Monday, December 21, 2009

Beyond The Sugar Plum Fairy-Three Nutcracker Performances

New York City Ballet-George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
Lincoln Center, New York City, NY
December 9, 2009

The Washington Ballet-Septime Webre's The Nutcracker
Warner Theatre, Washington, D.C.
December 11, 2009

Grand Rapids Ballet Company-Gordon Pierce Schmidt's The Nutcracker
DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids, MI
December 20, 2009

The holiday season is full of combinations: Santa and reindeer, tinsel and ornaments, and an excess of food and wine. Children and The Nutcracker are yet another inseparable mixture. Every December, dressed in Christmas finery, they experience the festive and colorful story of Clara and her beloved Nutcracker. For some, the trip to this particular ballet is part of their annual winter traditions, akin to making snowmen and shaking gifts under a well-lit, well-decorated tree. But, there is one group of children for whom The Nutcracker is something else entirely. For them, it embodies hopes, dreams and expectations. These are the young people cast every year in the scores of Nutcracker productions. They see the yuletide celebration from a different perspective: from the rehearsal hall, from the wings and onstage. It is one of the only opportunities for these 'ballet hopefuls' to share the stage with professional company dancers. And, for many of them, imagining their future selves performing a most-coveted role is big part of the experience.

The most desired role is not necessarily the central one. Yes, some little girls picture themselves as Clara or the Sugar Plum Fairy but others may be drawn to one of the distinctive and compelling characters in their respective production. A less idolized part may in fact have better choreography, higher technical demands and garner more admiration. I would guess that the children in the three Nutcrackers I saw this season (New York City Ballet, Washington Ballet and Grand Rapids Ballet), are likely as drawn to the outstanding performances below as they are to the main characters.

The greatest inspirations in The New York City Ballet's Nutcracker were the three featured performers in the Waltz of the Flowers. The Dewdrop (Ana Sophia Scheller), with the help of the two chief flowers (Kathryn Morgan and Brittany Pollack), led a dozen corps members through this lengthy and extremely well-known variation. It is hard to make the Waltz of the Flowers unique and fresh. Most versions are mundane copies of each other; inventiveness not being their strong suit. Enter the NYCB's Waltz. The awe in it comes from Balanchine's technique and choreography, exemplified by Scheller, Morgan and Pollack. They are masters of Balanchinian movement and are able to transmit it flawlessly through performance. Two specific steps shone in these solos: the 45 degree arabesques and the demi-pointe turns. 135 degree legs and arabesque splits have become so common nowadays that they border on boring. To the detriment of artistry, the current ballet climate has come to celebrate and encourage these circus tricks. Thankfully in this Nutcracker, one can still see the simple beauty, clarity and elegance of an exquisite low arabesque. It is so unpretentious, so refreshing and so memorable. In addition, Balanchine infused the dances for the Dewdrop and two lead flowers with ample chaines, piques and en dedans turns on demi-pointe. Balanchine's blending of demi-pointe and full pointe work illustrates a broader set of choreographic options, utilizing the foot's full range of motion. Aside from that, these demi-pointe turns were faster, cleaner and more impressive than many turning sequences on full pointe.

The Washington Ballet's Nutcracker celebrates a regional focus with a number of different characters. In this unique version of the traditional story, there were two standout performances. First was the Frontiersman, danced brilliantly by Brooklyn Mack. His solo, set to the Trepak music, was brimming with the most inventive, technically challenging jumps that I have ever seen. It was a small part of the overall evening, yet, it was the most virtuosic and had the biggest wow factor. Second was the corps de ballet, which was comprised mostly of the Studio Company, plus a couple of extra dancers, who I assume were senior students at the Washington Ballet School. With this mid-size company, these 'corps dancers' had to perform much more than a typical corps de ballet; they were onstage constantly. And, when they were onstage, they were not set dressing, Septime Webre has created much choreography for them and it was challenging. Most of them were party guests, snowflakes, butterflies, cardinals and flowers. I am amazed that the Studio Company were still standing at the end of the ballet; they had some impressive endurance skills to be sure! Without a doubt, these dancers danced more than anyone, and their contribution was indispensable.

The breathtaking snow scene of the Grand Rapids Ballet's Nutcracker was the highlight of this enchanting Mid-Western rendition. The Snow Queen, Laura Schultz, and the Wind King, Stephen Sanford, were born to dance together. This section was packed with overhead lifts, well-prepared by Schultz and well-executed by Sanford. Not once did any of their partnering look awkward, uneasy or precarious. They were truly a royal pair. Schultz also exhibited the most accurate textbook attitude derriere as the Snow Queen. A correct attitude requires that the thigh and knee be higher than the foot-when did the ballet community forget this? The snowflakes were danced primarily by the senior professional trainees from the School of the Grand Rapids Ballet Company and they were on par with any set of corps dancers. In addition, the Grand Rapids' Nutcracker had a live choir from Forest Hills Northern High School providing the beautiful vocal score of the snow scene. The entire vignette was picturesque perfection.

It is hard to compare with the inherent star power of roles like Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier. But the abovementioned high points reveal that there is much more to The Nutcracker than those three. I think any of the children onstage at New York City Ballet, Washington Ballet and Grand Rapids Ballet would be thrilled to one day portray any of these characters in a professional Nutcracker production. They will then be providing the next generation with their inspiration.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The 2009 Eureka Dance Festival-The Jack Guidone Theater, Joy of Motion Dance Center

Performance opportunities are imperative for emerging choreographers. Artists must have the chance to develop their ideas, show their work, and receive feedback, though finding a venue in which to do so is not easy. DC area artists are fortunate to have an available presentational forum in Kate Jordan and Orit Sherman's new venture, The Eureka Dance Festival. This ambitious project will help fill a void, fostering artistic growth and choreographic mentoring.

The Eureka Dance Festival's variety is a testament to the breadth of genre in the dance community. Orit Sherman's Sphere retained a concrete and consistent image throughout. She related this conceptual framework primarily to the practice of change, although the notion of curvature also moved into the execution of movement. Two particular motions highlighted the circular path of the limbs: the penchee splits and the port de bras to second position. In both instances, the route of the legs and arms emphasized that these pathways are not straight lines; they have a spherical basis. Dissection of Process, by Daniel Zook, was one of the shortest pieces on the program, but perhaps my favorite. The choreography explored the role of accumulation and improvisation in forming movement phrases. In this piece, the audience could really see the three dancers building and mixing steps and sequences which ultimately, became performance material. Delphina Parenti's mixed media offering, Parameters, dealt with enclosure and porousness. Most of the dance took place behind a divider covered with transparent material, while a video was projected on the back scrim. Both mediums illustrated how boundaries obscure and encase, yet at the same time, reveal. The final piece of the evening, Kate Jordan's The Bicycle Project, was a meditation on mechanics. In the opening images, the dancers collectively created shapes in space. This process was serene, deliberate and thoughtful, really celebrating that bodies can be active participants in architecture. Mid-way through the piece, all the performers faced upstage in 4th position. They proceeded to pop onto bent demi-pointe while moving through a segment of angular arm movements. In this section, each of them was a real, tangible example of apparatus and instrumentation. The end of The Bicycle Project was a humorous musing on cycling culture. I was not sure whether the final scene was a spinning class or a cycling club, but the determination, competitiveness, and endurance relayed by the dancers was hilarious and realistic.

Health/Care and No Heartbeat were the jazz/contemporary offerings on the bill. The dancers in each piece were highly skilled and displayed excellent stage presence. Having said that, the concept behind both dances requires further development. The program notes for Glade Dance Collective's Health/Care mentioned a focus on hurt, pain and tension, while Megan Adelsberger's No Heartbeat was representing five widows. Health/Care's prologue was encouraging with its shaking and screaming gestural motifs. However, the rest of the dance moved away from that artistic rigor and became more of a performance team piece. The dancers in No Heartbeat were technically striking from beginning to end. Unfortunately, flexibility and unison only goes so far these days. Their group was supposed to be dealing with loss, yet, they were all about pasted on smiles and not at all about narrative depth. These jazz works were trying to combine serious subject matter with choreography. In order to do that, the two groups need to leave behind their dance team personas and their tendencies toward presentational entertainment. Health/Care and No Heartbeat can be valuable choreographic contributions; they just need the opportunity to mature further.

