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: http://www.odcdance.org/theater.php

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Ballroom"

“Ballroom”
a novel by Alice Simpson
Available September 16th, 2014
Published by Harper Collins

Dance is tough to write about. It is a living artform; an entity and practice that is primarily experienced visually. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible to describe dance on the literary page and to do it well. A good writer can relay dance and stylized movement with carefully chosen words and phrases – the combination of sentences and paragraphs conjuring, suggesting and recreating the real-life experience of dance and choreography. A great writer goes one-step further and can actually construct a whole scene in the reader’s mind - from the people, movements and the interactions all the way to the clothes and the scents. Alice Simpson’s first novel, “Ballroom”, (available this September from Harper Collins) is an example of this latter outcome. From start to finish, “Ballroom” is a perfectly choreographed dance, where the reader and the story meet, connect and then finally, part. It tells the tale of six independent yet interdependent characters who all share a deep love for ballroom dance. And while the language itself is not particularly theatrical, “Ballroom” reads much like a play, where these six lives unfold on a large stage, or in this case, the dance floor.

In the first six brief chapters, the reader is introduced to each of the characters, as they are individually readying for a shared weekly ritual – Sunday evening at ‘The Ballroom’, a social dance club. In this quick glimpse, we learn that Harry, Maria, Sarah, Joseph, Gabriel and Angel are a group of very different, yet very similar personalities. Each carries a distinct history; a unique and specific reality that has shaped who they are in the present day. Intrigue, circumstance, coincidence and trouble plagues these vulnerable life stories, which over the novel’s forty-seven short chapters, eventually become connected and intertwined. It is clear that the six all have a passion, dedication and commitment to the art of ballroom dance. But their commonality goes much further than that. In their own way, they are all isolated souls, who want their lives to be different. They are all looking for someone or something that will bring them fulfillment. Yet, their loneliness is coupled with moments of wistful imagination. For this community, there is a disconnect between who they are in their daily lives and who they become when they dance. And they are searching for a reconciliation between these two states of being. Ballroom dance has become that place of possibility, of departure, of hope, of happiness and even if only for a brief second, of belonging. 

For her debut novel, Simpson has crafted an approachable, entertaining and easy read, yet injected the necessary dose of complexity required for an adult audience. Each chapter begins with a whimsical, excerpted quote from an instruction manual – primarily ballroom, but also snippets of general etiquette. While a fun, playful touch, it also grounds each chapter in the narrative theme. From a structural perspective, the most interesting aspect of “Ballroom” is that Simpson has built a true ensemble cast where no one person is the protagonist. While this certainly allows for interesting and unexpected twists and turns, it also permits dance itself to emerge as the main character of the story.


“Ballroom” is definitely for folks who love books about dance. And because it is a collection of human experiences, it will equally be enjoyed by anyone who loves fiction. Alice Simpson’s “Ballroom” is a great addition to your ‘end of summer’ reading list.