Monday, May 18, 2015

Part & Parcel

Mid to West Dance Collective
Mid to West Dance Collective
Photo: Tony Nguyen
Part & Parcel
presented by Dance Up Close/East Bay
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
May 17th, 2015

I have been so impressed by every performance that has been part of the Dance Up Close/East Bay series at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center over the past ten months. Each engagement has been unique and different but the through vision is unmistakable - to support emerging choreographic voices, and bring new contemporary work to audiences in an intimate and personal setting.

Mid to West Dance Collective is the latest chapter of this distinguished tome. Their new program, Part & Parcel, included works by three members of the collective: Mo Miner’s Specimen, Sarah JG Chenoweth’s Architecture Oriented Otherwise and Rebecca Chun’s You v the Powers that Be. Part & Parcel is a great compilation of contemporary dance – well constructed, diverse and thought-provoking material – and Mid to West Dance Collective is a gracious and talented group of choreographers that is definitely going places fast.

A metal lab table with five small specimen jars was set downstage left, and as each dancer entered the space, that table was their destination. After everyone engaged in a few moments of investigating the vials, Chun climbed onto the structure. From her movements, it seemed that someone or a ‘group of someones’ was looking at her, examining her as the performers had just examined the jars. So began Miner’s Specimen – a piece about inquiry, observation and scrutiny. The lab table was then relocated to the back of the room and the cast of five began moving all over the space. Hand binoculars were fashioned around the eyes, suggesting the watching of others. But Specimen was a much more comprehensive approach to the concept of watching. How are one’s actions and movements informed by the presence of another’s gaze? How does intensity change? Demeanor? Attitude? And for those doing the watching, how are they altered and affected? Sometimes the dancers began imitating the movement phrases; sometimes they disengaged entirely; sometimes they intentionally tried to manipulate what was occurring in front of them, imposing their own will on others. As Specimen came to its conclusion, the vials reappeared, and the lights dimmed as each dancer sat holding one vial in their hand. They looked intently at the jarred material, as if it was the answer to a burning question. 

To begin Chenoweth’s Architecture Oriented Otherwise, dancers Kevin Lopez and Jordan Stout carried in planks of wood and four mismatched table legs. Immediately, they started organizing. Organizing is an important distinction here, because they weren’t necessarily building anything, at least not in the conventional sense. It was more placing, setting and rearranging, both in terms of these design elements and in Chenoweth’s choreography. Arms were lifted in the air and then dropped, legs folded into sit-up positions, wrists pivoted. Careful purpose and purposeful attention underscored everything; a constant cycle of ordering and re-ordering. But there was still a hearty dose of experimentation and some well-placed humor. Table legs doubled as ski poles; planks as dance partners. Appropriately, the planks and table legs were credited in the program as the ‘ensemble’ for Architecture Oriented Otherwise – the Judsonites would be proud.

Dressed in black, a quartet of women took the stage in the final segment of Part & Parcel, Chun’s character-driven work, You v the Powers that Be. The four dancers began in unison, but Miner quickly separated herself from the other three, breaking out on her own. Together, the stoic trio continued accompanying the choreography with repeated singing and whispered phrases, ‘simmer down’ and ‘get in line’, respectively. The trio continued to confront Miner with a combination of pasted on smiles and intensely serious glares, trying to persuade and in some ways, bully her. After a set of solos, duets and trios, their attempts drew some success as Miner rejoined them, albeit with hesitancy and trepidation. In the last section of You v the Powers that Be, Miner intends to separate from the group again. They try and stop her, and pull her back as her annoyance and frustration grows. Until she is finally standing alone while the others dance on the perimeter. Had they given up? Had she won? Or had they moved onto someone else?


Smuin Ballet presents
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
May 16th, 2015

Smuin Ballet just completed the first leg of a Bay Area tour. To close their twenty-first anniversary season, the company is pleased to present Unlaced, a hearty quadruple bill. Featuring a recent returning favorite by Helen Pickett, two classic Michael Smuin pas de deuxs and a new work by Adam Hougland, the program once again distinguishes this dynamic company as a necessary destination for lovers of both classical and contemporary dance.

The curtain rose on Helen Pickett’s Petal (originally choreographed in 2008 and performed by Santa Fe Ballet) to reveal a striking, bright yellow stage. This exciting opening statement immediately awakens the senses. Pickett’s choreography calls for a parallel vibrancy with its constant shifts; demanding seamless pivots between modern and traditional technique. As the light design (originally by Todd Elmer, adapted by Michael Oesch) turned a pinky-orange, Erin Yarbrough and Jonathan Powell danced a knowing duet of steadfastness and clarity. Nicole Haskins and Weston Krukow swept the audience away with their pas de deux, particularly Krukow’s turns in second attitude and Haskins’ brave, blind jump into his arms. While the ballet was full of these and other noteworthy moments, this particular performance did feel a little contained. When Smuin premiered Petal two years ago, there was an on-the-edge excitement and palpable intensity that was missing this time.

