Monday, September 29, 2014

Mark Morris Dance Group

presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
September 28th, 2014

Mark Morris Dance Group’s fall engagement at Cal Performances demonstrated the evolving nature and breadth of neoclassical dance. Program A brought a collection of four Bay Area premieres. Two were solid old-school neoclassical compositions with the requisite technical proficiency, unexpected (and delightful) movement choices and musical exploration. The other two pieces on the program pushed the boundaries of this stylistic genre, stretching the form even further with both innovative physical syllabi and cutting-edge conceptual approaches.

Program A opened with Morris’ “The Muir” (2010), a work for three men and three women, featuring stunning vocalists cycling through a set of enchanting folk songs. “The Muir” was a pretty traditional example of neoclassical dance, with movements that punctuated and emphasized the score. Full of clever and humorous moments - the men crawling along the floor to a pulsating beat, the waving and pointing hand gestures, miming empty pockets – it was like a tongue in cheek court dance. Yet the ending was somber and heavy as one sole dancer was left alone on the stage. “The Muir” is a physically demanding piece for the entire cast, though the men’s choreography stole the show. There was only one problematic step that recurred throughout – the attitude derriere. It was neither turned out nor parallel; this ‘in between state’ looked unintentional, and frankly, a little sloppy.

2012’s “A Wooden Tree” followed – an ensemble dance set again to folk music, this time by Ivor Cutler. The cast looked like a group of hipsters (a comically unstable group at times) at a social dance club. Again Morris’ movement reflected the score, but this time that interpretation was taken to a new level. The words/lyrics were also visually incorporated into the dance and into the interactions between the dancers - the women’s telegraph sequence was particularly phenomenal.

Following intermission, company dancers Sam Black and Jenn Weddel took the stage in Morris’ “Jenn and Spencer” (2013), another dance that spoke to the new neoclassicism. Everything about this piece was narratively charged, and the pas de deux had a sustained drama and tumult. Even the slower phrases lacked tenderness, instead replaced by a
Morris' "Jenn and Spencer"
Photo: Stephanie Berger
wildness and constant coiled energy. Black and Weddel danced Morris’ complex choreography with skill, aptitude and abandon. One particular highlight was Weddel’s circuit of gorgeous leg extensions, while Black inched forward on the floor. “Jenn and Spencer” is a force, and incidentally, featured the most groundbreaking choreography and gutsiest performances on this program.

Closing the day was 2011’s “Festival Dance”, which took the audience full circle, returning to time-honored neoclassicism. “Festival Dance” is a full cast extravaganza, with ample partnering, and lovely, joyful, flowing movement phrases. In the rondo section of the piece, there is a particularly impressive spinning lift, where the women flip their body and leg position mid-spin. It was so free and expansive.

While Program A did show the breadth of the neoclassical genre, the actual repertory choices overlapped too much. Even though the music was different, the costumes were different and the casting was different, three of the four pieces had a folksy, social dance thing going on. And stylistically, “Festival Dance” and “The Muir” were very similar. “Festival Dance” may be a tiny bit more technical, with slightly more character vocabulary, but the two pieces that bookended Program A were a little too alike for my taste.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Bridge Project 2014

presented by Hope Mohr Dance
in association with the Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco
September 27th, 2014

Hope Mohr Dance’s 2014 Bridge Project was a phenomenal celebration of West Coast post-modern dance, bringing together four powerhouse choreographers in a single program – Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, Lucinda Childs and Hope Mohr. Subtitled “Have We Come A Long Way, Baby?”, the evening provided a holistic encounter with post-modernism. The history and lineage of the genre was definitely there, but at the same time, this was a live, in person and real-time experience with post-modern movement, physicality and composition.

Legendary post-modern icon Anna Halprin kicked off the event performing in her 1999 dance, “The Courtesan and the Crone”. Donning a floor-length gold jacket and an ornate mask, Halprin (at ninety-four) demonstrated with this short work the transformative power of costuming. The articulation of her hands, shoulders and head were so subtle, though striking, and gave the piece a light, humorous, almost flirty sense. But at the end, Halprin took off the mask and the cloak, and an intense angst was revealed. Up until this point, the pain and suffering had been completely hidden behind the costume and mask, again speaking to how non-dance theatrical elements have the ability to drastically alter circumstance and situation.

