Saturday, November 29, 2008

Merce Cunningham Dance Company-Zellerbach Hall

The incorporation of chance procedures into finished choreography is fascinating. In classical ballet, virtually nothing is left to chance and dancers are typically discouraged from making choreographic decisions or contributions. Coming from that world, it is hard for me to imagine dances composed of both set material and the unplanned. But like most things unfamiliar, it only takes seeing it done well once to realize that it is possible and it can work. Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s performance of eyeSpace (2007) confirmed that chance can be an integral tool in the construction of a piece. I think this was the first time that I could actually identify the unintended elements in the finished work.

eyeSpace (2007) was constructed like the theme and variation form in music. Cunningham had numerous set choreographic motifs (the themes) and then altered them in several different ways (the variations). It was in these variations where his commitment to chance shone through. One of the first alterations was a simple directional shift. Several sections of the piece were performed by trios of dancers who executed the same steps, but at different facings: directly front, towards the back or on a diagonal. This created a visual perspective that would not have been present if all the dancers had been facing one direction. Cunningham also experimented with accent, number and tempo. In the same choreographic sequence, one dancer accented the position of an arm, while another emphasized a leg movement. With number, one might perform three leg lifts before moving on, while the next dancer might only do one prior to his/her next movement. There were also differences in tempo. One performer went through a sequence as slow as they possibly could at the same time as a second moved through the same section at moderate speed while a third, at a brisk allegro. The central idea of the motif was the stabilizing factor while the chance options provided the variations.

Observations, like those above, may not seem like analysis, but in this case they are. Much of what was recognized was likely a result of chance procedures in choreography. Perhaps Cunningham gave his company some set movements and then had them try these movements at different intervals, different speeds, and different directions. The fact that this was visible in the finished work is important. It means that the use of chance procedure can be noticed even outside of the studio. It is not only a process, but also a result.

Although I recognize the effectiveness of Cunningham’s chance procedures in eyeSpace (2007), the piece also provoked a question that I think will affect how I view choreography. Does the origin of movement really matter? Would it have been possible for Cunningham to set this work from beginning to end without the use of chance? What if he reached the same result, but used an entirely different process? Does it really make a difference? This is an enormous question in dance and I don’t know if there is an answer. But, it is interesting to consider.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Merce Cunningham Dance Company-The Craneway Event

Merce Cunningham is a conceptual genius. Concepts are his thing; his talent and intellect in this arena unrivalled. He summons ideas and is able to develop them choreographically, offering a complex consciousness to the audience. The result is ripe with intensity and honesty, having been diligently examined and investigated through his process. In his recent site-specific work, The Craneway Event in Richmond, California, Cunningham took a single idea and instilled it into every aspect of the performance. The focus this time was transitional space, and the depth of his vision was transcendent.

Positions are crucial to dance. From the moment you walk into any dance class, you are bombarded with positions: positions of the arms, positions of the feet, placement of the head, facing of the body. But so often what is missing from your education is the crucial focus on the space between positions. The ‘in between’ provides the true thrill of dance. The final pose is nothing when compared with how the dancer got there.

Cunningham understands this better than any other modern choreographer right now. In The Craneway Event, the dancers were constantly going somewhere; their bodies never stopping. The movement was always alive with continuous transitional energy. One of the best examples of this was Cunningham’s use of rélévé long. The rélévé long is like a slow grand battement, where a straight leg is lifted up directly from the floor, to the front, side or back. When performed with proper attention to the movement’s transitive nature, you can see the foot guiding the whole leg through a slow, careful arc in space, and the energy moving outward beyond the point of the toes. The movement appears elastic and infinite. Cunningham’s choreography was full of these melty, stretchy, sinuous motifs that achieved the unusual condition of clarity in shape combined with clarity in transition.

His fascination with the transitive did not end with the choreography; it was present in every aspect of the piece. The performance space itself was transitional with 3 connected stages spread across the enormous warehouse. This placed the dancers in transition. They would perform in one section of the work and then move on to be a part of another segment in another space. The audience too was transitioning because of these three attached yet spread out stages. They walked around the performance space as the dance proceeded, and hopefully made some discoveries about their viewing habits. I noticed that when I see a piece on a traditional proscenium stage, I tend to focus in on one or two individuals and watch them the entire time. I found that this piece forced me to watch more of the dancers because I was moving and they were moving.

