Sunday, November 25, 2007

American Ballet Theatre-Zellerbach Hall

American Ballet Theatre is the latest victim of dance company reinvention. Their recent tour to the West Coast demonstrates an attempt by this company to embrace the current re-creation trend, moving away from specialization and toward fusion. The goal is to shape a group of artists equally proficient at classical works and contemporary choreography, with its characteristic mixing of different genres.

From an economic perspective, this move makes sense. Ballet companies are struggling, and the primary goal for most companies now is simply filling the seats. The hope is that a bold new vision will appeal to audiences who see classical ballet as an elite art, making little contribution to the changing canvas of performance. To re-frame this attitude, ballet is being sold as exciting, inclusive and accessible. The most obvious way to accomplish this objective is through the production of sexy, daring and risky choreography. American Ballet Theater has this part of the task down pat. Their recent program at Zellerbach Hall included two works from the Queen of Fusion, Twyla Tharp (Baker’s Dozen and Sinatra Suite), and new pieces from two up-and-coming choreographers, Jorma Elo (C. To C.) and Benjamin Millepied (From Here On Out). But, choosing ground breaking repertory is only one small part of the equation; the company itself has to be able to deliver the breadth and flexibility required of such a varied repertoire. American Ballet Theater has insufficiently prepared their dancers for the increased artistic range required of this choreography. Therefore, the audience does not see the risks of the new work; instead, it sees the dancers struggling with inadequate preparation. It is not the dancers’ fault; their technique is brilliant, but they do not appear to be receiving the mentorship needed from the artistic staff of this company.

Twyla Tharp pieces are steeped with expectations. The audience anticipates much from this woman, including inventive ballet and modern sequences, a seamless flow of movement, smooth, creative transitions, extreme changes in tempo and of course, humor. Unfortunately, ABT’s disappointing version of Baker’s Dozen was missing the Tharp essence. The characteristic flow was absent and the transitions between movements were uncomfortable. Fluidity was lacking, and instead was replaced with choppiness. In addition, the dancers looked far too classical for this piece. The movement sequences were too academic and carefully placed, with hardly any release of the upper body. Even the unison sections were sloppily executed. It was as if the company had to come up with a piece to present at Cal Performances’ Focus on Tharp series and threw this together without much attention to detail. Perhaps ABT was relying on the fact that some members of the current artistic staff have had significant one-on-one experience with Tharp. The hope being that they could accurately relay information to the younger dancers. If they did attempt to teach the company about Tharp, it was a haphazard effort. Clearly, what this presentation illustrates is that there is no substitute for individual in-depth coaching from the original choreographer. Technology and second-hand information do not produce the same results. In short, the company had learned the steps, learned the sequences and learned the staging of Baker’s Dozen, but they had not learned Tharp.

Equal time must be spent educating and training the dancers in each new movement style, otherwise, the re-creation of any company will not work. Everyone loses. The dancers lose the opportunity to physically understand the work, the audience loses the chance to see new pieces as the choreographer intended, and the company loses financially because they will not be developing new patrons and donors. Reinvention cannot happen halfway; it needs to be all or nothing. ABT must decide whether they are willing to invest the necessary time and effort needed for the edification of their dancers and if they cannot commit to this, maybe a new image is not for them.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company-Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

I love that Bill T. Jones is a true chameleon, constantly shifting and impossible to pigeon-hole. As soon as the critics think they have him figured out, he changes. One minute, he is a genuine post-modern choreographer crafting dances focused on form and devoid of content. Then, he is experimenting with interdisciplinary collaborations between dance and other media (text, song and video). Next, he morphs into a post-post-modernist (if that is even a word) attempting to reconcile the chasm that has been created between structure and subject (incidentally, which he helped to create). During this post-post-modern phase, Jones became one of the creators and authorities on deconstructed narrative. This pairs largely abstract movement with a reduced conceptual framework in an effort to examine new ways that form and content can co-exist. Currently, another choreographic persona is emerging and in his most recent work, Chapel/Chapter, Jones injects himself into yet another category: dance theater.

Dance theater is still a relatively new choreographic genre that remains closely tied to the German school of choreography (where it is referred to as Tanztheater). This is where it first emerged with Kurt Jooss and continues today under the auspices of Pina Bausch and William Forsythe. This form of dance mixes story and structure together with very specific objectives and intentions, making its treatment of the narrative and its exploration of movement distinctive.

In dance theater, the story is driven by themes from the darker side of humanity: indifference, abuse, rage, and violence. With this serious subject matter, dance theater pieces make no attempt at explanation, justification or rationalization. In fact, dance theater works deliberately throw these behaviors in the audience’s face. The purpose is simply to immerse the audience in the reality of darkness and allow them to feel the unresolved emotions surrounding it. Bill T. Jones’ treatment of the narrative in Chapel/Chapter is a textbook example of dance theater. The topic of the piece is violent death told through three stories: 1) a planned suicide, 2) a random killing of an entire family and 3) an accidental murder. All three plotlines are presented to the audience (through text, song, gesture and movement) as plain and simple descriptions; unfeeling and eerily calm. Neither remorse, nor a desire for redemption were present; just blunt accounts of participation in these three deaths. There was no explanation for the crime, no justification of actions and no rationalization of conduct; there was only the darkness of death.

