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.