I just sprinted through a marathon. It’s taken me a moment to catch my breath.
May 6th was the conclusion of San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound: A Festival of New Works. Twelve world premieres, divided into four programs, were performed over two-and-a-half weeks at the end of their season. I managed to see all four, three of them back to back. It’s unexpectedly exhausting to WATCH that much dance, especially when it is all unfamiliar. I can only imagine how tired the dancers must have been!
The ballet world was excited about the Unbound festival. What would these 12 very different choreographers create for one of the world’s best companies? The SFB studios must been a hive of creativity activity. We (“we” the ballet lovers of America) were anxiously awaiting premieres by established favorites such as Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck. The anticipation was killing me.
It dawned on me, sitting in the theater, that the people this festival was most exciting for were the dancers. How truly thrilling to have all these world-class choreographers working with and being inspired by them. As much as dancers talk about taking on “the great” dream roles, such as Odette/Odile or Juliet, they also talk about the honor of having a work created on them. Who doesn’t dream of being a muse?
The assignment given the choreographers appears to have been simple and open-ended: create a new 30-minute work. The resulting 12 ballets cover a wide range. Here are a few of my thoughts on each (in alphabetical order by choreographer).
Anima Animus, David Dawson
My favorite of the truly abstract contributions to Unbound. Dawson’s work provided the distinct pleasure of matching the long, regal, and intimidating Sofiane Sylve against the short, bright, and intimidating Maria Kochetkova. It felt like watching the two attempt to out-diva each other, which was really quite enjoyable. I also loved the swan arm motif, with the dancers running in, arms raised in a V, as if they were flying onto the stage space.
The Collective Agreement, Alonzo King
At the end of my recent post about Lines Ballet, I wondered what sort of piece King would make for San Francisco Ballet. It did not look like a “Lines” piece, which I appreciated—he took the company into consideration. However, I found myself thinking, “If this is the future of ballet, then I’m bored.”
The Infinite Ocean, Edwaard Liang
This was the very first piece I saw of the 12. Liang’s work generally does nothing for me. This time, though, it did. Not all of it. But the two pas de deux were lovely, and I can’t get the final moments of the pas for Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets out of my mind. Despite watching intently as they executed the last lift, I felt like I missed it. Would that I could just rewind! As Helimets knelt over Sylve, who was lying flat on her back, he pulled her legs across his so that she ended up resting across his legs, arching upwards. The entire auditorium took a breath. Those audible gasps are some of the most wonderful moments in a theater, when you feel a part of something you’re experiencing with everyone else.
Guernica, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Given that the ballet was inspired by war and bullfighting and passion and all the rest, and that the music was a combative electronic score, it was not expected that halfway through I found myself thinking, “This is tedious.” Although it is always a pleasure to watch Dores André be fierce, the piece left me cold.
Snowblind, Cathy Marston
Since I had the pleasure of meeting Cathy Marston for an interview, I really wanted to like her piece. And I did! I haven’t read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the ballet’s basis, since 8th grade. No synopsis was provided beyond the characters’ names (Ethan Frome, a farmer; etc.). And yet I had no trouble following along with the story. Unsurprisingly, I found myself invested in the ballet because I cared about the characters and wanted to know how the story ended. I remembered that the book ends tragically, but not the details. Even if I had, I would have been curious to know how Marston was going to make it happen, which is what she meant when she told me that “you can know where you are and still be surprised” in a narrative work. The three leads all gave committed performances, with Mathilde Froustey as Mattie deserving special mention. My favorite part came at the end. The snow, portrayed by the corps, came rushing forward in waves as Ethan and Mattie ran headlong into the drift, then got caught up in the snow’s arms and deposited on the floor. Humans are no match for the elements. Many people I spoke with afterwards told me they liked this ballet—and they all said so with a tinge of surprise in their voices. You never know what you are going to like.