The program drew a huge crowd on Saturday night but unfortunately, the Joy of Motion Dance Center seemed unprepared for it. At 8:00, the appointed start time, the audience was lined up out the door and the house was not open. The performance itself ended up being a half hour late in starting, with no explanation from the crew as to why this had happened. Sight lines for folks seated on the floor level were obstructed to the point that any movement happening on the ground was completely blocked. Normally, I would be hesitant to mention these venue issues because I believe that they are separate from what was happening on stage during the festival. However, when embarking upon a new and hopefully annual event, cultivating an audience base is important. The Eureka Dance Festival was well done and worth seeing. It would be a shame if organizational problems kept people away in the future.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

CityDance Ensemble-Capitol Visitor Center

Choreography is essentially a work-in-progress. It is a living entity, not a static one. In fact, no piece is ever performed the exact same way twice. The constant adjustments to new dancers, new spaces and new ideas require that even finished pieces remain in a continuous state of flux. This is most apparent when there is an opportunity to see the same dance performed by the same company but in different locations. Such was the case with CityDance Ensemble's Wishes of the Sailor, presented last weekend at The Music Center at Strathmore and then on Tuesday at the Capitol Center in D.C. Both locales were small enough to provide a strong personal connection with the work. And, each site necessitated its own adjustments and changes, deletions and additions. The second space brought a different perspective to the project which drew my attention to surprising elements.

The duet between Alice Belle Wylie and William Smith spoke differently at the second performance. They danced the section equally well at both showings, but the Capitol's auditorium added a new dimension. With the stage raised above the audience's eye level and a projected image of a young girl playing the piano (a new component), the portrayal of loss took on added depth. While Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata swept through the room, these two dancers performed a haunting pas de deux where they never touched. They reached and stretched for each other but to no avail. This longing depicted the precarious and fleeting notion of connection, in which bonds exist and endure even in the face of absence.

An interview section occurs mid-way through Wishes of the Sailor where the performers sit at tables and simultaneously describe the experiences of individual refugees. At Strathmore, this took place on the perimeter of the performance space. At the Capitol, the dancers jumped off the stage and sat at tables directly in front of the first audience row. Most likely, this was necessitated by the parameters of the second space. Nonetheless, it was a very powerful statement. The action of the piece really moved into the viewer's consciousness with the dancers coming from the stage to the audience's level. Issues cannot remain at a distance, they are much closer than we imagine or than we care to admit.

The original venue for Wishes of the Sailor (The Music Center at Strathmore) was my preferential setting. But, I am glad that I was able to see the work done in these two divergent spaces. Different contexts provide an imperative newness to this demanding material.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

CityDance Ensemble-The Music Center at Strathmore

Intimate performance settings have the power to transform an audience. In a big theater, dance audiences become invisible and anonymous; nothing more than a sea of faces. In a small venue, there is no place to hide. As an audience member, more is expected of you and you can get much more in return. Close proximity alters perception, provides new chances for observation, and magnifies risk within the work. This weekend, CityDance Ensemble presented Crush in the education wing at Strathmore. This mixed-rep program proved that small spaces provide enormous opportunities. Crush was an invitation to engage and converse with the art and the artists. It celebrated a responsibility that is not always possible in large performance venues. Challenging performances deserve an equally challenged audience.

Souvenirs by Meisha Bosma is not a new piece for me, though this time, I found new revelations in it. The nearness of the performers made the off-balance suspensions clearer and more impressive. The five female dancers were constantly pushed to their maximum point of equilibrium, followed by a visible decision: to give in or to maintain. Through their commitment to the movement, these women taught the audience that you have not taken a risk until you allow yourself to let go. Souvenirs was followed by Alex Neoral's Trajectory, performed by the CityDance conservatory students. These kids are promising dancers, who are being given a great technical education. More importantly, they are being taught to follow CityDance's ethos of pushing limits, taking chances and moving beyond the comfort zone. There was one particular moment toward the end of the piece that deserves mention. Neoral had almost two dozen enthusiastic teenagers onstage, at different facings, executing balances and swivel turns. Just the sheer number of bodies moving and turning only a few feet from us was quite something. Christopher K. Morgan's Unusable Signal featured my new favorite trio of dancers: Jason Garcia Ignacio, William Smith and Maleek Mahkail Washington. I thought nothing could top their recent performance in Larry Keigwin's Mattress Suite, but their appearance in Unusable Signal was even better. This is credited to a forward thinking choreographer, who is willing and able to move beyond the traditional interpretation of the pas de trois. Working with odd numbers, especially three, is much tougher than it seems. Morgan made it work. There may be nothing better in DC modern dance than seeing these three men together onstage.

The second half of the evening brought Wishes of the Sailor, a new work ushering the plight of Iraqi refugees into our consciousness. By participating with Intersections International's Iraqi Voices Amplification Project, choreographers Paul Gordon Emerson and Kathryn Pilkington were able to interact with Iraqi refugees in three different countries. They were charged with creating a responsive work reflecting what they had learned from these dire and largely, undiscussed circumstances. Wishes of the Sailor is the powerful result of their journey. There is much in the piece that requires comment but what I found particularly moving was the narrative honesty. Too often, when faced with social or political subject matter, choreographers feel the need to transplant the topic and essentially, turn the audience into the characters. While I understand that this is an earnest attempt to help people relate to the work, it actually creates more distance from the issue. Artistic endeavors can still be personal, and deeply affecting without having to revolve around us. In fact, true empathy comes from moving outward, not inward. Emerson, Pilkington and the entire CityDance family have managed to successfully reveal genuine experiences without losing authenticity. This is because they had the integrity, respect and courage to leave the story with those who had experienced it. Wishes of the Sailor provided an accurate, informational account while retaining the level of artistic depth that CityDance Ensemble possesses.

Today, the pairing of social issues and art is desperately needed. Art has the unique ability, unlike anything else, to show social issues as human issues. This distinction is important and often overlooked. A social issue is our theoretical understanding of a need, problem or inequality. These do not become human issues until we somehow connect with them. Not in a selfish or self-interested way, but through a heightened awareness and deeper comprehension of the particular injustice. An uncensored portrayal of real events and personal stories is what can transform the social into the human.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company/Guangdong Modern Dance Company-Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

Dance is visual. However, when you write about dance, the performance experience is very different. It becomes more about copious note-taking and less about real observation. Usually, I start writing as soon as a piece begins and immediately try to formulate an opinion as to what is or is not happening onstage. But this weekend at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, I did more watching and less writing. As a result, I gained a much stronger connection with the work. If dance writers put down their pens and engage in the simple act of observation, I think the results may shock them.

Other Suns (A Trilogy), the new collaboration between the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, was an extraordinary examination of duality. It started with the presence of two very different companies from two very different places (the U.S. and China) coming together to craft something unique and special. The particular artists involved and where they were from was obviously a huge component of the project. But, if that was the only instance of duality that you noticed, you missed something. The larger theme was an impartial exploration of the individual and the collective. Often with opposites, one is portrayed as optimal and other as sub-par. Not here. Margaret Jenkins and Liu Qi choreographed these dual perspectives in a neutral and balanced way, revealing a comfort and strength in both states of being.

The first segment, Other Suns I, had a constant urgency and passion, present when only one person was moving or when all the dancers were included. Power was in every grouping. Mid-way through this section, there was a solo for a single female dancer while all the other performers sat downstage left, watching her. Such intimacy and joy was present in her personal discovery of movement and space. No one else had to be involved; she was secluded, yet dynamic. Contrarily, there were several instances where the entire group danced together in a pack, downstage center. In these moments, there was also an infectious living and organic energy. Here, the audience could see the vigor of solidarity and camaraderie.

