Friday, December 24, 2010

"Nutcracker at Zeum" - Mark Foehringer Dance Project | SF

San Francisco Children's Museum, San Francisco, CA
December 18, 2010
Photo credit: Rob Kunkle

Mark Foehringer's “Nutcracker”, presented at the Children's Museum in San Francisco, is an absolute delight. Foehringer has taken the two-hour holiday extravaganza and compressed it into four scenes: Drosselmeyer's Toyshop, Clara's family Christmas party, Candy Land and a return to the Toyshop. This shorter “Nutcracker” is the perfect introduction for young children – they can experience classical and contemporary ballet, an engaging, linear story, and live musical accompaniment in under an hour.

One noteworthy nuance is Foehringer's in-depth treatment of Drosselmeyer. Typically, this magical, mystical character makes his first appearance during a brief prologue or during the party scene (depending on the production). Here, we see Drosselmeyer in his toyshop, actually creating the life-size dolls and other Christmas surprises. Danced by compelling performer Brian Fisher, this unique first scene is integral in setting up Drosselmeyer to be the director of the events that follow.

Foehringer also makes a special effort to demonstrate how the character's stories are intertwined. When Drosselmeyer arrives at the Christmas Eve party, he dances a pas de trois with Clara (Taylor Ullery) and the Nephew (Chad Dawson), who later becomes the Nutcracker Prince - a very active personification of the narrative (Clara loves the Nutcracker Prince, whom Drosselmeyer has created and given to her). When Clara journeys to 'Candy Land', she is greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy filling the ambassador role: welcoming Clara and orchestrating the citizens of 'Candy Land'. In many versions of “Nutcracker”, Clara and the Prince are not participants, but rather passive observers; they simply sit and watch the different divertissements. Here, 'Candy Land's' guests were incorporated into all the dances. Drosselmeyer partnered the Spanish Chocolate, and everyone was involved in Chinese Tea. As the Sugar Plum Fairy (Lizanne Roman) began her variation, Clara stood behind her, mimicking and imitating her choreography. Then, the Sugar Plum Fairy actually began to demonstrate and pass down her movements to Clara. Foehringer transformed this famous solo into a spatial pas de deux for Clara and the SPF, a perfect metaphor for the Queen and her apprentice. It was also very fitting that her's (the Sugar Plum Fairy) is the last face that Clara sees as 'Candy Land' disappears.

You must add Mark Foehringer Dance Project | SF's “Nutcracker at Zeum” to your December to-do list. His is a charming jaunt through the traditional holiday tale of Clara and her Nutcracker, particularly appropriate for the newest generation of theatergoers and balletomanes. Bravo to Foehringer and his company for their significant accomplishment!

San Francisco Ballet - "Nutcracker"

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA
December 15, 2010

Like so many other Bay Area residents, San Francisco Ballet's “Nutcracker” is a favorite holiday tradition of mine - one that I missed greatly when I was living on the East Coast. So, walking through the familiar doors of the War Memorial Opera House to see Helgi Tomasson's magnificent production was particularly special this year. It was like coming home.

Lorena Feijoo in Tomasson's "Nutcracker" - Photo credit: Erik Tomasson
If you believe “Nutcracker” is just more December fluff, you just haven't seen a good (or in San Francisco Ballet's case, a great) version yet. Tomasson's interpretation of Clara Stahlbaum's story not only captures the fun, fantasy and festivity of childhood but also communicates the more complex narrative elements, specifically that of guidance. At every point in Clara's journey, there are stabilizing forces for her to rely upon: at the party, it is her parents; during the battle, the Nutcracker Prince becomes her protector; in the forest, the Snow King and Queen steer her in the right direction and upon arriving in the 'Land of Sweets', she meets yet another role model, the Sugar Plum Fairy. Although each of these characters is very different, their interactions with Clara speak to a common denominator. Like any child, she needs those in her life to be helpful, trustworthy and dependable, and they all fulfill that requirement.

In this particular version (which premiered in 2004), Tomasson made some bold and somewhat risky choices for the Sugar Plum Fairy. In his ballet, she still presides over the 'Land of Sweets' with a combination of strength and softness; regal but not at all overbearing. She facilitates the different character dances and welcomes Clara to bear witness to the wonder and excitement. With that persona, it makes perfect sense for her to lead the Waltz of the Flowers. This is not the case in every “Nutcracker”. Often, a few of the flowers or even a completely different character are designated the soloist(s), but here, Tomasson opted (very appropriately) for the lead dancer in this variation to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. At the end of Act II, the Sugar Plum Fairy's role is also very different than most “Nutcrackers”. The variation and grand pas de deux typically danced by the SPF is instead given to grown-up Clara. But, the Sugar Plum Fairy still maintains her facilitating role in these final events. It is she who introduces the transformed Clara to her Cavalier Prince and subsequent invites them to command the stage.

Though I absolutely love SFB's “Nutcracker”, it is impossible to ignore the growing pains that are happening in the women's corps de ballet. The senior corps members are the saving grace; veteran dancers who know that the snow scene and the waltz of the flowers are not the moments to pull focus. They understand that these two dances require team cohesiveness, synchronicity and exact timing. Some of the newer dancers haven't completely grasped what it means to be in the corps and how important the corps is. Several of them were acting like soloists during these group dances inserting overly dramatic hand gestures along with piqué arabesques and developpés that were way too high compared to everyone else (incidentally making them late for the next steps). Show off your technical capabilities in class, rehearsal and auditions, not in these two scenes. And, most important, learn from the senior corps members – they are an invaluable resource.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

ODC - "The Velveteen Rabbit"

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
December 3, 2010

"The Nutcracker" is an institution in the Bay Area.  With so many fantastic local versions to choose from, any "Nutcracker" fan can attend Christmas Eve at The Stahlbaum's several times during the holidays.  But there is much more to December dance than the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Mouse King.  If "Nutcracker" isn't your cup of tea, there are other San Francisco festive dance offerings to take it, including ODC's long-running presentation of "The Velveteen Rabbit", currently playing at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  Charming and delightful, "The Velveteen Rabbit" is a testament to how the fusion of dance genres can provide narrative clarity.  The traditional and contemporary movement vocabulary employed by choreographer KT Nelson achieves unprecedented results, making "The Velveteen Rabbit" a holiday must-see.

Ballet and modern peacefully co-exist in this enchanting dance version of Margery Williams' story.  The family Christmas celebration explodes with intricate choreographic matching - double attitude piqué turns flowing into sprightly sautés.  Flexed feet and parallel developpés coupled with assemblés and grand jetés, and like experiencing any good food and wine pairing, the combination seemed logical, obvious and essential.

I did have mixed feelings about the nursery's toybox scene.  The choreography for the 'skin horse' was perfectly matched to its older persona: steady, staid, and level.  And, the spatial pas de deux between the rabbit and the horse was brilliant.  The rabbit's movements were a less mature version of the horse's choreography, illustrating the different age of the two toys.  At one point, the rabbit's foot moved to a back tendu, while the horse's leg lifted off the ground in attitude derrière.  This was a glimpse into the rabbit's journey from newness to being known.  Unfortunately, the choreography for the other toys was lacking.  These fancy figures were supposed to illustrate their feeling of superiority with new-fangled mechanical capabilities and flashy costumes.  The dancers were definitely acting out that role, but their step variations did not really embody a sense of prestige or entitlement.  Perhaps if the choreography had tended more towards bravado and grandiose-ness, the disposition of the different toys would have been better communicated.     

Like many holiday dance productions, the children from the ODC school play an important part in "The Velveteen Rabbit".  These kids were incredible: they were well-rehearsed, had lovely technique and confident stage presence.  I would even go so far as to say that their synchronization was better than I've seen in several "Nutcracker" party scenes.  The Nana character was also much more compelling and captivating than her "Nutcracker" counterpart, Mother Ginger.  Because Nelson uses two dancers to create Nana, her feet actually do choreography - turns, jumps, walks, runs.  This transformed Nana from a glorified set piece into a dynamic dance personality. 

