Although the San Francisco Ballet is not a regular visitor to the Washington area, there's a familiar look about it. Many of its dancers have appeared here with other companies and the choreography shown so far, although often having a fresh inventiveness of its own, has a familiar look as well.
Three of the four ballets presented last night at Wolf Trap were the work of company co-director Lew Christensen. Christensen was a Balanchine dancer for many seasons, and it shows. His "Vivaldi Concerto Grosso," although by no means an exact copy of Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco," is similar in structure and style but lacks the individuality of its model.
The divertissement from Christensen's "Beauty and the Beast" looks like a lost Petipa ballet, partly because of its classical style and partly because of its Tchaikovsky score. The pas de six could be a virtuosic tour de force were it sharply performed. One hates to accuse the San Francisco dancers of sloppiness, as this often connotes negligence or carelessness and the company is guilty of neither. But there's a lack of tautness and polish about the dancers that was particularly evident in "Beauty." With the exception of Lynda Meyer's gracious performance in the pas de deux, they looked rushed, sometimes forgetting about placement, pointed feet and other classical niceties.
On the other hand, Christensen's "Variations de Ballet" was much better danced last night than at Wednesday's opening. Both Laurie Cowden (in the "clapping" variation) and especially Betsy Erickson (in the lyrical ballerina role) performed with confidence and style.
The only non-Christensen work last night was Michael Smuin's "Shinju." The program notes that the ballet is "based on an ancient Japanese legend by Chikamatsu," but an explanation of plot would be helpful to those not up on ancient Japanese legends. "Shinju" is visually striking and, like most Western Orientalisms, tells its story with an endless calm that is, at times, maddening. Here the dancers performed with grand gestures and precise footwork.