Simone Forti followed in her “News Animation”, a structured improvisation of text and physicality. Forti spoke throughout the performance, making both small and big pronouncements, and the accompanying movement that developed seemed informed by these statements, observations and thoughts. Pathways abounded – straight, back and forth, circular, fragmented. Levels changed; directions shifted and dynamics ranged from forceful to quiet. And even in the midst of her improvisation, you could tell that Forti was searching for connectivity between ideas and existence at that exact moment, in this particular space.

Next up was Hope Mohr performing in Lucinda Childs’ “Carnation”, a work from 1964 that sought to re-imagine and explore the possibilities of everyday, familiar items. A trash bag was a shoe, a colander was a hat, sponges combined with foam cylinders to make a sandwich. But the most interesting aspect of “Carnation” is the multiple reactions that it evokes. As these objects were presented in their various odd visual manifestations, the audience laughed at the absurdity and ridiculousness. But for me, the piece isn’t funny at all; it is actually a deep comment on expectations, preconceptions and pretense versus reality.

Pictured: Peiling Kao in Hope Mohr's "s(oft is) hard"
Photo: Margo Moritz
Closing the program was the premiere of Mohr’s “s(oft is) hard”, danced by Peiling Kao and inspired by Mohr’s personal journals as well as her own past experience of journaling (she shared this with the audience in the program notes). Ben Juodvalkis’ score combined writing sounds, some occasional musical interludes and what I assume was Mohr’s voice reciting dates, the first from 1945 and the last, the present date. An internal, personal journey unfolded on the stage (and was simultaneously projected on the back wall), the movement accumulating from very small reflexive adjustments to large rolling and diving sequences. The interesting question here was one of context. We were watching a physical monologue but it was someone else’s story - one that we had no unique insight into or understanding of. Were the dates in the soundscore random? Were the movement choices representing something that happened on those specific dates? Or was there no direct correlation at all between the dates and the dance? The context was uncertain, it wasn’t easy to figure it out, and that was great.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Synaptic Motion"

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, San Francisco
September 20th, 2014

Clarity of intention is fluid in contemporary dance performance. Sometimes you know what a piece is about; sometimes you don’t; and sometimes it isn’t about anything. Capacitor’s “Synaptic Motion” definitely fits into the first category. Artistic Director Jodi Lomask’s world premiere work utilizes brain scans and other neurological imaging tools in an effort to explore, discover and examine the physical manifestations of creativity. It is a cool and innovative concept. And when “Synaptic Motion” kept to its conceptual foundation, the results were fascinating.
Capacitor in "Synaptic Motion"
Photo: RJ Muna

After the performance, a neurologist generously shared with me the following insight and definition: “neurology is the study of the brain, and the brain is about building connections with other things – other neurons, other networks, other systems”. From the moment you walked into the space, that organic process was evident; themes of change and evolution abounding. The YBCA Forum had been organized almost like a dance exhibit, with few available seats. Instead, the audience was encouraged to stand and move around the room to view the performance from different angles (another cool idea, but it did make it difficult to see from time to time). Much of the action was focused in the center stage space, though surrounding structures and apparatus also served as additional performance platforms. In many of the early scenes, the dancers strung together lines of physical and movement material; adapting and reacting to circumstance with flexibility and pliability, the dynamics ranging from stretchy to shaky. In the first group sequence, a pulse was choreographically derived into small upper body isolations and stunning double pliés. In a later vignette, the ensemble stood in an arc, and one by one, chaînéd to the opposite end, constructing a circular pathway with a circular movement – real-time creation and real-time conversion. These specific variations (and others) really stayed with the conceptual intention and were seeking to express what happens in the brain during the creative process. This was not a linear story, nor was it a deconstructed narrative. “Synaptic Motion” took an initial idea, gained perspective through source material, transferred those findings into original movement, sound and video and then communicated them to an audience.    

“Synaptic Motion” triumphed when the phrase material was both visually interesting and conceptually sound. Unfortunately, there were several scenes in the seventy-minute performance that only fulfilled the visual side of that equation. Each acrobatic variation was impressive and spectacular, no question. But the conceptual connection was a little tenuous. When aerial/acrobatic/contortion work took center stage, the piece tended to go in and out of focus and the flow was compromised. But on second thought, maybe that was kind of the point. Perhaps it was one of the lessons to be learned. Creativity isn’t a linear experience; it is filled with equal parts excitement and transformation, doubt and disruption.