I wonder if it’s been like this for New Yorkers: You see one Justin Peck ballet, set to an orchestra score written by a pop musician, and you’re half-charmed by the youthful exuberance, and appreciate the influence of Jerome Robbins, but keep a healthy reserve of skepticism because somehow the whole package seems to lack substance. But then you see a more classical Peck ballet—“In Creases,” say, set to Philip Glass’s score for two pianos—and the formal intelligence is undeniable, but the exuberance remains, and you think, OK, he’s not just a pop-culture re-packager. And then maybe you see his take on Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” next, and there it is, the “mattering” you’ve been craving, in the way the tender partnering among the men feels boldly yet unfeignedly counter-cultural. And finally you see Peck’s latest premiere—pop music again—and the kids up on the stage are so damned beautiful and hopeful and hormone-powered, and the music is thrashing, surging, end-of-the-world-twenty-something-romance music, and all of your hesitations have been worn down, and you just—surrender to the seduction.
New Yorkers have had at least a dozen ballets over which to travel such an arc, watching Peck grow up artistically as Choreographer in Residence (while still also performing as a soloist) at New York City Ballet. Here in San Francisco, we’ve had only a handful of chances to see his work live. Last Friday, San Francisco Ballet premiered his second work commissioned by the company, using it to crown the opening night of a four-program, 12-choreographer festival, “Unbound,” that right out of the gate lived up to its marketing.
Alonzo King’s “The Collective Agreement,” may prove the more lastingly provocative premiere (more on that in a moment), but Peck’s was the ecstatic finale most likely to make newer patrons rethink their ballet stereotypes. “It’s Gerald Arpino with taste,” a colleague quipped to me after. I hadn’t been thinking of the pop-culture ballets of Arpino, exactly, but I had been thinking of the Joffrey Ballet, and their early 90s triptych to the music of Prince, “Billboards,” and with a similar assessment: Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” will age better.
If I’m willing to hazard that prediction, it’s because of Peck’s depth of movement investigation. The music, by “electronic music project” M83, is synthesizer and drum-driven, and the ballet takes both its title and its arc from the band’s album “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” tracing (or so Peck offers in the program notes) “how we dream as children, how we dream as young, coming-of-age adults, and how we dream as fully mature adults.” That arc wasn’t obvious, though the ballet does start with a song featuring a child’s voice, which sets a playground-like tone for fourteen dancers clad in shiny metallic glam-rock pants and tank tops by the fashion team Reid & Harriet. More prevalent and memorable than this arc is the final costume element: sneakers.
We’ve seen sneakers in ballet before, of course, but Peck earns their use the way Twyla Tharp once did, yet with a completely different movement aesthetic.
We’ve seen sneakers in ballet before, of course, but Peck earns their use the way Twyla Tharp once did, yet with a completely different movement aesthetic. Where Tharp was bouncy and loose in the hips, Peck emphasizes sinking and thrashing, but without much loosey-gooseyness in the torso. “Hurry Up” is less busy in movement vocabulary than Tharp ballets or previous Peck ballets, too, instead repeating loops of movement in a kind of ostinato hypnosis. The results here were especially mesmerizing in a long central duet for Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham, stately dancers who project a sexy maturity. Their choreography evokes West Coast swing, but danced underwater; they were always connected, even when Van Patten turned away and Ingham waited two steps to follow after her. This was a long and repetitive duet, but because of the grounded tension between swiftness and viscosity, never for a second dull. It reminded me, actually, of the intense movement studies of minimalist choreographer Brian Brooks.
But “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” feels like movement investigation with ballet at its core, not an abandonment of it and not a mere application of ballet to a pop soundtrack. There are moments when the dancers do little frappés. The pause between thrashes is a very classical variation of arms in fourth position. The base of Dores André’s epic final pas de deux with Wei Wang is an immaculately turned-out ronde de jambe. Henry Sidford stood out among the ensemble for a virtuosic tour with legs in a diamond position. I have seen a lot of watered-down ballet in the name of pop “accessibility,” but Peck gives us something more.
The solidity of classical training also proved crucial in Alonzo King’s “The Collective Agreement,” which opened the program. King’s LINES Ballet has thrived in San Francisco for 35 years, and yet King has never been commissioned by San Francisco Ballet (though he has made works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, among others), so it was fascinating to see how his movement philosophy would work on SF Ballet’s bodies. I had assumed that some sense of authenticity would be lost, that King’s choreography would be more conventionalized on these conservatory-refined dancers (King’s own dancers, though splendid, often hail from more motley training, or came to ballet later, so that classicism is not as deeply and uniformly imbued into their physicality). But nothing was lost. The ingrained refinement only made sharper the dialectical pull between classicism and what King thinks of as “romanticism” (or individualist expression) in his movement. Or at least, King, was able to pull that earthy individuality out of a dancer as typically 19th century classicist as Jahna Frantziskonis.
Sofiane Sylve was the center of this drama, dressed in a white leotard by King’s longtime costume collaborator Robert Rosenwasser, sometimes jutting her hips in a pike-shaped promenade with Tiit Helimets, later gesturing with oracular intensity to the sundry characters within this odd drama, but always riveting, magisterial. The music was extraordinary: a commissioned score by MacArthur “genius” award winner Jason Moran, who hails from a jazz background, but here delivered a sumptuous horn and string-driven score, atmospheric but punctuated with sharp cracks of percussion, performed beguilingly by the SF Ballet orchestra under conductor Martin West.
I really cannot yet offer an interpretation of what played out between several men in lighter and more billowing vestments (Myles Thatcher especially windblown and entrancingly shape-shifting among them), another group of men in black (Vitor Luiz whirling through powerhouse turns), and groupings of women in dark velvety leotards with space age thigh rings. But artist Jim Campbell’s LED light screens, lowering and tilting like alien visitors, punctuated the action arrestingly. And the ballet demands to be seen again.
Unfortunately, the gist of the middle ballet on this program, Christopher Wheeldon’s “Bound To,” is all too easily grasped in one sitting. This is a public service announcement on the alienating effects of portable social media, dancers glued to bright handheld screens as composer Keaton Henson’s sad music surges. In the cell phone-free quartets, relationships are sentimentally tender and lyrical. But in a final section to recorded music, with Henson singing about “songs I wrote and got laid for,” Lonnie Weeks is alone, despondent, and heartbreakingly vulnerable. This is an extraordinary solo on a jaw-droppingly powerful (and recently promoted to soloist) dancer. I would love to see it presented independent of the rest of the ballet, but the audience begged to differ, giving a standing ovation that seemed to me fueled by a need for regretful catharsis—before heading back out to the lobby to check their text messages, regrets all forgotten.
The Unbound festival continues with works by David Dawson, Edward Liaang, Cathy Marston, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Dwight Rhoden, Trey McIntyre, Stanton Welch, and Arthur Pita through May 6th. It is off to an invigorating start.