Other Suns II (Voice After) began with a set of meditative, yoga-like floor exercises. This opening was very ritualistic, almost like daily exercises that every member of a particular group would intuitively know. The structure of the choreography was such that at many times, the six dancers were unable to see each other. Yet still, they were impeccably in sync, each individual working in their own space, but together forming a unison movement image. The coming together of these two companies was a major accomplishment and achievement of this work. Yet, the celebration of duality was the real triumph.

I wouldn't call Other Suns (A Trilogy) a narrative work, but I also wouldn't say it was abstract. It fits more into a middle ground of deconstructed narrative or conceptual imagery, where there was a clear focus, but not a linear story. It demonstrated the strength that exists in the collective and the power that one can gain in solitude. Human existence is simply different in these two circumstances. This piece speaks to the value that is in both.

Friday, October 30, 2009

CityDance Ensemble-The John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts

CityDance Ensemble has brought egalitarianism back to the Washington D.C. modern dance scene. Their new mixed repertory program, Latitude, premiered this past Thursday night at The Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. CityDance productions are always eclectic and Latitude was no exception. Yet, it offered something else besides a commitment to diversity. The common thread that wove through the five disparate pieces and bound the evening together was the pursuit of democracy in performance.

In three of the five dances, this egalitarianism was visible through partnering. I have loved the concept and choreography of Kate Weare's Scorched since I first saw it. However, this time, the Tango section spoke on a deeper level than before. Like any social dance, the Tango has a leader and a follower. Weare understands and acknowledges this convention but also puts her own spin on things. She challenges the gender roles and makes the leader-follower dynamic variable. Each dancer has the opportunity to play both parts: the dominant and the submissive. Pathways, by Alex Neoral, was an ode to dance history, and its partnering was crafted like post-modern contact improvisation. The giving and receiving of weight was amazing and created cantilevered shapes that defied gravity. And, again the control in each pair shifted between the two performers, celebrating an equality that was truly beautiful. Larry Keigwin's Mattress Suite was the most entertaining contribution to the program, with the key still being a study of collaboration. His theme of relationships and clever movement vocabulary illustrated the give and take that we experience in all human connections. These three pieces were very different yet each grew from an underlying source of shared responsibility, manifested in partnering.

Rachel Erdos' Alma was a different side to performance egalitarianism. Here, the equality was reflected in how the dancers related to and incorporated their environment. Alma unfolds on a stage full of green apples. Through the entire work, the apples became part of the movement; they were not peripheral elements nor stage decoration. They transferred from one body to the other, via mouth, neck, bicep and knees. And, when this transference was happening, each performer displayed an acute awareness of the body, the object and the environment. As strange as it may seem, I think this piece is realistically made for three performers: the two dancers and the apples. The environmental objects became as much a part of the performance as was the choreography.

The final piece, Thirst, started out adhering to the evening's theme. Christopher K. Morgan's environmental analysis is an interdisciplinary work complete with video, audio, text, and props. When it began, I was encouraged by the integration of mixed media elements and choreography. The initial video image was of sand running through a pair of hands. The first dancer of the piece, Jason Garcia Ignacio, made a deep, meaningful bond with this reflection on the back scrim. And, the remaining dancers also entered the stage through this 'video curtain', again showing the integration of that set element in the work. However, as the piece went on, this early cohesiveness disappeared. There was just too much and too many things happening on the stage at once. When choreography and other performance elements work together, the result can be powerful, like it was at the start of Thirst. But, when choreographers add and add, their vision becomes clouded and obstructed. This piece can work, it just needs some editing.

The dancers of CityDance Ensemble have incredible breadth, range and adaptability and the artistic staff have an uncompromising vision. This company has a special formula where choreographic diversity is sought, without compromising the importance of cohesive themes, like egalitarianism in performance.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Washington Ballet-The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Conveying a story is the purpose of a large-scale narrative ballet; a sequence of events unfolds over time. The essential components are characters, their relationships, their interactions and the general plot. But, the more interesting aspect of narrative dance is the underlying theme. In Don Quixote, the hope and search for ideal love is this obvious premise. Though, a secondary and subtler message is also present: that of homecoming. The Washington Ballet premiered their new version of Don Quixote this week at the Kennedy Center. Staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, this production had a technical ferocity that re-invigorated a classic. Artistic Director Septime Webre has assembled an incredible group of dancers that were more than able to fulfill Holmes' vision.

Friday night's performance gave us Maki Onuki as a consummate Kitri. She performed the most difficult sequences with elegance, poise and calm, particularly the spectacular double fouettes in Act III. She also gave equal attention to the less flashy choreography, like Kitri's balance and waltz turns in the Port scene. These circular sequences were stunning. She showed the audience the value that should be held for every step, not just the fantastic and the grand. Though her overall technique was exquisite, my focus was pulled to Miss Onuki's use of demi-pointe. The arch of her foot on full pointe was incredibly developed, but it was her diligent attention to rolling through demi-pointe that was intoxicating. It is in these transitional moments that you finally notice the mechanics of ballet. When beginning to dance on toe, the first thing you learn is how to roll through your demi-pointe on the way up and on the way down. This transitory space is your salvation; it protects your ankles, your calves and provides a crucial opportunity to use the floor. Often, ballerinas of her caliber have forgotten this lesson and as a result, cut their career short.

Brooklyn Mack took a little while to warm up, but once he did, the audience was rewarded with his dynamic performance as Basilio. His pas de trois with Kitri's friends (danced by Sona Kharatian and Amanda Cobb) was the defining moment when he really came into the role. From that point forward, Basilio and Mr. Mack were one. The Kitri/Basilio pas de deuxs were very impressive, especially one particular lift. Several times, Mr. Mack had to balance Miss Onuki well above his head with just one hand on her hip; she was both stable and buoyant in each instance.

Two other cast members must be mentioned, even though their respective parts were relatively short: Ayano Kimura and Norton Fatinel. Ayano Kimura as Amour, or the cupid character, was absolutely delightful. Her interpretation of the choreography perfectly matched this impish and playful character. Mr. Fatinel's performance as the gypsy man stole the show as far as I am concerned. The jumps that Holmes choreographed for him really defied the laws of nature. His execution of these movements seemed super-human and received the loudest reaction of the evening.

Anna-Marie Holmes truly captured the idea of homecoming with Kitri and Basilio. For them, home was their love for each other and when they were finally united (though they accomplished it through trickery), they had arrived at a place of comfort and contentment. This theme could have been further augmented in the character of the Don. Don Quixote is driven by the search for his ideal, which has appeared to him in his dreams. Therefore, it may seem strange to suggest that homecoming is important to him. But it is. Perhaps his place of solace is the personal clarity that can only come once his quest is over. Maybe he needs to look everywhere for perfection in order to realize that his contentment and comfort truly reside in reality, not fantasy. His character depth was missing in this version, primarily because parts of the Don's story were omitted. A deeper connection with the Don is possible even with the missing sections. There just needs to be further character development.

