Sunday, November 12, 2017

Diablo Ballet

Diablo Ballet
A Swingin’ Holiday and More
Del Valle Theatre, Walnut Creek
November 10th, 2017

An emotive, contemporary duet that charmed with a universal parable. A chamber work replete with neoclassical speed and musicality. A fun-filled, energetic ensemble dance to welcome the coming holiday season. What a well-crafted program to kick off Diablo Ballet’s twenty-fourth year! This was a special evening from many perspectives – the audience was brimming with excitement to see what the long-running East Bay company had in store; artistic excellence was coupled with pure joy; and there was a striking display of choreographic breadth.

The evening opened with No One Does it Like You (2010) by Diablo Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Robert Dekkers, set to music by Department of Eagles. The lights warmed to reveal Jackie McConnell on a stepladder stage right and Michael Wells seated stage left, a painting tarp arranged behind him. Both had paint splatters on their clothes and faces, indicating that we were joining a painting project that was just starting, in process or perhaps, just completed. McConnell began slowly and deliberately climbing up and down the ladder, legs and feet articulating with utmost precision. Wells rose and all of a sudden, the pair took over the space with extreme physicality full of level changes and sweeping lifts. As No One Does it Like You continued, all parts of a relationship were mined through Dekkers’ incomparable choreography: playful, flirtatious sections, passionate embraces, even moments of tentative frustration. The unison phrase material signaled a long-term connection, the kind that is deep, enduring, and exists in another realm entirely. But the most striking aspect of the duet (in addition to McConnell and Wells’ impeccable performance) centered on the simultaneous exploration of the literal and metaphorical. Most major painting projects need a ladder, in order to reach every surface, and most major painting projects benefit from teamwork. And we saw that literalism in this pas de deux. But there was more. As McConnell and Wells traversed up and down the ladder, it felt like we were watching their relationship take steps forward and backward, and seeing the pair experience these ups and downs as a team.   

After a brief pause, Diablo Ballet went back in time as Christian Squires, Amanda Farris, Rosselyn Ramirez and Larissa Kogut took the stage in Valse Fantaisie, choreographed in 1953 by George Balanchine. This quartet is neo-classical ballet in its truest form – a combination of high velocity, precision and forward motion. Staged for Diablo by Marina Eglevsky, Valse Fantaisie eats up space with both intricate footwork and large steps alike: balloné, jeté entrelacé and fouetté. In addition, the ballet’s exquisite detail and attention to the score (by Mikhail Glinka) can be found in subtlety: the tilt of the head or the arms pulsing to the music. Particularly noteworthy was Squires’ pas de poisson phrase and Kogut’s series of relevés.

Diablo Ballet in Kelly's A Swingin' Holiday
Photo Bilha Sperling
After intermission, it was time for a hearty dose of holiday merriment with Sean Kelly’s A Swingin’ Holiday, originally created for Diablo back in 2012. The clever beginning finds three cast members (Jordan Tilton, Squires and Alexander McCleery at this performance) dancing the first selection down the aisles and right in front of the stage. It’s genius. Not only is the audience hearing a familiar holiday tune, they are also amidst the action, immersed in the scene with the ensemble – which also included Farris, McConnell, Ramirez, Felipe Leon and Raymond Tilton. And with Kelly’s choreography, Cynthia Sarmiento’s costumes, Jack Carpenter’s lighting and the Diablo Ballet Swing Orchestra under the direction of Greg Sudmeier, that scene feels like being transported to the ‘Hot Box Club’ from Guys and Dolls.

Throughout the suite of dances, Kelly’s movement runs the gamut from jazz drags to parallel passé jumps to barrel rolls to Fosse-inspired hat choreography. Ramirez’ lightning fast petit allegro shone in her Let it Snow solo, filled with quick pas de chats and glissés en cloche, while McConnell and Squires wowed with their acrobatic jive and swing duets. The Nutcracker March (which I believe was newly constructed by Kelly for 2017’s edition of A Swingin’ Holiday) delighted with seamless phrases of classical ballet and jazz, all perfectly marked with a bit of humor, and the March’s balleté sequence, led by Farris, absolutely sparkled.
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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Dorrance Dance

Cal Performances presents
Photo Christopher Duggan
Dorrance Dance
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
Oct 27th, 2017

The lesson from last night’s Dorrance Dance show at Cal Performances? Tap and the concert stage need to meet more often in the Bay Area. It was such a great evening – one of movement, of sound, of energy, of stunning musicianship. And percussive dance fans were not going to miss this opportunity. They packed into Zellerbach Hall to see the phenomenal artists of Dorrance Dance, led by Artistic Director Michelle Dorrance, in a one-night triple bill performance: 2012’s Jungle Blues, 2011’s Three to One and the Bay Area premiere of Myelination, which was co-commissioned by Cal Performances.

A crowd-pleasing romp, Jungle Blues’ slinky, stylized choreography was set amidst a smoke-filled stage. With retro costumes (by Amy Page), it looked like the company could have been dancing the night away in a 1940s bar, hip flasks even making the occasional appearance. Soloists would emerge from the collective with clever, dynamic phrases that married old-school tap steps and present-day rhythmic sensibilities: cramp rolls, wings, grab offs, multi-beat riffs and riffles, toe stands and a series of super fast single backwalks. The sound balance was a little off at first, but by the middle of the piece, had reached a perfect equilibrium.

After a brief pause, Dorrance, Byron Tittle and Matthew “Megawatt” West took the stage for Three to One, a trio infused with a whisper of contemporary dance. At first, the three contained their choreography to a large rectangular pool of light center stage (design by Kathy Kaufmann), in which heel and toe articulation reigned supreme. Swivels, clicks, beats and digs increased in tempo and in intensity, intimating something more, perhaps even a narrative of panic and frenetic energy. And following the dance’s name, Tittle and West exited the space leaving Dorrance alone, her pulsing paddle rolls eventually taking her out of the light and into the darkness.

Concluding the program was Myelination, a full ensemble experience, complete with live musical collaboration. Starting with a trio in front of the curtain, heel and toe directions once more set the scene, but this time, it was street dance that was in conversation with tap throughout the work. And just like Three to One, the composition was true to its title. Movement jumped from one place to another just like saltatory propagation along myelinated fibers. Large unison sequences morphed into smaller groupings and then to solos that were either structured improvisations or completely improvised. The opening and middle unison statements were both visually gorgeous and audibly exciting – a sliding floorwork motif and varied partnering were incorporated as percussive elements, intricate syncopation rang through the space and again, some classic stomp time steps took you back. And the group finale was so powerful with dynamics ranging from pianissimo to sforzando and cannoned patterns, all performed so miraculously by these amazing dancers and musicians.

Though for me, Myelination lost its way in the middle when it turned to a lengthy series of improvisations. Don’t get me wrong, the improv skills were impressive, improv is certainly an integral part of percussive dance traditions and improvising on stage must be acknowledged as a vulnerable and risky act. But as I watched the solos/duets unfolding on stage, I was struck by familiar questions.  How do we understand something so open and free when it is placed into a set performative container? Does the viewership lens change? Is improvisation a process, a result, both or neither?
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