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Sleek modernism in the San Francisco Ballet’s new works

San Francisco Ballet’s Sarah Van Patten, top, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Mathilde Froustey in Cathy Marston’s “Snowblind.” (Erik Tomasson)
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Bombs, midterms, nor’easters. There’s so much unease, pressing in with growing force, that it’s an especially good time to see the ballet. I’m biased, of course, in my choice of antidote. But trust me on the effects: Watching the San Francisco Ballet, which performs through the weekend at the Kennedy Center, has a palpable, uplifting payoff. You may leave, as I did, feeling a whole lot better about the human race.

This extraordinary company is in town with two programs of new works it commissioned last spring for its “Unbound” festival. I say extraordinary because the company stands apart in being so consistently forward-looking (and -thinking), from the unified technical finesse and sporty ease of its dancers throughout the ranks, to the sleek modernism they bring to the stage. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s taste, his smart risk-taking and his insistence on the highest artistic standards — from footwork to lighting — is in evidence across the works presented this week.

San Francisco Ballet takes the Kennedy Center stage with bold new works

On Thursday, the company unveiled its second selection from the “Unbound” festival, with works by Justin Peck, Edwaard Liang and Cathy Marston. The relatively minor drawback of Program A was its unvaried tone of smoothness. This wasn’t an issue in the more balanced Program B. Each piece was distinct from the others in look, style, idiom and intent.

Marston, the lone female choreographer of the six in this series, offered a one-act story: “Snowblind,” based on “Ethan Frome,” Edith Wharton’s novel of an ill-fated love triangle. This beautifully rendered piece, with music by Arvo Part and others, wasn’t perfect as a narrative, but it delivered a strong cinematic effect with its two-level set and a grand, sweeping sense of action. The dance language was spare and stylized, but also emotional. The English-born Marston comes by her style honestly, braiding British ballet storytelling with the raw intensity of German dance theater gleaned from working in Switzerland. She’s also a bibliophile, a good quality for a choreographer. (In June, American Ballet Theatre will perform her full-length “Jane Eyre” in New York.)

Liang’s “The Infinite Ocean” was like a living prayer, from the large, glowing sun fixed overhead to Liang’s devotional fascination with the curves and arcs of the dance body stretched to extremes. The reigning goddess was Sofiane Sylve, a ballerina of rich expressive gifts and a large-scale, expansive technique. You could believe in a spiritual force infusing her movements from the inside out. In her pas de deux with Tiit Helimets, the moment when she flies effortlessly from lying flat on the stage into a full-sail arch above him felt like a miracle and left the audience gasping. Violin soloist Cordula Merks brought an invigorating edge to the new music by British composer Oliver Davis.

Consummate dancers bounding about in sneakers: This was the chief interest in Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” with his customary elements of youthful energy and collective spirit. I didn’t see much new here, but the dancers dove in with zest and took us with them. That’s a pretty good arrangement, now more than ever.

The San Francisco Ballet performs two programs of East Coast premieres from “Unbound: A Festival of New Works,” through Sunday at the Kennedy Center. Program A features ballets by Trey McIntyre, Christopher Wheeldon and David Dawson. 202-467-4600 or