Friday, June 21, 2019

SFDanceworks


SFDanceworks
Season 4
Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, San Francisco
June 20th, 2019

A uniting theme, be it narrative or structural, is by no means a necessity for a shared evening of choreography. In fact, it can be quite refreshing when a throughline is more or less absent. Then, as opposed to a program of comparisons and contrasts, each piece can be experienced for its unique tone, choreographic tenor and formal characteristics. This is exactly the idea that SFDanceworks, led by Artistic Director James Sofranko and Associate Artistic Director Danielle Rowe, embodied for their fourth home season – a varied quintuple bill of contemporary performance that indeed impressed.

Babatunji Johnson in Brett Conway's The Bedroom
Photo Valentina Reneff-Olson
The program’s three world premieres were strong, especially Brett Conway’s The Bedroom. Amidst deconstructed bedroom furniture (a mattress on the floor, a steel bedframe and a lone chair), a quartet of equally deconstructed, yet keenly visceral, memory unfolded. Memories of relationships, memories of togetherness, memories of past love. A series of penetrating solos and duets brought these remembrances to life; the emotional mosaic filling and piercing the air. Each cast member contributed such an authenticity to Conway’s diverse and captivating syntax: Katerina Eng’s stunning extensions and exquisite articulation; Dennis Adams-Zivolich’s incomparable clarity of space and shape; Laura O’Malley’s gripping, impassioned physicality; and Babatunji Johnson’s incredible dynamic range and varied intonation, from the sharpest of staccato movements to the most fluid legato.

As the lights went up on O’Malley’s Room for Error, charged-ness was evident. J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C Minor, with its pulsing, unending patterns of sixteenth notes, sang through the dimly lit atmosphere. A protagonist, danced by Nicholas Korkos, began to negotiate and navigate his personal journey through space and time; one that included a partner (Katie Lake) and another presence, presumably another aspect of himself (David Calhoun). A state of calm and peace seemed unattainable; off-balancedness and uncertainty his status quo. Shifts and changes in levels and direction spoke of his frantic existence, as did haggard hands and breaks in the line of the arms, legs and spine. Ticking clocks haunted the score, adding to the unrelenting tone. With Room for Error, O’Malley has painted a nuanced portrait of an individual plagued by a tortured constancy.

Andrew Brader and Katie Lake in
Andrea Schermoly's It's Uncle
Photo Valentina Reneff-Olson
With It’s Uncle, Andrea Schermoly astutely captured the essence of unpredictability. As the dance began, it very much felt like a Dance Theater work. An ensemble entered, dressed in black, to scratchy, high-pitched electronic music (the score wasn’t my favorite). They cycled through a hodgepodge of vocabulary and movement – from dance team calisthenics to highly technical choreography to gesture to club moves. It was impossible to anticipate what might happen from one minute to the next. Then Andrew Brader joined the action and things got even more Dance Theater-odd. But true to that compositional style, strangeness is always informed by powerful human themes, which evolved here in the work’s second scene. Brader danced a heartwrenching solo that eventually morphed into a potently vulnerable, raw pas de deux with Lake. Postures were framed by desperate searching, mental anguish, frenetic shaking and pained, dramatic falls to the ground. 

Rounding out SFDanceworks’ fourth home season were two pieces that, while not world premieres, both had an element of premiere to them: the West Coast premiere of Alejandro Cerrudo’s Cloudless (2013) and the Bay Area premiere of Olivier Wevers’ Silent Scream (2018). I liked both and neither was too long in terms of overall duration. At the same time, each had sections that lagged a bit, which made them seem on the lengthier side.

I found the title of Cerrudo’s work particularly intriguing because I saw the opposite – not a cloudless landscape, but a cloud-filled one. Though the stage was again dimly lit and Ana Lopez and O’Malley were costumed in dark burgundy, the choreography was like clouds shifting, rolling and changing shape in the heavens. Throughout the duet, Lopez and O’Malley formed and reformed an abstract series of sculptural vignettes, postures and silhouettes, almost always in contact with each other and with varying tempi and intensity. Several of these stood out as particularly noteworthy, like when the pair touched foreheads in a deep second position plié or when Lopez barely lifted O’Malley off the ground, allowing her feet to gently tread through the air.

