Unbound D Program Notes

By Cheryl A. Ossola

Yuan Yuan Tan rehearsing Liang's The Infinite Ocean // © Erik Tomasson
Edwaard Liang’s The Infinite Ocean

As a dancer, Edwaard Liang loved being in a company, being part of something bigger than himself, one player in the complex, mentally and physically challenging process of creating art. After a major career in ballet and on Broadway, he turned to choreographing, a role in which he not only participates in the creative process, he drives it. Today, as a longtime choreographer, and artistic director of BalletMet since 2013, Liang is known for creating dramatic works, fueled by extreme emotions. His third work for San Francisco Ballet, The Infinite Ocean, hovers in the space between life and death, when spirits must let go of whatever ties them to the physical world. It’s a time he calls “the awakening.”

Liang’s focus of late, both personally and professionally, has been on spirituality and life and death. When Liang was 13, his father died of cancer; in recent years, many of his friends have grappled with terminal illnesses. The idea behind this ballet began to simmer when he got a Facebook message from one of those friends: “I will see you on the other side of the infinite ocean.”

Before coming to San Francisco, Liang had tackled the life-after-death theme with 13th Heaven at Singapore Dance Theatre, but he wanted to work more with the idea of the transition to death. It’s how that transition occurs that captivates him; he wanted to create something different from what most people might imagine. For music, he turned to composer Oliver Davis, with whom he’d worked on 13th Heaven. “I like that he writes such a quirky, interesting blend of minimalist music but with this baroque feel,” says Liang. “And he loves to work with strings, and I really wanted a violin concerto [for this ballet]. So it was a natural fit.”

To prepare, he thought about what he wanted the dancers to think about. “These are the same questions I was going to ask myself,” Liang says. “Who would you like to see [before you go]? And it doesn’t have to be a who—what would you like to see? What touches and moves and inspires you about the unknown? And whatever your belief is, what is it that makes your heart sing? We want to be heard, we want to be seen, we want to feel connected to something. What does that mean to you? The dancers’ responses would inform and individualize their movement.

When the ballet opens, the “transitioners” are struggling with these questions. “Everybody’s in silhouette,” Liang says, “and they’re walking toward the infinite ocean,” toward a light source inspired by a brilliant orb in a 2003 light installation by Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern. As they walk, they should reveal themselves as individuals, with their own needs and desires, Liang says. “You want to walk like the pure essence of you, as energy.”

At first, these transitioning souls resist leaving. “There’s a lot of going toward, reconnecting with each other, disconnecting,” Liang says. “But they’re really not looking at each other, not until a little bit later, when they’re reliving their relationships.” In a duet created on Principal Dancers Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets, the interaction is “soft, spiritual, romantic,” Liang says. “If you were to put a color to it, I would say it would be a cloud blue or a light purple, something that’s calming and serene.” Another couple is young, on their first date, facing the loss of promise and potential when their lives are cut short. A men’s dance shows the angst involved in letting go of life, he says. “I wanted it to be a choppy adventure. It’s competition or ambition.”

Edwaard Liang rehearsing Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in his The Infinite Ocean // © Erik Tomasson

In a duet created on Principal Dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz, Liang wanted to play with the idea of soul mates. These two aren’t necessarily destined to be with each other, he says; their relationship is tumultuous, “a constant circling and trying to find each other.” For this couple, especially the woman, accepting that it’s time to leave bodily life is more difficult than it is for the others. “Obviously there’s some unresolved thing,” Liang says. “What is it that these souls want—why do they want to find each other? I wanted to showcase the tug and pull of any relationship, and what’s ballet without a bit of drama?”

A constant in the varied dynamics of Liang’s choreography is his love of fluidity in movement. “I like to connect the dots with movement,” he says. “I like to see how the dancers entwine and un-twine, and how [the steps] can link.” The dancers circle, glide through a modified box step, raise their arms in ferocity or surrender depending on the moment. Arms snap open at one time, sigh open the next. In the pas de deux for Helimets and Sylve, Liang tells him to hold her “so that she almost melts across you.” Again and again, the dancers manipulate each other, often by the head, and even at such close contact their focus is more often on the abyss than on the other person. Liang says, “They’re trying to find connection and communication out there.”

