Unbound A Program Notes

By Cheryl A. Ossola

Sasha De Sola // © Erik Tomasson
Alonzo king's The Collective Agreement

If there’s a movement or a texture the human body can make, Alonzo King will give it to his dancers, and this rich vocabulary shines in his first work for San Francisco Ballet. The founder and artistic director of Alonzo King LINES Ballet, King infiltrates his work with his belief that creating is an act of service. “You’re serving humanity and you want them to be well fed, so you’re thinking about how to feed the heart and the mind,” he says. “And that means ideas that are soaked in truths.”

Chat with King for a few minutes and you’ll learn that he is a philosopher who imports theories and meanings from outside of dance into his creative process. He describes ballets as “thought structures—because they’re theories, they’re theses, they’re contemplative constructions of shrunken-into-abstract-form large ideas,” he says. “You’re building a work for your fellow human beings—this whole treatise is the communication of ideas.”

Working with ideals and human interactions in mind, King explores the eternal and the transient, the spiritual and the physical, which, combined, translate into works that bear his unique stamp. For Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, what’s most striking is how King uses the classical vocabulary “in a very fluid, contemporary way,” he says. And Tomasson appreciates King’s music choices, which he says are always interesting.

King’s choice of music for his new ballet is an original score by jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran. “His music really moves me,” King says. “My whole life I wanted a composer who was my guy or my gal, a composer who makes beautiful music, who gets me and I get them.” Moran and King have worked together four or five times, King says, and what he asked of the composer this time was no small feat: “I would like you to create some music that’s going to be played long after you and I are dead.” He explains that the music “couldn’t just be symphonic; it had to have room for a dialogue between the movement and the sound. I wanted contrast. I wanted surprise, and I wanted the presence of the heart.”

Creating, for King, is all about relationships and interactions—and that’s where the heart comes in, in both music and movement. For example, a sound like a whip cracking punctuates the score at times. King calls these sounds “interruptions” and, like any interruption, he had to decide whether to accept the disruptions without comment or respond to them. “That’s one of the choices you have when you’re in a dialogue, and it’s fun to make that choice,” King says. “If I’m the dancer, when do I become the dominant voice and when does the music become the dominant voice? We’re in a conversation.”

The idea of conversation becomes particularly visible during an ensemble section in which the dancers watch one another do short solos; there’s an air of both community and competition. Intense, dynamic movement might stop abruptly, leaving the dancer unmoving but still dynamic—perhaps listening, or absorbing energy from the group. The idea of duality—a conversation, a pas de deux—is visible everywhere, particularly in the ballet’s beginning, two sequential duets of contrasting tones. The first duet, created on Principal Dancers Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets, is a struggle, with counterbalances and hyperextensions, a vocabulary of pushing and pulling and manipulation. The second, created on Soloist Jahna Frantziskonis and Corps de Ballet member Joseph Warton, conveys an air of serenity but lacks any hint of acquiescence. In rehearsing a long, partnered slide, King tells Frantziskonis that the move “has to be like a cutting machine, a Cuisinart; it can’t be flowery. You’re showing your power. I don’t want to see a helpless female.”

Opening a ballet with back-to-back duets is not a common structure, and King knows it. “I think it’s important to be different,” he says. “And I think that being different often means being yourself. You want to play with the possibilities.” By beginning with “this negotiation of tension and of will and surrender” in the first duet, then moving to a more lyrical style, he’s telling a story—“here, there is tension; here, there is more ease,” he says about the duets. “What do you have? Two different tones. We’re always talking about relationships. We’re in a pas de deux—you, me, the music, the composer.”

Alonzo King rehearsing his The Collective Agreement // © Erik Tomasson

For King, duality also manifests as two ideals, the romantic and the classical, which he says coexist in any work of art. The romantic ideal expresses the notion that “what I feel is so deep and personal that it makes a universal statement,” he says. The classical ideal, ruled by reason, says the individual doesn’t matter. The classical “is about symmetry,” King says. “It is about the community; it is about balance; it is about what is best for all.” In art, how those ideals are balanced define the work and the artists. “We’re talking about humans, the choices that we make, put into movement form.”