Cunningham’s dancers, artistic collaborators and administrative staff are blessed. They have been given the rare gift to bear witness to the process of an incredible artist. They get to see his initial idea explored and refined through choreography; they are truly watching something grow from its origin into what it will eventually become. I envy them.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Rosanna Gamson/World Wide-Project Artaud Theater

Whenever I see dance theater, I leave feeling confused. I find myself annoyed by the whole idea and phenomenon of ‘dance theater’ itself. This is exactly what happened with Rosanna Gamson’s Ravish, part of “Off Book: Stories That Move”, presented by ODC Theater. After seeing it, I can state with confidence that I don’t know what she was trying to say. The piece was based on the Brontë sisters and the environment that shaped their literary creations. I have little experience with these writers and therefore, limited framework for this particular dance. Prior knowledge of the story should not be a requirement; there is no way that every audience member will be familiar with your subject matter. The performance must be able to stand on its own in order for it to be accessible. Otherwise, choreographers are limiting an already diminishing audience.

Besides the lack of context, I was completely preoccupied with Gamson’s random mixing of dance and theater elements in the piece. So much so that I lost sight of her amazing choreography and the dancer’s passionate interpretation of her movement. Unfortunately, the disjointed dance theater elements completely overpowered and overshadowed the positive aspects of the piece.

Dance theater is everywhere in today’s modern dance scene. It is the “it” choice of present-day choreographers. But the trendy and fashionable is also incredibly difficult to do well. Dance theater is movement combined with media, text, video, visual art and/or vocalization in an effort to create an integrated performance art piece. All these components should work together to produce the artist’s vision on the stage. The problem is that many choreographers treat dance theater as a mathematical equation: movement + alternate media = dance theater. Dance is not math. In math, you may be able to add two numbers together and reach an absolute sum. In dance, we expect more from the combining of terms, and with dance theater, we usually get less. Parts of a performance piece have to be carefully integrated and mutually interdependent or the piece looks haphazard, disorganized and choppy.

Gamson made an attempt to use text, mostly at the beginning of the piece. The dancers were speaking, but you couldn’t hear them. It was unclear whether the audience was supposed to hear them. Was the mumbling meant to be part of the musical score or were they actually saying something that would help the viewer to make sense of the work? The intent was unclear and it distracted from the movement. And I can’t say enough about how beautiful the movement was. Long spirals all the way through the spine to the floor; tombé/relévé turns in attitude and arabesque where the rise and fall of the body was palpable. Gamson’s movement should have been unencumbered; it was good enough to stand on its own.

There was one place in the piece where I felt like I got it. But, it was during a section of pure movement without any of the peripheral dance theater ‘stuff’. One dancer kept trying over and over again to create a beautiful balance in attitude en pointe. She would slowly attempt to bring her entire body into this stunning position and right before that moment of repose, when the balance was almost there, she would crumble to the ground and then start all over again. In this segment, I could see the idea of balance as precarious. It was so obviously being communicated through the movement and only the movement, nothing else.

Throughout the piece, there were interludes of video projection on the floor that were like miniature vignettes-scenes of eating, sleeping, and painting. They were filmed from above which gave an unusual perspective to each of these activities. Before each of these video projections, the dancers would conclude what they were doing and leave the stage. Then, the video imagery would proceed and finish alone, and the dancers would re-emerge. It was destabilizing. Not only did the performers leave and return to the stage with no connection to the media, but also, the videos had nothing to do with what the dancers had been doing or were about to do. These scenes, although visually fascinating were unrelated stimuli.

I think when it comes to dance theater that choreographers try to do too much all at once. In this piece, there was movement, video projection, text and vocalization (one of the dancers had a long, loud screaming sequence at the end). With all of these elements, the main idea was lost. Maybe it’s better to just look at movement and one additional dance theater component. Maybe the choreography should be more integrated into the media choices. I don’t know how but I have faith that dance theater can work; I just haven’t seen it yet.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mark Morris Dance Group-Zellerbach Hall

Traditional narrative ballet and Mark Morris do not cross paths very often. When the two do collide, the outcome is completely unpredictable and for many, unnerving. Will he turn ballet’s greatest love story into a barely recognizable post-modern concoction? Do not be afraid. Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare was a delightful journey through Verona. There was an alternate ending where Morris engaged artistic license and provided the happily ever after that is missing from the story. But more importantly, he introduced many improvements in staging and choreography that actually make more sense than most traditional interpretations of the ballet.