Jones also followed the tanztheater convention of repetition in choreography. One of the most famous choreographers associated with this genre, Pina Bausch, has demonstrated that repetition has a dual property when juxtaposed with dark conceptually-based choreography. Initially, repetitive movement sequences help to emphasize the brutality of the story, but, after significant repetition, they become an anesthetic for disturbing material. This was especially apparent in the storyline focusing on a killer’s attack on a family in their home. In the choreography, the perpetrator continually performs a choking gesture, resulting in the demise of each of his victims. At first, this was brutally shocking, but after seeing it multiple times during the piece, it numbed the brutality without erasing it.

I love this company, mostly because I never know what to expect when I am seeing new material. So many dance companies are predictable and avoid taking risks in their repertory. Dance should be the opposite; it is all about experimentation and moving outside of your comfort zone. Bill T. Jones has understood this from the moment he began choreographing. With Chapel/Chapter the elusive innovator strikes again.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Epiphany Productions-Trolley Dances

Production of the performing arts involves both logistical planning and artistic content. When the goal is a free, outdoor, multi-site series, both of these become much more difficult. Logistically, the work must be adaptable to the outside, the audience has to be transported from one place to the next, and the necessary permits must be obtained. This year’s San Francisco Trolley Dances was a logistical victory; artistic director Kim Epifano effectively facilitated the 4th annual performance series. The pieces worked in the outdoors, the audience arrived on time at each locale; the volunteer staff was incredibly professional and even the weather cooperated. Unfortunately, the artistic side told another story, plagued with issues of performance experience and visual obstructions.

Firstly, there was considerable inconsistency between the five dance companies who participated in Trolley Dances, in terms of the performers’ experience (or lack thereof). The first two groups, Run For Your Life!’s a dance company and Flyaway Productions showcased confident and proficient dancers who clearly understood the minutiae of staged performance as well as the relationship between the performer and the audience. These were consummate professionals. The third company, Paco Gomes and Dancers, did not rise to this established level of expertise. The choreography was not the issue; it was the communication and expression of the piece by the dancers. Unfortunately, their lack of performance experience was palpable. Performing outside is tough; noise, voices and activity can easily distract you. More seasoned performers can usually tune out this commotion, but this group hasn’t quite mastered that skill. Their technique was good, but they need a little more time and guidance to develop their stage presence. Gomes should exert more effort educating his dancers on the art of performance. Perhaps then his choreographic vision can be illuminated instead of being masked by the lack of stage presence exhibited by his dancers.

The final piece of the day also illustrated significant variance in the aptitude of the dancers, although not with respect to their stage presence, but in their technical maturity. Epiphany Productions/Sonic Dance Theater set a piece on dancer Robert Henry Johnson and the UC Berkeley Bay Area Repertory Dance Ensemble (BARD). First things first, the dancers from Berkeley are excellent but, individuals in this group are clearly at different points in their educational career, displaying various levels of movement maturity. Some of these UC dancers are new to college-level dance education. They are still at the point of transition between their ‘juvenile’ dance training and their adult pre-professional studies. This is not a bad thing, and is a necessary rite of passage. All young dancers go through this transition; they are learning. Learning how movement comes from within rather than peripherally; learning how to create positions and shapes without appearing posed; and learning how to be grounded, appreciating how the floor can change your movement quality. In contrast, other dancers in BARD are towards the end of their undergraduate education and have already transitioned into pre-professional dancers, with the critical, historical and physiological knowledge that has nurtured and changed their bodies and their movement. Epifano’s piece had all of the BARD dancers performing the same material. While that may have given cohesion to the piece, it also emphasized the vast technical disparities between the dancers in this company.

Secondly, two of the five pieces involved some traveling portions, where companies performed as the audience walked from one venue to another. The tap dancers executed a moving percussion sequence while steering the audience towards their next destination. As well, the final piece had a moving prologue in which the dancers led the audience from a starting point to the Duboce Park Labyrinth where the bulk of the piece would occur. It is clear that these moving sequences were an attempt to capitalize on the idea of non-traditional outdoor performance possibilities. But, at the same time, it is crucial in a presentational forum to remember that the audience still needs to see what is happening. Unless you were at the front of the group in both of these circumstances, it was impossible to see the performers until the transient section of their piece was completed. So, again, the beauty of the dance was camouflaged, this time by an inability to physically see the performers.