Movement, in King’s work, must be thick, by which he means it should have fullness and resistance. As a dancer, “you’re leaving an impression in space; you’re partnering space,” he says. “You take up space; that’s a huge one—presence. You’re dancing your consciousness. You’re dancing who you are.” He’s talking about the movement’s full potential, about clarity, about intent. “It can’t be tentative,” he says. “What am I saying? That you’re connected to the ideas [behind the steps].” A movement might be sharp and fast, but it must still be full. “We accent; we don’t abbreviate,” he tells the dancers. When they haven’t quite grasped what he wants, he says, “You’re doing arms and it has to be body.” When they get it: “You’re carving space; you’re sculpting. You’re making it more legible.”

In King’s perspective, in creating a ballet “we’re all building a house together,” he says. “So let’s look at what we can bring, and let’s look at what’s needed.” To do that, it’s essential to experiment, to play. “You want to use the imagination in different ways,” he says. He tells dancers to visualize layers of varying movement qualities—from the feet to the knee, the knee to the hip, and so on. “Those levels could be color, they could be temperature, they could be elements—fire, water, air, ether,” he says. “They’re things to explore. These are devices of thought to get [the dancers] to move in certain ways, and respond, and more importantly, to have heightened awareness.” That means tuning in to the emotions that arise in doing the movement. “With every physical shape there’s a concomitant psychological response,” he says. “Anything you do affects your psyche, so when the dancers are really into it, they’re listening.”

In that state of heightened awareness, “we’re helping each other to get somewhere that we couldn’t alone,” King says. “And what a way to be in the world.”

Christopher Wheeldon's Bound To©

The curtain rises on Christopher Wheeldon’s new ballet, Bound To©, to reveal the dancers mesmerized by their cellphones. For viewers the moment of recognition is instantaneous—we are bound to technology. In this ballet, Wheeldon comments on what happens to us when we’re tucked behind our screens. “It’s a false sense of safety because you’re not actually with someone; the screen is like a shield,” he says. When we let the world rush by unnoticed, “we’re not seeing the beauty in life.” On the flip side, he’s addressing what we can achieve when we’re together—when we see, acknowledge, and interact without any screens to shield us.

Wheeldon recognizes that he is as bound to technology as anyone else. “I read a really interesting article in The Atlantic about how teenage culture is changing,” he says, adding that when he was a kid, “you couldn’t wait to get out of the house to meet your friends and socialize.” No more. Last year, on vacation, he saw kids and their parents hunkered down with cell phones or iPads instead of talking to each other, and he realized that he wanted to make a ballet about “this lack of connectivity, the way that technology is shifting our instincts for community and social interaction,” he says. “It’s not like we’re at a point where we’re not relating to one another at all, but I think it’s definitely heading in a bit of a scary direction.”

To help him convey his ideas, Wheeldon chose music by British composer Keaton Henson. They had worked together on a project for Ballet Boyz, which paired choreographers and composers in a 14-day creative process. Wheeldon says Henson’s music has a “grounded, real, human aspect—I love that in his music there’s always a child laughing, or the birds, or traffic.” In the ballet, these sounds amplify the idea that while we’re busy texting or scrolling through social media pages, the sights and sounds of daily life are going on—and we don’t notice.

Christopher Wheeldon rehearsing his Bound To© with Sasha De Sola and Yuan Yuan Tan // © Erik Tomasson

The phones come and go in Bound To©, giving the ballet something of a narrative at times; the rest of the time, they’re metaphorical. At first, the phones dominate. Later, right before a pas de deux made on Principal Dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno, one of the dancers snatches Tan’s phone from her hand. “It’s like when you leave your cell phone somewhere and you don’t have it for 24 hours, and you go, ‘Oh, I remember this.’ It’s kind of a relief, in a way,” says Wheeldon. In the pas de deux, the dancers reconnect, hardly separating, as if they need to touch each other in as many ways as possible. “It’s the idea of literal human connection, the need for the warmth of skin and not just the icy-cold blue of a screen,” Wheeldon says. In rehearsals, he tells Tan and Di Lanno to “keep the energy easy so it’s intimate and placed. It’s at its best when it’s contained. You represent how much of the natural beauty we miss when we’re texting—all the beauty that’s been created for us to enjoy.”

In contrast, a dance for four women is filled with embraces, dependence, the love and longing of friendship. “If there’s going to be a subtitle about this dance,” Wheeldon tells the women, “it would be ‘Remember when we used to talk?’” Choreographing a port de bras—arms lifting and opening, the back arching—which the dancers do twice in succession, he says, “The first one is a reminder, and the second one is a full conversation.”

