Monday, January 31, 2011

Catherine Galasso at Meridian Gallery

Photo credit: Michelle Lynch
"Memorandum of Understanding: Your Butt is Covered"
Choreography by Catherine Galasso
Meridian Gallery, San Francisco, CA
January 28, 2011

Downtown San Francisco's Meridian Gallery was transformed this past weekend with Catherine Galasso's intriguing choreographic comment on perception and reality, "Memorandum of Understanding: Your Butt is Covered".  The Meridian Dance Program seeks to bring visual art and dance theater together in a way that highlights their dependence and interdependence while co-existing in the same space.  And, what an outstanding choice to add Galasso's narratively-complex work to their diverse repertoire.

"Memorandum of Understanding: Your Butt is Covered" was a mobile piece that unfolded in multiple facets within the gallery.  Galasso's treatment of perception and reality was clear from the very beginning as the dancers emerged from within the audience.  While this might suggest a blurring of the line between the audience and the performer, instead, the issue was more focused on the relationship between the dancer and the viewer.  As the cast moved through the crowd, they made direct eye contact, touched people's arms and one guy looked like he might actually take a sip of my friend Anne's wine.  It was so telling and revealing that closeness still seems incredibly uncomfortable and invasive.  Even in the face of avant-garde performance and post-post-modern dance, there is still an unwritten rule and inherent desire for distance between the audience and performer.  Galasso was not really offering answers to this dilemma, but rather demonstrating our perception of the performer's role against the reality of modern day choreography.

The first movement passage was filled with line-dance-like steps; easy footwork all building on the very basic foundation of 'step touch'.  Here again, I found my pre-conceptions being confronted.  I often attend these performance art evenings expecting the completely obscure and obtuse; I come prepared for the weird and the random.  Although the final scene of the evening was definitely bizarre, I was heartened that Galasso also included long sequences that spoke of simplicity, accessibility, clarity and egalitarianism.  The reality of her work did not pander to assumptions.

Next to the staircase where one of the men performed a lip synced routine to 1950s-style music; he so looked the part of the iconic dreamboat.  Though again, the image of perfection was challenged as the lighting design revealed an underlying creepiness and morbidity.

Once we were ushered up to the second level of Meridian, the audience was faced with a choice.  The dance was divided between two rooms, and it was only possible to be in one of them for the duration of this middle segment.  As a viewer, you were of course seeing what was in front of you, but keenly aware that you were missing something elsewhere.  The whole story was not available to you; there were only portions of visibility - a brilliant comment on what we want from narrative dance as opposed to what we get from it.  

I must admit that the 3rd floor section was not my personal favorite; I couldn't grasp was what was happening and still three days later, am unsure of what its purpose was.  Perhaps it was just a comment on absurdity with the series of scenes and vignettes depicting a dysfunctional home environment.  But the strangeness was not the problem; the lack of movement was my issue. Modern dance, post-modern dance, dance theater, dance installation art, whatever you call it, choreography should be the foundation and in this final movement of "Memorandum of Understanding: Your Butt is Covered", the dance was very much missing.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rennie Harris Puremovement

Rennie Harris Puremovement, "Students of the Asphalt Jungle" Photo credit: Brian Mengini
Presented by Stanford Lively Arts
Stanford Memorial Auditorium, Palo Alto, CA
January 22, 2010

Anyone who wants to understand the difference between a hip hop dance team and a hip hop dance company should see Philadelphia-based Rennie Harris Puremovement, presented this past weekend by Stanford Lively Arts as part of their 2010-2011 season.  Dance teams are great - performance with attention to synchronicity, exciting acrobatic tricks, superb technique and a commitment to perfection.  Yet in the face of all this 'amazing-ness', there is an overwhelming sense that something is missing.  Enter Rennie Harris Puremovement, which takes hip hop from the somewhat sanitized team experience to an artistically rigorous company experience.  Here is a group whose mission is to do more - technically superior hip hop with the undercurrent of relevant issues: the individual versus the collective; diversity of movement; and the importance of representational narratives in a traditionally presentational format.

Almost all dance companies struggle with the puzzle of the individual and the collective, agonizing over how to reconcile the importance of both without sacrificing either.  Rennie Harris has successfully navigated this issue by realizing and concluding that these two elements (the individual and the collective) need not be contentious nor exclusive.  In fact, if both are fostered and encouraged, the result is actually more cohesive and holistic.  Harris has worked diligently with his dancers to create synchronized movement alongside a sense of individual 'isms', particularly apparent in the upper body, arms and hands.  This allowed Harris' hip hop choreography to transcend the emptiness that we sometimes see with dance teams.  This was definitely a cohesive dance group who were expressing the choreography as a whole, yet within that, the individual pieces were clear, giving flavor and uniqueness to the dance. 

