No doubt about it: San Francisco Ballet thinks big. Last spring, at a festival in its hometown, it unveiled 12 world premieres by as many choreographers. The company performs six of them here in a series that opened Tuesday at the Kennedy Center and continues through Sunday.
We’re getting half the festival, which was titled “Unbound,” and still that amounts to the largest array of new ballets hitting us at once from any company in years, which says something about the San Francisco Ballet’s boldness. It’s remarkable as the ballet world becomes increasingly worried about losing audiences, an insecurity that tends to tie it to familiar, bankable works. Kudos to the Kennedy Center for backing this riskier programming, which goes against its own orthodoxy.
Yet while the San Francisco Ballet’s creative ambition and confidence are unmatched, it’s the sheer excellence of its dancers that makes the strongest statement in the first of two installments. Program A features well-known choreographers Trey McIntyre and Christopher Wheeldon and the less-familiar British artist David Dawson, who’s associated with the Dutch National Ballet.
All three are sensitive to nuance and mystery, and to subtle shifts from weight to weightlessness. Their works emphasized the dancers’ liquid ease of movement, their surprise quickness and their serenity in sailing through the most devilishly abandoned, limb-flinging feats of cannonball force. Yet there was enough similarity of style and feeling among the three ballets — loose, sweeping, dreamy — that the effect grew somewhat toneless after a while. Everything was velvet. I longed for a bit of bite.
McIntyre’s piece, “Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem,” stood apart in inviting lingering contemplation. A program note describes McIntyre’s fantasy of meeting his grandfather as a young man. An image of a solar eclipse introduced the idea of a portal through time, a bridge to the imagined past. This was echoed in the dancers’ floating quality, and there were many moments where I caught my breath. In one, lead dancer Benjamin Freemantle bounded into the air, and as his arms lagged compared with the speed of his descent, he seemed to fall through water.
Recordings by folksy singer-songwriter Chris Garneau lent a sense of nostalgia and play, echoed in the knockabout spirit among the other male dancers. There were tender duets among them; women drifted through beautifully and left, and finally Freemantle tangled with a wooden footstool in a curious but oddly moving solo, in his boxers, with the moon looming behind him. Aging, solitude and grace were gathered gently together, with an exquisitely light touch, and the effect was like vapors in an updraft.
Maybe it’s San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley that prompted Wheeldon to make art of our obsession with our cellphones. In “Bound To,” the dancers stare into their handhelds, each in his or her own world, and — guess what — they miss out on so much. Taking a concrete subject is a departure for Wheeldon, yet this is not his best work. The duets were frequently lovely, but sometimes overwrought, and the subtitles — “Open Your Eyes,” “Take a Deep Breath” — made me suspect my mindfulness was on trial.
In “Take a Deep Breath,” complicated overhead lifts kept Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno so busy that they barely looked at one another. No phones in this part, so perhaps the couple’s disconnect meant coldness of another kind, but then they exited snuggling, and the focus of this piece left with them.
I’d like to see more of Dawson’s work and his appetite for movement. In his “Anima Animus,” accompanied by a brisk Ezio Bosso violin concerto, dancers flew in from the wings, spun by invisible currents; they gathered in intimate small-scale whirlwinds. The simple motif: a play of light and dark, with the dancers in Yumiko Takeshima’s half-white, half-black skin-baring bodysuits. It felt like a windswept autumn.
The San Francisco Ballet performs East Coast premieres from “Unbound: A Festival of New Works” through Sunday at the Kennedy Center. Program B, which features work by Edwaard Liang, Cathy Marston and Justin Peck, opens Thursday. 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.