Monday, December 06, 2010

Black Swan

Photo credit: Niko Tavernise
Director - Darren Aronofsky
Writers - Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz & John McLaughlin
Choreographer - Benjamin Millepied

Most mainstream dance films are part of the romantic dramedy genre, but "Black Swan" is anything but typical.  This haunting dance movie chronicles the cycle of obsession through three phases: normalization, realization and confrontation.  We meet Nina (beautifully interpreted by Natalie Portman), a stunning, talented yet troubled ballerina - she is the new star; an up and comer, slated to dance the coveted role of Odette/Odile.  Moving up the ranks from soloist to principal is an exercise in duality itself; excitement and accomplishment coupled with anxiety and nervousness.  Most dancers find a way to navigate this new territory, but for Nina, a fragile individual already teetering on the brink of sanity, the consequences of her promotion are disastrously fatal.  Though set in the world of ballet, "Black Swan" really focuses on the psychology of delusion.

One of the first things you notice about Nina is how her compulsive ritualistic behaviors have normalized in her life, almost to the point that the bizarreness has anesthetized into regularity.  Despite being rooted in self-hatred and her desperate need for perfection, these patterns have de-emphasized and re-interpreted into normalcy and comfort for her.  When these demons are habitualized, they become hard to identify and define and thus, impossible to escape.  One particular manifestation for Nina is in the picking and pulling of her skin.  Again, the underlying issue here is perfection (or the appearance of perfection), so when faced with a blemish, cut or scratch, Nina is unable to let it heal on its own.  Every mark on her body was far more than just a physical abnormality.  For her, it spoke of a flawed existence and thus, she sadistically and methodically peeled it all away.  But this process of normalization can only last so long.  The facade will eventually crumble when you are forced to admit, confront and feel that which you have buried.  Nina's casting as the fractured Swan Queen was the catalyst that released her own fractured personality.  She was not taking the role into her life, the role was embodying what was already happening in her mind.  Living it out inwardly and now outwardly (in the studio and on the stage) ultimately took her over the edge and brought the shattered pieces of her subconscious to the surface in a way that she had been able to control in the past.  She had moved away from normalization and onto the processes of realization and confrontation.  For some, this emotional journey provides healing and understanding, but for Nina, the pain could not be conquered.  

"Black Swan" is another movie that purposely utilizes shaky camera work.  I was actually a little surprised that there wasn't a note on the theater door warning that people with motion sickness might experience some dizziness throughout the film.  No matter how jarring it felt in the audience, what an appropriate choice for Portman's Nina.  An unsteady frame for a neurotic psyche.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Deviations", written and directed by Joe Goode

University of California, Berkeley
Presented by The Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies
Durham Studio Theater
November 21, 2010

I am both suspect and perhaps overly critical of interdisciplinary performance. But even a skeptic and cynic like me knows that every once in a while, this genre gets it right - well-researched pieces with formal and narrative cohesiveness, favoring collaboration and cooperation above randomness and mismatching. When the necessary time and energy is spent on the integration of elements, interdisciplinary work can be significant and telling. It is not enough to just throw things together (and so many of today's choreographers do that), relativity must be the primarily goal in order to achieve any level of artistic depth.

Joe Goode's recent work, “Deviations”, presented by the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley, demonstrates the complexity of concept through text, scenework, and movement - taking it from a static one-dimensional notion and placing it on an active spectrum, where it can range from problematic to hopeful. To me, the word 'deviation' has a negative connotation; it implies that something has gone awry. And, desired outcomes are permanently, and perhaps forever, compromised. However, there can be an upside to deviation as well. This one-act theatrical musing introduces seven characters, all on their own individual journeys of deviation, which for some provides positive changes in their lives, while for others leads to lack of focus, sorrow and heartache.

The seven personalities are framed by Annabelle, a storyteller and writer who narrates the action to some degree. In doing so, “Deviations” raises issues of real time - are these actual events or the results of Annabelle's imagination? In this theatrical equation, not only is the idea of deviation appropriately fuzzy, but reality also becomes an undefined integer. In ninety minutes, we learn that these characters (real or imaginary), Annabelle included, are experiencing upsides and downsides from their personal deviations – deviating from their chosen course of action; deviating from their relationships; deviating from assumptions; deviating from their roles.

Accompanying movement unfolded alongside the text and dialogue, satirically, comically and organically. Goode designed the choreography to emphasize and highlight what was happening in the acting scenes, as opposed to the movement propelling the story forward on its own. This may have been one of the reasons why the piece made so much sense. The movement was truly embedded and entrenched in the dramatic action: reaching limbs supplemented scenes where the characters were searching; trying to capture and find something or someone. One pas de deux mirrored a tumultuous, though naturalistic relationship - moments of tenderness and the desire for companionship juxtaposed against wanting to escape and the need for solitude. Still other dance segments cleverly spoke to some of the more farcical subject matter, including an incantation that explained metaphysics and a game show presentation of the perfect man. This was interdisciplinary practice at its best.

Photo by Austin Forbord
I will say that “Deviations” was a little light on the movement – the work was more play and less dance theater than I have come to expect from Joe Goode. And, because the movement was so brilliantly integrated and an imperative addition to the action, it would have been great to see a little more of it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Works in the Works 2010

Linda Bair Dance Company, Photo by Matthias Falk
Presented by Choreographers' Performance Alliance and 8th Street Studio, Berkeley, CA
November 20, 2010

In the past two years, I have really made an extra effort to see works-in-progress.  Whether in a rehearsal setting, in a previewed excerpt or at an informal showing, I have come to realize that these opportunities are invaluable.  Critics are with choreography for such a short duration - even if you see the same piece multiple times, the cast, staging or venue are likely to be different, thus, making the piece different too.  Being present for the process of dancemaking is such a different experience; an intimate gift that provides unique insight that the finished product alone may not. 

The "Works in the Works 2010" program offered the chance to see five dances at various stages of growth: "H₁" (Abigail McNally/A Mused Collective), "My Hands/Tus Brazos" (Linda Bair Dance Company), "Banksy's Children" (MeND Dance Theater Company), "What Is It About Memory?" (Jetta Martin), and an untitled work performed by the San Francisco State University Dancers, choreographed by Ray Tadio.  The breadth, diversity and quality of the work is something that all the choreographers (and this long-running festival) should be proud of.

I did have favorites among the group, the first being Linda Bair's "My Hands/Tus Brazos", a modern piece that delved into the reality of a relationship, emphasizing the dramatic and less-happy interactions that we try so hard to hide.  We saw Bair and partner Jorge Luis Morejon (both seasoned performers) running around each other, forcing affection, and controlling movements and reactions.  Though the angst was predominant in the duet, there were also instances of tenderness, particularly a number of cantilevered, off-balance poses which could only be accomplished through communication and working together.  My only critique of the work is that we were told prior to the dance what it was about and what the choreography was trying to say.  This wasn't really necessary; give the audience the chance to reach its own conclusions.  Another highlight (for me, at least) was Ray Tadio's untitled work.  At first, this piece seemed abstract, though as it continued, I came to wonder whether Tadio was examining how one's physicality changes as others are present or absent in their space.  His experimentation with the number of dancers in each segment led to this question: solos versus partnered duets and solos juxtaposed with spatial duets.  It really seemed to be a comment on personal awareness.  All seven of these young performers were amazing, and it was so great to see compelling stage presence and strong technique from a variety of body types.  Having said that, the group does need to work a little more on the fluidity of their partnering lifts.  The women have the core strength to hold any position and the appropriate preparation to achieve height and ballon.  The men also have the muscular strength to support these complicated and intricate lifts.  The problem happens when the two meet - the strength of both parties explodes a bit resulting in a 'splatty' lift.  They are almost there, they just need a little more pas de deux training to maintain their individual strengths, while allowing the lift to evolve organically and calmly.

Abigail McNally's "H₁" had a very unique movement vocabulary, a joining of modern with hip-hop (popping, locking and accented isolations).  There were lots of bent elbows and extensions that purposely collapsed as the joints gave into flexion.  The first solo dancer had adapted well to this fusion style; the other three were well-versed in the modern aspects of the choreography, but the hip-hop was a little outside their comfort zone.  MeND Dance Theater Company's "Banksy's Children" blended many genres: contact improvisation and acrobatics under the auspice of dance theater.  Artistic Director Grace Alvarez's conceptual framework was very clear (childhood), though she was trying to answer too many questions all at once.  Perhaps each of her ideas should be the fodder for a series of single works.  Unfortunately, trying to say everything often leads to an unfocused result.  "What Is It About Memory?" by Jetta Martin was definitely the loveliest dance of the night.  Both women in this duet (Jetta Martin and Coral Martin) are beautiful dancers and accomplished performers (technically and artistically).  But, the choreography was a little predictable.  The best part of the piece was the opening image: the dancers facing upstage and simply rolling their shoulders.  That moment was special and it needed to be explored, but instead what followed was a number of 'ballet class' combinations.  Absolutely stunning but utterly safe.         