Puremovement also provided a glimpse into several additional dance styles, incorporating them into the hip hop physicality rather than fusing them together.  Hip hop remained the predominant force, yet the injection of different genres revealed that all dance is linked together through the common denominator of movement.  There were multiple instances of good old-fashioned lyrical jazz dance, with parallel piqué turns and tendus in 2nd position that sensuously dragged across the floor ("Loving Heaven") as well as some rhythm tap sequences: jump, dig, jump, step; and toe beat, heel beat.  Though I didn't actually see any traditional ballet, there was one moment in the first Act where a trio of women dancing center stage drew me to a classical comparison.  As they moved with true abandon, I imagined that this is what the cygnets in "Swan Lake" are meant to express: allure, desperation and power.  The program noted that Harris' company performs a full-length evening work, "Rome & Jewels" that is informed by "Romeo & Juliet" and "West Side Story".  Act II's "P-Funk" was without doubt, an ode to Jerome Robbins, the choreographer of "West Side Story".  It was both novel and different, but still had some classic Robbinsesque moves: the side kicks with flexed feet, and the mambo base step.

Unfortunately, Stanford Memorial Auditorium was not the ideal venue for this particular group.  The building itself is architecturally interesting, though several design elements made it difficult to see the dancer's feet, and this visual line is imperative for dance.  The slight pitch of the seats combined with the height of the stage masked the intricate footwork, and it was a shame that much of Harris' creative choreography was hidden from view.     

Monday, January 17, 2011


Curated by Joe Goode
Featuring Ledoh, AXIS Dance Company and Joe Goode Performance Group
Brava Theater, San Francisco, CA
January 14, 2011

Brava Theater invites patrons to an eclectic modern dance experience with "Gush", their current three-week long performance series curated by choreographer Joe Goode.  The festival, set in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District, brings together Goode's own company, Joe Goode Performance Group, with Ledoh and Axis Dance Company.  Goode's opening remarks revealed that all of the "Gush" groups share a common denominator, each dealing with frank emotion but in very unique and telling ways.  Each weekend features a new line-up of artists and works, with the most recent program being "29 Effeminate Gestures" (Joe Goode Performance Group) and "ColorMeAmerica" (Ledoh).

Even though Goode's "29 Effeminate Gestures" is a historic dance theater masterpiece, it was brand new to me.  And now I can say that it is one of the most affecting pieces I have ever seen.  Danced by Melecio Estrella, "29 Effeminate Gestures" began with a pseudo-rap/vocalization of the phrase, "he's a good guy" as Estrella emerged from the audience.  At first, it seemed that the words were referring to someone else, but as the tempo accelerated and the words became more desperate, it was clear that he was talking about himself and trying to convince himself of his worth.  Once on the stage, Estrella introduced the set of effeminate gestures, traveling from upstage left to downstage right, with no transition between each pose.  At this point in the work, the positions were being presented in isolation, as if the primary and only characteristic of this man.  Then the mood changed drastically, and Estrella embarked on a fluid stream of movement where the gestures become part of a larger physical vocabulary.  They were still there; still present; and still real, though now expressed as an integrated part of the whole being.  Goode used this beautiful section to unpack these gestures, revealing what they mean from an internal and personal perspective as opposed to what they say outwardly.  Here, there was celebration combined with realization and ownership, which brought a plethora of emotional elements, including fear, honesty and relief. 

Salt Farm Productions' "ColorMeAmerica" sought to examine many significant issues, with the program notes citing security, survival, power, and freedom, among others.  Ledoh (Salt Farm's Artistic Director) explored this vast narrative goal through a contemporary take on Butoh performance, and the addition of multi-media.  The opening video images were a range of different animals, birds and insects and dancer Iu-Hui Chua truly embodied each of those beings, taking on the clawed hands of the birds, the excited gaze of a puppy and the constant motion of a bee.  These first movement interpretations were real, accurate and mesmerizing, but unfortunately the rest of the piece did not live up to this early promise.  The grotesqueness of Butoh, with its angular, staccato, accented physicality and overly dramatic facial expressions seems like a good method to effectively fulfill and transmit the narrative.  But strangely, the abrupt and deformed movement style didn't actually depict violence, fear or any other of the conceptual elements.  The choreography was trying to reflect those themes yet was unable to move beyond imitation to the true communication of content.  Even though I didn't feel the connection between what the dancers were doing and what they were trying to say, I do see the value of "ColorMeAmerica".  It might not have been for me, but based on the audience reaction, there were definitely people there to whom the work spoke deeply.


Monday, January 03, 2011

The Joffrey Ballet - "The Nutcracker"

Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL
December 23, 2010
Yumelia Garcia, Photo credit: Herbert Migdoll

The Joffrey Ballet's “Nutcracker” was my third and final foray into the story of Clara and her Prince, at least until next December rolls around. And, like any “Nutcracker”, there are things to love about the Joffrey Ballet's production and things that could definitely be improved upon.