As he works with the dancers, deconstructing a timing problem in a pas de deux with surgical precision or refining the tone of an interaction, it’s obvious, even if you never saw him dance, that Liang was an excellent partner. “That comes through in a lot of his choreography,” says Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson. “It’s interesting partnering work, and the dancers learn so much from that. It’s today’s choreography; it’s contemporary.”

One day, during a rehearsal break, Liang turned on the music and started dancing. He began slowly, with small steps that gained speed and power, moving with concentration and obvious emotion. Maybe it was then that he got the first inkling of what he realized when the rough draft of the ballet was done—that it is “a love letter to my father,” he says. “He’s the first person I want to see [when I die]. It’s been so long since his death that I didn’t realize how desperate I am to reconnect with him. That was my journey through this process.”

Dwight Rhoden’s LET’S BEGIN AT THE END

When choreographer Dwight Rhoden began rehearsals for his new ballet, he told the dancers that they were going to make an abstract piece about “love, and connection and disconnection, discord and harmony.” Early on, though, the ballet developed a subtle narrative around the lead couple and an invading presence. Though there’s no actual story, relationships shift—from giving to confining, communicating to repressing—and the ballet’s intensity builds to an emotional punch that we never see coming.

“I knew we were going to explore the ups and downs, the ins and outs, the roller-coaster of love,” says Rhoden, whose company, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, is in its 25th season. “I knew we were going to explore dark areas of love, things that divide us and things that bring us together. But I never pretend that I have the best ideas.” Though he comes to the studio with a concept in mind, he hopes the dancers will hijack it. “I want the dancers to influence and also inhabit the journey,” he says. “And if they can do that, then it’s golden.”

In this case, his mind was made up—he would make a ballet about love and it would be for seven couples. But Soloist Esteban Hernandez kept pulling Rhoden’s focus, and suddenly his ballet was about seven couples plus one. This solo man could be a real person—a temptation or distraction—or he could be a force, a representation of the lead couple’s conflict or inability to communicate. “He might play a cupid character; he might be somebody who stops something from happening—or spurs it on, quite frankly, depending on the section you’re looking at,” Rhoden says. “I didn’t think I needed that [in the ballet], and then when I saw Esteban, I felt like I needed that.”

The other six couples are refractions of the lead couple, roles created by Principal Dancers Frances Chung and Angelo Greco. They embody the complexity of love, the differing perspectives of the players. To amp up that idea, Rhoden cast the couples with contrast in mind, pairing people he thought wouldn’t normally dance together. Another strategy he uses to illustrate contrast is to separate the dancers by gender at times. “It’s not so much about men and women as it is about differences of opinion,” he says. “I think I’m making the most out of the idea that two people don’t always speak the same language, even if they have been together forever.”

Frances Chung and Angelo Greco rehearsing Rhoden’s LET’S BEGIN AT THE END // © Erik Tomasson

The dancers ride their emotional roller coaster within the confines of a set that illustrates their divide. Seven doors allow them access to the stage, and when the doors are closed, they form a wall that divides the offstage area—what Rhoden calls a place of refuge—from an area “where they actually have to deal with whatever is going to happen in life,” he says. With the doors closed, the stage is a space “where the heart can be closed; when the doors open, it’s a place where your heart has to be open—or if it’s not open, there are consequences.” The wall, of course, is symbolic, as are the doors—think of them as portals and they become as much mental as physical. When the dancers emerge from upstage and come toward the audience—the only entrance possible—the image is one of thoughts and feelings emerging from the depths of consciousness. “It’s what’s inside you entering or retreating,” Rhoden says. “And the idea of retreating is very different from exiting stage left.”

Music helps define the ballet’s structure. The pieces Rhoden chose “seemed to support the roller coaster I wanted to be on,” he says. “I’m really particular about music. I had come here to see a couple of performances, and I thought, ‘This is San Francisco Ballet Orchestra; I want this sound with them.’ I’m really excited that that’s happening.” At the beginning of the ballet, a Michael Nyman song, “Love Doesn’t End,” is interrupted by a Bach violin piece, sending the ballet in a new direction. Two pieces by Philip Glass dominate the ballet’s midsection, then pour into a dramatic ensemble movement set to Nyman’s “Time Lapse.” Then “Love Doesn’t End” returns, and Rhoden’s meaning is clear: “We simplify and crystallize right back down to where we started.”

