Monday, July 24, 2017

SKETCH 7 - "Wandering"

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery presents
SKETCH 7 – Wandering
Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
July 22nd, 2017

The seasons evocatively converged over the weekend as Amy Seiwert’s Imagery presented SKETCH 7 – Wandering at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. It was a beautiful warm summer weekend, especially by SF standards, but on stage, it was all winter, Franz Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle to be exact. Twenty-four separate songs with poetry by Wilhelm Müller, the score shares the story of a protagonist on a ‘winter’s journey’ (Winterreise translated), trekking through a natural environment, encountering a myriad of forces and searching for contentment. This was the source material that fueled Amy Seiwert’s new ballet for the seventh edition of Imagery’s SKETCH series.

SKETCH is designed to challenge choreographic patterns and processes. True to form, Artistic Director Seiwert posed a mammoth puzzle for 2017’s edition, something that was new for her – choreograph a full-length, narrative dance. Wandering is the result of that experiment. A two-act ballet where piano, voice, text and choreography unfold together in a parable about humanity’s quest for happiness.

As the company waited in the dark, only dim lanterns peppering the space, James Gilmer walked slowly onstage from one of the right wings. He placed a record on the record player and gently lifted the needle. Having completed this task, he walked towards the other seven dancers and instantly, Wandering was off.

Right from the start, a number of thematic and theatrical elements emerged that would inform Wandering until its final blackout. First was a long red coat. This coat was integral to the work, because it signaled who was embodying the protagonist role at any given moment. All eight of the Imagery artists would don this piece of clothing throughout the performance, each of them having a chance to experience the central character. And sometimes, taking on that responsibility was welcome, sometimes it was reluctant, sometimes it was even indignant and forced. Next was a palpable and conflictual pull both towards the group and against the group. Seiwert created a glowing choreographic container that examined both extremes – a real conversation between lone-ness and togetherness; seclusion and community. An atmosphere of sorrow and isolation leapt from the stage but at the same time, the dancers seemed pulled towards each other like magnets. Last was a specific choreographic point of articulation: the head. Hands would lead the chin, heads would lean on each other, palms would encircle the skull, and eyes would stare potently, looking for answers. This treatment of the head particularly stood out, not just because of its cerebral quality, but because when you walk, surprisingly, it is the head that moves first, not your feet. And with Wandering being about a journey, an emphasis on the head, and leading of the head, spoke volumes.

Shania Rasmussen, Gabriel Gaffney-Smith, Ben Needham-Wood,
Jackie Nash and Alysia Chang
Photo: Chris Hardy
But there were even more noteworthy elements in Wandering that deserve mention. Seiwert’s extraordinary treatment of ballet vocabulary surprises, delights and continues to astonish at every turn. It’s not just injecting a flexed foot here and there or experiencing a step on demi-pointe instead of full pointe. Seiwert mines further, delving into what a flexed foot can do as a transitional movement in lifts and promenades, or how a reaching extension suddenly broken by flexion makes a narrative statement. Pencil turns on pointe also entered the vernacular, as did arms exploring through the space and lifts breathtakingly ascending from the floor. Every Imagery dance artist excelled in both technique and artistry. And such silent jumping! Especially impressive was the Act II pas de deux by Jackie Nash and Ben Needham-Wood, which was technically a pas de trois, with Needham-Wood managing to effortlessly hold one of the lanterns for the duration of the duet.

Susan Roemer’s costuming was another example of true inspiration. Of course there was the red coat/protagonist connection, but that was only one part. Act I’s short unitards oozed winter with their snow-white base and tree branch motifs curving around the torso. And then in Act II, the unitard colors switched, perhaps indicating that the journey had moved into night. Near the end of Act I, it started gently ‘snowing’ onstage, and the effect was quite something (light and scenic design by Brian Jones) – it really felt cold in the theater. And just like with Roemer’s costumes, in Act II, the fallen snow turned black, again likely alluding to darkness, or perhaps a darker portion of the protagonist’s journey.

Soon, Imagery’s Wandering heads to New York for the Joyce Theater Ballet Festival (the piece was supported by the Joyce Theater Foundation). While I won’t get a chance to see that performance, I do wonder what the dance will be like on a different stage. The Cowell Theater is an intimate space, to be sure, and while it didn’t ever look crowded (even when all eight dancers were onstage), it would be fascinating to view it in a different venue.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Joe Goode Performance Group

Joe Goode Performance Group
30th Anniversary Season
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
June 23rd, 2017

Before heading to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater to catch Joe Goode Performance Group’s thirtieth anniversary program, I decided to look up the gifts that have historically marked three decades. My search yielded two primary results – pearl (traditional) and diamond (modern). So then, I started to list some common descriptors for these two stones. Pearl brought to mind things like rare, smooth and timeless, whereas diamond conjured strength, sparkle and faceted. And with diamonds, there was also the additional characteristic, as an oft symbol of long-term commitment – certainly apt considering that the evening commemorated thirty years of Artistic Director Joe Goode’s creative innovation and boundary-pushing art. All of these properties and qualities were present in Friday night’s winsome bill, the first half comprised of excerpts from four past works (2004’s Grace, 2011’s Rambler, 2009’s Wonderboy and 1991’s Remembering the Pool at the Best Western) followed by the company’s newest endeavor, Nobody Lives Here Now.

