Monday, June 17, 2024

RAWdance - Yerba Buena Gardens Festival

RAWdance: Drawing on a Decade
Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, San Francisco
June 15th, 2024

Summer weather in San Francisco is famously unpredictable. And yet, every time I’ve attended a dance event at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, it’s been beautiful. The weather gods seem to consistently smile down on this family-friendly, free collection of music, movement and multi-discipline performance, and this past weekend was no exception.

Saturday midday brought RAWdance back to YBGF, a staple participant on the downtown esplanade for the past ten years. For 2024, the remarkable bi-coastal company, under the co-Artistic Direction of Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith, offered an afternoon retrospective – three penetrating, site-specific works from past festivals entitled, Drawing on a Decade. While each was distinct, a throughline emerged as the day went on: a deep reflection of the dance’s chosen title.

RAWdance in Circuit
Photo Amal Bisharat

Circuit (2019) opened the program on the steps adjacent to the Leroy King Carousel, a work for six performers that aptly lived into its title. From a completely literal perspective, the piece was certainly a circuit of varied choreographic material. Clad in denim shirts, jeans and tomato-red sneakers, the cast was ferocious as they marched between the different steps. Subsequent partnering sequences not only introduced a soothing fluidity to the vista, but also explored boundaries as bodies were cantilevered out into space. We saw levels changing on a levelled structure. Airy extensions met grounded feet. And there was a fascinating play on texture as smooth, circular rolling phrases came up against the architectural Brutalism of the staircase. 

From a more conceptual perspective, the presence of an actual gym-like circuit was undeniable. A yoga inspired progression. Stretching postures that you find in a barre class. Lunging stadiums up the steps. And then, bookending the dance was a brilliant embodiment of 1980s step aerobics, but step aerobics on a deliciously heady artistic trip.

I saw Requiem when it first premiered in 2017, and its powerful, emotional spirit abides in 2024’s reimagined version. The word requiem has a number of definitions, one being a work of remembrance. And this is definitely a work of remembrance, composed after the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Florida. Rather than focusing on that night’s horrific violence and hatred, the dance takes on the act of remembering through an emotional movement poem. Its tone is, of course, sober, serious and somber, powerfully honoring the lost and mining the reality of collective grief.

Set in YBG’s East Gardens, and blending several theatrical devices, Requiem opens with couples leaning on each other; embracing and comforting with tender, tactile intention. And then, the piece takes flight. Arms and wrists pulsate like wings. Limbs suspend in the air before floating to the earth. Billowy arabesque jumps abound. As do supported, lifted positions, like a soul was flying. It’s a dance that you must see if you get the chance. 

Last stop was the Terrace, overlooking the MLK Memorial and waterfall for 2018’s Slipstream (with additional material from 2023). Being in front of a water feature was an ideal site for a work whose title refers to water currents and to assisting forces. Created for the full RAWdance ensemble, Slipstream put together a number of the company’s signature movements: long lines, flying motions, spirals, cantilevered lifts, picturesque vignettes. Though there were some surprise sequences too, including a courtly social dance phrase. The company was costumed in bright white, and on Saturday afternoon, there was an added visual of white seagulls flying around and amid the dancers. At times, the birds came pretty close to the performers, and it is a testament to everyone’s intense focus that no one even remotely flinched! Slipstream’s finale was exuberant, buoyant and full of motion – the cast, so joyful. In fact, any commentary on this performance has to include a shout out to RAWdance’s extraordinary company members. Drawing on a Decade had the group performing three totally unique works with different costuming, different locations, different qualities, different moods. And they nailed it. To say, it was an impressive feat doesn’t quite feel sufficient. But it was.  

Monday, May 20, 2024

Diablo Ballet

Diablo Ballet
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
May 18th, 2024 (matinee)

This past weekend at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, Diablo Ballet concluded its historic thirtieth season. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen Diablo Ballet live and in person, and Saturday’s matinee was a lovely way to get reacquainted. The performance was delightful, a triple bill marrying a work from the 1980s, a 2016 composition and a world premiere. The company roster has changed quite a bit over the last few years and this current cohort is looking very strong indeed.

