Monday, October 06, 2014

"Paul C.'s Homeroom Journal"

Dance Up Close/East Bay presents
Stranger Lover Dreamer in
“Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal”
Photo: Matthew Kertesz
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
October 5th, 2014

A recent conversation with a wonderful San Francisco choreographer has me thinking about viewership. How do we see dance? What do we look for? What moves us in performance? Are we more interested in conceptual themes or in form, structure and functionality? I tend towards content – I like to try and figure out what a piece is about and look for narrative implications in the movement. It’s not that I don’t recognize structure, but it doesn’t speak to me in the same way that story does. So I decided to do an experiment – begin by approaching a piece from a formal perspective, and see where it leads. What I learned is when you look at the structure, form and function of a contemporary performance work, a host of discoveries abound, even a few narrative revelations.

“Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal”, a new ensemble work by Stranger Lover Dreamer, takes its audience on a journey back to the odd, glorious microcosm that is high school. Inspired by a found, anonymous journal (the author is simply referred to as Paul C.), this contemporary dance collective (led by Andrew Merrell, Elizebeth Randall and Shaunna Vella) has crafted an evening-length, site-specific, mobile work that is incredibly entertaining, with a perfect mix of depth and humor.

The first triumph of this piece is in its setting - Shawl-Anderson Dance Center had truly been transformed. The lobby became a high school hallway on the first day of a new school year. The cast mingled with the audience; the Principal was keeping order; music was playing; photos were happening. Following the homeroom introduction, the audience was divided and led through multiple different spaces – my group’s schedule was homeroom, gym class, art and then finally assembly. Each individual studio was thoughtfully and appropriately outfitted with posters, trophies, school supplies and in the main room, an old-school overhead projector. To kick things off, we were each given our own journal, and an assignment from the Principal. Consider three questions and jot down thoughts, comments and responses: who do we think we are; how do others perceive us and who do we want to become. The setting was nothing short of perfection.

Onto structure, form and functionality. “Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal” was like a living diary; a collection of vignettes and dances. Each was introduced with a date and a short verbal statement (from Paul C.’s journal), and they occurred in random, rather than chronological, order. In the first homeroom sequence, the overhead projector worked in concert with sculpted choreographic shapes. Dancers would create and hold a posture, which would then be traced on the overhead projector. Functionally, it brought active projection and real-time movement together as collaborating theatrical elements. But it also revealed some content, specifically the space between perception and reality. Other dances functioned to introduce and celebrate different personalities and idiosyncrasies. In gym class, one trio focused on individual interpretation and internal reflection through gestural movements. The ‘yes I do like snow because it is awesome’ ensemble dance was another ode to individualism. Every hand gesture was unique; the cast was reacting to this phrase in distinct ways – both verbally and physically. And how it revved up into a crazy tornado, perhaps like a snow blizzard, was delightful. Still other choreographic sequences functioned as more literal interpretations of the journal entries. In art class, the ‘we’re writing…’ scene saw arms and legs writing in the space; in the air, on the floor, quickly, expansively. From a functional perspective, there was such range and diversity, and that made every moment in “Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal” wonderfully unpredictable.

By far, my favorite choreographic segment was Randall’s ‘Under my bed is a trundle…’. One soloist cycled through the technically demanding choreography; levels constantly changing, evolving from one state to another. The cast was scattered around the space, standing still, clutching pillows. Choreographically and visually, it was a very moving experience.

Contemporary dance performance is important, but I don’t know how often it is also fun. Stranger Lover Dreamer’s “Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal” is both. The show runs for another weekend at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley – go see it.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Joe Goode Performance Group

Z Space, San Francisco
October 3rd, 2014

When describing dance performance, I tend to use the verbs ‘reviving’ and ‘restaging’ interchangeably. But actually there is a huge difference between the two. Classical and contemporary companies restage work all the time – there may be a new cast, or it may be in a new space, though for the most part, these are restatements of existing repertoire. Revivals take things a step further. Yes, they may also have a different cast and be on a different stage, but revivals breathe new life into a work. Joe Goode Performance Group’s fall program (presented with Z Space) is a shared program of revivals – two distinct works that are still on an artistic journey.

The evening opened with Goode’s iconic piece from 1987, “29 Effeminate Gestures”, performed by Melecio Estrella. The work begins in striking extremes. Estrella starts in the audience wearing mechanic overalls and a trucker hat. He slowly makes his way onto the stage space where he destroys a chair with a chainsaw. Estrella then moves upstage left,
Pictured: Melecio Estrella in "29 Effeminate Gestures"
Photo: RJ Muna
converts the top of his jumpsuit into a belt, and in his newly revealed shimmery purple tube top, begins the circuit of “29 Effeminate Gestures”. While these initial scenes seem opposed, the genius of the work is in their fluidity. As the solo continues, the original set of gestures remains but they are also simultaneously morphed into another state of being. This process is seamless and continuous with no defined moment of transition. It happens right before your eyes yet it is impossible to pinpoint the instants where the experience changes.