Trolley Dances provides a valued contribution to San Francisco performing arts. It exposes attendees, passers-by and the city itself to local dance companies, performing in several outside venues free of charge. However, there is an expectation of skill and proficiency with any organized performance series. Some of this year’s participants lived up to that expectation. For those who did not meet this goal, perhaps they can be inspired to look at the art of performance, so that it can match their technical ability. So much time is spent on technique and dancers often miss the chance to develop artistic sensibility. Performance is the sum of all of its parts, not just choreography and technical brilliance. Compositions that focus only on this are sanitized and empty; they are truly missing the heart of dance.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Joffrey Ballet-Zellerbach Hall

Years ago, I saw the Joffrey Ballet perform Billboards, a collection of choreography set to music by Prince. I can honestly say without pause or agenda that this was the most significant theater event of my life; so much so that it solidified my decision to pursue dance as a career. More than a decade has past since my introduction to this ballet, yet, the images and choreography remain seared into my memory. The difference between then and now is that then, as a relatively inexperienced young dancer, I could not pinpoint what had influenced me so deeply. I was overwhelmed by the performance but I did not know why. Now, I understand that it was not only Billboards that astonished me, but the entire Joffrey Ballet. I loved the piece, but it was the clarity of vision, tone and mood demonstrated by the company that produced such an intense and dramatic effect. The Joffrey Ballet has an amazing awareness of how the music, costumes, sets, casting, and choreography in each individual piece can work together to make sense. The audience is not left wondering what they should be feeling or what inferences they should be making; there can be an unfettered focus on dance and movement. The Joffrey’s recent offering at Zellerbach Hall included three pieces that illustrate this superb coherency. In Pas des Déesses, the audience was transported to a 19th century artistic salon. Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe took everyone on a trip to the beach. And finally, Sometimes it Snows in April navigated the road to heaven.

Robert Joffrey’s Pas des Déesses is based on an 1846 Romantic lithograph and began with four posed dancers replicating the picture, which then came to life onstage. There were several elements reminiscent of an artistic salon from the 1800s: the flowing sheer costumes, the flowery, delicate port de bras, and the intricate footwork-brisés, frappés, sissones, and entréchat quatres. These small quick movements reiterated that this ballet was intimate, made for a smaller audience, perhaps the poets, musicians and philosophers of the 19th century. The choreography also situated the leg at all angles: just off the floor, at 45˚, and in full split penchée. These days, contemporary companies exploit the daring feat and stunning technical athleticism in ballet, and because of this, we forget the delicate beauty of a low leg in arabesque. Everything in this dance was elegant and subtle, working towards the vision of Romanticism. The promise offered by the opening vignette was realized through a commitment to clarity, making the subject of the piece readily apparent.

Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe has an extremely important place in dance history as the first ‘fusion’ or ‘cross-over’ ballet, where classical and modern choreography were mixed together with popular music (The Beach Boys). Today this type of ballet is pervasive; every company mixes different genres and music but, in 1973, critics were not sure that this would work or whether it was even possible. Tharp proved that the way to accomplish this was not only through the music, sets and costuming, but also by using a common thread present in both the traditional and contemporary portions of the piece. In Deuce Coupe, this shared element is control. This theme is introduced by a classical female dancer who appears throughout the piece as the ‘symbol’ of the traditional school, performing academic ballet exercises. As the modern dance sequences began, and were juxtaposed against this conventional movement, it was clear that they too came from the same place of control and intentionality. In the modern choreography, this was evident in the constant direction changes and tempo fluctuations. It is practically impossible to be moving at top speed and then completely freeze unless you are in absolute control of your movement. In the same manner, a dancer cannot be running in one direction and then immediately shift the other way if she does not have command over her body. By linking the different dance genres together using this common denominator of control, this piece again illustrated a repertory committed to a collective vision.

Sometimes it Snows in April is an excerpt from the larger work Billboards and represents the emotional duality that occurs on the road to heaven. The piece began with the sorrow that accompanies death. As dancers stood next to each other under dim lights, tenderly leaning their heads together, it was a scene of heartbreak. During this, the lyrics of the music talk about mourning the loss of a friend. This is the pain of death. A drastic change followed as the trail moved away from death and towards the jubilant reception of heaven. The movement became joyous, exuberant and enthusiastic with an intense diagonal sequence of Russian split leaps and grand jètés where the dancers’ joy of the movement soared. The lights became suddenly bright, revealing the sparkling white and silver costumes of the angels above. Again, every element of the piece fit into this journey from severe grief to unbridled excitement.

The performance of Billboards has stayed with me for years while many others faded away as soon as the curtain went down. I can even still remember portions of the choreography; exact steps that were done on one evening many years ago. There is really only one explanation for this and that is the profound clarity of the work by the Joffrey Ballet which was still evident last week at Zellerbach Hall.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mark Morris Dance Group-Zellerbach Hall

The concept of the abstract has become an overused ‘buzz’ word in the performing arts and lost its essence. Abstraction has been turned into an inflated cliché for flippant academic circles and high-brow literary banter. The difficult questions are being ignored-what is abstraction; does it exist; can it be seen in performance? Instead, its existence is taken as a given, suggesting that a ‘Seinfeld’ approach can be applied to the creative process, resulting in movement that is about nothing. Maybe by striving to be about nothing, a piece’s identity evolves into being about the lack of narrative. Maybe it is impossible for a dance to develop solely out of motion and not provide anything else. Consequently, when a piece looks largely abstract in nature, it is important to delve deeper into the possible hidden sub-text and determine if there is more to it than meets the eye. Mark Morris Dance Group’s Mozart Dances first appears to be nonfigurative choreography to Mozart’s music; pure and simple. But, first impressions can be deceiving; there was definitely more going on. The piece may not have held a traditional story but it was not abstraction either. Instead, it was the embodiment of an intimate conversation between two artists, facilitating an homage to a third. This intersection provided a context for representation, thematics and topical imagery; it was clearly about something. Not every movement or sequence was steeped in meaning but, as a whole, the work allowed the audience to witness the unmistakable beauty of artistic collaboration.