A live orchestra was the only other missing element in this delightful production. The taped music was a mismatch to the drama unfolding onstage and it presented some challenges with timing. The Washington Ballet was well rehearsed, but some dancers still looked surprised by or unprepared for accelerations and decelerations. Without a conductor physically present, it is tough to anticipate significant tempo changes, no matter how many times you have run the ballet with the recorded score. I'm sure that the company would have preferred to have a live orchestra, but in uncertain financial times, difficult decisions and compromises have to be made. Go and support The Washington Ballet; the performances are fantastic and a larger audience base may ensure that live musicians will be there in the future.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

LADO-The Music Center at Strathmore

For more than a decade, Irish-themed performing arts have been on an upswing. The spectacle of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance appealed to the general public much like reality dance competitions do on television. Reaching a larger audience is a notable and significant achievement; however, at the same time, these overly produced shows have a sense of falseness to them. I, too, was blown away by the uniform choreography the first time I saw Lord of the Dance; the technical excellence was undeniable and absolute. But what I remember more about that evening was the artistic emptiness on the stage. The dancers wore constant eerie smiles, making them look more like plastic and less like people. The narrative format was also circusy, phony and contrived. It was nearly impossible to make any substantial connection to what was happening on stage, mostly because the performers themselves were so disconnected from what they were doing. It was sad; they had achieved such a high level of technique and such a low level of artistry. This past weekend, The Music Center at Strathmore proved that an evening of ethnic dance can be both technically brilliant and deeply emotional. They welcomed LADO, the National Folk Dance Ensemble of Croatia, in a performance that was generous, gracious and a sincere sharing of their customs and their national dance.

Though it is very difficult to reduce a two-hour performance to just a few thoughts, there are three words that best describe LADO: smooth, calm and joyful. The dances were steeped with fast footwork, continuous jumps and traveling hops. Their feet were moving so quickly and energetically that maintaining any degree of composure seemed impossible. Yet, composed they were. Dances From Prigorje, the final piece before intermission, added a shaking quality to the basic steps, overcoming the entire body. This type of movement can appear frenetic, chaotic and out of control. But, the dancers of LADO executed it perfectly, while still managing to retain an essence of tranquility. One thing I learned by the end of the evening was that Croatian dance is full of spinning: individual spinning, spinning in couples, spinning in groups, spinning in concentric circles. You could get dizzy just from watching the dancers perform all of these turns. Yet again, they were calmly in control, making their turns look effortless. Laura Dean only wishes that she had this many dancers who could spin so well! LADO was technically exquisite. The choreography was exact, the staging was perfect, and the unison was completely in sync. Yet, what impressed me the most was the absolute elation that was exuded from every dancer on the stage. They radiated pure joy with each other, with the audience and with the dance. The pride was in their culture, not in flashy theatrical demonstrations; theirs was an intimate honesty expressed through a lineage of movement.

I have not attended many full-length ethnic dance concerts, especially not those that represent a single cultural heritage. Much of what I have seen has been in mixed repertory or festival format, which only provides a taste of the richness that traditional dance can express. As it continues, LADO will be instrumental in bringing ethnic performance to an even higher position of popularity and prominence.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Cie. Willi Dorner-Bodies in Urban Spaces

The audience, and its role in the performing arts, has been in transition for the last forty years. Watching a dance has grown from a passive spectator activity to a mentally involved exercise. Thoughtful audience members are required to actively contemplate what they are seeing. Where is their focus drawn? Was it to one specific dancer or to the overall picture created by the entire company? Does the choreography represent a story, an emotion or nothing at all? How do the movements fit with or work against the music? These questions help the audience connect with the work, and perhaps, decipher it the best they can. Yet, sometimes, the audience is called on to further supplement these intellectual queries with a physical participation. Willi Dorner's, Bodies in Urban Spaces, examines the notion of viewership in both cerebral and corporeal planes.

Bodies in Urban Spaces is a mobile, outdoor performance that takes dancers and spectators on a tour through the streets of a particular city, this time, Washington, D.C. The dancers jog between a dozen or so designated settings. And, in each individual location, create a different sculpture using their bodies and D.C.'s architectural terrain as the materials. Because the piece is set outside, and Friday's performance took place at the height of rush hour, the notion of the audience was immediately challenged. Yes, there were those of us who were present for the sole purpose of the performance. Others just happened upon the piece through the course of their day. Viewership was made permeable by the unique setting of Bodies in Urban Spaces.

There were many observable sensations with Dorner's work, starting with a significant anonymity. The performers were all dressed in brightly-colored sweatpants, T-shirts and hoodies. The costuming definitely helped the audience find the dancers in their sculptural creations. Sometimes, they were hidden in between newspaper boxes or in a small space between two buildings. The brightness of their clothes made them stand out against the city landscape. But, they were all dressed the same as each other, and their faces were purposely hidden in the formations. The audience did not know who they were looking at, just that what they were looking at someone. Second, there was an aura of mystery with the piece. Because the dancers jogged ahead of the audience, we were not able to see them construct the work. Some of the postures seemed impossible, yet the dancers managed to very quickly (before the audience caught up with them) arrange themselves into their static position. Though they missed the initial composition, the audience was privy to the dismantling of each human monument. This did not erase the mystery, but it did provide a brief glimpse into the enigmatic poses. Finally, the line that exists between the dancers and the audience was made more transparent. Everyone, regardless of their role in the work, was mixed together in the same space. There were distinctions as to who was who, but there was also a camaraderie that all present were practicing and participating in art-making.

Willi Dorner's innovations are thought-provoking, for sure. And, Bodies in Urban Spaces elicits a mindful questioning of the accepted roles of viewership, performance and space. It definitely gives the feeling that there is something deep and important happening, and I think there is. But, maybe the piece also teaches the audience that watching dance can not only be an analytical conundrum, but also a fun adventure through your city.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Nejla Yatkin/NY2 Dance-Dance Place, Washington, DC

Narrative's role in modern dance has been in a desperate state for some time now. Storytelling got a bad rap in the 1960s, when formalist choreographers turned away from meaning and representation in favor of structure and minimalism. What followed was decades of contentious debate over what was more important: form or content. Strong opinions existed and still exist in both camps. With all this bickering, dance, and its power to affect and move an audience, has gotten lost. But, there is reason to hope. Nejla Yatkin/NY2 Dance's Wallstories, which premiered Saturday night in D.C., points us toward a new and exciting explorative trend in the narrative. Yatkin has successfully re-invigorated this aspect of modern dance with her particular use of a true historical entity: the Berlin Wall. The piece was not a linear chronology of the Wall, nor was it a conceptual musing. Wallstories represented actual emotions and memories linked with this historical structure. She has breathed new life into narrative modern dance; audiences have been waiting for this.

I, too, have struggled with the issue of content in modern dance. To me, many modern choreographers mask the narrative so deep within their own strangeness and oddity that it becomes completely obstructed. Still, the narratives that are deeply buried like this must have valuable lessons to teach. But, they are often conveyed with extreme theatricality or supernatural myths. Nejla Yatkin's use of a real entity as her narrative made it both accessible and relatable. With such realistic imagery, audience members are likely to feel a personal connection in some way. They may remember something that links them to the work; they may perceive the same event much differently than the choreographer. Regardless, there is some tangible association. No matter what anyone says, relating to art is important. The audience does not need to understand every moment in a piece, but there must be that speck of inspiration. Otherwise, they will not come back the next time.

Additionally, the narrative in Wallstories had an evenness to it; there were multiple emotions represented with respect to the Berlin Wall: despair, fear, sadness, frustration, excitement, joy, freedom and anticipation. Numerous accounts and differing perspectives are always present; very little can be understood with one explanation. The complexities of this situation were not hidden nor was there an effort to solve them. Every feeling and every action was permitted as valid, important and present. This work celebrated the whole.

Wallstories was also the first time that I had seen effective mixed media elements. In this piece, it was because the dancers were engaged and involved with the video and audio components. Usually, I find these additions peripheral and too often, they compromise the cohesiveness of the piece. It has become a bit of a trend to add extra 'things' to dance, yet, the additional work to relate these entities to the choreography has rarely been done. Nejla Yatkin has done the work. I don't know if the text score was actually the voices of the performers, but when that audio accompanied their movements, the body and the words were one. When video was projected on the white brick wall at the back of the stage, the dancers were aware of it; they watched in awe as if those images were informing their reality. The addition of shin buster lighting which shadowed choreography onto the wall was genius. In an instant, the dancers that we had been watching all evening became anonymous. They could have been anyone and were everyone.