An ensemble work, 2008’s “Wonderboy” is a vision of what the present day and future can be, a comment on the space between reality and imagination and a discussion of fear. Under Goode’s Artistic Direction, each of these themes are explored and examined through the eyes of a boy, a puppet created and constructed for this project by collaborating Director of Puppetry, Basil Twist. The concept is cool; the communication is clear and the construction is clever, and it is in this last area that the piece makes one of its most significant achievements. “Wonderboy” is definitely a narrative tour-de-force, though its structure, form and style speak to the evolving nature of dance theater itself. Goode’s dance theater thinks outside the box with a unique combination of movement, scenework, text, music, humor and depth. And in “Wonderboy”, the absurdity and bizarreness that is typical of many dance theater works is not at play and it is not missed. Successful dance theater should not be defined by a list of characteristics and tenets, but by the trajectory of each individual work and Goode’s “Wonderboy” bravely marks its own path. On the whole, the piece was very dance-y, and that was terrific – Goode’s movement vocabulary and choreography is compelling and the dancers are phenomenal. But, the many choreographic segments were very alike. This entire group also has an incredible (and rare) musical talent, which rightly finds its way into much of the company’s work, including “Wonderboy”. But the musical interjections are starting to blend together. From one piece to the next, it’s the same harmonies, the same vocal tone, the same dynamics, the same tempi, and so how the music relates to each specific piece is getting a little lost.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mark Morris Dance Group

presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
September 28th, 2014

Mark Morris Dance Group’s fall engagement at Cal Performances demonstrated the evolving nature and breadth of neoclassical dance. Program A brought a collection of four Bay Area premieres. Two were solid old-school neoclassical compositions with the requisite technical proficiency, unexpected (and delightful) movement choices and musical exploration. The other two pieces on the program pushed the boundaries of this stylistic genre, stretching the form even further with both innovative physical syllabi and cutting-edge conceptual approaches.

Program A opened with Morris’ “The Muir” (2010), a work for three men and three women, featuring stunning vocalists cycling through a set of enchanting folk songs. “The Muir” was a pretty traditional example of neoclassical dance, with movements that punctuated and emphasized the score. Full of clever and humorous moments - the men crawling along the floor to a pulsating beat, the waving and pointing hand gestures, miming empty pockets – it was like a tongue in cheek court dance. Yet the ending was somber and heavy as one sole dancer was left alone on the stage. “The Muir” is a physically demanding piece for the entire cast, though the men’s choreography stole the show. There was only one problematic step that recurred throughout – the attitude derriere. It was neither turned out nor parallel; this ‘in between state’ looked unintentional, and frankly, a little sloppy.

2012’s “A Wooden Tree” followed – an ensemble dance set again to folk music, this time by Ivor Cutler. The cast looked like a group of hipsters (a comically unstable group at times) at a social dance club. Again Morris’ movement reflected the score, but this time that interpretation was taken to a new level. The words/lyrics were also visually incorporated into the dance and into the interactions between the dancers - the women’s telegraph sequence was particularly phenomenal.

Following intermission, company dancers Sam Black and Jenn Weddel took the stage in Morris’ “Jenn and Spencer” (2013), another dance that spoke to the new neoclassicism. Everything about this piece was narratively charged, and the pas de deux had a sustained drama and tumult. Even the slower phrases lacked tenderness, instead replaced by a
Morris' "Jenn and Spencer"
Photo: Stephanie Berger
wildness and constant coiled energy. Black and Weddel danced Morris’ complex choreography with skill, aptitude and abandon. One particular highlight was Weddel’s circuit of gorgeous leg extensions, while Black inched forward on the floor. “Jenn and Spencer” is a force, and incidentally, featured the most groundbreaking choreography and gutsiest performances on this program.

Closing the day was 2011’s “Festival Dance”, which took the audience full circle, returning to time-honored neoclassicism. “Festival Dance” is a full cast extravaganza, with ample partnering, and lovely, joyful, flowing movement phrases. In the rondo section of the piece, there is a particularly impressive spinning lift, where the women flip their body and leg position mid-spin. It was so free and expansive.

While Program A did show the breadth of the neoclassical genre, the actual repertory choices overlapped too much. Even though the music was different, the costumes were different and the casting was different, three of the four pieces had a folksy, social dance thing going on. And stylistically, “Festival Dance” and “The Muir” were very similar. “Festival Dance” may be a tiny bit more technical, with slightly more character vocabulary, but the two pieces that bookended Program A were a little too alike for my taste.