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San Francisco Ballet loosens up in ‘Unbound’

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Cathy Marston’s timeless “Snowblind” is a highlight of San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound Program B. (Courtesy Erik Tomasson)

There are social uprisings going on, from #MeToo to Black Lives Matter.

Has San Francisco Ballet gotten the news?

“Unbound,” the ambitious festival of new work that opened Friday, suggests that some of the message is reaching the company. With 12 premieres by 12 choreographers, dance films and panels investigating the art form’s future, artistic director Helgi Tomasson is inviting a degree of change into the Opera House.

While SFB is no outpost of artistic revolution, by adding new voices to the mix, Tomasson opens up classical dance to fresh ideas and movement idioms, without which ballet as an art form will die.

Program A, for instance, began with “A Collective Agreement,” a work by the master of contemporary diasporic ballet, San Francisco’s own Alonzo King, whose contrapuntal, allusive and deeply interior style brings the syncopations of jazz and the earthiness of African dance to a form that tends to ignore earth for heaven.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Bound To” was a gentle look at the sociological impact of anti-social technology, identified through stabbing bright lights of cell phones in the hands of everyone onstage.

With his elegant musicality, Wheeldon had the dancers ditch the isolating phones to engage together, then paid homage to spiraling ensemble form; musical, choreographic and thematic ideas soon flowed into alignment. The results were light yet richly humanist — all too rare in contemporary ballet.

Talented Justin Peck’s “Hurry Up We’re Dreaming,” however, resorted to frontal athleticism costumed in ugly aerobic wear evocative of the 1980s and employed overhead light grids that seemed to have drifted in from a more provocative Jay-Z show. He may have put everyone in sneakers and reprised his signature club formations to music by France’s M83, but Twyla Tharp used street shoes and ensembles more radically 40 years ago.

On Saturday’s Program B, the tone shifted as three artists shared a quest to shatter categories of gender, race or form.

If black and white is put in shadow, choreographer David Dawson showed, everything shifts to gray. While his “Anima Animus” was freighted with a ponderous back story about binary concepts and categories, the dancing made only a few claims and made them effortlessly.

Petite Maria Kochetkova, who, after 11 years with SFB retires this season, danced like a surface-to-air rocket, while tall Sofiane Sylve, performing most of the same steps, moved like a Mars-bound spacecraft. Through sheer physicality Dawson showed that we can do and say the same things, but each form expresses itself uniquely.

SFB corps member Myles Thatcher’s gender-neutral work “Otherness” also had no need for didacticism. The charming chamber-sized ballet needs little explanation to make sense of its pink and blue teams, and the vicious treatment of the “other.”

Max Cauthorn was beautifully supple and warm-hearted as the protagonist who defies the color line. Sean Orza, his pink team counterpart, was a stolid compatriot, while Jahna Frantziskonis negotiated the social friction with puckish wit.

But Thatcher’s dance, with its ingenious swimming arms and sweet chartreuse reveal, would have been better matched by music from an Esther Williams picture rather than by John Adams’ “Absolute Jest.” The music overpowers this gentle equal rights ballet.

Of both programs, it was Cathy Marston, one of only two women among the 12 choreographers, whose “Snowblind” fearlessly bundled multiple idioms together in a rich sociological and poetic whole.

Drawing from Edith Wharton’s tale “Ethan Frome,” Marston evoked the stern household dramas of Henrik Ibsen, mixed in the delicate style of post-modernist Tere O’Connor and the organic awkwardness of Mats Ek on a stage that holds multiple spaces, as in Noh Theater.

The effect was timeless, and the chorus of exquisite forms expressing nature, the poignant sets and costumes, and the beautifully limned dancing of Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Mathilde Froustey came together like an old master made for this moment.

REVIEW

San Francisco Ballet Unbound A and B
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: April 25 through May 6
Tickets: $20 to $275
Contact:(415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org/unbound
Program A: 8 p.m. April 28, 7:30 p.m. May 3, 2 p.m. May 6
Program B: 7:30 p.m. April 25, 2 p.m. April 19, 8 p.m. May 4

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