Monday, June 01, 2015

Alyce Finwall Dance Theater/Olga Kosterina

Fort Mason Center and the Eyes and Ears Foundation present
San Francisco International Arts Festival
Alyce Finwall Dance Theater/Olga Kosterina
Fleet Room, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
May 31st, 2015

As May comes to a close and June begins, dance, music, film, theater and visual artists from around the world converge at the 2015 San Francisco International Arts Festival. Fort Mason Center has been transformed into the ultimate performance incubator; current creative pursuits around every corner. And each day of this three week event brings a host of opportunities to engage with the artistic process. On the festival’s second Sunday, one of the many dance offerings was a shared program of contemporary choreography in Fort Mason’s Fleet Room. Alyce Finwall Dance Theater premiered Finwall’s newest duet, RUNE, followed by Olga Kosterina in the U.S. premiere of her solo, Dilemma Part One.

Finwall’s RUNE started with a spoken word intro, a poem by Katalyst. On the sides of the room behind the audience, dancers Ashley Brown and Kristin Damrow recited the poem in English while standing still, and then in Norwegian, with accompanying gestures. Next, they moved to the edge of the performance space and repeated that same text sequence, which would also recur in bits and pieces throughout the work. Then the dance began. A pool of blue light washed over the stage and the dancers looked like they were swimming through the air. Because of this striking first visual, the image of a wave stuck with me throughout the dance’s first few sections. Finwall introduced a number of different choreographic ideas
Pictured: Kristin Damrow and Ashley Brown
Photo: Alyce Finwall
– calm, soothing and circular; volatile and wild; mechanical; even pedestrian. The choreography would be one thing and then it would suddenly become something else, and the moment of transition was cleverly elusive. A completely fluid interweaving of the diverse phrase material. And just like a wave, pinpointing the instant of formation or dispersement is tricky, but the experience in the moment is both full and rich. The mysteriousness of beginnings and endings was an ongoing theme in RUNE, both in the internal choreography and in the overall form and structure of the dance. Near the half-way point, the lights dimmed and the dancers exited the stage space. It seemed like the work was over. The dancers walked back to the center and I’m pretty sure that most of the audience (myself included) thought they were going to take their bows. Surprisingly, the lights changed and the piece continued - a brilliant physical caesura. Much of RUNE’s choreography was in unison and when that unison was called for, it was generally quite good. Though there were a few moments where the choreography’s timing had slight deviations. It may have been purposeful; but maybe not.

A dramatically-charged, narratively-driven solo, Kosterina’s Dilemma Part One was an epic journey of self-exploration. The piece began slowly and methodically as Kosterina rolled and moved through a circuit of poses, all while a band covered her eyes, like a blindfold. In this opening statement, a fusion of gymnastics, contortion, acrobatics and contemporary dance was present, and would continue until the dance’s final blackout. Kosterina’s initial pathway led her to a set of black and white props that had been preplaced at the far edge of the performance space. As she arrived at these items, they became integrated into her choreography, facilitating new positions, new expressions and new imagery. Much of the early movement had a very controlled, intentional and specific nature. Until, a circular black skirt was ushered into the mix, and a lengthy spinning segment emerged. This was my favorite chapter in Dilemma Part One, a scene of whirling freneticism. As Kosterina abandoned the props towards the end of the work, a trapped demeanor took over her character, which eventually fed into a final sequence of jumps and leaps. Clearly illustrating a desire to break away from her reality. Kosterina is an extraordinary mover with incredible physical range and stamina (her solo was forty-five/fifty minutes long). And Dilemma Part One contained some very intriguing choreographic sections. Though for my personal taste, it fell a little too much into the gymnastic/acrobatic camp.      

Monday, May 18, 2015

Part & Parcel

Mid to West Dance Collective
Mid to West Dance Collective
Photo: Tony Nguyen
Part & Parcel
presented by Dance Up Close/East Bay
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
May 17th, 2015

I have been so impressed by every performance that has been part of the Dance Up Close/East Bay series at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center over the past ten months. Each engagement has been unique and different but the through vision is unmistakable - to support emerging choreographic voices, and bring new contemporary work to audiences in an intimate and personal setting.

Mid to West Dance Collective is the latest chapter of this distinguished tome. Their new program, Part & Parcel, included works by three members of the collective: Mo Miner’s Specimen, Sarah JG Chenoweth’s Architecture Oriented Otherwise and Rebecca Chun’s You v the Powers that Be. Part & Parcel is a great compilation of contemporary dance – well constructed, diverse and thought-provoking material – and Mid to West Dance Collective is a gracious and talented group of choreographers that is definitely going places fast.

A metal lab table with five small specimen jars was set downstage left, and as each dancer entered the space, that table was their destination. After everyone engaged in a few moments of investigating the vials, Chun climbed onto the structure. From her movements, it seemed that someone or a ‘group of someones’ was looking at her, examining her as the performers had just examined the jars. So began Miner’s Specimen – a piece about inquiry, observation and scrutiny. The lab table was then relocated to the back of the room and the cast of five began moving all over the space. Hand binoculars were fashioned around the eyes, suggesting the watching of others. But Specimen was a much more comprehensive approach to the concept of watching. How are one’s actions and movements informed by the presence of another’s gaze? How does intensity change? Demeanor? Attitude? And for those doing the watching, how are they altered and affected? Sometimes the dancers began imitating the movement phrases; sometimes they disengaged entirely; sometimes they intentionally tried to manipulate what was occurring in front of them, imposing their own will on others. As Specimen came to its conclusion, the vials reappeared, and the lights dimmed as each dancer sat holding one vial in their hand. They looked intently at the jarred material, as if it was the answer to a burning question. 

