Unbound B Program Notes

By Cheryl A. Ossola

SF Ballet rehearsing Thatcher's Otherness // © Erik Tomasson
Myles Thatcher's  Otherness

In his fourth work for San Francisco Ballet, Myles Thatcher takes on the topic of humanity, exploring it in terms of binaries, or a black-and-white way of thinking. When do labels mask the individual? When do we retreat behind the comfort of a limited view? By using humor, and by setting the ballet to John Adams’ energetic and playful Absolute Jest, Thatcher makes a point about rigid societal thinking in a way that’s true to his temperament—thoughtful, sensitive, and kind.

Thatcher had planned to make a ballet about binaries someday, but it wasn’t until he heard Absolute Jest that he knew the time had come. “There’s really a lot of emotion in this score,” he says. Riffing on the term “binary,” Thatcher wrote down pairs of words to serve as conceptual guides: simple and complex, organized and disorganized, order and chaos, ignorance and knowledge, artificial and authentic. People use labels “because that’s how we see danger, and that’s how we survive,” he says. “And there’s something really beautiful about that; it’s how we connect to like-minded people. But at the same time, it can prevent us from seeing the humanity in each other. And it can be a great excuse for evil.”

It takes choreographic maturity to tackle a subject of this complexity, and 27-year-old Thatcher has it. “You can see there is experience, there is maturity, a different approach,” says Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson. Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West echoes Tomasson’s sentiment in terms of Thatcher’s music choice. Absolute Jest “is not an easy piece to conceptualize,” he says. “John’s music is always hard. I really like what Myles was doing with it [in rehearsals].”

Adams wrote Absolute Jest after hearing Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. “I heard how one composer, Stravinsky, could take material and the vitality of another composer—in that case, it was the Italian baroque composer Pergolesi—and weave it into his own [. . .] musical language,” Adams says in a SF Symphony video. For Absolute Jest, he turned to the scherzo sections of Beethoven’s late string quartets. A scherzo, from the Italian word meaning “joke,” is light and playful—but Adams, in titling his piece, was thinking of the Latin gesta, meaning “doings, deeds, exploits,” he says. “I like to think of ‘jest’ as indicating an exercising of one’s wit by means of imagination and invention.”

Thatcher heard a narrative in Adams’ score, so he invented a Protagonist, who challenges the status quo, and two hyper-regimented groups, who can’t tolerate the thought of any deviation. His characters hide behind comfortable definitions of themselves—and thus fail to see one another’s individuality. “I like the idea that John Adams took these traditional Beethoven themes and showed them to us in a different way; that’s what I ended up doing with these traditional binaries and gender roles,” Thatcher says. “I’m taking these things that we think we know and twisting them so they’re just a little bit off. That’s definitely what I experienced listening to that music—it’s like a circus on crack.”

Listening to the music, Thatcher imagined “this weird pink-and-blue world—Wes Anderson, kind of 1950s-esque, because that’s when we really started gendering colors.” The color scheme (skewed from the traditional girl-and-boy shades) makes the point about gender binaries, while the uniform costumes, with swim-style caps and glasses, obscure gender. For Thatcher, the two groups represent left brain/right brain people, not feminine and masculine. “That’s why I wanted both genders in each group, and to cover their hair,” he says. “I wanted to take gender out of it in order to be able to talk about it.” The glasses mask more than gender—wearing them, the people in Thatcher’s weird world can hide their feelings, and they can’t see others as they really are.

Another way he strips away humanity, says Thatcher, is through the oddness of his characters. Their affectations are a form of artificiality, “like when you see people who are overly masculine or feminine because they feel like they have to go into that role,” he says. Each group has a distinctive, quirky movement style, one (Team Blue) modeled on a synchronized swimming team and the other (Team Pink) on “1950s swing dancing, rugby-esque circus clowns,” Thatcher says. The absurdity generates poignancy, via slips in the artifice that reveal the characters’ humanity. Because they are funny, “there’s a Dr. Seuss-y element to this,” Thatcher says, which helps him to forgive his characters for their intolerance.

SF Ballet rehearsing Thatcher's Otherness // © Erik Tomasson


The groups’ differences are amplified by the set design, which gives each a separate doorway for entrances and exits. “I wanted it to feel like the stage was the outdoor field at recess, a shared space where they have to pass by each other, but they rarely relax about it,” says Thatcher. And doors suggest closets and today’s bathroom law wars, the idea of being forbidden to enter another group’s space.

