Friday, January 30, 2015


San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
January 29th, 2015

It’s hard to get a more ‘classical ballet experience’ than the opening night of “Giselle”. And you cannot get a better choreographic and artistic interpretation of the two-Act story than at San Francisco Ballet. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s 1999 version (currently running as the season’s second program) offers a lavish yet accurate setting; vibrant, dimensional characters; complex and stunning choreography; and a story, while full of twists and turns, that is ultimately about love, sacrifice and redemption.

Act I opens as a country glen sleepily greets the new day. Quickly, the scene comes to life and we are introduced to the primary cast of players - Giselle (danced by Maria Kochetkova), Count Albrecht (Vitor Luiz), Hilarion (Pascal Molat), and a host of villagers and peasants. With springy coupé jetés and bright ballonés, Kochetkova’s opening petit allegro sequence was like the rising sun. This early-established joy marked her every interaction in the first half of Act I, no matter how small or how significant. From meeting and falling for Albrecht to dancing with her friends to talking with Berthe (Katita Waldo), her demeanor: the epitome of hopefulness. Kochetkova’s Giselle definitely had the requisite naïveté but her characterization really was unique. The innocence was underscored by a delicate and lovable shy quality that captivated everyone in the room, most importantly, her Albrecht.

Luiz’s Albrecht was phenomenal; he was able to complete the role’s technical demands while never surrendering the character’s depth. Albrecht is a complicated guy. In the course of two hours, he goes through an intense range of emotions - immaturity, freedom, selfishness, infatuation, love, despair, hope and acceptance. Many dancers are able to do the choreography and do the drama, but not necessarily at the same time. Luiz never once lost the integrity of his characterization, even in the midst of multiple pirouettes and dizzyingly sharp batterie.    

A favorite sequence of mine, the peasant pas de cinq was performed on opening night by five dancers from the company’s soloist tier (Clara Blanco, Sasha De Sola, Koto Ishihara, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Hansuke Yamamoto). Both Yamamoto and Deivison-Oliveira have the most incredible power; they use every ounce of their demi-plié to catapult them forward: into the air, into a turn, into a balance. At times, the women’s arms got a little too flouncy, which took away from the choreographic strength and rigor of Tomasson’s variations. Having said that, new soloist Ishihara must be singled out for her technically sound and consistent performance.  

As Act I came to a close, the ‘Mad Scene’ approached. Upon learning that Albrecht is engaged, Giselle’s emotional and physical state decomposes, with a tragic result. A brilliant technician, Kochetkova showed her dramatic prowess as the despondent Giselle. Inner turmoil abounded and as you watched her face, you truly believed that she had transported herself to another plane. Kochetkova’s was a subtle yet eerie unraveling; like a slow motion descent into the abyss of heartbreak.

Many adjectives can describe Act II’s Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis – commanding, resolute, scary, spellbinding, unforgiving. Sofiane Sylve embodied all of them. With arabesques that shot through space like daggers, she was in charge. The corps women deserve extra credit for their performance on opening night. No one pulled focus with too-
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's "Giselle"
Photo © Erik Tomasson
high extensions, and the arabesque ‘chug’ sequence was absolute perfection. Tomasson’s Act II choreography is  technically intricate but I hadn’t noticed its narrative complexity before last night. Suspensions spoke of faith and were followed by falls of despair. While strong and defiant, the movement also had this unbelievable sadness that made such an important conceptual contribution. And one of my favorite images from Act II was Kochetkova in Giselle’s famous batterie sequence. She looked like an angel soaring above the earth.

Monday, January 26, 2015

"Cookie Cutter"

Dance Up Close/East Bay and ka·nei·see | collective present
“Cookie Cutter”
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
January 25th, 2015

Five piles of assorted cookie cutters are arranged in an X pattern on the floor. A dancer emerges from the upstage left door, walks toward the center of the space and right into one of the cookie cutter jumbles. She stops and begins to re-organize the center collection. Four other dancers join and do the same, transforming the cookie cutters into large shapes around them. A swirly, twisting movement phrase unfolds, sometimes in unison, sometimes not. And even with the full-out dancing, the individual mold patterns they created are hardly ever disturbed. That is, until this first sequence comes to a close. They had constructed their own personal design; it was of their making and would only be dismantled when they were ready.

These were the opening moments of “Cookie Cutter”, the newest full-length work by Artistic Director/Choreographer Tanya Chianese, performed by the ka·nei·see | collective. Told through a suite of dances, the piece immerses its audience into the world of cookie cutters – real ones and conceptual ones. And in the course of fifty minutes, “Cookie Cutter” tackles perceived expectations and rule following with drama, passion and some well-placed humor.

