The final program of San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound: A Festival of New Work opened on Thursday, presenting choreographic pieces by Edwaard Liang, Arthur Pita and Dwight Rhoden, rounding off what has been an exciting journey into the world of new ballet choreography. Four of the 12 ballets presented over the three-week festival will be reprised during the company’s 2019 season. More of them may be destined to join the company repertory, depending on how Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson feels the ballets work with the company’s current repertory and with the dancers.

San Francisco Ballet in Pita's Björk Ballet
© Erik Tomasson

Any company that can dance Forsythe and Balanchine has the technical chops for anything and most of the pieces were choreographed at a similarly demanding level, with speed, precision and immaculate timing as necessities. But what this festival revealed clearly was the theatrical potential of the dancers, for the ballets required a wide and complex range of expressions, from humor to sorrow, from lightness to drama, and a thousand shades between.

Arthur Pita’s ballet was unique in its combination of fantasy, exoticism and a rollicking zany lightness. Tinsel and glitter teemed. When the curtain rose to a sustained chord of music, the stage was dark, the dancers crouching on the floor. Rows of tree-like wands of different sizes – one, two and three foot tall – their grouped sparkling acetate strands bursting upward, were suspended from the flies in graduated lines. Wei Wang entered in baggy black pants, his face obscured by a quizzical white mask like a Kabuki character. As he ended his solo the trees dropped with a loud clack to the floor, surprisingly holding their upright position. Maria Kochetkova leapt onstage, costumed as a heap of tinsel, and scurried off to reappear later as a psychedelic butterfly. Dores André and Luke Ingham performed a duet downstage center, mostly on their knees, their movements mirroring each other. On the other side of the ensemble Sarah van Patten and Ulrik Birkkjaer smooched.

Lot of smooching in general. Hooray! The ensemble appeared in various mad costumes – harem pants, or garbed in black and silver, hands white gloved. A platform carried by exotically garbed dancers floated by with Kotchekova dancing atop in her Tinkerbell costume. Wang fished off the corner of the stage and pulled in another, this time smiling, mask. Everyone bounced across the stage in travelling first position sautés. And in the background, tying everything together, was the magic-inducing voice of Björk. Every moment was a surprise. And fun fun fun.

Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Liang's The Infinite Ocean
© Erik Tomasson

Edwaard Liang’s opening ballet, The Infinite Ocean, was inspired by a dying friend’s final promise to meet on the other side. Like Pita’s, the ballet conjured up a fantastical world, but one with a decidedly darker quality. The stage was set with a white disc on a dusky red background on the upstage scrim. The floor of the stage curved up the last quarter of the stage, allowing dancers to appear and disappear behind its upstage edge. The dancers were paired in six couples, everyone dressed in a glittering lacy leotard inscribed with white shapes like the foam at the edge of a wave. The synchronous duets were based on the embrace, with the couples wrapping each other, and gravitating in and out of clusters in which the entire ensemble was tightly configured. Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets danced an Adagio winding in and out of each other’s embrace. Each also shrank from the other.

Six men jumped and turned to surging music, a woman danced solo, but soon replaced by a tumultuous trio bordering on the reckless. Two men became four men. Max Cauthorn and Lauren Strongin danced a joyously seductive duet. The dancers assembled and dispersed. Yuan Yuan Tan appeared isolated from the group and then was joined with Vitor Luiz in a duet that displayed grief as well as connection. Ultimately, the dancers dropped over the edge of the raised stage. Yuan Yuan, the last dancer, looked back at the audience, then toppled back over the edge.

The original composition by Oliver Davis was oceanic in feel, with violin played by Heeguen Song. The piece’s seriousness, with restless interactions and unresolved connections, never sank into loneliness or despair, but conveyed a grander sense of purpose as if the struggle of living was enough in itself, carrying a beauty outside of meaning.

Esteban Hernandez in Rhoden's Let's Begin at the End
© Erik Tomasson

The third ballet of the evening was Dwight Rhoden’s Let’s Begin at the End, set to the music of Bach, Philip Glass and Michael Nyman. Seven couple dance in front of a wall of doors, through which each sank back and reentered. Angelo Greco danced a cappella, later partnering Frances Chung. Their dancing was confronted by a third figure, Esteban Hernandez, swooping, athletic and persistent. The choreography was distinguished by off kilter moves, spinning promenades in arabesque and consistent drive.