Thatcher addresses gender, and simultaneously ignores it, by casting both men and women in the role of the Protagonist, a decision he knew would push him beyond his own gender-biased tendencies. “If I’m going to make a pas de deux for a man and a woman, usually I’m going to throw the woman around and the man will partner her, and of course they’ll do some sharing. That’s the easy way to do it,” he says. Instead, he had to devise movement that ignored the small stature of Soloist Lauren Strongin (as the Protagonist) and required her to partner Vitor Luiz, a principal dancer. Thatcher also paired Corps de Ballet member Sean Orza with Soloist Max Cauthorn as the Protagonist, which produced a very different dynamic. “Max and Sean got kind of aggressive and masculinized, and they needed to find a way to soften things,” says Thatcher. “The realization we had with Lauren was that she was trying to erase the womanliness in her movement, which was the wrong idea.” To compensate, he brought what he calls indulgence back into her movement, “which I don’t think has to be a feminine thing.” Strongin does wear pointe shoes, a decision Thatcher says is important “because of the binaries we have in ballet. That’s what we do—women are on pointe in every classical ballet.” In fashion designs and everyday dress, he points out, the tendency is to default to the masculine—women in pants, for example. “So I thought it would be erring to the masculine side if I put Lauren in flat shoes, especially because everyone else is on pointe.”

Aside from the shoes, Thatcher tries to step away from what he calls “the gendered pressures” of classical ballet. “I’m not saying that’s not a valid thing,” he says, “but I would love to see men finding power in being soft onstage. I always love a woman who’s grounded and not a waif.” Gender is only one of the binaries he’s commenting on, but it’s the most visible and thus stage-worthy. “I think it’s important to challenge how we see genders onstage,” he says, “because it’s the heart of humanity.”

Cathy Marston's Snowblind

In her first work for San Francisco Ballet, British choreographer Cathy Marston zeroes in on the heart of Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella Ethan Frome. Her ballet, Snowblind, tells a story of repression, love, desperation, and dependence—the forces underlying Wharton’s tale, a classic love triangle. After watching rehearsals, Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson commented that Marston, a storyteller at her core, “was approaching it from the drama, as you would with an actor, and that is the driving force to make this work come to life.”

Cathy Marston with SF Ballet rehearsing her Snowblind // © Erik Tomasson


Acting is central to Marston’s method, focusing as she does on the emotional dynamics of a story. In Snowblind, Marston draws us into the lives of Wharton’s three central characters—Ethan, a farmer trapped by poverty, loneliness, and a dried-up marriage; his somewhat older wife, Zeena, a hypochondriac; and Zeena’s helper, beautiful young Mattie. The snow that dominates the setting, embodied by 11 dancers, becomes a metaphor for the passion and torment Ethan and Mattie share. They are blinded by love (or at least infatuation), blinded by the intensity of winter whiteout, and bound together when they sacrifice themselves, in an attempted suicide, to the brutal environment.

As the child of two English teachers, Marston was immersed in literature, and early on she was drawn to the drama and passion of theater. She first realized that “you could take a really solid classical [work] and look at it from an alternative point of view,” she says, when she studied Shakespeare’s Hamlet and its absurdist spinoff, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. She began to play with this kind of alternative perspective choreographically while she was training at London’s Royal Ballet School; an early effort involved a meeting of characters from Hamlet and Macbeth. Marston says she might not have begun choreographing as early as she did if, as a dancer, she had been “put in the studio with someone like me. I wanted to be thinking about those things.”

For SF Ballet, Marston wanted to tell an American story, which is one reason she chose Ethan Frome. “What I love about it is there’s a lot of passion,” she says. “And I liked the elemental feel”—the snow and the wind, which she realized could reinforce the story’s powerful emotions. Best of all is the ending, with its complexities and room for interpretation. “The fact that Ethan and Mattie don’t die, and they [and Zeena] have to come together, seemed to me good reason for exploring how that can happen,” Marston says.

In developing her ballets, she begins with emotions, collaborating with the dancers to find ways to physicalize them for specific characters and situations. She comes to the first rehearsal with lists of prompts to use in creating movement: among them, “torn,” “hope,” and “frantic” for Ethan; “numb,” “bitter,” and “shock” for Zeena; “dreamy,” “blush” and “hyperventilate” for Mattie; “silent,” “float,” and “stinging” for the snow. At times she sends the dancers off with her assistant Jenny Tattersall to explore how these words feel in the body. Rather than creating choreography, “they find the state,” Marston says. This found movement, rooted in emotion, “brings a few non-balletic steps in, which I think helps pepper [the choreography] a bit,” she says. “It’s like putting flecks of black on a watercolor.”

