Monday, August 24, 2015

SHE WENT phase 4

SHE WENT phase 4
SAFEhouse Arts, San Francisco
August 22nd, 2015

Without exception, every RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) evening reminds me how important risk is to the performing arts. This definitely held true as SAFEhouse Arts showcased a triptych of experimental dance created and performed by women this past weekend. Featuring Alma Esperanza Cunningham’s hard-hitting, hypnotizing SHE WENT phase 4, guest artists Rosemary Hannon and Daria Kaufman joined the bill with their own stunning solos, Work in Progress and Product respectively.

With the audience’s seats arranged in a perimeter around a designated stage, Arletta Anderson, Keryn Breiterman-Loader and Caitlin Daly entered the space to open Cunningham’s SHE WENT phase 4. As the three began an initial series of poses with a sense of neutrality, even disengagement, a note of egalitarianism was also present. The trio was placed among the audience. Two dancers then ventured into the center stage space and started yelling at each other over and over again. Certainly startling at first, the repetition also had that dance theater property of anesthetizing as the vocalization went on. Repetition like this, used as a performative, revelatory tool, would be an ongoing theme.
SHE WENT phase 4
There is no doubt that Cunningham has created a narratively charged contemporary work with SHE WENT phase 4, though for me, it was the structural properties and formal composition that captivated. Cunningham constantly played with the duet versus solo arrangement in the dance, while the expression of ‘threes’ was deeply rooted in the choreographic sequences (triplets, pas de boureés). The egalitarianism that had been established at the outset continued, demystifying the relationship between performer and audience and challenging comfort levels. One dancer hit various positions (long arabesque, front attitude) very close to audience members, while another brushed a few viewers with her hair. The spatial awareness demonstrated by all three performers was also striking. Throughout SHE WENT phase 4, they traveled blindly (and quickly) backwards in space, often very close to one another and never once collided.

Costumed in a full-length sparkly gown, Hannon took the stage in Work in Progress. Pedestrian movement informed this intense, but short solo, with continual changes in direction, dynamics and level. After a few minutes, Hannon shed her dress and danced the rest of the piece in a simple black two-piece: boy shorts and camisole. That visual shift ushered a similar shift in narrative; deconstruction revealing true essence. How does it feel to lie on the floor? How does your body react when you move quickly and then suddenly slow down? How does the leg circle in the hip socket? Work in Progress was pure, unencumbered movement.

Kaufman’s Product was an evocative and wonderfully clever performance piece. She began by sitting on a chair and cycling through a gestural phrase of ‘situating’: fixing her dress, tailoring her attitude and experimenting with her facial expression. This kind of adjusting and adjustments continued as Kaufman rose from the chair and proceeded to read an instructive script aloud. A combination physical and verbal monologue, Product was a purposely-exaggerated sales pitch inserted into a performance platform. This was a highly successful experiment with a number of probing questions arising. What should be? What are you supposed to want? What is the correct way? How can you accomplish a particular task? Where does individual decision-making come in?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"The Ballet Lover's Companion"

“The Ballet Lover’s Companion”
by Zoë Anderson
currently available, published by Yale University Press

If you have not yet purchased Zoë Anderson’s new book, “The Ballet Lover’s Companion” published by Yale University Press, order it right away. It is a must-have for your personal dance library. A literary work of winning form and structural ingenuity, “The Ballet Lover’s Companion” strikes the perfect balance between historic context and choreographic analysis. Anderson’s writing is vivid and vibrant, and most important, not overwhelming. Tomes that go too deep into the dance history often come up feeling a bit dry; Anderson provides just the right amount of detail. She follows up with astute (and witty) commentary on various ballets from the period in question and if called for, describes their evolution over time. Both parts are necessary for a project like this to be successful, and Anderson has delivered. If this book was just a list of ballets, it would be a dance encyclopedia; if it was just an account of the various eras, it becomes a historical anthology. In combining the two, Anderson has created something that is truly worthy of the term ‘companion’. And right from the preface, there is a rare combination of authority, acumen and humbleness in Anderson’s writing that is desperately missing from much performing arts discourse today.

