Monday, July 25, 2016

Festival Napa Valley 2016 - Dance Gala

Festival Napa Valley 2016
Dance Gala
Dede Wilsey Dance Series
San Francisco Ballet
Lincoln Theater, Yountville
July 22nd, 2016

In individual pools of light at opposite corners of the stage, San Francisco Ballet’s Frances Chung and Aaron Robison faced each other. With sweeping arms, they began a riveting physical conversation that the corps de ballet would soon join. Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s The Fifth Season was underway, as was Festival Napa Valley’s annual Dance Gala.

The Dance Gala is always a highlight of the festival, but this year was particularly special with San Francisco Ballet performing the entire program for the first time. And what a program the company designed for this event! A perfect sampler of classical and contemporary favorites, danced by magnificent world-class artists.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in
Tomasson's The Fifth Season
Photo © Erik Tomasson
An ensemble work for three couples and a corps of eight, Tomasson’s The Fifth Season is a suite of spectacular moments, one that both celebrates and transcends ballet’s various genres and styles. This full-length work, originally choreographed in 2006, strikes a perfect balance between traditional, neo-classical and contemporary choreography. Off-center balances meet textbook developpés (Robison’s écarté extension especially impressed); silky suspensions combine with staccato demi-pointe boureés. In addition, moods and atmospheres vary from the mischievous tango (led by Mathilde Froustey) to the emotive, sculptural pas de deux by Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets. A luminescent start to a phenomenal evening.

Next, the company delved into the narrative story ballets of the late 1800s, with Vanessa Zahorian and Vitor Luiz in the pas de deux from Le Corsaire (choreography after Marius Petipa). Stately and regal, this excerpt was the perfect contrast to the first piece. A signature grand pas de deux with individual variations and coda, it features bravado jumps on the diagonal, lightning fast turns and sharp relevé phrases. And in true classical ballet style, each dancer takes the spotlight with a fouetté sequence near the end.

A collection of duets and one trio made up the second half of Festival Napa Valley’s 2016 Dance Gala, beginning with the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After The Rain©, performed by Tan and Luke Ingham. Originally choreographed in 2005, the movement is innovative and contemporary. But for me, this piece is the utmost statement of elegance and grace - non-traditional poses and lifts creating beautiful snapshots in space. Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno took the Lincoln Theater stage in the pas de deux from William Forsythe’s famed 1987 ballet in the middle, somewhat elevated. A cutting-edge physical essay of possibility, extremes flourish throughout – in the hands and in the joints, in plié and in hyperextension. Maria Kochetkova and Angelo Greco closed the program in the Act III pas de deux from Don Quixote. Another Petipa story ballet from the late 1800s, this duet is full of spectacle and technique, verve and flirtation. Sky high lifts thrilled, as did Kochetkova’s final fouetté series.

But by far the highlight of the evening was Solo (1997), choreographed by Hans van Manen. Solo is everything contemporary choreography has the potential to be – a stream of varied and intoxicating physicality; a dynamic and playful demeanor; a continual pulse of fun and joy. Danced at this performance by Principal Joseph Walsh, Wei Wang and Francisco Mungamba (both of whom were recently promoted to the Soloist rank), Solo feels like a friendly competition, one with healthy and equal doses of camaraderie, banter, showmanship and fraternity. I’ve seen a number of different casts dance this extraordinary composition and have loved the piece every single time, but there was something about this casting. Walsh, Wang and Mungamba were exceptional in their individual dancing and in their interactions with each other – I hope this trio reappears in future.   

Friday, July 22, 2016

Kristin Damrow & Company

Pictured: Julie-Ann Gambino
Photo: George E. Baker Jr.
Kristin Damrow & Company
May 13th-15th, 2016
Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco
(the following review is based on a video of the performance)

This past Spring, Kristin Damrow & Company marked a special commemorative event – their first home season at Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco’s Mission District. For this occasion, Damrow brought the premiere of her Swallow, a full-length ensemble work for eight women. An erudite, multi-layered piece, Swallow takes a deep dive into form and structure while simultaneously unveiling a number of embedded narrative themes.