By observing this dialogue, the audience became privy to Mark Morris’ rare understanding of the relationship between musical structure and movement. He was able to capture a strikingly accurate visual depiction of sonata-allegro form using his unique movement vocabulary. Sonata-allegro form is a tri-partite music composition structure utilized primarily during the eighteenth century, at the time that Mozart was composing. It consists of: 1) an exposition, where several musical motifs are introduced, 2) a development, where these motifs are explored and altered and 3) a recapitulation of the original themes, with an extended cadenza finish. Morris was able to give this musical structure life through movement by mirroring the three-part formula and exploring the movement material through recurrence. Like sonata-allegro form, there were three individual sections to his work: 1) eleven, which stated his primary themes, 2) double, where these ideas were examined and 3) twenty-seven, a cohesive summation of the material introduced. Through all three parts, the motifs recurred in tandem with recurrences in the music. Some of the more memorable returning choreography was: punctuated 1st position rélévés, staccato ballètés, 2nd position shuffles, and determinate marching, all coinciding with Mozart’s pulsating score. Mark Morris was able, in a way that few choreographers can match, to imagine and express what Mozart’s extraordinary music might look like.

There was a third ghostly presence in Mozart Dances, and that was the strong influence of George Balanchine manifested in costume and pattern. The costuming in all three segments was Balanchinian with Morris flair. Balanchine was one of the first choreographers to strip away the idea of traditional ballet costuming, both figuratively and literally. He put the dancers in practice clothes (simple leotards and tights) so as to correctly place the sole focus on dancing and movement, not peripheral elements, like costuming. Morris’ choice of costume was similarly minimalistic. The corps women wore a two piece leotard set, and the lead woman was in a plain white dress. The men wore solid dance tights and were either bare-chested (segment 1), or had plain grey tank shirts on (segment 2). Morris did add his own panache with a filmy tulle overdress for the women in the corps and a Dickens-style morning coat for the lead male dancer. It is unclear how Balanchine would feel about these ‘extras’, but they did give insight into Mark Morris’ personal character. These details perfectly illustrated his whimisical side, which continued all the way to the curtain call, where his bow was overshadowed by his bright green socks.

The choreographic patterns in Mozart Dances were the second apparition of Balanchine. So many choreographers focus all of their attention on the movements of the body and forget that the floor patterning of a piece can be just as powerful. Like Balanchine, Morris pays close attention to configurations, which was especially prevalent in the second movement of the piece, featuring the men. Morris choreographed them in circular patterns, holding hands or slightly detached, with their arms in 2nd position. This portion of the piece was lit from above, reflecting their shadows on the stage as they weaved, swayed, and turned. During these formations, the shadows on the floor looked like a kaleidoscope. It was mesmerizing. And, as in Balanchine’s work, the intoxicating element was the structure being executed by the dancers as they simply walked through a variety of patterns.

Clearly, there was more going on in Mozart Dances than abstraction. Critical rigor requires the in-depth examination of appearances. Taking something at face value could mean that its true purpose and beauty is missed. And, in Mark Morris Dance Group’s Mozart Dances, this magnificence was typified by a complicated mix of ideas and artistry from three genres: Mozart’s eighteenth-century classicism, Morris’ distinctive take on post-modernism and Balanchine’s historical legacy of neo-classicism.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Chris Black/POTRZEBIE Dance Project-Justin Herman Plaza Park

Generalization and categorization may not be popular in the performing arts, but in today’s modern dance scene, most choreographers fall into one of three camps: 1) the movement for movement’s sake abstractionists, 2) the narrative storytellers and 3) the hybrids who seek some marriage of form and content. The hybrids’ process is a bit of a mystery but one creative method they employ involves searching for inspiration and using it as a jumping off point for choreography. Common choices include class politics, social relationships, and feminism in the media. Unfortunately, because of their popularity, these issues have been analyzed to death in modern dance. Therefore, it is refreshing to see new works from modern choreographers that look outside of angsty subject-matter to other sources of insight, which also provide surprisingly deep and meaningful revelations. In Chris Black’s newest work, Pastime, she looked to baseball, and even though it may not fall into a socio-economic-political classification, it, too can teach when placed in the arena of the performing arts. Specifically, it demonstrates an ingenious use of the deconstructed narrative in modern dance while illustrating a brilliant juxtaposition of motion and stillness as well as highlighting the dark competitive side of humanity.