Wevers’ Silent Scream closed the evening, an ensemble work that looks back to the era of silent movies, while simultaneously contemplating what they and their themes may have to say in present day. First, we meet a madcap group of silent movie characters, lit by footlights and shin-busters. Stepping and hopping off balance, turning in their knees and Charleston-ing about the stage, the group looked straight out of the 1920s. But there was more to Silent Scream, more than an exercise in nostalgia. Gender norms and assumptions were challenged with several of the cast. And deep messages were afoot. Messages about being ignored, no matter how loud the objection and messages about how visibility is unequivocally linked with being heard.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

East Bay DANCES


Oakland Ballet Company
East Bay DANCES
Laney College Theater, Oakland
June 2nd, 2019

Ramona Kelley and Kevyn Butler in
Bat Abbit's Sunday Kind of Love
Photo John Hefti
For the past five years, Oakland Ballet Company has closed its annual season in a wonderfully unique fashion. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Graham Lustig, for its final performance, OBC invites the local/regional dance and choreographic community to join them onstage for a shared program, East Bay DANCES. A wide diversity of genre drives this celebration, and with a whopping fourteen excerpts from ten different movement traditions, 2019’s edition was on point. It is indeed a special event, one that I hope OBC continues to curate and host for years to come.

Act I certainly lived into East Bay DANCES’ broad choreographic intention. From the charming patterns of American folk/square dance to emotionally charged contemporary works to percussive Middle Eastern dance forms to a modern ballet duet that challenged gender dynamics, the sheer variety was undeniable. There was something for every taste. And none of the pieces were overly lengthy, which meant that if something wasn’t your cup of tea, something new would be along in short order.

For me, two works stood out in East Bay DANCES’ first half. OBC brought a few sections from Oaktown Blues, a melding of music and movement that was part of their recent Jazz Vistas program. Sunday Kind of Love, a duet choreographed by Bat Abbit and danced by Sharon Kung and Lawrence Chen, absolutely captivated. The laid back, chill lyrical movement felt an embodiment of the Etta James’ ballad – circling torsos, cartwheeling limbs, sweeping lifts and turns, suspension and release. It was an interlude of pure, unhurried bliss. A contrasting, but equally compelling moment, came earlier in the act with Savage Jazz Dance Company’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, choreographed by Reginald Ray-Savage. Costumed in dark bodices and long black skirts, a collective of six women commanded the stage. Struggling motions abounded, as did angsty dynamics and an ominous use of breath. Hand splayed wide like a coven casting a spell. Impressive technique and artistry leapt from the stage: transitional clarity, strong positions, enviable extensions and extreme control.

Still more depth of genre and style was in store in East Bay DANCES’ second act: Dance Theater, Afro Contemporary, mixed media and the ever-dynamic, audience favorite Ballet Folklórico México Danza with their signature percussive rhythms and super human footwork patterns. Again, two of the offerings in this half felt particularly noteworthy. Marika Brussel brought her ballet duet Singing to the Grass (Meant for You), gorgeously interpreted by Mae Chesney and Nick Wagner. While an evocative, dramatic relationship definitely developed between the pair during the short pas de deux, it was the vocabulary itself that struck. Plenty of movements and steps would be classified as traditional ballet partnering. But Brussel also infused the unexpected into the syntax – lush parallel postures and abundant counterbalances that Chesney and Wagner had to work together to achieve. It felt a much more egalitarian approach to the classic ballet pas de deux. And a surprising moment emerged for me as East Bay DANCES neared its conclusion, Linda Steele II’s improvisation, {vyz}’d. What surprised me was how much I loved the composition, when improv is not usually a winner in my book. But Steele was phenomenal. Framed by a shattered light pattern projected onto the stage’s surface and a score overlaid with music and text, Steele moved from one place to another with certainty and strength. Carving out the space, every position was fueled with fortitude, pliability, precision and above all, connection. {vyz}’d was a long stream of riveting consciousness and Steele’s movement quality captured this viewer from the first second and never let go.