Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Amy Foley's Bellwether Dance Project - SPF10

Bellwether Dance Project examines judgment and disparity in Thighs and Wages
As part of next month’s Summer Performance Festival (SPF10)
Presented by SAFEhouse Arts
Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco – July 6th–16th 

Bellwether Dance Project in Thighs and Wages
Photo Jane Hu
Dramatic directional shifts. Living poses and postures. Vast use of second and fourth positions in plié and in extension; a reflection of chasms and gaps. Technically intricate phrase material that is simultaneously expressive, risky and surprising. Unison, canon and partnering. Diverse physical vocabulary: turned out attitude and fouetté jumps, pedestrian running, parallel assemblés, task-based gestural sequences, contorted runway walks and solar plexuses lifting in a high upper body arch. Compositional repetition acting as both an emphasis and an anesthetic. Picturesque vignettes that speak of camaraderie and shared experience contrasted with challenging tableaux of manipulation, dismissal and control.

All these choreographic states and more await in Bellwether Dance Project’s Thighs and Wages, an ensemble work where contemporary performance and narrative abstraction evolve and converge. Conceived by Bellwether Dance Project’s Artistic Director Amy Foley, Thighs and Wages takes the stage in early July as part of the tenth annual SAFEhouse Arts Summer Performance Festival (SPF). Every summer, SAFEhouse Director Joe Landini welcomes emerging and established choreographic voices alike to the highly anticipated and eclectic dance event, this year held at the Joe Goode Annex. Bellwether Dance Project is thrilled to be part of 2017’s line-up, sharing a program with Linda Bouchard Multimedia Works.

A lifelong dancer, Foley began taking class at the age of five and continued throughout her childhood and teenage years, particularly pulled towards ballet. And like many serious dance students, sometime in high school she started to contemplate what might come out of these years of training, “I thought, wait, I’m not going to be a professional ballerina, but there must be a place in dance where I fit in.” After taking a brief hiatus from the studio, Foley rediscovered movement at Colorado College, and specifically found a connection with modern dance. “Here, I could use my technique, athleticism and grace, though in a different context, a more grounded one – it felt like home,” she recalls. Fast forward a bit and Foley found herself in San Francisco, with the goal of dancing and performing, and eventually discovered Robert Moses’ class. Within a couple of years, she joined Robert Moses’ KIN and remained a company member for a decade. During this season, Foley also taught and freelanced with other San Francisco dance organizations, like Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and Shift Physical Theater.

After her stint at Robert Moses’ KIN, Foley noticed a new artistic and creative pull within, an itch to start making her own work. Though, at the same time, she didn’t want to abandon the dancer/performer part of her being. So once again, it was time for some penetrating questions, “am I a dancer, am I a choreographer, where should my focus lie?” Like most deep inquiries, Foley found that there wasn’t one answer, and that for her, living into both roads felt right. Still continuing to perform (with ODC, and of late with RAWdance, project.b. and KAMBARA+DANCERS), she also began presenting work in a number of different choreographic outlets: ODC’s Pilot Program, LINES Ballet’s summer intensive, RAWdance’s CONCEPT series, PUSHfest, Robert Moses’ KIN’s By Series and the Dance Mission Choreographic Showcase. Over the past sixteen months, this journey in dancemaking has intensified even further, with the official formation of Foley’s company, Bellwether Dance Project, and more recently, as a Lead Artist at SAFEhouse Arts.

While RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) has been a fixture in the San Francisco choreographic climate for ten years, SAFEhouse’s Lead Artist program is a brand new offshoot. “We decided this year to start moving towards an artist co-op model as a way for SAFEhouse to become more sustainable,” explains Landini, “we invited a group of RAW artists to help us run SAFEhouse in the areas of Production, Marketing, Development and Operations; six of this year’s SPF choreographers are Lead Artists.” Of course, built into the Lead Artist program is space to construct and develop new work as well as several performance opportunities. Foley’s Thighs and Wages is one of the resulting dances from her time in this creative, exploratory environment.

