The perils of electronic technology, the stylistic beauty of modernism and the possibilities a solar eclipse affords are all explored in San Francisco Ballet’s terrific triple bill at Sadler’s Wells.
Arriving at Sadler’s Wells feels like an event in itself, strolling through the lush glass front into the glossy foyer, then on into the spare, clean architecture and plush seats (which rival those of the National Theatre for comfort) – the theatre feels open and easy and welcoming. The audience around me was peppered with well-heeled Americans (think preppy jackets, pocket handkerchiefs, crisp shirts, silk dresses and Chanel suits); though, in general, the crowd was mixed: on the front row was a man resplendent in a tangerine trilby and shirt, and a pink and purple striped jacket, while a few seats along sat a woman in a drab anorak with long, matted, grey hair. It felt like a crowd of ballet connoisseurs, drawn together by the love of the San Francisco Ballet. Waiting, anticipating, eager.
On the programme was a trio of pieces with three different scores by three different choreographers: Christopher Wheeldon, Trey McIntyre and David Dawson. Wheeldon’s Bound To was the first piece of the night. Bound To explores our addiction to mobile phones, the beauty of the world we miss in our reluctance to relinquish our electronic companions and what might happen if we discarded them and could ‘see, acknowledge and interact without any screens to protect us’.
The curtain rose to a darkened stage populated by dancers in black and navy, twitching with electronic pulses, illuminated only by the fluorescent glare from tiny phone-sized lights held in each dancer’s palm. The performers gyrated their way around the stage, as individuals, converging in pairs and groups, their gazes fused to the bright objects in their hands as their bodies danced despite their minds’ preoccupation. Legs connected and intertwined in absence of arms and hand, the choreography exploring the space between us: we may be physically close, but our phones keep us emotionally distant.
A subsequent duet explored love: one partner’s attention absorbed by his phone which he would release for a moment, only to return to its lure, falling forward lovingly into its light. His female lover turned over and over him, clinging to his front, clambering (gracefully) onto his back, arching, straining, in desperate attempts to engage him or at least share whatever held him so rapt. Nature appeared: wintery trees, projected onto the box-like set (that served to embody both the urban and the natural world), the music and dance energised and more naturalistic as the dancers shed their phones and their rigid clothing, appearing in flowing grey in a dance of meeting and coupling and exploring, music and movements reaching a frenzied crescendo that died as a woman in a blue dress paced languidly across the stage, absorbed in her phone. She reached the corner of the stage and her phone was plucked from her hand before she and a partner began a flowing, melancholy duet, reflecting the feelings that come from a deeper connection, the wistful tone indicating that nowadays such intimacy is fleeting, perhaps even impossible.
The dancing in this duet was extraordinary – the woman (Yuan Yuan Tan) sliding over and around her partner, at one point perched on his thigh, her gestures full of yearning. The final movement opened with the silhouettes of two men, slumped in chairs, heads bowed to their phones. One (Lonnie Weeks) rose to perform a solo full of angst, arms tackling one another, entwining, body contorted to express self-loathing, an existential crisis, asking: ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I doing?’, articulating the terrible male isolation about which we so often hear (and which we so often ignore), before the stage flooded with dancers, surrounding him, bodies surging around his, curling like a human skirt, consoling him, only to abandon him for their phones, leaving him prone on the stage. Bound To was performed to the spare, echoing, cavernous music of Keaton Heston, beginning with electronic impulses, moving on to staccato strings and concluding with a song that illustrates the long, dark loneliness of the modern (male) soul.
Trey McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem – or, as I shall entitle it, ‘If Rufus Wainwright wrote a musical this is what it would look like’ – was the second piece in the San Francisco Ballet’s triple bill. Your Flesh is McIntyre’s imaginative riff on what he might see or do if a solar eclipse opened up a portal into his grandfather’s life, portrayed in a series of vignettes. As a more narrative piece, Your Flesh had the most range of the evening’s three pieces, from playful male camaraderie – the men’s movements jerky and comic, calling to mind Gene Kelly and his entourage in On The Town – to a ménage-a-trois, (where a fierce female dancer directs her lover’s affair with her friend); a depiction of male/male love and finally a solo that looked like loss, remembering, forgetting – perhaps representing McIntyre, perhaps his grandfather.Your Flesh was also the most ‘masculine’ of the evening’s offerings, showcasing the beauty and strength of the male body.
