At the San Francisco Ballet Gala earlier this year, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson predicted that the Unbound Festival would locate the company at the “epicenter of world ballet.” The ballet world is bigger than North America and Western Europe, and in SFB’s hosting of United We Dance more than two decades ago, where companies from Germany, Japan, The Netherlands, and Cuba joined forces, the opera house truly became that epicenter for an extended moment. But epicenters are moving targets, with hidden tectonic plates always in motion. This season’s Unbound Festival posed its challenge to an inclusive list of choreographers, each sallying forth with his or her tribute of signature surprises. It was a big step outward. As ballet gains currency among new layers of youth, small experiments in choreography can be expected to trigger large explosions of the art form in South Africa, Cuba, Russia, Canada, the two Koreas whose heads of state shook hands two weeks ago, and south of the wall that separates us from a host of talent in Central and South America. Will future festivals reflect these important developments? As the world challenges all manner of antiquated boundaries, so must its ballet compass and cartography.
Program C opens with “Bespoke,” Stanton Welch’s meditation on the physical and emotional toll exacted from a life given to ballet. It starts with no music. Angelo Greco is alone in a white tunic with blue trim, tracing rondes de jamb, running to and fro, and introducing a multiple tour ending in second position plié that will repeat throughout. Two men rock as if to soothe one another. A village of steps detail Welch’s style—side to side head ratchets—ribbons of piqué and chaîné turns, and fusillades of pirouettes. Arms circle from high fifth to low, describing inchoate boundaries for each dancer’s personal Calvary as a solitary penitent. When dancers Frances Chung, Sasha De Sola, Isabella DeVivo, Mathilde Froustey, Ellen Rose Hummel, and Jennifer Stahl, cross those boundaries into pas de deux with partners Alexandre Cagnat, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Carlo Di Lanno, Angelo Greco, Esteban Hernandez and Lonnie Weeks, there’s a restrained but burnishing radiance. In earlier works by Welch, extreme athletic statements incline toward the lingua franca of the aughts. They exclude the kind of eye contact embraced by the body as a whole that we see in Bespoke.
Does the audience appreciate how this work adduces its own unbound vocabulary? Perhaps not, but in its way, it takes more risks than Program D’s vulgar, and purportedly “edgy” Björk bagatelle:
“Just think,” my long-time friend said, as she caught up with us at the evening’s end, “Our last sighting of Maria Kochetkova will be her covered in tinsel. Arthur Pita’s “Björk Ballet,” does indeed feature the departing Kochetkova draped in tinsel.
A cast of kitschy-costumed dancers, backs to audience, rise to relevé with port de bras. With Björk sounding as if she is on the brink of a psychotic break, the choreography registers not only unbound, but unsound. Strobe lights accentuate the hysteria (mediated by a masked fisherman who trolls throughout.) Fortunately, the steps are not as stagey as the design elements. Despite commission guidelines to keep sets simple and break choreographic boundaries, Pita does the opposite, thereby stealing the fickle limelight from pieces that go more stark and less shallow. The final curtain finds the audience rising to relevé in an unbound frenzy of voluble cheering.
Also popular with the audience was Edwaard Liang’s “Infinite Ocean.” By contrast to the Björk Ballet, Liang offered a discernible theme: nature, one that has proven to be his forte in an earlier work “Murmuration.” Corps members in sand-hued costumes, take on ambulatory characteristics of crustaceans, or stretchy sea creatures who burrow along the shoreline, play in linear configurations, or clump together stretching toward the horizon. Tiit Helimets, Sofiane Sylve, Yuan Yuan Tan, and Vitor Luiz interlock and disengage impressively in twos and threes, or cartwheel head over heels in beach-balletic acrobatics. A solo opportunity points up the unbound daring of Lauren Strongin. The Oliver Davis score, with its repetitions, incurs symmetrical redundancy in the choreography. Just as you reach for your sun block, an unbound moment arrives when the dancers go bounding over a dune into the finite ocean upstage.