The idea of the ‘deconstructed narrative’ became a popular choreographic framework in the eighties and nineties as a response to the previous decades where content was conspicuously absent from much modern dance. With a deconstructed narrative, there is not a specific story or plotline. Instead, there is an idea, a concept, a topic that molds the work and provides a basis for choreographic invention and experimentation. Pastime had this; it was incredibly successful at unifying form and content as two interdependent variables. It was about baseball, but it was not a dance version of a nine-inning game from beginning to end. Rather, baseball was the foundation for exploration of movement. In the forty minute dance, there were gestural representations found specifically in baseball-pitching, batting, catching, sliding, and perhaps most interesting, the use of covert communicative coaching signals. But again, all of these movements were interspersed in the abstract expressionist choreography. They were not really telling a linear story; they were the inspiration and thus, illustrated a perfect example of the deconstructed narrative in modern dance.

Because of this unique fusion of baseball and movement, there were ample opportunities to witness a distinctive relationship between motion and stillness as is often apparent in a baseball game. Near the beginning of the piece, there was a section where the dancers toggled between moving around the field and a typical ‘resting’ baseball position, which in dance terms translated to standing in parallel 2nd, with hands placed on thighs. In this interchange, the audience could see how motion can erupt from a state of being still. Even when at rest, the next movement can be born within mind and body, sometimes explosively; sometimes calmly and sometimes purposely.

The presence of aggression in the piece was a bit of a surprise. Often baseball is tantamount to a sunny, happy, afternoon with family and ballpark snacks. Until playoff time, many fair-weather fans forget that it is a competitive sport where there are winners and losers. Contentiousness, anger and frustration are just as much a part of the game as are home runs and the amazing fly-ball catch. In the choreography, Black illustrated this hostility in several ways. It was seen between pitcher and batter characters as well as between team members. There was one sequence where two dancers played out a ‘duel’ scenario. They had a confrontation, and then backed away; but kept their eyes glued to each other. Dancers continued to move all around them, yet their gaze remained locked for what seemed like five minutes; the competitive tension was palpable.

Pastime was a great abstract expression of sport in dance. And, the dancers looked like baseball players. Because of all the rolling around in the natural park setting, by the end of the piece their costumes (‘baseball’ shirts) were covered in grass stains, just like real baseball players at the end of a game. Also, Erik Pearson’s brilliant score of baseball related music played on transistor radios further contextualized the piece into the baseball world. But, aside from these strikingly realistic visual and audio cues, the true achievement of Chris Black/POTRZEBIE Dance Project’s, Pastime, is the mixing of two unlikely ingredients and the surprising product that was created by this merger.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

San Francisco Ballet-Stern Grove 2007

Today ballet dancers are better than ever. In order to “make it” in this highly competitive market, it is necessary to have the whole package: technique, versatility, artistry and desire. But no matter how gifted and brilliant today’s dancers may be, not all of them can be stars. Ballet administrations cannot afford to pay all of their dancers top salaries so most companies end up with a hierarchical ranking of dancers: the prima ballerina, the principals, the soloists (which in some companies are divided into two tiers of first and second soloists), the corps de ballet and lastly, the apprentices. With the outstanding male and female talent present at all of these levels, ballet companies must get creative in how they provide audience access to dancers who may otherwise be hidden. For the New York City Ballet’s current production of Romeo and Juliet, artistic director Peter Martins specifically cast young dancers (members of the corps and even some from the School of American Ballet) to play the title roles, bringing these ‘unknowns’ to center stage. Another way is to move towards more egalitarianism in dance, focusing on choreography and repertory that highlight the ensemble, provide gender balance, and as a result gives more dancers the chance to shine.

San Francisco Ballet’s offering at the Stern Grove Festival this year had the promise of egalitarianism with three choreographic masters of the ensemble: Paul Taylor’s Spring Rounds, George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, and Lar Lubovitch’s Elemental Brubeck. This promise, however, was only partly fulfilled. Two of these three works provided the audience with the true feeling of the company en masse, with the starring role being filled not by one but by many. What was disappointing was the piece choreographed by the late prince of parity, George Balanchine. For someone who prided himself on revolutionizing American ballet by introducing a more democratic approach to the dancers, he failed to illustrate this in Divertimento No. 15.

When Balanchine came to America, he brought with him his own philosophy of dance, which was greatly influenced by the Russian ballet master, Marius Petipa. One primary belief was this idea of egalitarianism amongst dancers, and he wished to introduce it into traditional American ballet. Balanchine suggested that anyone and everyone in a company could be showcased, which contradicted the historical role of ranking ballet dancers according to a perceived level of talent. In Divertimento No. 15, this inclusion of all the female dancers is palpable-most of them dance solos and are featured. There is not just one star; it really is an ensemble work, but clearly for the women. What strikes the eye in Divertimento No. 15 is the lack of male presence, aside from their obvious role as partners and facilitators for the women. In this small cast of sixteen dancers, the women outnumber the men thirteen to three. But, there are no rules that say ballets must have an equal number of men and women. What is more important is the distribution of choreography. Through this, the audience can easily grasp that men are second-class citizens in the world of Balanchine and largely ignored as solo artists. In fact, in the theme and variations section of this piece, there are six solos to Mozart’s Suite in B-flat major. Only one of these is danced by a man and although it was technically proficient, the choreography was wanting. The sequences for the women were simply more interesting and beautifully constructed, incorporating the use of second position, playing turnout against parallel in the legs, and executing perfection in the double pirouettes. The women stole the show, and not only because they were brilliant dancers. The choreography was made for them and not for the men. If Balanchine felt that equality for dancers was so crucial, does it not stand to reason that this should apply to the men as well as the women?

