, J.S. Bach (arranged by Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer), and Astor Piazzolla. The four dancers, clad in primary-color unitards by Bert Dalhuysen, perform a number of duets, spinning around each other in fast pirouettes and bobbing their heads in time to the score (this was often offbeat; it was hard to determine if the effect was intentional or the result of the dancers rushing the steps while conductor Martin West played catch-up). Van Manen’s choreography is described as “clean” and “understated,” and although the movement here is indeed uncomplicated, it is also somewhat unengaging, on a passionate level. There’s plenty of touching — a hand under an ankle, a toe planted on a chest — but it rarely amounts to connection between the two couples. On opening night, the exquisite Sarah Van Patten, a principal of great emotional range, seemed merely resolute (the problem may be owing to the unsteady partnering provided by fellow principal Carlos Quenedit, who grasped Van Patten’s waist awkwardly, almost brutishly in the lifts). Principals Frances Chung and Davit Karapetyan, though afflicted with that zombie-like execution early on, melted into a more lyrical style by their third duet. Just as the warm chords of Piazzolla wafted over the stage, however, the ballet abruptly ended, almost as irresolutely as when it started, leaving ballet-goers to puzzle over the meaning of this decidedly spare and inconclusive work.
A more captivating piece followed, acting as a tonic. William Forsythe’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” is set to the fourth movement of “The Great” Symphony (No. 7 or 9, depending on your reference) by Franz Schubert, and the choreographer has taken the allegro vivace tempo to heart. This is a thrilling ballet to watch, full of detailed steps and expansive movement, all based in the classical idiom. Set on five dancers (and staged in San Francisco by Stefanie Arndt and Amy Raymond), “Vertiginous” indeed has a dizzying quality, with solos and pas de deux or trois often overlapping in Forsythe’s devilishly difficult scheme. And the principals on opening night were up for the challenge, especially Sofiane Sylve, who zipped through the petit allegro bits with her usual regal bearing. Frances Chung and Vanessa Zahorian executed their pointe work and the emphatic shouldering with flashy grace, and Gennadi Nedvigin leapt and twirled in a way that suggested controlled abandon. Only soloist Carlo Di Lanno struggled to keep up, often missing his cues, especially when partnering Sylve. The two-toned saucer-shaped tutus and leotard/shorts (costumes by Stephen Galloway) and Forsythe’s own lighting design made the brief piece look all the more sleek and streamlined. As an opening night bonus, Forsythe himself appeared onstage to take a bow at the curtain call.
In counterpoint to these modern works, nothing could better underscore the purity of classical ballet than “The Kingdom of the Shades” from Act II of “La Bayadère,” which closed the program with a flourish. The 24 ballerinas who edged down the ramp in perfect arabesques were breathtaking on their own; followed by principals Yuan Yuan Tan as Nikiya and Taras Domitro as Solor in their technically precise variations, the effect left you gasping. Domitro seems to fly during his double cabrioles, and Tan remains in perfect control of her développés à la seconde. Among the solo Shades, Mathilde Froustey exhibited an airy port de bras, and Dores André showed both musicality and perfect technique. The precision and timing of the cast paid proper homage to Natalia Makarova, who staged and directed this particular version (assisted by Susan Jones of American Ballet Theater) after Marius Petipa’s original choreography to Ludwig Minkus’ score. Makarova was also present for curtain call on opening night, and she took a graceful bow before the adoring house.