Sunday, April 19, 2015

Paul Taylor Dance Company

Paul Taylor Dance Company
presented by San Francisco Performances
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
April 18th, 2015

Paul Taylor Dance Company was back in the Bay Area this weekend, presented by San Francisco Performances at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The last two days of their five-performance engagement brought Program C, a collection of four Taylor compositions dating from 1961 to 2006. It is always a privilege to see work from this iconic modern dance master, though Program C was a bit of a mixed bag.

A tree structure comprised of multi-colored net fell stage right. Two men appeared wearing a futuristic combination of swimwear, fencing and wrestling attire. Two women joined the strange scene clad completely in white, including white face paint and white bonnets. This is Taylor’s Fibers, a quartet that first premiered back in 1961. Choreographically, old-school modern dance dominated the action: defined arm positions, stag leaps, fourth position spirals, parallel sissones and assemblés. The choreographic clarity was wonderful to see but the piece’s bizarre visuals really took away from the movement’s physical power. Not everything choreographed in the 1960s looks dated, but Fibers did; and so, felt like an odd choice to open the program. After a brief pause, the company danced an abridged version of Taylor’s Troilus and Cressida from 2006. Here, a completely different mood took over; one of whimsy, humor and farce. Dancers tripped, costumes fell off, and one character was sloppily drunk, all on purpose. The audience loved it, but the excerpt was a little too over the top, full of obvious and pointed jokes.

Everything changed in the second act with 1997’s Eventide. Taylor’s ensemble work for ten dancers was absolutely lovely. Nostalgic grace flowed as the couples swayed back and forth, gently held hands and traveled in circular pathways. As Eventide advances through each of its seven movements, this comforting presence holds true. With the cast spending most of their time arranged in couples, relationships take center stage. Yet there is still a variety of experience ranging from youthful exuberance to mature discernment. And on a complete side note, the Paul Taylor Dance Company has the best bows – speed combined with awareness and utmost professionalism.


Program C closed with Taylor’s 1975 dissertation on continuous movement, Esplanade. Each dancer had a vibrant spring in their gait, fueled by the pivot turns, ball changes,
Paul Taylor Dance Company in Esplanade
Photo: Paul B. Goode
grapevines and contretemps that permeate the choreography. Esplanade harnesses a sense of innocent wonder and often looks like children playing: circle games, chase, tag and the famed leap frog sequence. The second movement provides contrast by inching into a darker space with images of rigidity and isolation. But this only lasts for a short time. Jumping, running, sliding, rolling and spinning return in the finale, with a complete celebration of abandon. There is just one curious presence in the dance, that of the ninth cast member who only appears briefly during the second chapter. And after the women of the company spent three dances wearing footless stark white tights, it was a pleasant change to see them in bright and airy pastel dresses.     

Friday, April 17, 2015

San Francisco Ballet - Program 7

San Francisco Ballet
Program 7
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 16th, 2015

Mixed repertory nights are sometimes constructed around a theme – maybe works by the same choreographer, of the same era, to the same composer or of a particular genre. And just as often, there is no unifying motif; the program is simply a combination of different dances. But there is also a third category. One where a common through line exists but is less obvious. San Francisco Ballet’s seventh program is a perfect example of this. The theme of the night was design, with each piece speaking equally of vast visual scope and intimate visual intricacies.

The triple bill opened with a reprise of 2014’s Caprice, choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and set to a diverse Saint-Saëns score. As exquisite columns of light adjust and shift to frame each of the ballet’s five movements, Tomasson’s Caprice is all about elegance. In the first sequence, Mathilde Froustey and Vitor Luiz’s series of arabesque lifts floated through space with regal splendor. Chapter two brought some stunning but telling double cabrioles by Sarah Van Patten and featured the most lovely stage exit. As Tiit Helimets carried Van Patten into the second wing stage left, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Sean Orza knelt down, arms outstretched, faces lifted upwards. Van Patten and Helimets returned in the third movement with an unexpected duet full of split lifts and upper body curves. While Caprice really shone in these featured duets, the corps struggled with unison on Thursday evening. The elegance of Caprice requires clarity and because the unison was off, that clarity was compromised.

An iconic work of neo-classical brilliance, George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments continued program seven’s design-based theme by exploring the physical possibilities within classical ballet vocabulary. From the opening themes to the final Choleric variation, Balanchine creates physical architecture in this masterwork. Examining the shapes that can be made, the images sculpted, the surprising steps (bent leg work on pointe, a vast presence of second position, flexed hands, hips and shoulders that are no longer square). Even today, almost seventy years after the work premiered, The Four Temperaments still pushes boundaries and seeks to understand what ballet can do and what ballet can look like.