An industrial, tech soundscore (by Aaron Gold) sang through the darkness. Slowly and gradually, the lights came up to reveal six women lying on the floor. At first, their movements were small and contained. But as this sequence unfolded, accumulation and gradation took over – choreographic phrases expanded, motions grew larger and the dancers changed levels, moving off the floor to standing and back again. Processes of accumulation and addition were well established in these first five minutes, and they would inform much of the forty-seven minute dance.

Following this initial group statement, Colleen Griffin broke away for Swallow’s first solo – an arcing, flowy circuit that deliciously devoured space. Next, Yoshie Fujimoto Kateada joined Griffin, and the two began a duet of appropriation and teaching. Griffin shared her reality with Kateada. In turn, Kateada internalized the movement but let it grow and evolve with her own sense of timing and expression. During this interplay, there was not one moment of competition or contentiousness; instead, it was a tender duet of learning and discovery. But the narrative fibers within Swallow were complex and intricate – an antagonistic atmosphere would soon envelop this gentle scene. Four women crept into the space and with harsh control and dominance, forcibly and repeatedly pulled Griffin and Kateada apart.

Compositional devices of accumulation and transformation continued into the middle of Swallow, as did the multi-layered narratives. Though the middle section of the work also seemed dedicated to structural exploration. Different groupings abounded - three versus five, trios, quartets, quintets – all with an array of partnering, unison and canon. Damrow’s choreography was clever, varied and unexpected, some motifs even inspired by martial arts sparring. And the company’s spatial awareness deserves particular applause. Even when the full cast was on stage, dancing high-octane movement phrases, there were no collisions (nor close calls).

By far, the standout performance in Swallow was Courtney Parkin’s solo. Beautifully composed and beautifully danced, this variation had a unique clarity of intention and placement, communicating every single second of the choreography with care and specificity – hands sweeping the floor, grand battement kicks to the side, high super passés and elegant rolls on the ground.  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Selections from SPF9

SAFEhouse Arts presents
SPF9 (Summer Performance Festival)
July 6th-10th, 2016
ODC Theater, San Francisco

On Wednesday, July 6th, SAFEhouse Arts’ annual Summer Performance Festival (SPF) returned to the ODC campus for its ninth year – five days of cutting edge work from a diverse collection of emerging choreographic voices. What follows is commentary and thoughts on two shared programs from this vibrant festival: opening night’s performance of Alyce Finwall Dance Theater/Alma Esperanza Cunningham Movement and Saturday afternoon’s Peter & Co./ka·nei·see/collective.

As Finwall’s Haven opened, dancers Isabel Rosenstock and Katie Meyers faced the audience, heads down, hair swept forward. Keeping their faces obscured, they crawled downstage with their legs extended. Over the next twenty minutes, the duo cycled through an emotive and provocative pas de deux. Finwall’s choreography compelled with its combination of contemporary release technique and contact partnering peppered with flashes of classical ballet (turned out passé, attitude devant and even a supported grand rond de jambe). Haven also explored an array of compositional forms with partnering, solo work, canon and strongly danced unison sequences. But by far, the most striking aspect of the work was how Finwall envisioned the dancers’ hair as a theatrical device - throughout most of the dance, Rosenstock and Meyers’ faces would continue to be partially or completely hidden. While the wildness of the hair provided an interesting structural contrast to the specific and defined choreography, the purposeful action also posited a number of narrative questions. Perhaps by shielding their faces, Finwall was suggesting a move away from the performative space and inwards to the private and personal. Maybe covering their faces was indicative of an obsessive compulsion that couldn’t be shaken. Or was this a larger statement of egalitarianism? With camouflaged faces, it was easy to imagine that Haven’s two dancers could have been anybody, even those seated in the audience.

The masking of faces by hair was an ongoing theme in SPF9’s first performance, also factoring heavily in Cunningham’s SHE WENT/4 solos (danced by Ronja Ver, Keryn Breiterman-Loader, Karla Quintero and Arletta Anderson). As the work began, the house lights were up. A soloist (again with her hair swept forward) stood on an audience seat, singing. After her song was over, she began moving her torso side to side like a mannequin, a motion which quickly grew to frenetic shaking. She then ventured down the stairs towards the stage and when she reached her destination, she stood in a calm fifth position, and prepared her arms from bras bas to second.

