Monday, October 23, 2006

The Live Billboard Project-San Francisco

Dancers are brave people. It takes trust, guts, and courage to jump towards someone and believe that they are going to catch you. It takes an inner confidence and strength to know that you can balance seven feet in the air while sitting on the palm of someone else’s hand. Dance is about so many things-talent, ability, technique, and creativity. But, it is also about expectation, reliance, and dependence. As a dancer, you expect that your body will cooperate and do the things that you need it to do. You rely and depend on your peers, your advisors, and your partners to support you both physically, emotionally and artistically. This is the nature of dance and choreography-you become used to putting your safety, your body, and your soul in someone else’s hands. And, the reward for doing so is usually worth the sacrifice.

Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions takes this idea of daring nerve and gallantry to an entirely different level. Their recent outdoor performance, The Live Billboard Project, took place on the side of a building at the corner of 24th and Mission in San Francisco. Harnessed and rigged from above, a trio of dancers propelled down the wall, attached themselves to hanging frames, and an additional soloist balanced herself at and on the edge of the roof, all while dancing. This aerial feat was masterful for two reasons. Firstly, even with the mechanics, complexity, and limitations of the overall concept, Kreiter’s choreography was successful in examining her chosen narrative: the nature of media and the feminine form. This achievement is particularly noteworthy because she managed to convey her message without a conventional performance space. Some of the other modern dance choreographers in this city have difficulty attaining that goal even when they have both a stage and a floor at their disposal.

I have to admit, when I read the director’s note in the program, which stated the impetus for her piece, my first thought was, here we go again. Another modern dance work focusing on the degradation of the female body in the media. This theme has become to modern dance what tortured love stories are to ballet. Over and over again, choreographers search for a new way to scrutinize this which appears to offend them so deeply. But, I should remember in the future that sometimes my first reaction is hasty and may cause me to view performance with a pre-conceived (and sometimes incorrect) notion. As I watched the piece, it became clear that Kreiter’s investigation of this concept was different-it was for lack of a better word, balanced (no pun intended). Many find the portrayal of women in popular culture to be demeaning and offensive, but even with this opinion also comes an strange appeal to and fascination with what is being portrayed. Whether this is good or bad is really up to the individual to judge, but it is important to realize that both thoughts often do exist. In the choreography, Kreiter managed to illustrate that this idea of women and the media is often a pull in two opposing directions. The trio section of the piece included images of being hung and being trapped with movements that were contracted, uncomfortable, and strained. At the same time, she also incorporated choreography for those same three dancers that was freeing so that it really looked like the trio were joyously flying through space. The solo that was danced at the edge of the roof also was indicative of this duality. One minute, it seemed as though the soloist was fighting an inner battle against her constraints towards her need for freedom. She would attempt to break away from what was restricting her by almost flinging herself over the edge of the building with an extension of her leg, her arm or occasionally a lay-out of her entire body. Then, at other times, the choreography evoked a feeling of calmness and a grateful serenity through small, flowing movements. With these, the audience could see her appreciation for what was keeping her attached to the roof and preventing her from falling over the edge. This illustration of duality is extremely important. Societal issues aren’t one-sided and a realistic portrayal of both views is what made the piece so powerful, convincing, and cohesive.

Secondly, and more obviously, the piece was an amazing spectacle to see. Dancers were actually doing choreography in the air. They hit key positions at the same time; they moved in unison; they extended; they contracted; they performed. And, they manage to accomplish it all without the standard support of a floor. It was an astonishing demonstration. How often can you walk down a street and see a rehearsed, choreographed and produced art-piece? On that night, on that corner, art was accessible to anyone who wished to see it. Yes, some of the audience had come to the Mission district specifically to see that performance. But, others just happened upon it-they were walking down the street, on their way to whatever they had planned for the evening. Some stopped and watched, others just glanced as they passed by. I have often heard the phrase, ‘art imitates life’. I think the message, the concept, and the fabrication of The Live Billboard Project was less on the subject of ‘art imitating life’ and more about art being a part of life.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Savion Glover-Zellerbach Hall

There were stomps, stamps, slams, and slaps; shuffles, scuffles, wings, and riffs; buffalos, toe stands, time steps, and cramp rolls. If you were at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley on September 22nd, you were fortunate enough to witness a performance that incorporated many of these basic elements of tap dance. However, if you were in attendance at Classical Savion that night, you know that the show you saw was anything but ordinary or basic. What you saw was astonishing; it was inventive; it was everything you would expect from musician/dancer/choreographer Savion Glover. The evening was a classical and contemporary musical interplay between a string orchestra, a jazz trio and an amazing pair of feet. When it comes to tap dancing, Savion Glover is truly astonishing-there are few who would argue with that statement. Therefore, rather than focus on a viewpoint that is largely unchallenged, additional aspects of the performance should be addressed. And, in a discussion of his interdisciplinary approach to music and dance, both positive and negative issues come to light.