In Snowblind, every move is character driven. With a fist to his chin, Ethan forces his head to turn; alone with his wife, he shows despair, slumping from the waist, arms like a pendulum marking endless time. “Show us your pain,” Marston says to Principal Dancer Sarah Van Patten (Zeena) as Principal Dancer Ulrik Birkkjaer (Ethan) lifts her, and Van Patten, her body rigid, adds an agonized twist of her head. Their bodies show anger and resentment, the pain of their coexistence. In contrast, dancing a suppression-fueled, erotic pas de deux, Birkkjaer and Principal Dancer Mathilde Froustey (Mattie) are desire personified. They dare not kiss, yet they cannot stay apart. Even Mattie’s apron becomes an extension of their desire.

Mathilde Froustey and Ulrik Birkkjaer rehearsing Marston's Snowblind // © Erik Tomasson


In adapting a piece of literature for dance, Marston starts with “the bits I already want to choreograph.” She and designer Patrick Kinmonth spent hours discussing “how abstract we were going, how we could resolve the emotional story without dealing with props,” she says. “Obviously there are the central relationships, and then how do we get around some of the narrative corners?” Abstraction is key for Marston, and she wants it in the designs too. “I’m not working with the classical vocabulary, so all these details of movement do get rather drowned by a big dress [in a period piece],” she says. “We start at the point where a story is based, and that might be 1900 or it might be 1950, and I will keep challenging the designers to reconsider how we can suggest something without spelling it out. Because while I want this story to be clear, I love ambiguity in the right moment; it can be quite beautiful.”

Ambiguity is exactly what she wants—and achieves—in the ballet’s ending, a trio that illustrates the characters’ struggles but also their interdependence. “There’s warmth; there’s passion” in the way the story ends, Marston says. “I wanted to find what makes it a beautiful story, and not just one that punches you in the gut.” On first reading, she says, the book seems like “a horror story; it must be living hell for the next 30 years, those two women and Ethan in a room together with no way out. And that is one reading. What I’m trying to do is look under that surface—how do you live with someone? Well, you have to forgive a little bit, and you have to take their weight, and you have to trust. And that’s got beauty to it.”

Tying story and movement together is the music, a compilation of pieces by Amy Beach and Arthur Foote, arranged and augmented by composer Philip Feeney. “I was looking for something from the period and place, and by chance I discovered a group of composers called the Boston Six,” Marston says. Feeney wrote the love pas de deux music along with transitional sections of the score. For the ballet’s ending, Marston chose Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate, which Feeney left untouched. “He did a good job of weaving a story piece out of it,” says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West. “The Arvo Pärt movements are played exactly as he wrote them. The other bits are a mixture of Feeney, Foote, and Beach. [Feeney] makes tiny quotes from the Pärt earlier on, so that when it comes, it’s part of the story line, which I thought was very, very clever.”

When that final portion of the Lamentate comes in, for the final trio, it is delicate, haunting, and forgiving. Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie, moving together, inseparable and acquiescing, literally taking one another’s weight, are “a tangle that traps and supports at the same time,” Marston says. “That’s what I’m trying to get at, and to make something that is bittersweet, beautiful and human.”

David Dawson's Anima Animus

David Dawson’s first commission for San Francisco Ballet, Anima Animus, is, as he puts it, “physically emotional virtuosity combined to make something human.” It is indeed physical, emotional, virtuosic, and human—but there’s something transcendent about this combination. It’s most tangible in the section Dawson calls “Angels,” when the dancers seem to move beyond their mortal selves into a state of throat-clenching beauty. “Don’t do what you know,” he tells his dancers in rehearsal, “do something beyond. Unbound.”

Anima Animus is the first ballet Dawson has made in the United States; Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson invited him to participate in the Unbound festival after seeing his works in Europe. Anima Animus has no story, but as Dawson says, “dance is never about nothing.” The ballet offers a rich mix of contrasts, most meaningful among them Carl Jung’s concept of animus (what he called the male aspect of the female psyche) and anima (the female aspect of the male psyche). Another contrast can be found in the music, a violin concerto by Italian composer Ezio Bosso. “It felt to me like music that looks to the past and the future at the same time, much how I like to make dance,” Dawson says. Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West calls Bosso’s style “modern baroque,” evoking the violin pieces of Antonio Vivaldi but with a contemporary, emotional sound. A third contrast is visible in the black-and-white design concept, inspired by George Balanchine ballets such as Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which Dawson saw the Company perform last season.