With its four segments, each set to a different musical selection, SHE WENT/4 solos is a narrative exploration, to be sure. Though it was actually Cunningham’s choreography that spoke volumes for me. As in the first solo, each individual chapter mixed recognizable dance vocabulary with unpredictable physical activity and pedestrian tasks. Deconstructing norms and assumptions of what movement can or should ‘fit’ together, Cunningham seamlessly crafted each phrase into a choreographic stream of consciousness. Solo number two featured a repetitive footwork pattern of turned in lunges and traditional pas de bourées with moments of quiet and repose in open fourth position. The third movement was filled with quick isolations and sharp contractions, interspersed with deep pliés in second position. SHE WENT/4 solos’ closing chapter revisited the pas de bourée motif, this time accompanied by parallel developpés, mimed jumping rope and sitting amongst the audience. And the great thing about these kaleidoscopic movement sequences is that in each instance, surprise abounded – every moment a delicious departure from the expected.

Onto Saturday afternoon’s 3:30pm performance and the shared program from Peter & Co. and ka·nei·see/collective. For Interstice, Founder/Artistic Director Peter Cheng faced backward, lit from the side of the stage shin-buster style. He began circling though all kinds of curves and arcs in the spine, in the arms and in the torso. Pathways were explored to the front, side, back and sagitally; speeds varied from intensely slow to lightning fast; movements from tiny to vast and broad. While Cheng was certainly creating and sculpting shapes in space, Interstice was about the process of getting there, a study in articulation. An aptly named work (interstice of course meaning the ‘in between’), Cheng’s solo revealed the points along a greater journey. 

Pictured: Kalani Hicks and Sophia Larriva in
Peter & Co.'s Transverse Course
Photo: Afshin Odabaee
Peter & Co. also offered Transverse Course, a trio danced by Kalani Hicks Sophia Larriva and Alyssa Mitchel. Having seen a previous iteration of this dance last summer, many of my original observations held true, especially its structural and compositional diversity. But the wonderful thing about dance is that a piece is never the same twice (and with the exception of one dancer, this was a different cast). There is always an opportunity to uncover something new at every viewing. What stood out this time was a specificity and definitive nature within the individual movements. This is not to imply that the choreography wasn’t clear before, not at all. But an increased clarity in intention and communication definitely spoke from the ODC stage. From the smallest motion - slowly rolling through the foot to place it on the floor – to the big developpé extensions in second position, the attention to where the movement was coming from, where it was going and what path it was on was palpable.

Artistic Director Tanya Chianese of ka·nei·see/collective has a knack for creating ensemble works that have both strong technical choreography and deep narrative themes. And she has a keen ability to translate these goals to a large-scale format for a large cast – Masses is proof of this. Twelve dancers entered the space for a powerful, high energy, full-out opening sequence. Almost like reactive molecular dynamics, the cast adhered together, appropriating each other’s movements. Next, a few would break off and separate to explore another reality and then the cycle would repeat again. It was elemental, basal, even a little primal. Performers danced in close proximity (yet amazingly, no collisions); the dozen bodies onstage purposefully creating an atmosphere of congestion. Right from this first chapter, the message was percolating - Masses considered the individual existence in the context of the swarm, particularly issues of identity, decision-making, empathy and being aware.    

Reacting in the moment played out in a side-to-side exchange. Dancers traveled across the stage, while others emerged from the wings directly blocking their path. Brief partnered lifts moved these ‘obstacles’ out of the way; sometimes with care and attention, sometimes with indifference and annoyance. Near the end of Masses, a compellingly tender duet surfaced, accompanied live onstage by violinist Lucia Petito. As this beautiful conversation played out, the remaining ensemble sat in a line and stared straight forward into the audience. Were they missing what was happening right in front of them? Were they choosing to look away? Were they checking to see if we were watching? Or were they noticing that with the audience, they were even part of a much larger crowd?