Friday, February 12, 2016


Pictured: ka·nei·see | collective's Mallory Markham
Photo: Rob Best
SAFEhouse Arts, San Francisco
Feb 11th, 2016

Collaboration. Risk-taking. Experimentation. Pushing the envelope. These creative processes fuel new contemporary dance. And they are certainly at the heart of SAFEhouse Arts’ latest Resident Artist Workshop (RAW). Curated by directors Peter Cheng of Peter & Co. and Tanya Chianese of ka·nei·see | collective, the evening featured a five-piece salon of current choreographic compositions and works-in-progress, many of which will be part of upcoming festivals and home seasons. The choreographic points of view impressed and in every instance, the dance artists handily communicated the breadth, range and distinctness of the material.

Excerpts from Cheng’s Transverse Course opened the program; a picturesque and sculptural trio. The dance progressed as a series of short scenes, each separated by a blackout, almost like a set of passing, but related thoughts. For the first of these vignettes, the three women took turns soloing with a tactile movement phrase. Some choreographic throughlines were present in each version, yet none of the solos were the same. Instead Cheng employed choreographic devices to adjust and change the pattern – sequence, repetition, accumulation and stretto – revealing the layers, diversity and possibilities inherent in a single movement phrase. Following this initial statement, the full trio unfolded in a variety of formations including two versus one, duets and unison work. And the unison was good. Unison in contemporary dance is a tricky business, requiring technical accuracy while still celebrating the individualism of the dancers. This delicate balance was reached in Transverse Course. Choreographically, the movement carved through the space at every juncture (demonstrated with careful attention by Angela Bevevino, Sarah Butler and Sophia Larriva): rond de jambes in plié and arabesque developpés alongside simple and elegant hand motions.

Next up was Binki Danz in Bianca Stephanie Mendoza’s The Ground I Stand On. A brief, yet powerful solo danced by Mendoza, The Ground I Stand On was a contiguous physical statement with a phenomenal fusion of styles and genres – street dance, percussive pedestrianism, hip hop and contemporary release technique. LV Dance Collective brought Son Lost In A Moment, a meditative and graceful duet danced by Devon Chen and Kao Vey Saephanh, who also served the piece’s choreographer. Chen entered with her hands in prayer (an image that would recur) and took her place in a preset circle of flowers. That opening combined with white costuming immediately gave a serenity, tranquility and spiritual feel to the work. This sense was maintained through large movements, big lifts and long extensions. And there was an intriguing and subtle narrative at play – Son Lost In A Moment spoke of solitude and companionship at the same time. Ayana Yonesaka offered her duet OHN, perhaps the most narratively driven (though non-linear) dance of the night. The foreground dancer began with a calm kind of body scan, like something that might be found as part of a mindfulness practice. In stark contrast, the upstage dancer moved towards her in an aggressive, preying crawl. Quickly, the mindfulness evolved into a dominant, strong and assured charge. Yonesaka’s contemporary pas de deux for two women would continue to deliciously toggle back and forth between these two states – purposeful self-awareness and combative self-determination. And in the end, it seemed that the first dancer had devoured the other.

ka·nei·see | collective closed this edition of SAFEhouse’s Resident Artist Workshop with Chianese’s ensemble work, Readymade. Two dancers began facing away from the audience and cycled through a movement phrase, their shadows simultaneously dancing on the exposed brick wall while beautiful string music sang through the space. The dancers eventually turned to face front, growing and developing their sequence before being joined by the full cast. And what a transition that was. Full of forward motion and drive, each dancer entered from behind an upstage left screen and traveled on the diagonal to downstage right, then ran behind the house seats to begin the circuit again and again (with differing choreography). Individuals and small groups would feed in and out of the stream to dance featured sections, and Readymade concluded with a unison gesture sequence to text by Alan Watts. For me, the striking element of this work was the depth of collaboration and how that collaboration challenged assumptions about the relationship between choreography and sound. Readymade wasn’t a neoclassical imagining of how a musical or text score could be translated by movement, nor was the score simply an accompaniment for the dance. The collaboration went far beyond this, to the point that the elements started to become one – the dance and the music, the gestures and the text. The legato runs, the staccato pulses, the pizzicato plucking, the percussive rhythms were in the bodies and the score. Musical arpeggios and articulated limbs were married. No part of the work dominated the other – the achieved cohesiveness was stunning and rare.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Girl Through Glass"

