Surrealist painter René Magritte developed an iconography of ordinary objects—anonymous men in bowler hats, apples hovering in the interval between the eye and its aim, pipes and pillars that smirk at bids to make them things or symbols. While his contemporary Max Ernst pointedly named such objects “phallustrades,” Magritte called them “bilboquets”: the game with a stick, a cup, and a ball on a string, the swing of the arm you use to align them. As with his insistence that the toy was in the act of play, Magritte’s best trick is the treat he makes of context—the flat, bright sky of puffy clouds that lurks within or beyond us, the frame that is a window to the world beyond or a wall of opacity, the silhouette that conceals the body’s detail or reveals its actual oblivion, a recitation of prepositions that presents a giddying flicker: life, the miasma in which we’re mired or the mirror of our machinations?—the conjunction I seek is probably not or but and. When stripped of plot, ballet is a motion and a context that matches the sensibility of these paintings—combining the improbability of balancing on the tips of the toes, revolutions and levitations beyond the scope of Newtonian gravity, and a vocabulary limited to an archive of recurrent shapes—the notion at play in Yuri Possokhov’s Magrittomania (2000), the central piece of San Francisco Ballet’s first program of the season, on view January 24 to February 5 at the War Memorial Opera House.
The sound of rushing water opens Magrittomania before the curtain rises on a screen projected of the raining men from Magritte’s Golconda (1953). The image draws a laugh from the audience, though the liquid hiss is a reminder of Magritte’s mother’s suicide by drowning—absurdity is like that, causing us to laugh where we should weep. A man in a bowler hat (the reliably grave Davit Karapetyan), at first silhouetted by the scrim, pulls open a panel to find a column of sky, a vertige of displacement that will occur again and again. Joined by an array of identically clad men, Karapetyan confronts his doubles as they shadow, launch, and catch him.
The stage inherently poses the same questions that Magritte coaxed out of canvas: is the world upon or around this ground? Is the body we view our own or another’s—may we move it—does it breathe? Does a hat ornament or identify a man? Yuri Krasavin’s musical score quotes and perverts Beethoven with the same unsettling familiarity and deferral of meaning as the rest of the surreal project.
The mood darkens when Yuan Yuan Tan appears in red, her left arm wrapped behind her back like a broken wing as she inscribes the stage with the icon of herself to the limping strains of an abbreviated Für Elise, before a translucent veil is drawn over and tied about her head for a duet both tender and explicit, inspired by paintings of shrouded lovers straining blindly towards one another. The act is almost redundant, because ballet always does wear a veil: a lift is carnal embrace and spiritual rapture enacted in accordance to a contract wherein the real points of contact are not meant to be seen, a splay of the legs has no crotch, a corps executing coupé jetés en manège swaps places and personae with an easy flick of the limbs. In a final spectacle, Tan exhibits a massive, menacing apple that weighs her down and just as suddenly deflates, delivering all by giving us nothing—an eruption of vacancy to test the boundary of presence.
The program framed Magrittomania’s heightened expressiveness with the baroque mathematics of artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight (2004) and the postmodern collage of William Forsythe’s Pas/Parts (1999).
Danced to Bach, 7 for Eight begins with a couple (Mathilde Froustay and Tiit Helimets) in a tight square of light on a bare black stage, a frame within a frame, executing the long supported extensions that in a story ballet would be an exalted embrace. Here, the relation is given with music box restraint, the stately promenade and the lush unfolding of the leg meant to give geometric gratification that is multiplied as the square opens over the floor and the duet is replaced by trios, quartets, and finally a full eight dancers in an inquiry on form: symmetry, asymmetry, unison; the way a canon efficiently satisfies our desire for repetition and the imperative of time; how baroque ornamentation subdivides and fills time and space with an intricacy that is its own import.
Seen for the first time on this continent, Pas/Parts closed the program with a stiff plunge into postmodernity, announced by a squealing whistle before the full rumble of a driving score by Thom Willems. The white set lit bright as a microscope slide put the focus on the body as a quantity, just as the sleek practice clothes by Stephen Galloway emphasize the body’s lack of dimension. Forsythe’s signature is an aloof cool dependent on a particular jut of the hips and arch of the spine that is oriented to confront an audience made consumers, and the company delivers a vision of the machine of ballet given license to exist, with bodies at work like pendulums and jackhammers and all ecstasy in perpetual motion and frenetic pace, relentlessly grinding on as the curtain falls.
 Mixed bills are properly styled in sonata form: exposition, meditation, coda. San Francisco Ballet curated this one well, progressing chronologically forward with the music, in reverse choreographically, and slowly bringing the stage from a solemn darkness through artificially bright skies to a halogen dawn.