The village scenes in the production exist to establish the depth of hatred between the two ‘houses’ in Verona. Usually, attempts to translate this animosity to the stage lack clarity and result in chaotic riots where the true hostility gets lost. In contrast, this new set reinforced the adversarial relationship between the Montagues and the Capulets by literally placing them in a combative contest of wits. The onstage floor plan was an exact square, comprised by rows of individual tiles. It felt like watching a live chess game complete with strategy and tactics. There were kings, queens, rooks, and pawns trying to conquer, catch and outsmart each other. And, as in any chess game, pieces fell; Tybalt and Mercutio gave their lives in pursuit of their victory. The set provided a context and reality for these group scenes that is rarely experienced.

One surprise in the ballet was the placement of the main pas de deux between Romeo and Juliet. This scene is commonly called the balcony pas de deux because it occurs when Romeo appears to Juliet as she looks out from the balcony of her bedroom. In Morris’ Romeo and Juliet, this pas de deux takes place in the same ballroom where the couple meets earlier in the evening. At first, the omission of the ‘balcony pas de deux’ was shocking, but after watching the re-invented ‘ballroom pas de deux’, the new locale makes absolute sense. By having it occur in the ballroom, there were opportunities to revive movement phrases from the ball, especially the movements performed by the married couples. They met there; their connection was there and through the movement, their intent was there also.

The most important change that Mark Morris introduced in the ballet was making the character parts dancing roles. In most productions, the Capulets, Montagues and the Nurse act; they don’t dance. Morris choreographed each of these roles with equal movement and acting. Not only was this more interesting to watch, but also, it provided a stronger connection between these characters and the rest of the cast. In other productions, these five individuals tend to stop the flow of movement when they are present onstage. Whereas in Morris’ work, they continue forwarding the story by enthusiastically participating in the movement themselves. Once you see it, it is so obvious that this is how these roles were meant to be perceived.

Go and see Romeo and Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare. You may not agree with the changes that Mark Morris made, but you will get a fresh version of a ballet classic where the integrity of the story is still intact. And, if nothing else, you will get a chance to see what choice of brightly colored socks Morris sports during his bow. Saturday night’s choice was red.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Alonzo King's LINES Ballet-Stern Grove Festival

Titles inform perception and provide insight in the performing arts. They can be a literal representation of the artist’s intent or an ironic commentary on their work. But, whichever role titles fill, their significance cannot be ignored. LINES Ballet’s performance at San Francisco’s Stern Grove Festival demonstrated that sometimes titles work and sometimes they don’t. Two well-chosen titles enhanced Artistic Director Alonzo King’s choreography, and one poorly chosen title revealed what was lacking.

Migration: The Hierarchical Migration of Birds and Mammals was missing its key element. For the word migration to appear twice in the title and then be absent in the piece was disappointing. To be fair, King definitely had the animal- and bird-like qualities well defined in his choreography. The performers turned into salamanders, birds, owls and elephants through inventive movement. But any sense of migration was nowhere to be found. The word implies a journey to somewhere new. It is a horizontal relationship where entities are mobile; traveling and exploring. What King provided was a vertical structure: evolution and development. Every dancer began by moving cautiously; small; contained. Throughout the six-part piece, the movements of each individual were built and expanded. By the end, they were turning with abandon and leaping through the air in flight. Each was evolving, not migrating. They were achieving new movements from within, not outwardly experiencing new realities in the space.

Pas de deux, the second piece, had the simplest, yet truest description. This world premiere for guest artists Muriel Maffre and Prince Credell embodied its title: a dance for two people. Traditionally, pas de deuxs are representations of relationships whether romantic, sensual, contentious or even violent. But, the words do not mean that at all, that meaning has been imposed upon them. Rather, they simply translate as a dance of two, which is what King created. Yes, there was intricate partnering and a striking visual contrast of the much-taller Maffre (especially when she was on pointe) juxtaposed with Credell. However, the joy in the piece was the dance of two; no sub-text, no hidden meaning, just bodies working together in space. King’s final piece delivered on its sexy, exotic title, The Moroccan Project. From the undulating upper-body movements to the lush orange and gold costuming to the entrances and exits; everything was evocative. In particular, Brett Conway’s rond de jambe en l’air and Corey Scott-Gilbert’s sinewy developpés oozed with seduction.