Bellwether Dance Project in Thighs and Wages
Photo Jane Hu
While not a linear story, Thighs and Wages has a powerful narrative and conceptual foundation. “The piece considers and alludes to the ways that women are scrutinized and objectified; how turning someone into an object lessens their humanness,” Foley shares, “and without suggesting any answer or resolution, it challenges the viewer to contemplate the ramifications and outcomes of this objectification – abuse, violence or training women in self-doubt.” A twenty-minute work for five women, Thighs and Wages saw its premiere in November of 2016 at SAFEhouse. “I was really happy with the first showing back in November; it went well, and it also made me realize that I wanted to delve deeper into Thighs and Wages,” adds Foley. With the upcoming July performances in SPF10, she is doing just that, once again is diving into this narrative, contemporary choreography.

Re-visiting any type of project brings with it such great opportunities – the chance to create new material, to edit and adjust existing parts and the occasion to possibly work with new collaborators. All of these hold true for Foley’s next iteration of Thighs and Wages. “I’m expanding the piece and creating some new ideas as well as changing some of the overall structure and phrases,” Foley describes, “and four of the five dancers are new, so it’s exciting to experience their individualism, creativity and different ways of moving in the work.” Dancers in the original cast of Thighs and Wages were Kaitlyn Ebert, Jackie Goneconti Gibbons, Emeline Le Thiec, Jane Selna and Maggie Stack, all of who also performed the work in January as part of the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival. Stack will be returning for SPF10 and will be joined by Marlie Couto, Liza Kroeschell, Courtney Mazeika and Katerina Wong.

As the SPF10 performances near (just a mere two weeks away), Foley is eager to present the next version of Thighs and Wages, this time in a new space and with a new quintet of dance artists. And she is also keen to share the piece with viewers who may be familiar with the work and those who are encountering it for the first time, “I hope the audience feels moved, whether touched, angry, sad or something else altogether; that they feel something is very important to me.”

Bellwether Dance Project in Thighs and Wages - Thurs, July 6th at 8:00pm and Sat, July 8th at 8:00pm.

*this article is sponsored by San Francisco Movement Arts Festival

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Monday, June 12, 2017

ChoreoFest 2017

Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
ChoreoFest 2017
Yerba Buena, San Francisco
June 10th, 2017

Many dancemakers take advantage of the summer months to take their work al fresca, offering site-specific performances in alternative, natural settings or on outdoor stages. This is also true in the Bay Area, though outside performances, even summer ones, can be a bit risky in San Francisco – warmer weather and a cooperative climate are never a guarantee, to be sure. That being said, sometimes the stars align and this past weekend at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival was one of those moments. Gorgeous weather, outstanding choreography, and uplifting dancing was on the menu at ChoreoFest 2017, a three-day performing arts event held in and around Yerba Buena, expertly curated by Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein, co-Artistic Directors of RAWdance. I was fortunate to catch the middle offering on Saturday afternoon, featuring three premiere works and one encore from 2016.

Allegra Bautista in RAWdance's Requiem
Photo Hillary Goidell
Opening the program in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum was RAWdance’s haunting, stunning Requiem, choreographed by Rein, Smith and Katerina Wong. Costumed in navy and wearing black sheer blindfolds, a trio cycled through a slow, meticulous, meditative phrase, with their backs to the audience. A range of small and large movements unfolded - from a single palm rising to the sky to developpés in parallel second to huge grand rond de jambes ending in arabesque. This first statement morphed into a larger ensemble as dancer after dancer walked with purpose and strength into the scene; an openness and calmness surging in every step, almost with a Tai chi like sensibility. Both vulnerability and a deliberate spirit sang through the space as solar plexuses ascended upward. And countertechnique lifts and balances added loft, breath and a community spirit to the work.