I don't have a personal history with the Berlin Wall, and when it came down twenty years ago, I was very young. Yet, because of the comprehensive narrative, I still felt that I could relate to what was happening onstage. Near the end of the work, there is a section where the choreographer's taped voice talks about barriers and moving past obstacles. A simple message that is incredible hard to live out.

VelocityDC Dance Festival-Harman Center for the Arts

The DC dance scene thrives with diversity and the VelocityDC Dance Festival has truly captured its essence. Friday night's performance was a rich expression of fullness and breadth; all that dance can offer an audience. The participating companies represented a real cross-section of the dance community: modern, Flamenco, post-modern, contact improvisation, African and ballet. All the groups were amazing and incredibly well-received. But the real achievement of the evening runs much deeper than what was produced on the stage. What the audience was actually witnessing was a powerful individualism combined with a deep commitment to the cooperative spirit. It is unbelievable how rare this in dance. The VelocityDC Dance Festival is special.

Many US cities have a splintered dance community, if you can even call it that. It almost mimics the antics of high school, where separation of who's in and who's out reigns supreme. Cliques and popularity have taken over and the ethos of dance has been lost in the process. There is little effort to work together, or just get along. Ballet companies tend to stick with their own, and even the modern groups that espouse collaboration and interdisciplinary work are often limited in how far they will reach out. With its two sold-out performances, VelocityDC Dance Festival proves that it does not have to be this way. Cooperation and collaboration are key right now; every suggestion, every idea is valid. With performing arts in real economic and financial peril, we are stronger together than we are apart. And, as was apparent in the festival, inclusiveness does not mean a loss of identity. VelocityDC was not aiming to be a melting pot of dance; rather, range and distinctiveness were celebrated.

Edgeworks Dance Theater fuses liquidity and grace with a masculine strength that is truly unique in modern dance. Their excerpt of In Progress: Traveling also gave us a moving section of contact improvisation, where three different duets appeared simultaneously. Theirs was the true nature of contact improv technique. Two bodies shared weight, listened to each other's impulses and presented an egalitarian connection of give and take. Edwin Aparicio's Flamenco solo followed and literally exploded onto the stage. Aparicio is clearly playing with some interesting fusions in his traditional dance. He has managed to incorporate elements of tap, clogging and step dancing into his work without sacrificing the historical quality of the Flamenco. The last piece before intermission was CityDance Ensemble's presentation of Paul Taylor's Last Look. Between the music, the set and the costumes, the audience was transported into an earlier time, perhaps the 1950s or 1960s. This piece is disturbing with its writhing, twitchy, nervous choreography. It felt like we were watching a psychological thriller set in an asylum, and were privy to how mental health and emotional disturbance affects the body.

After intermission, Ronald K. Brown and Evidence Dance Company offered an energetic excerpt, Upside Down. This was definitely a stand-out crowd pleaser. Most sections were filled with joyful and exuberant African dance, yet, there were several interludes where the movement turned inward. During these sequences, the gestures were small, controlled and somewhat obstructed. Then, there would be a return to vigor. It really represented a rondo form of choreography (A, B, A, C, A), with different middle segments followed by a constant return to elation and excitement. Lastly, The Washington Ballet danced Wunderland by Edward Liang. The opening scene immediately sets the mood, with five women in a deep 2nd position plie on pointe. There were some balance problems on Friday night, yet the visual strength of the image was still powerful. The women in the company do need to relax their upper bodies a little more. Their classical lines are flawless, but Liang's choreography is full of movements that require upper torso release. The men had a better sense of this. About two thirds of the way through the ballet, the stage became immersed in precipitation. It looked like snow, but the way the pieces hit the floor sounded more like rain. Though so simple, it added such strong emotion to the accompanying pas de deux. Added elements need not be complicated; the single sound of rain transported the ballet to a different place.

More choreographers and companies participated in the second concert on Saturday, and there were also pre-show and post-show performances to take advantage of. What an extraordinary feat for the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Dance/MetroDC. They know how to inspire teamwork amongst their geographical and artistic communities.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Emio Greco | PC-University of Maryland

I am not a literary scholar. Yet, I was about to see Emio Greco | PC’s [purgatorio] POPOPERA, a work that had drawn inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy. I felt competent to survey it from a movement perspective, but the literary component was uncharted and somewhat uncomfortable territory. Not being familiar with the epic poem, I did some last minute cramming, which provided the narrative story, main characters and thematic purpose. So, with what I hoped was the general gist under my belt, I ventured to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

I took more notes during [purgatorio] POPOPERA than I have in any other performance I have seen. It was a rich, complex concerto of movement and music combined with weird, strange and frightening imagery. Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten have conceived of and created not only an engaging and provocative work, but also a triumph in form and content. Usually, a dance has masterful construction or genius story telling, but not both. This choreographic team is able to harness structural and narrative elements together and effectively translate them onto the stage, a rare feat. Each individual component had such strength that when combined, the piece, as a whole, exploded with intensity.

Some suggest that Dante’s primary contribution was the ability to merge themes and images from all different aspects of life. Greco and Scholten are also masters of fusion. An astonishing structural combination of movement styles is their manifestation. I saw almost every type of dance I could imagine in [purgatorio] POPOPERA. Ballet and modern were the most prominent, but they were not afraid to draw from other movement sources, even some comical additions. In the first main group dance, to “I Got Life” from the musical Hair, there were popping and isolation sequences that come directly from jazz, hip hop and break-dancing. About half way through the piece, there was a sedate solo for one of the women that was filled with Fosse-style, musical theater dance. Near the end, the masked male character was combining old-fashioned tap dancing with new-fangled body percussion. And, of course, there was minimalist pedestrian movement, and I even glimpsed a moonwalk. In less capable hands, all this material packed into in a one-hour performance might appear choppy or frenetic. But here it was not. The compositional mastery that Greco and Scholten share, in concert with the extraordinary talents of the dancers, combined these styles together with brilliance and clarity.

[purgatorio] POPOPERA also shared an incredible sense of the narrative and successfully depicted a transition in control. During the first half of the piece, the dancers’ movements were wild; the feeling was one of angst-ridden chaos. Something bigger had come over them and they had no choice but to participate in pandemonium. Ownership of their bodies was not their own; a powerful force in the negative space was encouraging the madness and bedlam that was expressed through the choreography. Then, there was a clear moment of change. All-black guitars had been present in the piece from the beginning and at this point of transition, the dancers traded these for black and white guitars. From that point forward, the performers were very much in control; they were making music, playing instruments, and creating something, rather than forces being imposed upon them. My sense was that the outside influence controlling their movements and sending them into a whirl of motion was their sin. The latter half of the piece, as they switched guitars, indicated a shift in their sin. They were no longer bound by their transgressions, they were in control of them.

Emio Greco | PC was one of the more avant-garde troupes that I have seen in a while. Having said that, I also feel that [purgatorio] POPOPERA was one of the clearest pieces that I have seen recently. For me, avant-garde and understanding don’t often belong in the same sentence, but Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten’s unique conception of both form and content makes such avant-garde work more accessible.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet-The Kennedy Center

Technology has been a true gift to the performing arts. With the emergence of audio, visual and computer innovation comes unlimited possibilities. There are now opportunities to record choreography and teaching techniques like never before. Previously, this was limited to a few obscure and uncommon notation systems. Yes, these methods, like Labanotation, allow dances to be logged. However, few dancers and choreographers know how to write or read these practices' hieroglyphics. So, their true usefulness is dubious. Video and other technological advances are clearly more accessible and user-friendly. Nevertheless, many gifts are also curses. Dance companies, to their detriment, now rely too heavily on technology and have moved away from primary choreographic sources when staging older works. Rather than looking for someone to help reconstruct a piece, a substandard video becomes the mediocre substitution. So, when you see a troupe that has a direct lineage with the original choreographer, the difference is clear. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet illustrates that technological tools are no match for personal first-hand experience.

