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.