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Dance review: San Francisco Ballet at the Kennedy Center

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By Sarah Kaufman

Once upon a time, a ballet commandment reigned upon the waterfront: Thou shalt open thy Kennedy Center engagement with a mixed-repertory program during the slow-selling workweek.

Then, and only then, shalt thou swap out that selection of short works with a more marketable, familiar full-length production for the weekend.

In recent years, however, more ballet companies are opting out of the “mixed bill,” preferring to offer a single-story ballet and nothing else. This summer saw the Paris Opera Ballet dancing only “Giselle.” Last month, the Mariinsky Ballet’s run was limited to “Cinderella.” In January the National Ballet of Canada will give us 10 performances of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Why the single-product concept over the assorted box-of-chocolates program? Ticket sales. Not surprisingly, many companies are faithful to that cause. To be sure, it’s difficult to argue for an even deeper money-losing proposition; it stands to reason that well-known story ballets sell more tickets than a raft of unfamiliar pieces.

Yet on Tuesday night at the Opera House, the San Francisco Ballet offered a beautifully persuasive defense of the mixed bill — on artistic merits. Which is, after all, the argument that looks best onstage.

More than any single work, what stood out on this program was breadth and the depth of talent. The evening did not rest on the strengths of a single ballerina and a few soloists, as a full-length production might. Instead, here was the proof of a great artistic organization: range and ability. In four vastly different pieces, we saw dancers of all ranks fill the stage with terrific momentum, with speed, energy, a refined finish to the steps and — even better — a shared esthetic. With its range of backgrounds and nationalities, the San Francisco Ballet is nonetheless cohesive. Its members are well rehearsed, technically polished, united even in their lean, ribbony physicality.

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