Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Girl Through Glass"

Book Review
Girl Through Glass
by Sari Wilson

published by Harper Collins

Sari Wilson’s debut novel, Girl Through Glass, is not your typical dance book. In fact, its wonderful atypical-ness is what sets it apart. A lot of dance stories (fiction or non-fiction) shed light on the intoxicating world of professional and pre-professional dance, many written from personal experience. While Girl Through Glass certainly has that aspect to it, it is much more than that. It is a narrative about a complex human journey, set within a dance frame, which from the very beginning is shrouded in mystery. Wilson challenges the reader with much more than a linear recounting of details, she persuades them to connect two independent, yet completely interdependent stories.

These two through lines unfold simultaneously, though exist at different points in time - two people of differing ages (pre-teen Mira and adult Kate), in separate decades (one late 1970s/early 1980s and one present day) on distinct dance-related career paths. In the first few chapters, it seems possible that the title characters might actually be separate individuals who just happen to have some similar experiences. Both have a desire for something more and an awareness of surrounding forces. Controlling (and often inappropriate) relationships abound as does self-destructive behavior. Abandonment, hidden trauma and personal recovery are also shared realities. But early on, it becomes clear that Mira and Kate are in fact, the same person. While this is definitely one of the book’s first surprises, it isn’t one of the major revelations. Those deeper mysteries and unpredictable situations are still yet to unravel. And Wilson’s brilliant storytelling creates a vibrant and exciting pulse – the reader eagerly anticipates what portion of the narrative will be divulged in each of the subsequent chapters.

Wilson inserts clever devices throughout the book to link Mira and Kate’s plotlines, including a subtle and parallel hand injury. And in the middle of Girl Through Glass, both are in New York City, though still separated by decades – Mira auditioning for Balanchine at the School of American Ballet and Kate on a mission for answers. It is at this point that Wilson begins to unpack how and why Mira became Kate. She does this not by immediately revealing the exact events that took place, but instead by filling in the missing decades. Through the recounting of these ‘in between’ years, Mira/Kate’s saga is fully told. Some of it had been foreshadowed while other pieces were unexpected and surprising. We learn that Mira/Kate leaves New York and SAB and joins her mother in San Francisco. We see Mira choosing a new first name – a beautifully written moment of contrast. There is unremarkable simplicity as she decides on ‘Kate’ but the choice itself had been the result of a complicated and traumatic upheaval. Kate eventually gets involved in the contemporary dance scene of the 1990s. I particularly like the way Wilson describes SF/Bay Area modern dance because it sounds very much like how it is today. The descriptors are different to be sure – experimental is now collaborative, new media or physical theater – but the picture she paints is a familiar one. Kate then feels the pull of the academic world and decides to pursue that avenue. In this section of the book, the reader discovers what circumstances have altered Kate’s life. And even in light of all that has happened and is happening, Wilson’s Girl Through Glass concludes on a note of hope for Kate.

Girl Through Glass is a wonderful addition to the ever-growing (and increasingly popular) dance fiction genre. And it isn’t all tutus and toe shoes. Sari Wilson has crafted a novel with grit, one that is a myriad of memory and realization.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

San Francisco Ballet - Program 2

San Francisco Ballet
Program 2
War Memorial Opera House
January 27th, 2016

Just three days after San Francisco Ballet officially started their 2016 repertory season, they celebrated another opening, that of Program 2. The glorious combination of George Balanchine’s Rubies, Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes and the world premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Fearful Symmetries made for a visual dream that celebrated the pure essence of bodies in motion.

