Monday, October 09, 2017

Smuin - Dance Series 01

Smuin, Contemporary American Ballet
Dance Series 01
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
October 6th, 2017

The first notes of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C echoed through the Palace of Fine Arts Theater – a famous music selection in concert dance, the score for George Balanchine’s timeless Serenade. Though here, this familiar musical opening was ushering in something different, Garrett Ammon’s Serenade for Strings, brought to life by the dance artists of Smuin, in this first program of their twenty-fourth season.

A cast of ten walked forward in a casual, unrushed gait, which quickly erupted into an expansive pas de deux for five pairs. Jubilant and varied movement abounded: flexed feet, thrown lifts, chugging jumps to the side. Morphing from a full ensemble statement into smaller groupings, the choreographic layering continued and accumulated with swiveling heads and emboîté turns; funny, whimsical moments meeting with luscious grace. Nicole Haskins and Jonathan Powell brought an innocent, playful vivaciousness with an early waltz and delighted with exuberant pas de chats and more emboîtés in the accelerando section near the end of the piece. This contrasted beautifully with the forward motion and sense of longing in Tessa Barbour and Robert Kretz’s lengthy duet; full of hope and strength, their stretchy arabesques sculpted the entire space around them. And while Serenade for Strings is not exclusively partnering, Ammon’s ballet is most definitely a dance for couples, steeped with a deep throughline of reciprocal respect.

I actually quite enjoyed seeing a different choreographic perspective paired with this known ballet music, and because Ammon’s Serenade for Strings has been in the Smuin repertory for a couple of years, the physical syntax is very much in their wheelhouse (with the exception of few challenging transitions here and there). Though I am curious about Serenade for Strings’ compositional structure, particularly the long middle portion, which, though beautifully danced, felt like it lagged. The piece follows an allegro-andante/adagio-allegro vivace movement sequence, or fast-slow-fast. Certainly a common format for choreography, and equally common is that the middle section can prove elusive, and that was the case here.  

Erica Felsch and the Smuin company in
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Requiem for a Rose
Photo Keith Sutter
Next up on Dance Series 01 was the much-anticipated Requiem for a Rose, by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, a ballet that penetrates with its contrasts and dynamic arc. The lights rose to reveal Erica Felsch center stage, a scarlet rose held in her mouth. Replete with ferocious, powerful choreography, Felsch’s opening solo married angular motions with wild swings; intensely crossed 5th positions with pulsating isolations. As twelve dancers (a bouquet of roses) entered the space to join her, the visual contrasts were striking. They, in flowing red skirts; she, in a minimal flesh-toned leotard; the other women in the cast with their hair tied back and wearing pointe shoes; she, hair unencumbered and with no shoes at all. From this point, the stage would continually transform into a series of distinct vignettes, each one a dynamic journey of physical fortissimos and mezzo pianos, emphatic accents and sustained fermatas. An emotive first duet by Valerie Harmon and Oliver-Paul Adams stunned with its sweeping, innovative lifts, while the men’s quintet sequence introduced charged turns and directional shifts. A later enchainment by Harmon brought back motifs from Felsch’s first solo, re-imagined and re-envisioned, followed by the sublime intertwined energy of Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Ben Needham-Wood’s serpentine duet. And then, the simple, but powerful conclusion to Requiem for a Rose. Led by Felsch, the cast walked across the stage from right to left. Had they decided that she knew the way and they would follow her? Did they just want to momentarily experience and visit in her reality? Or were they transfixed and hypnotized by her wisdom and acuity?