Your Flesh Shall be a Great Poem, Trey McIntyre
This was the only piece of the 12 that made me smile. I generally like Trey McIntyre’s work. His ballets have a unique mix of melancholy and whimsy, which I appreciate, as well as an unforced naturalness. Of the several same-sex pas de deux in the programs, this included the most successful. It didn’t feel like tokenism but like a meaningful duet for two people who both happened to be men. The couple behind me found the music, which had lyrics, distracting. I’ve seen enough ballets set to music with lyrics to have gotten used to it. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t, same as with any music. Benjamin Freemantle was very good, but so was the whole cast.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Justin Peck
Justin Peck brought San Francisco a sneaker ballet! For those of us who aren’t in New York but who very much enjoyed the New York City Ballet trailer for Peck’s other sneaker ballet, The Times Are Racing, this felt like a (deserved) consolation prize. I wanted this piece to be happier. More like his Rodeo, I guess, which we saw earlier in the season, with its sunny disposition and bright lighting. Having said that, it was the more thoughtful sections of this ballet that I liked the most, the pas de deux for Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham and for Dores André and Wei Wang.
Bjork Ballet, Arthur Pita
I liked it better than last year’s Salome. The opening of this piece—which is really dance-theater—was very striking. Set on a mirrored floor, the dancers stood en masse and showed just how compelling simple port de bras in unison can be before launching into the rest of the ballet. Suspended above them were what can only be described as silver palm trees, which dropped to the floor when the dancers dispersed and landed, magically, upright. It was an incredibly odd work, with a hot-pink-sock-wearing Maria Kochetkova, a disturbingly-muzzled Sarah Van Patten, and Dores André dancing on a platform carried by four men who were concentrating very hard on keeping it level on the their shoulders. Numerous people used the words “Dr. Seuss” to describe elements of this ballet.
Let’s Begin at the End, Dwight Rhoden
Let me begin by saying that I was extremely disappointed that this ballet did not, in fact, end where it began, choreographically speaking. The curtain went up on 6 couples in a V formation, a couple squaring off center stage, and a lone man, all set against a dramatic backdrop of a wall with doors (the set was fantastic). The curtain came down on a bare stage, with the opening couple at an impasse, the woman turning her back on her partner. Would it have been too easy, too pat, too expected to end the ballet where it began? Absolutely. That didn’t make me want it any less.
Otherness, Myles Thatcher
Thatcher’s ballet was a bit simplistic in concept for me, but its heart was in the right place. In the piece, two groups of people (one dressed in pink, the other in blue), don’t treat each other very well, until they realize that they are all the same underneath (fluorescent yellow).
Bespoke, Stanton Welch
A neoclassical ballet in contemporary ballet costumes. What I liked about Bespoke, even though it in no way progresses ballet, was that it allowed the dancers to really show off their more virtuosic classical chops. The audience responded to that, heartily applauding the efforts of the cast, in particular Carlo Di Lanno and Mathilde Froustey, Angelo Greco, and Esteban Hernandez.
Bound To, Christopher Wheeldon
Like Thatcher, Wheeldon’s ballet contained social commentary, this time on how much we are bound to our phones. The piece begins with the cast clutching glowing rectangles in their hands, dancing while never taking their eyes off the devices. The duet immediately following, for Dores André and Benjamin Freemantle, felt like a modern-day version of Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun. She kept trying to connect with him, but he could never fully divest himself of the screen. Angelo Greco brought the house down, per usual, with his solo. There was a quartet of women and a quartet of men—the men’s section was better, with more substantial choreography. (Choreographers are slowly incorporating more same-sex partnering, but it’s interesting to note the difference in how they approach two men versus two women. The men do more lifting and weight sharing, which tends to translate into more interesting movement.) The ending was poignant, with everyone back on their phones, leaving behind a solitary Lonnie Weeks, flat on his back.
People—dance critics and artistic directors—came into town for this festival. What an opportunity, to come for a weekend and see 12 new pieces in only four shows! For those who missed it, SFB will be touring highlights from Unbound to the Kennedy Center in October. If you live East of the Mississippi, I would encourage you to make the trip!
San Francisco Ballet: Unbound: A Festival of New Works
May 1, 4, 5, and 6, at the War Memorial Opera House
World premieres by David Dawson, Alonzo King, Edwaard Liang, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Cathy Marston, Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, Arthur Pita, Dwight Rhoden, Myles Thatcher, Stanton Welch, Christopher Wheeldon