San Francisco Ballet's highly anticipated Unbound festival wrapped its 17-day run on Sunday, bringing world premieres by 12 choreographers chosen by artistic director Helgi Tomasson to point toward the future of ballet. For attendees, that future looked like a ballet stage scored with contemporary pop and electronic music, rife with social messaging — and, far too often, still regressive in its portrayal of women. Throughout the festival, a sense of new possibility reigned, with more successes than disappointments.
The opening salvo for Unbound was fired by Alonzo King, the sole San Franciscan among the dance-makers invited by Tomasson. Titled Collective Agreement, King’s work set the bar very high for the 11 choreographers whose work followed. Under floating panels of lights that tipped and tilted, suggesting an unstable landscape, he created a hermetic and wondrous world outside of time, peopled by impossibly elegant, free-spirited creatures who propelled themselves like water striders.
They performed not for us but for each other, making voyeurs of the audience. The structure of their society was fluid: men and women possessed similar qualities of movement; dancers seemed to live on a knife-edge, constantly cutting across each other’s paths; no ordered grouping or intimate liaison lingered; unisons could not hold, for everyone was ‘other.’
Thus, the soulful attempts by Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets to hammer out a commitment and the reckless encounter between Jahna Frantzikonis and Joseph Warton took on heroic proportions. Solomon Golding whirled onstage in a pleated skirt, rather like an angel, just in time to rescue a young man from some unspecified threat. A bevy of dancers in clipped tutus, rather like moths, floated in and out – having abandoned the constraints of stiff, old-fashioned tutus but not the semiotics.
King has never worked with this company before, so it was thrilling to see how the San Francisco Ballet dancers imbibed his challenging technique: the exaggerated hinging from the hip, low skimming jumps, off-balance partnering, arms flashing like swords, torsos rippling even during death-defying press-up lifts.
There is little collective agreement in the ballet world on how to save an art form that has struggled to stay relevant and to attract new, younger audiences. The three other standout works proposed radically different solutions: Snowblind, a searing distillation of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, by Cathy Marston; Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, Trey McIntyre’s fanciful elegy to a grandfather he never knew; and the world’s first Björk Ballet, invented by South African-born Portuguese choreographer Arthur Pita.
Together, all four made a powerful argument for the utility and wide-ranging expressiveness of ballet. More broadly, the use of pop and techno music provided fuel for some of the most interesting work in the festival — and, ironically, harkened back to a turbulent time in San Francisco Ballet’s history when artistic director Michael Smuin was ousted for daring to infuse strains of pop and Broadway into the repertoire.
Marston, who has worked primarily in Europe, used a striking economy of gesture married to dance to capture the impotent rage of Ethan Frome’s namesake farmer, the meanness of his invalid wife, and the youthful vivacity of her maidservant, with whom the farmer has a dangerous liaison. Equally striking was Marston’s deployment of the ensemble in diaphanous brown and silvery grey, who embodied the relentless snowstorm — not the pristine snow of Tahoe, but the dirty snow of a poverty-stricken New England mill town — and the censorious inhabitants of that town. Sarah Van Patten gave an inspired account of Zeena, a woman tortured and torturing, her eyes seeing and unseeing, bound forever by cruel circumstances of fate to her unfaithful husband (Ulrik Birkkjaer, in an impressively dark mood) and his impetuous paramour (the angelic Mathilde Froustey).
McIntyre is more known in these parts. The choreography behind his unorthodox tribute to his grandfather resembled a minor-key noodling to the plaintive pop-folk music of singer-songwriter Chris Garneau. It evoked images of boyhood (“I will never be dirt-free”), the bliss of youthful romance (“making friends with the fireflies… you know when they die their light still shines”), and the gradual dimming of a mind ravaged by dementia.
The poignant but bracingly unsentimental tale unfolded as an accumulation of impressions, interrupted thoughts, tiny grace notes and sudden swells of emotion, against backdrop imagery of a solar eclipse. Benjamin Freemantle gave the single greatest solo performance of the festival — fierce and tender and nuanced — though the role of McIntyre’s grandfather was a group project for the admirable men of the ensemble, with unforgettable assist from Isabella DeVivo, Jennifer Stahl and Sasha De Sola. The piece culminated in a poetic scene in which the grandfather communes with a four-legged stool and wanders around the town/stage in his boxer shorts.
Pita closed the festival on a high, with genre-smashing Icelandic musician Björk as his muse. Sly allusions to the ballet canon abounded as the Firebird made an appearance, along with the pirates and harem girls from Le Corsaire. A fisherman in a sad commedia mask cast his line into the orchestra pit, looking to snag a happy mask. Completing the cast were a troop of stylized blue-and-black penguins and a pint-sized tinsel Christmas tree — embodied by Maria Kochetkova, who departs the company after this season, and for whom Pita created a ravishing solo that expressed her inner wild child.