Closing the Dance Series 01 program was the revue-style ballet set to Frank Sinatra classics, Fly Me to the Moon, created by company founder Michael Smuin. Elegant, sparkling gowns, white gloves and debonair hats filled the stage for this choreographically diverse suite – traditional ballet set off by lyrical flair, contemporary vocabulary infused with jazz and social dance. Fly Me to the Moon is cool, it’s sophisticated and most important, it is fun. Throughout the nine individual scenes, flowy, well-crafted, yet demanding, phrase material unfolded: parallel pirouettes and Russian pas de chats, layouts, drag slides and grapevines, batterie arising out of the most surprising moments. Old-school tap even made an appearance in the first part of Erica Chipp-Adams and Adams’ The Way You Look Tonight – a mélange of pullbacks, paddle turns and double wings. Every lift and motion in Felsch and Powell’s Moonlight Serenade fittingly ascended skyward. And Kretz was the epitome of smooth and specificity with the Fosse-influenced That’s Life solo.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group

Cal Performances presents
Photo Peggy Woolsey

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group
September 23rd, 2017
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

I think any performing arts writer uses favorite language components to describe what they’re seeing – favorite terms, favorite adjectives, favorite phraseology. I certainly do. Though one word that I rarely use is masterful. But every once in a while, masterful is the most fitting descriptor, and this weekend’s performance of Moses(es) by Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group at Cal Performances was special. It calls for the use of ‘masterful.’

Devoid of the wings and the cyclorama, a fully lit, deconstructed space greeted the viewer as they entered Zellerbach Hall. A red suitcase was placed amidst ample silver tinsel that had been strewn about the stage. Artistic Director, choreographer and performer Reggie Wilson entered, standing downstage right. He straightened his clothing, smiled at the audience and tossed wrapped candy out to them. In these opening moments, Wilson connected directly with the audience, and so right away, the line between performer and viewer had become porous. One by one, the company came out into the space, introduced themselves, announced what I assumed was their birthplace as well as giving a statement of time, which I again assumed was how long they had been working with Fist and Heel Performance Group. 

As “Go Down, Moses” scored the action, the cast assembled in a wedge formation upstage left, nodding their heads, while Wilson packed all the tinsel in the suitcase and rolled it away. He returned, and with the company, began harmonizing and vocalizing. From that instant, you knew that everyone onstage was a consummate interdisciplinary artist, skilled as movers, vocalists and percussionists.

Moses(es)’ early choreography spoke of familiar motions and strong water imagery, water, of course being integral to much of the biblical Moses story. Performers walked, knelt and rolled in the space; bodies were ceremoniously laid down on the ground, like a baptism. Legs swam in the air and dancers dove into second position, lopping up an entity (presumably water) and then letting it go. Layered on top were recognizable gestures – pointing/following the horizon and cradling a baby.

In preparation for seeing the work on Friday, I had read that questions of leading and following were intrinsic to Moses(es) and that exploration was so, so clear at many points in the seventy-minute composition. Mid-way through, a trio began dancing in unison and as their phrase material continued and accumulated, one would take over leading the group, then another, then another until each member of the trio was experiencing the choreography at their own pace, with no leader whatsoever. A later quintet had some similar qualities. Two dancers introduced a movement phrase; three more joined a number of beats after (in canon) and then eventually the five found their way back together in unison. A call and answer song, which was accompanied by a simultaneous physical pattern, was another example of this overarching query. A cyclical, circular entity with no starting and no ending, and consequently, no leader and no follower.

Framed by a disco ball, each individual brought his or her own unique expressive dance downstage center to a song where the pervasive lyric was that of “follow me.” They played with tempi (sometimes speeding up, sometimes slowing down), choreographic style and genre as well as physical intensity. And a mathematical segment brought patterning and repetition to the table, though it was a bit on the long side and its connection to the whole of the work was a little lost on me.

Near the end of Moses(es), cannoned movement sequences recurred, with the performers staggering the start of various choreographic phrases. The water imagery from the beginning also made another appearance with arms and legs swimming through the space, and the company once more pointing along the horizon. And in a fantastic cadence, Wilson asked the audience to join in with some of the singing and vocalizing right near the end of the work, engaging with the audience and again, breaking the barrier between viewer and performer.