Although Dawson doesn’t think of himself as a political choreographer, he did find himself responding to the polarized world we live in now, the loss of freedom. He understands the opposites that make up our world—light and dark, humanity and architecture, individual and group—“but between those opposites, which are the extreme ends of very fine lines, there is so much room where people can have choice without judgment,” he says. “And that’s freedom to me.”

SF Ballet rehearsing Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson


These spaces between extremes are a kind of fluidity, and one that Dawson wanted to explore within dance. “My language is the classical art form; I’m trying to do something with that,” he says. Historically in ballet some steps are for women or men only. Dawson shifts this by giving “the opposing energy as a starting point”—in other words, giving animus choreography to a dancer who seems more anima, and vice versa. At times he gives the same choreography to both genders; for example, Principal Dancer Carlo Di Lanno’s solo starts with some of the movement from Principal Dancer Maria Kochetkova’s solo, then goes in a different direction. “Be a swan,” Dawson says to Di Lanno, joking. “You might not get another chance.”

In the slower second movement, in the part Dawson calls “Angels,” he says “that’s where we go to archetype. In Jung’s philosophy, the female is the nurturer, the mother, the angel, the pure. And the man is the warrior, the strong, the hero. I’m trying to show it all.” Even in those archetypes, the theme of contrasts shows—the two principal women, Kochetkova and Principal Dancer Sofiane Sylve, couldn’t be more different. Watching them do the same steps, you see the potential in the movement—there is never only one way. Then, when the women float high above the stage, as close to the lights as their men can lift them, “that’s when they show their form as angels,” Dawson says. “That’s when they touch the sky and they show who they really are.”

Dawson sends his dancers skyward, but he wants them grounded too. This reads as a paradox—the dancers fly, gliding and slipping through intricate moves that do indeed make them seem as untethered as angels, and yet they have weight, and form, and mass. They have substance that goes far beyond the light, lifted aesthetic of classical ballet. Dawson creates this effect with a movement style he calls “whole milk, with cream.” In rehearsals, he’s constantly asking the dancers to let their classicism go. He applauds one woman who was dancing “a little less Lilac Fairy and a little more Carabosse.” He tells the group, “I’m breaking your training,” and asks for clawlike hands, for movement that is “deeper, squashed, crunched. I want it odd.”

Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh rehearsing Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson


But don’t think for a minute that Anima Animus is odd or ugly. “To fall, to slip, to slide, to dip, to dive—all of these things are different ways of approaching classical ballet,” Dawson says. He compares traditional ballet to Rembrandt or Leonardo da Vinci, “and of course I’m not that. I don’t want to be that; I want to be [graffiti artist] Banksy. I want to take history and show somebody my view on it.” To get there, he starts with an internal process—which leads us back to this idea of physically emotional virtuosity. In choreographing, “I feel my way through the movement,” he says. “I emotionalize it, if there’s such a word. Because for me, physicality is driven by emotion. If someone’s angry or sad, it becomes physical, doesn’t it? It’s expressed through the body.” To communicate his ideas, Dawson invades the dancers’ space and shows them possibilities. He moves among them like a coach who can’t stay on the sidelines, standing mid-stage, arms wide, to intercept their trajectories, and moving alongside them while issuing commands and encouragement. “I’m being emotionally visible,” he says. “I need to show them where I feel emotionally that [step] can go.”

Any given rehearsal yields a handful of Dawson’s colorful images. A glissade (a low, gliding jump) “should be grounded, like you have magnets on your toes,” he tells the women. “So when you do jump, it’s big.” To one dancer who’s being too delicate: “Do it again and Wonder Woman it.” To the men, about a lift: “Be more bold, more dominant.” To Kochetkova: “When you go into that arabesque, give it some resistance. You should be like wax just about to get cold.” To Soloist Wei Wang, about a shoulder lift: “Hold her tight and create her. Glamorous.” Dawson wants no holding back. “Speak with your feet; dance with your whole body,” he says. And while you’re at it, “make it look like you have all the time in the world.”

In Bosso’s music, Dawson hears both hope and doom. “You are here to tell us something,” he tells the dancers. “You’re saying to the public, ‘Be careful. It’s not going to end well if you keep going this way.’” Though his message acknowledges doom, it keeps reverting to hope. As much as he emphasizes unity, he’s interested “in the power of the human being,” he says. “I want each person to dance more like themselves than they ever have been.” That mindset is, in effect, his spirituality. “I believe in the universe,” he says. “We’re energy and carbon and atomic; creation is happening all the time. That’s why I love what we do, because we’re embodying what life is all about.”