Dwight Rhoden’s “Let’s Begin at the End,” begins with no music, assuring that all attention is fixed on six male dancers who introduce the piece. The simple but impactful set (Alexander V. Nichols) has stalls upstage, with steel-clad doors that open and close to frame dancer entrances and exits, and parse the piece into component cannons. A lift is the kind where reach exceeds grasp in a beguiling arc. The score, a mashup of Johann Sebastian Bach, Philip Glass, and Michael Nyman, offers trombone solos that unlike Björk’s grab-‘n’-go mystifications, invite extended investigations. Those who understand how to parry masterful vocabulary, musical phrasing, and profound vision to shape a work, still walk among us. Mastery is the watchword, as Frances Chung and Angelo Greco affirm in an opening pas de deux with dedicated support from a mesmerizing cello solo. Esteban Hernandez wins hearts, row by rapt row. He is not just dancing boldly, but with a determined sense of destination that forecasts a virtuosic future. Jennifer Stahl and Ulrik Birkkjaer dance a pas de deux where she implores him to see her as she wishes to be seen. Sasha De Sola and Benajamin Freemantle rule. A new generation of dancers comes to us bringing a streak of candor which pre-chaos generations could not. They show that they can dance an entire spectrum of boundary breaking work that showcases not only their individual talents, but their gravitas as an ensemble. Rhoden’s piece, more than any other, uses best practices to open its doors to a stiff breeze from l’air du temps, with all hands on deck.
In her workshopped homage to Pablo Picasso, “Guernica,” Annabelle Lopez Ochoa explicitly breaks with one unspoken, yet sacred convention in the ballet world: never make yourself vulnerable by taking the side of the oppressed or exploited in a political argument.
Moved by Syria’s chemical warfare real-time horrors, and intrigued by how cubism might translate to movement, Lopez Ochoa creates squared off shapes, and via the workshop process fills them with deeply felt tragic content. The result is a frank staging on a stark modernist set, where a clutch of suspended light rods pierces the space at its center (Alexander V. Nichols.) Dores André, Vitor Luiz, Julia Rowe and Myles Thatcher make for a fierce foursome, faintly reminiscent of José Limon’s Moor’s Pavane quartet. To a rhythm tapped out electronically, resonant in the way sounds in a death-chamber might echo (Score: Joe Andrews, Michel Banabila, Tom Halstead, and Charles Valentin-Alkan) a fearful interchange takes place between the bull-horned dancers. André’s legs swing left and right like a politicized pendulum; whole bodies tick like a metronome marking time and a history that we know in retrospect ultimately brought defeat.
Thatcher and Luiz rise to confect a twin musculature equipping a Spanish spine as a hedge against dwindling hope. The women, unwavering, invest in the power of maja intensity to will victory. Fresh forces arrive, notably Solomon Golding, whose every step advances the story’s quadrupled threads of struggle, defeat, aggression, and reconciliation. He and Jahna Frantziskonis lead an auxiliary squadron branded by James Sofranko’s vigilance. Any sound—the scraping of a gate, exhalations by bulls or toreros, and every shape, such as circling or quadrangle lifts—document the defiant contest between life and death. Raised arms, like those in Nacho Duato’s “Jardi Tancat,” press heroically against the coming onslaught. The pace accelerates as dancers poise for the kill, and in what can only be seen as a strategic retreat, the piece ends in an off-kilter embrace.
Another specie of daring inspires Trey McIntyre to show us his grandfather’s descent into senile dementia through the distortions of the old man’s occluded lens. In life, sentient loss is terrifying: the coward is inclined to lean on platitudes that reduce the human condition to established ratios. “Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem” confronts us from the dark side of the moon, where light is a temptation just beyond reach (Costume Design: Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung.)
Benjamin Freemantle will be long remembered for his performance as the focal figure in this work. He dances the agonies of aggregating loss, illuminated by a cascade of playfully infectious moods expressed through modern dance rather than balletic steps. No need to force the pieces to fit into this puzzle that overtakes a life, thanks to fluid coupling by Isabella DeVivo and Steven Morse. They offer much more than a backward glance at the old man’s engaging past, as well as his grim present. Jaime Garcia Castilla, Jennifer Stahl, Sasha De Sola, Lonnie, Weeks, and Alexandre Cagnat arrive to confer purity, polish, and a finishing rondure to this most moving account that pays tribute to the final struggle. With the exception of Christopher Bruce, no other choreographer, apart from McIntyre, can move dancers into a story by invoking an oxymoron of responses that are as timeless as they are novel.
The imperative to choose three winners among the dozen pieces, as some reviewers have done because three will win a place in the company’s repertoire, is for me a game of artistic Russian Roulette. Three is a random number; six, less so. The important number is twelve. It’s the one that issues in a new era of open source artworks for a company deserving of a broad palette.