Rubies is abstract in the sense that it doesn’t have a storyline, but to say it is about nothing is not true at all. Clear emotive sensibilities inform much of the physicality and architecture. In a triangular formation, thirteen of the fifteen-member cast stand facing the audience, holding hands in a V above their heads. From this first tableau, it is clear that Rubies
San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Rubies
Photo©Erik Tomasson
explores connection; the entwining of music and movement. But this is not in a general sense, rather Rubies is about the convergence of this music (by Igor Stravinsky) and this choreography (by Balanchine). The most popular movement from the 1967 ballet Jewels, Rubies runs the gamut choreographically and in that inventiveness, feels ahead of its time. Sultry hip isolations give way to sprightly mimed jump rope; joyful, hopping chaîné turns merge with flexed hands and birdlike arms. And of course, the famous pas de cinq. One man holds onto each of the limbs of the main ballerina (Sofiane Sylve, at this performance). Together, the five cycle through complicated partnering, yet the woman remains in complete control, almost dominating and willing their every move. The bow that occurs after the central pas de deux always strikes me as strange. It is certainly deserved, but nothing like that happens anywhere else in the ballet; it really does break the overarching momentum. And while the entire cast performed the varied and complex choreography with verve and aplomb, some of the large staging patterns lost their sharpness and specificity on Wednesday night.

Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes (1988) took the middle slot of the evening, a change in programming due to a schedule conflict. But clearly, this piece is no substitution…what an amazing dance; what an amazing performance by the ensemble! A grand piano was positioned upstage center and pianist Natal’ya Feygina was alone for the first few moments as she introduced Virgil Thomson’s score. Very ‘twentieth-century classical’ in flavor and style, atonal cluster chords met with complex meters. In a matching off-kilter lift, one couple traveled across the floor. Then, the lights rose and the whole cast fed on and off the stage (Morris used the wings to the piece’s advantage) costumed like angels. Otherworldly and ethereal, each dancer painted a picture of elation. A lovely and heartening experience of ballet vocabulary unfolded over the next thirty minutes. Smooth balancés, parallel pirouettes, emboîté turns, balletés – all breathy, airy and elegant. The ‘ballet class’ segment mid-way through continued that commemorative feel: relevés in passé, sissiones, echappés and grand pliés in fifth position. The men’s tango sequence was a standout phrase with its dramatic double pirouettes leading into a flatfoot promenade and then a double rond de jambe en l’air. And the end of the dance was so delicate and beautiful, yet a little sad, as the cast slowly exited the stage. With Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Morris communicated the community and camaraderie of artists and their joy for their art. This was also reflected in his egalitarian approach – Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes is truly an ensemble piece with no specific leads or defined chorus.

Liam Scarlett’s previous work for San Francisco Ballet, Hummingbird, had a marked effect – the audience loved it and the critical response was quite something. I liked it too, though my thoughts and reactions were more mixed (less at the second viewing than the first). Not so with Scarlett’s new world premiere, Fearful Symmetries. This is a ballet of genius.

Right from the start, the viewer was confronted with a juxtaposition of ancient and modern. A modular, lined light board illuminated the back of the deconstructed stage (design by David Finn), while a soloist (Sylve) crawled forward, primitively. From out of the darkness, the cast entered like a hunting herd from upstage left, and they would continue to disappear and reappear out of that pitch black throughout the dance. Hungry choreography permeated the space - stalking, commanding and demanding. In the middle of Fearful Symmetries, the dancers walked forward as group with both power and menace. Sitting in the audience, you were afraid and excited at the same time. Lorena Feijoo and Luke Ingham danced the ballet’s central duet, a lengthy and impressive statement that ranged from volatile and combative to erotic and tactile. And then, right near the end, Scarlett introduced a couple (Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan) who had never been seen before. And they were the exact opposite of everything that had been offered thus far. Cool and graceful, dressed in light colors, their presence served as a narrative antithesis.    
Lorena Feijoo and Luke Ingham in Scarlett's Fearful Symmetries
Photo©Erik Tomasson

Monday, January 25, 2016

San Francisco Ballet - Program 1

San Francisco Ballet
Program 1
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
January 24th, 2016

The artists of the San Francisco Ballet brought the War Memorial Opera House to life on Sunday with the opening performance of the 2016 repertory year. What a fantastic start to the season! With three compositions about as different from each other as one could imagine, the afternoon was all about the breadth and scope that is twenty-first century ballet.