Book Review
Girl Through Glass
by Sari Wilson

published by Harper Collins

Sari Wilson’s debut novel, Girl Through Glass, is not your typical dance book. In fact, its wonderful atypical-ness is what sets it apart. A lot of dance stories (fiction or non-fiction) shed light on the intoxicating world of professional and pre-professional dance, many written from personal experience. While Girl Through Glass certainly has that aspect to it, it is much more than that. It is a narrative about a complex human journey, set within a dance frame, which from the very beginning is shrouded in mystery. Wilson challenges the reader with much more than a linear recounting of details, she persuades them to connect two independent, yet completely interdependent stories.

These two through lines unfold simultaneously, though exist at different points in time - two people of differing ages (pre-teen Mira and adult Kate), in separate decades (one late 1970s/early 1980s and one present day) on distinct dance-related career paths. In the first few chapters, it seems possible that the title characters might actually be separate individuals who just happen to have some similar experiences. Both have a desire for something more and an awareness of surrounding forces. Controlling (and often inappropriate) relationships abound as does self-destructive behavior. Abandonment, hidden trauma and personal recovery are also shared realities. But early on, it becomes clear that Mira and Kate are in fact, the same person. While this is definitely one of the book’s first surprises, it isn’t one of the major revelations. Those deeper mysteries and unpredictable situations are still yet to unravel. And Wilson’s brilliant storytelling creates a vibrant and exciting pulse – the reader eagerly anticipates what portion of the narrative will be divulged in each of the subsequent chapters.

Wilson inserts clever devices throughout the book to link Mira and Kate’s plotlines, including a subtle and parallel hand injury. And in the middle of Girl Through Glass, both are in New York City, though still separated by decades – Mira auditioning for Balanchine at the School of American Ballet and Kate on a mission for answers. It is at this point that Wilson begins to unpack how and why Mira became Kate. She does this not by immediately revealing the exact events that took place, but instead by filling in the missing decades. Through the recounting of these ‘in between’ years, Mira/Kate’s saga is fully told. Some of it had been foreshadowed while other pieces were unexpected and surprising. We learn that Mira/Kate leaves New York and SAB and joins her mother in San Francisco. We see Mira choosing a new first name – a beautifully written moment of contrast. There is unremarkable simplicity as she decides on ‘Kate’ but the choice itself had been the result of a complicated and traumatic upheaval. Kate eventually gets involved in the contemporary dance scene of the 1990s. I particularly like the way Wilson describes SF/Bay Area modern dance because it sounds very much like how it is today. The descriptors are different to be sure – experimental is now collaborative, new media or physical theater – but the picture she paints is a familiar one. Kate then feels the pull of the academic world and decides to pursue that avenue. In this section of the book, the reader discovers what circumstances have altered Kate’s life. And even in light of all that has happened and is happening, Wilson’s Girl Through Glass concludes on a note of hope for Kate.

Girl Through Glass is a wonderful addition to the ever-growing (and increasingly popular) dance fiction genre. And it isn’t all tutus and toe shoes. Sari Wilson has crafted a novel with grit, one that is a myriad of memory and realization.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

San Francisco Ballet - Program 2

San Francisco Ballet
Program 2
War Memorial Opera House
January 27th, 2016

Just three days after San Francisco Ballet officially started their 2016 repertory season, they celebrated another opening, that of Program 2. The glorious combination of George Balanchine’s Rubies, Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes and the world premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Fearful Symmetries made for a visual dream that celebrated the pure essence of bodies in motion.