Much of the movement in Bound To© features resistance, groundedness, or manipulation of the body (one’s own or others’), all of which seem to represent both the theme and a visual aesthetic. The women do not wear pointe shoes. “There’s something free about the movement of the shoe,” Wheeldon says, “of the toes on pointe, but”—he hesitates for fear of being overly literal—“[the ballet addresses] a bit of a heavy subject, so the idea of weight in movement makes sense. The pointe shoe is something very special and quite inhuman, in a way. You put a woman in a pointe shoe and her physicality changes. That’s one of the things that’s so appealing and beautiful about ballet—they’re like gods up there. And I didn’t want this to be about gods; I wanted it to be about people.”

SF Ballet rehearsing Wheeldon's Bound To©// Erik Tomasson

And he wants it to be about people who reveal their struggles and their humanity. Rehearsing a solo with dancer Lonnie Weeks, who is hunched on the floor, Wheeldon asks for more vulnerability: “Make it more protected, not just the arm over the head.” Weeks pulls his legs in, deepens his posture. Later, Wheeldon wants more risk: “After you break and fall forward, can you be a little bit braver about where you put your foot?” As Weeks whirls through an insanely fast sequence of chaînés (a series of turns on two feet), Wheeldon calls, “It should be manic—you should be busting out about now.” Imagery helps the dancers pinpoint the feeling of a moment or step. When the other dancers hold Weeks upside down, his body arched, Wheeldon says, referring to Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, “It’s quite Gates of Hell.” To the quartet in a men’s dance, he says, “Make sure there’s a lot of breath through the body.”

Wheeldon’s people live in a world created by scenic and costume designer Jean-Marc Puissant, who has worked on many Wheeldon productions at The Royal Ballet and elsewhere. “He’s so willing to dare,” says the choreographer. “He doesn’t ever go for the obvious, and he often pushes me to work that way with him. It’s not always obvious to the audience what’s going into his work, and I enjoy that a lot. And I think for this piece it’ll be useful, because it marries two worlds. It opens with quite a literal statement about where we are and what we’re doing. By the same token, they’re dancing, so then it instantly becomes something a bit more poetic.”

As a choreographer, Wheeldon says he feels “like I’m in a constant state of evolution.” His work on Broadway and with contemporary companies like Ballet Boyz is part of that evolution, as is day-to-day life. “I’m very much a person who tries to live in the moment, so what I’m reading or listening to at this moment in time often ends up partly informing what I’m doing,” he says. “I saw the movie Detroit the other night, which was so hard to watch, but such a reflection, especially now, of the times we live in and the times we come from and how little we’ve learned.”

Enter the temptations and pressures of social media, inundating us with reminders of what Wheeldon calls this “very weird world we live in now.” Choreographing is, for him, a way to put his mind and energy into something productive. “One of the joys of being immersed in making a new work,” he says, “is that you really are immersed in it.”

Justin Peck's Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

In Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, choreographer Justin Peck takes us on a life-cycle journey of dream states. Peck’s second work for San Francisco Ballet is set to songs by electronic band M83, which, the choreographer says, are about “how we dream as children, how we dream as young, coming-of-age adults, and how we dream as fully matured adults. I thought that would be an interesting thing to explore through dance.”

The ballet has roots in San Francisco as well as in the music. Peck listened to M83’s album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming while he was making In the Countenance of Kings for SF Ballet in 2015. “I would take these long walks around San Francisco, and it became this kind of soundtrack to my experience there,” he says. “I felt that the music could evoke a lot of choreographic thought within me, and a lot of that thought incorporated the dancers I was working with at that time.”

Though the music seemed like the right choice, Peck says he was as scared by it as he was excited. “I’ve never done anything this far along the spectrum of popular music.” When he does use popular music, he chooses songs for their complexity and originality, plus the personal meaning they hold for him. The connection to this music is certainly there, rooted in his San Francisco meanderings, but he also likes the soundscape quality of some of the songs—street sounds, voices—which he feels adds depth.

Peck links those songs with a key aspect of the ballet’s structure: walking transitions that he calls the “glue that bonds the world of this ballet together.” Transitions, in general, are important to Peck, within choreography as well as between music movements. “When something becomes too static, it loses my interest. I am more interested in how dancers move into a position and how they move out of a position than in making this ‘picture moment,’ which I find to be less dynamic.” In Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, geometric shapes materialize from movement that seems random or chaotic at first. And when the dancers get where they’re going, they don’t stay long. Patterns shift, disappear, reappear in this constantly changing world.