While introspectiveness abounded during Requiem, a somber note was also very present, especially as the dancers peered out through the sheer black masks. And the movement contained moments of fracture. Long extensions of the leg would suddenly break at the knee or at the hip and poses would purposefully collapse. But quickly these instances of fracture would morph into something different and choreographically transcend into the expanse. Because I arrived right as the performance was starting, I didn’t read the program notes until after. Only then did I learn that this striking work was titled Requiem, and it was a remembrance for the forty-nine souls violently taken a year ago at Pulse in Orlando. A response, a tribute and also an example of the inherent healing power within dance – if you have a chance to see this work, take it.

The crowd made its way across the street and settled just outside the Yerba Buena Forum space for dawsondancesf’s hold fast to dreams, a new trio from Gregory Dawson. Danced by Erik Debono, Frankie Lee Peterson III and Jacob Williams, the piece started with the three leaning against a sculpture. A series of percussive hand gestures and arm sequences brought the trio away from and back to their starting position, after which they slowly walked down the length of the building until reaching a corner boundary. Some of the first movements recurred in this new place, but this time, growing and developing. Debono, Peterson and Williams hugged the structure, making different points of contact with the driving choreographic phrase material, some partnering, some unison, cluster shapes and even parkour-like leaps. And as the pas de trois continued, a physical essay on perspective and assumptions arose. What happens when a wall becomes the floor? What movement is possible when we flip our expectations? How does choreography read when it is performed against surfaces, rather than being framed or contained by them?

Just outside the Yerba Buena Theater for the Arts was the locale for Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations’ Still Life No. 6, the third premiere on the Saturday afternoon program, choreographed and performed by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg, with live cello accompaniment by Shanna Sordahl. In brightly colored, long-sleeve, high neck unitards, the pair shared an artistic mélange with the viewer, one combining deep creative process and choreographic specificity. Small reflexive movements repeated in the shoulders, fingertips and bouncing knees. Swinging arms reflected accumulation and diminution compositional devices as well as changes in intensity and dynamics. Attention to detail was everywhere in the excerpted work, be it in directional facings, the axis of the body, the use of stillness, and of course in the gestures and movements themselves. Such clarity and definition in every second, like the difference between the palms lying flat on the ground as opposed to resting on the knuckles.

As Still Life No. 6 reached its last third, Simpson and Stulberg moved away from the central performing square and towards an adjacent wall for a handstand series. Next the duo weaved through the audience, themselves sharing a text excerpt and then inviting audience members to continue with the text while they returned to their original performance space. In the program, there is a note that the work “…draws various elements found in Doris Salcedo’s installation piece Plegaria Muda.” Part of SFMOMA’s collection, this particular piece is a grouping of bench structures with sprouting greenery, arranged throughout a room. You walk through it, deciding how much time to linger in one spot, which benches to view and in what order. And so, there is an opportunity to be immersed within Salcedo’s installation. I felt like a similar immersive experience was evolving in this final section of the dance. And one recurring physical motif throughout Still Life No. 6 had me mesmerized. At several points, Simpson and Stulberg nodded and shook their head, looking to the surface of the ground, and almost charting a path or a line. I wondered, did this represent the greenery growth in Salcedo’s work? Or was it the path that you take when viewing Plegaria Muda? Perhaps it was something entirely different. I’m certainly looking forward to considering these questions again.

For the last piece, we transitioned to the middle of the garden space for The Movemessenger(s) in 2016’s Hummingbird, choreography by Angela Dice Nguyen. A rumbling electronic score with voice text sang through the open air. Into the space, dancers Hien Huynh, Cooper Neely and Linda Phung offered contemporary physical movement, heavily inspired by martial arts vocabulary: giant jumps and dives, sliding on the grass and powerful, deep pliés. With a winning combination of highly athletic choreography and a profoundly tender approach, Hummingbird felt narrative to me. Not linear, but conceptually driven. The notion of a hummingbird was present throughout, with literal motifs, like fluttering, pulsating and vibrating alongside more abstracted flight imagery and partnering. A lovely coupling of groundedness and suspension spanned the dance, which finished with dramatic Limón swings, interspersed with parallel jumps. And while completely coincidental, the low-flying birds that made multiple passes over the performance space during Hummingbird definitely added to the experience.