Act II of Unlaced brought two contrasting pas de deuxs by Michael Smuin, the balcony scene from his Romeo and Juliet and an excerpt from Hearts Suite, both of which had their
Pictured: Erin Yarbrough and Jonathan Powell in
the balcony pas de deux from
Michael Smuin's Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Chris Hardy
Smuin Ballet premiere in 1994. Romeo and Juliet, danced by Yarbrough and Powell, was an absolute delight. Smuin injected this famous scene with a subtleness that made you remember an important aspect of the story. Yes, the two main characters are desperately in love, but their experience is brand new, having just met one another. Such a complex narrative calls for both sides – the careful delicacy of newness combined with grand abandon of passion. The choreography delivered, one hundred per cent. And Yarbrough and Powell were absolutely incandescent. The second pas de deux, from Hearts Suite, was Smuin’s take on a very unique love story; one from a different time, a different place. In this character-driven, narrative duet, Garance, danced exquisitely by Susan Roemer, is trapped in challenging life circumstances and is caught off-guard by the love and affection of Baptiste (another fantastic portrayal by Ben Needham-Wood). Unfulfilled expectations, unexpected love and an atypical match; the excerpt leaves you wondering how the story will unfold.

Unlaced closed with Adam Hougland’s newest composition, Ask Me, an ensemble dance for five women and five men. The lights went up, and club culture took over. The company looked like a diverse set of 1980s characters, with a little helping of 1990s grunge and just a pinch of modern day hipster. A sense of community and camaraderie was immediately established in the first unison group sequence, and carried through to the end of the ballet. A collection of smaller scenes (solos, duets, quintets) followed that initial statement, all with the undercurrent of celebration, of togetherness. Hougland’s Ask Me was part rock video, part edgy artistic installation that ended with a lovely, introspective solo, danced by Robert Kretz. Ask Me was cool and edgy, but the ending was so abrupt. I can’t help wondering if at some point, there was something more, something after that final solo that ended up getting cut at the last minute.

Friday, May 15, 2015


Robert Moses’ Kin
Forum at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
May 14th, 2015

Dregs, grounds, deposit, sediment. These are just some of the many synonyms for the term silt. The material that is left over; the substance that remains. Robert Moses has chosen this penetrating concept for his latest contemporary dance. With its reflective nature and investigative questions, SILT is a marvelous beginning to Robert Moses’ Kin’s twentieth anniversary season. 

Pictured: Brendan Barthel & Norma Fong
Photo: RJ Muna 
As we entered the YBCA Forum space, we were greeted by the company dancers and guided through a set of center stage mobiles, strings of beads hanging from each. This was a curious feeling; light and mystical but also with an awareness that you were walking through something heavy, something significant. After everyone had traveled this airy yet viscose path, the world premiere of SILT  began. The company of fourteen took their opening positions at the back of the room and initiated a set of pulsating, repetitive movements. At first, they traveled forward together but then broke out into the periphery. This dynamic of scattering and re-arranging into new configurations would inform the entire evening. Just like sediment; just like silt. 

SILT was spatially immersive, in every way imaginable. We (the audience) were encouraged to move about the space as the dance developed, interacting with the performers and with those around us. Of late, I’ve attended a number of performances that engaged this ‘mobile viewer’ model. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Here it not only worked, it flourished. The YBCA Forum was built for this style of dance installation; everyone was all in, completely behind the concept. This audience ownership, if you will, meant that you decided what scenes to watch, how long to watch them, where to move next. And in turn, noticed what would catch your eye, what would keep your attention and what would draw you in. At the same time, there were scenes that were completely obscured from your view, no matter where you moved. So as an audience member, you also had to contend with the idea of not always getting what you wanted. With us all co-habitating and co-existing in a shared space, the dancer’s deportment also varied, from inviting and soothing all the way to confrontational.

Bodies dispersed unpredictably, all over the space. Dancing bodies; watching bodies. SILT was up close and personal and had an exciting undercurrent of unpredictability. We didn’t know where the dancers would go next, and they also didn’t know when we would move or where we would sit or stand. With circumstances in constant flux, a true ‘in-the-moment’ contemporary dance performance evolved. So of course, everyone’s SILT experience was different. From the various vignettes I witnessed, here are a few highlights.

A recurring swimming motif appeared in several of the solos, duets and group sequences. This rippling movement was delicate but also had a weight to it, bringing back the sense of our initial entrance through the hanging bead structures. These panels figured prominently in the work, and some of my favorite moments were when dancers stood amongst and amidst the beads, waiting. Suspension literally and figuratively hung in the air, and I was transfixed watching the living statues abiding within the beads.

A long line of dancers traveled towards a staircase with a series of step, pliĆ©, back attitude. They exited the main floor, climbed the stairs and proceeded to dance above us, against the grid-like ceiling squares. The movements spoke of desperation but the statement was delightfully ambiguous - were they trying to connect, or trying to retreat? As spotlights appeared all over the floor, the company continued to engage with the audience, handing out cell phones and speakers as they approached each pool of light. A swirling, movement phrase unfolded (at least where I was standing) full of off-center pirouettes and fanning arms and legs. Near the end of SILT, most, though not all, of the dancers receded to the side wall for a moment of repose, which then fed into a collection of individual solos– grounded, funky phrase material abounding all over the room. The repetitive body pulses returned to signal that the end of the piece was near. And then, the brilliant seventy-five minute exposition closed - the dancers gathered the hanging beads, shook them and then released their grasp, almost like the end of a ritual.