These are exciting times at the San Francisco Ballet. With Unbound: A Festival of New Works, artistic director Helgi Tomasson has positioned the company at the epicenter of the ballet world for 17 days, in a festival that delivers 12 new commissions by 12 of the world’s most innovative choreographers. Unbound by restrictions, they’ve been given free rein to create, implement and demonstrate to the world what contemporary ballet looks like. Hint: it looks great.

San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's Otherness
© Erik Tomasson

Saturday night’s program commenced with choreographer and company dancer Myles Thatcher’s Othernesswhich explores how we act and react in a binary world. The color schemes employed—baby blue and pink—draw attention to a longtime gender binary, but that’s not the main issue here. Indeed, the 27-year-old Thatcher offers a healthy dose of gender equality, casting the main character, the Protagonist, as a male on Saturday night (delivered with flair and finesse by Max Cauthorn) and features a female dancer in the same role in the second cast. A pas de deux on Saturday between Cauthorn and fellow lead Sean Orza, was graceful, thoughtful, and I’m fascinated to consider the implications of a female lifting her male partner.

Otherness is set to composer John Adams’ melodic Absolute Jest. Costumes and mannerisms are a breezy take on mid-20th century culture, with its coherence to established, rigid norms. Two groups occupy the stage in turns, the “pinks” and the “blues,” and the two groups do not integrate. Until they do. Then it’s disapproval, rejection, discrimination, the groups retreating deeper into their own identities. 

In addition to Sylvie Rood’s vivid pink and blue unisex swim costumes, there are matching swim caps, which, along with goggle sunglasses, will get tossed aside to reveal different hair lengths, distinct faces, individuality. Later, a moment of awareness emerges, that, under the pink and blue costumes, all are wearing the same neon yellow-green tank tops. This leads into a “we are not that different, after all” message. Which poses a conundrum: is it individuality that’s being celebrated, or sameness? And does the choreography risk being upstaged by it all?

San Francisco Ballet in Marston's Snowblind
© Erik Tomasson

Cathy Marston’s Snowblind, the evening’s second ballet, draws its story from Edith Wharton’s novella, Ethan Frome, where an ill-fated love triangle leaves its main characters grappling with love, despair and duty amid a harsh winter’s gloom. Marston is a prolific choreographer, having created more than 50 works in 10 countries, with a signature style that often draws from literature classics. From the start, Snowblind is assured. Marston has used an ensemble to depict “winter,” its swirling snow and gusts of wind. It works beautifully, the dancers’ stretched-out movements, in diaphanous attire, seem to float. 

Sarah Van Patten was terrifyingly good as Ethan Frome’s hypochondriac, clinging, commanding older wife, Zeena, her steely eyes and clenched fists speaking volumes. Mathilde Froustey was all youth and vitality, irresistible as Mattie, with Ulrik Birkkjaer a weary Ethan, convincingly torn between duty and new love.  

Music arranged by Philip Feeney, composed by Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, Arvo Pärt, brought a lush yet solemn beauty that allowed the angular, abstract movements to feel balletic and grace-laden. Memorable was a dazzling pas de deux between Ethan and Mattie. He flings her up, catches her, in a tantalizing interchange, which Zeena spies. The ending, following Mattie and Ethan’s attempt to escape their grim fate, demonstrates a fascinating interconnection between the trio, an intertwining of hands, a tug that threatens disconnection. But they remain linked, forging an uneasy equilibrium as they sink slowly to the floor. 

San Francisco Ballet in Dawson's Anima Animus
© Erik Tomasson
David Dawson’s Anima Animus was a visceral thrill from the start. I loved everything about this ballet: John Otto’s scenic design, Yumiko Takeshima’s intriguing leotard costumes, a sumptuous score by Ezio Bosso. Dawson, whose work has appeared broadly around the world—The Royal Ballet, Finnish National Ballet, Mariinsky, English National Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, among others—drew his title from Carl Jung’s concept of animus, the male aspect of the female psyche, and anima, its reverse, which we see explored in the ballet. A backdrop of white in a frame gives one the sense of a room, its walls covering the upstage wings. James F. Ingalls’ lighting seemed to emanate from the back of the set, to great effect. 

Female leads Sofiane Sylve and Maria Kochetkova dazzled with their movements, Sylve with her long, elegant lines, the petite Kochetkova with her perfect turns and leaps. In the second movement, Carlo Di Lanno, Luke Ingham, Henry Sidford and Wei Wang delivered further great dancing. Ensemble passages and solos were an equal delight, and the ballet’s thirty minutes passed in a flash. The company’s 2018-19 season has room for four of the ballets from the festival to be repeated; I’ll be crossing my fingers for this one.