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.