Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mary Armentrout Dance Theater

“fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”
Z Space, San Francisco
September 13th, 2014

Post-modern choreography has always sought to take risks, avoid stagnation and challenge the status quo. Fifty years post-Judson, twenty-first century post-modern choreographers still continue this forward propulsion, seeking new understandings of dance, choreography and theatricality. But they are going about it in a different way, and they are onto something big. Many of post-modernism’s primary tenets remain – egalitarianism, non-conformity and blurring the lines between life and art – but there is a renewed sense of direction. Conventional dance performance models can work within this ethos. Attention to content and meaning does not take away from the attention to form and structure. Story is valid and good. This isn’t a new stylistic hybrid; it is not post-modernism-lite. This is post-modern dance for the twenty-first century.

“fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”, Mary Armentrout Dance Theater’s newest performance installation, is a great example of twenty-first century post-modernism. Through video, text phrases, dance, props and scenework, Armentrout has crafted a piece that is avant-garde, thinks outside the box, and blurs the space between life and art while still being relatable. And the narrative is perhaps the work’s most important feature. “fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together” is about love and relationships, about their permanence and transience, and the search for understanding in the context of that partnership.

Keeping to true fantasia form, Armentrout opted for a unique structural format – a prologue followed by four chapters. The prologue unfolded in Z Space’s lobby while the crowd milled about prior to the performance. Cozy arrangements of couches, tables, and chairs were scattered around the large industrial space (an interesting juxtaposition of elements in itself), and the audience was invited to experience the videos at each of the stations. Non-conformity was the post-modern element at play seeing as how the audience had to make the choice to opt in and participate. We were not being guided around, nor was the video loud enough to take focus. It was genius – right from the beginning, the audience was an active participant, making the decision to engage (or not) in the work.

Then we moved into the theater for the four main chapters of the performance, starting with ‘in the still of the night’, a duet for Armentrout and Rogelio Lopez. Visually, this pas de deux was about as vulnerable as you could get – both dancers weren’t wearing anything. The choreography was completely real, filled with tender, affectionate movements. From the very subtle when their heads rested against each other to the more complicated acrobatic balances, the dance was all about genuineness and authenticity. And the physical vocabulary was compelling in its structural integrity and for its narrative implications – form and content were never at odds; instead, they were simpatico.

Repetition, movement and character dimensions were all highlighted in the second section of “fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”, ‘love is like a string’. Both in person and on video, multiple performers appeared representing different personality traits of the two main characters, while Armentrout explored, through text and movement, what it means ‘to know’ in a relationship. Next up was episode three, ‘talking heads’, where the mundane and the bizarre collided in a deliciously creative (and revealing) fashion. Armentrout and Lopez played out a typical everyday conversation between two partners – how was your day, what are we going to have for dinner, etc. But instead of speaking to each other, they spoke into individual video cameras; their faces simultaneously projected onto chairs, hanging high above the stage. Here was a profound comment on the fluidity of attention and how detachment can easily become part of the picture even when two people are physically in the same place.

In ‘darkness monologue’, the final movement of Armentrout’s “fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”, the audience was asked to move onto the main stage space. Pillows and chairs were provided and we were instructed to get comfortable and listen to an auditory meditation while the room went dark. Egalitarianism reigned supreme in this section as the viewer once again took on a participatory role. Yes, we were listening to Armentrout’s voice relaying her own personal journey. Yet, being physically present in and on the stage space had a very dramatic effect. Each individual was transported into the center of the performance experiment and invited to experience the words on their own terms – maybe they remained an observer; maybe they related to the story. It was a powerful, egalitarian and authentic cadence to this twenty-first century post-modern fantasia.  

Friday, August 22, 2014

"The Lost Boys"

“The Lost Boys”
choreography by Kevin Williamson
CounterPULSE, San Francisco
August 21st, 2014

Multi-discipline performance; dance theater; new/mixed media. Chances are if you are headed to a modern dance concert in 2014, it is actually one of these genres that you will be seeing. Choreography and movement mixed with sculpture, costuming, visual art, sound and/or videography has certainly permeated today’s dance field.

Some of these interdisciplinary attempts fare better than others. Too often, the connection between additional performance elements and the dance is at best, tenuous. The stage gets peppered with extra ‘stuff’ that is not relevant, relative nor resonant. And in most cases, these extras actually distract from otherwise sound choreography. But even though multi-genre dance clearly hasn’t won me over yet, even I can admit that when done well, the results can be extraordinary. And quite often, what separates a ‘successful’ interdisciplinary dance work from the rest of the pack is that the choreography and the movement retain top billing, while the other entities play an integral, albeit supporting, role.  

