Thursday, June 24, 2010

Liss Fain Dance

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
June 18, 2010

Merce Cunningham's modern dance tradition will always be a force.  The late choreographer's company is on its last tour (ending December 31, 2011), after which the group will disband.  Merce Cunningham Dance Company's final bow will be a significant event, marking the end of an enduring modern dance institution.  But thankfully, that evening will not be the end of the Cunningham influence.  From technique to improvisational processes to chance procedures, students of this rich tradition are contributing to and ensuring the survival of the Cunningham legacy.   Liss Fain has a respect for this past coupled with a commitment to moving forward.

The Liss Fain Dance program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts featured two premieres, How It Ends and Speak of Familiar Things.  Both were incredibly strong works that demonstrated Fain's unique choreographic intuition and her desire to take risks.  How It Ends was an interesting exploration of synchronicity.  The dancer's lower bodies moved in unison while their arms, heads, and upper torsos performed differing elements.  Like in much Cunningham work, there was a common denominator; a central theme; a stabilizing force.  And, at the same time, several different variations were applied against the basic motif.  Sameness and difference - both at once.  Also, the traveling triplet made a significant appearance in this dance, sweeping across the stage.  This was the first time in a long time that I have been able to visibly pick out this fundamental modern dance step in performance.  The triplet is so simple, so beautiful, yet so often absent.  Fain's use of this one movement spoke volumes on the contrasting qualities of loftiness and groundedness; said with a continual down, up, up; down, up, up.  How It Ends also featured some very complex, challenging and dense partnering sequences.  It was creative choreography, though a bit abrupt as the dancers cycled through the various duets.  The transitional steps needed a little more attention.

In the artistic notes, Fain reveals that Speak of Familiar Things has a literary connection; to that of Wallace Stevens' poem, “Debris of Life and Mind”.  As soon as the curtain went up, I also felt a very strong literary bond, but mine was to "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak.  The music, the colors, the backdrop, the costumes and the choreography all pointed me in this direction.  From the beginning second to the blackout, animal movements jumped from the stage: the serpentine snaking of the spine and head, the wing-span suggested by arms slightly bent in 2nd position, the use of coordinating rather than oppositional arms and legs and the stag jumps.

Sometimes the biggest risk is also the most meaningful offering.  Such is the case with How It Ends and Speak of Familiar Things.  Liss Fain's utilization of classical technique with modern sensibility speaks of the past and the future.  Her dancers have incredibly strong ballet technique, and Fain is not afraid to highlight this training and let it shine in her choreography.  This is a gutsy, risky move, because so many modern choreographers still run as far away from ballet as they possibly can.  Classical technique should be celebrated in modern dance; not hidden nor avoided.  This is an apparent and necessary lesson of Cunningham choreography and Cunningham technique.  Liss Fain was paying attention.   

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Tosca Project

American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, CA
June 10, 2010

History is compelling. Representations of real-life events are just more interesting than those that are made-up. These are the true human experience; depictions that, for a moment, allow the audience insight into a past era and the experience of another's reality. American Conservatory Theater's The Tosca Project shares the long journey of a celebrated North Beach landmark: Tosca Cafe. As numerous decades pass onstage, change is there, but so is stability. By the time the lights fade in the final scene, many things have developed, evolved and adapted, but much has stayed the same.

The framework for the historical study of this institution was a dance chronology.  An abundance of movement styles were included but these dance forms were more than just steps; there was definite meaning behind them. The 20s Charleston was all about indulgence, extravagance and a belief that the gloriousness could never end. Enter the Depression, where a fantasy dance sequence graced the stage. In this, you could see the characters needing and wanting to forget their reality and transcend themselves to a different place. The slow, yearning pas de deux to “What'll I Do” signified the separation of wartime and when the fighting was over, the ecstatic jitterbug took center stage. But, amidst this elation also lived sorrow. In the duet's reprise, the returning sailor was incapable of his original movements. He was a shell of his former self; his soul gone. The 60s brought in the broad hippie movements of peace, hope and love, with circular dances of inclusion and belonging followed by the partying disco of the seventies. And then, a solo dancer dressed in black doubled-over with pain as he desperately tried to dance as he once could. This was the devastation of AIDS in the 1980s when it first emerged as a deadly epidemic. All these scenes represented specific moments of the past, and the dances of each decade helped to identify each vignette. But the choreography also spoke to the life of those periods: the emotions, the relationships, the fears, and the joy.

