- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The San Francisco Ballet, too seldom a visitor here, opens a Thanksgiving-week engagement Tuesday at the Kennedy Center with two different programs that illuminate the company’s broad scope.

With “The Four Temperaments,” one of George Balanchine’s most famous neoclassic ballets; two works specially commissioned in the spring for the company’s 75th anniversary; and the ultimate romantic classic, “Giselle,” the company will show its mettle in a wide range of styles spanning three centuries.

The nation’s oldest ballet company, SFB has a rich history but essentially was a well-regarded regional company until the arrival 23 years ago of its current director, Helgi Tomasson. He comes with an extraordinarily rich, wide-ranging background, beginning with performances as a teenager at the Pantomime Theatre in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens and years spent with the eclectic Joffrey and Harkness companies, which often focused on pop ballets. His lodestar, however, was the 15 years he spent as a principal dancer with Mr. Balanchine’s New York City Ballet.

SFB frequently garners favorable comparisons to the two other great American companies, NYCB and American Ballet Theatre. It can be argued that it combines the best of both groups: a spirit of innovation and a reverence for ballet’s classics.

Aware of his company’s special geographic challenge - “We’re far away from the East Coast, far away from Europe or Asia,” Mr. Tomasson says - the director threw his resources into creating a weeklong celebration of his company’s 75th anniversary in the spring. “We staged 10 new works, all premiering the first three days of the festival,” he says. “I thought we needed to do something like that, create a big buzz where people would come from all over.”

Tuesday’s program captures the company in this adventuresome mood: Mr. Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments” (now an amazing 62 years old and still managing to look groundbreaking) followed by a pair of new works by two of the world’s most sought-after choreographers - “Joyride” by Mark Morris, set to a commissioned score by John Adams, and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour.” Both men have a longstanding and continuing relationship with SFB.

The company shows its classical side with five performances of the ultimate romantic ballet, “Giselle,” in a staging by Mr. Tomasson. As a sign of the company’s strength in depth, five ballerinas will dance the title role here. The coveted opening night of “Giselle” is going to a relative newcomer to the company, Maria Kochetkova.

“She’s a very young Russian girl who’s been with me over a year now,” says Mr. Tomasson, 66. “She is absolutely beautiful in ‘Giselle,’ and I’m having her dance opening night because she hasn’t been seen here before.”

Recalling his rise from being one of Mr. Balanchine’s favorite dancers to assuming the director’s role himself, Mr. Tomasson says he has been enormously inspired by what he learned from his years at NYCB working with the great choreographer.

“First, the love and the respect for the art form. When I was there, Balanchine was turning out at least one or two works a year, and Jerry Robbins was too,” he says. “We went through the Stravinsky Festival and then the Tchaikovsky Festival - I was proud of all that creativity.

“Many things about working with Balanchine I take with me: He wanted his dancers to have a passion for what they do, and that’s something I really look for in a dancer’s articulation, musicality, beautiful presentation, so you can see everything. Like him, I teach company class. I want my dancers to get a sense of what I look for and what I want.

“It all comes back to respecting your art form.”

WHAT: San Francisco Ballet

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

TICKETS: $29 to $85

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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