Seeing dance at different points of development helps build and foster the relationship with that work.  I hope I get the chance to see some of the "Works in the Works" pieces at another viewing in the future.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"ODD" - Axis Dance Company and inkBoat

photo by Michele Clement
photo by Pak Han
Malonga Casquelourd Center - Oakland, CA
November 12, 2010

"ODD", the recent collaboration between Axis Dance Company and inkBoat played to a packed house at Oakland's Malonga Theater last Friday night.  Obviously the result of intense examination and development, the entire work existed in a strange 'in between' place, serving up a main course of distortion with a side of integration.  The formal aspects of the piece really 'made' the dance: the unique take on interdisciplinary performance and the choreographic study of physicality.  Unfortunately, the overuse of distortion in "ODD" led to an entire hour and a half that stayed on one level.  The structural nuggets had such enormous potential but the finished product did not allow them to be fully realized.

Interdisciplinary performance works that combine the different contemporary arts are super trendy right now, and usually done poorly.  But, "ODD" demonstrated a better way to look at and think about connection and integration.  Director and choreographer Shinichi Iova-Koga opted to have the artistic collaborations happen live and in real time - the cellist who had composed the score, a soundscape artist adding additional elements to the music, a painter who transformed blank canvases and dancers who moved and spoke text.  The physical set-up also forced the audience to be responsible and culpable for what they were seeing.  The musicians were far stage right, the dancers mostly in the center and the painter downstage left.  We had to choose how to view the piece and determine what aspect drew the attention at any given moment.  I generally think that interdisciplinary projects tend toward 'too much', but this was incredibly cohesive and brilliantly orchestrated.                

The process of human movement was equally compelling.  Primitive organisms were apparent as dancers inched their way across the stage like worms and crawled with the co-ordinating (same arm as leg) motion of salamanders.  In addition, the body's transitory movement from one state to another was highlighted.  As the performers slowly passed through a plethora of in between positions, we saw an emphasized representation of the small reflexive motions that each body experiences.  It is difficult to notice these tiny adjustments in yourself, but pausing television is an easy way to see what is really happening in the body's muscles as they move.  The bizarre facial expressions that you sometimes capture are examples of these fleeting moments.  Attention to the enunciation of the body was obvious even as the dancers walked towards us.  You could see each metatarsal as every toe separated and articulated - extraordinary, intentional and almost sensuous.     

Though I clearly found Iova-Koga's concepts and choreography intriguing, everything was overshadowed by a huge cloud of distortion, and not in a good way.  Violence, hostility and neurosis were the name of the game, epitomized through the grotesque: gnarled hands, body twitches, spastic sissones, bourées attempted with turned-in, locked knees.  The overwhelming facial distortions were reminiscent of Butoh, and although they make sense in Butoh, here they didn't really fit (especially not to the extent they were used).  This wasn't a Butoh performance, period.  Not only did the distortion pull focus, but it also concealed the 'positives' in the piece: the interdisciplinary interactions and the physicality itself.  There is definitely value in exposing audiences to all kinds of movement, though, emphasizing one idea too much always runs the risk losing its impact.  Instead of being challenging and unexpected, "ODD" became monotonous and a little boring.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Penny Saunder and Jesse Bechard of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago perform Nacho Duato's "Arcangelo". Both photos by Todd Rosenberg.

Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
October 29, 2010

As in most fields, dance criticism, dance performance and dance theory are riddled with debates.  While some controversies are fascinating and others futile, one of the most pervasive is the notion of the 'heir apparent'.  This concept can relate to many different aspects of dance: style, genre, companies and dancers themselves, though its most interesting application (to me, at least) is in terms of choreographic talent.  Who are the up and comers?  Of those who have been choreographing for some time, whose work sets itself apart?  Who is beyond categorization?  Who will be crowned the next genius dancemaker?  In fifty years, when the dance literature chronicles our current decade, which choreographers will grace its pages?

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's performance at Zellerbach Hall featured three artists who are changing the face of choreographic history: Nacho Duato, Alejandro Cerrudo and Jiří Kylián.  Duato's astonishing "Arcangelo" opened the program.  An ode to the idea of expansiveness, the key theme in this ballet was 'more'.  As the dancers hit and maintained strong dynamic positions, one believed that they had reached their ending point.  But, the body continued on - the flexed feet sensually melded into points; a slow methodical articulation of every metatarsal.  This idea of continuous movement was also reflected in the music that accompanied Duato's work.  Both Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti were composing in the era of polyphonic texture.  This compositional form and style also has few resting points, only reaching a cadence when each internal movement is itself complete.  Within the music, the various symphonic lines overlap, converge, separate and interweave, creating sound that is constantly in motion.  Duato has brilliantly mirrored this polyphony to the point that you can see the music on the stage.  I still have not fully internalized the final instant of "Arcangelo" where two dancers climbed up and were suspended by a large piece of fabric.  The entire audience was breathless and speechless as the curtain fell.

Two pieces by company member and resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo followed in Act II: "Blanco" and "Deep Down Dos".  "Blanco", a work for four women, focused and explored the idea of individual self-expression.  Each dancer was lit from above with their own spotlight and as they danced within that circular glowing pool, their personalities and individuality shone as brightly as the light did.  The women celebrated their personal freedom through movement (which ranged from an amazingly slow headstand to a perfectly aligned penchée en face), but as the dance progressed, it was also apparent that they were somewhat trapped by their light.  When they ventured outside of the designated space, a sense of fear and anxiety replaced the self-determination that they had experienced in their comfort zone.  The energizing frenetic "Deep Down Dos" struck me as a sexy updated version of the gym scene in "West Side Story".  The piece was very Robbins-esque (distinct technique coupled with a general narrative) with the occasional Grahamism (the airplane turn) thrown in for color.  The joyful fellowship of the dancers spoke to the camaraderie of youth and society; it was only too bad that the dance did not end this way.  Cerrudo opted instead to conclude the piece with a pas de deux.  The duet was absolutely beautiful, but I think "Deep Down Dos" would have been even stronger if it culminated in the return to and recapitulation of the group vitality.

The evening ended with Kylián's "27'52"", a composition that tends toward dance theater, but at the same time, is not really dance theater.  Rather, in this piece, Kylián combines contemporary movement with some theatrical elements commonly seen in the work of Pina Bausch and William Forsythe.  With the house lights still up, "27'52"" commenced - the dancers engaged in a warming up/practicing/rehearsing scene.  This provided a glimpse into the process of performance, something that the audience rarely gets a chance to witness.  As the 'formal' portion of the piece began, motifs of violence and control came to the forefront.  In the first duet, the woman was treated like a puppet, her limbs being moved around and manipulated amidst a strange electronic soundscore.  The second set of dancers also exhibited anger and annoyance with their fist-fight choreography.  The third couple looked as though they were being shot; parts of their bodies would be 'hit' and would subsequently flail backwards in space.  These rough forceful sequences had a dual effect of shocking and anesthetizing the senses.  When the movements began, they were upsetting and difficult to look at but as they continued on, the repetition took away their power.  I do think that this particular dance was not the best fit for this company.  Their performance was incredibly accurate, but they need more movement.  This Kylián work is a little light on the choreography and heavier on the theatricality.  Maybe another of his compositions would be a better choice for Hubbard Street's repertoire.

Every dance fan has their favorite choreographers - those whose work they defend and follow, whether good or bad.  My personal list of favorites is constantly changing, evolving and expanding.  Jiří Kylián has been a part of it since the mid-nineties.  After Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's performance, my group now includes both Nacho Duato and Alejandro Cerrudo.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

MamaLOVE: Seeds of Winter - Dandelion Dancetheater

Photo by Luiza Silva
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley, CA
October 16, 2010

Though Paul Taylor is now considered a force in modern dance, the beginning of his choreographic career was a little precarious.  Accounts of his early concerts during the 1950s indicate that the dance community wasn't always so convinced of his brilliance.  Even the critics didn't know what to make of him, so some, like Louis Horst, said nothing.  Now one of the two most notorious dance articles (the other being Arlene Croce's ridiculous non-review of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, "Discussing the Undiscussable"), Horst published a blank review of Taylor's work in the "Dance Observer".  Saying nothing certainly says a lot.