In Paul Taylor’s Spring Rounds, images of nature, seasons, and the circularity of time were apparent within the choreographic structure, movement choices and costuming. Unlike Divertimento No. 15, the entire cast was given equal choreographic treatment, and in the several occasions where the seven women danced in unison and the seven men also danced together, the men clearly shone brighter than the women did. Some of the jump combinations appeared to be too fast for some of the women who danced on Sunday. It was almost as though they did not have time to land completely from one jump, and then plie adequately to give buoyancy and support in the next jump. But, this did not appear to be an issue with Taylor’s construction, more with the execution by the dancers. The men were able to execute the sequences with more accuracy and with much greater confidence.

Lubovitch’s Elemental Brubeck is a masterpiece, illustrating his wonderful quality of movement, which is like a strange combination of Fred Astaire, contact improvisation and quasi-Twyla Tharp. His choreography is cool and laid-back, a perfect match to the jazz music of Dave Brubeck. Some of Lubovitch’s inventive signature lifts were present, like the Walking Lady Lift, where the woman is lifted in the air so that she looks like her legs are walking through water. Without a doubt, a highlight of Elemental Brubeck was the solo danced on Sunday by Rory Hohenstein. It was a retro throw-back to dance of many different decades as well as snippets of Broadway dancing such as All That Jazz and Fosse. But the real draw in Lubovitch’s piece was the group dynamic when all the dancers performed together. Again, both men and women were given equal footing in the choreography, and the main group sequence was particularly striking in its energy and flow. It was like the gym scene in West Side Story without all the animosity and contentiousness.

The program on Sunday had potential. If not for Balanchine’s obvious bias against men in his choreography, the performance could have reached a democratic pinnacle. It could have represented pure dance egalitarianism by a truly ensemble company, which is important when there are such talents at all levels of rank. Paul Taylor and Lar Lubovitch may not perceive themselves as purveyors of consensus choreography, but they certainly embody this belief much more than the man who claimed that title for himself.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Paul Taylor Dance Company-Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

During its annual engagement in San Francisco, the Paul Taylor Dance Company presented three varied programs, consisting of classics, newer pieces and one West Coast premiere. On the final day of performance, the company danced Promethean Fire (2002), with its visually haunting ensemble work and the humorously satirical Book of Beasts (1971). The latter is like being immersed in a live children’s book, while still being an intellectual commentary mocking the conventions of ballet and modern dance. It was fascinating to examine whether the Beasts in Taylor’s imagination where literally the characters that were being portrayed on stage or if those beasts were symbolically representing the sometimes stagnant custom and practice of dance.

The opening piece of Sunday’s program was Roses (1985), a lyrical masterpiece, danced in two parts. The first and main section follows the relationship and interaction of five couples. The movements were seamless and quiet, whether a couple was simply placing their hands together, or performing a lift high in the air. The idea of sustaining also brought tranquility to the piece. The grand verses and developpes a la second almost occurred in slow motion; they were so pulled to the last possible extent of movement. However, the gracefulness did not only apply to the more balletic steps. Taylor had also choreographed somersaults and cartwheels into the piece, which were performed with the same great subtlety and care. In this beginning segment, there were times when one pair of dancers was featured and the others were in resting positions as well as moments where all ten dancers were engaged as a group. Even when all of them were moving together in a number of circular patterns (which included running, grand jetes, and galloping), there was a notion of gentleness in the approach and execution of Taylor’s beautiful choreography. This culminated in their final pose-all five couples were seated, facing upstage with the women leaning their heads against the men’s chests. The second portion had one shorter pas de deux, with the dancers wardrobed completely in white, against the backdrop of the other pairs resting in their tableau facing the back of the stage.

The narrative of Roses was what truly captivated the audience. There was nothing clearer than this piece to characterize beginnings: emergent feelings and the procreation of newness. The idea of Spring is a bit cliché; flowers blooming, birds singing and the sun shining. But, no matter how trite or contrived, that is exactly what was happening in San Francisco during the Taylor Company’s run at YBCA. Everyone was outside, enjoying the park, short-sleeved and smiling. It is not often that so many people are in such a good mood at the same time. But, that is what Spring does. In those first few weeks where the chill disappears and the weather is perfect (not too hot and not too cold), the positive seems to radiate from people and from nature. Paul Taylor’s Roses embraced and illustrated this joyful serenity in a number of ways.