As the 1989 earthquake hits Tosca Cafe, past characters and movement motifs return to the stage while the owners are cleaning up. These variations were unchanged from their original appearance. What we learn here is that walls, windows and furniture are not the building blocks of Tosca; instead, it was these people, their interactions and their presence that created the community of this space.

The most important contribution of The Tosca Project is that finally there is dance theater that makes sense. Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli have managed to conquer this obscure genre by creating a piece that is accessible but not trite, inventive but not bizarre, intelligent but not obvious. For some reason, the category of dance theater has became synonymous with the strange and the odd. I am tired of seeing dancers scream onstage for 10 minutes or cut their costumes away at a painfully slow pace all under the guise of 'dance theater'. Enough with the weirdness! Dance theater and conceptual modern dance are not the same thing, period. If dance theater artists could take a step back and see that the genre they have chosen requires some type of recognizable story, we would all be better off. The Tosca Project proves that dance theater can be rigorous and challenging while still being delightful, enjoyable and easy to relate to.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Spinning Yarns Dance Collective & Robin Anderson with RE|Dance

Standing In The Current
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco, CA
June 5, 2010

Art is subjective. Audiences need the opportunity to reach their own conclusions. Unfortunately, some choreographers over-educate their viewers. Program notes can be helpful; but sometimes, they are problematic. Those that fall into this latter category simply provide too much information and take away the audience's interpretive ability. Standing In The Current, a two-company collaboration at Dance Mission Theater, showed both sides of this coin. One group permitted a glimpse into their process without summarizing every aspect of the work. Sadly, the other gave everything away. Nothing was left up to the imagination.

"The Mysterious Disappearance of the Second Youngest Sister" was a successful harmonization of story and structure. It placed characters and relationships into a Brontesque antiquity where period costumes, vintage books, an old-fashioned dress form and a weathered typewriter graced the stage. There was a palpable commitment to the narrative, though the movement never fell victim to the plot. The story existed as a framework within which the choreography's essence could be revealed. Perhaps the most fascinating element of the movement vocabulary was its unique take on control. Robin Anderson, Michael Estanich and Lucy Riner focused on the precarious dualism of this issue. There's was a study of balance versus non-balance and stillness versus frenzy. There were mini competitions in the piece to see who could sustain each movement quality the longest. Another motif found the dancers piling books into tall columns and then attempting to balance on top of them - a powerful comment about uncertainty. Had the focus been purposely directed into a complex narrative, these important movement explorations might have been missed.

Spinning Yarns Dance Collective's two part work, "Holding On and Letting Go" was very compelling: interesting choreography, well-rehearsed, and accurately performed. Part II (which for some reason was performed first on the program) opened with several groupings onstage: a soloist working through meditative repetitive movements; a contact improv-like duet focused on weight-sharing and a trio working with synchronization. These clearly represented the different ways of dealing with grief: some turn inward and prefer to be alone, others desire mutual support, and still another option may be shared experiences with other individuals. As the dance continued, these initial groups became less isolated, merging with each other and taking on the different movement qualities. Again, a clear showing of how we may (consciously or sub-consciously) seek numerous coping mechanisms. My main criticism of the work is that I had been told what I was supposed to be seeing by the artistic notes. And, after reading them, it was impossible to watch the piece from a neutral place. Susan Donham's choreography is good; it doesn't need such an in-depth written explanation. It can stand on its own.

A little ambiguity in dance goes a long way. Give us a chance to make the connections.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Google Woman: Images of Female - Quixotic Dance Technologies

Z Space @ Theater Artaud, San Francisco
June 4, 2010

Google Woman: Images of Female takes its audience on a journey between perception and reality. Presented this past weekend by Quixotic Dance Technologies, this work conveys the porous relationship between female symbols and our conception of them. A series of vignettes examined nine different figures and sought to explore how much of ourselves we inject into these icons.

The blurry line between truth and imagination was best illustrated by the Anne Boleyn section, danced by Maria LaMance and Coreen Danaher. The strong characteristics of courtly Renaissance dance shone with intricate and delicate footwork: balletés, petit rond de jambes, and pas de bourées. The upper bodies remained quiet but responsive; LaMance and Danaher's demeanor evoking and reflecting the dignity and formality of court. At the same time, choreographer Paris Wages infused bits of contemporary movement into the dance, which revealed and questioned the relationship between historical existence and contemporary presence.

Video imaging was a huge part of Google Woman. The opening sequence featured a dancer whose face was masked by a white sheet, while numerous visions of women were broadcast where her face would be. In the 3rd segment of the piece (Morgaine), the soloist's live dance was interspersed with reflections of her 'recorded self' dancing on a screen. This use of technology and videography was conceptually interesting, though its execution did interrupt the flow. At several points, members of the stage crew had to enter the space to set-up the electronics. Depending on the venue, it may be impossible to avoid this; still, it is important to acknowledge that these disruptions give any full-length work a choppy feeling.

