San Francisco Ballet’s Limpid Sophistication Shines in ‘Unbound’

Posted April 27, 2018 9:06 p.m. EDT

SAN FRANCISCO — Officially, the title “Unbound” applied to the 12 new ballets that had their premieres over four evenings with San Francisco Ballet, commissioned from 12 choreographers. But the word summed up the company’s dancers even more. Under the artistic direction of Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco has long been among the world’s most elegant and refined companies — but sometimes in past seasons it has seemed too polite, demure, withheld. Not so with “Unbound.”

Individual dancers have been outstanding; so has the larger ensemble. Though from a wide variety of backgrounds, the dancers share the same virtues of intensely elegant clarity, high refinement and fervent commitment. New York has two influential ballet companies, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, to both of which San Francisco Ballet owes debts. (Tomasson created roles for both George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins as a City Ballet principal, and his company’s repertory contains works created for both New York companies.) But the limpid sophistication of the San Francisco style is apart from either.

Eight of the 12 commissions turned out to be vividly distinct examples of dance theater. Cathy Marston’s “Snowblind” retells the bleak tale of Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome”: the younger husband, the older wife, the external snowscape and human society. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Guernica” plunges into the erotic bullfighting of Picasso. Arthur Pita’s “Björk Ballet” created a series of changing landscapes in response to the music of Björk.

David Dawson’s “Anima Animus,” to an Ezio Bosso score, set dancers spinning and sweeping expansively in space amid beautiful, high, white lighting designed by James F. Ingalls. Trey McIntyre’s “Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem” was a study in social and private eccentricity to music by Chris Garneau — ending in two solos for a man and a stool. The three ballets of the impressive opening Program A — Alonzo King’s “The Collective Agreement,” Christopher Wheeldon’s “Bound To” and Justin Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” — were each firm explorations of different social units.

True, I’m eager to revisit only two of these — “Your Flesh Shall Be” and “Hurry Up” — but these eight were so striking, so fully developed along their own lines, that the four evenings all felt substantial. As for the four I found less individual — Edwaard Liang’s “The Infinite Ocean,” Dwight Rhoden’s “Let’s Begin at the End,” Myles Thatcher’s “Otherness” and Stanton Welch’s “Bespoke” — you could easily see why each had its admirers. And “Bespoke” did more than any other ballet of the season to showcase the really remarkable beauties of the company’s classical style.

McIntyre’s “Your Flesh Shall Be” and Pita’s “Björk Ballet” are both to recorded music — and both amazingly odd. Because McIntyre’s subject is often the vulnerability and private impulses of young adults, his ballets can come close to sentimentality; what fends that off is the peculiarity of the ardently human behavior he dramatizes. Each Garneau song here features a different group of young people, all outgoing and endearingly raw (with choreographic phrasing of wonderful dynamics), until it ends with the two solos for Benjamin Freemantle, who not only dances with a four-legged stool but at one point buries his face into it as if into a mask. The quality of private fantasy here is as disconcerting as it is touching.

Pita’s “Björk Ballet,” the festival’s largest-scale work in terms of both dancers onstage and scenic properties, includes an overhead display of 40 silver tall grasses, a masked fisherman, an erotic male-female couple (embraces, kisses, physical proximity) and large groups that conjure various kinds of exotica. Near the piece’s start, the 40 grasses all fall plop! onto the stage, from which point it’s clear we’re in an entirely unfamiliar stage world. It’s kitsch, camp, weird — so outlandishly so that it stays entertaining. But it’s also trivial and lacking in any dance composition of note.

The Bosso score for Dawson’s “Anima Animus” is a Romantic and expansive form of minimalism: Dawson responds to this with a limited vocabulary of space-devouring steps, with dancers (led by Maria Kochetkova and Sofiane Sylve) wheeling like large birds borne by currents of wind. The visual beauty is an important achievement. (Ingalls lit all 12 ballets; “Anima” is his most hauntingly lovely work.) On the negative side, the vocabulary, over a long period, generates a certain ennui.

The central story of Marston’s “Snowblind” is a consciously overwrought but firmly told rendition of adulterous love and wifely jealousy, set amid a snowscape in which the corps de ballet move slowly, more snowdrift than snowflakes. In Lopez-Ochoa’s “Guernica,” the space is presented as a bullfighting ring, with pairings and groups that refer to a range of Picasso ideas: all strongly stated, theatrically imposing, but ultimately hollow, without telling detail.

I object to the over-partnering and repeated groin-displaying configurations of Liang’s “The Infinite Ocean,” with body language often far bigger than its Oliver Davis score. And a similarly drastic overemphasis soon proves tiresome in Rhoden’s “Let’s Begin at the End,” whose choreography treats its collage of music by Bach, Philip Glass and Michael Nyman as if those scores were interchangeable.

Far better and more musically responsive (to Bach violin concertos) is Welch’s neoclassical “Bespoke,” with Frances Chung and Angelo Greco paragons of style; but several exaggerated lifts mar the elegance, as do features that tip classical style into mannerism. Thatcher’s “Otherness” was the festival’s most inept offering, a twee, schematic study of opposite teams finding they have things in common with no interesting steps or structures to enliven the message.

Did the festival show any broader trends? Yes. Female choreographers, so often overlooked in 21st-century ballet, are holding their own. Choreography for same-sex couples is now a well-established ingredient; sometimes it looks like tokenism, just as male-female couples can also look clichéd in lesser hands. And a high proportion of ballets are now costumed with bare legs, at the risk of knees and musculature distracting attention from overall line.

If you read the festival program, you learned much more — sometimes perplexingly — about each choreographer’s intended subject matter (life, death, society and so on). But none of these 12 needed explanations. The dances were the real statements.