Friday, April 22, 2016

Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Alonzo King LINES Ballet
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
April 21st, 2016

One of the main thematic threads in this spring’s dance season has been the relationship between movement and music. And this prevalence makes sense. The intersection between these two fields is full of rich opportunities, making it ripe for collaboration. But prevalent does not have to mean common. Or typical. Or conventional. And there was nothing common, typical or conventional about the treatment of dance and sound that happened on Thursday evening.

This was a program from one of the great pioneers of collaboration in dance, choreographer Alonzo King. His company, LINES Ballet, presented a penetrating double bill to open their 2016 Spring Season: the return of 2014’s Shostakovich and the world premiere of Sand. While each piece was distinct, they had a shared approach to movement and music. An egalitarian partnership percolated between the two disciplines – no leader, no follower. Both were allowed to be fully realized, each informing the other, but not making demands.

Shostakovich follows a classic multi-chapter structure – full company statements bookending a collection of overlaid vignettes, primarily pas de deuxs. Neither abstract nor narrative, Shostakovich sat somewhere in the middle ground. It definitely was not devoid of meaning or emotion, but it wasn’t a linear or deconstructed story either. This ambiguity served the work well, letting the physicality and score take primary focus.

As the ballet opened, limbs flew everywhere – arms circling, extensions lengthening to the heavens. From these first moments, it was clear that King’s choreography was not joining with Dmitri Shostakovich’s compositions in a traditional, neo-classical sense. The movement wasn’t punctuating or accenting particular aspects of the score, instead, both were expressing similar feelings, similar tones. It was such a compelling (and for me, delightfully unexpected) way in which to examine the deep connection between the physical and the auditory.

Dissonance read in off-center balances and broken extensions, virtuosic chromaticism in frenetic swirling. Suspended double voicing in the melodic line sang in the held lifts and demi-pointe slides across the stage. Much of Shostakovich’s music has an atonality to it, with no recognizable central key, and sometimes even a polytonality, with multiple keys occurring simultaneously. King expressed this aspect of the score with the split-view format that was used in many of the middle sections. Couples would be dancing different duets, but on either side of the stage or one upstage, one downstage. As a viewer, you had to consider and choose where your gaze would land and for how long it would remain in one place. A brilliant comment on atonality and polytonality. YuJin Kim and Brett Conway’s pas de deux in section five was a standout moment in Shostakovich. Dramatic and emotive, this slow, sensitive duet wowed in its nuance and in the dancer’s communication of King’s choreographic material.

While the flexibility is astounding, the repetitive split extensions in this piece wear thin after a while. And the lengthy variation where a soloist carried a long rod of light was a little puzzling. It may have made for some interesting visuals, but its connection to the larger work seemed tenuous. 

King’s newest collaborative project, Sand, is an eight-part dance with original music by Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran (performed live on opening night). The stage brightened to reveal a new organization of the space. The wings had been removed, and a back curtain of shimmery, flexible strands hung from the rafters to the floor. The cast assembled in the center and proceeded to share a powerful movement phrase, but not in unison. It was completed with their own sense of time and their own dynamics.

As Sand continued, the notion of change became very apparent. The company flowed in and out of the space, creating different scenes and donning an assortment of costumes throughout. Here was an exercise in perpetual motion.

LINES Ballet dancer YuJin Kim
Photo: RJ Muna
The technique and strength of this company deserves special mention. They eat up space; have a breathtaking attention to detail and a phenomenal capacity to communicate. Their acuity shines in Sand.

Sand was full of beautiful episodes; places where I didn’t want to think, I just wanted to watch and listen. The men’s duet (danced by Robb Beresford and Shuaib Elhassan) and the men’s quintet near the end of the dance were two such moments. As was the first time we realized that behind the back curtain, there was a platform, on which dancers would occasionally cross from one side to the other. And the juxtaposition of linear patterning against the gauzy backdrop spoke of the dance’s unique architecture.   

Sand had an innovative structure - full cast sequences were interspersed throughout the dance - and varied choreography that again worked in concert with the Lloyd and Moran’s music. Scalic patterns in the saxophone met pulsating isolations in the body; triplet patterns paired with a rippling motion in the hands and arms. From time to time, different intentions were also at play in the music and dance. And it worked. An accented fortissimo soprano note was countered with melty turns and soft developpés; the piano’s rumbling tremolo was crossed with a sweeping circular lift that barely skimmed the surface of the stage. Sand is truly a gorgeous work of collaborative art. But it could have been about ten percent shorter.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

"Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet"

Book review:

Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet
by Joel Lobenthal
published by Oxford University Press, 2016

Biographies may be a common literary genre, but writing a good biography is not an easy task. There’s the responsibility side - communicating an individual’s life is both a privilege and a serious charge for any author. But there’s also the structural/formal side to a biography. There has to be more than just the reporting of facts or the relaying of a personal timeline; the real-life narrative has to have intensity.

Joel Lobenthal’s current release from Oxford University Press gets both parts right. Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet is a thoroughly researched, expertly crafted biography, full of care, endearment and attention. And structurally, the book weaves and connects the personal and professional aspects of Osipenko’s life with acumen and verve. Upon finishing the 250-page book, Lobenthal has taken the reader on an expedition, one where they have glimpsed into this famed artist’s experience, what informed her career and the life choices she made.

Lobenthal has opted to divide the book into three large sections, each containing a number of brief chapters. This ‘short chapter’ approach definitely helps move the story forward. And it makes Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet very approachable for any reader, no matter their familiarity with Osipenko, Russian ballet, or dance in general. Part One moves from Osipenko’s youth to pre-professional student life to her early years in the Kirov Ballet to performance tours that took her into the West for the first time. Her outspoken, self-confident nature is present in these first eleven chapters, though at this point, it comes across more like minor defiances. Lobenthal foreshadows this on page 83 of the book, “Her real struggles with authority were yet to come.”

