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The San Francisco Ballet's Program 2 features two works that are very different but still similar. "Dances at a Gathering" is the piece that brought choreographer Jerome Robbins back into the classical ballet world after twelve years on Broadway. It's set to several Chopin piano works that form a series of interrelated vignettes comprising about an hour.

"Dances" opens with a single male dancer standing on the stage gazing at the sky. He's very contemplative as he walks, then slowly breaks into dance. The work is all elegance and grace with a certain savoir-faire that is thoroughly captivating. There are a lot of lifts, straight up and upside down, but none of it's theatrical or jarring. It's just smooth and flows like a river. Everything's understated, and the warmth and grace seem to be a direct result of the understatement. There are ten dancers, mostly in a series of pas de deux. Yuan Yuan Tan is lifted straight up, around, and down with sweeping arm and leg movements, in a playfully impetuous pas de deux. Two sturdy, strident men move backwards in circles with pirouettes and leaps. They pick up speed before moving off in opposite directions. A solo girl does a lyrical interlude before three men and three women do a lively group of duets.

Gonzalo Garcia does a staccato number before Yuan Yuan Tan frolics with, by turns, three, then two men, and finally a pas de deux with violet, Yuri Possokhov. This is a beautiful duet. Few dancers can capture his expressiveness in simply a glance, as he's standing still, looking longingly at her. The more I see Possokhov dance, the more I'm absolutely enthralled by him. This is a lyrical duet that's frolicking then slow and sensuous. He lifts her in a cartwheel over his shoulder, they back off, come together, he lifts her high, and carries her off. The finale has the company gazing up at the sky, very contemplative, extremely expressive. There's something very flippant to "Dances at a Gathering." Jerome Robbins picks everyday mundane movements, but they become something else, something beautiful and extremely expressive in the hand of this very special choreographer.

One of the great advantages of classical ballet over modern dance is the same as any classical art form over the modern. Where the modern is rooted in a theory and manner of doing something, classical ballet has its formal structure, then is free to integrate bits and pieces of many different movements and methods into that basic framework. The changes are rarely radical, but become progressive and inclusive of the best ideas of the modernists over a period of time. Nowhere is this more evident than in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's "Elite Syncopations." Once again we have a series of vignettes, this time to the music of Scott Joplin and other Ragtime composers from early in the 20th century. The work premiered in 1974, within months of the Paul Newman/Robert Redford film, "The Sting."

MacMillan incorporates circa 1900 dancehall music, costumes, and movement through the sensibilities of a very stiff and proper Brit, better known for darkly disturbing psychological dramas. This work is none of that...it's fun, and only fun.

This is an ensemble piece with certain soloists standing out at certain times, but they're different and varied. The costumes are brightly colored, garish, whatever. No sophistication here, whatsoever. One lead female dancer is in white tights with three big, strategically placed stars and a flag motif. The orchestra is onstage as a Dance Hall Band, complete with player piano and baby grand. Three girls strut their stuff on point with high leg kicks, while a group of guys puff on cigarettes at the side. Four guys then swagger, slide on the floor, and do jetes to impress the girls. A female soloist does a slow drag, like an accordion unfolding across the stage.

The Dance Contest features high lifts and leg kicks as the contestants preen and swirl. A guy lifts his girl's leg, twists her around, in a seemingly impossible movement, then they do a lively duet as she jumps into his arms. The Star Girl struts her stuff and pirouettes around the stage, as all the men chase her. The funniest part of the evening is the pas de deux with Muriel Maffre and James Sofranko. The six foot ballerina is easily a full head taller, and he hunches a bit, while she's straight up on point. She kicks up over his head routinely. He struggles to lift her to his shoulder, then she falls off backwards. He gets caught under her legs. She kicks him in the head then falls on him in this elegant frothy torture.

"Elite Syncopations" is sassy, evocative and trendy circa 1900. Most of all, it's a ton of fun. This is a San Francisco Ballet Premiere.

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