Friday, April 17, 2015

San Francisco Ballet - Program 7

San Francisco Ballet
Program 7
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 16th, 2015

Mixed repertory nights are sometimes constructed around a theme – maybe works by the same choreographer, of the same era, to the same composer or of a particular genre. And just as often, there is no unifying motif; the program is simply a combination of different dances. But there is also a third category. One where a common through line exists but is less obvious. San Francisco Ballet’s seventh program is a perfect example of this. The theme of the night was design, with each piece speaking equally of vast visual scope and intimate visual intricacies.

The triple bill opened with a reprise of 2014’s Caprice, choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and set to a diverse Saint-Saëns score. As exquisite columns of light adjust and shift to frame each of the ballet’s five movements, Tomasson’s Caprice is all about elegance. In the first sequence, Mathilde Froustey and Vitor Luiz’s series of arabesque lifts floated through space with regal splendor. Chapter two brought some stunning but telling double cabrioles by Sarah Van Patten and featured the most lovely stage exit. As Tiit Helimets carried Van Patten into the second wing stage left, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Sean Orza knelt down, arms outstretched, faces lifted upwards. Van Patten and Helimets returned in the third movement with an unexpected duet full of split lifts and upper body curves. While Caprice really shone in these featured duets, the corps struggled with unison on Thursday evening. The elegance of Caprice requires clarity and because the unison was off, that clarity was compromised.

An iconic work of neo-classical brilliance, George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments continued program seven’s design-based theme by exploring the physical possibilities within classical ballet vocabulary. From the opening themes to the final Choleric variation, Balanchine creates physical architecture in this masterwork. Examining the shapes that can be made, the images sculpted, the surprising steps (bent leg work on pointe, a vast presence of second position, flexed hands, hips and shoulders that are no longer square). Even today, almost seventy years after the work premiered, The Four Temperaments still pushes boundaries and seeks to understand what ballet can do and what ballet can look like.


Pictured: San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov's Swimmer
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Onto the only world premiere and the most designed dance of the evening, Yuri Possokhov’s Swimmer. A solo trumpet sang from the orchestra pit, a see through screen revealed a mid-century modern domestic scene and almost immediately, the scrim came alive with video (by Kate Duhamel). From that moment on, the choreography and the interactive videography worked in tandem to communicate a deep narrative – one character’s clash with circumstance and his journey through the reality of responsibility and the fantasy of youth. There was much to love about Possokhov’s Swimmer. Duhamel’s video design was used to connect the various segments, which gave an overall feeling of continuous motion. Choreographically, the quiet pas de deux between Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham was a statement of gorgeous nostalgia. The powerful men’s variation towards the end of the ballet drew audible gasps from the audience, and of course, Vitor Luiz gave a transformative performance as the central character. In modern dance, there is a lot of discussion about the genre of dance theater. It’s super trendy and happens everywhere in the contemporary scene. Possokhov’s Swimmer is not dance theater, but a wonderful model of something even rarer – ballet theater.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Liss Fain Dance - A Space Divided

Liss Fain Dance
A Space Divided
Z Space, San Francisco
April 12th, 2015

For Liss Fain Dance’s newest performance installation, Z Space was transformed. A house-like steel skeleton had been constructed on the stage with clear cellophane streamers acting as walls. Dedicated large grey squares were to be the dance areas. Benches were placed around the perimeter and there were black corridors between the various ‘stages’. Matthew Antaky’s scenic design spoke of a theme: partitioned but porous.

Pictured (L to R): Katharine Hawthorne, Carson Stein (downstage) and
Shannon Kurashige in Liss Fain Dance's A Space Divided
Photo: Benjamin Hersh
Antaky’s scenic design was the inspiration for Liss Fain Dance’s A Space Divided. For this world premiere project, Artistic Director Liss Fain and guest choreographers Christian Burns and Amy Seiwert each composed a choreographic response to Antaky’s set. The three dances were then woven together, one after the other, to create the hour-long work. And while A Space Divided is definitely an experiment in choreographic vision and interpretation, it is equally an exercise in viewership.

As with any artistic installation, the audience was encouraged to move around during the performance; to take in the work at different angles and from various perspectives. This turned the audience into active decision makers. Whether you chose to stay in one place or move around, you had to not only make that choice, but also choose what scene or which dancers you were going to watch at any given moment.