On the positive side, the program clearly illustrated Savion Glover’s startling talent as a musician, conductor, and composer. The latter is a role he excels in but it is rarely discussed or acknowledged in the dance world. That should be remedied because he is really one of the great composers of our time. The early sections of the performance presented an intricate polyphonic relationship between Glover and the musicians; a rhythmic examination of famous classical repertoire, including Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. There were times when the dancing and the music matched, and Glover’s percussive feet were working in the same metrical structure as the melody of the piece. Then, within the same piece, there would be other occasions when Glover purposely explored contradicting metered lines, juxtaposing syncopated jazz tap sequences against the structured backdrop of Baroque, Classical and Romantic music compositions. His ability to examine the different musical combinations between his percussive taps and the orchestrations resulted in one of the most complex fugal patterns imaginable. He took multiple independent voicings and integrated them in such a way that each one remained as important as the others-that is the textbook definition of a fugue. Nothing was musically subordinate or inferior-every line was of equal significance. Wherever they are, I could imagine Mozart, Bach, and Haydn also watching the performance that night and commenting on how they wish they had come up with the composition that was presented-the first two segments were that good.

The only disappointing portion of Classical Savion was the third and final section, in which Glover introduced each member of the orchestra and the jazz artists, and then proceeded to perform an improvised duet with each individual. He was not the only one that was improvising. During this long segment, each of the musicians improvised on their respective instruments while Glover offered an unrehearsed tap counterpart along with them. This type of exhibition is currently referred to as “improvography”. Improvography is a hybrid of improvisation and choreography, and is clearly a ‘made-up’ term that was first coined by the late tap legend Gregory Hines. According to the May 2004 issue of Dance Magazine, improvography has two elements, allowing dancers and choreographers to, “…embrace both the highly structured compositional nature and the improvisatory freedom of certain kinds of jazz/rhythm tap.” (42) While Glover is without a doubt an extraordinary musician and dancer, he is not successful at trying to apply Hines’ vision of improvography to his work. He certainly has the spontaneous, unplanned component down pat-no question. But, he does not give adequate attention to the other part-the parameters and the compositional elements that are also required for something to be improvography. Glover is not really using improvography as it was intended; he is using it to re-define improvisation. Unfortunately, re-naming something doesn’t change what it is. And, improvisation is self-indulgent playtime for performers. For the audience, it is a tedious and often insulting display that feels like you are watching performers rehearse, not perform. It is certainly fun for the participants, but not for the audience, which was made abundantly clear as some of the audience was not willing to sit through it. Improvisation has its place in dance and music, but the sad truth is that some artists have come to believe that it belongs in a presentational forum. It is a developmental tool, and that’s how it should remain-in the arsenal of work done in the studio, expanding choreography, and preparing for performance.

Conceptually, perhaps it would have been better to have the experimental improvography in the middle of the performance so that it could have been sandwiched in between two more powerful and clearly defined sections. The first two thirds of the show were so compelling that their strength may have exaggerated the weakness and ambiguity of the improvography portion. It seems as though the piece may simply need some more time to develop, reorganize and unify as one solid body of work if it is to be presented as one single production.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

San Francisco Ballet-Stern Grove

In dance theory and performance studies discourse, the avant-garde, the off-beat and the uber post-modern exert overwhelming pressure. There is nothing wrong with any of these characteristics; what is problematic is the insistence that for art to be meaningful, it needs to be anti-mainstream. The emergence of this opinion is not surprising nor is the accompanying disdain for the traditional. What is somewhat unexpected is that the contempt has also become extremely vocal. It is possible for the contemporary and the conventional to peacefully co-exist; the two are not mutually exclusive. Some performance companies, like the San Francisco Ballet, are successful at marrying these two styles. They seek to combine new and exciting experimental works with more classic pieces, presenting a repertoire that can actually be described as well-rounded. At Stern Grove this past weekend, the SF Ballet once again constructed a program that beautifully combined modern works, such as Tomasson’s Concerto Grosso and Possokhov’s Reflections with Balanchine’s neo-classical Allegro Brillante and Agnes de Mille’s Americana masterpiece, Rodeo.