Rubies is abstract in the sense that it doesn’t have a storyline, but to say it is about nothing is not true at all. Clear emotive sensibilities inform much of the physicality and architecture. In a triangular formation, thirteen of the fifteen-member cast stand facing the audience, holding hands in a V above their heads. From this first tableau, it is clear that Rubies
San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Rubies
Photo©Erik Tomasson
explores connection; the entwining of music and movement. But this is not in a general sense, rather Rubies is about the convergence of this music (by Igor Stravinsky) and this choreography (by Balanchine). The most popular movement from the 1967 ballet Jewels, Rubies runs the gamut choreographically and in that inventiveness, feels ahead of its time. Sultry hip isolations give way to sprightly mimed jump rope; joyful, hopping chaîné turns merge with flexed hands and birdlike arms. And of course, the famous pas de cinq. One man holds onto each of the limbs of the main ballerina (Sofiane Sylve, at this performance). Together, the five cycle through complicated partnering, yet the woman remains in complete control, almost dominating and willing their every move. The bow that occurs after the central pas de deux always strikes me as strange. It is certainly deserved, but nothing like that happens anywhere else in the ballet; it really does break the overarching momentum. And while the entire cast performed the varied and complex choreography with verve and aplomb, some of the large staging patterns lost their sharpness and specificity on Wednesday night.

Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes (1988) took the middle slot of the evening, a change in programming due to a schedule conflict. But clearly, this piece is no substitution…what an amazing dance; what an amazing performance by the ensemble! A grand piano was positioned upstage center and pianist Natal’ya Feygina was alone for the first few moments as she introduced Virgil Thomson’s score. Very ‘twentieth-century classical’ in flavor and style, atonal cluster chords met with complex meters. In a matching off-kilter lift, one couple traveled across the floor. Then, the lights rose and the whole cast fed on and off the stage (Morris used the wings to the piece’s advantage) costumed like angels. Otherworldly and ethereal, each dancer painted a picture of elation. A lovely and heartening experience of ballet vocabulary unfolded over the next thirty minutes. Smooth balancés, parallel pirouettes, emboîté turns, balletés – all breathy, airy and elegant. The ‘ballet class’ segment mid-way through continued that commemorative feel: relevés in passé, sissiones, echappés and grand pliés in fifth position. The men’s tango sequence was a standout phrase with its dramatic double pirouettes leading into a flatfoot promenade and then a double rond de jambe en l’air. And the end of the dance was so delicate and beautiful, yet a little sad, as the cast slowly exited the stage. With Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Morris communicated the community and camaraderie of artists and their joy for their art. This was also reflected in his egalitarian approach – Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes is truly an ensemble piece with no specific leads or defined chorus.

Liam Scarlett’s previous work for San Francisco Ballet, Hummingbird, had a marked effect – the audience loved it and the critical response was quite something. I liked it too, though my thoughts and reactions were more mixed (less at the second viewing than the first). Not so with Scarlett’s new world premiere, Fearful Symmetries. This is a ballet of genius.

Right from the start, the viewer was confronted with a juxtaposition of ancient and modern. A modular, lined light board illuminated the back of the deconstructed stage (design by David Finn), while a soloist (Sylve) crawled forward, primitively. From out of the darkness, the cast entered like a hunting herd from upstage left, and they would continue to disappear and reappear out of that pitch black throughout the dance. Hungry choreography permeated the space - stalking, commanding and demanding. In the middle of Fearful Symmetries, the dancers walked forward as group with both power and menace. Sitting in the audience, you were afraid and excited at the same time. Lorena Feijoo and Luke Ingham danced the ballet’s central duet, a lengthy and impressive statement that ranged from volatile and combative to erotic and tactile. And then, right near the end, Scarlett introduced a couple (Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan) who had never been seen before. And they were the exact opposite of everything that had been offered thus far. Cool and graceful, dressed in light colors, their presence served as a narrative antithesis.    
Lorena Feijoo and Luke Ingham in Scarlett's Fearful Symmetries
Photo©Erik Tomasson