Google Woman: Images of Female featured choreography by Paris Wages, Anandha Ray, Michael Lowe and Jennifer Charles. The movement created by each of them was interesting, appropriate and indicative of the different historic and mythical icons. They definitely did their homework and research before composing the individual sections. Having said that, much of the evening was over-choreographed. The amount of movement could have been cut in half, not in terms of length, but certainly in density. There was too much dance happening, sometimes to the point that the choreography crossed into a competitiony-dance studio look. The images of the women and the message of the project would be much clearer with some editing. Less really can say more.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Washington Ballet - Genius3

Harman Center for the Arts, Washington, D.C.
May 19, 2010

Choreographers are magicians. Not just in a figurative sense, but quite literally. Creating dance certainly takes special skill; the translation of ideas into movement is magical all by itself. But, there is also some good old-fashioned illusion present in much choreography. Clues to intent are hidden within staging; nuances and structural intricacies layered beneath steps and sequences. These elusive elements are pieces of a puzzle – keys that can help unlock the vision or meaning of a work. The Washington Ballet's “Genius³” program featured four ballets brimming with these hidden treasures: The Four Temperaments (George Balanchine), Cor Perdut (Nacho Duato), Pacific (Mark Morris) and Push Comes to Shove (Twyla Tharp).

The mystique behind The Four Temperaments lies in its ability to defy categorization. In one sense it is a representational study of the four humors, giving each of them life through movement (melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic and choleric). A perfect example is the hip thrust/grand battement motif, indicating the aggressive passion of the choleric. Though in another sense, the ballet is very presentational, illustrating the structural relationship between music and dance. Shown by Jonathan Jordan's temps levées series, which grew in height and intensity along with the musical crescendo, as well as Maki Onuki and Brooklyn Mack's attention to the sforzando dynamics in their variation. This epic work is narrative, but not only narrative; it is abstract, but not only abstract. The Four Temperaments speaks truth to both choreographic forms - as maybe only George Balanchine could - without merging them into some sort of hybrid.

There were many compelling moments in Mark Morris' Pacific. The opening scene had a ghostly quality, as the women eerily floated across the stage – ethereally bouréeing in parallel. Jétés also had a special purpose in this piece as their presence corresponded to and emphasized changes in meter and time signature. But Pacific's veiled gem was in its partnering; this dance reminds us what a pas de deux really is. The duet between Jade Payette and Jonathan Jordan had some beautiful lifts and balances, yet it truly was a 'dance of two'. Morris revealed the simple power that exists between two bodies in space, where a glance can be more telling and meaningful than a spectacular bluebird lift.

In most dance literature, Twyla Tharp's Deuce Coupe (1973) is given praise as the first 'fusion' or 'cross-over' ballet, wherein classical and modern dance mixed together. Push Comes to Shove was made three years later, and although it was not the first, it may be the best example of fusion dance. In Deuce Coupe, one dancer performs textbook ballet exercises amidst a flurry of modern choreography. Both genres are present on stage, but the individual characters remain true to their own style - the ballerina sticks to ballet and everyone else stays with modern. Push Comes to Shove takes this creative notion one step further with every dancer taking on both styles of movement. This dance represents an entirely different and more advanced level of synthesis.

Sona Kharatian has been receiving a lot of attention lately with The Washington Ballet. She was prominently featured in their last program, “Bolero(+)” and was onstage for most of “Genius³” (dancing main parts in The Four Temperaments, Cor Perdut and Push Comes to Shove). But, unfortunately, at Wednesday night's preview, her performance was off. Her role in The Four Temperaments was full of piqué arabesques and Kharatian's working leg was continually bent, never reaching a full extension. Cor Perdut, her duet with Jared Nelson, began with a partnering fumble that garnered an audible gasp from the audience. Her preparation into a supported roll was both a little late and too far away from Nelson to be successful. Her upper back also seemed stiff throughout the whole program; her torso not responding to the curvature required by both Duato's and Tharp's choreography. And, in her traveling turns, she left the upper portion of her spine behind, rather than turning in one clean motion. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to learn that she was either ill or fighting an injury.

I love watching new ballets, but often feel that at the first viewing, so much detail is missed. With more established works, such as those on TWB's "Genius³" program, there is an opportunity to look beyond the surface of the ballet to the choreographic wealth that lies beneath.