It is with the production of Rodeo that San Francisco Ballet confirmed that the current breed of vanguard dance theorists can be so misguided in their criticism of traditional material. Revivals of Rodeo constantly come under fire from academic circles, who have historically found fault with two aspects of this ballet: 1) what they describe as the archaic nature of its primary theme and 2) the portrayal of women in society which they argue is both humiliating and degrading. With in-depth exploration of the ballet and the choreography, responses to these two accusations begin to surface. And, the clearest realization of all is that these ‘critical’ interpretations are representative of a simplistic assessment and superficial analysis of the work. Disliking a performance piece is one thing, and an entirely valid reaction-no one expects that everyone will like everything they see. But, there is no excuse for skimming the surface of an artistic work and trying to disguise it as academic rigor.

In response to the first accusation (that the theme is archaic), Nancy Mason said it best in a 1972 edition of Dance Magazine, “…Women’s lib may now quibble about the theme-‘How to get a man’-Rodeo isn’t dated because it deals with basic emotions.” This comment is so accurate-the story of Rodeo is really about finding love and going after it, which is a phenomenon that is timeless. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we both see and participate in the formulaic yet, incredibly popular adage of finding love everyday. We are inundated with novels, magazine covers, movies, song lyrics and advertisements for internet dating services that illustrate this point. Is the issue really that the theme of Rodeo is outdated or is it that we don’t like being told that pursuing love is the only way to be happy?

With respect to the role of women in Rodeo, it is much more complicated than it appears. At first glance, one may argue that the depiction of women in the ballet is old-fashioned and subordinate, but this is oversimplification at its core. You have to go much deeper into the role of the cowgirl to see that sections of de Mille’s choreography and Anita Panciotti’s staging are painting a profoundly contrasting picture: an image of women as strong, confident, willful and determined. The beginning scenes between the cowgirl, the Head Wrangler and the Cow-Hands are overflowing with images of women attempting to accomplish goals traditionally reserved for men. Despite ridicule from the men, the cowgirl is resolute. After falling or failing, de Mille has the character brushing off the dust, and hitching up her trousers and trying again. This gestural choreography occurs throughout that entire first scene, and produces a feminine character who refuses to give up and goes after what she wants with incredible drive. Is that not the image of a strong woman?

Maybe the abstract, anti-establishment scholars should think more about what they believe art and dance is. Is it not a post-modern ideal to step out of the box and explore alternative explanations for what we see? Judson dancers pushed the limits of categorization by walking down buildings and jogging around gymnasiums and calling it dance. They stepped outside of the comfort zone. Isn’t it possible that de Mille did the same thing and reached outside of the role of women in the 1940s when she choreographed Rodeo? Avant-garde dance criticism should look for the avant-garde, even if it comes in the form of a traditional Americana story.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company - A Slipping Glimpse

Patrons of the arts often have pre-conceived notions about ‘the what, how and where’ when they purchase tickets to attend an arts event. Expectations may include the theatre as the traditional venue, with a raised stage structure, a standard proscenium archway and a curved downstage apron. The majority of playhouses and theaters have this type of arrangement. And, the seating in these theaters is designed to follow the curvature of the stage, affording any audience member premium viewing capacity, regardless of their particular angle. Aficionados of modern dance, which has a reputation for being anything but conventional, know better than to come to a performance with any rigid ideas of what may or may not transpire. Rather, these fans know to expect the unexpected. Margaret Jenkins Dance Company’s world premiere of A Slipping Glimpse at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts certainly was no exception-the two-part piece explored an unusual dramatization of her choreography in an unorthodox venue with an alternative stage design. The second section, which was the bulk of the piece, achieved stunning results with the successful use of nonconformist staging and ingenious dance composition. In contrast, the introductory portion’s use of alternate space didn’t work and its manipulation of movement lacked continuity, failing in its endeavor to initiate and support any degree of consistency between the two segments of the work.