Some suggest that titles are peripheral elements of dancemaking because they are not directly involved with the choreography and staging. However, it is crucial to remember that the presentation of dance encompasses everything connected with the piece, including the title. It is the first connection that the audience makes with the work. It sets up expectations, understanding, questions and curiosity. Titles matter to dance.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

NBC & NYCB-War Memorial Opera House

It may still be cold in Toronto and New York but the National Ballet of Canada and the New York City Ballet are completely hot! These two companies recently participated in the international salute to San Francisco Ballet as part of their 75th anniversary celebratory season. Both performances were amazing. The National danced Matjash Mrozewski’s A Delicate Battle (2001), while City Ballet brought George Balanchine’s Duo Concertant (1972). Although the two works are very different, they share a neo-classical approach to dance, specifically in the unique relationship between music and movement.

But, why is the combination of dance and music such a big deal? It seems pretty standard in the performing arts. However, what makes the neo-classicists different is not that they use dance and music together but how they do it. They believe that music and dance are collaborative and exist as interdependent variables. Each is significant on its own, but a specific combination of the two provides incredible strength and effectiveness to performance. With neo-classical ballet, you can actually see the music in the steps through the coupling of musical motifs and choreographic motifs. Also, punctuating steps are used to accent specific places in the music score. The music is built right into the movement, rather than simply being an arbitrary accessory to unrelated steps and sequences. A Delicate Battle and Duo Concertant were perfect examples of this neo-classical union, resulting in an intricate fugue and a complex concerto.

The opening sequences of A Delicate Battle perfectly matched the chosen musical composition by J.S. Bach, the king of the fugue. In fugal form, a subject is introduced and occurs multiple times throughout the piece. Mrozewski was able to apply this musical structure in his choreography. In A Delicate Battle, the recurring theme included a developpé to the front ending with each dancer holding his/her foot, followed by a lunge to the side, finishing with a flat footed turn in passé. Just like the musical fugue that accompanied the dance, each performer started these movements at different times, layering the piece with the same polyphonic texture that was present in the music. A second characteristic of a fugue is its continual motion. Other musical structures have specific places where the music comes to a definite stop at several points in the piece, whereas a fugue moves forward until the composition is over. The first section of Mrozewski’s piece did exactly that. The seven dancers were in constant motion until the music finished. As the final chord sounded, the dancers posed facing upstage as a piece of material that had been suspended above them was released. The beauty of that visual and audible moment was breathtaking; there were multiple gasps of surprised delight from the audience.

Unlike fugues, concertos have two parts: soloists sections, where individual instruments are featured and ritornellos, when the entire group of artists perform together. A concerto goes back and forth between these two. Balanchine’s Duo Concertant is classical concerto form, with his interesting combination of musicians and dancers as the group of artists. Duo Concertant starts with a beautiful Stravinsky musical duet interpreted by Arturo Delmoni on the violin and Cameron Grant on the piano. The two dancers in this piece are simply standing at the piano listening to the amazing music, which represents the initial solo sections of the concerto. Then, we have the first ritornello where the dancers join the musicians and all four perform as a group. Just as would be expected from the neo-classical master, George Balanchine, the steps fall right in to the music. As the musicians played syncopated patterns against each other, the dancers also performed syncopated temps levéé leaps. Then, just as in any traditional concerto, there was another solo section. The dancers stopped and listened as the solo musicians were featured again without any movement or choreography. A second ritornello followed, where again the audience saw the cohesion of music and movement. Robert Fairchild performed brilliant staccato sissones, corresponding to detached musical sequences in Stravinsky’s score. He was so amazing that it was like watching the ghost of Jacques d’Amboise, a famed Balanchine dancer. This constant interplay between solo and ritornello was absolutely delightful, and a truly inventive interpretation of concerto form.

I wouldn’t say that the neo-classical approach is the only way to establish a clear relationship between music and movement in the performing arts. But, there is something special about watching choreographic steps and music patterns which reflect each other. It is satisfying and complete. It is not the only way, but I would go so far as to say that it might be the best way.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater-Zellerbach Hall

Some dance performances stand out because of their creativity, spectacle or beauty while others stand out because they lack technique, originality, or innovation. After seeing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on its annual western tour, what stood out was a complete surprise. When pondering the four pieces in Program B (Night Creature, Unfold, The Road of the Phoebe Snow, The Winter in Lisbon) and trying to formulate an opinion, what I noticed most was the absolute hypocrisy inherent in dance criticism.

