To mark its 85th anniversary, San Francisco Ballet added “Unbound,” to this year’s season, a series of four programs, A, B, C, and D, consisting of commissioned works by recognized choreographers, some of who have never before set work on the company. The dancers were divided into teams, each assigned to work with a participating choreographer.
Outstanding in the A and B lineup were Alonzo King’s “The Collective Agreement,” Cathy Marston’s “Snowblind,” and David Dawson’s “Anima Animus.” Two of the works, Christopher Wheeldon’s “Bound To,” and Myles Thatcher’s “Otherness” took on the daunting task of social commentary, and the remaining one, Justin Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” was a stylized work.
Though King, Artistic Director of LINES Ballet, has been choreographing in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than three decades, “The Collective Agreement” is his debut work for the company. It arrives seasoned with spirit, musical grit, and bears an unbound fuse that ignites lead interpreters Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets, Jahna Frantziskonis, and Joseph Warton, all supported by a fiery cast of soloists and corps dancers. We get our first glimpse of Solomon Golding, whose promise is sealed in the dominion he carves out as he moves through the piece with mature mastery and conviction. The dancers respond to the resounding Jason Morgan score with a gamboling verve that makes the grand jeté grander, and the lifts, salutations to the sublime. James Sofranko, who leaves the company at the end of the season, reminds us of what we will lose. Here, he gives us versatile fast-twitch responses to pulsing and incendiary rhythms or where drumbeats pop like gunshots. A synchronized segment with eight men, Helimets, Warton, Golding, Sofranko, Max Cauthorn, Vitor Luiz, Sean Orza and Myles Thatcher, dancing to brass and percussion accompaniment, aligns acuity with booming intensity.
Cathy Marston creates “Snowblind” with swirling dance theater characterization, fitted out in Patrick Kinmoth’s shaded, winter-gaunt costumes, and to a musical arrangement by Philip Feeney. In it, she captures the unbound cruelties of both nature and nurture. Leaning on the storyline of Edith Wharton’s classic novel “Ethan Frome,” she casts Ulrik Birkkjaer as the limping anti-hero, who drags his miserable existence behind an injury, pinioned to the gruesome tale of his hardships. It unfolds in the interstices of Kinmoth’s dark forest, lit bosque-luridly by James F. Ingalls. Sarah Van Patten gives her most compelling performance as the dark and darker Zeena Frome, the sickly wife who sees that Ethan’s infatuation with Mattie (Mathilde Froustey) can only end up hobbling all three lives. The quality of their triple-yoke oppression is captured hauntingly in Marston’s shadow-shape movement, not only for the principals, but for a signal corps of dancers who toggle between urging and urgency. Birkkjaer, Van Patten and Froustey layer their talents to bring a triptych of tragedy and a specie of sedimentary resolution.
In his “Anima Animus,” David Dawson harvests the talents of two of San Francisco Ballet’s iconics, Sofiane Sylve and Maria Kochetkova. He risks pairing them, with the happy result that they conspire to set the nervy “can’t fail” tone for this work from the moment they spill onto the stage in a fury of turns and leaps. Dawson’s work summons the kind of perfection a dancer feels when a promenade rounds all six points with a gallant finish. Whatever the controlling Jungian argument about animals, men and women, the corps in silhouette needs no doctrine to find spiritual integrity. As with Marston’s “Snowblind,” the design elements (costumes, Yumiko Takeshima; set: John Otto), surround sumptuous movement to the contrasting Glass-like Ezio Bosso score in an efficient yet elegant frame. As lighting goes from white in the opening sequence to dark for the silhouettes, to just light enough to see facial expressions, four men Carlo Di Lanno, Luke Ingham, Henry Sidford, and Wei Wang take up positions as guideposts for the women dancers (Kamryn Baldwin, Elizabeth Mateer, Elizabeth Powell and Skyla Schreter) to work even more texture into the skein.
Two of the works presume to raise our consciousness. Christopher Wheeldon’s “Bound To” decries the proliferation of technology—targeting the eponymous cellphone prop—for having alienated us into a fiendishly distracted (and owlish) horde, worrying and hurrying like lemmings toward certain suicide (to the accompaniment of elevator music). That the cell phone might only be one of the most obnoxious in a panoply of symptoms of our alienation, rather than its source, is not an option on this menu. Just in case we don’t see it that way, there is screened text meant to remediate us. The piece is saved in the end by a volley of pop-ups, a brilliant solo (Lonnie Weeks) and exquisite men’s duets danced by Weeks, Benjamin Freemantle, Angelo Greco, and Jaime García Castilla. Having had her appliance forcibly removed, Yuan Yuan Tan dances a heart rending pas de deux with Carlo Di Lanno, to much better music by Keaton Henson.
In “Otherness,” Myles Thatcher uses his imaginative talents to probe the puzzle of the abandonment of identity to a confused and confusing confection of external tropes, represented by blue and pink costumes. The revelation is that both sexes can come in misleading packaging, when ultimately we are all the same (when the dancers, stripped of blue and pink, end up chartreuse.) As always, Thatcher’s steps are imaginative, and in the rough trade or outright violent scenes, provocative, as pinks and blues sort through identities they didn’t ask for to find their real coloration. A weakness that detracts from the unbound element, is that the audience is bound up in deciding whether the schematics hold true. (If we’re all the same, why is the otherness an issue?) The ex calibur dancing ends up a Stockholm-syndrome hostage to thematic inconsistency. Jahna Frantziskonis is a spark plug.
Justin Peck gave us yet another crowd-sourced crowd pleaser in “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” with dancers in active wear or street clothes, women on flat, pumped-up stylized movement with revolving lifts, sandwiched between segments of power walking. The music by Anthony Gonzalez, Yann Gonzalez, Bradley Laner, and Justin Meldal-Johnsen invited spring-loaded duets from Dores André and Wei Wang and Ulrik Birkkjaer and Gabriela Gonzalez, who is definitely one to watch!