The piece began with a ten minute “prologue”, as the company called it, outdoors in the garden setting of the YBCA. This overture or prelude resulted in two challenging problems. Firstly, in San Francisco, it is always a crapshoot to perform any dance outside-it is more than often too cold. Past dance performances at the annual outdoor Stern Grove Festival have been cancelled half-way through because of the dropping temperature. This sometimes “arctic” environment is too dangerous for the dancers and not pleasant for the audience. It is difficult to concentrate on the intention of, the meaning behind, or the movement within the choreography when all you can think about is goose bumps and frostbite. Second, and more importantly, the prologue of A Slipping Glimpse lacked connection with what followed in the rest of the piece. In fact, the two sections really could have been separate works-the only commonality was that the dancers were wearing the same costumes for both. This lack of correlation was most obvious in the drastically different choreographic vocabulary within the two segments. The prologue section was a unison, “yoga-like” salute to the sun, with slow controlled movements that were calming and meditational in nature. This piece was a world premiere so perhaps over time, the link between the prologue and the body of the piece will be further explored and will evolve in terms of the work’s overall cohesiveness.

Following the outdoor prologue, there was a ten minute pause so that the audience could move inside and be seated for the duration of the piece. The rest of the dance was a juxtaposition of different groups of dancers, performing dissimilar choreography that had much more of an energetic, up-lifting, and vigorous feel to it. The movement vocabulary of this indoor section was completely different than what had occurred outside. The choreography seemed to be stylized like original contact improvisation, created by former Judson dancer Steve Paxton in the 1970s. This type of movement explored the idea of lifts and balances where two or more dancers were connected by a particular point on each other’s bodies. It challenged the idea of traditional lifting in choreography by creating a method by which women could lift men, men could lift men and dancers could support each other in unusual ways as opposed to the common balances in dance that had traditionally been performed on both feet and hands. This was all possible by a process of giving and receiving weight. One specific example of the use of this method came at the beginning of the inside portion of the piece. The company began on a platform which must have been approximately ten feet above the ground and through this idea of giving and receiving weight, all of the dancers were lowered effortlessly from this podium onto the main dance space. It is important when talking about contact-improvisation to make the distinction that Jenkins’ piece was not improvised, it was clearly choreographed, but the style of the movements and the gravity-defying lifts and balances brought contact-improvisational technique to mind.

The staging area inside was arranged as a diamond-shaped Marley dance floor, with bleacher-style audience seats on each side of the diamond. Also, platforms had been built behind the seats and jutting out from within the seats so as to create further surfaces for choreographic exploration. Jenkins had composed some movement phrases on the main part of floor as well as on all of the other smaller stages, which together, comprised this unconventional stage design. Sitting in the audience, it immediately became clear that it was impossible to watch everything that was going on at the same time, because dance was happening literally all around you, causing your focus to be constantly moving. At first, this seemed troubling-one minute you were engaged with a group of dancers directly in your line of sight. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you would be drawn to a soloist performing so close to you that you really could touch them. What is important to realize is that this one element that appeared to be disturbing at first was the whole point of the piece. Through her creativity with movement and space, Jenkins was able to emphatically emphasize the importance of constant motion in our world and often our inability to control what we see. In life, do we ever really get the chance to completely focus on what is right is front of us?

Berkeley Dance Project 2006

Much of modern and postmodern dance seeks to challenge the current limits of movement and choreography, push the boundaries of social, economic and political subject matter, and provoke its audience to question accepted gender roles and relations within performance. While attempting to achieve these lofty goals, modern dance choreographers have often leaned towards the production of extremely serious and weighty interdisciplinary works. In fact, attending an evening of modern dance can often feel like an angst-ridden emotional roller coaster ride through an avant-garde exploration of one’s inner demons. Thankfully, from time to time (although not often enough) audiences do get a break from the melodramatics of modern dance when choreographers create pieces that are purely celebratory in nature minus the internal histrionics.

Two examples of this type of composition were recently produced in The 2006 Berkeley Dance Project, featuring student performances from UC Berkeley’s Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies program. This mixed repertory evening was not entirely made up of doom and gloom; and, with two of the five pieces, allowed a glimpse into sentiments rarely expressed in present-day modern dance-namely, joy and engagement. Although both of these concepts were apparent in the re-staging of Margaret Jenkins’ The Gate of Birds (1993), they were particularly evident in the premiere of Reggie Wilson’s People are dying (some/every) where and I [still] don’t know what to do (ANYTHING)! So. The title of this piece certainly suggests a heavy, emotionally-charged narrative; however, such a narrative was downplayed and the focus was placed on the exuberance and entertaining nature of the work itself. While not an entirely abstract piece, the choreographic theme suggested ancient African tribal dance, with percussive rhythm-based foot movement that clearly evoked images of the final segment of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. While the sequences of the feet definitely drew focus, it was also impossible to ignore the torso of the dancers, which were completely void of the verklempt Graham contraction that is present (and grossly overused) in so much modern dance. Wilson’s dancers displayed a feeling of openness in the torso, drawing the gaze upwards to the faces of the dancers. These faces were so full of joy: engaged with the movement; engaged with the audience; engaged with the music. How wonderful to see modern dancers who are both technically proficient and look like they love to move, as opposed to much modern dance choreography, which often appears to be dancers fighting against movement in an exercise of rage, guilt, revenge and shame. It was so refreshing to see a new work, clearly within the classification of modern dance esthetic, where the choreography allowed the dancers, and in turn, the audience, to be transported to a place of elation and happiness instead of feeling punished for the sins of mankind.

