Unbound Festival Roundup at San Francisco Ballet

Björk Ballet

From the end of April to beginning of May 2018, we welcomed the Unbound Festival at San Francisco Ballet. In addition to 12 brand new ballets by 12 different choreographers, the festival was also jam packed with ballet-related content:  there were movies, podcasts, meet ups, and even a symposium entitled Boundless: A Symposium on Ballet’s Future. As you can probably imagine, it was impossible to catch up with every event, but I did manage to watch all the ballets and attend a few of the symposium sessions, which I am recapping in these season highlights:

The Unbound Ballets…

The works were divided into four programmes: Unbound A, B, C and D, each featuring 3 ballets. Given the excellent line-up of choreographers, my expectations were high to begin with. Naturally, one cannot expect to love all 12 pieces equally and, inevitably, there were ballets that I enjoyed much more than others, but overall I would say that in each of the four programmes, there was at least one ballet I’d like to see again. As for the MVP of the four, my nomination goes to Unbound D, a well-rounded programme with works by Edwaard Liang, Dwight Rhoden, and Arthur Pita.

San Francisco Ballet in Arthur Pita's Björk Ballet

San Francisco Ballet in Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet. Photo: © Erik Tomasson

What were the ballets about? 

One of the festival’s objectives was to celebrate San Francisco’s spirit of innovation. Plus, as Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson himself mentioned to dance writer Marina Harss during their Conversation About the Future of Ballet, the choreographers had the opportunity to do “what they wanted to do”, without any hard rules having been imposed (other than maximum number of dancers, because the company had to be split for the festival). Bearing that in mind, it did surprise me that so many choreographers chose to go with plotless contemporary / pure dance responses as departure points (for instance, David Dawson, Edwaard Liang, Stanton Welch, Alonzo King and Dwight Rhoden), rather than seize the opportunity to truly go “boundless”. Granted, many of these works incorporated some of the current trends in ballet (women partnering men and/or same sex pas de deux, topics that were also discussed in the symposium Ballet in a Globalised World), but I imagine one difficulty all choreographers may have had when creating were constraints of time and scheduling.

San Francisco Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Guernica

San Francisco Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Guernica. Photo:
© Erik Tomasson.

Alongside these abstract pieces, there were also pop ballets (by Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, and Arthur Pita), ballets that sought to deal with societal issues (Christopher Wheeldon commenting on our addiction to mobile phones, Myles Thatcher on gender), and two pieces inspired by literature and art: the excellent Snowblind by Cathy Marston (based on Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome), and Guernica (after the Pablo Picasso masterpiece), a semi-narrative, visually stunning work by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.

Which were most innovative?

Here, I would nominate Hurry Up We’re Dreaming by Justin Peck and Björk Ballet by Arthur Pita. Peck opted for a ballet in sneakers (not for the first time, I know, but it still counts) to the dreamy pop of M83, including tracks “Outro“, which also features in the opening sequence to Versailles, and “New Map“, which Peck used for a super catchy pas de deux with Gabriela González and Ulrik Birkkjaer, while Pita conjured up a pop fantasy set to the music of Björk. The result is a visually arresting piece that is quite hard to describe, but I can tell you what went through my head while watching it: a journey to the kingdom of Dorne (that is, if Dorne had palm trees made of tinsel), a fisherman’s village in a dystopian future, and a disco glam party. Using their entire allocation of dancers (dividing the company into four groups means no single choreographer could deploy the full corps de ballet) was a wise move by both Pita and Peck, meaning they could create “wow!” moments such as the long series of échappés during the “Hyperballad” section in Björk Ballet, with Peck also betting on group energy at various points.

San Francisco Ballet in Justin Peck’s "Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”

San Francisco Ballet in Justin Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” – Photo: © Erik Tomasson

The unexpected hit…

… for me was Let’s Begin at the End, by Dwight Rhoden. Complexions Contemporary Ballet‘s Rhoden is a choreographer new to me, so I approached this ballet with no pre-conception or anticipation. I thought the result was elegant and well-structured, and very much enjoyed the virtuoso dancing (Angelo Greco, LIT!). Let’s Begin at the End was also particularly effective in using just 14 dancers as a full corps de ballet, and had the bonus of a memorable score that mixed a bit of Bach (not my fave composer, but ok here), Philip Glass and, Michael Nyman, whose music always brings a sense of scale to ballets.

If I were planning next season…

… which would I have picked? I confess I was disappointed to read that none of the three aforementioned ballets are being revived in 2019, as they would have been in my shortlist. Here’s my ideal “pick and mix” Unbound bill: Cathy Marston’s Snowblind (which is coming back) or Lopez-Ochoa’s Guernica as the dramatic hearts, bookended by Let’s Begin at the End (such a great name for an opening piece!) and Pita’s Björk Ballet to close.

San Francisco Ballet in Marston's Snowblind.

San Francisco Ballet in Marston’s Snowblind. Photo: © Erik Tomasson

To learn more:

During Unbound season, the excellent podcast Conversations on Dance came to San Francisco and recorded a series of interviews with the dancers and choreographers. Here are some of our favourite downloads (click on the link to listen):

  1. Annabelle Lopez-Ochoa
  2. Justin Peck
  3. Sofiane Sylve 

PS: The festival ended on a bittersweet note with the departure of Masha Kochetkova, who was brilliant as a modern pixie fairy in Björk Ballet and alongside Sofiane Sylve in Dawson’s Anima Animus. She is going to be greatly missed here in San Francisco (especially when Piano Concerto is back next season). I have been watching the company more consistently over the last two seasons, as I moved here one year ago, and she has been a constant joy to watch and a great loss to the SFB roster. Since leaving the company, she has been doing the gala rounds and we cannot wait to see where she settles next.

Maria Kochetkova in Pita's Björk Ballet.

Maria Kochetkova in Pita’s Björk Ballet. Photo: © Erik Tomasson

Likes ballets that taste like 85% cocoa: pure, extra bitter, dark or intense. Her favorites are La Sylphide, Manon, Mayerling, Ondine, Symphonic Variations and McGregor's Chroma. Her favorite Ratmansky ballets are: The Little Humpbacked Horse, Russian Seasons, Cinderella and The Shostakovich Trilogy. She is always ready to chase new Ratmanskys around the globe. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, translating and interpreting.

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