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

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

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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