SF Ballet rehearsing Peck's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming // © Erik Tomasson

Along with providing a bridge from song to song, these transitions—moments of quiet broken only by the sound of the dancers’ feet—serve a thematic purpose. Peck wanted to create “a group of spirits or energies,” he says, and to explore “how they influence each other and connect with each other, and how one thing leads to something else. Sometimes it’s by chance and sometimes it’s deliberate.” He shows us those connections through both patterns and movement quality. For example, in one walking transition, dubbed the “commuter” section, he asks for more urgency. “Think about being in slightly fast forward,” he says to the dancers. Then, to two women who peel off to follow one of the men: “Feel his gravity pulling you.”

There’s an expansiveness to this ballet, and it’s visible not only in the space-eating patterns—“occupy space,” Peck tells the dancers—and the shifting moods, but also in the movement quality. This is due in part to the dancers’ footwear—sneakers. “In a practical sense, sneakers create a different posture and approach to dance,” says Peck, who created a “sneaker ballet,” The Times Are Racing, for New York City Ballet in 2017. “That’s one thing I noticed when I first started to explore choreography in sneakers—that it’s a different type of platform for dancers to express themselves. They relax a little bit, and the foundation is less precarious than the ballet shoe and the pointe shoe, so I think it allows them to take greater risks.” In this ballet, the dancers’ bodies seem fluid, with infinite freedom and spaciousness, as if 110-degree heat had loosened their joints.

The movement is both grounded and buoyant, the result of that looseness. And there’s at least one fluid, jazzy moment when you could mentally swap in Fred Astaire; all that’s needed is a pair of tap shoes. Moves like these reveal Peck’s origins as a tap dancer. “I love that style,” he says. “There’s definitely a quickness and a lightness and a meticulous timing to some of the movement [in this ballet] that’s inspired by the dancing of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, tap and soft shoe. I think that early training in tap dance really influenced my musicality as a choreographer.”

Along with the style, there’s a feeling of unabated joy, of “Hey, I can do that.” In the big ensemble section where the “Fred Astaire” movement happens, Principal Dancer Joseph Walsh bounds in, his movements exuberant, fast, athletic. He joins the men, first one, then another, copying them move for move with a smile that tells us this imitation is a game. The moment echoes an earlier section set to “Raconte-moi une histoire,” which includes a child’s voice. Dancers congregate and disperse, seemingly at a playground, displaying both the abandon of childhood and a pronounced sense of community.

Justin Peck and SF Ballet rehearsing his Hurry Up, We're Dreaming // © Erik Tomasson

Community is a recurring theme in Peck’s work, and as large as it looms in this ballet, it’s secondary to what Peck calls “the real heart of the ballet”—the two duets. “I was exploring the range of human relationships, trying to expose certain complexities that we experience when we interact, especially in intimate ways,” he says. Each duet has discrete choreography, of course, but even more important is the body language. In “Wait,” created on Principal Dancers Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham, “if you look closely, Sarah hardly ever looks at or acknowledges Luke,” says Peck. Their movement is dreamy, buoyant, floaty, punctuated by sharpness. A simple yet beautiful moment illustrates their disconnect—she pivots and he circles backward with her, matching her open arms without touching her. In contrast, in “Splendor,” created on Walsh and Principal Dancer Dores André, “they’re acknowledging each other,” Peck says. “They’re interacting with each other in a much more symbiotic and balanced way.” They circle, fold, spring, separate to move in unison, then reunite. Illustrating the intensity of their bond, she kneels and holds his hand to her cheek.

Peck is an in-demand choreographer, but he’s still dancing as a soloist at New York City Ballet, and that shows in his tendency to demonstrate a step or a sequence by dancing it full-out. Often, he teaches the rough form of a sequence to everyone, then gives the steps to one dancer, adds another one or six, and then refines it by adding more steps or complexity. He seems to know what he wants, always, even if the details are yet to come.

What’s never apparent, though, is how Peck feels before he starts a new ballet. “It’s always a little bit scary—the few days leading up to the first day I’m incredibly anxious,” he says. But this time, “once we got into the studio and started working, it just sort of flowed.” Think of Astaire’s ease, his energized fluidity, and you’ll know exactly what Peck means.