Pictured: San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov's Swimmer
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Onto the only world premiere and the most designed dance of the evening, Yuri Possokhov’s Swimmer. A solo trumpet sang from the orchestra pit, a see through screen revealed a mid-century modern domestic scene and almost immediately, the scrim came alive with video (by Kate Duhamel). From that moment on, the choreography and the interactive videography worked in tandem to communicate a deep narrative – one character’s clash with circumstance and his journey through the reality of responsibility and the fantasy of youth. There was much to love about Possokhov’s Swimmer. Duhamel’s video design was used to connect the various segments, which gave an overall feeling of continuous motion. Choreographically, the quiet pas de deux between Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham was a statement of gorgeous nostalgia. The powerful men’s variation towards the end of the ballet drew audible gasps from the audience, and of course, Vitor Luiz gave a transformative performance as the central character. In modern dance, there is a lot of discussion about the genre of dance theater. It’s super trendy and happens everywhere in the contemporary scene. Possokhov’s Swimmer is not dance theater, but a wonderful model of something even rarer – ballet theater.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Liss Fain Dance - A Space Divided

Liss Fain Dance
A Space Divided
Z Space, San Francisco
April 12th, 2015

For Liss Fain Dance’s newest performance installation, Z Space was transformed. A house-like steel skeleton had been constructed on the stage with clear cellophane streamers acting as walls. Dedicated large grey squares were to be the dance areas. Benches were placed around the perimeter and there were black corridors between the various ‘stages’. Matthew Antaky’s scenic design spoke of a theme: partitioned but porous.

Pictured (L to R): Katharine Hawthorne, Carson Stein (downstage) and
Shannon Kurashige in Liss Fain Dance's A Space Divided
Photo: Benjamin Hersh
Antaky’s scenic design was the inspiration for Liss Fain Dance’s A Space Divided. For this world premiere project, Artistic Director Liss Fain and guest choreographers Christian Burns and Amy Seiwert each composed a choreographic response to Antaky’s set. The three dances were then woven together, one after the other, to create the hour-long work. And while A Space Divided is definitely an experiment in choreographic vision and interpretation, it is equally an exercise in viewership.

As with any artistic installation, the audience was encouraged to move around during the performance; to take in the work at different angles and from various perspectives. This turned the audience into active decision makers. Whether you chose to stay in one place or move around, you had to not only make that choice, but also choose what scene or which dancers you were going to watch at any given moment.

Because A Space Divided had the work of three different choreographers, there were three sections within the dance. Yet even with lighting cues, music changes and shifts in the movement style, where one chapter stopped and the next one began wasn’t obvious. Which followed the original theme that had been established: partitioned but porous. A Space Divided was like a fluid stream of consciousness and investigation. I did try and figure out the breakdown, though. And in doing so, had some observations about each choreographic response.

Part one, choreographed by Christian Burns, varied in both movement and mood. Near the beginning, there was a sequence were unison phrases were thrown from performer to performer, like a game of catch. One dancer would begin the phrase in one room, would be joined by another dancer in a different space, then the first dancer would stop, a new dancer would join and the game continued on. The open doorways in Antaky’s set also had significance. Rather than solely facilitating a pathway between dance squares, Burns suggested through his choreography that these doors were a kind of invisible barrier. This segment concluded with a sense of community. The five-member ensemble gathered together in various configurations and performed cluster balances.

A wide-ranging trumpet underscored Amy Seiwert’s contribution to A Space Divided. From dense chromatic scales to sweet harmonies to avant-garde non-note sounds, it set the scene perfectly for work that had similar breadth. Balletic steps were interspersed into the otherwise contemporary physicality, and the sculptural movement frequently dismantled in surprising ways.

In the final episode of A Space Divided, Liss Fain took the choreographic helm. With a text-based score, this last section of the dance featured a real shift between parallel and turned out realities. Dancers Shannon Kurashige and Megan Kurashige swiveled back and forth in plié from parallel attitude to turned out attitude. Positions of the feet also came into play – fifth moved to non-specific parallel, open fourth to sixth position. Again this took us back to the original theme of pliability and change. Fain also explored the doorways of Antaky’s set by placing dancers within these open structures. Feet straddled the line between rooms; arms on one side, body on the other. It was a strong statement of being and existing ‘in between’.

Liss Fain Dance’s company dancers must be applauded for their performance in A Space Divided. While there were moments of stillness and brief periods of being off-stage, all five were ‘on’ and active pretty much for the whole hour. But speaking of that sixty minutes, while the concept for A Space Divided was both successful and thought provoking, the piece was really too long.