Cathy Marston is one of a dozen choreographers premiering a new work for San Francisco Ballet during the festival. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Ballet Unbound: SFB's 17-Day Festival Asks Where the Art Form is Headed

The ballet world will converge on San Francisco this month for San Francisco Ballet's Unbound: A Festival of New Works, a 17-day event featuring 12 world premieres, a symposium, original dance films and pop-up events.

"Ballet is going through changes," says artistic director Helgi Tomasson. "I thought, What would it be like to bring all these choreographers together in one place? Would I discover some trends in movement, or in how they are thinking?"


San Francisco Ballet in rehearsal for Justin Peck's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Those questions are perennially on Tomasson's mind. He's convened two previous festivals—1995's UNited We Dance and 2008's New Works Festival—to take ballet's current pulse.

This time around, David Dawson, Alonzo King, Edwaard Liang, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Cathy Marston, Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, Arthur Pita, Dwight Rhoden, Myles Thatcher, Stanton Welch and Christopher Wheeldon had three-week creative residencies between July and October of last year during which they each created 30-minute works on the SFB dancers.

The roster reflects Tomasson's personal wish list. It is Dawson's first American commission, whereas Wheeldon is an SFB mainstay creating his 10th commission for the company. "The thought was to give the choreographers a forum to try something that they had not tried before," says Tomasson. King, Marston, Rhoden and Ochoa were also paired with directors to create short-form dance films inspired by their new works. (The films are available online.)

Tomasson grouped the ballets into four programs of three works, to be performed in rotation. The festival's second weekend also layers in four symposium sessions, with Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director Virginia Johnson, dance-meets-tech guru Sydney Skybetter, writer Marina Harss and other influencers discussing hot-button topics like diversity, technology and globalism.

Putting on an event of this scale has taken logistical as well as choreographic creativity. "It's a huge jigsaw puzzle," says SFB general manager Debra Bernard. Organizing last summer's travel and rehearsals for the choreographers, their ballet masters, and, in some instances, their composers and designers was a monumentally complex task. All of the choreographers were back in residence for three weeks prior to the festival to finalize their choreography, costume fittings and staging. "We have, like, 40 hotel rooms for a month," says artistic administrator Abby Masters. "We're also transforming one of our big boardrooms in the building into the choreographers' office and lounge."

The same space will also serve as a satellite fitting room for hundreds of new costumes, which were constructed in the UK, New York City and the Bay Area. "The costume part has been crazy," says production director Christopher Dennis. Scheduling fittings within the dancers' union-regulated working hours has been an additional puzzle.

Frances Chung and Angelo Greco in rehearsal for Dwight Rhoden's LET'S BEGIN AT THE END. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

To prevent fatigue and free the dancers' time for festival prep, Tomasson invited National Ballet of Canada to perform John Neumeier's Nijinsky in the War Memorial Opera House April 3–8, before Unbound's opening night on April 20.

Where does Tomasson hope all of this planning, traveling, creating and schedule-juggling will lead? "I don't honestly think I'm gonna get a definitive answer to where ballet is going," he says. "It's fine if we don't know. For me, it was worth asking the question."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021