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Review: San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound Festival Plunges Into the New

Review: San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound Festival Plunges Into the New

Mr. Wheeldon’s “Bound To,” his 10th work for this company, has not only a gimmick — the dancers all keep producing brightly illuminated iPhones — but a sermon, too. Having shown us individuals fixated on the screens in their hands rather than on other people around them, the piece concludes by projecting a sentence that says recent studies link an increase in teenage suicides to hand-held personal devices. (No suicide seemed to happen in the choreography.) Jean-Marc Puissant’s décor shows images of distant trees, as if the action occurred in a public park.

At times, the compositional skills that Mr. Wheeldon shows with ensembles and solos in “Bound To” seem unsurpassable. Apart from his long-established gifts with patterns and steps, he has recently developed a sense of fluent expressionist gesture (evident in his full-length 2014 ballet “The Winter’s Tale,” danced by the Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Canada). Long passages in the male solos, for Angelo Greco in “Wavelength” and for Lonnie Weeks in “Trying to Breathe,” show how eloquently he can construct dances that unfold compellingly as both formal choreography and expression.


Dores André and Wei Wang, foreground, in Justin Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.”

Erik Tomasson

Mr. Wheeldon has given himself two particular challenges here: a few ensembles of same-sex couples (something he has seldom, if ever, tackled); and exclusive use of soft-shoe footwork (thus avoiding any of the sublimity that pointwork can bring to ballet). He passes both assignments easily. I wish, though, he would give himself a third challenge: to make duets in which the two people are not involved in constant physical contact and partnering.

And his thought becomes labored when he keeps hammering home how some people need to keep staring at their portable screens: notably a pas de deux for Yuan Yuan Tan (staring at hers) and Carlo Di Lanno (trying to fit in). The ballet is accompanied by Matt Naughtin’s commissioned orchestration of work by the English folk-rock musician Keaton Henson; it’s not hard music to listen to, but Mr. Wheeldon’s response leads me no deeper than its surface.

The program ends with Mr. Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.” This ensemble work is set to electronic music by M83 (Anthony Gonzalez, Yann Gonzalez, Bradley Laner and Justin Meldal-Johnsen) — a score I would otherwise resist, but Mr. Peck draws me into it.

It could be seen as a companion to “The Times Are Racing,” a hit Peck creation in 2017 for New York City Ballet set to Dan Deacon music. As in that, the mood here is urban, with the dancers all in sneakers and an assortment of street wear (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung); whereas that dance was made from tap and pedestrian movement, this one features two duets whose fluent phraseology and stretched lines owe far more to ballet. As in Mr. King’s “Argument,” these duets — beauties both — are deliberately contrasted: Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham are impersonally harmonious, while Doris André and Wei Wang are shown as separate beings whose meetings are part of independent lives.

Mr. Ingalls’s lighting for “Hurry Up” includes, in the group sections, amber lights directed at the audience. Even though there is no glare, it’s an alienating effect. Though the “Hurry Up” duets emerge from a social context, it’s not one that makes a clear impression. The work also ends too abruptly. But this imperfect piece is the most valuable creation of Unbound so far.

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