All dance critics must suffer from bouts of selective amnesia because they contradict themselves all the time. Without fail, a review by one writer can be filled with condemnation for a particular aspect present in a performance. Then, that same writer’s next review can praise and laud another performance for the exact same reason they felt the first one failed. Why? Did they forget their previous thoughts or just change their mind? Perhaps dance critics embody a ‘love/hate the one you’re with’ mentality; a fickle collection of easily swayed individuals. Or, is a contradictory nature a job requirement? As I view more dance from a critical perspective, I, too, discover the two-facedness of my own opinions. What disturbs me about one company; thrills me in another. The individualism displayed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a perfect example. I was excited by the unique quality of each dancer in the Ailey troupe, yet, in the past, this type of non-conformity has completely annoyed me.

The Ailey dancers were in no way a group of look-alikes. In Night Creature (1974), fifteen original artists were interpreting the choreography and consequently, the audience could see fifteen personalities emerge onstage. In the unison sections of the work, the leg extensions fluctuated which completely makes sense. On different bodies, extension heights should vary because no two dancers are exactly the same. So often in major ballet companies, there is a decision made on the height of the leg, and all dancers must adhere to it. These choices create compulsory movement; enforced upon the dancers rather than being generated from within them. The timing of the lifts in Night Creature was also distinctive. When the women jumped into the men’s arms and landed in a Russian split, the timing varied. Some of the couples arrived in this position a little later than others. Once again, the mixed timing was appropriate because each couple had already established their own identity and personality throughout the piece. Here come the inconsistencies with dance criticism. Sometimes these slight discrepancies suggest a lack of cohesion. And, they can be to blame for the failure of a piece rather than the reason for its success. I have made that judgment many times with other ballet companies; criticizing their lack of attention to uniformity. Yet, here the distinctiveness was astonishing; it was not happening by accident or due to lack of rehearsal. Night Creature was choreographed by Alvin Ailey as a piece for fifteen unique dancers, not as a showcase for a cookie-cutter company without soul or spirit. The Ailey company proved that cohesion does not have to come from replication. This piece was still unified, but it was the individualism of these dancers that held it together.

So, I am just as hypocritical as all the other reviewers and maybe that’s okay. Choreography will constantly exasperate, surprise and challenge biases and conceptions. You may hate something one day and love it the next and maybe that is just part of the job.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

State Ballet of Georgia-Zellerbach Hall & San Francisco Ballet-War Memorial Opera House

It is hard to imagine why anyone would want to be the artistic director of a major ballet company. Every production decision is ultimately yours; casting, set design, costumes, publicity and more. Everything falls under your jurisdiction. The artistic director receives the credit when things go well, but they definitely take the fall when things go poorly. Learning how to create a cohesive artistic vision and manage this huge responsibility can take years or sometimes decades to accomplish. Therefore, ballet companies that are under the leadership of a relatively new artistic director will experience the same growing pains that this individual does. Well-seasoned artistic directors will have a company that embodies their maturity. How the company appears on stage bears a direct correlation to the competency and experience of the artistic director.

Still, comparing the work of one artistic director to another is a challenge because rarely does an audience have the opportunity to see two different versions of the same work in close proximity. This winter, both the State Ballet of Georgia and the San Francisco Ballet presented Giselle within a week of each other, making a comparison possible.

These two companies are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their artistic directors. Nina Ananiashvili has only been the artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia since 2004 whereas San Francisco Ballet’s artistic team has been headed by Helgi Tomasson since 1985. Because the State Ballet of Georgia has a new artistic director, the company is at a transitional point, much like adolescence. They are adjusting to a new chapter in their existence and experiencing the challenges that accompany a change in leadership. In contrast, the San Francisco Ballet has already matured into adulthood with consistent guidance over the past twenty-three years. Each company brings their own reality of progress to the stage. And, the highs and lows in their respective productions of Giselle are directly related to their artistic directors.