Benjamin Freemantle’s closing solo was like watching Michelangelo’s David come to life, iterating one elegant shape after another – limbs and back arched upwards, rolling over, supported only by his arms, striding across the stage in solemn slow motion. Your Flesh was the piece which appeared to communicate most with the audience, which reached out and invited connection and engagement rather than passive observation. Yet it was the piece I felt I least understood, that moved me the least. Perhaps this was because I felt that Christopher Garneau’s modern folk jarred with the dancers’ sophisticated gestures, with their absolute precision; or perhaps it was because there was a disconnection between the grand, poetic projections of the eclipsed sky and the more prosaic tale told through the choreography. It certainly wasn’t because of the performances – Benjamin Freemantle’s solo earned many ‘bravos’ from the audience as the curtain fell – and rightly so.
David Dawson’s final piece, Anima Animus, (the only one accompanied by a live orchestra) was electric from the moment the dancers pranced onto the stark white stage, arms held high, to the fall of the velvet curtain.
According to the programme, Anima offers contrasts, including Jung’s concepts of ‘animus’ and ‘anima’, the male aspect of the female psyche and vice versa. If Your Flesh was about men, Anima belonged to the women, who strode on and off the stage, backs arched, arms held high like swans, like trees, branches spread aloft (I later watched Dawson’s Grey and found that this shape is a recurring motif of his). The women’s movements were big and bold, gestures grand as they flew across the stage, ranging across the wide space, strong legs stretched wide, arms rigid – movements usually reserved for male dancers. The men, in contrast, appeared more fluid, each gesture graceful, their bodies malleable: you sensed that it was they, rather than the women, who might bend. The costumes (monochrome, skin-tight, contrasting black and white), the repeated outstretched arms and the spare, cold, violins made me think of Pound’s haiku, ‘In a Station of the Metro’:
‘The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough’
Every element of Anima was reminiscent of the aesthetic of modernism, of early twentieth century art: the energy of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, of Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles D’Avignon’; the shapes conjured up by the poetry of D. H. Laurence and T. S. Eliot. But where modernism expresses how we are shackled to and overshadowed by industrialisation, Anima articulated freedom. In contrast to Bound To, which illustrated how we have reduced our focus to the electronic pulses of a miniscule screen, Anima expressed release: from gender stereotypes, from the confines of traditional movement, almost from the trope of ‘human’ (the violins in one movement sounded like the hum of infuriated bees, or a murder of enraged birds). As the dancers leapt across the stage, stretching their bodies in elongated, powerful shapes, I felt my own spirits soar, my own possibilities endless.
The whole evening was superb (my body is still singing the movements – I have found the music and I’m listening to it over and over). I may have drifted off occasionally into thoughtlessness, but I felt as if each step held my attention. Not once did I think ‘when is this going to end?’ as is sometimes the case. Anima could have tried my patience even more: I was rapt from beginning to end; thrilled by the dancing, the strength and range of movement in each body, the lifts, the contortions. As the final piece concluded half the audience leapt to its feet, shouting and cheering, enthusiasm which increased when the lead violin walked onto the stage – our joy was due, in part, to the virtuosity of the orchestra who played Ezio Bosso’s energetic piece with such vigour and vivacity.
I drifted out into the evening, feeling privileged at having had the opportunity to have witnessed such a mesmerising spectacle, then I raced home through dark, summery London on my bicycle, Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto playing over and over through my head.
San Francisco Ballet performed their triple bill (programme D) at Sadler’s Wells from 6th – 7th June. For more information about this performance, click here. To find out about San Francisco Ballet and their world tour, click here.