San Francisco Ballet
Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, Bound To, Anima Animus

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Opera House
Washington, DC

October 23, 2018

Carmel Morgan

San Francisco Ballet recently flew to the East Coast and presented six works from its much lauded Unbound festival, which took place in California in April and May of 2018. Washington, DC, was lucky to have a chance to see this stellar company performing these vibrant new works. For me, the star of the two different programs was not the choreography, which was often quite good, but the quality of the dancers, who made each work truly shine.

On opening night of Program A, soloist Benjamin Freemantle completely engaged my heart in Trey McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. Look out for Freemantle, he’s surely one to watch. He not only beautifully executed the movement, he consistently oozed emotion. The work begins with imagery of a solar eclipse projected onto a scrim at the back of the stage. Freemantle, at first alone, was pensive. He looked, reached, and perhaps bid goodbye to the miraculous sight.

The choreography includes elegant, playful, fluid moves. Against a very black backdrop, dancers, from a distance, resemble brushes making curlicues through the air. The lighting by James F. Ingalls is superb, bestowing the dancers’ flesh with glowing tones. Chris Garneau’s folksy indie pop provides the score. When the music hops, so do the dancers, lifting themselves vertically in little jumps. There’s something juvenile about the abundance of kicks and peppy leaps, but the movement mimics the Americana music. Sometimes the effect is silly and comic, yet it’s also very human. It’s easy to read the many simple gestures (a head on someone else’s shoulder, walking away then being compelled to turn back).

Benjamin Freemantle in Trey McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, photo by Erik Tomasson

Benjamin Freemantle in Trey McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, photo by Erik Tomasson

The closing of Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem again featured Freemantle alone. He wore only underwear this time and used a tiny round stool as a prop. He covered his face with it and turned around and around. His face, like the sun, disappeared. I read the program notes during intermission. I was surprised to learn that McIntyre’s grandfather, whom he did not know and who suffered from dementia late in life, served as the inspiration for the piece. Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem definitely feels wistful and reflective, and as the night wore on I decided I liked the piece more and more.

I’ve heard the second work on Program A, Christopher Wheeldon’s Bound To, described as “the cell phone ballet.” Indeed, the ballet opens with a scrim full of typed letters that eventually fall like rain. Dancers roam about staring into devices the emit light. Yes, they’re bound to their cell phones. They don’t exchange eye contact, and when they place their devices briefly on the ground, they twitch nervously like drug addicts going through withdrawal. The “screens” are like fireflies, and the dancers stretch to keep focused on them, creating interesting moments. Duets are lyrical but strained by isolation. The theme is how we’ve become glued to technology at the expense of being present in actual relationships. It’s a timely topic to which anyone can relate.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno in Christopher Wheeldon's Bound To, photo by Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno in Christopher Wheeldon’s Bound To, photo by Erik Tomasson

Wheeldon organized Bound To in a series of sections, whose titles scroll by. A section called “Remember When” harkens to a time when communication occurred face to face by necessity. Connections are tight and meaningful, as dancers put the soles of their feet together or embrace. In another section, “Take a Deep Breath,” Yuan Yuan Tan magically rolls up the body of Carlo Di Lanno. She wraps around him unassisted, and is as pliant as a contortionist or a snake. I don’t think Bound To will stand the test of time, but even it’s not bound to become a classic, it speaks well to present circumstances, and the dancers were exquisite to watch.

David Dawson’s Animus Anima ended the evening. Although the work purportedly has something to do with the female aspect of the male psyche and vice versa, I didn’t detect this. The costumes, however, striking black and white numbers by Yumiko Takeshima (a former principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet, among others, who studied at the San Francisco Ballet School), conjure opposites. Dancers display divided fronts and backs, tops and bottoms, with a narrow strip running down the center of the back like an embryonic spine. Ten dancers rush, rapidly spinning, arms and legs sharply slicing through the space. As they unspool, the dancers dash, leading with their chests, their arms raised in a “V” lagging slightly behind them. Pointe shoes click on the floor as the dancers try to keep up with the spritely music by Ezio Bosso. The relentless whizzing and whirring of bodies reminded me of swarming insects. It was difficult to absorb. The urgent music and urgent pacing left me exhausted.   

San Francisco Ballet in David Dawson's Anima Animus. photo by Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in David Dawson’s Anima Animus. photo by Erik Tomasson

When the Washington Ballet (TWB) was under the direction of Septime Webre, the company did a great job presenting lively contemporary works. Since his departure in 2016, TWB, now led by Julie Kent, is more backward looking, using Kent’s expertise to perform classic choreography by masters like Balanchine. I miss the excitement and common touch Webre delivered. San Francisco Ballet’s dose of cutting edge ballet was just what I needed to fill the void.