Friday, June 09, 2017

"Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora"

Book Review

Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora
by Joanna Dee Das
published by Oxford University Press
released June 2017

Imagine sitting with a group of pre-professional dance students, and asking for a show of hands of who had heard Katherine Dunham’s name before. I think most hands would go up, indicating a familiarity with or recognition of Dunham. But ‘to what extent’ is the more interesting question. Had they studied Dunham technique or do they just know of her name? Had they read biographies of Dunham or just heard her mentioned in an introductory undergraduate or conservatory dance history seminar? Had they written a paper on this important figure or read one paragraph in a textbook? Had they had the opportunity to actually see some of her choreography, whether on film or in a reconstruction? While this scene is certainly hypothetical, chances are, unless these young students had encountered a Dunham scholar, expert or enthusiast at some point in their training, their exposure to her has likely been limited. Brief discussions that cannot even begin to cover Dunham’s broad and rich story, her process and choreography or her personal and professional missions. But a much fuller picture is attainable by looking to writings like Joanna Dee Das’ new book, Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora.

Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora takes the reader on a captivating journey, chronicling with expert and thorough detail the life and work of African American dance legend Katherine Dunham. An artist; an activist; a pioneering spirit; an advocate for racial and social justice; an explorer that thirsted for knowledge and understanding – Dee Das successfully and eloquently introduces a multi-faceted woman to her audience. A woman of incomparable talent, who was unafraid of challenge and provocation. A woman who sought to transcend expectations and assumptions in performance, in the studio and in everyday exchanges. And, a woman who was indeed complex and complicated.

In eight chapters (plus an epilogue), Dee Das touches on the varied aspects that combined into Dunham’s larger narrative: the intersection of art and activism throughout her life; the artistic desire of creation and construction; multiple research expeditions fueled by a deep longing to fully live into the African Diaspora, including a vital, lifelong connection with Haiti; scholarly pursuit of fields like anthropology and ethnography; as well as an extensive repertory review of Dunham’s vast choreographic archives. Informational gems, told through Dee Das’ compelling prose, leap from the book’s pages. Chapter two’s mention of Dunham’s thoughts on the solar plexus as an integral point of articulation in the body, her experience in Hollywood in 1940s, her links with other dance icons and the breakdown of her Rites de Passage piece.

Mid-way through Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora, Dee Das charts the establishment of the Katherine Dunham School of Dance, later changing its name to the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre, and its decade of broad, holistic (a word which Dee Das specifically uses in the epilogue to describe Dunham) curriculum. The Dunham Company’s international tours are outlined as are an array of responses and reactions to her choreography and work from friends, colleagues, company dancers and critics. Accounts of financial challenges and charged institutional/bureaucratic obstacles abound, all scored by Dunham’s tenacious, unyielding drive. Particularly poignant is the final chapter in the book relaying Dunham’s time in East St. Louis, Illinois. Here, the reader encounters how Dunham helped to transform a racially, socially, economically fractured population through community activism, political engagement and youth arts initiatives. Yet, the message that is so plainly and vulnerably revealed on these pages is that one of the most powerful transformations from the relationships forged and the infrastructure built in that place was within Dunham herself. And while fifty years in the past, this chapter significantly speaks to the present day.    

Incredibly well-researched and fully cited, Dee Das manages to avoid some of the pitfalls that can plague academic tomes – hers is a very readable, accessible volume (it still surprises me how many academic books are not, seeing as how they should be trying to educate and share information) and has a winning convergence of biography and analysis. Because of her comprehensive approach, the book is well suited to study within a number of disciplines – dance/performance studies, to be sure, but also gender studies, history, sociology, cultural anthropology, as just a few examples. And reaching a broader audience matters, even when it comes to academic writing.