Both companies excelled in their casting of the two main characters: Giselle and Albrecht. These two sets of dancers were technically accomplished and evenly matched. The ballétés and penchéés in Giselle’s opening solo were equally breathtaking from Nino Gogua of the State Ballet of Georgia and Yuan Yuan Tan of the San Francisco Ballet. Unfortunately, the similarity in technique ended there; the soloists and corps de ballets from the State Ballet of Georgia did not measure up to the soloists and corps from the San Francisco Ballet. The peasant pas de six in the State Ballet of Georgia’s version was lacking; the unison sections were not in time and these six soloists were under rehearsed. In Tomasson’s version, the same section was a pas de cinq, and it was strong, competent and together. Also, the girls in the State Ballet of Georgia corps seemed to struggle and bang their way (literally, at times, it sounded like tap) through the group sections, especially the famous arabesques from the second act. Their legs bobbed up and down and their upper bodies seemed unable to maintain an arabesque line. In contrast, the corps from the San Francisco Ballet looked ethereal and effortlessly floated through the arabesques that had caused the other company such trouble. It is the artistic director’s responsibility to oversee the technique of the entire company, not just the main dancers.

However, the comparison of these two companies is much more than simply which has the better soloists or the superior corps de ballet. Large-scale narrative ballets like Giselle require more than great dancing to be successful. A significant amount of non-dance communication is also necessary to complete the story. The audience relies on gestures, facial expressions and character interactions to understand the sequence of events. Well-seasoned companies understand this; and subsequently, they spend the time and energy needed to develop these performance skills in their artists. SF Ballet is impressive at achieving the equilibrium of dance and non-dance. The gestural sections of their Giselle were as telling and as clear as was the technical accuracy of the steps. The interaction between the characters looked natural and Tomasson managed to transport the audience to that peasant village. The State Ballet of Georgia was not as successful in recreating the environment of Giselle’s home. With the exception of Nino Gogua, who portrayed Giselle, the dancers looked uncomfortable with any story-telling that was not immersed in dance steps. This is common with less mature ballet companies. They experience difficulty attaining the balance between technique and artistry. They understand that as a professional ballet company, technical proficiency is a must and therefore, the majority of time is spent working toward that goal. The crucial element of non-dance communication is often overlooked. In narrative ballets like Giselle, this is a grave omission because technique and artistry must work in tandem to create the story for the audience. Again, the artistic director of the company must ensure that this balance is achieved.

San Francisco Ballet’s Giselle was the superior production by far. The technique and artistry of the entire company was better than the State Ballet of Georgia. But, the State Ballet of Georgia is still struggling to define who they are and what their artistic vision is. Perhaps once they have had time to mature under their new artistic director, these ‘growing pains’ will have disappeared, and they will become an example for other progressing companies and in time, meet the level of maturity exhibited by companies like the San Francisco Ballet.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Company Ea Sola-Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

New choreography is frustrating because it usually lacks newness. The expectation of originality and innovation is rarely met. Most “new” pieces look like something that has been done before, and this is especially true with the concept of extremes in dance. Although they read well on the stage, the overuse of extremes has produced boring and predictable pieces. They become typical; good and evil; light and dark; pleasure and misery; life and death; fast and slow; connected and detached. Subsequently, dance patrons become anesthetized to the significance of opposites in performance and the magnitude of their power disappears. But, in those rare times that extremes are presented from a fresh perspective, it leads to pioneering choreography. Company Ea Sola’s Bay Area debut with Drought and Rain, Volume 2 (2005) captured what so many other new works miss; a multi-layered approach and distinctive glimpse into the world of extremes.

Control and chaos came in the first fifteen minutes of the piece and it was shockingly effective. The dance began with total calmness and occurred in almost complete silence. The eight dancers were staggered on the stage and were simply walking in their own straight lines back and forth. Some moved in slow motion. Their legs developpéd to parallel passé and out to a flexed foot, onto which they then stepped forward. Others moved at a fast pace, bourééing on their toes. Regardless of their speed, the entire section displayed a quietness that hypnotized the audience. Suddenly, the other extreme broke through and scenes of frenzied, flailing movement interrupted the tranquility. These sequences were frenetic and the pain and distress concrete. Yet, underneath these seemingly uncontrolled interludes was absolute control. In order to move that quickly and that sharply, the dancers must have ultimate command of their bodies. From control, chaos is born. Ea Sola’s choreography and staging were so mesmerizing that I was afraid to write for fear of missing a moment.