Program one opened with Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight, a stunning piece of choreography from 2004 and one of my personal favorites. Mathilde Froustey and Tiit Helimets stood center stage in a square pool of light for the ballet’s expositional movement. As Bach’s Baroque score sang through the air, their pas de deux was an equivalent picture of constant motion. Arabesques extended past the pointed foot, supported turns folded into inventive port de bras. Vanessa Zahorian and Gennadi Nedvigin continued that uninterrupted physical flow well into the second movement, though with a more forward whimsical feel. Zahorian’s series of diagonal posés providing a perfect example of this essence and quality. A charming, courtly trio followed with gorgeous and breezy multiple pirouettes by Taras Domitro, which then led into a more contemplative duet by Nedvigin and Lonnie Weeks. While the music in this fourth movement is weighty and minor, Tomasson’s choreography contrasted with a lightness and buoyancy. Domitro returned to the stage in a fifth movement solo, accompanied by the harpsichord. This was a pristine moment of specificity, clarity and exactness – the music and the movement together as one. As 7 For Eight reached its final sections, Froustey and Helimets reappeared with a development on their previous choreography. They ventured away from the center spot they had occupied at the beginning of the dance, and cycled through soaring jeté lifts, spinning dips and graceful falls. And while there is a joyous finale for the entire cast after this particular duet, it feels like the ballet should end with their final embrace.

After the first intermission, the curtain rose and a video projection descended down the scrim – men in bowler hats falling to the earth just like the rain sounds in the accompanying score. The scrim disappeared to reveal a similarly costumed soloist (Davit Karapetyan) who shared an emotive, passionate movement phrase. Karapetyan was then joined by a group of men and women who had balloons placed in front of their faces. Quickly those circles of enclosed air flew away into the ether.

Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang in
Possokhov's Magrittomania
Photo © Erik Tomasson
This was the beginning of Magrittomania, Yuri Possokhov’s 2000 homage to artist René Magritte and the tenets of surrealism. An ensemble work for a lead couple, featured trio and a chorus of eight, Magrittomania is an immersive design experience – carefully stylized and at times, almost retro and nostalgic. In keeping with the attention to surrealist details and influences, the cast of curious characters flowed in and out of unpredictable architecture. And the atmosphere was filled with the peculiar – giant green apples, sheer face coverings, familiar classical melodies injected with bizarre sound effects. The only missing link was the costuming for the women. While the dress certainly fit with the overall vision of the piece, it didn’t read particularly well from the stage. The standout performance in Magrittomania was given by the trio of Max Cauthorn, Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang, all members of the corps de ballet. I wonder if San Francisco Ballet has ever considered adding another soloist tier to its company structure (second soloists or demi-soloists) because there are a number of dancers in the corps (including these three) who would be candidates for such a promotion.

Program one closed with the North American premiere of William Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016, an updated iteration of a 1999 work originally made for the Paris Opéra Ballet. While I didn’t survey those around me, I think it’s fair to say that this particular piece received the most mixed reviews of the day. Some seemed to absolutely love it, while for others, it was clearly not their cup of tea. I fell somewhere in between. Structurally, Pas/Parts 2016 offered a contiguous collection of segments, in a variety of forms, set against a stark white-boxed stage. Many of the sequences were filled with strange and avant-garde choreography, like post-modernism and contemporary ballet had married in some kind of dream-like state. Others looked like they had old-school jazz dance influences, which had then been juxtaposed against traditional batterie. There were visually striking moments, like when the women raised a single arm to fifth, while staring intently into space. Carlo Di Lanno and Sofiane Sylve’s duet in the first third of the work was unexpected, yet intoxicating at the same time. And the final group sequences for the men and the women were choreographically intriguing, some parts danced in unison, some offset in canon. Having said that, the piece lagged in the middle, the soundscore was a little distracting at times and overall, it was just too long. But I was definitely drawn in by many of the dancers’ performances – individuality and charisma were abundant on the stage to be sure. Jennifer Stahl was the picture of precision. Joseph Walsh’s ability to transform himself from one physical state to another in the matter of seconds was astonishing. And James Sofranko was a force in this work, the freedom and flexibility in his upper torso truly remarkable.