The true Balanchine spirit in Pas d'Action from Divertimento No. 15, Agon's infamous duet, and the pas de deux from Stars and Stripes could have only been staged by one of his dancers. Of course, the choreography was amazing; it was Balanchine. But, what was most incredible was the extent to which Farrell has imparted her vast knowledge of this choreographer's style and technique. He was alive on the stage; both in the grandeur and in the quietest moments.

The opening of Divertimento No. 15 showcased Balanchine's love of movement. He celebrated dance and music, without creating false illusion on the stage. One of the ways he accomplished this was having the onstage dancers watch the soloist being featured. So often, the corps faces directly forward and pays no attention to what is happening center stage. In this excerpt, when the others watch the soloist, everyone's focus is on those steps at that moment, nothing fake or artificial, just movement. The Agon pas de deux is an incredibly difficult and intricate work that Farrell staged brilliantly. The two dancers were able to complete partnering that is both awkward and fluid at the same time, a testament to both theirs and Farrell's talent. My favorite moment was right before the final pose, when the ballerina, who has been contorted, bent and twisted through the whole duet, passes through a clear and defined first position. Other artistic directors miss that opportunity, and it is so important. In that brief second, we are reminded where all choreography and movement in ballet comes from: the first position of the feet. All the brilliant supports and lifts can be traced back to that place and moment of stability. The Stars and Stripes pas de deux was also well-coached; however, the female lead was a bit off on Saturday night. Her developpe in 2nd looked labored and noticeably dropped during the partnered promenade. Her en dedans turns and fouettes were technically sound, but she had difficulty sticking the landing on one of her variations and had some shaky moments on pointe. I need to see this company perform that piece again to get a real sense of the Balanchinian moments that were so beautifully clear in Divertimento No. 15 and Agon. I have seen these works staged on more advanced dancers, but they did not have the magic that was present with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. That goes to show that technique only takes you so far; artistry is everything and Farrell is doing something with her company that others should emulate.

Video is a wonderful choreographic tool, but it cannot capture everything. It can miss the intricate 'isms' and true essence of the work. Technology will continue to advance and hopefully, the quality of archival videos will improve and reflect that progress. I still think that re-staging of dance is more authentic and genuine when passed from person to person rather than from a machine.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

2009 Local Dance Commissioning Project Part II-Kennedy Center

The final installment of the Kennedy Center’s 2009 Local Dance Commissioning Project was presented this past Thursday and Friday. Tehreema Mitha was the second awardee of this important program for DC-area choreographic artists. Her troupe, Tehreema Mitha Dance Company, staged Blue Jeans, the commissioned work for the Millennium Stage, and an older piece, Cherry Blossoms in D.C. (2005).

Blue Jeans examined issues of immigration, ethnic diversity, individuality and mourning. Mitha attempted to illustrate the loss of identity that many immigrants experience when journeying to the U.S. Yet, coupled with that void, they are somehow able to find common ground in their new home through such banal items as blue jeans. Unknowingly, these jeans become a common denominator for many cultures living in the same place. Cherry Blossoms in D.C. celebrated the tourist extravaganza that happens every spring in the District during the National Cherry Blossom Festival. This joy and exuberance was juxtaposed against the day-to-day political activities that still continue during that time for the non-tourists who call D.C. their home.

Mitha’s company is very entertaining and interesting to watch, but I wish that there had been a little more mystery surrounding the pieces. Blue Jeans had a very in-depth description in the playbill, detailing exactly what the work was trying to convey. I suppose that you were not required to read these notes, but even if you purposely avoided them, the video element of the piece made the message equally as obvious. The addition of mixed media was overkill; the choreography alone would have been successful in sharing the significance of the work. The same is true with Cherry Blossoms in D.C. For this piece, there was also an explanation in the playbill, but in addition, before the work began, there was an audio commentary spelling out what we were about to see. There was too much translucency; the audience needs to have some room for its own interpretation. They may not come to the conclusion that the choreographer wants, but that’s the risk you take as a performance artist. It’s all about putting your work out there, and once you have, the element of control must be surrendered.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Willi Dorner-above under inbetween

On September 15th, the Embassy of Austria presented Willi Dorner’s above under inbetween, an ode to the original post-modern work of the Judson Dance Theater. It renewed my faith that old-fashioned post-modernism (perhaps in itself a contradiction in terms) is alive and well in present day choreography. above under inbetween took the sine qua non out of the post-modern handbook and struggled to blur the line between life and art. Some of the attempts at this goal were incredibly successful and some were suspect.

Dorner’s re-definition of traditional performance began by challenging the relationship between the audience and the performers. The piece commenced with the dancers emerging from the body of the audience. They were dressed anonymously in ordinary clothing and had been scattered amongst us waiting for the performance to begin. Then, at the appointed time, they stepped out onto the performance area and the evening’s presentation started. There was nothing grand, glamorous or showy about them, which closed the gap between the performers and audience members.

The choreography itself also effectively obscured the line between life and art. The piece was a combination of pedestrian interludes and shape making. None of the movements were overly dancey; they were everyday activities, like walking and running. The dancers started by leaning against one of the walls, then, they would walk to a place on the floor and together as a group, create a shape with their bodies. These shapes developed and evolved in difficulty and with the inclusion of household items (chairs, boards and tables) and other building materials. Each shape was then dismantled and the performers returned back to the wall, where the leaning resumed. This process happened continuously throughout the work; it was like they were playing a human game of Tetris or jenga. There was a physical architecture of organizing/re-organizing, ordering/re-ordering and building/re-building. The first ten or twelve shapes were erected very slowly, and over the course of the evening, the speed and intensity with which the shapes were made increased, with a dynamic crescendo leading to the final sequence of allegro ferocity.

Unfortunately, the space itself did not work well with this choreography. Post-modern choreographers tend toward unusual performance venues with which to show their work. Again, this choice stems from a desire to cloud the lines between life and art, and introduce alternatives to the traditional proscenium arch stage. above under inbetween was performed on a floor at the same eye level as the audience. Chairs had been avoided in order to facilitate the translucent space between the performer and audience. Unfortunately, this meant that it was incredibly difficult to see. Tall people were standing at the very front, which resulted in an actual audience incident. Annoyance and frustration had been incited by a lack of access to the work. Dance is visual, so anytime the audience has difficulty viewing it, the work is in true jeopardy. I could see some of the balances and shapes whereas others were completely blocked. I have no idea how acrobatic, interesting or kinetic these lost images were. For more than half of the piece, the dancers were obstructed from view. I’m all for the re-defining the idea of the stage, but a challenging space doesn’t make up for not being able to see the dance. And, I don’t think it was done on purpose for artistic sensibility; it was just poor planning.

This was my first experience with Willi Dorner’s choreography and I am excited to see a second offering that will be presented next month in Washington. It will be interesting to see if the minimalist post-modernism that was injected into above under inbetween is an ongoing theme in his work or if it was piece-specific.

Friday, September 11, 2009

2009 Local Dance Commissioning Project-Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center’s 2009 Local Dance Commissioning Project kicked off this week on the Millennium Stage and this year’s premiere evening featured a rich, diverse program by CityDance Ensemble. One of their incredible dancers, Jason Garcia Ignacio, was the project’s first honoree commissioned to craft an original work, The Mountain. Though this debut was clearly the focal point of the evening, it was really the entire CityDance Ensemble that shone. Everything about them was entrancing: the choreography, the dancers, the inventiveness and the risk. What impressed me most about the company was how chameleon-like they were. They can easily and successfully adapt to any environment and any style of dance: neoclassical, Tanztheater, and ethnic stylings. This young group can do anything and everything, and do it all well.