This is how I often feel about dance theater.  I'm pretty sure that something significant is happening onstage, but at the same time, I struggle to determine what that something is.  So, I completely understand the urge to say nothing at all.  Thankfully, there are companies like Dandelion Dancetheater that are attempting to make a clearer and more accessible dance theater.  And, especially in the face of economic cuts for the arts, connection with the audience matters!

The prelude to Dandelion Dancetheater's "MamaLOVE: Seeds of Winter" employed three musings on the concept of motherhood by guest choreographers Dana Lawton, Chingchi Yu and Tammy Cheney.  Lawton's "Mixed Blessings" explored the ideas of sameness and difference.  Against a soundtrack of sonogram sounds and children's songs, slow ritualistic movements were performed in unison indicating the shared experience of mothers.  In contrast, the five dancers also interspersed moments of differing choreography, speaking to the isolation that mothers can feel even when surrounded by others in their same situation.  "Kiss", a duet by Chingchi Yu, symbolized the concept of mother and child, their relationship to each other (the good and the bad) and the personality of each role.  The third excerpt, Tammy Cheney's "Necessary", ruminated on a frenetic, rushed sense of being, danced beautifully by Rebecca Johnson.  Yet, in the face of all the anxiety and hurriedness came very calculated movements placed perfectly in space.  The scope of each step was completely defined, having an obvious beginning and ending point - a moving comment on the carefulness that a mother must employ in the face of chaos.

After intermission, it was onto the main event, "MamaLOVE: Seeds of Winter".  The opening scene was typical dance theater fare with the performers lying in a mish-mashed huddle and the perimeter of the stage space marked with cornucopia, a shoe, a lamp, a pot and a box of cereal.  Then, through song, text, and dance, the artists of Dandelion Dancetheater (women of all ages) examined what we are told about motherhood, how we feel about motherhood, and what is involved in being a mother.  These immensely vast questions trickled down into a pool of feelings: nurture, discipline, frustration, the fear of doing something wrong, of failing, of letting go.  There were some humorous moments including a medical lecture from an "R.N." and a discussion of breast feeding as well as some incredibly disturbing images: an overly graphic birthing scene and a super violent interaction between a 'mother' character and a 'monster' character.  Unlike much dance theater, the purpose of this piece was very clear: to decipher the complexity that is motherhood.  But, in pursuit of that goal, the ensemble has accumulated too many ideas and too much material, leading to a work that tended toward choppiness.  "MamaLOVE" is a valuable piece and when watching it, you can see the research, time, energy and analysis that these women have put into discovering what motherhood is, but some editing would be a good next step.

In the performance arena, dance theater is equated with the experimental; the obtuse; the bizarre; the avant-garde.  Anyone who says different simply isn't paying attention.  And, this tendency toward weirdness is absolutely fine.  However, combining a little less strangeness with a little more straightforwardness doesn't hurt.  As is evident with Dandelion Dancetheater, dialing the odd down a notch, while dialing the conventional up a bit equals dance theater that conveys its chosen message. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Diablo Ballet

Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, CA
October 15, 2010

The Lesher Center in Walnut Creek was abuzz with excitement this weekend as Diablo Ballet opened its 17th season.  The first program demonstrated their signature style, strength and sophistication with Balanchine's "Valse Fantaisie", the Act I pas de deux from Val Caniparoli's "Lady of the Camellias" and the world premiere of "A Tribute to Lena Horne" by choreographer and company dancer Tina Kay Bohnstedt.  All that was missing from this exceptional evening of dance was the full house that this group deserves.

"Valse Fantaisie" was quite literally the most silent dance I have ever seen.  Every jump had impressive height and ballon followed by an incredibly gentle landing.  The use of plié in the preparation and completion of every allegro movement was beyond textbook, it was transcendent.  Even the huge grand jetés ended in a whisper.  The accuracy of "Valse Fantaisie" was also stunning.  Diablo Ballet is diligent in its re-staging of Balanchine's choreography, paying special attention to all of the steps, not just the flashy ones.  Not every company can pull off such an authentic representation of this choreographic genius.  Balanchine loved quick, intricate, detailed movement - the 45 degree arabesque, frappé, pas de cheval, lightning-fast batterie.  Erika Johnson deserves particular mention for her series of saut de basque, en dedans turns as does Nikki Trerise White for her picture perfect glissades and pas de chats.    

The pas de deux excerpt from "Lady of the Camellias" reinforced my belief that Val Caniparoli is the master of innovative partnering.  His unexpected balances, supports and lifts add extra drama to the narrative because his choreographic choices are such a surprise: the turning fan lift, the use of the legs extended straight up in the air.  In addition, Caniparoli seeks to develop the individual characters through their own recurring motifs, so that their identity has been well-established before they begin dancing together.  In his work, the audience is truly seeing a union; two people working as one entity. 

"A Tribute to Lena Horne" transported the audience to a jazz club, where music soared from voices, from instruments and from bodies.  The dancers relaxed on chairs while each of them took turns in various groupings: solos, duets, trios, etc.  As each feature began, the dancers themselves became a line in the musical score.  They were not dancing to the music; they were the music using their bodies as the instrument of expression.  I would categorize Tina Kay Bohnstedt's choreography as jazz ballet, combining traditional ballet elements with jazz movement vocabulary.  There were lay-outs, stag leaps, hinges, hip isolations, and contractions - all of which are straight out of the jazz dance dictionary.  Mayo Sugano and Rory Hohenstein were the embodiment of this contemporary and classical combination.  Each had the enunciation in the spine, the articulation of the hips and the flexibility in the rib cage that is required by jazz.  They really sold Bohnstedt's amazing fusion of jazz and ballet.  The other four dancers are adjusting to this style; they still have too much rigidity and tension for this supine choreography.  Letting go a bit more would really allow them to project the quality of the piece.  Erika Johnson was almost there, but her performance in this dance was definitely affected by her pointe shoes.  They were so soft on Friday night; it was almost as if she was dancing in regular flat slippers - her right foot never reaching a full extension on pointe.  "A Tribute to Lena Horne" also may have been a little long.  Near the end of the ballet, the dancers looked like they were getting tired.  Whether that was an issue of the dance itself or their own endurance, I don't know, but I imagine as the work gels a bit more (Friday was its premiere), these very minor kinks will work themselves out.   

Tina Kay Bohnstedt and Jekyns Pelaez in Val Caniparoli's "Lady of the Camellias"   Photo credit: Ashraf

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

Photo by Bonnie Kamin
Kanbar Hall, Jewish Community Center, San Francisco, CA
October 7, 2010

The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's presentation at the SFJCC was a delight: creative and engaging choreography coupled with exceptionally skilled dancers.  I always find their performances exciting and enjoyable.  Though, I have to admit that the group's repertory breadth is not particularly impressive; in fact, most of Jenkins' dances (at least the five I have seen in the past four years) look very much the same.  She is drawn to an identifiable movement style, a certain type of music (abstract, non-phrasal, repetitive, monotonous stream of notes) and a specific costume theme (one color palette with slight variations in design and construction).  The program opened with "Other Suns I" (2009), a piece that had all of these elements, definitely in the style of Margaret Jenkins.  But after intermission, some things were different.  The preview of her new work, "Light Moves" still had the predictable music and costumes, but the choreography was a departure from the expected.  This work-in-progress indicated that this company's repertory may be heading in a new direction; embarking on a new journey.  

It was obvious from the opening moments of "Light Moves" that its movement vocabulary was divergent from Jenkins' usual fluidity.  Here we saw exaggerated bent arms, sustained broken wrists, and plié passé turns with intensely flexed feet.  These angular poses led to unusual shapes in the space, with the light, and against the backdrop.  Each of these positions was also afforded the gift of time; they were held and suspended so that the full dynamism of the forms could be realized. 

Another crucial difference in "Light Moves" was its casting and distribution of parts - finally we got to see Steffany Ferroni as the featured dancer.  Ferroni and Emily Hite (though Hite was not dancing in this piece) are the hidden treasures of this company.  Frankly, their physical and theatrical talent is superior but for some reason they are relegated to the background instead of being up front where they belong.  The other women seem to only ever play one-dimension of being - angsty seriousness.  So much so that it takes over their faces and their bodies to the point that the choreography ends up wallowing in anxiety.  Breadth needs to be present in all aspects dance, including the dancer's ability to portray more than one emotion and the director's ability to extract this from them.  I get that we need the angst, but a little joy doesn't hurt either.  Ferroni is such a breath of fresh air.  In "Light Moves", she demonstrated depth and abandon combined with passion, rapture and a distinct classicism.  She can conjure and harness it all.  Her two rélévé longs (where the straight leg is lifted slowly from a closed position on the ground into a high extension) were exquisite.  This step is a perfectly matched metaphor for this dance; a movement that focuses on clear positioning along with intense, non-stop energy.         

