Ballet Stars

Ballet Unbound: Inside Rehearsals for San Francisco Ballet's Ambitious New Works Festival

From left: Jennifer Stahl, Lonnie Weeks and Sasha De Sola in rehearsal for Trey McIntyre's new work. Photo by Christian Peacock for Pointe.

Photography by Christian Peacock

Summer is always a lively time at San Francisco Ballet, as the dancers return from vacation and launch into rehearsals for the upcoming season. But last July through September felt absolutely electric with creativity as the company created 12 world premieres for Unbound: A Festival of New Works, a cutting-edge program that will run April 20–May 6 at the War Memorial Opera House.

Artistic director Helgi Tomasson invited a wish list of international choreographers to participate: 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. Each got about 12 dancers, three weeks' studio time and, aside from a few general guidelines, total artistic freedom.


"People have asked me, 'Where is ballet going? Is ballet dead?' " Tomasson says. "Ballet is a living art form. We respect the classics, and we should, but we also have to look forward and see what's out there."

Audiences are in for some surprises—from Pita's dance-club fantasy set to Björk songs to Wheeldon's slippers-and-socks ballet about digital alienation, using cell phones as props. "I think it's terrific," Wheeldon says. "I love that Helgi chose to challenge the artists to loosen the binds of their normal way of working and try something a bit different."

The dancers may be the greatest beneficiaries of all. Most were cast in four ballets, created on them in intense, back-to-back rehearsals. The blistering pace meant sore muscles and countless details to remember, but it was worth all the hard work, says principal dancer Mathilde Froustey. "I feel like it's Christmas," she says. "Every three weeks I get a new gift, a new choreographer."

Pointe went inside rehearsals with Froustey, soloist Isabella DeVivo and corps dancer Lonnie Weeks. Here, they reflect on Unbound and what it's like to be on the cutting edge of ballet.

Cathy Marston's story ballet is based on Edith Wharton's 1911 novella Ethan Frome. Principal Mathilde Froustey (above) plays Mattie, the other woman in a love triangle with Ethan, played by Ulrik Birkkjaer.

Marston's character-driven process was different for Froustey: "She has a movement style, but most of the time she says, 'What's happening in the story?' When the character was clear in my head, the movement made sense."

"I am not used to modern ballet," says Froustey. To help her generate movement, Marston (left) tapped into her imagination: "I said, 'Can you point to the moon with your foot? Now imagine you're trying to collect stardust with your foot.' She really responded to those images."

Christopher Wheeldon works out a phrase with soloist Isabella DeVivo (left) and principal Sasha De Sola. "The ballet is a comment on how disconnected we're becoming as a society, and a reflection on the beauty that we're missing while buried in our devices," says Wheeldon.

"He'll ask for something, and he'll want to see it right then and there," DeVivo says of Wheeldon. "Having less experience, it takes me a bit more time to understand exactly what he wants."

Wheeldon's process is "incredible," says DeVivo. "There's a lot of information being thrown at us—changes, steps, details. With any new work put together in three weeks, there's a lot we have to be on top of at all times."

Partnering another woman is a new experience for DeVivo. "Being super-grounded and taking each other's weight, and trusting another girl who is your size, that's a challenge in itself."

Trey McIntyre in rehearsal with corps dancer Lonnie Weeks (center) and principals Jennifer Stahl and Sasha De Sola. "Choreography sort of pours out of him," says Weeks. "He's also open to ideas and suggestions from the dancers."

McIntyre didn't share his idea for the work until a few days into the process. "I don't want their immediate reaction to be that they act it for me," he says. "I need to make sure all the information is in the choreography."

"The festival is giving a lot of people opportunities that they wouldn't normally get," says Weeks. "I think you'll see a lot of young dancers rising to the occasion."

The Conversation
popular
Yos Clark, of Africa's Ivory Coast. Courtesy Ballet Rising.

From his home in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, an eight-year-old boy named Yos Clark discovered ballet from the film Un, Dos, Tres, and began teaching himself to dance through videos. A teacher in France saw photos of Yos dancing online, and taught him over Skype because the studio in Abidjan was too long of a commute for him to train there on a regular basis. Apparently, the lessons paid off; last year, Yos received a scholarship to continue his training in Warrington, England.

Dancers like Clark are what propel former Dutch National Ballet principal Casey Herd recently; since leaving the company three years ago, Herd has become determined to shed light on the lesser-known stories of dancers making it around the world. Now, he and his friend and colleague Chris Weisler are creating a documentary project called Ballet Rising. Together they have been transversing the globe, searching for people embracing ballet. (Since the series is still in development, a premiere date is TBA.) Between stops, Pointe touched base with Herd over the phone to learn about the project, where his travels have taken him so far, and what his hopes are for the future of global ballet.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Training
Getty Images

I got professionally fitted and my shoes were fine in the store. Now in class, the vamp is digging into my foot in demi-pointe and the heel is sliding off. Is it the size, the width or both? —Mandi

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Svetlana Zakharova in Carmen Suite, via YouTube

If you're making your weekend plans, you may want to clear your calendar for Sunday and check your local movie listings. On May 19, Fathom Events, in partnership with Pathé Live and By Experience, is broadcasting the Bolshoi Ballet's performance of Carmen Suite and Petrushka throughout cinemas nationwide. The program will be captured live the same day from Moscow, and feature some of the Bolshoi's biggest stars.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Still Courtesy Design Army

Hong Kong Ballet is celebrating its 40th anniversary in style. Today, the company released the new phase of its yearlong ad campaign, which includes the below film, a Wes Anderson-esque romp through the city fusing ballet with pop culture, filled with ferry boats, pom pom-wielding grannies and dim sum served in hot pink containers.

Keep reading... Show less