There were two pieces on the program that can best be described as neoclassical modern dance. Both Scorched (2008) and Glancing Blows (premiere) were contemporary works, yet both conjured visions of Balanchine. Kate Weare’s Scorched was a sexy amalgamation of modern and ballet, with a spattering of jazz, musical theater and social dance mixed in. So many choreographers shy away from combining these styles together because of a perceived notion that jazz, musical theater and social dance are ‘less-than’. Weare’s captivating piece illustrates the strength that comes from this type of collaboration. That is what neoclassicism actually is. It is not a term reserved only for ballet, it represents pushing the limits of what any dance form has become; looking to be expansive and inclusive. That’s what Weare accomplished with Scorched. It was a neoclassical celebration of what is possible just like Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.

Paul Gordon Emerson’s Glancing Blows was the second neoclassical piece, not because it was the most balletic work in the program, but rather, because of Emerson’s unique take on partnering. Again, neoclassicism pushes established boundaries, and Emerson’s partnering definitely accomplished that goal. This new duet, for company members Giselle Alvarez and Maleek Mikhail Washington employed a deep connection between two bodies in space. There were very few moments in the piece when the two were not physically connected in some way. And, in the moments where they were not touching, their bond was palpable in the space between them. Emerson worked primarily with partnering that limited lifts. This requires much more imagination on the part of the choreographer and much more skill on the part of the dancers. Duets that are full of lifts may look spectacular, but that’s what they are, a spectacle; tricks. The partnering in Glancing Blows is really about two bodies connected as one, not one being paraded around by the other. Again, it reminded me so much of Balanchine, specifically Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in Agon.

There was more than just neoclassicism in the evening’s pieces. Meisha Bosma’s Souvenirs (2007) was dance theater at its best. The deconstructed narrative of tension, nervousness, fright, and dizziness was abundantly clear in the movement. There was an off-balanced feeling in the work that left the audience also in an uncomfortable state. Something was purposely unfinished and unresolved in the movement. Yet, as with much good dance theater, this ambiguity was both emphasized to and anesthetized with the audience. In my experience, only dance theater can successfully produce both of those feelings at the same time. There was even an ‘ode to Pina Bausch’ moment, where all the female dancers were in a line at the front of the stage with painted-on smiles, doing small, percussive movements with their hands and heads. All that was missing was the negligee dresses and the long, loose hair.

The main event of the evening, Jason Garcia Ignacio’s, The Mountain, was a narrative glimpse into real-life events that occurred in Manila in the early 1990s. The most impressive aspect of Ignacio’s piece was that he was able to instill a real sense of Filipino heritage and culture into all aspects of the work. Not only did he diligently research and teach the style of dance required to all of his dancers, but also, he was able to get a level of authenticity from them that suggested these performers had been studying this form of ethnic dance their entire lives. This piece was so authentic that we could have easily been watching it at the acclaimed San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.

There is nothing wrong with being compared to great traditions in dance like Balanchine, Bausch and the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. The comparisons simply show that CityDance Ensemble really can do anything that it wants to. It has the talent on both the creative and technical sides to pull from so many different traditions, build on those traditions, while forming its own unique identity.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Bolshoi Ballet-Zellerbach Hall

Recently, I participated in a very animated discussion with two close friends about buying cereal. Our deeply intellectual debate pitted name brand against the generic with the former emerging victorious, 2:1. I voted with the winning group because most of the time, I am partial to name brand products. Like many, I believe that the name brand is better. It is safe; it provides what consumers expect; little risk and few surprises. However, last week, I began to question my loyalty to name brands while watching the Bolshoi Ballet’s La Bayadère at Zellerbach Hall. Early on in the performance, I realized two things. First, brand names may appear to be superior, but at the same time, their perfection can be disappointing. Second, the culture surrounding this particular performance was not the culture of art or even the culture of ballet, it was the culture of branding.

The artists of the Bolshoi Ballet are phenomenal dancers, plain and simple. But, the regimented perfection of the company is problematic and frankly, boring. From the beginning of the ballet, the corps looked sanitized, far from the colorful and vivacious characters from La Bayadère. This was most apparent in the core or torso because their upper bodies were deathly silent and still. Arms are connected in the back; therefore, when arms move, the back and torso must respond in kind. Limbs are not just attached appendages; they reflect the amazing construction of the human body. That is one of the most exciting things about dance, seeing the connection between the hips/legs, and arms/back. If there isn’t a commitment to whole body movement, the dancers look like marionettes. It makes me incredibly sad to see dancers of such high technical quality so restrained in their movement. And the artistic staff does not realize that by creating a strict regiment of dancers, mistakes in rhythm or choreography actually stand out more. The eye is immediately drawn to any movement that looks even slightly out of place. If there was more individuality in the corps de ballet, no one would even notice these very minor differences.

To be fair, San Francisco audiences are a unique bunch. My experience is that they are somewhat cynical and not easily impressed. There has to be a whole lot more than 32 consecutive fouettés to garner excited applause from them. And, as a typical San Francisco audience member, I was shocked by my fellow patrons during the Bolshoi’s performance. The theater hall immediately exploded in cheers when the two main characters stepped onstage. They had yet to do anything, but were met with thunderous applause simply for showing up. This greeting was nothing more than the expectation of their brand name, the Bolshoi Ballet. What was discovered in the three hours that followed was that the ‘brand’ only partly lived to its reputation. As the two principal dancers did begin dancing, it was obvious that Svetlana Zakharova as Nikiya deserved all of the audience’s early acclaim. She delved into her character, took physical and emotional risks, resulting in a performance steeped with abandon. Her first variation was full of sinuous upper torso movement and I was absolutely mesmerized by the incredible arch of her feet. Unfortunately, Nikolay Tsiskaridze’s Solor did not meet the expectation of the Bolshoi name. His opening diagonal jétès were technically beautiful, but he was not commanding at all in his role. He displayed absolutely no authority. His turning variation in Act II was again technically brilliant, but had no character depth. And, it did not help that the costumer decided to dress him in a ridiculous puffy-sleeved lavender outfit. This strange choice did not assist the audience in seeing a strong, masculine persona. The primary male role in a narrative ballet like La Bayadère is driven by character, not technique. I would have much rather seen a dancer who provided insight into Solor’s soul, instead of one who the directors think is the best turner and jumper. The audience was so intoxicated and captivated with the Bolshoi as an entity, but as the ballet came to a close, it was clear that the brand name was not everything I expected it to be.

During the original cereal debate, I should have remembered that the wisest of the three participants was the one who extolled the virtues of the no-name brand. She believed that it was just as good if not better than its fancy competitor. I think when it comes to ballet, the same is true.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Diablo Ballet-Lesher Center for the Arts

Diablo Ballet has discovered the elusive formula for building successful repertoire: accessibility plus creativity. Increasing the viewership of professional dance is of utmost importance right now. The financial survival of dance companies depends on it. Even when the economy is good, arts organizations struggle to stay afloat, so when economic times are hard, dance faces even more significant peril. The front line in this battle is the audience, which leads to a difficult debate on accessibility. Presenting popular works may seem like a win-win for everyone involved. The audience likes what they’re seeing, they buy more tickets, the company can pay its bills, the dancers get their salaries and the next season becomes possible. Yet, there is a strong opposition who fear that by catering to spectator interest, choreography and repertory will suffer. Diablo Ballet has shown that this need not be the case with dance that is creative and challenging while remaining accessible.

The Diablo Ballet’s weekend performances at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek provided something for everyone. The program began with KT Nelson’s The Escaping Game, which celebrated all aspects of youthful energy; from the exciting fun to the alluring flirtation to the vulnerable nervousness. The movement really conjured Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe for me, but The Escaping Game was much better. There was a clearer fusion of ballet and modern esthetics than in Tharp’s piece, because Nelson seamlessly built the movement as one continuous stream of consciousness rather than a chunky juxtaposition of the two. And, there were particular moments that exploded off the stage. The first was the men’s diagonal sequence at the end of the 2nd section. They moved from upstage left to downstage right in absolute, exhilarating flight. The second was the accelerando sequence at the end of the piece where the speed of the lifts and dips increased along with the music until they were of true abandon. This piece was funky and cool, but still incredibly thought provoking. It showcased the images of youth which were fascinating on their own, but also reflected what we give up when we choose to leave our youth behind.