The brief glimpse into this work-in-progress indicated a positive deviation from a signature style.  Everyone knows Margaret Jenkins can do continuous flows of movement, "Light Moves" shows that she is equally gifted with detached, staccato physicality.  If "Light Moves" continues along its current path, the premiere next year will be a significant moment for The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Preview - Velocity DC Dance Festival

October 7-9, 2010
Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC

If you happen to be in the DC area next weekend (October 7th through 9th), go and see the VelocityDC Dance Festival. This event is a unique opportunity to celebrate DC's diverse dance community. It is a great introduction to the local dance scene and one of the few times in the year where different styles of dance share one stage. VelocityDC Dance Festival will make you a DC dance fan.

CityDance Ensemble, photo by Paul Gordon Emerson
With approximately a dozen participating dance companies, multiple genres are well-represented. My favorites in the modern dance category are CityDance Ensemble and Edgeworks Dance Theater. CityDance is a forward-thinking dance organization that takes artistic risks with contemporary pieces while still seeking to preserve historic modern dance works (through re-staging). Their offerings at VelocityDC Dance speak to this dual mission: the classic “Esplanade” by Paul Taylor and “+1/-1”, which I believe is Christopher K. Morgan's best work to date. Edgeworks Dance Theater also has a varied repertory though an underlying theme is present in all their choreography: the celebration of the masculine. A rarity in dance, Edgeworks is committed to discovering the male role through choreography, both from a content and a formal perspective. Washington, DC is home to two major ballet companies and both will be making an appearance at the festival: The Washington Ballet and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. The Washington Ballet had an amazing season last year with some powerhouse productions (specifically “Don Quixote”, “The Great Gatsby” and their Genius³ mixed repertory program). They are on a roll, and I predict that their performance of Trey McIntyre's “High Lonesome” will be a highlight of the VelocityDC festival. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is another company committed to the preservation of dance (primarily those ballets choreographed by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins). An exciting addition to this year's program, they will perform a lesser-known 1975 Balanchine piece (“Tzigane”) that was originally choreographed on and danced by Farrell herself. Ethnic dance is also featured in the line-up with soloist Edwin Aparicio (who brought the house down last year) and Furia Flamenca. VelocityDC understands the importance of inclusion, and to that end, makes every attempt to have a broad and diverse festival, representing as many different dance genres as possible. 

My review of last year's Festival:

My review of last year's prelude performance:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bayanihan - The National Dance Company of the Philippines

Photo by CAMI
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
September 24, 2010

The dancing body is a joyful image.  Yet surprisingly, joy is so often absent from the stage.  Instead, we see sanitized modern and ballet, where the personal dancer is hidden so that the role, concept or vision being danced can take focus.  This is not at all necessary to the cohesiveness of any piece, in fact, it's detrimental.  Allowing dancers to show more of their personality does not compromise who or what they are playing; it adds to it.  Real emotion is so much more compelling than artificial constructs.  Bayanihan, The National Dance Company of the Philippines knows this to be true.  Their Cal Performances presentation at Zellerbach Hall demonstrated that true human joy transforms dance.  Their elation in physicality and love of movement was palpable through every moment of the program. 

Such a rich diversity is present in the dances of the Philippines, reflecting the nation's long and varied cultural history.  Many of the dances were clearly inspired by Spanish Flamenco vocabulary, with elaborate costuming, dramatic footwork, castanet-style hand percussion and exquisite épaulement.  The port de bras was precise and exact in that unique Spanish arm position, lying halfway between bras bas and demi-second.  There was even a Celtic connection on the program.  As body percussion, stomping and sole slapping filled the stage, the men became one with Appalachian dancing (itself a composite of Irish, English, Scottish, African and Native American styles).  And, of course, there was Asian lineage in the movement as well.  In the mask and fan scene, all the choreography and staging played with the idea of the half circle, mirroring the fan's beautiful image with the dancer's bodies.     

There were two common denominators present in all the different types of dance: flat feet and steps in threes.  No matter the style or influence, all the company's choreography featured a flat footed approach, where the weight is placed on the whole foot, as opposed to being shifted to the ball of the foot.  The flatness of the feet gave them a deep, low center, which led to calmness, composure and groundedness at every speed as well as a sense of connection with the earth, with the movement and with each other.  In addition, the company employed several different variations on 'steps in three': balancés, pas de basques, pivot turns, triplets, step-ball-changes.  These 'steps in three' are indicative of change - change in space, change in direction, change of purpose - quite a meaningful comment to describe the story of a people.    

The National Dance Company of the Philippines was the embodiment of absolute joy.  It was as if their internal emotion could not be restrained; they had it to share it through movement and choreography.  The performance permitted us to see souls dancing in celebration.        

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"The Woman Invisible to Herself" - Mary Armentrout Dance Theater

Photo by Ian Winters
The Biscuit Factory - Oakland, CA
September 18, 2010

Mary Armentrout Dance Theater's "The Woman Invisible to Herself" is a must see for anyone who is intrigued by experimental postmodernism yet still longs for meaning and a story.  With this site-specific work, Armentrout shows that she is committed and pulled towards post-modern ideals yet still holds a strong desire to make dance that is about something.  The concept was a unique exploration of identity, in which assumptions were challenged, inconsistencies revealed and parameters re-defined.  And, what made the piece so clear and cohesive was the equal partnering of the narrative alongside three major tenets of postmodernism: non-conformity, egalitarianism and the blurring of the line between life and art.    

The multi-room dance introduced us to different aspects of Armentrout's being, including those portions that identify as Asian (which she is not) and as a gay man (which she is also not).  There were numerous examples of non-conformity, egalitarianism and the blurring of the line between life and art, though the following three moments of "The Woman Invisible to Herself" were particularly noteworthy.  First, in an attempt to breakdown pre-conceived notions - of what it means to be a performer, the role of the audience and the relationship between these two groups - conversing, connecting and communicating with the audience was encouraged.  Both Armentrout and Frances Rosario were clearly going off a script with their text, not improvising.  Though it really felt that they were talking to us during the performance, not at us.  Second, unusual performing spaces permeated this piece.  We saw dance outside between vans, on the roof, in a hallway, and my favorite, in a reflection.  As five of us crammed into a tiny viewing space, we watched the introduction of Armentrout's different personas in a broken mirror.  The five minute musing was, quite literally, a glimpse into the fragmented parts of her psyche.  Last, the movement choices were very relatable.  There was much formalized modern dance vocabulary, but it was combined with movements everyone knows and does: sitting, standing, walking and running.

Most post-modern choreographers would be satisfied with a piece that showcased 'the big three' (non-conformity, egalitarianism and the blurring of the line between life and art) but, not Armentrout and her dancers.  They worked diligently to inject the narrative of internal discovery into every segment of "The Woman Invisible to Herself" and it was this concept that transformed the post-modern vision into art.  The tension of identity was present in all of the vignettes, though the outdoor offerings specifically drove this message home.  Nol Simonse's solo was all about self-protection as he clung to the perimeter of the building; lying on the ground, hanging from the ledge, balancing on the stairs.  His side attitude fed into a high parallel super-passé that was enveloped by a deep upper body curve - a strong image of self-preservation.  Natalie Greene's frenetic variation illustrated how quickly and easily our purpose can be blindsided by our own thoughts.  Greene would start facing one direction and then her body would throw itself backwards or sideways in space, taking her away from her chosen trajectory.  On the roof, all the fragmented parts of the self came back together in a statement of support and acknowledgement.  Motifs from Simonse and Greene's dances returned, with everyone taking on the off balance attitudes (to the front, side and back) as well as the running forward and being thrown back in space.  We also witnessed a very intimate moment where the four dancers mirrored each other's choreography.  They may have appeared to be dancing in unison, though, a closer look revealed that we were watching a learning and internalization of each other's physical language.  The audience was privy to a very personal and vulnerable instant of discovery, exploration and the marriage of different states of being.          

