Unbound: A Festival of New Work opened this past week, realizing Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s ambition to present a series of new ballets by 12 international choreographers developed specifically for San Francisco Ballet. Tomasson hopes to map out current directions in ballet and make the company a locus of experimentation and creativity. It’s a bold move for a company whose size and affiliations demand repertory, but Unbound’s Program A showed how this excellent professional company thrives on the challenge of new work.

Dores André and Benjamin Freemantle in Wheeldon's <i>Bound To</i> © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Benjamin Freemantle in Wheeldon's Bound To
© Erik Tomasson

The opening program presented work by Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck and San Francisco–based Alonzo King. King’s The Collective Agreement opened the evening and was set to music by Jason Moran. The ballet began with several rectangular grids of deep gold lights suspended from the flies over a darkened stage. A solo dancer entered, stopping center stage to gaze as the grids turned slowly, visually diminishing into lines, and then revolving back to rectangles. He was joined by another dancer. A second couple arrived. Their dancing radiated a slinky, smoky eroticism. The duets were physically close, with body draped over body, or cupped one against another.

The lead couples, Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets and Jahna Frantziskonis and Joseph Warton, contrasted each other, not only in physical build but in attack. Over time the stage flooded with dancers. Occasionally one separated from the line of shifting corps: James Sofranko was on fire in a percussive solo. At other times, a dancer stood simply observing the other dancers.

Abstract and demanding, King’s choreography partakes of contemporary ballet with an expanded movement vocabulary that emphasizes the pull of gravity, includes twists in the torso reminiscent of modern dance or jazz, and an overall structure that shifts and changes, requiring individual and asynchronous combinations. What was interesting was seeing it performed by dancers other than King’s own Lines Ballet, demonstrating that King’s choreography looks great in any ballet context.

Sofiane Sylve in King's <i>The Collective Agreement</i> © Erik Tomasson
Sofiane Sylve in King's The Collective Agreement
© Erik Tomasson
The second ballet, Bound To, showed – again – what a terrific narrative choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is. The ballet’s story was delivered effortlessly, with crystalline clarity, though lacking a traditional plot.

Before the ballet began, symbols and letters were projected on a scrim at the front of the stage, eventually flooding the surface with glowing symbols. With the first chords of Keaton Henson’s music, dancers clustered on the other side of the scrim, holding brightly lit cell phones. Their poses, faces turned downward, sight transfixed, were all too familiar. As the scrim rose, the ten dancers huddled in a closer knot. As they mingled and seethed, no one looked at anyone else. Finally, a single dancer thrust upward out of the circle, somehow breaking free of her device’s electronic grip. Across the geometric flats that circled the stage paraded a brief message: “Open your eyes.” Throughout the ballet, projections acted as chapter headings to the story being told.

The ensemble disappeared, leaving Dores André and Benjamin Freemantle in a duet, André struggling to lure Freemantle’s attention away from his phone. Silhouettes flashed across the wall. 

Angelo Greco was dazzlingly athletic in the solo “Wavelength.” And two intimate quartets, female and male, followed, “Remember when we used to talk” and “Remember when we used to play.” An exquisitely lyrical duet by Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno preceded the final solo by Lonnie Weeks.

It’s clear Wheeldon knows these dancers, for he was able to choreograph Tan in a duet that spun her elegance into adolescent awkwardness, subsuming her long-legged line into the tender grace of a colt unsteady on its legs. Di Lanno was right there, on point in this difficult but heart-rending pas de deux, titled “Take a Deep Breath.”

San Francisco Ballet in Peck's <i>Hurry Up, We're Dreaming</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Peck's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
© Erik Tomasson

The evening closed with Justin Peck’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Set to songs from the eponymous album by electronic music band M83, the ballet was a joyous exploration of youth and athletic prowess. The dancers costumed in shiny leggings, casual tops and shorts filed on stage and into a circle, which quickly melted into a restless cycle of movement. Their combinations and formations throughout were often synchronous and geometric. The most striking feature of the dance was that everyone wore sneakers, footwear that gave even the most challenging of balletic steps a freer, looser quality, as if the dancers were about to step into flight.

Dores André and Wei Wang led the company with exuberant sureness. An especially striking duet was danced by Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham, the two dancers separating short phrases with simple walks, as if moving from one completed gymnastic effort to another while maintaining a dreamy, even aloof, lyricism. The third bravura couple was Gabriella Gonzales and Ulrik Birkkjaer.

All in all, Unbound gave us an exciting and fulfilling evening.