Rhoden choreographs in a lush style, embellishing ballet steps with movements that convey emotion via both action and expression. “When you sink your abdominals into the back of your spine [in a contraction], there’s an emotion associated with that,” he says. “When you arch your back, there’s another emotion. When you turn your arms over like this—” he opens his palms—“there’s an openness. If I’m standing parallel, there’s a strength and a closedness to this position. As soon as I open up, vulnerability sets in.” He points out that his steps could be done without the movement of the spine he asks for, but they would lose expressiveness. “I’m asking [the dancers] to round and then re-stretch and extend; I think that has depth to it.” He says he loves classical ballet and that’s why he works in this world, “but I primarily was a contemporary dancer. I think the melding of those worlds is one of the most beautiful and interesting things. I think it’s where we are.”

Dwight Rhoden rehearsing his LET’S BEGIN AT THE END // © Erik Tomasson

Rhoden strives for contrasting dynamics, rich movement that swings from suspension to sharpness, gives equal time to arcing torsos and straightedge arms. He tells the women to fall backward into their partners’ arms “like a sack of potatoes,” then jackknife up, leading with the pelvis. He asks for juicy movement and crystalline definition, “otherwise it’s a bunch of ballet steps, and it’s not that.” There are near-embraces, almost-kisses, emotion-dense collapses, impassive walks, traumatized rocking. Rhoden tells one couple to “find more time for breath, more shading.” When the men leave their women, heading for the doors, he says, “Dig deeper. Think about why you came in. If you’ve just had an intimate moment with your girl, think about why you’re leaving.” Toward the end of the ballet, when the lead man confines and represses his partner, she reacts with intent that’s unmistakable. “It’s like you don’t want to hear what the other person has to say,” Rhoden says. “Sometimes that could be the most honest thing, and sometimes the truth hurts and doesn’t push things forward; it actually takes them back. We’re all so imperfect in terms of saying the right thing at the right time. How do you know? How would you know?”

These days, truth is Rhoden’s priority. As a young choreographer he cared what people thought of his work; now, he says, “I just try to be truthful. I have to say that getting to San Francisco Ballet at this time—it’s probably a good thing, because as a young choreographer, a young artist, I was very impetuous. I was really a very high-strung guy, very passionate. But I like that Helgi asked me at this stage. I feel like I’m in the crux of a new chapter.”

Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet

There might be no better combination of artists than choreographer Arthur Pita and Icelandic music superstar Björk. If you’ve never seen a ballet rave—and who has?—get ready. Pita delivers that and more with his second piece for the Company, an imaginative spectacle that will make you want to jump up and dance.

Why Björk? A partial answer is that Pita never forgot the moment he first heard her music. During his training at London Contemporary Dance School, a friend introduced him to Björk’s album Debut. “I never stopped listening to that first album, which I loved so much,” says Pita, whose favorite music artist, until that moment, had been Gloria Estefan. In thinking about his music for Unbound, he wondered what he could do to make the dancers feel unbound. “And I thought, ‘The music is going to drive them,’ and immediately Björk made sense. The music is so theatrical—it’s big, but in a modern way.” Also, he’d wanted to choreograph to Björk’s music for ages and the timing felt right. And, he reasoned, Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson is Icelandic. “I knew [Björk’s music] would mean something to him,” says Pita.

In fact, Tomasson says he’s very happy about Pita’s music choice, which took a fair amount of effort to acquire. No doubt he could see how integral the music would be to the choreographer’s theatrical style. Pita’s Salome, which premiered in 2017, “was very unusual, and different from anything we had done,” Tomasson says. “He is a very dramatic dancemaker; it’s more about storytelling with him. This work is visually interesting.”

SF Ballet rehearsing Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

Also interesting is the episodic form of Pita’s new ballet. Björk’s music provides a framework for fragmented stories, dances that are more thematic than descriptive, capturing the essence of Björk’s lyrics. A lone fisherman provides a ghost of a narrative, and also a link to the natural world. Because Björk’s music often references nature, “I wanted to get nature in the piece in a big way,” Pita says. Though the set is minimal and abstract, tall grasses create a focal point throughout the ballet, sometimes serving as a miniature forest, sometimes framing the dance space. At first the grasses “appear magically,” Pita says; then the dancers rearrange them for each section of the ballet, emphasizing humans’ relationship to the Earth. “I want them to feel like they’re nurturing the land.”

