Wednesday, July 17, 2024

SF Playhouse - Evita

San Francisco Playhouse, San Francisco
July 16th, 2024

Sophia Alawi and the cast of Evita
Photo Jessica Palopoli

I’ve never seen Evita live, but of course am familiar with its true story. Set in Argentina during the first half of the twentieth century, the musical follows the circuitous and storied life of Eva (Evita) Duarte Perón, who becomes the wife of equally controversial, and often brutal, Juan Perón, twice Argentina’s President. Several throughlines weave through the show’s two Acts. Power. Political upheaval. Penetrating personas. The potency of charisma. And the negative, sometimes catastrophic, consequences of idol-worship. Conceived in the 1970s by iconic musical theatre duo Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the show won the 1980 Tony Award for Best Musical and was adapted to the screen in 1996, starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce. The intoxicating tale is currently in the middle of its run at San Francisco Playhouse, directed by Bill English with Dave Dobrusky‘s musical direction and Nicole Helfer’s choreography  – it’s onstage until September 4th.

This production had a lot going for it (great character development, Abra Berman’s stunning costume design); I really enjoyed the entire evening. Though as a dance critic, I was mostly focused on Evita’s physicality. And the dancing was indeed strong. Both Helfer’s choreography, as well as the interpretation/execution by the company artists, was on point. Tango took center stage in the majority of dance sequences: close embraces, purposefully bent knees, tenacious on beat marching. There were stretchy, elastic extensions of the leg, syncopated rhythms and sharp directional changes. From duets to large group ensembles, the audience was treated to the range of what tango has to offer. While Helfer definitely deserves kudos for her creativity and attention to authenticity, there are two other facets of her work that also impressed. In much of the choreography, there were hints and injections of the early twentieth century modernists, internationally renowned creators who were developing their individual styles in the same era as this story. Martha Graham contractions made an appearance, as did José Limón arm pulses. This mixture of modalities not only provided a deep textural layer but also a surprising historical nod. The second is that Helfer got strong movement quality from everyone – singers and dancers alike. Too often, choreographers separate the ensemble and have one group stand, while the others move. Of course, there are always more difficult, technical phrases that should be performed by trained dancers (and they were here), but it looks contrived and frankly, a little fake, when half the cast just stops and watches. Brava to Helfer for creating a true community in the choreography!  

Through-sung musicals (without spoken scenework) can be tricky, and Lloyd Webber/Rice roles famously (or infamously, depending on who you ask) have their fair share of wide, vast vocal ranges. In a single song, the vocalist can be asked for super high notes and incredibly low ones. Evita is no exception and for the most part, it was handled well. Alex Rodriguez as Che was exceptionally good (we also got to see his significant dance chops in Act II), as was Sophia Alawi in the titular role. The ensemble vocal sections were solid and Chanel Tilghman’s turn as Perón’s mistress singing “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” was the vocal highlight of the evening for me. 

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 YBGF’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.