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Dance review: San Francisco Ballet at Segerstrom Center

September 28, 2011 |  1:25 pm

Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz
Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer since 1985, has excelled less obviously as a dance-maker than he has as a dancer-maker.

His legacy with San Francisco Ballet is secure for having molded the nation’s oldest classical company and its artists -– a mini-United Nations -- into an ensemble of the first order.

That said, among Tomasson’s 42 works for the troupe he has made some delightful ones, which spotlight the dancers’ specific gifts. His latest, “Trio,” is such a piece. 

Set to Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” “Trio” opened the company’s mixed repertory program Tuesday in Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall (repeated Wednesday, with “Romeo and Juliet” on the weekend).  “Trio” is elegant and engrossing. It astutely exploits the soaring ache of Tchaikovsky’s emotive strings (transcribed for orchestra, with music director Martin West conducting the Pacific Symphony).  Costume designer Mark Zappone’s well-cut, diaphanous gowns and Alexander Nichols’ backdrop of painted archways further telegraphed romanticism.

Maria Kochetkova The danced motifs were tied to musical themes. In the satisfyingly buoyant first section, Joan Boada and the long-limbed and openly expressive Vanessa Zahorian led the ensemble through an oversized swirl of kaleidoscopic patterns. 

The second movement opens with a chord progression modified from Tchaikovsky’s earlier Serenade for Strings in C Major, to which George Balanchine had set his masterpiece, “Serenade.” Tomasson here inverts the gender of the Elegy trio, turning Vito Mazzeo into the “avenging angel” who pulls Sarah van Patten from lover Tiit Helimets. Van Patten was like expensive silk, her body lusciously unfurling. 

In the show-stopping finale, Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin etched exacting beats and leaps with grace and carefree delight. Kochetkova is a marvel.

The program’s other new work, “RAkU,” by choreographer in residence Yuri Possokhov, was memorable for Yuan Yuan Tan’s mighty portrayal of an obedient, doomed princess. Underneath her lithe, seemingly boneless body, Tan has a steel core. Her grief scene was harrowing, not maudlin. She riveted -- pulling her hair and raining ashes over herself.  Damian Smith and Vitor Luiz were potent, too, respectively, as the husband and as the monk who sets aflame Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion; the former, especially, was too little seen. 

Composer Shinji Eshima’s provocative score and black-and-white photographs of the pavilion, projected on moveable walls, contributed significantly to the impressionistic story. The restricted dance language was flat and stark.

With this strong lead-up, anticipation was high for Balanchine’s sparkling “Symphony in C,” to Bizet, and the chance to see more principal couples and several corps members in leading roles. Alas, the dancing, though clean, was safe, routine, occasionally choppy. Lorena Feijoo and Sofiane Sylve, especially, were below their calibers. 

The joyous exceptions were Frances Chung and Isaac Hernandez in the third movement. Chung bounded onto point, throwing her leg into a sky-high arabesque penché. Hernandez floated above the stage. It was the kind of individualistic performances we have come to expect from San Francisco Ballet.

Setting the bar high has its occasional pitfalls. But the rewards won out, nonetheless.

 -- Laura Bleiberg

San Francisco Ballet, mixed repertory repeats Wednesday, Helgi Tomasson’s “Romeo & Juliet” Friday-Sunday, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $17-$120. Contact: (714) 556-2787 or Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

Photos: San Francisco Ballet dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz. top, in "RAkU," top, and Maria Kochetkova in "Trio." Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times