When I think of the term rare, the synonyms distinct and unique also immediately pop up, and each offering on the program lived into those words. From the intense physicality of Grace to the vocally driven Rambler to the puppetry and storytelling in Wonderboy to the realm straddling, emotionally charged Remembering the Pool at the Best Western to the dance theater opus Nobody Lives Here Now, each piece distinguished itself as rare and exceptional. The transitions between the first four excerpts were the epitome of smooth – one morphed into the next with care and attention, never an abrupt halt or jarring shift. And in terms of being timeless, all five performance works on the program revealed ‘timeless narratives’, themes that transcend a specific point in time, and so, can always speak to audiences. Relatable human experiences like being pulled in different directions, feeling isolated, loss, grief and personal identity. A pearl of a program indeed.

Strength read throughout each chapter of the night, though two examples in particular stood out. Marit Brook-Kothlow, Andrew Ward and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello’s opening trio from Grace was one such moment. An incredibly technical excerpt with shape-based, clearly defined movement, Grace was forceful and powerful. The partnering between the three dancers was dynamically acrobatic, and at one point, in a cantilevered balance, Brook-Kothlow seemed to effortlessly swim above Ward and Barrueto-Cabello. In Wonderboy, the men’s choreographic section provided a different take on strength. Again, Goode’s phrase material was specific and vibrant, yet in each connection between the four men (Barrueto-Cabello, Melecio Estrella, James Graham and Ward), a nurture and openness was so present and palpable. Here was strength shown through vulnerability and trust. Sparkle definitely made its appearance in the program too, specifically in the make-up and costume design for Nobody Lives Here Now.

Last, moving onto faceted…or perhaps multi-faceted is the better term. In Rambler, linguistics, gender stereotypes and social norms converge, through movement and text and within a decidedly humorous Western/cowboy container. And the text was treated (at least in this excerpt) in two different ways, through Patricia West’s spoken soliloquy and through Goode’s song, both cloaked in extremes and alluding to the connective narrative tissue. Remembering the Pool at the Best Western brought characterization and choreography to the table (figuratively and literally as Goode is seated at a kitchen table for the majority of the excerpt) as well as a meeting of gesture and language. All of these facets work together to help share a somber narrative, one that is a curiosity about death, and is seeking a connection with those who have passed into another realm of being.

Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, Andrew Ward & Marit Brook-Kothlow in
Nobody Lives Here Now
Photo RJ Muna
And now onto the most multi-faceted work on the program, Nobody Lives Here Now. This dance theater piece had about every theatrical device that one could imagine – videography, text script, props, costume, make-up, lighting design, gesture, mirroring, sets, characters, scenework, purposeful absurdity, humor as well as compositional repetition and exaggeration. Live music, performed by the Thalea String Quartet, scores the entire work and in addition to all of these elements, Nobody Lives Here Now has profound and vital messages - gender fluidity, the prevalence of labels, living fully into the self, and at the end, aging – all explored through narrative abstraction. Nobody Lives Here Now invites its audience into a magical sphere, using the world of illusion, spectacle and grandeur as an artistic allegory for metamorphosis and change. It’s entertaining, engaging (a most enthusiastic standing ovation greeted the cast at its conclusion) and very layered. But like a layer cake, the more layers you add, the chance that the cake might lean increases, and that’s what happened a little here. There was so much going on onstage that the deep, weighty and important narrative fibers got lost a bit, at least for me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Amy Foley's Bellwether Dance Project - SPF10

Bellwether Dance Project examines judgment and disparity in Thighs and Wages
As part of next month’s Summer Performance Festival (SPF10)
Presented by SAFEhouse Arts
Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco – July 6th–16th 

Bellwether Dance Project in Thighs and Wages
Photo Jane Hu
Dramatic directional shifts. Living poses and postures. Vast use of second and fourth positions in plié and in extension; a reflection of chasms and gaps. Technically intricate phrase material that is simultaneously expressive, risky and surprising. Unison, canon and partnering. Diverse physical vocabulary: turned out attitude and fouetté jumps, pedestrian running, parallel assemblés, task-based gestural sequences, contorted runway walks and solar plexuses lifting in a high upper body arch. Compositional repetition acting as both an emphasis and an anesthetic. Picturesque vignettes that speak of camaraderie and shared experience contrasted with challenging tableaux of manipulation, dismissal and control.