Take chapter two for example, titled The Romantic Ballet. In it, you get a clear picture of the era, the players, the scene (social, political and cultural) as well as what was happening in the world of classical ballet. Anderson explains that during this time of great development, rigidity was becoming passé, which led to an onslaught of experimentation, imagination and expression. She goes on to share how ballet saw these changes unfold in new narrative stories, different choreographic foci and novel fan-based trends. After this framing, Anderson pivots to specific ballet titles from the Romantic era; from the seemingly unfamiliar to those that remain popular today (Giselle, Napoli, Coppélia). And her ‘other stagings’ section for several of the ballets gives insight as to the work’s continual and more contemporary development. Anderson’s discussion of Filippo Taglioni’s 1832 La Sylphide included delightful references to Matthew Bourne’s 1994 Highland Fling and Nikolaj Hubbe’s updated 2014 version for the Royal Danish Ballet.

Equally comprehensive and compelling coverage comes in the subsequent chapters. Imperial Ballet, chapter three, outlines how fluctuations in style and technique brought about still more changes to narrative themes. Her chapter on the Ballet Russe features engaging, thoughtful and educational research on Mikhail Fokine’s Les Sylphides, a personal favorite of this particular reader. Next up is the onset of National Ballets, a time Anderson notes was equally about creating a unique style as it was about community, identity and togetherness. Onto the journey of Soviet Ballet through the first half of the twentieth century and the worldwide star-power of The Ballet Boom in the second half of the 1900s.

Then we arrive at the book’s last segment, International Ballet: Crossing Boundaries, which takes us into the present-day. This final chapter proves how needed Anderson’s “The Ballet Lover’s Companion” is. Similar volumes that outline and explain different ballets are readily available (though not nearly as well-written as this one is). But their publication year makes them incomplete. The field needed an updated source, and here we have it. And in these concluding sixty-three pages, Anderson is not only talking about how ballet crossed and continues to cross literal boundaries, but how, in the last three and a half decades, the line between traditional ballet and contemporary modern dance has become more and more porous. After a brief contextual statement, the majority of this chapter is dedicated to the dances themselves. First in the list is Jerome Robbins’ 1983 masterwork of youth, community and measured egalitarianism, Glass Pieces for New York City Ballet. The 1990s is represented by much historic choreography including William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, which was first danced by the Frankfurt Ballet in 1996, and incidentally, was part of San Francisco Ballet’s most recent season. The new millennium brought Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain for New York City Ballet (2005) and Wayne McGregor’s Chroma for The Royal Ballet (2006) among many others. And Anderson wraps up her phenomenal publication with two works from 2014: Justin Peck’s Everywhere We Go for New York City Ballet and Benjamin Millepied’s Daphnis et Chloé for Paris Opéra Ballet. How perfect to end “The Ballet Lover’s Companion” with two of today’s most inspiring choreographic talents and two ballets that premiered only last year.    

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Post:Ballet - Six Pack

Post:Ballet presents
Six Pack
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
July 24th, 2015

When you think of the term ‘six-pack’, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Whatever it might be, a common theme is present – six individual parts combining to make a whole. When you buy a six-pack of drinks, six individual bottles or cans make up that item. To get six-pack abs, six separate muscles must be present. A six-pack is both one entity and six entities at the same time.

For Post:Ballet’s annual summer season, running this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Six Pack is an apt title. While Six Pack certainly refers to this being the company’s sixth year of performance, it also points to a collection of six individual items that come together as a whole. And that whole here is not only this amazing 2015 summer program, but also something bigger. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Robert Dekkers, Post:Ballet is a contemporary performance powerhouse with limitless potential. Six Pack exudes Post:Ballet’s uncompromising vision, passionate drive and forward trajectory.

Many six-packs contain six of the same item, but sometimes a variety is in order. And with their 2015 Six Pack, Post:Ballet offers an outstanding sampler with classic, lite, spicy, experimental, hybrid and limited edition choreographic flavors.

Part of Post:Ballet’s first summer season at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater, 2010’s Flutter is the classic selection in Post:Ballet’s Six Pack. Though not a ‘classical’ piece in any way, Flutter has both survived and thrived over time, which is what makes it a classic. And it still has a rare hypnotic power, leading its audience on a captivating journey from the first moment to the final leg circle. A trio set to two very different musical parts (the first a dynamic clapping score by Steve Reich and performed by The Living Earth Show; the second, the Sarabande from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 performed by Abigail Shiman), Flutter examines the interplay between movement and sound like no other. Having never seen the exact same cast twice, each viewing provides the opportunity to learn and experience the constructive depth in a new way. 2015’s iteration ushered in new costumes by Christian Squires, who also danced in the piece, and if I’m not mistaken, a slightly different opening scene. But Dekkers’ choreography is still this work’s driving force – the intricacies in hands, fingers, torso and legs along with the purity of piqués in attitude. Performance after performance, Flutter maintains its choreographic integrity while never compromising freshness and vitality.