As the party scene unfolded, this combination of strength and weakness was very evident. The choreography for the adult party guests was much more interesting and involved than most “Nutcrackers”, demonstrating and incorporating the classical ballet footwork canon: ballonés, balletés, cabrioles, and more. This version proves that the adult party guests can perform intricate footwork while still looking regal and sophisticated. Joffrey's choreography for the mechanical dolls, specifically the attention to their arms, was also much more realistic than usually seen. His vision of these life-size toys (and the dancers' detailed interpretation of his choreography) reminds us that looks are deceiving – what appears real may in fact just be a mirage. Unfortunately, the Joffrey Ballet's decision to have Clara and Fritz played by adult company members (who then pretend to be children) doesn't work very well. I do concur that having adults dance these roles means that the solos, duets, variations and pas de deux can all be of a high technical level. But, no matter what, it always makes the party scene look silly and a little strange to have adults pretending to be children amidst fifteen actual children.

My favorite moment of every “Nutcracker” is Act I, Scene III, 'The Land of Snow', and because I love it so much, I tend to be fairly critical of this particular dance. The Joffrey Ballet's version (originally contributed by Gerald Arpino) was absolutely breathtaking. Additional characters (the snow winds, snow tree angels and especially the snow prince, danced by Aaron Rogers) were both magical and transformative. The absolute highlight of the scene was the snow prince's short solos - Rogers' interspersed his already incredible pirouettes a la second with equally stunning double attitude derrière turns.

Onto Act II, the 'Kingdom of Sweets', and the introduction of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Her role in this “Nutcracker” was fairly traditional as she reigned over the fantasy land and facilitated Clara's short visit. Yumelia Garcia was an incredibly proficient Sugar Plum Fairy, with stunning technical promise – every balance was solid and seemed to last an eternity. Having said that, some of her movements were a little empty. Her penchée split is phenomenal but nothing new; almost every female dancer now has that capability. What makes the position interesting is the transition into it and this is where Garcia was lacking. She sprung right to 180 degrees without letting the audience see the in between spaces. These fleeting moments are where the true artistry lives and they are what gets an audience excited. The Chinese Tea duet, danced by April Daly and Aaron Rogers was another variation that was good but could have been great had there been closer attention to technique. The dance ended with a set of fantastic single pirouettes from 5th position, and though they were only single turns, a series of these with 5ths in between each, is no small feat. The problem was that Daly never really closed in 5th at the performance I saw; her heels actually never touched the ground at all between these turns. It may seem like a picky detail, but that short instant of repose (both feet on the floor in 5th position) is what makes the sequence special.

One final contribution that the Joffrey makes to the “Nutcracker” genre is their take on the Waltz of the Flowers. It wasn't so much Arpino's choreography that set this Waltz apart from others (though it was beautiful), it was the organization of the variation. Instead of having one or two primary dancers lead a larger corps through this famous music, eight individuals were cast as different flowers. Here was a true pas de huit, where each dancer had equal importance; an experience of polyphonic movement as all the dancers were able to be independent and interdependent at the same time. They could take focus when it was their turn and blend with others when needed. The dancing was lovely, but it was the structural formation of the Waltz where the genius was apparent.

American Conservatory Theater - "A Christmas Carol"

Photo by Kevin Berne
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, CA
Directed by Domenique Lozano
Based on the original direction by Carey Perloff
Choreography by Val Caniparoli
December 18, 2010

American Conservatory Theater's annual production of “A Christmas Carol” has something for everyone: fascinating dramatic elements for the theater critics; unique vocal selections for the musicians; cool stage effects for the techies and for the dance lovers, clever movement sequences that add significant vitality to this famous holiday story.

I wouldn't call this particular adaptation of Charles Dickens' tale a musical, but the two hour production does have a good helping of music and dance. For me, the mark of good musical theater is when the scenes and dances truly meld together. The movement should organically emerge from the action so that the trajectory of the scene continues to move forward - awkward transitions make dance look like a peripheral element that doesn't belong. Choreographed and contributed by Val Caniparoli, the dances in “A Christmas Carol” were perfectly incorporated into the staging.

'Christmas past' journeys through the life of a young Scrooge, with one of the visions recalling Christmas Eve at the Fezziwig Warehouse, a textile plant. In true holiday fashion, his employers, Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, are throwing a festive soiree for their staff with food, drinks and of course, dancing. Caniparoli smartly delivers a joyful, circular partner dance to embody this social event, well-suited to both the tone and the revelers. His folk dance looked to be a regular part of the character's cultural and social make-up (as if they had learned the dance as children), opting for simple footwork with unexpected additions - quick ball-changes with coordinating head tilts.

The opening of Act II provided a similar moment of cohesive whimsy with the produce sellers scene. The series of inventive dance duets made this vignette fun and playful as the Spanish onions, Turkish figs and French plums were transformed from 'food' into personalities.

Most of the actors in “A Christmas Carol” were not trained dancers and so it was imperative that the choreography not be overly complicated. To that end, Caniparoli worked with an economy of movement, giving the performers simple, accessible yet dynamic sequences. This allowed them to remain in character while successfully and confidently performing the set dances. Because Caniparoli possesses a talent to match movement and mood all while keeping the technical capabilities of his cast in mind, it would have been nice if there had been a little more dance present in the play. Fred's party in Act II would have been another wonderful opportunity to highlight Caniparoli's choreography.