Kevin Williamson’s “The Lost Boys” is an example of how mixed-disciplined work can go very, very right. Currently at CounterPULSE in San Francisco’s Mission District for a two-performance run (with the final show this evening), “The Lost Boys” is an evening-length mens quartet combining dance with vocalization, props, text and lighting. “The Lost Boys” tackles a very specific narrative – the 1980s AIDS crisis and how it affected those who grew up during that tumultuous period. A complex, layered theme, such as this, actually lends itself well to a multi-genre performance style. The choreography and movement were the primary mode of communication, speaking to the high level, deeper narratives: the search for love and companionship, the experience of being in community yet still feeling alone, the attempt to traverse a personal journey amidst outside forces. The ‘other’ theatrical entities assisted the dance by providing framing and context, most important, placing the action into Williamson’s chosen historical era.

Harsh, stark fluorescent lights signaled the beginning of the work as the four men took the stage. Once in place, they began a lengthy arm movement phrase - expansive yet controlled motions in very tight proximity. Their physical juxtaposition implied intimacy, but the four never actually touched. Here was a community that was close, yet still maintained purposeful distance from each other. And this space between ‘the real’ and ‘the veneer’ would come back again and again, but in creative new ways.

Early on, the musical influences set the stage with some well-chosen selections from mid- to late-1980s. Williamson opted to combine recordings with live singing/speaking of the lyrics. Though there was snippets of eighties choreography present in the dance itself, it was really these song selections (in each form) that made the time period clear.

In the middle of “The Lost Boys”, the cast embarked on the main modern dance sequence. From Williamson’s choreographic construction to the performance of the elements to the narrative undertone, it was flawless. This portion was all about strength – strength of composition, strength of technical ability, strength of character. Club dance mixed with classic grand pliés in first position; Capoeira influences fed into re-imagined renversés; and full split jetés walked alongside pedestrian tasks.

Photo: Taso Papadakis
Throughout the piece, a spitting motif recurred, and it wasn’t pantomimed - the dancers actually spit at and on each other. At first, the spitting was a little shocking and frankly, pretty gross. But because Williamson utilized the dance theater tool of repetition, after a while you were anesthetized to it. Getting used to seeing the spitting on stage also allowed the narrative to emerge. The spitting was violent, powerful and desperate, and above all, very personal. It encapsulated real levels of fear and frustration that had nowhere else to go. Text-work also revealed this internal/external struggle. A trio repeated the sentence “you’re fine” over and over. What started as internal reassuring quickly morphed to external objectification. Repeated sauté jumps in parallel passé also spoke to the difference between reality and pretense. The cast jumped high in the air with pasted on smiles that instantly dissipated once they landed. And in a surprise move, Williamson closed the fifty-minute work with an incredibly tender duet. “The Lost Boys” came full circle with this final statement of vulnerability, care and attention after much conflict, strife and discomfort.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Paufve | Dance & Kate Weare Company

ODC Theater presents
Music Moves Festival 
ODC Theater, San Francisco
August 15th, 2014

Experimentation; exploration; excellence. These three Es are embedded in ODC Theater’s DNA, and their current artistic endeavor, curated by ODC Deputy Director for Advancement Christy Bolingbroke, provides further confirmation. The Music Moves Festival takes the ODC Theater stage into full incubator mode, with the goal of discovering, uncovering, affirming and highlighting the distinct relationship between dance and music. To that end, Music Moves welcomes over a dozen performing artists in eleven different programs over three plus weeks – a significant number of unique perspectives on dance and music.

For the festival’s shared seventh chapter, two stunning contemporary companies brought three dance works, each speaking distinctly to music and sound: Paufve | Dance in 2013’s “Soil” and Kate Weare Company in “Drop Down” (2007) and “Still Life With Avalanche” (2014). All three pieces certainly had noteworthy construction and performances. Yet with this festival’s focus, it seems right to concentrate the majority of comments and observations to the connection between choreography and musical composition.