My only wish for this work is that the second act be re-thought, edited and perhaps absorbed into the first half of the performance.  The roof scene was the final portion of Act I and its ending should have been the finale of the entire piece.  On a beautiful horizon,  four dancers swirled on distant rooftops amidst the city landscape and the sunset.  The information and movement in the second half was interesting, though maybe a bit of a let-down after that amazing final image we saw on the roof. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Singing Praises: Centennial Dances for The Women's Building

Flyaway Productions in association with The Women's Building
18th & Valencia, San Francisco, CA
September 10, 2010

photo by Austin Forbord
Dance performance is full of transformative elements.  A flowing, chiffon dress can turn a woman into a ghost; an inventive set can place the scene in a forest; an amazing talent can change steps into artistry; and a choreographic genius can bring music to life.  Costuming, set design, music, cast, vision - these are likely some of the first things that come to mind when pondering the factors that go into performance.  Still, other components are equally essential in production.  Site-specific dance reminds us that location also has the power and ability to influence and transform dance.  Flyaway Productions' new work, "Singing Praises: Centennial Dances for The Women's Building" is a tangible example of this deep relationship between a structure and choreography.  Artistic Director Jo Kreiter knows how to marry the narrative with aerial dance.  She has succeeded once again, with a piece that focuses attention on what a building is, what it means, what it has done and can do for a neighborhood.

"Singing Praises" most prominent theme was the pull between 'staying' and 'going' - such a perfect metaphor for The Women's Building.  This space has sought to be and still is a nurturing, welcoming and helpful environment for women and girls in the community, instilling determination, pride and self-worth.  Though, to truly make a difference, its mission could not and cannot be insular.  Strength and self-confidence need to be palpable both inside and outside the doors.  The result is an architectural statement of protection and enveloping, support and encouragement, fortification and investment.  Places like this have a story and it affects the choreography that happens on them and in them.  This dynamic site evolved this dance from movement into community history and participation.      

The dual message of embracing and releasing was beautifully translated into aerial performance by Kreiter and the company dancers.  In several segments of the piece, bent knees were followed by full extensions; an encircling then an uncovering.  Use of the fire escape ladders also indicated this dualism combining groundedness with an expedition to something new, somewhere new.  Here, we saw a repeated motif where one foot was planted to the building and the other extended in arabesque out and away.  In one of the many duets, one dancer was attached at the window frame close to the structure, while the other floated out free in space.  These two were performing the same steps, in unison, yet the choreography was being experienced in two different realities (in the Center and in the community).  Last, the circular patterns in "Singing Praises" spoke volumes: the spinning in attitude and the walking in circles (toward the building, then away) again highlighted the cyclical nature of this space in the lives of women.     

Kreiter's work also brings up the issues of fragility and precariousness.  "Singing Praises" took place right in the middle of the Mission District on 18th, and none of the streets had been sealed off to traffic.  Many of the motorists going by were completed distracted, focused on the dancing instead of on the road.  It made me feel anxious and ill at ease - fully expecting to hear the screech of brakes at any moment (thankfully, the night I was there was accident-free).  In addition to the traffic-issues, these nervous emotions were heightened because dancers were suspended from harnesses, flying through the air and balancing on the edge of the roof.  But, however uncomfortable, I think these sensations are necessary.  It's good to be reminded every once in a while that existence is tenuous.  It's a reality check, and for some (me included), increases our awareness to the gifts in life.   

Monday, August 23, 2010

Stepology - The Bay Area Rhythm Exchange

The Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, CA
August 20, 2010

Stepology's presentation of "The Bay Area Rhythm Exchange" celebrated the creme de la creme of today's professional tap dancers - Channing Cook Holmes, John Kloss, Mark Mendonca, Jason Rodgers, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Lukas Weiss.  Here was an infinite depth of talent displayed by true masters of this craft.  However, the more intriguing element of the performance was how it revealed their specific areas of tap expertise.

Mark Mendonca was definitely the best all-round technician.  His solos were phenomenal and his feet seemed to move at super human speed.  Particular highlights included: heel twists across the entire stage, a series of single and double grab-offs, inventive and unexpected stomp time sections, and a progression of single-wings that were simultaneous with a toe-stand turn.  John Kloss opened his dance with a fun a cappella sequence complete with body percussion.  This man is the king of the grapevine, transforming a very basic step with his incredible rhythmic variations.  Kloss was the most consistent with his sound; he could be at any spot on the stage and his taps were crystal clear.  Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards had the best articulation.  You could hear her attention to detail and precision in the 5-beat riffs, paddles and back walks.  Subtle differences were present in her every scrape, where the point of origin (the side, the toe or the heel) produced distinct pitches and unique timbres.  Jason Rodgers' tapping was fantastic, though it was his style that drew the eye.  Of all the soloists, he was the one who looked most like he was dancing.  Lukas Weiss won for best novelty combining tap and juggling and Channing Cook Holmes was the best surprise of the program: an amazing drummer who has equal skills as a rhythm tapper.

There were only two issues that kept this performance from perfection.  First, the audience needed to see more of the dancing.  Because the floor microphones were at the front of the stage, most of the choreography took place there.  This proximity made it possible to hear everything, but blocked visual access to the dancer's feet.  In fact, I would say that a good 50% of the tapping was masked and hidden.  Second, the inconsistent lighting was unfair to the performers.  The design itself was fine, it was the lighting board management that required more attention.  The blackout at the end of each solo was completely ill-timed.  Just as the dancers were acknowledging the amazing musicians (Channing Cook Holmes, Lamont Keller and Maya Kronfeld), the stage lights went out.  I know that tech-time can be tough with much to address in a short period but with a professional show, this kind of timing problem should have been fixed. 

Nonetheless, this yearly show is a must-see.        

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mao's Last Dancer

Director - Bruce Beresford
Screenwriter – Jan Sardi

Most dance movies can be categorized in one of two ways: the non-fiction documentary or the fictional major motion picture.  The former seeks to share actual events through historical footage and interviews while the latter is a made-up story in which dance is prominently featured.  Both types have their niche, yet both also have their problems.  Dance documentaries can be incredibly fascinating, revealing and educational, but they generally don’t enjoy a very wide audience (and viewership definitely matters).  The wider release fictional movies often end up combining good acting with bad dancing, or great dancing with horrible acting.  If an actor is cast in a dancing role, then the director has  two choices.  Try and teach them or use the very obvious dance double.  Both options are just not good.  Casting professional dancers in lead roles is also not a solution because more often than not, they must be taught how to act (and this attempt can be unsuccessful).  There are a few exceptions to this (in my opinion, at least): “The Turning Point”, “Dirty Dancing” and “The Company”.  These three managed to overcome the obstacles, and featured wonderful dancing coupled with fabulous acting.

Still a third format exists where true events are adapted into a screenplay.  Though not as common with dance-based movies, this winning formula produces successful and compelling results.  This is exemplified by “Mao’s Last Dancer”, a film that retells the unique journey of  ballet dancer Li Cunxin.  In two hours, we learn how he was selected from a rural village in China to compete for a spot at Beijing’s national ballet school, his acceptance into that academy, how he spent his youth and adolescence training for a professional career at this rigorous institution, the separation from his family during these formative years, his voyage to the States for a summer intensive, how he found love, became a star, made the difficult decision to stay in America, fought to make that happen and how he endured the consequences of that choice.  At each point, the audience is keenly aware of  three desires: Cunxin’s longing for home, his continual search for artistic meaning, and his pursuit of freedom.  Throughout his life, these yearnings were often at odds with each other.  However, by the end of the movie, Cunxin has experienced the joy of an existence where all three were finally realized.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Chi Cao was absolutely superb in the title role; a combination of solid acting and transcendent dance.  One scene particularly stood out.  After years of not being permitted to see or communicate with his parents, Li is reunited with them toward the end of the film.  This moment was so raw -  Cao was pure emotion as he dropped to his knees in tears.  All of his dancing was extraordinary, but specifically the Act III variation and pas de deux from Don Quixote.  The way in which the cinematography captured Cao’s technique was stirring; the audience in the movie theater applauded like they were watching him live on stage.  That’s how genuine, authentic and transformative “Mao’s Last Dancer” is.  

Two members of the supporting cast also deserve particular mention.  Madeleine Eastoe (as Lori) was delightful, both in the dramatic portions and in her few instances of comic relief.  The excerpts of Eastoe and Cao in “Swan Lake” were teasing to any ballet fan.  I immediately wanted to see more of them in this particular version of the full-length classic.  Amanda Schull (as Liz) has really come into her own as an actor.  A decade has passed since her first foray into film  (“Center Stage”), and she has certainly used this time to improve her acting.  The scene in Liz’s apartment where she watches Li dancing on television was fabulous.  Schull had no lines here, but her face spoke volumes.  She is no longer just ‘a dancer who acts’; she is an actor.  Having said that, I will admit that I missed seeing her dance in this movie.  Now that her acting and ballet skills are on par with each other, it would have been nice to see the latter utilized.

