Monday, October 05, 2015

Dance Series One

Smuin Ballet
Dance Series One
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
October 3rd, 2015

A mixed repertory night with multiple choreographic visions – one might expect such an evening to be varied and diverse. It’s amazing how often that is not the case. Companies can settle into a style, a signature, a manner, and despite differing choreography, things end up looking much the same.

But then there are mixed repertory programs that succeed in celebrating and embodying choreographic breadth and diversity. Those where every moment is a delightful surprise. Smuin Ballet’s Dance Series One is a prime example. A quartet of work ranging from 1981 to present day, every piece brought something new to the table, expertly communicated by the company’s dedicated dance artists. Dance Series One is about creativity, risk and gusto; bravi to the entire creative team.

The curtain rose to reveal three couples in spotlights amidst a smoke-filled stage, Ma Cong’s French Twist. It felt like the opening credits to a mystery, perfect for an October ballet. Quickly the dance progressed into stylized movement – the kind that transcends the categories of ‘classical’ or ‘contemporary’. Specificity and articulation reigned in the arms, feet, legs, hands, head and torso, like petit allegro was happening in the entire body. Or sometimes, even a hint of puppetry or marionette-styled vocabulary crept in. While French Twist had different sections, there was a continuous feeling to it, devoid of stops and starts. With one exception (the men’s costuming), it was a great start to the night.

Next up was Michael Smuin’s Bouquet, a beautifully graceful yet technically challenging two-part composition. The dance begins with a quartet for one woman and three men (at this performance, Erin Yarbrough-Powell, Mengjun Chen, Dustin James and Jonathan Powell) and it has some truly enchanting moments. A favorite is when Yarbrough-Powell was suspended high in the air with her leg in a low arabesque. Some of the unison turns did prove tricky, and while this particular chapter has an elegant classical feel, it does look a little dated. Danced by Susan Roemer and Robert Moore, Bouquet’s pas de deux didn’t look dated at all; in fact, it stood out. Not just in this ballet, but in the entire night. Touching and romantic, passionate and surprising, Roemer’s metatarsals barely grazed the floor in a series of scooting arabesque lifts. With devotion, Moore tenderly grasped Roemer’s foot and ankle while she extended in penchée. They looked amazing together.

Choreographed by company dancer Ben Needham-Wood, Maslow was one of the two new works on the program. A ballet for a lead pair and a quintet, Maslow contemplated perception and reality through the eyes of a title character, danced and interpreted by
Pictured: Robert Kretz (center) and Terez Dean (back right)
and the Smuin Company in Maslow 
Photo credit: Chris Hardy
Robert Kretz. Little knowledge of the individual who inspired Maslow made the story (if there was a narrative through line) a little difficult to discern. Having said that, Needham-Wood’s scene and setting was very clear – this was the mind of a great thinker, someone fascinated with imagination and the human psyche. The best part of Maslow was the choreography itself, a combination of ballet and contemporary jazz, all underscored with a rare fluidity, almost a liquidness. And in the primary role, Kretz was absolutely astounding.

Choreographer-in-Residence Amy Seiwert closed Dance Series One with her new ballet, Broken Open, the only piece on the program to feature the entire company. This six-part composition pushed boundaries as only Seiwert can do, asking what ballet is, what it looks like, what vocabulary it entails and what it can be. As suggested by the title, Broken Open, ‘broke open’ perceptions and expectations from start to finish. Grand pliés in parallel sixth position, flexed feet in promenades, demi-pointe work in pointe shoes and an abundance of second position (in lifts, in turns and in poses). With a pattern of psychedelic paint splatters, Sandra Woodall’s costumes evoked an earlier time, perhaps the 1970s/early 1980s. I really liked the costumes, though their retro style mixed with the forward intention in the choreography was a little puzzling.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

UNA Projects

Ships and Salsa
co-presented by UNA Projects and ODC Theater
ODC Theater, San Francisco
October 2nd, 2015

A stage washed in light blue. White folding chairs around the perimeter. Water sounds. A soloist, Jayne Paley, begins dancing center stage as Catherine Ellis Kirk and Lauren Kravitz slowly creep into the space.

With these initial images, Ships was underway, a mystical trio by Artistic Director Chuck Wilt and New York-based UNA Projects. Wilt has partnered with ODC Theater to bring two differing programs over a single weekend. This was Program B – a dual bill of twenty-first century contemporary dance.

The term ‘twenty-first century’ is a purposeful one, not just a descriptor that places the work in a certain time period. Ships and UNA Projects’ second work, Salsa, were keenly of this moment. Narrative themes were broad, yet not simplistic. Movement was accessible, though not at all pedestrian. Structure and form were varied and clear, never haphazard. Theatrical tools were incorporated, but the dance and choreography still took the lead.

From the dancers’ gait, their intention and their relationship to space, Ships had an instant mystery and deliberate indeterminance. The dancers were searching, curious about each other and their environment. Issues of control were at play – being controlled versus exerting free will. And the empty chairs provided a spooky underscore; it seemed like they were being watched, but by an invisible something or someone. Ships’ enigmatic atmosphere oozed from Wilt’s choreography – calm walking was suddenly met with wild flailing episodes; flowing arms were interrupted by locked positions; slow steadfastness gave way to whirling allegro. It was as if Kirk, Kravitz and Paley were going in and out of a hypnotic state.

