Stylish modernism: San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon, McIntyre and Dawson

Sadler’s Wells, London
May 6, 2019

David Mead

San Francisco Ballet rounded off their London season with a programme of new works created for the company’s Unbound season in 2018.

For his Bound To, Christopher Wheeldon took as his starting point that fact that many people have almost become addicted to their mobile phone, iPad or whatever, and that these electronic devices lead us to miss what is happening in the real world, and are destroying our human connection to each other. While the ballet certainly has a message, it’s delivered lightly and without sermonising.

It opens with the dancers transfixed by their iPads and mobile phones, Wheeldon going on to make his point in a series of eight short dances, all to very listenable to music by Keaton Henson, strong on strings. Jean-Marc Puissant and Alexander V Nichols’ projections, often bleak, of the likes of wintry trees, speak volumes about where the devices are taking us.

San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's Bound ToPhoto Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s Bound To
Photo Erik Tomasson

‘Open Your Eyes’ explores the effect of those devices on love, Benjamin Freemantle absorbed by his phone able only to fleetingly pull himself away before returning to it despite Dores André clinging on to him, clambering on his back and more in a desperate attempt to get his attention. Always fluid, Wheeldon’s dance is full of meaningful expression and gesture

Remember before mobile phones? Well, two dances do dispense with them and kook back. Four women spend time enjoying each other’s real company. It’s called ‘Remember When We Used to Talk’ and you can easily imagine them chatting away. A romp for four men full of lovely leaps is called ‘Remember When We Used to Play’.

More melancholic is ‘Take a Deep Breath’. Yuan Yuan Tan having her phone yanked out of her hand leads to a deeply tender pas de deux with Carlo Di Lanno. The tone is wistful as she slides over and around him, gestures full of yearning.

‘Trying to Breathe’, a final compelling solo from Lonnie Weeks, suggests a man alone, despite no doubt his thousands of Facebook friends. There is a sense he asks what has he done to himself, what has he become. But there are no answers.

Benjamin Freemantle in Trey McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great PoemPhoto Erik Tomasson
Benjamin Freemantle in Trey McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem
Photo Erik Tomasson

Trey McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem (the title is a slight misquote from the preface of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) is emotionally very personal and poignant. It’s a look back to the choreographer’s grandfather, a man he never met, although with whom he believes he has a shared perspective on life.

The making of the ballet coincided with a solar eclipse, and McIntyre opens and closes with a video of one such projected on the backdrop. He saw it as a sort of portal through time. It certainly sets the tone for the work.

At the ballet’s centre was Benjamin Freemantle as the grandfather. His opening solo sees him as a dreamy young Adonis. While clearly classically-based, there’s lots of trembling hands and feet, and floorwork too. A series of vignettes drop in on what McIntyre imagines his life was like. There’s some playful male camaraderie and even a hint of male love.

Personal works can sometimes be so personal that they struggle to communicate, and that is a bit of a problem here, but then comes Freemantle’s closing solo. McIntyre’s grandfather suffered from dementia in later life and loss, and attempts at remembering but forgetting are all to fore in a dance of elegant shapes, of stretched limbs, of his back arched, all sometimes is deep slow motion. His stool, which plays a significant part in the dance, reflects a face, and then the moon. It was so eloquent, the dance reaching out and grabbing you totally.

Musically, the dance is sensitive too. McIntyre likes to work with popular music (he’s recently made a piece to the works of Aretha Franklin for Parsons Dance) and here layers Chris Garneau’s folksy and wistful songs in a way that makes them seem a perfect fit.

Wona Park in David Dawson's Anima AnimusPhoto Erik Tomasson
Wona Park in David Dawson’s Anima Animus
Photo Erik Tomasson

Sleek, sophisticated, stylish. That’s David Dawson’s Anima Animus, easily one of the highlights of San Francisco Ballet’s four-programme season. According to the programme, the ballet is about Carl Jung’s concept of the male and female psyche. Dawson shifts the usual ballet ‘rules’ by giving animus (the unconscious masculine side of a woman) choreography to dancers who seem more anima (the unconscious feminine side of a man), and vice-versa.

Anima Animus is a ballet for the women, though. To the glorious strains of Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No.1, and led by Wona Park and Sofiane Sylve, they swoop on and off, usually with arms held high. They turn and spin. Maybe it was Yumiko Takeshima’s grey, black and white figure-hugging costumes combined with John Otto’s white set with asymmetrical black borders, but I couldn’t help thinking of seabirds soaring on invisible currents of air, high above tall cliffs.

The dance is big and bold. The dancers, the women especially, eat up the space. It’s strong yet graceful. It’s exciting, electric. And best of all, it’s so very modern as Dawson pushes the classical vocabulary. You don’t want to take your eyes off the stage for a moment. Dawson tosses in an awful lot of complex partnering, often with more than one duet or trio happening at the same time. It is sometimes a problem knowing just where to look.

I could have sat through Anima Animus again, immediately. It was a grand way to finish a season. While not every work has thrilled, it has shown us a company full of confidence, or superb dancers, and perhaps most importantly, that is full of creative ambition. Come back soon!