For those who might want something a little lighter in nature, Pitch Pause Please may be the dance for you. But this particular lite flavor is neither less-than nor lacking anything. Rather, this world premiere is a work of grace and flow that allows the audience to enjoy the sheer beauty of artists collaborating. The lights came up to reveal soloist Jessica Collado and percussionist Andrew Meyerson together on stage; Collado’s movements and facial expressions reacting to the various sounds. While I’m sure that Pitch Pause Please had a set choreographic framework, it truly looked like Collado and Meyerson were collaborating in the moment; the moving body and Samuel Adams’ original score becoming one. Ringing chimes were met with ringing extensions of the limbs, staccato notes with prancing feet.

2014’s Yours is Mine was definitely the spicy choice of the evening. Footlights, bare stage and an overhanging light grid set the scene for this aggressive, avant-garde, no apologies quartet. Jeremy Bannon-Neches, Aidan DeYoung and Squires played their game of domination, crawling, circling each other like primitive creatures, or at least with primitive instincts. Who would take control? Then as Cora Cliburn entered the space, the mood shifted. Jealousy, fighting and competition still read in the men’s movement and demeanor, but they were completely transfixed, and maybe even hypnotized by Cliburn.  

Experimental flavors are the ones that are being ‘tried out’ to see if they resonate or if they don’t. Reason does not know is one of these exploratory taste tests. A duet that Dekkers made for the Kansas City Ballet in February of this year, Reason does not know has a purposeful instability that informs much of the duet, literally and figuratively. The relationship between the two dancers (Cliburn and Ricardo Zayas) was difficult to characterize. On the one hand, there was smoothness, an ease between them, mostly present in the beautiful lifts. But there was also a detachment and struggle for balance, particularly in the relevé walking motif. This is one experimental flavor profile that I’m still thinking about, but I would like to try it again.

ourevolution (2014) is the hybrid flavor in the Six Pack. Much about this piece can touch the viewer: the tech animation, the costumes/scenic design, the choreography, and for this particular viewer, the narrative undercurrent. In ourevolution, Dekkers has written a physical essay, documenting concurrent states of being and simultaneous contrasts. This is why the work is so relatable. Five dancers spend the first part of ourevolution in a walking sequence. Right away, there are questions. Are they going somewhere or nowhere? Are they walking to meet or to avoid? The sense of distance and closeness, affection and disengagement is so potent even in this pedestrian movement. The piece crescendos with various solos, duets and group phrases over its twenty-plus minutes, and ends with a hopeful note of affection. Squires lays his head on DeYoung’s shoulder in a moment of pure tenderness and ourevolution closes with a final choreographic cluster - support, care and awareness.

Limited Edition screams specialness and scarcity, and those are the elements that make up Do Be: Family, the second world premiere on the Six Pack program. Part of a full-length
Post:Ballet dance artists
Cora Cliburn and Jeremy Bannon-Neches
and company
Photo: David DeSilva
evening next fall (the result of a year-long collaboration with The Living Earth Show), Do Be: Family is a narratively driven dance theater work exploring the chaos and complexity of group dynamics and systems. Whether enthusiastic or forced, participation in those systems is at the heart of this work. Exaggerated faces and a set of expressive gestures (I think I even saw dancers checking imaginary watches) run throughout; their repetition providing equal parts emphasis/anesthetic and stabilization/destabilization. Many of the poses, especially in a featured duet by Squires and Vanessa Thiessen, are steeped in manipulation. Both dancers meticulously moving and placing each other into specific attitudes and positions. The score contains a number of well-known folk songs that are continually interrupted with altered rhythms and adjusted meters. This created a creepiness that totally fit with the scene unfolding onstage. There are many contemporary artists for whom collaboration drives process. But there are actually very few who seek collaboration as a force for change, for creative growth, for departure from the norm. Robert Dekkers is one of the few, and with Do Be: Family, it shows.