All these choreographic states and more await in Bellwether Dance Project’s Thighs and Wages, an ensemble work where contemporary performance and narrative abstraction evolve and converge. Conceived by Bellwether Dance Project’s Artistic Director Amy Foley, Thighs and Wages takes the stage in early July as part of the tenth annual SAFEhouse Arts Summer Performance Festival (SPF). Every summer, SAFEhouse Director Joe Landini welcomes emerging and established choreographic voices alike to the highly anticipated and eclectic dance event, this year held at the Joe Goode Annex. Bellwether Dance Project is thrilled to be part of 2017’s line-up, sharing a program with Linda Bouchard Multimedia Works.

A lifelong dancer, Foley began taking class at the age of five and continued throughout her childhood and teenage years, particularly pulled towards ballet. And like many serious dance students, sometime in high school she started to contemplate what might come out of these years of training, “I thought, wait, I’m not going to be a professional ballerina, but there must be a place in dance where I fit in.” After taking a brief hiatus from the studio, Foley rediscovered movement at Colorado College, and specifically found a connection with modern dance. “Here, I could use my technique, athleticism and grace, though in a different context, a more grounded one – it felt like home,” she recalls. Fast forward a bit and Foley found herself in San Francisco, with the goal of dancing and performing, and eventually discovered Robert Moses’ class. Within a couple of years, she joined Robert Moses’ KIN and remained a company member for a decade. During this season, Foley also taught and freelanced with other San Francisco dance organizations, like Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and Shift Physical Theater.

After her stint at Robert Moses’ KIN, Foley noticed a new artistic and creative pull within, an itch to start making her own work. Though, at the same time, she didn’t want to abandon the dancer/performer part of her being. So once again, it was time for some penetrating questions, “am I a dancer, am I a choreographer, where should my focus lie?” Like most deep inquiries, Foley found that there wasn’t one answer, and that for her, living into both roads felt right. Still continuing to perform (with ODC, and of late with RAWdance, project.b. and KAMBARA+DANCERS), she also began presenting work in a number of different choreographic outlets: ODC’s Pilot Program, LINES Ballet’s summer intensive, RAWdance’s CONCEPT series, PUSHfest, Robert Moses’ KIN’s By Series and the Dance Mission Choreographic Showcase. Over the past sixteen months, this journey in dancemaking has intensified even further, with the official formation of Foley’s company, Bellwether Dance Project, and more recently, as a Lead Artist at SAFEhouse Arts.

While RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) has been a fixture in the San Francisco choreographic climate for ten years, SAFEhouse’s Lead Artist program is a brand new offshoot. “We decided this year to start moving towards an artist co-op model as a way for SAFEhouse to become more sustainable,” explains Landini, “we invited a group of RAW artists to help us run SAFEhouse in the areas of Production, Marketing, Development and Operations; six of this year’s SPF choreographers are Lead Artists.” Of course, built into the Lead Artist program is space to construct and develop new work as well as several performance opportunities. Foley’s Thighs and Wages is one of the resulting dances from her time in this creative, exploratory environment.

Bellwether Dance Project in Thighs and Wages
Photo Jane Hu
While not a linear story, Thighs and Wages has a powerful narrative and conceptual foundation. “The piece considers and alludes to the ways that women are scrutinized and objectified; how turning someone into an object lessens their humanness,” Foley shares, “and without suggesting any answer or resolution, it challenges the viewer to contemplate the ramifications and outcomes of this objectification – abuse, violence or training women in self-doubt.” A twenty-minute work for five women, Thighs and Wages saw its premiere in November of 2016 at SAFEhouse. “I was really happy with the first showing back in November; it went well, and it also made me realize that I wanted to delve deeper into Thighs and Wages,” adds Foley. With the upcoming July performances in SPF10, she is doing just that, once again is diving into this narrative, contemporary choreography.

Re-visiting any type of project brings with it such great opportunities – the chance to create new material, to edit and adjust existing parts and the occasion to possibly work with new collaborators. All of these hold true for Foley’s next iteration of Thighs and Wages. “I’m expanding the piece and creating some new ideas as well as changing some of the overall structure and phrases,” Foley describes, “and four of the five dancers are new, so it’s exciting to experience their individualism, creativity and different ways of moving in the work.” Dancers in the original cast of Thighs and Wages were Kaitlyn Ebert, Jackie Goneconti Gibbons, Emeline Le Thiec, Jane Selna and Maggie Stack, all of who also performed the work in January as part of the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival. Stack will be returning for SPF10 and will be joined by Marlie Couto, Liza Kroeschell, Courtney Mazeika and Katerina Wong.

As the SPF10 performances near (just a mere two weeks away), Foley is eager to present the next version of Thighs and Wages, this time in a new space and with a new quintet of dance artists. And she is also keen to share the piece with viewers who may be familiar with the work and those who are encountering it for the first time, “I hope the audience feels moved, whether touched, angry, sad or something else altogether; that they feel something is very important to me.”

Bellwether Dance Project in Thighs and Wages - Thurs, July 6th at 8:00pm and Sat, July 8th at 8:00pm.

*this article is sponsored by San Francisco Movement Arts Festival