Salsa, an ensemble work for the entire company (the three women plus Wilt and Kyle Filley), emerged directly out of intermission while the house lights were still up. A hotel pool image was projected on the cyclorama and the dancers took various positions as part of this scene, complete with Adirondack chairs, arm floaties and pool toys. As the lights dimmed, Salsa began with a social dance-inspired duet. But then it quickly evolved into an expression of youthful community, of togetherness. Designed like a mini-suite of dances, Wilt explored the complexity of youth through a series of movement sets - innocent flirtation, free expression, social insecurity, vulnerability, one-upmanship, and pure joy. And towards the end, a slow motion, unison, gestural movement phrase brought the focus to mindful self-awareness in the midst of a community. This was a collective, but it was made up of different individuals and personalities. Salsa was not too long, not at all. Having said that, there were several moments in the last third that felt cadential, like the conclusion of the piece. And so, the material that followed seemed like a bit of an afterthought. Some of the choreographic intricacies were also a little difficult to see from time to time. Upstage dancers occasionally used their upstage leg or arm while another dancer was standing directly in front of them. It didn’t happen too many times, but Wilt’s choreography and UNA Projects’ movement is compelling; it draws the viewer in, so you definitely want to be able to see it all.

Photo: Jake Saner

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Poetics of Space

Poetics of Space
presented by Z Space and Joe Goode Performance Group
Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco
September 26th, 2015

The last few times that I have been to a performance at the Joe Goode Annex, the place has been transformed. And, with Poetics of Space, Joe Goode’s newest full-length interdisciplinary composition, it has been transformed once again. This one was perhaps the most spellbinding conversion to date. With an intricate set of curtains, platforms and a catwalk (envisioned and created by collaborating scenic designer Sean Riley), the huge open room became a life-size dollhouse. In Poetics of Space, Joe Goode Performance Group revealed a meticulously devised collection of scenes, rooms and interactions, ranging from comforting to creepy.   

Poetics of Space was another example of the ‘mobile performance installation’ model, where the audience moves throughout the work. In this particular piece, that movement was partially guided. Sometimes the viewer was led from one space to another and sometimes they were left to make their own decisions, choosing what to watch or how long they might stay with any given vantage point. This seems to be the structure of the moment in contemporary performance art; very popular and very prevalent. That’s because if it is done well, it really works. And it worked here.

Goode began the piece from atop a metal scaffolding ladder - a preamble in which he contextualized the experience that would follow and introduced two narrative ideas. The height gave his speech an extra measure of authority. But Goode’s costume and makeup communicated something more. With tattered clothing, dark eyes and a ghostly white face, his character was definitely speaking to us from the beyond. Amidst this dark, foreboding and penetrating visual, first he challenged some general considerations about space – how do we inhabit space; what is space; what happens in various spaces. Then, Goode also explained that Poetics of Space would convey a tragic (and I’m assuming fictional) story of a young person named Logan. Both narrative themes drew you in. And though they were never at odds with each other, the through line connecting the two did prove elusive from time to time.

Pictured: Felipe Barrueto-Cabello and Marit Brook-Kothlow
Photo: RJ Muna
The entryway into the Annex was covered in leaves and vines; dancers (in futuristic costumes) emerging out of walls and doorways, like spirits. It was kind of A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Studio 54. We then moved onto a text/choreographic duet that acquainted us with different parts of a single personality. A complex individual who was struggling for each part to be known and valued. We followed one of these characters into a tent vignette (we were inside a tent fort with her). Through an intuitive and intimate soliloquy, she questioned the self. How does one treat one’s self? How does the self reconcile appearance versus reality? We meet the other character, a boxer, in the next scene, a domestic living room. Through a boxing lesson and a gestural movement phrase, he tackled the notions of toughness, power and dominance. In these early sections, Poetics of Space established itself as a dance play – an interwoven story of tension and truth, combining movement, spoken word, vocals and ambience. It was about human existence, relationships and interactions, told through a literal and symbolic spatial framework. Making space for reactions; making space for sadness; making space for mistakes. A story of illumination.

As the curtains were drawn and the room opened up, the audience moved about more freely. Performers appeared on several levels/platforms and in different locations, reciting text. These recollections quickly morphed into a set of vignettes in the center of the main floor. Here we saw inner voices - some inviting, some soothing and some dramatic in a diva sort of a way. An ensemble choreographic sequence then emerged, full of release and suspension; balance and counterbalance; and movement that initiated from the xiphoid process.

One pitfall of any mobile performance is that the audience doesn’t really see the whole piece. Individual segments happen simultaneously in different locations, and you can’t watch them all at once. But in Poetics of Space, there was an awareness of ‘the other’, of what you couldn’t see. Goode and Riley smartly placed all of the action in a single large room. Yes, curtains sub-divided the space and there were specific designated regions. But you could hear the scenes that were outside your viewpoint. You could sense their significance and absorb their ambient contribution. And because of that, you didn’t walk away from Poetics of Space feeling like you had missed anything.