Pita sees the fisherman “as the simple human being.” He wears two masks, one smiling, one frowning—an idea that came to him because of a duality he sees in Björk. “She’s this very playful, naughty fairy, dancing nymph, otherworldly creature, which is full of light and love,” he says. “And then you’ve got this very deep, mournful, sorrowful, almost tragedy in some of her songs. So it’s like the theater masks.” The fisherman’s journey ends with “The Anchor Song,” which Pita says he read “as a lovely kind of sailor song. Björk used to live by the water, and it feels like an old folk song.” The lyrics—“I live by the ocean / and during the night / I dive into it / down to the bottom / underneath all the currents / I drop my anchor / and this is where I’m staying / this is my home”—might be a suicide note or a love letter to one’s native land; either way, the song conveys a feeling of peace.

Woven around the fisherman’s tale are snippets of love stories. In “Bachelorette,” the woman is “always somehow left alone,” Pita says. In the song, Björk sings that “she’s ‘a path of cinders’ for the person to step on,” he says. “It’s a beautiful image.” At the other extreme, “All Is Full of Love” is dangerous—“it’s about falling off things and running and catching and being held. Tempestuous, deep-rooted, immense love,” he says. “Hyperballad” is even more dangerous. Paraphrasing the lyrics, Pita says the song is about “imagining ‘what it feels like to jump off a cliff just so that when I wake up I can feel safe with you.’ That’s so extreme.”

Arthur Pita rehearsing his Björk Ballet //© Erik Tomasson

From the fisherman to the pas de deux couples to the pixie-like creature who flits through the action, everyone in this ballet is Björk. “That’s why there are so many solos in the piece—because I wanted them to connect with her experiences,” Pita says. “They all become her.” He sees the solos, whose movements the ensemble echoes, as duets with the audience. In trying to capture the essence of Björk, Pita goes to extremes with his movement, giving the dancers flicks, squats, and lunges along with concave shapes, flung arms, and references to nature—shapes based on flowers, and a step he calls “glicing.” “I gave them a task to slide and glide,” he says, “which is when they skim across the floor, like on ice. Which I really, really love.” There are cantilevered duets with an underwater quality and a classically based octet, set to “Frosti,” that Pita says “should look like a ballerina music box on acid.”

And then there’s “Hyperballad,” Pita’s ballet rave. In rehearsals, he asks the dancers to improvise an eight-count jumping sequence to its pumping, driving rhythm. “It’s a metaphor—jumping for joy, jumping for love,” he says, then tells them how often the arms should change position, how and when to turn in place, how they should make it unusual, “not like something you do in class.” When he pairs them up to practice, he breaks the bad news: there are 36 of those eight-counts. The dancers groan. The song ends with a unison, blissed-out-looking sequence that evolves into a sideways kick step Pita borrowed from Björk herself, dancing in a video of “Hyperballad.” Meanwhile, the couple from “All Is Full of Love” moves into a slow, sinuous, stretched pas de deux, and the pixie-like figure darts past. It’s an enchanting and exhilarating moment.

Ultimately, the ballet is about four things, says Pita—birth, life, sex, and death. “Theater itself is life and death,” he says. “The curtain goes up, it’s life; the curtain goes down, it’s death. Even if you finish on a happy thing, it’s finished. There’s a little death to that in itself.” He finds many references to death in Björk’s songs—for example, “Vökuró,” which he says “feels like the possible death of a child. And ‘The Anchor Song’—‘I’m going to stay at the bottom of the ocean with my anchor.’” The fisherman, walking upstage at the end of that song, turns his happy mask to the back of his head. “Is he leaving that behind and walking to his death, or is he happy?” says Pita. “Is he at peace with walking to his death?”

When Björk sings—about love or joy, sex or death, “it comes from such a human place,” Pita says. For him, “All Is Full of Love” says everything. “It’s such a beautiful lyric—‘You’ll be given love,’ and ‘You’ll be taken care of,’” he says. “What a beautiful message! And people coming together—we have to remember that we do have love in the world.”