The evolution of modern dance is confusing. What began as a fundamental struggle against the conventional structure and rigidity of ballet has really changed. Unfortunately, by working so diligently to avoid any deference to the authority of ballet, modern dance itself has now formed its own establishment and institution where the acknowledged norm is this negative, fatalistic view of the world. And, choreographers that examine a different perspective from this often are accused of bowing to the pressures of the vision of traditional dance and betraying their revolutionary heritage. But, aren’t these choreographers the ones who are now challenging what has become an often static enterprise known as modern dance?

Matthew Bourne - Swan Lake

Modern adaptations of traditional stories are by no means unique in the performing arts. We continually see this phenomenon in film, music, theatre and dance, sometimes with a successful result and at other times to no avail. Last month, San Francisco witnessed an example of the latter with Swan Lake, this time through the eyes of director-choreographer Matthew Bourne. Traditionalists may suggest that Bourne’s progressive Swan Lake compromises perhaps the most popular narrative ballet with the insertion of modern elements (sound effects, avant-garde sets, and uncharacteristic gender choices). In reality, it is with his choreography that the ballet falters, and not the external contemporary components. His staging did not adequately tell the story nor did it establish continuity between the scenes. In narrative dance, continuity is imperative; the audience must comprehend the order of events, the significance of characters and the materialization of relationships. There isn’t any dialogue or verse to facilitate the story telling; it must occur through the dance composition. How else can the story logically unfold in an art form where speech is absent?

The void is specifically apparent in the second act of the ballet where we should be seeing the clear development of the central character relationship, the passionate love story between the Prince and the Swan. The magic, mystery and in the end, tragedy that unfolds in the remainder of the ballet are all based on the romantic bond shaped between these two characters. The story of Swan Lake simply does not make sense unless this connection is made and developed within the choreography in the second act.

To be fair, the bond between these two main characters should not be obvious at their first encounter; a certain level of ambiguity should be present. The two aren’t really sure what to make of each other as they first meet. In fact, the Prince and the Swan are initially apprehensive of each other. However, from the beginning of their encounter, Bourne’s choreography does not represent this tentativeness; it is plain confusing. The choreographic interplay did not elicit a feeling of nervousness, anxiety or even anticipation; it was simply antagonistic. The movement choices were severe and abrasive, and did not illustrate even a slight curiosity or expectation between the two characters.

In the original story, the hesitancy between the two then wanes and desire takes over. In order to demonstrate this change, we expect that the subsequent pas de deux should be tender, depicting the two characters’ growing emotions-love, want, and need. Rather and surprisingly, Bourne’s version is contentious and in places, violent, as the two dancers continually collide and rebound off of each other, performing lifts that call to mind throwing, pushing and flinging rather than the supportive calmness that is often present in a pas de deux, especially one that should be trying to convey a budding romance. In addition, the aggressiveness present in the choreography was not persuasive as intense passion nor fervent fire; it was simply reminiscent of an angry struggle between two individuals. Two individuals that do not appear even to tolerate each other, let alone deeply care for one another.

At the conclusion of the ballet, the continuity problem reaches its pinnacle. In the last image, we see the Swan lovingly cradling the Prince in his arms. Their true relationship is finally clearly articulated through the choreography, but in this ending scene, it is far too late to establish their link and unfortunately, the message of the ballet has been lost.

Perhaps the single-most saving factor of Bourne’s Swan Lake was the artistry and athleticism displayed by the dancers. Although his choreographic choices were both suspect and problematic, the dancers execution of the steps was particularly compelling and impressive. The extraordinary talents of the company and the performances they gave were far more gripping for their abstract qualities than was the choreography’s ability to portray the narrative of the ballet.