Because A Space Divided had the work of three different choreographers, there were three sections within the dance. Yet even with lighting cues, music changes and shifts in the movement style, where one chapter stopped and the next one began wasn’t obvious. Which followed the original theme that had been established: partitioned but porous. A Space Divided was like a fluid stream of consciousness and investigation. I did try and figure out the breakdown, though. And in doing so, had some observations about each choreographic response.

Part one, choreographed by Christian Burns, varied in both movement and mood. Near the beginning, there was a sequence were unison phrases were thrown from performer to performer, like a game of catch. One dancer would begin the phrase in one room, would be joined by another dancer in a different space, then the first dancer would stop, a new dancer would join and the game continued on. The open doorways in Antaky’s set also had significance. Rather than solely facilitating a pathway between dance squares, Burns suggested through his choreography that these doors were a kind of invisible barrier. This segment concluded with a sense of community. The five-member ensemble gathered together in various configurations and performed cluster balances.

A wide-ranging trumpet underscored Amy Seiwert’s contribution to A Space Divided. From dense chromatic scales to sweet harmonies to avant-garde non-note sounds, it set the scene perfectly for work that had similar breadth. Balletic steps were interspersed into the otherwise contemporary physicality, and the sculptural movement frequently dismantled in surprising ways.

In the final episode of A Space Divided, Liss Fain took the choreographic helm. With a text-based score, this last section of the dance featured a real shift between parallel and turned out realities. Dancers Shannon Kurashige and Megan Kurashige swiveled back and forth in plié from parallel attitude to turned out attitude. Positions of the feet also came into play – fifth moved to non-specific parallel, open fourth to sixth position. Again this took us back to the original theme of pliability and change. Fain also explored the doorways of Antaky’s set by placing dancers within these open structures. Feet straddled the line between rooms; arms on one side, body on the other. It was a strong statement of being and existing ‘in between’.

Liss Fain Dance’s company dancers must be applauded for their performance in A Space Divided. While there were moments of stillness and brief periods of being off-stage, all five were ‘on’ and active pretty much for the whole hour. But speaking of that sixty minutes, while the concept for A Space Divided was both successful and thought provoking, the piece was really too long. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Carmina Burana

Carmina Burana
presented by UC Alumni Chorus and Smuin Ballet
Berkeley Community Theater, Berkeley
April 11th, 2015

Live musical accompaniment makes such a difference in dance performance. And if there was one choreographic work that was made for live music, it is Carmina Burana. While it isn’t always possible, live music ups the ante of this dramatic ballet and infuses the movement with electricity. New dimensions of power and vibrancy abound, ones that just cannot be achieved or replicated with a recorded score. This past Saturday, in a special one-night engagement, audiences could experience this phenomenon. Smuin Ballet performed Michael Smuin’s version of Carmina Burana in Berkeley with a huge musical aggregate: the UC Alumni Chorus, UC Men’s and Women’s Chorales, the Santa Barbara Choral Society, the San Francisco State University Percussion Ensemble, an instrumental chamber group, two pianists and three solo vocalists. As conductor Dr. Mark Sumner shared at the beginning of the performance, this was a special evening of artistic collaboration.

Smuin’s Carmina Burana is divided into multiple sub-sections that mirror the various musical chapters of the piece. Because of all these starts and stops, at times, the ballet can feel disjointed. But the live music made such a significant difference. While the series of starts and stops were still present (and some chapters had no dance at all), there was an overarching flow and fluidity to the work.

As the layered choral harmony hung in the air, Susan Roemer’s first solo viscerally haunted. Everything had an extra level of drama – her hands, her piqué turns, her balances on demi-pointe in 2nd position demi-plié. Joshua Reynolds, Robert Moore and Jo-Ann Sundermeier’s pas de trois was a statement of simple elegance with its unison low attitude turns, supported developpés and extended arabesques. Another highlight was Nicole Haskins’ solo towards the end of the ballet. Haskins danced the variation with style, technique and aplomb, and while there are some beautiful choreographic phrases, the vignette does come across as a little too busy.


Some dramatic flair and narrative interpretation found its way into the featured vocal solos. In a purely choral concert, I can see how this works well, but with the dancers on stage at the same time, it was out of place. And on occasion, establishing the right tempo proved challenging. The dancers and musicians definitely settled into the tempo they both wanted, but it didn’t always start out that way.