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.