Jiri Bubencíek is one of those rare choreographers confident enough to set work on his dancers while in process. He draws inspiration from the particularity of each one’s body and how he or she moves. In making “Fragile Vessels,” he brought the memory of a folie à trois, imagined as a pas de trois, with supporting pas de deux. He found the steps as he worked with Sofiane Sylve, Carlo Di Lanno, Dores André, Francisco Mungamba, Joseph Walsh, Wei Wang, and Koto Ishihara. He describes them as the “very strong dancers” of San Francisco Ballet. Among his goals was to accomplish this without the Sergei Rachmaninov score locking out the myriad possibilities he saw in them.
Bubenícek works together with his twin brother, scenic designer, Otto. Otto’s set reveals a pair of translucent rush-colored bowed long-boat sails that intersect low along their installation. In colors that repeat the sails’ unbleached hue with gauzy blue, red, or fuchsia tufts tucked along the tops the of the women’s bodices, the costumes swaddle the dancers and their steps in a majestic naturalism .
Coupling dancers stream through in sweeping movements, pitching their reach beyond the notes, asserting a truthfulness that stands in stark contrast to the melodramatic overtones of the Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 2 Op. 18, familiar owing to its frequent use to score romantic films of the 1940s. Much of the genius of Fragile Vessels issues from the stark challenge of choreography that arcs above the thrusts of musical phrasing.
The fragility is in the risk. It lives in the unusual coincidence of stylized music and steps that found intentional placement in flow, in the workshop. There is a pas de deux by Ishihara and Wang that reads as if their bodies are whispering back and forth. The second-movement pas de trois danced by Joseph Walsh, Wei Wang, and Dores André points up Walsh’s commitment to work on three levels—en l’air, standing, and ending in seamless spent-passion floor slides. Sylve, whether dancing with Di Lanno or Walsh, moves into a collaboration as if she were a sea sculpture loosed to try fanciful steps.
Justin Peck’s “In the Countenance of Kings,” to a BQE score, returns with Daniel Deivison-Oliveira dancing The Foil, a role originated by Gennadi Nedvigin, when the work premiered during the 2016 season. Deivison-Oliveira partners handily with Frances Chung. They are two of the most musical and versatile, rock ‘em, sock ‘em dancers in the company. In a piece that relies so heavily on repetition, the Chung Deivison segment, complete with bells, refreshes with a zephyr of hope. The knot of dancers that deploys itself in subway map colors, releases Joseph Walsh, The Protagonist, who proves himself again fleet but complete in this role. He magnetizes with his dash and musicality. It is fascinating to have watched Walsh develop from his earliest days at Houston Ballet as the in-house technician, to become emotionally free enough to not only explore a wide range of responses, but also draw you in to sharing them.
Unlike in “Fragile Vessels,” the choreography here tends to choke on its music, because while the score embraces an abundance of forceful styles, a frugality marks the choreography. A fire-brake of dancers rolls in on a diagonal, and the proficient Luke Ingham and a now seasoned Jennifer Stahl emerge. As you prepare to feast on the refreshment the canon hints at, you see that Ingham and Stahl have been given the same steps as the others, tagged with the same little raised foot twitch that we saw earlier several times. Among the fun moments is when the dancers’ countenances find you in the audience when the bodies are ranged prostrate on the proscenium and the dancers lift their heads to gaze directly out at the house.
Perhaps for the sake of historicity, Helgi Tomasson’s “Haffner Symphony” opens the program. It’s Mozart in a jungle of tutus, and set before the audience in a Santo Loquasto-designed period set that melds French Blue with Hunter Green, amid high candlepower lighting. It fulfills a commitment to showcase the mid-century “pretty” aesthetic in ballet, though too timid to advance to “beautiful.” The prescient and noble Maria Kochetkova partners with a very focused, present, and buoyant Angelo Greco, in his first season as a soloist. The result is punctilious, where, with the ease of someone shaking hands on a reception line, Kochetkova takes a lift and fouetté en l’air with a succession of gallant partners. Corps support from a cohort of soloists and corps de ballet members is vivid, and frames the work masterfully.