Firstly, the circular choreography was reminiscent of springtime country-dances. The influence of American folk dance was readily apparent, with the dancers forming a drawbridge with their arms as couples galloped underneath. During these group sequences, the cast looked like they had stepped right out of an Appalachian square dance or May Day celebration. Secondly, the affection and adoration of the duets represented the innocent blossoming union of young love. The anticipation, hesitancy and emotion were palpable in the gestures between the couples and the manner in which they approached moving together as one unit. The ‘at rest positions’ were equally powerful at illustrating tenderness between the dancers. The simple placing of one’s hand on his or her partner’s cheek and remaining in that position said so much even without them moving. Lastly, Taylor brought into the piece a maturity with the final pas de deux. It was almost as if he was emphasizing the cyclical nature of life. The first set of dancers had expressed the ‘beginnings’; love, joy, and friendship. The final duet examined the more mature side of relationships, and from this couple and their choreography, there was a warmth and devotion that was long-term; built over time. It was not that their movements were more restrained; moreover, there was a familiarity and respect that they exuded toward each other. With the other five couples frozen in that final pose at the back of the stage, it seemed like they were dreaming of their relationships in the future, and these last dancers were illustrating what that would look like.

It is refreshing to see a company that is the product of a true ‘modern master’. Like many of his predecessors, Paul Taylor works with traditional and contemporary American cultural themes and pairs that with a true celebration of all dance in his choreography. So many modern choreographers shy away from showcasing the balletic talent of their dancers for fear of the fusion of ballet and modern. But why, we live in a world of dance where anything goes. In present-day choreography, there is hip-hop mixed with clogging, flamenco interspersed with jazz, and tap alongside pointe. Let ballet and modern co-exist; Taylor has given us gestalt dance, where the combination of forms can be more than the sum of its parts.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Forsythe Company-Zellerbach Hall

Berkeley is synonymous with politics. Its authority challenging culture brought us the social upheavals of the 1960s when students and youth began to flex their activist muscles with the hope of changing the world. Berkeley continues to facilitate this type of environment by evoking controversial discourse, celebrating philosophical strangeness and inviting grass-roots protest. What better city for William Forsythe to present his company’s North American premiere of Three Atmospheric Studies, a new three-arc piece examining the brutality and pointlessness of war and conflict? Berkeley audiences are primed for investigations of and ruminations on this subject matter.

This work by the German-based Forsythe Company tells the story of a home that has been attacked in a war-torn area. The audience joins in just after the assault has occurred, and although the geographical location is not verbalized, the assumption can be made (through performers’ accents, and the language of interpretation) that the hostilities have transpired somewhere in the Middle East. Following the strike, the reaction of the family whose home was destroyed is documented through movement and dialogue. The son seeks to protect his sisters from the danger of the explosion, from the police and from the military. In the chaos of the situation, one of the military personnel is injured; the son is blamed and subsequently arrested. The matriarch of the family then seeks help and counsel from an interpreter in order to find her son and explain that his desire to defend his family had led to an unintended conclusion. In the midst of the violence, the audience sees how the members of this household cope. Fear, pain, sorrow, anger, rage and uncertainty are all apparent.

It is clear that Three Atmospheric Studies is driven by its story, and for Forsythe, the only format with which to relay a heavily narrative piece such as this is through Tanztheater. Made famous by one of Forsythe’s strongest influences as well as his contemporary German choreographer Pina Bausch, Tanztheater combines both dance and theater so that together they can play a collaborative role in representational storytelling on the stage. Bausch’s Tanztheater pieces are guided by their plot, which often includes images of violence and aggression. Therefore, taking into account the storyline of Forsythe’s composition, this incredibly dramatic genre seems a reasonable, appropriate and perhaps even obvious choice. However, as a performance design, Tanztheater has its own issues and problems, one of which is its broad definition. No matter how much the patrons of Berkeley loved the message that was portrayed in Three Atmospheric Studies, the ambiguousness of Tanztheater negatively affects this piece.

Some suggest that having a loose definition in choreographic structure is a good thing because it allows dance makers immense freedom. They do not have to confine themselves to a rigid structure, rules, or constraints. Yet, this type of vagueness also can present challenges. Most importantly, there is a lack of clarity in terms of how movement and dialogue will interact, co-exist and be juxtaposed in Tanztheater. In Forsythe’s tri-composition structure, the first chapter represents the commotion immediately following the raid and the son’s arrest through dance alone. The dancers perform halting, jerky movements, running and freezing, along with chaotic partnering sequences. There were harsh falls to the ground as well as crumbling and melting into the floor. Yes, the dance was dramatic and powerful, and illustrated the emotional distress of the situation, but it was dance, not theater. The second segment is a dramatic scene between the mother, an interpreter, and a narrator. There is some gestural movement that occurs; however, in opposition to the first section, the basis here is in acting and scene work, not dance. The final portion finally reunites the entire company in a true collaboration of dance and theater, when Tanztheater was finally evident. Both mediums were present and working together as crucial narrative elements, illustrating the aftermath of violence.