The program’s first half was all about tone and mood, beginning with the pas de deux from Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain, a striking work made for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet in 1981. As one watches the duet, danced on Saturday afternoon by Lizzie Devanney and Luis Gonzalez, adjectives flood the mind. Sensual, hypnotizing, ferocious, intimate. Not surprisingly, it is absolutely packed with extreme movements, extensions and shapes. Ninety-degree flexion of the hands. Splits. Pencheé. A back lay out with accompanying kicks. Torso contractions. And of course, the final flying pose. In this partnered sequence, as well as other sections of the larger ballet, it has always struck me how long the female lead stays on pointe without a break. It’s astonishing and quite a feat. I so look forward to the day when the entire Light Rain is in Diablo’s repertoire. If their treatment of its pas de deux is any indication, it will be great!

4 in the Morning (An Entertainment) is Val Caniparoli choreography at its best. Created for Amy Seiwert’s Imagery back in 2016, the whimsical, multi-episodic romp charts a four-hour course of time (understandably sped up). Each short chapter opens with a digital clock reading high on the curtain’s corner, indicating where we find ourselves on the journey between midnight and four am. As the sections unfolded, it was anyone’s guess as to where the movement might reside. The scene might be stuffy and courtly. Phrase material could be mischievous and bold. Or cheeky, quick and unapologetic. My favorite was a humorous Celtic solo where a kilt costume piece transformed into a participant in the dance. The entire chamber ensemble (eight dancers) could be onstage, or it might be a duo, trio or quartet. 4 in the Morning was not only cleverly unpredictable, but totally entertaining (as the title aptly relays) and by far, the highlight of Saturday’s triple bill. 

Diablo Ballet in Caniparoli's 4 in the Morning (An Entertainment)
Photo Tue Nam Tom

The score, Façade by William Walton, was an ideal match because, like the capricious choreography, it too was full of surprises. At times, a sea shanty sang through the air; next , a British pub song in 6/8 time; then, undeniably, musical theater. But it was Susan Roemer’s costume design that really sealed the deal. The women were clad in slinky, ivory slip dresses while the men wore boxers, tank tops and socks, complete with old-fashioned sock garters. It felt very European in look, like we could have been watching Tanztheater Wuppertal, Nederlands Dans Theater or Cabaret. Funnily enough a production of Cabaret goes up at the Lesher Center in a week. With this nighttime attire and the timeframe of the piece, I wondered, were we watching a dream or reality?

If the first part of the program was all atmospheric feels, the second half was certainly all narrative. Enter choreographer Brian Enos’ new take on the mysterious Firebird. A one-act story, The Firebird has all the right elements. Royalty, a forest setting, mythical birds, an evil orchestrator, a benevolent matriarch and a love story. There’s fantasy, intrigue, forgiveness and super-hero, save-the-day moments. Props were symbolic and functional. Dramatically charged plot points were revealed. What more could one want from a narrative ballet? I’m not usually a fan of reading synopses or program notes, but here it was super smart to have a brief overview of a ‘not quite as well-known’ tale.

Enos’ choreography for the Firebird character (danced by Jackie McConnell) was terrific. Fast, sparkling, fluttering footwork – boureés, emboîté turns and much more. The finale unison sequence was also very well done with full out dancing from every member of the cast (all eighteen!). And partnering variations were solid, save some awkward transitions. One act narratives are tough – they just are. Trying to tell so much story in a short time is a challenge and then adding the real estate of a smaller stage presents another obstacle. But Enos and the Diablo Ballet artists faced those challenges head on. I think The Firebird is going to percolate well in the company’s rep over the next little while.   