Monday, August 16, 2010

San Francisco Ballet - Stern Grove Festival

San Francisco, CA
August 8, 2010

The weather was a bit unsteady and unpredictable last weekend at the Stern Grove Festival, but it proved no match for the San Francisco Ballet.  This was the first time that I had seen the company since returning to the Bay Area and their mixed repertory performance certainly has me anticipating the coming 2010-2011 season.

The opening ballet was the one most affected by mother nature.  As the temperature in the grove began to drop and the precipitation kicked in, “Prism”, by artistic director Helgi Tomasson, had to be interrupted.  The stage is in the open air though protected by a canopy, and thus, the performers from most of the elements (though not from the cold air that does tend to permeate the outer sunset district of SF).  The surface wasn't accumulating any water, and I imagine that the dancers themselves were staying relatively dry, but the orchestra was completely vulnerable.  After the first movement, they had to be ushered under cover to protect their instruments.  Then, once the sky had calmed down, “Prism” continued with its second and third movements.  This beautiful work is a unique take on neo-classicism.  Tomasson demonstrates that this particular style of ballet should not be a celebration of bravado, but instead should seek to uncover and reveal the relationship between choreography and music.  Here, the shining star was not one particular dancer, but the choreography itself as Tomasson unlocked the intricacies of petit allegro.  The old favorites in this oeuvre were definitely present, though “Prism” was anything but predictable.  Every few phrases, some unusual steps were thrown in for color and dynamics, including accented, staccato balletés in parallel.

The program forged on with two pas de deuxs – the first from Christopher Wheeldon's “After the Rain” (an ironic title for this particular show), and the second from Act III of “Don Quixote”.  Both were danced by fan favorites (Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith followed by Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz, respectively) and these seasoned dancers were strong and solid as one would expect.  But Tan, Feijoo and Luiz were less than inspiring (Smith, on the other hand was a force).  Something was lacking with them.  It really seemed like they were just going through the motions of the piece rather than surrendering to it.

I think we can all admit that ballet could use a little more fun in its life.  Enter Mark Morris' “Sandpaper Ballet”, which closed the afternoon at the grove.  In this full-length work, Morris takes the audience on a whimsical romp through the school yard, complete with teasing, competition and camaraderie.  This fusion of ballet and modern dance was a needed break because really, there are only so many piqué arabesques and supported pirouettes that one can take in an afternoon.  Seeing something different is just plain refreshing.  And, it is good for the audience to be reminded of and exposed to the breadth of these artists and this company.           

The men of the San Francisco Ballet never disappoint; every time, they just absolutely astound me.  Tomasson's “Prism” accentuated their incredible sense of timing.  They turn in exact unison; not just finishing at the same instant, but also within each internal revolution.  These dancers are so completely in tune with each other every second they are onstage.  Their training is cohesive and all encompassing.  Excellence in individual technique is definitely being sought, while at the same time, the importance of being a reliable and steady partner is being stressed.

I'm still not sure what Christopher Wheeldon is trying to say or do with "After the Rain", but nonetheless, Damian Smith's performance in it was stunning.  So often, he gets overshadowed by the powerhouse women that he dances with.  Here, he was dominant; he was commanding.  Smith was not just there to facilitate the ballerina.  He was the draw.   

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Laughter in the Dark - Robillard Theatreworks

The Garage, San Francisco, CA
August 6, 2010

A man's dissatisfaction with his life sends him out searching - searching for something better, for someone better.  His journey ultimately takes him into a manipulative adulterous relationship, where he unexpectedly morphs from the controller to the controllee.  Others experience the repercussions of his actions - his wife, his child, his friends, and in the end, we learn that his dissatisfaction has always been with himself.  Robillard Theatreworks' artistic director, Sarah Moss, has created a unique theatrical adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's haunting story: "Laughter in the Dark".  What begins as a dramatic play is transformed into subtle dance theatre with the addition of well-placed and thoughtfully choreographed movement sequences.   

Photo by Sarah Moss
The first dance theatre interlude found three women of the evening luring, teasing and enticing the main character, Albert Albinus.  The steps in this section were role-appropriate with slinky high kicks and circling hips, but they were also purposely melodramatic.  The choreography was carefully designed to present a situation and make fun of it at the same time.  What we saw here was a very common dance theatre technique done well: seriousness combined with satire in the hopes of revealing the themes of the story.      

Act II's opening dance was the highlight of the evening in which Margery Fairchild (Elisabeth) painted the portrait of an emotionally-abused woman.  Her relationship with her husband (Albert) had long been a contentious power struggle coupling her desire for love and attention with his longing for control and escape.  Then, adding to their already embittered dynamic, comes a letter revealing his infidelity.  Elisabeth rips up this note in a mesmerizing ritual trying to rid her life of this harsh realization.  After the pieces scatter, her demeanor shifts.  Suddenly, she struggles to clean up the remnants in a desperate attempt to maintain some semblance of order in the mess that is her life.  The captivating solo was full of balancés, a smart choice with which to tell this character's story.  This step follows a down, up, up pattern, speaking to the roller coaster ride that is Elisabeth's existence.  

Photo by Sarah Moss
Moss' use of Frederic Chopin's Prelude in Db Major and his Prelude in A Major were very fitting to underscore the tense family scenes in the Albinus home.  Both compositions are full of appoggiatura, an important musical motif that Chopin favored in much of his work.  The purpose of this embellishment is to create dissonance on the strong beats of the music.  Very fitting for this group of individuals; an audible dischord to frame their domestic strife.

Sarah Moss understands dance theatre and knows how to effectively utilize its devices.  Much work from his genre has a tendency to spiral into absurdity's abyss and it does not have to be that way.  For dance theatre to work, a recognizable narrative is needed.  Maybe a literal story, maybe not, but something more than just conceptual abstraction.  Robillard Theatreworks' "Laughter in the Dark" provides this narrative framework; a true example of dance theatre.  It challenged the audience while still making sense.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Labayen Dance/SF - Carmina Burana: Revisited

Dance Mission Theatre, San Francisco, CA
July 23, 2010

Choreography for narrative dance must be representational.  Plot, characters and their relationships are important, but alone, insufficient.  The movement itself must convey the story and the message.  It has to mean something.  Enrico Labayen gets this and he is able to translate it onto the stage.  Labayen Dance/SF's new evening length production, "Carmina Burana: Revisited", is packed with choreographic motifs that speak of his narrative concept.  They celebrate the complexity and vastness of the female being: power, strength, allure and just the tiniest bit of vulnerability.

The idea of second position was a recurring theme in Labayen's choreography.  We saw it in plie, on straight-leg and in the air (extensions in ecarte).  This stance is one of the most powerful in dance; it provides a large base area where the dancer is solid, strong and commanding.  Labayen's use of this boundless position reflected an equally authoritative quality in his seven female dancers.  Bent elbows were another predominant motif, that served a dual purpose.  At times the women looked as though they were being 'hung' by their elbows; almost like puppets.  And, in other moments, the bent elbows took on more of a bird-like quality with an aura of freedom.  With one simple position, we were provided insight into two states of being: control and abandon.  A third repeated sequence occurred in between the different vignettes.  Once the dancers had completed their variation, they would walk forward toward the audience with a piercing glance, and then slowly turn upstage and walk away.  They were a little bit like models on a runway.  Definitely confrontational, yet at the same time, seductive.

Without a doubt, the stand-out performer of the evening was Crystaldawn Bell.  Her two solos were absolutely astounding; every movement merging seamlessly with the next.  Hers was a presence of calmness and elegance combined with strong technique.  From her penchee arabesque to her backwards fish roll to her circling shoulders, every step was lush.

"Carmina Burana: Revisited" was divided into 21 short scenes, 10 in the first half and 11 in the second.  The idea of these movement-specific segments was interesting, though the transition between each was much too abrupt.  It gave the work a halting, stop/start feeling that I think can be improved upon.  Also, the unison dancing needs to be more exact.  This particular evening was the premiere of "Carmina Burana: Revisited" so I imagine that the synchronicity will better gel over time.     