Although the plot definitely continued through each scene, the lack of integrative dance and theater in the first two portions created a disjointed feeling and a lack of crescendo leading towards the final segment. The first scene was dance and the second scene was theater; therefore, did Forsythe really present a Tanztheater piece ? The third phase of the work illustrated how significant Tanztheater can be, and how electrifying the work could have been if all three sections had been represented in such a manner. The progression of the scenes was also problematic. If Forsythe was trying to build a crescendo to the final segment, it did not work. The first portion was striking and captivating with its energy and vibrance. Then, the second scene took the energy level way down while three people basically spoke to each other about the events. Lastly, the audience was hit with the intensity of the final chapter. There was no gradual build-up.

One of the primary purposes of Tanztheater is to facilitate the telling of critical human issues. In Forsythe’s case, that goal was not fully realized with the limited amalgamation of dance and theater in the early segments of the performance. Perhaps the piece would have been better as a pure dance work rather than attempting to add another performance genre in limited areas and leave it out of others. Despite this, Berkeley loved evening, although it is important to remember that those who came to the North American premiere of Three Atmospheric Studies were by far the target audience.

Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group-Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Reggie Wilson combines the traditions of African dance and music, the modern masters, the post-modern deconstructivists, and some all-important humor with his Fist & Heel Performance Group. The company made its San Francisco debut this past weekend with a performance that transcended words, illustrating what Wilson calls, “post-African/Neo-Hoodoo Modern Dance”. The two sold-out performances left the overwhelmed audience contemplating their own artistic journey as well as celebrating the cultural expedition in which they had just been immersed. The five-piece program introduced some extraordinary dancers to the Bay Area, but more specifically, it demonstrated Wilson’s insight into and comprehension of choreographic structure. By examining the first three works of the evening, his compositional mastery is revealed in the tools of repetition and transition.

The first piece, Jumping The Broom (1994), pointed to how a deliberate use of choreographic repetition can support the narrative and emphasize an event or a connection. This duet observed a stormy relationship through a series of vignettes, with each scene highlighting a different repetitive movement phrase. Some were clearly of a pedestrian nature and others were more stylized. Regardless of their character, these continuous gestures allowed the audience to focus on how the pair reacted to each other over time. There was always a constant, the repeated movement phrase, and at the same time, there something that was developing in the dancer’s relationship, which could be juxtaposed against the constant. What they were doing physically was not changing during each scene, but their attitude towards each other was shifting as they cycled through their movements. The purpose of the piece was to follow this union through the daily repetitive nature of life, and examine how they changed as individuals and as a couple on this journey. By utilizing repetition as the controlled element in the choreography, Wilson successfully made it an integral component in his storyline by allowing the human association to take center stage.

After the first duet, Wilson came onto the stage to talk to the audience about his work, his education, his heritage and his experiences. The conversation was laid-back, relaxed, and appeared unrehearsed. He was joking with the audience, posing questions, and telling stories. As he continued to speak, he slowly transitioned from just standing to performing a rhythmical stamping pattern with his feet. Following the introduction of that percussion, he also modified his voice into an audible breath accompaniment, interspersed with his monologue. As an audience member, the astonishing thing was that these transitions happened almost without noticing that they had occurred. One minute he was conversing in a regular manner and then his dialogue was suddenly a dance. It was almost like a magic trick, where the beginning was obvious and the result was apparent, but the transition between the two was a satisfying illusion.

Michael Kouakou performed the third work of the evening, a vibrantly energetic solo entitled, Tales from the Creek (1998). Wilson describes this piece as a “male solo of searching identity”, which was readily apparent in the work. It appeared autobiographical, possibly representing Wilson’s own ongoing search through his cross-cultural dance influences. To portray this personal exploration, Wilson fused and integrated multiple different dance genres into one piece. In the solo, the audience saw the following: Limon-inspired saggital and upper body curves, Graham bow and arrow arms in arabesque and tilts in 2nd position, jazz pas de bourees, gyrating Elvis hips, Cunningham pas de chats, the old-time Charleston, circular jogging from Judson Church, and flat-footed 2nd position jumps reminiscent of African dance. That is quite a list, and at first glance it might appear that to try and depict all of these genres would produce a halting, disjointed piece. Just the opposite was true. Again, Wilson used repetition so that his audience was sufficiently familiar with a particular movement form before he moved on to another one. In a very methodical way, he introduced a particular technique and then used repetition to solidify it. As well, the transitions again were seamless; almost invisible. It was very difficult to pinpoint where one step ended and another began. As a result of the repetition and transitions, the piece was solid and unified. The segments were like pieces of a puzzle that by themselves may not say very much, but when put together, produced a clear picture of the choreographer’s intent.

The only negative about this past weekend’s performance is that it was only a two-day run. Because both nights were sold-out, it seems fair to suggest that a longer engagement would have been well supported in the Bay Area. It was a shame that more people were not able to experience the power of this choreographer and his company. It was so exceptional that it is difficult to find adequate superlatives to praise this eminent work.