Sunday, May 05, 2024

Smuin Contemporary Ballet - Dance Series 2

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Dance Series 2
Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
May 3rd, 2024

Last Friday night brought the opening of Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s Dance Series 2 – a captivating visual feast that serves as the conclusion to the company’s current season. And this is one for the record books. Not only does Smuin mark an epic three decades, but also a change in Artistic leadership. Soon Associate Artistic Director Amy Seiwert will take the helm as Smuin’s new A.D., as Celia Fushille moves on from a post she has held for seventeen years. Fushille and Seiwert have come together to craft next season, an exciting collection of past and present work which was just recently announced. But first, the 30th year must come to an end, and the Dance Series 2 program was a dynamic and entertaining finale, indeed. A quadruple bill of Founder Michael Smuin’s Starshadows, Brennan Wall’s Untwine, Seiwert’s Broken Open and the world premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoas’s Tupelo Tornado

Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander in
Wall's Untwine
Photo Chris Hardy

The first two pieces certainly had a throughline; and it was the notion of pairs, of couples. A lyrical waltz set to a Maurice Ravel composition, Michael Smuin’s wistful Starshadows (1997) had romance to spare. Three couples entered and exited the starry backdropped stage with dreamy, romantic abandon. Splits were imagined on and off the floor as the dancers created a woven tapestry of sublime ease. Calming and flowy, Starshadows was not just an ideal introduction into the performative space; it was a perfect counter for what would unfold next. Untwine, choreographed in 2022 by Smuin company artist Brennan Wall, shared a penchant for pas de deux. But unlike Starshadows, it began with a burst of dramatic charge. Danced by Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander, the first duet featured a plethora of moving lifts. The pair spinning, interlacing, and defying centrifugal forces at every turn. Then suddenly the mood shifted. Three additional couples joined the scene, and the atmosphere changed to one of quiet restraint. Classical ballet lines peppered the phrase material; subdued body postures grounded the composition. Then, the two sensibilities merged, showing the exciting play that can exist between quiet restraint and dramatic charge. It is important to note that all seven pairings were heteronormative – I wonder if the current casting decisions could be different.

Another mix of modalities was in store after the first intermission with Seiwert’s Broken Open (2015). A dazzling mélange of contemporary and traditional ballet, Broken Open invites its viewers to experience a multi-chapter physical novel. And it truly is quite an emotional ride, journeying from a serious, somber tone at the onset to a happier and brighter reality at the end.

Smuin in Seiwert's Broken Open
Photo Chris Hardy

The idea of ‘breaking open’ was everywhere in this full ensemble suite. Second position was abundant – in plié, in developpé, in attitude. Group vignettes were never stagnant. Rather, they were in constant motion, evolving and creating new landscapes and vistas. Legs and arms flicked into the air, seemingly ridding themselves of constraint. Pirouettes unfolded with high arms, opening up the front of the body. There was even a ‘breaking open’ of the stage area as Seiwert employed the wings as an active place, a place to onboard movement phrases. The dancers were tremendous throughout, with a stand-out, passionate pas de trois from Mengjung Chen, Dominic Barret and Yuri Rogers. And there was an extra infusion of energy on opening night as composer Julia Kent provided live cello accompaniment. The only thing that felt somewhat out of place for me were the costumes.

Many theatrical devices were present in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Tupelo Tornado, a world premiere ensemble work that took a deep dive into Elvis-Presley-land. There were blue (suede?) gloves. A television set headpiece. A neon on-air radio sign and accompanying static. Masks, crowns, fringe. Music. And of course, much choreography, including a genius Fosse-style dance line. It was entertaining; engaging, and the differing elements all worked in concert to bring the audience and Elvis into a shared environment. 

Brandon Alexander in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's
Tupelo Tornado
Photo Chris Hardy

But Tupelo was not all bell bottoms and screaming fans. It was a dance drama, a piece of dance theater. Dance theater with a narrative message and theme. Tupelo investigated the birthing of image. The machine that may be behind the building of a persona. The created self and the loss of self. Fame, yes, but also costs, realities, consequences and appropriation. It was deep, nuanced and layered, and in the titular role, Alexander was transcendent.

Dance Series 2 runs in San Francisco until May 12th, before heading to Mountain View, Walnut Creek and Carmel.