This was a totally different “Soil” than 2013’s site-specific premiere engagement last fall in the East Bay Hills. Here, four dancers (Randee Paufve, Maureen Miner, Peiling Kao and 
Pictured: Randee Paufve in "Soil"
Photo: Pak Han
Juliana Monin) took on the set of five solos (choreographed by Gregg Bielemeier, Della Davidson and Paufve). This time “Soil” was not mobile, instead unfolding in a proscenium arch space with a more traditional audience/performer arrangement. In addition, the dance had no stops and starts, it fed seamlessly from one portion to the next. Considering the work within the context of Music Moves’ theme, “Soil” examined contemporary dance alongside a collection of live music and recorded scores. There is somewhat of a bias that dance performance with live music elicits better results, but “Soil” illustrates that the pairing of movement with both recorded and live music can be revelatory. In the opening solo, Paufve and cellist Chris Evans engaged in an active conversation. Though the choreography and music both appeared set, the music was not accompanying the dance nor was the dance prescribed to the music. Together, they were creating a live state of reaction and interpretation. A perfect example was when Paufve drew her arms and leg across her body in retiré passé, while Evans similarly stretched and extended her note. In the second variation, Miner approached the mixed musical articulation of a recorded score. Equal parts detached staccato and lush legato peppered the complex composition, handily expressed by Miner. A particularly beautiful moment was when those two articulations came together in the movement – she shot her arm into the air like an arrow and then immediately gathered it into a flowing, circular pathway. Peiling Kao’s post-modern solo had a combination of recorded and live music (by Elijah Wallace at the piano) and it was her character that evolved depending on the type of music used. With the piano, whimsy and playfulness took over and with the recording, a more staid, controlled state was present. In the fourth segment, a wind-based soundscore helped create a setting and environment that framed Paufve’s dramatic solo. After last year’s viewing, I noted that from time to time, the music and movement in “Soil” didn’t match, particularly in the fifth and final solo (danced here by Monin, then Paufve, with Wallace again on the piano). While I still noticed that discord at this performance, I could also see and hear it with a new mindset. There was a conversation between the physicality and the sound; it was just on two different wavelengths. Same topic, two opposing opinions – we have all had interactions just like that. The takeaway from 2014’s iteration of “Soil” is that both live and recorded music can collaborate with choreography in real-time.

Following intermission, Kate Weare’s choreography took center stage with two modern works, both performed to recorded music. First up was “Drop Down”, a dramatic, passionate, volatile, defiant, demanding, tango-inspired duet danced by Joseph Hernandez and Natasha Adorlee Johnson (guest artists appearing courtesy of ODC/Dance). Katie Down’s score was complexly layered with music, sound effects, electric interjections and ambient noise. While very different from each other, the choreography and the score had the same fundamental
Pictured: Joseph Hernandez and Natasha Adorlee Johnson
in Kate Weare's "Drop Down"
Photo: Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang
intention – to produce a feeling of purposeful uneasiness. The harsh, dissonance sounds were periodically difficult to listen to, and Weare’s movement had similar moments of tumult (Johnson’s drop to the ground following a gorgeous knee lift drew gasps). And what the audience learned here about music and movement is that both disciplines were necessary to craft this level of narrative instability. “Drop Down” was on the edge, unexpected and provocative and incidentally, was also the best piece on the program.

Closing the evening was Weare’s “Still Life With Avalanche”, a trio danced by Dennis Adams, Justin Andrews and Anne Zivolich (also guest artists appearing courtesy of ODC/Dance). Directed in partnership with Brenda Way and with recorded music by Wolfgang Capellari, Gerard Pesson and Missy Mazzoli, “Still Life With Avalanche” was an example of ‘new’ neo-classical choreography. Sounds like a redundant term, but “Still Life With Avalanche” really shows an updated version of this celebrated choreographic style. One of the primary tenets of neo-classical choreography is how the steps mark and emphasize the score. “Still Life With Avalanche” had this in spades. From the initial crawling to parallel jumps in first to the swinging, metronome arms, the recorded composition was reflected well on the stage. What moved the style into this ‘new’ neo-classicism was the choreographic vocabulary itself. The movement choices were innovative and risky, fresh and of this moment – it was clearly a daring approach to neo-classical structure. One noted highlight was Zivolich’s pencheé arabesque. She extended her leg fully and when we thought the movement was over, her foot rotated in a complete circle. And the final moment of the dance brought a burst of surprise as the trio darted to the floor in the points of a triangle. Having said that, “Still Life With Avalanche” did suffer from some dynamic stagnancy. Much of the time, the movement and the music existed at the same intensity level, which led to some long lulls. And so, it was a slightly odd choice for the finale of this otherwise powerful program of sound and physicality. 

The Music Moves Festival runs until August 24th – for full program details, please visit: