Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Top Dance Blogs of 2011

My blog made it to the top 20 of Dance Advantage's Top Dance Blogs of 2011!  Go to the link and below and vote for me - I'm listed third from the bottom.


"The Nutcracker" - Peninsula Ballet Theatre

Fox Theatre, Redwood City
December 17, 2011

Artistic Director Bruce Steivel has created a delightful “Nutcracker” for one of the South Bay's charming professional companies, Peninsula Ballet Theatre. In its second year of production, Steivel's version of the Christmas ballet keeps to the traditional story yet offers some very appropriate narrative additions. For example, the first scene's party guests are dignitaries representing the nations that will re-appear in Act II's 'Land of the Sweets'. This makes so much sense and offers a new-found continuity. And, when it came to Act I, Scene three's 'Kingdom of Snow', Steivel's intricate choreography came alive with dynamic range and technical skill.

A gorgeous lift opened the snow scene as the Snow Queen (Chelsea Hix) made her regal entrance. Supported by her Snow King (Nathan Cottam), Hix floated through the air completely upright, in a breathtaking standing lift. The snowflakes had equally impressive moments, especially their first canon sequence. As each group began Steivel's delicate choreography, an actual snowfall emerged onstage. Staggering the corps' movement allowed for a real-time experience of winter weather - light and calm one moment; heavy and chaotic in the next. With the snow music being in ¾ time, it obviously lends itself to waltz combinations but, envisioning unique and creative choreography for this well-known score can be challenging. In addition to the typical balancé and piqué vocabulary, Steivel was able to inject some steps that fit well with the waltz tempo yet are less frequently used in this vignette – the ballonés were my personal favorite.

As the principal snow scene dancers, Hix and Cottam shone in their lifts, their solo work and the majority of their pas de deux. Their side by side grand jetés were fantastic – expertly matching each other's height, extension and landing. Where they struggled was in some of the supported turns and promenades. Though the exact issue was unclear, I imagine that it was due to a combination of balance and timing on both of their parts. Hix fell off of pointe during several of these partnered turns and balances (though she covered well) which indicated something was clearly off during their duet.

"The Nutcracker" - Ballet San Jose

San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, San Jose
December 17, 2011

Ballet San Jose's “The Nutcracker” affords the Bay Area yet another opportunity to experience the traditional Christmas tale. Choreographed by Artistic Director Dennis Nahat on the former Cleveland Ballet in 1979, this production centers around the main character of Maria Tannenbaum and her beloved Nutcracker Prince. While much of Act One is familiar to any “Nutcracker” fan, Act Two is quite a diversion from the typical “Nutcracker” story. Instead of arriving in the 'Land of the Sweets', Maria and the Prince travel through three different lands. In each locale, they are greeted with the dance of that nation and are invited to participate. Lastly, they arrive at their final destination of Muscovy and it is here where the Prince is joyfully reunited with his parents, Tsarina Tatiana and Tsar Nikolai (danced by Karen Gabay and Rudy Candia at this performance) and is able to introduce them to Maria.

Photo by Robert Shomler
Act I, Scene IV, aptly named 'A Wondrous Snowstorm', highlights Nahat's unique ability to marry classic and contemporary sensibilities. The technique and physical syntax definitely fall into the classical camp. The snowflakes run into the space like ethereal fairies, carrying handfuls of snow that they dispel into the air. Beautiful port de bras fills the entire group dance that follows. The hands and arms move above the head, gently brushing the sky in combination with airy pas de basques; chaîné turns fall into waltz steps and balancés while the arms alternate between bras bas and 5th position. Constant motion was the name of the game; even in the few moments where the snowflakes posed in a particular position, there was no stopping. You could see them growing and extending every second they were on stage – constant and impenetrable flow and grace. Some classical patterning also deserves special mention. Near the end of the scene, a gorgeous musical glissando is represented by sequenced floorwork that increased in tempo and intensity as dictated by the score. And, the winter wonderland concluded with the snowflakes boureéing in a zipper formation, engulfing Maria and the Prince in their embrace before sending them off on the next leg of their adventure.

It was in the narrative that Nahat employed a more contemporary interpretation of the snow scene (and for me his choices make a lot of sense). He elects not to feature a Snow King or Queen and instead have Maria and the Prince dance the entire pas de deux together. This choice allows a stronger participatory element to their story – they are really involved in the transition from the party through the snowy forest and into the next dimension. By having them dance these 'lead roles', Maria and the Prince are not only present but also active in every part of their journey.

When I attend any ballet, my focus is obviously on the dancing and choreography. I tend to not comment too much about design or costumes but every once in a while, one of these elements is so overwhelming that it must be mentioned. I felt transported by the stunning snow scenery in Ballet San Jose's “The Nutcracker”. David Guthrie has envisioned a set that creates a wintry forest possessing emotion, beauty and depth. Bravo!

Friday, December 16, 2011

"The Nutcracker" - Berkeley Ballet Theater

Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, Berkeley
December 10th, 2011

"The Nutcracker" at Berkeley Ballet Theater is a charming interpretation of the Christmas classic, complete with a few very appropriate Berkeley-esque adjustments.  Choreographed by Sally Streets and Robert Nichols, the annual production showcases the talent and dedication of this school's teachers, students and parents.

In the finale of Act I, the Snow Queen (Katie Wilson) and King (Damon Mahoney) presided over their wintry kingdom with stunning poise while the six snowflakes filled the stage with a tranquil flutter.  Streets and Nichols' choreography is based in a circular thematic in order to reflect snow's shape and texture.  The port de bras followed several unique patterns that spoke to this conceptual imagery: both arms circled from bras bas up to a high 5th position; and the Snow Queen made a similar pathway from 1st position to 3rd arabesque.  Petit allegro sequences (lots of temps leveé) were also favored, imitating a light, airy snowfall.  While the choreography and staging were beautifully done, I think the more noteworthy accomplishment is the artistic and technical education that students are receiving at Berkeley Ballet Theater.  These dancers are being taught solid technique  - obvious throughout the entire show, but specifically present with the snowflakes.  There is clear emphasis being placed on keeping square and understanding how your legs, arms and core must work together to create the complexity that is classical ballet. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Nutcracker" - San Francisco Ballet

Mariellen Olson in Tomasson's "Nutcracker"
Photo by Erik Tomasson
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 9, 2011

If you long for a December filled with freezing precipitation, Helgi Tomasson's "Nutcracker" can fill that void with gorgeous costuming, inspired choreography and an abundance of glistening snow.  Act I's final scene is a brilliant physical expression of a winter dreamworld. 

Tomasson's snow scene begins with delicate choreography; an accurate interpretation of a quiet, tranquil, light snowfall.  The snowflake dancers move through their intricate formations with waltz steps, emboîté turns and piqués onto pointe - smooth, gentle phrases that cover the stage like a warm blanket.  As the intensity and tempo of the snowfall increases, a relevé sequence is added marking the staccato nature of the more dramatic winter weather.  The King and Queen of the Snow preside over this entire journey with a defined regality, performing noble lifts and majestic turns.  On opening night, these roles were danced by the elegant duo of Davit Karapetyan and Vanessa Zahorian.  These two principals perform as a solid unit, giving consummate artistic and technical attention to every step from the overhead lifts to the low attitude turns.

In my review of last year's production, I noted that the women's corps de ballet was having some difficulty gelling as a group.  It was wonderful to see that just twelve months later, a comprehensive team has emerged - the corps should be very pleased with the strides they have made over the past year.  This newfound collective strength is definitely positive, though at the same time, it did emphasize that one snowflake was having a rough performance on opening night.  She was having difficulty maintaining the squareness in her hips and shoulders and her chaîné turns were very wobbly.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"The Nutcracker" - An Overture to 2011

As each "Nutcracker" season approaches, dance writers and critics are faced with making their interpretation of the Christmas classic new yet again.  It is no easy task to make something so familiar seem fresh year after year.  And, with most critics seeing a number of "Nutcrackers" each December, new ideas become even more challenging.  So this year, I decided to focus my attention on one single (and perhaps my favorite) vignette: the snow scene.  The reviews above will discuss how each production treats this winter wonderland.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Tanztheater Wuppertal

Photo by : Bettina Stoß
Cal Performances presents
Pina Bausch's "Danzón"
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
December 3, 2011

Appearing at Cal Performances for the first time since Pina Bausch's sudden passing in 2009, Tanztheater Wuppertal brought her brilliant and somewhat light-hearted 1995 work "Danzón" to the Berkeley stages last weekend.  While chronicling the journey that humanity travels in the space between birth and death, Bausch's legacy, drive and creativity lives on.  She pushed boundaries like no one else and had an unmatched ability to juxtapose text, dance and design all in service of her chosen narrative.  As we soon bid a bittersweet farewell to one of the foremost modern dance companies, it is wonderful that Tanztheater Wuppertal continues to share the magic of Bausch dance-theater.

The various stages of life were beautifully represented through Bausch's blend of drama, humor and absurdity.  The opening images gave us birth as a grown man (dressed as a baby in an oversized diaper) crawls across the stage.  First love unfolded in the seesaw scene, and the women used oranges to learn how to kiss.  An abundance of journey/travel symbols were used as props (bags and suitcases) and when one part of the set briefly and purposely burst into flames, Bausch was commenting on unexpected challenges.  The final moments brought us to the end of life with a lengthy grave scene. 

The choreography closely followed the central theme by employing movements that were about motion and going somewhere.  The first duet danced by two women in white introduced a swimming motif, which recurred several times throughout the two-hour piece.  Bausch was also able to incorporate the notion that in life, we sometimes make decisions of our own accord and sometimes are aided by others.  The pas de trois mid-way through "Danzón" showed a woman being tenderly lifted and assisted as she made her way through the space.  And, the final leg of the trip gave a stunning visual as to how we can approach death.  Here, one female dancer gently stepped onto the foot of her male partner, and then, he turned her ever so slightly into a lovely attitude derrière.  They repeated this short sequence from upstage right to downstage left and you could feel the calm and support as she reached her final destination.

Danzón" definitely feels lighter than many Bausch works, at least in terms of the often present violence and brutality.  Having said that, there were some obvious Bausch-isms that sang from Zellerbach Hall's stage last Saturday.  Many Bausch ballets examine the relationship between men and women from a dark perspective, specifically men's aggression toward women and women's humiliation of men.  Though dialed down quite a bit for "Danzón", both were present.  As a woman lay facedown on a massage table, her experience quickly moved from relaxing to forceful, as several men pulled and manipulated her body while she maintained a completely passive position.  In another scene, the women sat still in chairs, smiling menacingly, as the men crawled around the stage and laid their heads on the women's knees clearly seeking approval and affection.  In addition, "Danzón" contained Pina's trademark absurdist moments; the funniest one being a tent scene where the cast was assembled listening to stories and jokes, almost like a camping trip.  Then, all of a sudden, the peace and tranquility was interrupted by a disco/belly dancing performance complete with a soap box and a rubber snake.  

From a structural perspective, "Danzón" is my favorite Bausch composition (at least from what I have seen thus far).  Diverse scenework (events expressed through text and mime) was infused with varying dance vignettes (Cuban, ballet, character, partnering, lyrical and contemporary).  Many of these dance portions happened in isolation, and though separate, were still able to extrapolate the narrative and move the story forward.  The result of these 'separate' dance sequences was a marked clarity of purpose.  Much dance theater throws everything on the stage at once, producing a saturated and chaotic frenzy.  "Danzón" still had its share of bedlam but with this structural specificity, the audience was able to experience the choreography itself and really see the advanced technical level of the dancers.  They were out there on their own, vulnerably sharing each and every movement, revealing the narrative through their physical abandon.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

"Hover Space"

Photo by Lois Greenfield
Printz Dance Project
Z Space, San Francisco
November 30th, 2011

Last night, Printz Dance Project's newest endeavor, "Hover Space", burst onto the modern dance scene at Theater Artaud's Z Space.  Choreographed and conceived by Artistic Director Stacey Printz, this piece takes the idea of traditional performance space and raises it to a new height with the incorporation of a suspended dance stage.  With a talented cast, unique concept and inventive movement, "Hover Space" is a slam dunk.

Narratively there were a two interdependent themes running through the work.  First was the notion of relationships.  The opening vignettes introduced us to three different couples, whose interaction and connection would be examined over the course of the seventy-minute dance.  Second was expansion.  With the addition of a second stage, these relationships could be experienced and understood as the sum of multiple different levels.  Pas de deuxs unfolded both horizontally and vertically, bringing a richer dimension to the story of each couple and revealing several truths.  As the pairs struggled to associate with each other when on the ground and on the suspended stage, Printz exposed that relationships can be equally unsure whether they are built on stable roots or rocky foundations.  As the upper stage tilted, yet another relationship angle was explored.  As the duos climbed up to the top and slid down and away from each other, the balance of coupledom was clear - love can be precarious and easily lost or it can be strong and secure if you make the effort to catch each other.

Printz's movement vocabulary in itself is a very interesting fusion of styles: modern, hip hop and contemporary jazz.  Hip hop and jazz are not easy genres to incorporate into rigorous artistic work; they often come across looking too commercial or similar to dance competition choreography.  Printz is able to combine the three by focusing on the technical challenges of modern dance, the lyrical expression of jazz and the staccato attack of hip hop.  The jumping and rolling sequence towards the end of "Hover Space" was a physical explosion.  Its full-out abandon brought to mind the early work of LaLaLa Human Steps.

From a conceptual perspective, the 'hovering' second stage was brilliant and super cool.  In the first group scene, this suspended stage rose and the dancers dangled from the bottom in a serpentine cluster - the effect was really quite something.  Design additions like this one run the risk of being gimmicky, but because Printz paid careful attention to enmeshing all aspects of the work, everything on the stage fit together perfectly. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Top Dance Blogs of 2011

Dance Advantage is naming the Top Dance Blogs for 2011 http://danceadvantage.net/2011/11/29/top-blog-2011/.  This is the second year for this great contest and I'm entering in the Speaking Dance category - help me qualify by commenting on THIS post below.  Again, comment on this post as to what you like about my blog.  The blogs who generate the most comments move onto the next round! 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"The Christmas Ballet"

Robert Sund's "Oh, Holy Night" - Photo by Keith Sutter
Smuin Ballet
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, CA
November 25, 2011

Want a perfect way to kick off the holiday season?  Check out Smuin Ballet's 2011 edition of their famed "Christmas Ballet".  The first performances of this celebratory revue were held last weekend in Walnut Creek at the Lesher Center for the Arts and with this joyous collection of dance, one could feel the shift into festive merriment.  Broken into two acts, dubbed 'The Classical Christmas' and 'The Cool Christmas', this production is a perfect ten.

Thirty-three short numbers fill the stage over the course of two hours, each with their own flavor and feeling.  In the first act, the genres ranged from the lyrical interweaving of Celia Fushille's "Resonet in Laudibus" to the Celtic footwork of Michael Smuin's "The Gloucestershire Wassail" to the classical ballet of Amy Seiwert's "Sleigh Ride".  In the many different vignettes and scenes, particular moments of technical bliss stood out including John Speed Orr's stunning tour jeté in the overture, Susan Roemer's port de corps in pencheé during "Sleep Well" and Darren Anderson's flawless partnering skills.  "For Unto Us a Child is Born" introduced the best quartet I have seen in a long time (Robin Cornwall/Darren Anderson, Susan Roemer/Jonathan Dummar).  Although a very short sequence in the overall piece, these four dancers have a kind of intuition that cannot be taught.

Act II brought a fun variety of choreographic stylings all set to contemporary holiday music.  Fifties nostalgia was found in "Winter Weather", Broadway jazz in "Santa Baby", and Appalachian clogging in "Droopy Little Christmas Tree".  A somewhat surprising and delightful discovery made during the second half of the program is that Smuin Ballet is home to some of the better tap dancers in the SF/Bay Area: Erica Chipp, Mallory Welsh and Shannon Hurlburt.  Because rhythm tap is the trend for percussive dance these days, it is easy to forget that the more performative expressions of tap are equally (and perhaps even more) compelling.  Robert Sund's new piece for this year's "Christmas Ballet" was a lovely addition.  His musing on "Oh, Holy Night" (a pas de trois for Jonathan Mangosing, John Speed Orr and Jonathan Powell) not only had the best synchronicity of the evening but also was a tender, delicate and emotional dance for three men that still looked very masculine. 

Visit Smuin Ballet's website for upcoming performances of "The Christmas Ballet" in Carmel, Mountain View and San Francisco:

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Diablo Ballet - 18th Season

Photo by Ashraf
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
November 18, 2011

Diablo Ballet celebrated its 18th season last weekend at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek with a three piece program that spoke to the company's breadth of skill and vision.  A meeting of classical ballet and contemporary sensibility, Dominic Walsh's duet "Le Spectre de la Rose" opened the evening, danced by Rosselyn Ramirez and Domenico Luciano.  A recent addition to the Diablo Ballet repertory, Walsh has retained the traditional choreographic feel of Michel Fokine's 1911 work, highlighting the technical beauty of the ballet lexicon.  Luciano's performance as the rose was triumphant - the dramatic flexibility of his feet and the buoyancy in his ballon astounding.  But Walsh did update the ballet by injecting a newness and nuanced spin into the story.  The pas de deux between the rose and the girl had a more mysterious and edgier quality than many other versions.  Here, we saw a slightly devilish side to the usual chivalrous male character.  There was a level of manipulation and imposed control to the point that the girl eventually took on some of the rose's movements.  Walsh was alluding to the darker side of relationships and perhaps commenting on our tendency to keep these negative interactions hidden away.

Next was the world premiere of Val Caniparoli's new ballet, which offered an intense and beautiful study of suspension and release.  A chamber piece for Mayo Sugano, Derek Sakakura, Hiromi Yamazaki and Robert Dekkers, "Tears From Above" follows the pathway of the limbs as they travel out from the core, reach their point of suspension and grow into a continuous shape.  This melty tension was then contrasted with an equal and dramatic treatment of weighted release: weight in the body, weight in the air and the harnessing of those forces into choreographed movement.  This suspension/release theme remained consistent throughout the different moods and tempi of Elena Kats-Chernin's music.  The opening and middle sections had a sinuous, pulling quality followed by a very grounded allegro movement.  "Tears From Above" was a gorgeous musing on oppositional physical forces, but more than anything, it demonstrated that Caniparoli's choreography is an all-in exercise - with his work, there is no half-way.

Rounding out the program was Septime Webre's 1995 composition, "Fluctuating Hemlines".  Set to a percussion score, the entire ballet is an exciting staccato attack of the space with a two-fold concept.  First is a very clear comment on the notion of appearance and reality.  The men begin in dapper suits and the women in dresses and wigs; however, this initial costuming is short-lived (the women do put their wigs back on from time to time). The rest of the work finds the cast having shed their armor in favor of plain, yet revealing white tank-tops and shorts.  This is a shedding of pretense, of fakeness, and of expectation and so, a fluctuation between the real and the imaginary.  Second, and perhaps more literally, the technique itself fluctuated between various styles and genres.  Though the women remained on pointe for the duration of the work, there were instances of classical ballet, modern dance and even some good old-fashioned jazz.  "Fluctuating Hemlines" contains some of Webre's signature moves (his uniquely athletic jump sequences), but this fifteen-year-old piece is a little riskier - in a good way - than some of his current work.   

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"The Soldier's Tale"

Photo by David Allen
By Igor Stravinsky & C.F. Ramuz
Directed by Muriel Maffre & Tom Ross
Aurora Theatre, Berkeley, CA
November 17, 2011

"The Soldier's Tale" follows one man's post-war experience as he attempts to deal with change, define his existence, confront evil temptation and discover contentment.  While he journeys through these various seasons, he encounters the devil, played by Joan Mankin, who complicates his decision-making processes at every turn.  In Aurora Theatre's version, the soldier appears in the form of a three-foot tall puppet, physically expressed by puppeteer Muriel Maffre and vocally by L. Peter Callender.  Generally, I am not a fan of puppetry used as a theatrical tool in performance, but in "The Soldier's Tale", it was a rousing success.

At times, Maffre and the soldier puppet were a single entity, almost in a pas de deux, the two becoming one to articulate gestures and create shapes in space.  The emotions and the movement emerged from a single impulse and then radiated outward.  In an early scene, the soldier learns that his true love has moved on with her life while he was away.  In despair, the puppet cradled his broken heart as Maffre gently picked him up off the ground.  The pure power of that quiet moment was met by the audience's overwhelmed silence - you could literally hear a pin drop in the room.  The integration, while astoundingly good, was only one part of their magical duet - the puppetry in "The Soldier's Tale" was really a multi-level endeavor.  Yes, Maffre and the puppet were one character, but in addition, you could also see that they became extensions of each other, engaging in a two-way conversation.  The fact that Maffre is a dancer clearly made a huge impact on the quality and clarity of the puppetry; she understands the human body, its physical expressiveness and its ability to transmit a narrative.

From a purely visually perspective, the soldier puppet was equally humanistic and anonymous.  Combining the excellence of the puppetry with the puppet's design, the soldier really became human throughout the course of the show.  At the same time, the generality of the puppet's features created a level of anonymity.  This creature had an anyone/everyone quality, making the work very easy to relate to. 

Toward the end of the piece, Maffre morphs into the daughter of the King, a woman who becomes the object of the soldier's affection and love. In a solo that she dances after her character recovers from an illness, the audience finally experiences the full splendor of Maffre's statuesque frame.  Up until that point, she spent the majority of her stage time stooped over manipulating the puppet.  Now she was free to extend, to jump, to rise and that freedom was very present in the mid-length divertissement (which Maffre also choreographed).  While it was thrilling to see this amazing dancer moving with such beautiful abandon, the variation was a little busy.  The Aurora Theatre space is fantastic, but small, and thus, any choreography needs to pay attention to that constraint.  In a restricted space, expansive movement and constant motion can come across feeling a little claustrophobic.

Friday, November 11, 2011

RAW at The Garage

Photo by Hollis Nolan
Featuring - "Faith" by Ronja Ver & "Lumen/Lux" by Katharine Hawthorne
The Garage, San Francisco
November 9th, 2011

On Wednesday night, The Garage welcomed another edition of its notable RAW program (resident artist workshop), with two new dance works: "Faith" by Ronja Ver and "Lumen/Lux" by Katharine Hawthorne.  Both pieces embody the spirit of this special place: thinking outside the box, challenging the norms and making creative performance art.

Ronja Ver has envisioned a three-part piece with "Faith" that expresses a reverse treatment of pain.  The first section shows the recovery; the moving forward; the new start, while the second and third scenes deal with past experiences of grief and despair.  Performed as solo, Ver exposes herself and these issues with a genuine authenticity.

The opening moments found Ver walking in a slow diagonal from upstage right to downstage left.  Each step forward was perfectly articulated with an exaggerated heel-ball-toe.  Here was a definitive and direct journey towards something new as opposed to being away from something old.  Once she reached her destination, the choreography shifted and became almost puppet-like, yet again, the common denominator of specificity and control was very present.  The skeleton moved one part at a time, which brought forth the message: one small thing can and does create change; a deliberate and direct action can affect positively.  The opening segment of "Faith" drives home the power of the self and the possibilities that everyone possesses to make their story better.

I would categorize the next two sections as more performance art than dance theater.  Much of modern and post-modern choreographic undertakings include these types of non-dance vignettes.  While a completely valid choice, performance art has never been a favorite of mine.  I find the absurdity and randomness that is often present creates a disconnected narrative and doesn't really speak to the overall goal of the piece.  
Katharine Hawthorne's "Lumen/Lux" studies the role and addition of light to movement.  Hawthorne's combination of light and choreography yielded a fascinating experiment which both changed movement and affected outcomes.  A trio for three dancers (Hawthorne, Megan Wright  and Alisha Mitchell), "Lumen/Lux" revealed four important results as Hawthorne injected a flashlight bracelet into her modern dance physicality. 

First, the light was able to increase the range of certain movements.  A simple circling of the upper body became much bigger as the light worked in concert with the body, mimicking and following the same trajectory.  All three dancers had a beautiful serpentine port de corps which was made even more lush with the introduction of light.  Dynamic change was the second revelation, where a relatively benign step could take on a radically different quality when illuminated.  When lit in a particular way, a sternum lift can go from simple to scary and crawling can be transformed into pained writhing.  Third, we saw how the addition of light can work against choreography.  This wasn't a bad thing at all - in fact, it was a positive discovery.  When a light source is utilized at a specific angle, some of the other physical detail can be camouflaged.  It creates a needed uncertainty in the mind of the audience - what did we miss as the light shifted around?  In dance and in art, these questions are good.  Last, the light in "Lumen/Lux" became an equal contributor to the work.  There was an egalitarian quality that made the light like an additional performer or another limb.  This was most apparent when one of the dancers was standing still and circling the light bracelet around the space; it was as if another body was running in a circuit.

The only criticism that I had of "Lumen/Lux" was that for anyone who suffers with even the slightest hint of motion sickness (like I do), they might feel a little headachy by the end of the evening.  Even though there was no strobe present, the amount of 'moving light' was enough to make me a tiny bit queasy. 

Friday, November 04, 2011

"Light Moves"

Photo by Rapt Productions
Margaret Jenkins Dance Company
With live music by the Paul Dresher Ensemble
Novellus Theater at YBCA, San Francisco, CA
November 3rd, 2011

"Light Moves", the newest piece by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, premiered last night to a packed house at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  A collaborative project, featuring choreography mixed with video, text and an original music score, this evening-length work celebrates the best of today's modern dance scene.  During the seventy-minute physical journey, the primary theme was very clear: never-ending, constant motion.  Fans of Jenkins' work were treated to many different sides of this brilliant choreographer: her artistic strengths shone and new choreographic interests were revealed.

As the curtain rose, the company entered in a tight-knit group from stage right already in the midst of a movement sequence.  This gave the impression that the piece had started long before the lights went down - the audience may have thought that they were watching it from the beginning, but in fact, they were witnessing something already in progress.  Utilization of the wing space was a theme throughout "Light Moves" and a major contribution to the work.  So often the wings are relegated to the obvious: entrances and exits.  Here, the wings were an extension of the performance and included some stunning choreography.  My favorite was a recurring walk where the dancers came out of the wings already engaged in a circular pattern that included upper body curves and sternum lifts.   

Jenkins' approach to interdisciplinary performance was and is a sight to behold.  She clearly values collaboration (and a variety of types), but it is her treatment and direction of these multiple elements that really enchants.  The components of "Light Moves" were engineered in such a way that they could peacefully co-exist, without competing for attention or overpowering each other.  And, because there wasn't too many things happening all at once, the dance could literally take center stage.

Choreographically, "Light Moves" combined Jenkins' signature staccato work alongside slow, lush divertissements, providing wonderful and contrasting dynamic change.  These latter scenes allowed suspended luxuriation, without the movement passing by so quickly.  Particular noteworthy examples were the soft, supported jumps, calm fouettés, Ryan T. Smith's rond de jambe to parallel 2nd and Steffany Ferroni's relevé long in arabesque.  Another unique choreographic tool is Jenkins' cluster sequences.  She creates a human puzzle where the entire cast is visually and physically compact.  The movement and levels are varied and performed full out without looking claustrophobic.

I saw a preview of this dance last October at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center and was heartened by one significant improvement in this premiere: the women's performative range.  At the earlier viewing, the women only had one level of expression: angst-ridden seriousness.  At times, they looked so pained that it was distracting from their technical achievements (with the exception of Steffany Ferroni who did not fall victim to this trap).  Last night's performance saw a diverse spectrum of expression and emotion from all of the women.  The angst was still there but it was appropriately placed and interspersed with equal amounts of joy and playfulness.   

I do think that this company is going to have to deal with its technical variance fairly soon because, unfortunately, it is starting to come across onstage.  Also, "Light Moves" is a little too long.  There was a beautiful moment near the end where the text was scrolling up the hanging screens and Margaret Cromwell knelt, intensely watching it.  This had all the characteristics of a final moment, where the credits roll.  It was a natural ending point, and so, the dance that followed was a little disconnected and came across as a bit of an afterthought.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Night Falls"

Photo by Liz Payne
Written and Co-Directed by Julie Hébert
Choreographed and Co-Directed by Deborah Slater
ODC Theater, San Francisco, CA
October 21, 2011

Dance theater combines story and movement together in a theatrical expression.  Dance used in this field exists on a spectrum, ranging from codified modern and ballet vocabulary all the way to very minimal physicality.  While a very broad genre, all dance theater shares two requirements: integration and necessity.  First, the story and movement must make sense and work together.  And second, each entity must make unique contributions and have its own reason for being.  This delicate balance is incredibly difficult to accomplish.  "Night Falls", the new work by Julie Hébert and Deborah Slater, brilliantly captured the first goal - the movement and the narrative were definitely a cohesive unit used in combination to express the text.  The choreography was a gestural interpretation of the words, serving an emphatic purpose.  However, with respect to necessity, "Night Falls" missed the boat.  The miming actions worked as emphasis and were well-integrated into the piece, but they lacked their own distinctive purpose.  Unfortunately, the choreography came off as a mere accompaniment. 

"Night Falls" was a merging of memory, fantasy and self as a woman (Peregrine, played by Joan Schirle) deals with the reality of her sixtieth birthday.  As told through the intersection of her different-aged selves, we come to understand her fears: of getting older; of being vulnerable; of being humiliated; of being alone.  By referring to her various life experiences, the younger and older versions expose Peregrine's inability to be wrong, to follow through, and to ask for help.  "Night Falls" is a true coming of age story with significant depth and relatability.

As stated, the choreography served the text by creating an obvious physical embodiment of the spoken word.  For example, when the actors told of rain or stars, the hands went overhead and fingers moved in a typing motion.  As the story called for expressions of defiance, feet were stomped, arms thrown and fingers pointed.  Scattered discombobulation was indicated with frenetic shaking.  While very clear, the movement just wasn't needed to propel things forward.  In fact, I found the use of gestures to be distracting at times.  Hébert and Slater's story is great and the acting was phenomenal on Friday  - "Night Falls" can stand on its own.  Less really does say more.  I think this works more as a play than a dance theater piece; check it out and see what you think.    

Thursday, October 20, 2011

RAWdance at Orson

Photo by Dudley Flores
"a public affair"
Orson Restaurant Bar & Lounge, San Francisco
October 19, 2011

The modern dance world has always been a little ahead of its time, leading the creativity charge with outside-the-box thinking.  Today's choreographers continue that pioneering artistic spirit with an influx of site-specific, alternative event performances.  Though an exciting trend, it is always a risk - some pieces seem to thrive in multiple different environments while others simply do not do well outside of the proscenium arch.  Last night, San Francisco dance lovers enjoyed site-specific experimental work done brilliantly; adapted to its chosen setting without losing any physicality.  RAWdance's premiere of "a public affair" at Orson Restaurant Bar & Lounge in SOMA was visionary dance at its best.

Choreographed and performed by the dynamic Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith, "a public affair" emerged organically in Orson's dining room.  The two began their ballet as patrons sitting down to eat at the center table.  Even with some space constraints, this was an 'all-in' choreographic experience, with phenomenal extensions to the front and back and long attitudes à la second.  The pas de deux included dramatic overhead lifts that were not at all hampered by the fact that dinner patrons were watching from inches away.  Moments of eating were interspersed throughout the ten minutes, which kept the piece linked to and rooted in the space.  Rein and Smith were not trying to forget or ignore that this performance was in a restaurant, in fact, as the dance progressed, one couldn't help but notice that "a public affair" was really a dinner conversation brought to life through movement.

Near the beginning, Rein and Smith took turns covering each other's faces with the dinner napkins - obviously interrupting and cutting each other off.  What followed was a stunning combination of argumentative staccato sequences juxtaposed with quiet movements, mimicking the disagreements and silences that occur in any dialogue.   Next, tender moments brought visions of love, affection and support: the standing lift, the leaning arabesque and the supported sobresaut.  "a public affair" was definitely a partnered pas de deux, though there were also instances where Rein and Smith ventured out on their own; still spatially relating to each other but clearly separate.  This reflected those parts of a conversation where you may appear to be listening but in actuality, are lost in your own thoughts.  The piece concluded with the dancers returning to their original starting position, further reiterating that every physical expression we had just seen was an embodiment of how they had spoke to each other over a meal.

If you have the opportunity to see RAWdance, take it - they have well-crafted, unique choreography, an excellent sense of humor and technically superior dancers.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Smuin Ballet - Fall Program

The Smuin Ballet Company in Dear Miss Cline,
a world premiere by Amy Seiwert at the Palace of Fine Arts
as a part of Smuin Ballet's fall program.  Photo by David DeSilva.
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA
September 23, 2011

The selections for Smuin Ballet's Fall program created a perfect balance of old and new.  Opening weekend at The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco brought the company's history to stage with three of Michael Smuin's works spanning thirty plus years: "Tango Palace" (2003), "Stabat Mater" (2002) and "Eternal Idol" (1969).  The evening concluded with Amy Seiwert's much anticipated world premiere, "Dear Miss Cline".

"Tango Palace" examined the traditions of this dramatic dance through the choreography of three couples.  Though all were purposely very different from each other in order to show various aspects of the tango, there were some common denominators.  There was tango as flirtation: two people meet; they tease; they play; they entice; and then, finally they part.  In addition, the tango was expressed as a passionate, yet fleeting affair.  Within the music were recurring themes of discord and dissonance, indicating a level of suspension without resolve, perfectly balancing the percolating questions in the subtext of the ballet.  Here was curiosity about another without the necessity of definitive answers.  Toward the end of "Tango Palace", a shift in mood occurred as the female dancers changed out of their character shoes and donned pointes.  Unfortunately, this section of the ballet was a poor conclusion for the tango study that had been unfolding.  With the exception of Robin Cornwell and Jonathan Dummar, who were able to successfully combine the tango style with ballet vocabulary, the fun and passion dissipated and the energy completely fell.  A little bit of a letdown for a piece that started so strongly.

With this year marking the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, Smuin's response to this dark day was an appropriate choice for the 2011 Fall program.  The takeaway from "Stabat Mater" is hope's survival amidst horror and suffering.  A ten person dance, Smuin singled out one female role to embody aspirational faith, danced at this performance by Erin Yarbrough-Stewart.  While she was flung all over the stage and haphazardly passed from person to person, her strength and resolve remained constant and palpable.

Though the oldest ballet on the bill, "Eternal Idol" was by far the best dancing and outstanding choreography of the night: Robin Cornwell and Jonathan Dummar truly were sculpture brought to life.  A circular understanding of this visual artform was omnipresent.  In the movement, we saw it in the rond de jambe (both à terre and en l'air), the port de bras and the ronde versé.  And, in the narrative, Smuin shared how the life of a romance or a relationship is cyclical in nature.  This pas de deux was an invitation to witness an intimate connection between two; a story of their bond and a glimpse into its ups and downs.

Nostalgia was the name of the game with Amy Seiwert's premiere work, "Dear Miss Cline".  An ode to an earlier era, with amazingly accurate costumes and hair design, the piece was a musing on the notion of a society.  The community aspect was very well communicated through the vignette-style choreography (short dances set to ten Patsy Cline recordings) both in the interaction of the couples and in the general camaraderie of the entire cast.  While "Dear Miss Cline" was definitely an audience favorite, the lack of dynamic change was problematic.  Much of the music existed at a moderate-to-low intensity level and the dance was similarly unchanged.  The choreography was inventive and interesting, but the creative movement wasn't enough to overcome the flat dynamics.  The absence of highs and lows makes for a ballet that reads as 'more of the same' .  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Dido and Aeneas" - Mark Morris Dance Group

Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
September 16, 2011

The opening of Cal Performances' new season is a highly anticipated event in the Bay Area as patrons ready themselves for an exciting year of world class artists.  This past weekend kicked-off the dance series with Mark Morris Dance Group's "Dido and Aeneas".  The tragic opera was transformed into an artistic collaboration with dancers and musicians performing each role accompanied by the superb Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, all conducted under the musical and artistic direction of Mark Morris. 

The choreography of "Dido and Aeneas" was a perfect embodiment of the Greek style with precise, deliberate sequences that were specific in their positioning and their intent.  Everything was perfectly placed and placed for a reason and a purpose, nothing blurry or wishy-washy.  This allowed the events to be clearly conveyed and reminds us why codified, position-based modern dance was so successful for so long. 

The intention of this dance-theater piece was to relate the epic tale of "Dido and Aeneas" through physical language, and Morris fully accomplished this goal: the chosen narrative was clearly transmitted.  But the work was and is so much more than a simple gestural representation; he was able to inject the choreography with its own contributions and lessons without compromising the guiding storyline.  The choreographic standout was Morris' treatment of the 'small' and how intricate details truly have the most unexpected meaning.  The opening sequence found the cast propelling themselves around the stage with fast parallel boureés, and later in the work a similar small movement (this time, heel twists) was utilized to cover the vast space.  Here we saw the transitions from one place to another; the starting and ending point were of course integral, but the in between, the journey is where the magic happened.  Domingo Estrada Jr. as Aeneas had a strong, powerful and commanding presence, though the most telling part of his solo occurred as he turned his palms to face up and out.  This seemingly insignificant motion said everything - he was opening up his heart and giving his soul away.  Morris' ongoing theme of how small changes drastically affect one's existence was brilliant.  

Though the majority of the piece was fantastic, some of the characters were a bit confusing.  The recurring 'chorus' were a delight to watch: their choreography interesting and dynamic and their performance flawless.  With this group of dancers, it seemed that Morris was trying to create a system where gender was left out of the equation: their androgyny was palpable.  Unfortunately, with a story like "Dido and Aeneas", the gender-bending doesn't and didn't really work; it just looked campy.  And while campy can be a valid, interesting and entertaining performance choice, in this case, the 'camp' just wasn't very good.  Similarly, Amber Star Merkens' interpretation of Dido was choreographically masterful but relationally unconvincing.  She didn't display any spark, desire or chemistry for Estrada's Aeneas, making it difficult to buy into their connection.  

Monday, August 22, 2011

"The Bay Area Rhythm Exchange"

Photo of John Kloss by Andy Mogg.
Stepology presents
"The Bay Area Rhythm Exchange"
Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, CA
August 19, 2011

The true test of an annual show is in its ability to preserve tradition while at the same time being able to produce something distinct, especially when many of the performers are the same each year.  Stepology's 2011 presentation of "The Bay Area Rhythm Exchange" celebrated the talent, diversity and energy of percussive dance with a plethora of style, interpretation and approach.  Though this event happens yearly in the Bay Area, the 2011 edition was unique and fabulous.

The headliners gave fantastic solo performances: John Kloss' taps were incredibly clear and his toe-heel combinations were super-human; Mark Mendonca is not only an amazing dancer, but also has the most easy, laid-back rapport with his audience.  For me, the stand-out performer was Sam Weber.  His upright, balletic style (almost like Merce Cunningham in tap shoes) differentiated him from the rest of the group, with tap sounds that had a much wider variance and dynamic spectrum.  Everyone else favored and tended toward the harsher, louder 'down' into the floor choreography and so, most of their solo work seemed very much the same.  Weber's approach allows him more freedom and increased versatility and as a result, his solos had intricacies that no one else could top.  

Compared to last year's production, the floor mikes were hugely improved this time around; they picked up all the highs and lows of the choreography and movement, which for tap, is imperative.  Having said that, I still find it strange that Stepology chooses this particular venue for its annual showcase.  The Herbst Theatre is beautiful but the pitch of the seats does not provide a good viewing angle of the dancer's feet.  Rhythm tap is just as much of a visual artform as it is audio and if you cannot see the feet, much of the performance is lost.  The audience size was certainly a disappointment on Friday night.  At the 2010 "Bay Area Rhythm Exchange", the house was completely packed and full of anticipation, excitement and awe.  This year, the Herbst Theatre was less than half full - quite a let down for such an exhilarating performance.


Tuesday, August 09, 2011

"Terrain Project Performance"

The New Ground Theatre Dance Company
an Arts Unity Movement Production
Notre Dame De Namur University Theater, Belmont, CA
August 6, 2011

The New Ground Theatre Dance Company's "Terrain Project Performance" demonstrated a skillful use of narrative mechanisms.  A triptych work, "Terrain Project Performance" unfolded as follows:  first, a woman's medical crisis; second, the explanation of how she arrived in that situation; what her life has looked like up until that moment and what circumstances have contributed to her current existence; and third, her heroic and freeing choice that creates a new life.  Artistic Director Coleen Lorenz has produced a dance theater piece that reveals how women can empower themselves to both own and determine their reality and future.

The opening scene revealed the five main characters at the beginning of their day, each going through their individual routines to ready themselves for what may lie ahead.  Here we saw stylized choreography (not a post-modern pedestrian expression of daily activities) and one could see the adjectives of each character through their movements: frustration, excitement, complacency and fear.  Though a small portion of "Terrain Project Performance", this introductory scene was imperative - it set up who the major players were and the emotions that they carried inside of them. 

Interspersed throughout the dance were video sequences of women's faces (primarily the eyes) and audio clips of them speaking.  Projected onto the back scrim, these images spoke to Lorenz's goal: to provide a glimpse and insight into another's experience, understanding and condition.  

The group sections were good and the dancers at Notre Dame De Namur University are receiving excellent and varied training (many of the cast are alumni or current students).  In fact, these dancers are in better stead than students from some of the big university dance programs - they are being given a comprehensive approach to movement, where all styles have equal importance: ballet, jazz, modern, partnering and contact improvisation.  This is an incredible accomplishment for this department.  Having said that, all university dance programs have a similar issue that has to be acknowledged, and that is the wide variance in technical level.  This does not always present a problem unless the choreography in question contains quite a bit of unison work as "Terrain Project Performance" did.  When placed in unison, the technical differences between the dancers becomes overly emphasized and therefore can look a little messy (legs at different heights, jumps of different clarity, etc.).  Steering away from unison is a better plan.  

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Stars of American and Russian Ballet"

Yuri Possokhov's "Talk to her". Photo by John Bonick

Black Swan Pas de Deux from "Swan Lake". Photo by John Bonick
Napa Valley Festival Del Sole
Lincoln Theater, Yountville, CA
July 22, 2011

The promise of a dance gala is that of something special.  The gala suggests more than a regular performance; it is celebrity; distinction and majesty.  And, when the title is 'Stars of American and Russian Ballet', one might anticipate even more opulence.  Napa Valley Festival Del Sole's 2011 Dance Gala did not disappoint.  Dancers from American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet treated the packed house to a performance of a lifetime.

Act I provided a perfect mix of ballet's past and present with works by Marius Petipa, George Balanchine, August Bournonville and Yuri Possokhov.  Possokhov's dramatically charged "Talk to her" was the evening's choreographic highlight and the audience favorite.  Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz danced this daring pas de deux on the dynamic and technical edge, the risky place where true magic happens.  Utilizing Feijoo's pointe shoes as purposeful percussion was a fantastic touch.  Irina Dvorovenko (American Ballet Theatre) was brilliant in the Black Swan pas de deux - perfectly alluring and devious at the same time.  Her staccato approach to the choreography was an impeccable match for this character whose sole purpose is to captivate and capture the Prince's attention.  The Bolshoi Ballet's "La Sylphide" was good though I think I'm a bit spoiled after just having seen The Royal Danish Ballet in this historic piece.  The lightness and airiness that Bournonville demands was definitely present with the Bolshoi dancers, but it just wasn't quite as entrenched in the physicality as it is with the Royal Danish company.  There was too much emphasis on height and technique and not enough attention to the articulation, quality and intonation of the steps. 

The Bolshoi opened the second act with the adagio and trio from "The Oath of Ushers" and this ballet was both perfect for them and perfectly danced by them.  Marianna Ryzhkina's boureés traveling backward gave an astonishing crescendo of urgency, emotion and intensity.  Their interpretation and performance of Vladimir Vasiliev's choreography was beautifully artistic and very emotive - just stunning.  The pas de deux from "Les Sylphides" demonstrated the forgotten art of repetition.  Fokine's repeated use of boureé and relevé takes one back to the intricate foundations of classical ballet.  Feijoo and Luiz returned in the pas de deux from "Le Corsaire", and though a little shaky at first, they quickly found their bearings and proceeded to give flawless individual solo variations in the coda section. 

The two Balanchine works on the program ("Diamonds" pas de deux from "Jewels" and the pas de deux from "Agon") were danced by masters of Balanchine technique: New York City Ballet's Charles Askegard and Wendy Whelan.  From the incredibly difficult fouettés to the off-balance poses and spins to the complex musical attack, they were the essence of Balanchine.  In his work, dance, itself is the star and this vision is exactly what was communicated to the audience at the Lincoln Theater.  However, I must admit that I found both of these excerpts to be too cold and detached.  Whelan and Askegard were technically superior, but in terms of performance, it really was a little sanitized.  

Monday, July 18, 2011

Post:Ballet in "Seconds"

Post:Ballet, photography by Natalia Perez
Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, CA
July 16, 2011

After Post:Ballet's inaugural performance last summer at the Cowell Theater, I wrote, "Post:Ballet is going to be a group to watch over the next decade".  This past weekend's follow-up season proved this comment to be accurate and perhaps an understatement.  Artistic Director, Robert Dekkers and his company offered a gorgeous "Seconds" program that spoke of the past and the present: two pieces returned from 2010, "Flutter" and "Happiness of Pursuit" (establishing a lineage of repertory) in addition to two world premieres, "Colouring" and "Interference Pattern" (the creation of new work).  This company's future looks brilliant - Post:Ballet is fantastic and a must-see for every ballet patron in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The first two pieces on the program were a testament to Dekkers' choreographic acumen and collaborative fervor.  "Colouring" illustrated that repetition is the heartbeat of artistic collaboration.  As Daniel Berkman performed his own musical composition, the dancers moved back and forth in the same pattern, meeting in the middle of the stage for a short choreographic sequence and then returning to their starting positions.  While both the music and dance were happening, visual artist Enrique Quintero was creating a visualscape (white paint on a black background).  As the piece continued, the movement phrase accumulated into a beautiful pas de deux while Quintero's scene also grew from simple lines and shapes into a cohesive picture.  Here, Dekkers and Quintero were both visually reflecting the true experience of artistic collaboration.  Hours and hours of working together may not always generate a vast quantity but the repetition does produce quality material.  Trying and risking over and over again reveals meaning and relevance between the chosen arts.  Quintero's final painting was the epitome of this collaborative journey.  A long white horizontal line separated the view into two spaces, with a very minimal expression on top of the line and a very ornate and involved tableau beneath the line.  Art's pulse and driving force is what happens beneath the surface, behind the scenes and before the stage.

Post:Ballet revisited "Flutter" (2010) again this season, though this time Dekkers opted to set the work on Daniel Marshalsay, Jonathan Mangosing and Christian Squires (last year this ballet was danced by three women).  With this significant casting change, one would expect that "Flutter" would read differently.  True, it was different, not better, not worse, but allowed a second and unique exposure to a familiar piece.  The polyphonic interplay of his movement lines had a new attack; the intonation was more forceful, yet not at all aggressive.  The articulation that Christian Squires has in his torso is amazing - he is able to understand his physicality as both dance and music.  One thing that remained consistently true about "Flutter" was Dekkers' intuitive musicality; his knowledge of musical form and his ability to manifest his musical understanding into his choreography.      

Dekkers has assembled an impressive group of dancers: all are technically sound, artistically mature and compelling to watch.  But Beau Campbell deserves particular acknowledgement for her accomplishment in "Seconds".  As a dance artist with Post:Ballet in both this and last year's season, she has clearly been pursuing, developing and honing the performance side of her art.  Campbell's technical strength was and is without question, but she seems to know and realize that flawless technique is only one part (albeit a crucial one) of the performance equation.  Her theatrical diligence is paying off - she absolutely shone onstage.   

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mary Armentrout Dance Theater

"the woman invisible to herself"
The Biscuit Factory, Oakland, CA
July 10, 2011
Photo by Ian Winters
Dance is such a fleeting entity; it only exists for a brief moment and then it is gone.  The memory, photos and video can provide some archival records but they can never truly capture or re-capture the specialness of live performance.  This impermanence is very apparent to me when seeing the same dance, in the same venue with the same cast for a second time.  Whether the piece is unchanged or if it features new/revamped choreography, the takeaway is that no two performances are ever identical.  Mary Armentrout Dance Theater's second run of "the woman invisible to herself" at The Biscuit Factory in Oakland facilitated an encounter with the familiar alongside different experiences and new observations.

My initial sense of the piece was verified and confirmed in this, my second exposure to "the woman invisible to herself".  Here, Armentrout has combined true post-modern form with strong narrative content, revealing important nuances about egalitarianism, non-conformity and the porous border between life and art.  Much of the dance resonated again with these concepts, though it was interesting to discover aspects of the work that  I had missed the first time around, which spoke equally to and of Armentrout's artistic mission. 

Two of the pre-performance installations were infused with egalitarianism and succeeded in blurring the lines between life and art.  A video segment of Armentrout revealed truths about herself while also posing real questions to the viewer, creating a participatory equality between the performer and the audience.  Another pre-performance segment found the dancers in one of the hallways working with the interplay of light, shadow, form and movement.  This captivating hypnotic sequence was a lesson in accessibility, demonstrating the ease in which an everyday gesture can morph into dance.  The suggestion here was that every movement (common or choreographed) has an inherent energy to it and it is up to each individual to find, unlock and harness this simmering electricity.

The choreography brilliantly articulated "the woman invisible to herself's" unique approach to structure and story.  In the mirror vignette, arms followed circular pathways while the head was in constant motion - a physical comment that personality and the self is a changeable idea.  The individual performances in the mobile second scene (in the realm of the selves) all contained new revelations for me.  Armentrout's solo had no stopping point; it was a stream of consciousness constructed like a Baroque fugue.  Interdependent lines of movement arose from every point of physicality and wove a truly polyphonic texture.  Frances Rosario also challenged the space between audience and performer by not only speaking directly to us, but also interacting choreographically with us.  Nol Simonse's sequence was a study of opposites: suspension & fall; stretch & flexion; exposure & hiding; expanse & closure; attachment & detachment.  Lastly, Natalie Greene embodied the notion of being off-balance, and we witnessed her desperate search for the serenity of calm.

In my previous review, I noted some criticisms of the second act.  This latter part of the piece remains the same, though this time, it had a different effect on me.  In 'the confession', Armentrout takes the disturbing notion of self-destruction and conveys it in a very honest, frank, matter-of-fact and somewhat soothing context.  Her approach of placing this silent issue in the public arena through performance took away some of its power, shame and scariness by transforming it into a human discussion instead of something that is hidden away and not talked about.

Read my review of last fall's performance:

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Jonah Bokaer and The Guggenheim Museum

'From “FILTER” to “On Vanishing”: Jonah Bokaer and The Guggenheim Museum'

Commissioned in part by The Guggenheim Museum (from the Fall 2010 Works & Process series), Jonah Bokaer's, “FILTER”, validated his position as a significant dance-maker.  This work has everything that one could want from the current dance field: a post-modern sensibility, a choreographic aesthetic and an academic concept.

Because of Bokaer's unique approach to post-modern dance, “FILTER” was an incredibly accessible work.  Rather than focusing on an obvious pedestrian interpretation of movement, Bokaer favored simple, intentional, deliberate, and choreographically codified combinations: the arm traveling straight up the body; the palm reaching forward, the spine rolling through the vertebrae.  Bokaer transformed these motions from commonality to dance by taking the post-modern ideal of attainable physicality and placing it in a compelling narrative context.     

Conceptually, “FILTER” ruminated on the complex relationship between the independent and the interdependent.  And, through this dance, Bokaer explored how shapes, positions and movement in space embody both elements.  At times, the cast was four independent individuals working with and within their own bodies, completely unaffected by the other dancers.  Then, the four men truly became one entity, joining forces to create collaborative interdependent positions, with each other and with the stage design.  The table plank that resided center stage required the participation of all four dancers for it to be fully realized and integrated into the work.  Bokaer clearly understands that good modern choreography speaks to both issues: independent structures and interdependent form.  

Bokaer and The Guggenheim are about to embark on another artistic collaboration, this time, with a site-specific live performance on the museum's rotunda floor in New York City.  “On Vanishing” will feature Bokaer's choreography amidst a current sculptural installation, 'Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity'.  It will be interesting to see if his independent/interdependent theme continues to weave through this next project.  With the transformation of the human body through movement juxtaposed against the living breathing entity that is sculpture, the possibilities for this performance are endless. 

Showing at The Guggenheim Museum in New York City on July 14, 6pm only; 8pm SOLD OUT.
For further details about “On Vanishing”, please visit:

To see video clips of Jonah Bokaer's work, go to http://vimeo.com/jonahbokaer

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mary Carbonara Dances

"What Does It Feel Like to Kill Someone?" (world premiere)
KUNST-STOFF Arts, San Francisco, CA
June 10, 2011

Dancer: Kerry Demme
Photo credit: Karen Asensio
Not often, but every once in a while, a dance piece transforms the artistic field, adding value to and changing its genre.  There is a sense that you have borne witness to something extraordinary and that dance is not the same and will not be the same because of the work's existence.  Twyla Tharp's "Deuce Coupe"  fused ballet and modern together; Bill T. Jones' "Still/Here" created on-going dialogue between artists and critics; and now, we have Mary Carbonara's "What Does It Feel Like to Kill Someone?" which streamlines dance theater to its core and essence.  Carbonara's incredible narrative journey represents what modern dance theater should be - no frills; no gimmicks; no peripheral elements, just pure choreographic brilliance.  This world premiere reveals that when deeply meaningful movement is combined with talented, committed performers, dance theater is forever changed. 

"What Does It Feel Like to Kill Someone?" began without any fanfare or lighting cues; it simply emerged organically in the room.  This first scene found the dancers creating an obituary wall, writing names with chalk on the studio's exposed brick.  Here was an incredibly present and intentional showing of comfort and remembrance; they all watched intently and supported each other with the laying on of hands.  Then, the air shifted and all five performers entered the space for the first diagonal sequence, which had a definite crescendo both in terms of speed and intensity.  This introduction spiraled into choreographic abandon, with urgent, angry and violent movements.  You could see the desperation and fear on their faces and in their bodies.  Lifts took on a pulling, pushing and grabbing feel, and arms morphed into weapons (evident in the jerky, staccato treatment of the hands and fingers).  A particular sequence oozed with angst and suffering as one of the men undertook a slow, flexed grand rond de jambe followed by an urgent single-legged fouetté; it was like his pain was being transmitted into the universe from his limbs.  The narrative was cleverly being told in reverse order.  The chalkboard opening actually felt like the end of the story (the remembrance of death) while the rest of the piece revealed the circumstances that lead to that place of mourning.      

The dance theater aspect of this piece was very apparent: a focus on inhumanity with no resolution; no explanation and no justice.  Carbonara unpacked the idea of inflicted human trauma and left it for the audience to experience.  Dancers were being overpowered and controlled by each other - continually thrown against the wall and pushed to the floor in a purposeful effort to break their spirit.  And, the viewer was forced to confront their own complacency when bad things happen.  The wall shadows that were created in the studio reminded us that we often look at difficult situations through a filter and as the final female solo began, one quiet movement screamed for recognition in the performance space.  As her hand delved into her chest, she simultaneously contracted and curved her upper body over a parallel passé leg.  The message of this pose was so plain - human suffering should destroy us, break our hearts and rock us to our very core; if it doesn't, then we aren't paying attention.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"Tales of the City"

Mary Ann Singleton (Betsy Wolfe) is seduced by
the married Beauchamp Day (Andrew Samonsky).
Photo by Kevin Berne.
Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City"
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, CA
June 8, 2011

In any musical, each aspect of the production must serve the story: the text, the vocals, the set design and the choreography.  The dance portions must provide situational context, character insight and most, importantly, propel the narrative forward.  If dance accomplishes these goals, it can count itself as an active and valuable contributor in the musical genre.  Larry Keigwin's choreography in ACT's "Tales of the City" definitely fulfilled these promises.  While the movement was neither difficult nor transformative, it succeeded in doing its job: serving the story by placing the action in a specific place at a identifiable time as well as revealing the relationships between and truths about the characters.  The movement was clever, accessible (both to the audience and for the cast), and applicable.

The first musical number, "Nobody's City", was full of typical 1970s fare, situating the story in a specific era and location.  The disco choreography was so fun to watch and in his night-club inspired dance sequences, Keigwin individualized the steps to communicate the characters' personalities: the fun-loving Connie (Julie Reiber) committed fully with her entire physicality, while newcomer Mary Ann (Betsy Wolfe) struggled to let go.  "Tales of the City's" most ingenious choreography was actually the least 'dancey'.  In the advertising office scenes, Keigwin was able to capture the hustle and bustle of this particular environment using a combination of marching, deliberate walking, directional changes and levels.  It was fantastic.  "Bolero", the tango number, was a perfect choreographic match for the seductive scene between Mary Ann and Beauchamp Day (Andrew Samonsky).  The tango itself is a dance of seduction and through this piece we saw their relationship move from casual flirting to the next level.  The bathhouse scene was another standout choreographic moment.  Here, Keigwin employed contact improvisation-style movements which really spoke to and of this unique culture.

The music was clever and funny, though somewhat trite and definitely 'in the style of' other musicals.  Appropriation happens all the time in performance art, though the music here fell too heavily in that camp.  I also wish that we had been able to hear the vocals.  The sound mix was clearly off on Wednesday evening - the music overpowered the singers to the point where, at times, it was difficult to hear and understand the words (even from the fourth row).    

Any new musical will go through several editing iterations and I imagine "Tales of the City" has already been pared down quite a bit.  Even knowing that, I felt that there were still too many featured characters.  The audience needs to get involved with and care about the individuals in the story and with the introduction of so many new characters throughout the entire play (we met two new people well into Act II and a whole host of personas near the end of Act I), it was hard to feel drawn into each person's journey.  It was too crowded, both literally and figuratively.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Royal Danish Ballet

Ulrik Birkkajer of The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo by Henrik Stenberg

Gitte Lindstrom, Morten Eggert and Izabela Sokolowska of The Royal Danish Ballet.
Photo by Martin Mydtskov Ronne

Presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
June 1, 2011

For any dance history scholar, a chance to see The Royal Danish Ballet in person is something special.  This company and the Bournonville legacy dominate the historical ballet literature with their significant contributions.  Ballet, as we know it today, exists in part because of Bournonville.  There are steps that he created; teaching techniques that he developed; and an aesthetic that he carefully and diligently fostered still present in today's classical and contemporary repertoire.  We all owe a great deal to this artistic master.  And, the Bay Area was fortunate and blessed to see his beloved company, The Royal Danish Ballet, as presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall.

Lightness of movement coupled with darkness of theme was the major takeaway from Program A (Flemming Flindt's "The Lesson" & August Bournonville's "La Sylphide").  The Royal Danish Ballet's floating, airy quality was apparent in all aspects of the dancing and as a viewer, one could clearly see that this is the company's physical history; the lightness of movement is part of them, deeply embedded in their souls.  Gudrun Bojesen's interpretation of La Sylphide perfectly transmitted the famous Bournonville petit allegro, allowing the quick, intricate steps to literally sing from the stage.  Her silent boureés, exquisite entre chat trois and sissone crescendo were the expression of otherworldly.  Other stunning moments for Bojesen included her pirouette on demi-pointe and the treatment of her hands.  With one simple open-palmed gesture, she seemed to just float away.  Another standout performance was Louise Østergaard as Effy.  In her first solo (particularly the glissade sequence), she was still able to translate Bournonville's light, airy ballon despite dancing in heeled character shoes.  This sophisticated choreography was so much more interesting than the typical thirty-two fouettés and grand jumps.

While the beauty of Bournonville movement showed in both "La Sylphide" and "The Lesson", the narrative themes of each spoke of bleak foreboding.  During a very educational and compelling talk-back, one of The Royal Danish Ballet's dancers reflected on the different guesses as to what "La Sylphide" is trying to teach us.  As he told us, some argue that the piece reveals the trepidation one can feel before marriage; still others suggest that it is a man versus nature ballet.  I can definitely see those analyses in the piece, though other thoughts came to mind as well.  James' story as explored through Bournonville's gorgeous choreography is also an observation of dream versus obligation, and a very sad statement on how some fail to articulate what they want out of life.

"The Lesson" follows a three-part narrative structure: the early interactions (at times, comic) of the three characters (the ballet master, the student and the pianist); the catalytic event (the introduction of the pointe shoes), which leads into a final demonic and violent descent.  The opening, 'lighter' scenes were almost a farcical caricature of the ballet world: the eccentric teacher, the doe-eyed student and the stoic accompanist.  Then came the moment of transition, where the evil intentions of this classroom came to light - personified by the introduction of pointe shoes.  Up until that point, the student had been taking her class in soft ballet flats.  As she donned the new satin slippers, the comedic exercise turned into a creepy, threatening, lecherous pas de deux.  The ballet master's control and domination was so total and it resulted in the student's tragic demise.  "The Lesson" ended as it had began with the pianist organizing the room, and as the ballet finished, it was clear that she was actually 're-organizing' the space - clearing it of the horror that had just occurred and preparing it for the next encounter.  Flindt's piece is the epitome of dance theater - he showed us the dark side of humanity and left us to experience and sit with what we had seen.  No explanation; no justice; no reason.     

Monday, May 16, 2011

"Body Evidence"

Opiyo Okach & Gaara Project in
"Body Evidence" (Work-in-Progress)
YBCA Forum, San Francisco, CA
May 20, 2011

Year after year, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts continually distinguishes itself as a leading arts organization.  Aside from the 'big' venue performances, they have countless additional projects (including the "Encounter: Engaging the Social Context" series) that encourage the intersection of emerging artists, their work and the arts community.  Last weekend, this program welcomed Kenyan choreographer Opiyo Okach and his current work-in-progress, "Body Evidence" to the YBCA Forum.  Though steeped in significant and important narrative meaning, the brilliant A-B-A structure of the work demanded primary focus.

"Body Evidence" was divided into three sections.  The first was dancing only; the second, dance and the addition of two props (a mask and a flag); and the third, dance alongside multi-media.  This crescendo of theatrical tools worked extremely well.  By limiting the first segment to choreography, Okach established the importance of the movement.  Then, in each subsequent section, he added something to the dance, not replacing it, but embellishing and expanding on the physicality.  These were carefully crafted and successful performative building blocks because they were explored through the strong foundation of dance.     

Dynamically, the three vignettes followed a very clear A-B-A format.  The beginning and ending employed smooth, legato, serpentine movements, sandwiched around a staccato, abrupt, urgent middle portion.  The choreographic syntax also followed this A-B-A pattern.  The movement ideas from the opening returned in the end, and the in between space was filled with contrasting units of action: galloping, skipping, trenching and grapevining through the performance space.

The rondo form was also very present and smartly embedded within section number one.  As Okach cycled through dance born from his center core (the limbs responded only because of the initiation in the spine and torso), there were several 'home' or 'returned to' poses: a squat, a version of the downward facing dog, and an arm raised limply in the air.  Here was a physical concerto; solos combined with ritornellos, providing an extra helping of structural cohesiveness.  Opiyo Okach is a choreographer to watch - he is able to produce deeply narrative modern dance, clearly communicated by his considerable structural acumen.