There were episodes of acro-balletic lovemaking in a field of silvery grass, and an outbreak of joyful hopping on quarter-pointe — a stance in which the dancers’ heels remain lifted, but just barely, off the ground. It’s a revolt against the ballet principle of jumping from a very grounded foot, but also a nod to iconoclast George Balanchine, who wanted his dancers to move so quickly that there wasn’t time to ground the heels.
Costumer Marco Morante did not skimp on the sequins and flounces, but the masks and hoods and slashes of shiny ribbon strapped across faces, and echoes of the Corsaire narrative of sex slavery, hinted at oppression beneath the riotous fun. The unearthly sounds of Björk as she sang of tossing cutlery off a cliff and imagining the sound of her own body crashing on the rocks cemented a sense of unease.
Among the other works, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by Justin Peck deserves a place in the company repertoire — if only to entice millennials into the opera house. Set to music by French electronic pop band M83, this caffeinated ballet performed in sneakers and shiny high-tech athletic wear was at times indistinguishable from the (often very imaginative) choreography made for television’s So You Think You Can Dance. Yet it was elevated by the technical and dramatic skills of this company, particularly in the electrifying duets for the luminous Sarah Van Patten and devoted Luke Ingham, the sultry Dores André and effervescent Wei Wang, and live-wire Gabriella Gonzales with the ardent Ulrik Birkkjaer.
Another keeper is Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Guernica. This was pitched as a themed response to the Syrian genocide, linked to Picasso’s depiction of the destruction of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War. But sometimes too much advance information can undermine a ballet — for as an abstract work, this one proved gripping. Its stylized vocabulary, shot through with flamenco attitude and bolstered by a terrific techno score, and the intensity of the interactions between the dancers (notably Myles Thatcher and Julia Rowe) achieved a thrilling takedown of machismo in bullfighting and ballet. Yet Guernica failed to deliver the advertised response to war, which a dramaturg or a political scientist might have helped shape.
The other two ‘message’ ballets could not sustain interest through their allotted half-hour: Bound To, Christopher Wheeldon’s exhortation to put down our electronic devices and connect with people, boasted an eye-catching pas de trois for a woman, a man and his smartphone, and a devastating conclusion in which the superb Lonnie Weeks came to a tragic end after ripping our hearts out of our chests. The rest was noise.
Otherness, Myles Thatcher’s earnest plea to accept all gender expressions, relied too heavily on color-coded costuming to convince us that, under our pink and blue neoprene suits, we are all uniformly chartreuse. Elsewhere, more witty and trenchant commentary on the social construction of masculinity has been offered most recently by Sean Dorsey in Boys In Trouble and by a trio of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese choreographers in Pomelo.Orange.Tangerine.
The remaining four pieces — all abstract, slickly designed, and expertly danced — mainly served as reminders to smash the patriarchy. Stanton Welch’s Bespoke, David Dawson’s Anima Animus, Edwaard Liang’s The Infinite Ocean, and Dwight Rhoden’s Let’s Begin at the End were rife with meaningless demonstrations of women being pummeled and tossed around, paraded aloft like trophies on poles, their legs yanked apart and crotches displayed from every possible angle. Men apparently have the magical power to send a woman into paroxysms by merely hovering a hand over her body — or so these choreographers tell us. Men can also spin women around upside down with their legs split like the blades of a helicopter. But should they?
It took a female choreographer to provide the most erotic image in the festival: that moment when Ulrik Birkkjaer in Cathy Marston’s Snowblind untied Mathilde Froustey’s apron and buried his face in it. The festival was otherwise littered with intimate acrobatic duets, magnificently executed, but the few that conveyed real emotion were crafted by Marston, Peck and Pita. The female-straddle-split-with-crotch-positioned-squarely-toward-the-audience was deployed so often by Welch, Dawson, Liang and Rhoden that it had all the novelty of a car chase in a TV cop show. In contrast, Alonzo King appears to have pressed that move into service only once in his Collective Agreement, to make a powerful statement about Sofiane Sylve’s vulnerability — and he had her traveling down a diagonal. In the immortal words of Emily Dickinson, “tell the truth, but tell it slant.”
Female objectification aside, the company should be proud to have produced so many thought-provoking new pieces in one season. It was smart to commission work from choreographers as seasoned as these, the majority of whom have worked with San Francisco Ballet before.
Yet a truly bold move would be one that invests in the local dance ecosystem: hooking up with Bay Area artists who are already taking risks at a smaller scale, providing new platforms for emerging choreographers. In partnerships, San Francisco Ballet could interrogate what makes San Francisco unique, and how anxiety about the future has shaped the practices of local creators. The city that has led the nation in progressive movements, the home to tech startups that are taking over the world, the vaunted sanctuary city which has flipped a middle finger to the powers that be — surely these sources of pride can be reflected in the ballet company that bears its name.