A second extreme was the multi-layered treatment of individualism and collectivism in the piece. This multi-faceted approach included instances of absolute individualism, combinations of both and lastly, purposeful collectivism. From the first perspective, Ea Sola choreographed the eight dancers almost entirely as individuals. They did not make eye contact with one another and their dancing was isolated to their own trajectory. When they were close together, there was a clear lack of acknowledgement of the other dancers; yet, they never looked like they might accidentally hit or bump into each other. It was like watching eight soloists perform rather than a group of dancers. They were a few partnering lifts toward the end of the piece, but even they felt different; there was a detachment present rather than connection. The women looked as if they were being taken by surprise in the lifts, indicated by their odd positions in the air. And, even as they were being lifted, there was again no eye contact between the lifter and the liftee. There was a very clear sense of the isolated individual.

The female dancers deserve special attention because they embodied both individualism and collectivism. Just like the men, Ea Sola had created sequences for each of them, reinforcing their individuality in movement. However, their costuming and hair made them one collective group. All four women were wearing identical black shirts and black pants whereas the four men were dressed differently. Each woman had long straight black hair which as they moved, partially or fully concealed their faces, making them almost identical to each other. This made them an anomaly; collective in appearance yet, still individual in movement.

Lastly, there were moments of complete collectivism. Similarity in movement quality is one such example. The performers may not have been dancing together nor making eye contact, but they were usually all calm or all chaotic at the same time. There was also a consistency of feeling. Sometimes, this was a clear loneliness and hopelessness that emoted from each dancer. At other times, there was a tangible collective feeling of power, mostly demonstrated in the few unison sections of the work. It was clear that even in the midst of individual helplessness, a community of others injects strength.

I had never seen Vietnam’s Company Ea Sola before, and therefore, had no expectations about the choreographer, the dancers or the piece. As viewers, this is extremely important. We approach performing arts we know with pre-conceived opinions and personal bias. Perhaps attending that which is new to us allows us to really see and not just watch.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal-Zellerbach Hall

Very few choreographers surprise me and hardly any ever shock me. If anything, most are predictable and have developed a signature movement style that permeates their repertoire. I am sure that this generalization offends many choreographers, but even they have to concede that although it may be insulting, it is accurate. Few have the gumption and wherewithal to venture outside of their comfort zone.

Thankfully, Pina Bausch is not one of the complacent. Her recent West Coast showing of Ten Chi (2004) illustrates her commitment to artistic exploration, and represents a tangible stylistic departure from most of her work. Bausch dance-theater compositions tend toward movement themes of purposeful, repeated violence, forcing the audience to witness the dark side of civilization and the selfishness of the soul. Usually, Bausch makes no attempt to wrap these difficult concepts in pretty and manageable packages. Rather, untamed cruelty and ferocious rage are so palpable in her work that they leap from the stage, startling and strangling the audience with their brutality.

Ten Chi was different and had an overall sense of composure in its choreography, text, and staging. It was the exact opposite of what I was expecting from this famously controversial choreographer. Both ballet and modern sequences were incorporated into the work amid falling snow and the tranquility of water. The disconnectedness that often occurs when dancers are expected to perform both genres was absent and was replaced by smooth transitions. Serene, graceful movements were coupled with angular, pedestrian motions fluidly and seamlessly. Of course, not every moment in the piece was calm and tranquil, but there was no bottled rage or erupting violence.

However, it is important not to confuse the visual serenity of this work with a message of happiness, joy and light. There was a deeper significance concealed in the repose: the dichotomy between what you want and what you get. This was readily apparent at the beginning of Act II with a creative pas de deux between two women. One dancer was trying to pose in particular styles and the other kept re-positioning her in different postures. This conversation occurred without any text, but the hidden tug-of-war was obvious. Desire may never be realized. This message may not have been steeped in Bausch’s usual angry choreography, but it was quietly disturbing. The comprehension that wishes are not real is sad.

Consequently, not everything about Ten Chi was completely atypical of Bausch. She still examined a very serious, depressing concept. But, how she dealt with it was different-instead of unadulterated viciousness, we saw quiet, internal turmoil. This is what should be taken away from the piece. Pina Bausch explored the complexity of ‘wish versus reality’ from a very different perspective. Rather than her usual aggression, we saw a touchingly sad machination of her narrative. It is incredibly brave to believe that you can successfully create through different methodology. It is this bravery in approach that makes her a choreographer to emulate.