To begin Chenoweth’s Architecture Oriented Otherwise, dancers Kevin Lopez and Jordan Stout carried in planks of wood and four mismatched table legs. Immediately, they started organizing. Organizing is an important distinction here, because they weren’t necessarily building anything, at least not in the conventional sense. It was more placing, setting and rearranging, both in terms of these design elements and in Chenoweth’s choreography. Arms were lifted in the air and then dropped, legs folded into sit-up positions, wrists pivoted. Careful purpose and purposeful attention underscored everything; a constant cycle of ordering and re-ordering. But there was still a hearty dose of experimentation and some well-placed humor. Table legs doubled as ski poles; planks as dance partners. Appropriately, the planks and table legs were credited in the program as the ‘ensemble’ for Architecture Oriented Otherwise – the Judsonites would be proud.

Dressed in black, a quartet of women took the stage in the final segment of Part & Parcel, Chun’s character-driven work, You v the Powers that Be. The four dancers began in unison, but Miner quickly separated herself from the other three, breaking out on her own. Together, the stoic trio continued accompanying the choreography with repeated singing and whispered phrases, ‘simmer down’ and ‘get in line’, respectively. The trio continued to confront Miner with a combination of pasted on smiles and intensely serious glares, trying to persuade and in some ways, bully her. After a set of solos, duets and trios, their attempts drew some success as Miner rejoined them, albeit with hesitancy and trepidation. In the last section of You v the Powers that Be, Miner intends to separate from the group again. They try and stop her, and pull her back as her annoyance and frustration grows. Until she is finally standing alone while the others dance on the perimeter. Had they given up? Had she won? Or had they moved onto someone else?


Smuin Ballet presents
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
May 16th, 2015

Smuin Ballet just completed the first leg of a Bay Area tour. To close their twenty-first anniversary season, the company is pleased to present Unlaced, a hearty quadruple bill. Featuring a recent returning favorite by Helen Pickett, two classic Michael Smuin pas de deuxs and a new work by Adam Hougland, the program once again distinguishes this dynamic company as a necessary destination for lovers of both classical and contemporary dance.

The curtain rose on Helen Pickett’s Petal (originally choreographed in 2008 and performed by Santa Fe Ballet) to reveal a striking, bright yellow stage. This exciting opening statement immediately awakens the senses. Pickett’s choreography calls for a parallel vibrancy with its constant shifts; demanding seamless pivots between modern and traditional technique. As the light design (originally by Todd Elmer, adapted by Michael Oesch) turned a pinky-orange, Erin Yarbrough and Jonathan Powell danced a knowing duet of steadfastness and clarity. Nicole Haskins and Weston Krukow swept the audience away with their pas de deux, particularly Krukow’s turns in second attitude and Haskins’ brave, blind jump into his arms. While the ballet was full of these and other noteworthy moments, this particular performance did feel a little contained. When Smuin premiered Petal two years ago, there was an on-the-edge excitement and palpable intensity that was missing this time.

Act II of Unlaced brought two contrasting pas de deuxs by Michael Smuin, the balcony scene from his Romeo and Juliet and an excerpt from Hearts Suite, both of which had their
Pictured: Erin Yarbrough and Jonathan Powell in
the balcony pas de deux from
Michael Smuin's Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Chris Hardy
Smuin Ballet premiere in 1994. Romeo and Juliet, danced by Yarbrough and Powell, was an absolute delight. Smuin injected this famous scene with a subtleness that made you remember an important aspect of the story. Yes, the two main characters are desperately in love, but their experience is brand new, having just met one another. Such a complex narrative calls for both sides – the careful delicacy of newness combined with grand abandon of passion. The choreography delivered, one hundred per cent. And Yarbrough and Powell were absolutely incandescent. The second pas de deux, from Hearts Suite, was Smuin’s take on a very unique love story; one from a different time, a different place. In this character-driven, narrative duet, Garance, danced exquisitely by Susan Roemer, is trapped in challenging life circumstances and is caught off-guard by the love and affection of Baptiste (another fantastic portrayal by Ben Needham-Wood). Unfulfilled expectations, unexpected love and an atypical match; the excerpt leaves you wondering how the story will unfold.

Unlaced closed with Adam Hougland’s newest composition, Ask Me, an ensemble dance for five women and five men. The lights went up, and club culture took over. The company looked like a diverse set of 1980s characters, with a little helping of 1990s grunge and just a pinch of modern day hipster. A sense of community and camaraderie was immediately established in the first unison group sequence, and carried through to the end of the ballet. A collection of smaller scenes (solos, duets, quintets) followed that initial statement, all with the undercurrent of celebration, of togetherness. Hougland’s Ask Me was part rock video, part edgy artistic installation that ended with a lovely, introspective solo, danced by Robert Kretz. Ask Me was cool and edgy, but the ending was so abrupt. I can’t help wondering if at some point, there was something more, something after that final solo that ended up getting cut at the last minute.