Following the first group sequence, ‘Molds’, nine short dance chapters came to life in Shawl-Anderson Dance Center’s upstairs studio. A lovely solo of changing levels and full extensions, ‘When In Doubt, Bake’ was set to a musical score overlaid with recipe instruction text. As the soloist covered the space, the mood was almost a little saucy, like she was doing her own thing despite the audio directions. Choreographically, the material in this vignette (as well as in a number of others) had a very sculptural focus. With the movements of their legs and arms, the dancers were sculpting the space, just like a cookie cutter sculpts dough into particular forms and shapes. In ‘Against The Rocks’, Chianese used compositional structure to convey her thematic material. During this lengthy segment, the dance morphed from unison to duets to trios to solo work and from a timing perspective, utilized canon and imitation. The message here was that there is no ‘one right way’ to do things, no absolute prescription for success. A similar sentiment was communicated in the ninth dance, named for the title of the work, ‘Cookie Cutter’. What began as a very classical ballet sequence (beautifully danced, by the way) evolved into something different. Some non-traditional vocabulary was slowly added in (just like when making cookies, you slowly combine ingredients for a smooth batter), so that by the end, there was contemporary and classical movement co-existing in a very harmonious and delicious state.

‘C is for Cookie’ was a crowd-pleaser, with its recognizable childhood soundtrack and ‘Convection’ treated us to a percussive combination of handclaps, snaps and cookie cutters sliding around the space like a game of shuffle puck.

‘1 Gallon Milk = 36 Showers’ was the only chapter that didn’t quite fit for me. Considering the title and with the accompanying text score, it was fair to assume that the intention of this particular dance was to talk about resources and waste. That point got across. And of course, the connection between cookies and milk is evident. It’s just that the lesson in ‘1 Gallon Milk = 36 Showers’ didn’t really fit thematically with the rest of “Cookie Cutter”. And an interesting aside, this is the second piece I’ve seen in the past six months where milk was poured onto performers during a modern dance!     

Anyone in the audience could see that the entire cast was all in; technically savvy, genuine and authentic. Much of Chianese’s choreography calls for extreme abandon and the dancers were 100% committed to that goal. No question. Having said that, there was some unevenness-times where the movement became a little out of control and the technical clarity got muddy. The dancer’s intent was right on point, but the intense energy and choreographic accuracy has to be balanced.

“Cookie Cutter” continues next weekend at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. If you’re in the area, go see it and if you’re not, make a special trip. Tanya Chianese and ka·nei·see | collective are important players in the emerging contemporary dance scene.

Pictured: Emma Salmon, Vera Schwegler, Rebecca Morris, Ali Weeks, Mallory Markham
Photo: Rob Best

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Restless Creature"

Pictured: Wendy Whelan, Photo: Nislan Hughes
Wendy Whelan – “Restless Creature”
presented by San Francisco Performances
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
January 16th, 2015

Every dance season is full of newness – opening night galas, world premieres, debut appearances, the first “Nutcracker”, and then the initial performances of the new calendar year. Bay Area dance is ushering in 2015 with enthusiastic furor and San Francisco Performances has led the charge with their recent presentation of Wendy Whelan’s “Restless Creature”. This hour-long (and highly anticipated) program features the stunningly talented Whelan in four contemporary dances by four different choreographers, each of whom joins her onstage in their respective work. The evening was a triumphant artistic and creative exposition, the house was packed, and the only downside was that “Restless Creature” was only in town for a two-night engagement.  

With their peaks and valleys of comfort and uncertainty, two of Max Richter’s haunting scores set the ideal mood for Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Ego Et Tu” (2013). The work consisted of two individual solos for both Cerrudo and Whelan, subsequently feeding into a complex duet. Mystery and transformation abounded in each section – poses would be reached and then melt; center would be attained and then deconstruct into a less stable existence. Cerrudo maintained this depth of polarity throughout “Ego Et Tu” and in one of the most brilliant recurring images, Whelan was lifted off the ground and her legs ran slowly through the air. She was going somewhere and yet going nowhere in the same instant.

A recently completed work, Joshua Beamish’s “Conditional Sentences” was a technically involved and inventive court dance for two. His choreography oozed elegance, exactness, sophistication and specificity with every turn of the head, flexion of the wrist and popping of the feet into demi-pointe. The floorwork section in the middle of “Conditional Sentences” lagged a bit but the detailed physical geometry in every other part certainly made up for that brief loss of energy.

Infused with a myriad of dynamics, Kyle Abraham’s “The Serpent and the Smoke” (2013) jumped back and forth from slow, lush and gooey to frenetic, chaotic and frustrated. Abraham and Whelan’s duet was the most emotionally charged work on the program with the two in a constant battle of engagement and disengagement; awareness and apathy. Moments of intense commitment (the partnered developpés on high demi-pointe) morphed into periods of aloof indifference. And while the lighting design represented outside the box thinking, it did make some of Abraham’s choreography very difficult to see.

Brian Brooks’ “First Fall” (2012) had a most dramatic opening – the wings and the cyclorama rose slowly to reveal the raw, untouched space while Whelan and Brooks faced each other from opposite sides of the stage. This setting provided “First Fall”, a striking pas de deux on its own, an incredibly vast scope and increased structural landscape. In the five short chapters, one choreographic idea was clearly predominant – that of leaning. One sequence had Whelan stylistically walking across the front of the stage while leaning on Brooks, who appeared to not appreciate the obvious infringement. Later, Whelan performed a series of full body falls with Brooks, who then had a collaborative and encouraging role. Some of “First Fall’s” leaning was welcome, some not; some was supported, some invasive.