Part Two reveals and explores these challenges; a season of turbulence in Osipenko’s personal and professional life, and describes the Kirov Ballet’s climate during the 1950s/1960s where politics seemed to inform everything. Beginning with Nureyev’s defection, the reader gains a better understanding of the cloak under which Osipenko danced and how many different factors directly (and often negatively) affected her career. Lost opportunities leap from the pages in these twenty chapters, not only about this passionate ballerina who was brave enough to stand behind what she believed to be right, but also about the complex woman who was in love with being in love. One of the saddest stories lies in the last chapter of this middle section – a punitive and deliberate decision made by the company administration to cast this star ballerina as a village corps member in Giselle.

After a string of these kinds of career demotions, disappointments and humiliations, Lobenthal brings Osipenko’s resignation and final performance (a dramatic story itself) to the table in Part Three of Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet. Leaving the Kirov, her and her husband joining a new company, dealing with new but familiar issues of artistic control, her eventual move to the Hartford Ballet in Connecticut and her return to Russia. In this final section, the reader encounters the best portion of the book, chapter 32, entitled ‘Artistic Credo’. Touching and thought provoking, this penultimate chapter reads like a postlude – a beautiful reflection on ballet, culture, living and humanity.

If you are looking for a new dance biography to read this spring, Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet by Joel Lobenthal is a great choice. Academic yet accessible, the book tells a compelling and engaging story - the true story of a celebrated ballerina’s distinct journey onstage and off.

Friday, April 15, 2016

"A Cappella - Our Bodies Sing"

Oakland Ballet
A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing
Malonga Casquelord Theater, Oakland
April 14th, 2016

At many contemporary and classical dance performances, the relationship between the score and the choreography strikes. Is the movement unlocking nuances in the music? Are the musical phrases enhancing the physicality? Do the compositional elements have an even or uneven association in the work? Perhaps the music and movement are purposely co-existing in dissonance, the discord and tension between the two suggesting deeper narrative or structural themes. These are just some of the thoughts, questions and observations that arise when witnessing and considering these two fields in a single theatrical container.

With its 2016 spring program, Oakland Ballet, under the Artistic Direction of Graham Lustig, puts a unique twist on the simultaneous experience of sound and motion. A triple bill, A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing brings the voice together with the body. Each work on the program features a different a cappella score, provided by three Bay Area choral organizations.

All three pieces on the A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing program were multi-chapter suites - longer works comprised of short sequences. While an obvious commonality, each dance was incredibly distinct. First up was the world premiere of Val Caniparoli’s Beautiful Dreamer, a joyous, youthful, exuberant eight-part composition, set to music by Stephen Foster, performed by the Berkeley Community Chamber Singers under the direction of Derek Tam. With its combination of classical ballet, contemporary dance and rhythmic footwork, there was much to love in Beautiful Dreamer. The seated lift in the first movement; the Appalachian-inspired phrases where the upper body and arms remained still while the feet percussed in varied patterns; the driving motion of the entire work. Cristian Laverde König and Brent Whitney wowed in the structurally diverse “Oh! Susanna” duet – a combination of canon, unison and partnering. Abandon and surrender were at the heart of “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” pas de deux (danced by Chloe Slade and Gregory DeSantis) with its spinning, soaring circular lifts. At the end of the fourth sequence, the dancers slid across the stage and then relevéd into the wings in arabesque. And the final movement (the work’s namesake) was a swirling physical statement of multiple turns and recurring footwork. Such a dynamic start to this special evening.  

Pictured: Coral Martin, Chloe Slade and Evelyn Turner in
Photo: John Hefti
While a glorious all-female sextet (Vajra Voices, directed by Karen R. Clark) sang the early music of Hildegard von Bingen, the company swept in and out of the stage left wings. This was the beginning of the program’s second world premiere, Divining, an uplifting five-chapter dance choreographed by Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton. Divining was prayerful, spiritual and meditative, but not at all quiet or solemn. Everything reached forward and outward, drawing the viewer in with drama. Arms extended into allongé; limbs into arabesque and second position. Bodies crept downstage; eyes looked to the horizon. Each movement was attentive and emotive whether in the serpentine torso, the unexpected hand positions or the scissoring legs. And there was room in the conceptual narrative for a variety of interpretations and responses to the work. Divining was a standout piece, and the entire company danced phenomenally on opening night.

Closing the A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing program was Lustig’s Stone of Hope (2015), an Oakland Ballet company premiere. The final dance suite of the evening, Stone of Hope was set to spirituals, energetically furnished by Nona Brown and the Inspirational Music Collective (directed by Brown). A wealth of enraptured choreography unfolded in the work’s seven movements – parallel jumps, embraces, grand battements, stag leaps, cabrioles. Coral Martin and Rudy Candia’s duet to “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” was a noteworthy moment. I loved how Lustig played with the notion of ‘being anchored’ in the choreography. The word ‘anchored’ certainly evokes images of strength, purpose and resolve, but it is equally about elation and exhilaration. Lustig demonstrated this breadth with vast jumps and gorgeous double attitude lifts. The gestural choreography and accented movements that accompanied Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech (brilliantly offered by Nelvin Moss) were well chosen and didn’t take the focus away from the power of the words.

But the biggest contribution that Stone of Hope makes is in its structure and format. Lustig has crafted a truly ensemble work. Stone of Hope is not for dancers and musicians; it is for a group of artists. They were together on stage; they interacted with each other – it was one cast, and an amazing one at that. Collaboration across fields is pretty common in contemporary performance but real-time, live creative collaboration like that in Stone of Hope is rarer than you might think.