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SF Ballet’s Unbound fest reveals ties that bind

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Benjamin Freemantle was in the spotlight on Trey McIntyre’s “Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem” on San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound Program C. (Courtesy Erik Tomasson)

Contemporary ballet requires dancers to shift from rapid off-center neoclassicism to soft romantic geometry to rhythmically complex club dance in the time it takes to pull off a cavalier’s vest and throw on a T-shirt.

Such technical wizardry is in no short supply at San Francisco Ballet, where, on Tuesday’s Unbound Program C festival of premieres, corps member Benjamin Freemantle mesmerized with his supple strength and acrobatic magic in “Your Flesh Shall Be A Great Poem,” and, on Thursday’s Program D, soloist Esteban Hernandez became a taut poetic embodiment of the outsider in “Let’s Begin at the End.”

SFB has a stunning number of such gifted movers. But as the dancers soared, the dances stumbled and flew.

Still, this week held more surprises than last week’s Unbound A and B. Choreographers in Programs C and D pushed beyond the safe neo-Balanchinian language to which so many contemporary ballet makers default.

Most notably, Trey McIntyre’s “Your Flesh Shall Be A Great Poem” and Dwight Rhoden’s “Let’s Begin at the End” each in radically distinct ways allowed movement to push against and upend tired formulas that trap so much contemporary work.

McIntyre’s “Your Flesh” is emblematic of the choreographer’s brand of wistful sweetness and wry meditative engagement.

Through unabashed use of pop culture (songs by Chris Garneau) and undulant, Rube Goldberg-style movement, he allows dancers to use the floor and engage in acrobatic maneuvers without eradicating the dance’s ballet-ness. With a title taken from Walt Whitman, allusions to death and an eclipse evoked by Alexander V. Nichols’ dramatic set design, McIntyre goes far in embodying a lush and deeply democratic engagement with the human and natural world.

Esteban Hernandez was outstanding in Dwight Rhoden’s “Let’s Begin at the End” in Unbound Program D. (Courtesy Erik Tomasson)

In more cerebral fashion, Rhoden’s richly musical “Let’s Begin” also offers an encounter with death or a mysterious other world.

A stunning backdrop of granite block, with a center door opening into the dark beyond (design by Nichols), resembles a tomb wall. As the piece progresses backward in time, the wall reveals a series of doors through which dancers enter and exit, like performers from their dressing rooms, or partners moving in and out of each others’ lives.

Like Alonzo King, Rhoden fearlessly lets the rigid geometries of ballet dissolve into squiggling lines, syncopated accents, and movement forward that then erases itself in sudden reversal. It becomes emotionally three-dimensional — both logical and full of surprise.

Edwaard Liang’s mixed “The Infinite Ocean,” also on Program D, sought the same complexity and pursued similar themes of loss and hope.

Less clear was where his dancers were, as they faced a giant sun, reddened sky and a floor rising toward the horizon. I thought Mars, but the dancing was too Earth bound for the Red Planet. Meanwhile, although his vocabulary was inventive, Liang seemed to ignore the cascading structure of Oliver Davis’ lush composition in favor of the rhythmic line, creating a sense of sameness to his phrasing.

For all the excitement about Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez-Ochoa, her “Guernica” (premiering Tuesday in Program C), inspired by Pablo Picasso’s anti-war mural, was a throwback to myriad European black-and-red ballets of a few decades ago that tried to make up in dramatic décor (Nichols) and music (Michel Banabila, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead) what they lacked in choreographic imagination.

Lopez-Ochoa failed to translate Picasso’s frozen horror into movement when she turned to diluted flamenco forms: a circle of dancers as the public, and, as Spain, a man and woman in horns, with coiling tendril arms and percussive feet. Picasso’s painting captures fractured multiplicity of space and time, the horror of war, and the human capacity to know the world in four dimensions. This complexity never penetrated Ochoa’s dance structures.

On Tuesday’s Program C, Stanton Welch turned in a pleasing but too literal treatment of Bach’s Violin Concerti in A Minor and E Major in “Bespoke,” revealing just how revolutionary Paul Taylor’s “Esplanade” was back in 1975, and Thursday’s Program D premiered Arthur Pita’s “Bjork Ballet,” set to music by the Icelandic singer-songwriter.

San Francisco Ballet Unbound C and D
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: April 27 through May 5
Tickets: $20 to $275
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org/unbound
Program C: 8 p.m. April 27, 7:30 p.m. May 2, 2 p.m. May 5
Program D: 2 p.m. April 28, 7:30 p.m. May 1, 8 p.m. May 5

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