For those viewers who prefer the more story-telling side of dance, the Diablo Ballet also presented Julia Adam’s new work, The Little Prince. It had all the aspects of narrative ballet with a cast of interesting characters and a story of their interactions. The stand-out moments were the animals: the sheep, the fox and particularly Mayo Sugano’s snake. Adam clearly did her research on how each of these animals move and created choreography for the dancers that was incredibly accurate and visually engaging. Every narrative ballet has some version of the grand pas de deux, which often manifests itself as the relationship between two of the main characters. The dance between Edward Stegge as the Prince and Erika Johnson as the Rose was as grand pas de deux as you can get. It really was the connection between those two characters expressed through connective movement.

This evening featured two very different types of pieces in one engaging program. Diablo Ballet’s decision to pair two contrasting works on the same program was a smart idea. They had two contemporary works, but with very different form and content: one conceptual, one narrative. This speaks to a larger audience because there is really something for everyone. And, it also allows those who gravitate towards one type of dance to be exposed to another. Maybe they will find themselves pulled to an unfamiliar form of dance that they little experience with. Accessibility plus creativity opens doors for the audience and in return for the company.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

San Francisco Ballet-War Memorial Opera House

I was worried that I had run out of things to say about Mark Morris. When you’ve seen one choreographer’s work multiple times and perhaps even the same piece more than once, it can be difficult to have a fresh perspective. Yes, one could comment over and over again about his musicality, genius casting and whimsical imagination but that’s a bit boring. Thankfully, San Francisco Ballet’s evening of Mark Morris brought to light something that I rarely notice in his work: an overwhelming sense of stability and security. This thread wove through A Garden, Joyride and Sandpaper Ballet embellishing the joy and fun of Morris’ ballets with a sense of calm, a feeling of safety and a gentle protective force.

The first offering, A Garden, was like watching a ballet class with its technical feats and dynamic physicality. But what I noticed most in the piece was the dancers’ continual return to 1st position while their palms reached towards the ground. This simple shape indicated the stability that comes from beginnings. In ballet, standing in 1st position is the absolute foundation. Morris developed very complicated and technical choreography throughout the ballet, which all culminated in the dancers returning to this moment of stillness in 1st position. Everything in dance comes from these opening positions. Dancers, teachers and choreographers tend to forget that their stability rests in where they began.

The middle piece, Joyride, was one of the new works commissioned last year for SF Ballet’s 75th anniversary season. This piece was ripe with numerous types of movement: robotic, angular, fluid, staccato, serpentine, all with a splattering of martial arts mixed in. It was a very interesting mixture of many different movement styles, but again, it was the recurring statuesque moment that is seared into my memory. For Joyride, the dancer stood with one foot pointed and crossed in front of the other, while one hand was gently placed on the hip. This very quiet and peaceful pose evolved out of incredibly difficult and sometimes wild movement sequences. Not only did this position provide a cadential break in the movement, but also it showed the absolute control and stability of the dancers. They could be moving at 100 miles per hour and then morph into a statue of calm in an instant.

The final piece of the evening, Sandpaper Ballet, is my favorite Morris work. It simply celebrates movement in space, while reminding us that dance is a community of individuals who work together to create art. Dance artists sometimes forget that. During Sandpaper Ballet, all of the dancers return to a squared matrix on the floor after each section; a most blatant moment of clarity. Morris’ ingenious concept for all the dancers to work together to create a formation on the stage illustrates the security and strength of that community. Each dancer returns to that square, whether they were in the preceding section or if they are to perform in the proceeding section. The ballet really becomes about the large collective, not small couplets or individuals. It is a community effort.

It isn’t very often that I leave the ballet comforted by what I’ve seen. But, these tranquil, yet very tangible moments that Mark Morris choose to inject into his work really created this safe feeling, a welcome surprise.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

San Francisco Ballet-War Memorial Opera House

Swan Lake rarely disappoints. Yes, some dancers are better than others in the main roles, but in the end, it is still Swan Lake. It’s hard to go wrong with this classical staple, but it’s also hard to update a piece that is so deeply entrenched in ballet history. The recently premiered full-length Swan Lake for the San Francisco Ballet is a must-see; the best balancing of old and new in a long time. Tomasson managed to be imaginative and challenging while still remaining mindful of the story’s ancestry and integrity. There was no change for the sake of change; he successfully blended tradition and innovation. The result being a truly revolutionized and reinvented Swan Lake.

One of the much-discussed aspects prior to Saturday’s premiere was Tomasson’s inclusion of a prologue. The scene details how ‘Odette the woman’ is transformed into ‘Odette the swan’ through her doomed encounter with the evil Von Rothbart. This very brief addition was not only extremely original, but also incredibly effective. It is a far-fetched notion that a woman be turned into a swan; however, showing it occur in the beginning of the ballet made the whole idea more plausible. The prologue also allowed the audience to really see and identify ‘Odette the woman’, which makes the subsequent love story between her and Prince Siegfried also more convincing. All other versions (without this opening) force the audience to simply believe that she was once human and has since been morphed into a bird. Here, we learn that no matter how trite, ‘seeing is believing’.

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design, especially during the prologue, was phenomenal. Odette, played by Lorena Feijoo, disappears behind the scrim when Von Rothbart casts his spell on her. She collapses in a heap, and is shadowed on the curtain. Then the shadow of her body slowly grows into the shadow of a swan. The bird then takes off and flies across the curtain. The elated gasps in the audience were astonished sounds of surprise and delight at this vision.

The company’s theatrical ability is yet another outstanding force in this ballet. In Swan Lake, there are two very large and lengthy groups scenes: the first being outside the palace and the second at the palace ball. So many companies have amazing dancers performing brilliant choreography, but their acting is sketchy. One of two extremes tends to happen: the cast either looks bored and blankly watches the action in the middle of the stage or their acting is so melodramatically overdone that all the audience sees is fake enthusiasm. Acting while dancing, and acting while not dancing is an imperative skill with large-scale narrative ballets. The company must be able to translate the story through the choreography and the non-choreography. San Francisco Ballet, under Tomasson’s direction, is an example to all ballet companies. They don’t overact; they don’t underact. They don’t stop acting to dance and then resume acting when they are finished. Being on stage for this company is a complete experience for them. Their theatrical technique should be studied.

The work of the corps de ballet in Act II was extraordinary; maybe the best corps work I have ever seen. One comes to expect technical superiority from the SF Ballet, and the women in Act II did not disappoint. Their synchronicity was thrilling. The unison was perfect and the architectural design of the dance shone because of the meticulous attention to detail. The variation of the four swan cygnets is extremely famous, so if it is even slightly out of sync, it is a disaster. The four cygnets on Sunday afternoon (Clara Blanco, Bryn Gilbert, Margaret Karl and Patricia Perez) were stunning. I would even go so far as to say that they were the highlight of the entire ballet.

The beautiful work of the corps women in Act II unfortunately brought to light some less than perfect corps and soloist work in Act I and Act III. The attention to line and spacing that shone in the Swan chorus was definitely missing during the peasant dances of Act I. The steps were interesting and creative, but the timing and spacing was off. In Act III, the Spanish pas de trois was again out of sync, and the Russian princesses collided during a promenade in attitude derrière. I’m not sure if they were just too close together or if the rate of turn was not the same, but, whichever, it needed to gel a bit more. At the same time, this was the second performance ever of this ballet, so I imagine that some of the bugs will get worked out over the next few evenings.

Helgi Tomasson’s production is not your grandmother’s Swan Lake. It is fresh, creative and theatrical yet every aspect was constructed with diligence and respect to Swan Lake’s history. Every time this production is mounted, you should be there to see it.