Successful narrative dance requires that its choreographers go 'all in'.  Labayen Dance/SF has done it with "Carmina Burana: Revisited".  Enrico Labayen has reminded us that if you are going to tell a story, tell it everywhere - in the dancers' eyes, in their walk, in their glances and most important, in their movement. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Post:Ballet - Concert One

Cowell Theater, San Francisco, CA
July 17, 2010

Ballet fans who live in the San Francisco/Bay Area are truly lucky.  Whether your taste is traditional or contemporary, there is something for you.  In addition to the touring companies that come through Northern California, San Francisco Ballet, LINES Ballet, Smuin Ballet, Diablo Ballet, and Company C Contemporary Ballet all call this place home.  The talent is here and there is ample opportunity to see it.  As of this weekend, an addition must be made to this already impressive list.  Robert Dekkers new endeavor, Post:Ballet, gave its inaugural performance at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason.  Aptly named Concert One, this program was an exciting display of strong choreographic talent, solid technical dancing and experimental interdisciplinary collaboration.  But, what was most apparent on Saturday night was the freshness and optimism that radiated from the stage.

The best piece of the evening (in my opinion, at least) was "B-Sides", danced by Jared Hunt and Christian Squires.  Dekkers' concept for this work provided insight into one character, at two different points in his life - Hunt's adult juxtaposed against Squires' youth.  This was fabulous casting; these two men were well-matched technically and visually compelling in the piece.  The choreography for the older persona had a maturity in its movement.  His arms cut through space with a defined confidence, showing the volume, depth and vastness of experience.  Hunt's solo was joyful and jazzy - hopping and scooting from side to side, with strong extensions emerging out of several turns.  His was an expression of being carefree yet certain; Dekkers' choreography indicated a strength of conviction.  The second, more adolescent perspective, was generally more placed and staid.  There were intermittent moments of wildness, but always returning to a careful and restrained quality.  "B-Sides" is an important work because it shows that duets do not always have to read as a relationship between two individuals.  In this case, the audience was able to see two different sides of one person: a grounded confidence alongside a youthful searching.

The women's ballet, "Flutter", was equally intriguing.  The first half was a specific, intricate and detailed examination of polyphony: unison dancing interspersed with subtle moments of canon.  Beau Campbell, Ashley Flaner and Beth Kaczmarek were right on with the canon sections, but when they were in unison, they were not really working as a team.  They seemed spatially unaware of each other; almost like we were watching three soloists instead of a well-defined trio.  The choreography wasn't the problem; it was the delivery of it that needed some attention.  Having said that, once we were into the second half of "Flutter", things got better.  They were able to focus their group dynamic a bit more and we were afforded some instances of brilliant technique - Beth Kaczmarek's pique attitude deserves particular mention.  

The two remaining pieces involved musical collaborators, each of whom performed their original compositions onstage with the company.  "Milieu" looked like a picture of social anxiety.  The curtain opened to find the dancers enveloped internally - folded into positions where some covered their eyes and some their ears.  In contrast, "The Happiness of Pursuit" was an exploration of human movement; an abandonment of boundaries that led to a number of physical revelations.  I enjoyed both of these works, though they were both very dense.  With all seven dancers, live music, dominant lighting designs and smoke, there was too much going on.  The choreography and the message got a little buried by all these extras.

Post:Ballet is going to be a group to watch over the next decade.  As this company continues to grow and develop, I hope that they are able to remember and summon the abundant hopefulness and enthusiasm that was present at their first full-length concert.  

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Traveling Light - Joe Goode Performance Group

Old San Francisco Mint, San Francisco, CA
July 8, 2010

Joe Goode Performance Group's presentation of "Traveling Light" was a site specific tour through a theatrical wonderland.  The scenes of the piece unfolded in five different rooms of the Old San Francisco Mint building; each weaving together the dramatic fibers of several interdisciplinary elements.  Under the direction of Joe Goode, these ingredients became an artistic composite.  "Traveling Light" was big - sometimes in size, but always, in scope and vision.  The largess was compelling and fun, and within it (or occasionally buried beneath it) were four simple observations of humanity.

Want and Need
A melodramatic musing on luxury, extravagance and wealth met us first.  A female character was perched on one balcony, against an opulent, full purple ballgown.  From this place, she delivered her droll monologue on the plight of the rich.  Her elevation was literal; she was physically above us.  Though, it was also figurative.  Her text and the cadence of her voice signified an entitlement, a 'better-than' mentality.  This dancer then came down to our level (sans the dynamic gown, wig and jewelry) and as she addressed us face-to-face, it became apparent that the pull between want and need was her message.  The suspension and release in the closing choreography spoke to this dichotomy.  Suspension is all about holding on for dear life; our belief of where we should be.  A release is a giving in, a fall, a relief: a revelation of true abandon.

Hiding and Exposure
Next came the outdoor portion which opened with a solo by Felipe Barrueto-Cabello.  While portraying a poverty-stricken character, his movements toggled between closed and open.  In several instances, he folded his body and hid his face illustrating how personal struggle often turns into invisibility.  In addition, these enclosed movements were combined with an unencumbered, joyful display of the sternum and xiphoid process.  These areas of the body reveal the center in a very vulnerable way, exposing one's inner soul and its deep longing to be seen.  This section ended with Barrueto-Cabello carrying half a dozen or so cabbages and walking forward toward the audience.  He slowly progressed step by step, trying with all his conviction to keep a hold of every prop.  Many fell and rolled all over the stage - a realization of the utmost importance.  If you try to balance everything on your own, it almost always ends up in a mess.  

The dancers in the third room began by speaking about quiet, so I thought that perhaps the idea of stillness would be the insight here.  But, as this Act progressed,  stillness and quiet gradually fell into the background and the emphasis shifted to active noticing.  We followed the journey of two people who were initially unaware of each other through a process of transition and finally, into an organic duet where both parties were in the partnership.  They moved from a haphazard disconnect to a natural pas de deux.  So many gifts come from paying attention and simply being aware.

Appearances and Reality   
This final variation was all about facade.  We were introduced to a very tightly-wound female character, who spoke about expectations, manners and appropriateness while moving about the floor in a high-collared, hugely-bustled, mechanical white dress.  She spoke in an articulate, affected manner and paused in between her thoughts to pose like some sort of puppet or doll.  As she began to describe the romantic escapades of one youthful summer, she stepped out of her dress and began to dance with her suitor.  Here, the full inventory of a relationship was explored without pretense.  Through a contact improvisation styled duet, we saw it all: love, desire, anger, fighting, silence.  Nothing contrived; only truth. 

For the most part, the project's organizational challenges were no match for these talented artists.  Most of the performers had variations in different spaces during the same Act.  They entered and exited each room with confidence and determination, never once looking flustered or rushed.  And, at any given moment, wherever they needed to be, they were completely present - physically, emotionally and corporeally.  With such grounded commitment, it was hard to believe that just a minute prior, they had been dancing completely different choreography in a completely different place to completely different music with a completely different purpose. 

The division of "Traveling Light" into several spaces also brought unique logistical issues.  The audience was broken into four groups, each originating in a different place.  In order to see the entire work, the groups were escorted to and from the rooms, all four cycling in their own trajectory.  The ushers and front of house staff accomplished this difficult task with incredible efficiency; they were a well-oiled machine.  The pre-show was perhaps the only organizational obstacle that had not yet been conquered.  Prior to the main performance, the audience was encouraged to explore the downstairs vaults, where we could see the staging of humorous, topical vignettes.  There were just too many people in too small a space.   Attempts were made to route the crowd in different directions but everyone just ended up bottlenecked in the main corridor.  The company also performed a beautiful vocal overture that looked like it had some movement associated with it.  Unfortunately, if you were on the side of the room that I was, you saw nothing but their backs.  I think the pre-show is a great idea, but in order to really get a sense (or even a glimpse) of what is happening, the logistical strategy may need to be re-visited.           

A work of this magnitude requires a sizeable cast.  To that end, the company was supplemented with 'additional performers', acting as a chorus of sorts.  Too often, a chorus morphs into set dressing and their purpose becomes the provision of silent density onstage.  Not this group.  This was an assembly of unique and distinct bodies and personalities.  They were necessary for the messages being conveyed; well-integrated, very present and moving all the time.  Their individuality was refreshing, but there was too much variance in the level of these eight dancers.  Technical maturity was definitely at odds.  Some were absolutely up to the task of Goode's choreography, while others just weren't ready yet for work of this level.  And, being right next to each other made these technical differences even more obvious.  All the performers in "Traveling Light" were good dancers, just at different points in their training.