Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Fable and Faith" - Robert Moses' Kin

Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, CA
February 19, 2011

Collaborative dance is hard to do well.  There must be a unifying concept and performative elements that work together in pursuit of the common goal - certainly not an easy undertaking.  "Fable and Faith", Robert Moses' most recent project, has conquered the conceptual part of the equation but has missed the cohesiveness.  This evening length production at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts brought two works ("The Cinderella Principle (2010) and the premiere of "Fable & Faith") that combined storytelling, music and dance.  Moses' concept was intriguing; the dancers technique and execution of the movement stunning; Anne Galjour's textual presence compelling; and the San Francisco Boys Chorus' musical contribution beyond measure.  But in order to fully realize any collaborative dance piece, these components must shift from individual parts to a collective whole.  It is the choreographic material that facilitates this transformation and unfortunately, in this case, the movement didn't live up to expectation.  

"The Cinderella Principle" examined the notion of family in today's society and more specifically, how we create that emotional human structure in our lives.  To that end, Moses explored multiple different situations (adoption, surrogacy, IVF, pregnancy) and the spectrum of emotions (uncertainty, desperation, expectedness, belonging, joy) that occur in pursuit of family.  The text, written and performed by Anne Galjour, painted a very realistic picture of this complicated entity (the family), while the movement struggled to embody this narrative foundation.  There was plenty of dance in the piece, but not much of it spoke to the concept with one important choreographic exception.  A recurring walking motif found the dancers moving very deliberately, lifting their foot in the back as they took each step, almost a slowed down interpretation of how a horse moves.  This sequence was prominent through much of "The Cinderella Principle" and the constant propulsion was evident - moving on; moving forward; moving towards happiness.  

The same observations hold true for the premiere of "Fable & Faith" - the movement was interesting, the dancing solid, the collaborators great, yet again, the connection between the story and the choreography was not there.  The disconnect was even more obvious in this piece than in "The Cinderella Principle".  "Fable & Faith" incorporated several children's tales into one epic adventure read by Galjour- definitely narrative.  Strangely, the movement seemed almost abstract and not purposely so.  It wasn't as if Moses was trying to make an artistic comment by juxtaposing abstraction against the narrative.  Costumes, props, text and music (although delightfully performed by the San Francisco Boys Chorus) just aren't enough and weren't enough.  In a narrative dance performance, the story has to live and breathe in the choreography; otherwise the work just doesn't add up.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Conceived and Performed by Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage & Russell Maliphant
Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
February 10th, 2011

Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage and Russell Maliphant's “Eonnagata” is a stunning physical and visual journey exploring the land of extremes. Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, the piece settles on the 'in between' space where opposing forces pull. Here is an examination of the undefinable and a navigation through the unknown. “Eonnagata” does not provide answers to the paradox of the ambiguous, rather, it calls for recognition, acceptance and celebration of uncertainty.

“Eonnagata's” structural foundation is a retelling of the life of eighteenth century French aristocrat Chevalier d'Éon. Appropriately, Guillem, Lepage and Maliphant chose an individual whose existence was filled with indeterminateness, with the specific manifestation being his gender. The historic account unfolded over the 1 hour, 40 minute piece and though very entertaining (sometimes dramatic, sometimes comical, sometimes tragic), it was really just fodder for Guillem, Lepage and Maliphant's artistic thesis; a chronology to underscore their exploration of personal duality.

Some particular moments deserve special mention as they really spoke to the avoidance of description and definition. One of the first scenes found Guillem, Lepage and Maliphant dressed in matching androgynous costumes, working with three tables (one for each of them). While polyphonic music played in the background, the choreography had them sliding across the surfaces and intermixing in and with each other's space. This referred to impermanence; a lack of commitment to one spatial location or state of being. Towards the end of the work, these tables reappeared, now with a mirrored top, again encapsulating the idea of individual complexity. Guillem and Maliphant stood on opposite sides of one table, imitating each other's movements while one of them was also reflected in the mirror. The sum of multiple facets is a deep, rich and intricate character.

Choreographer Russell Maliphant and ballerina Sylvie Guillem
in the United States exclusive premiere of "Eonnagata"
at Cal Performances.  Photo credit: Erick Labbe
While the conceptual narrative was clever and compelling, the real success of “Eonnagata” lies in its interdisciplinary approach. Guillem, Lepage and Maliphant used numerous theatrical elements though only one entity truly defined the piece. Dance was their constant and everything else (text, lighting, video projection, masks, costuming, sets, stage combat and scene work) informed the movement. This made “Eonnagata” structurally sound - dance theater at its best.

The discussion of “Eonnagata” cannot be complete without the acknowledgment of Sylvie Guillem's transcendent performance skills. A superior technician, her developpé à la second is matchless – an incredible extension that seems to come from nowhere, yet every transitional moment is given full attention. And, I couldn't take my eyes off of her feet; even when she was walking very simply, each articulation was exquisite. But even more than that, her presence was enchanting, graceful and genuine. On Thursday night, she had to re-start her opening monologue, and as she jokingly explained her error, she won everyone's hearts.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Smuin Ballet - Winter Program

Smuin Ballet dancers Benjamin Behrends,
Travis Walker, and Shane Tice in "Brahms-Haydn Variations"
Photo credit: David Allen

Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, CA
February 4, 2011

Smuin Ballet's 2011 winter program could have easily been titled 'An Evening of Conceptual Dance', with Trey McIntyre's "Oh, Inverted World" sandwiched between Michael Smuin's "Brahms-Haydn Variations" and "Bluegrass/Slyde".  A brilliantly orchestrated mixed repertoire night, the three works were committed to the exploration of traditional and contemporary movement and were all excellent examples of non-narrative ballet founded on concept.

The first piece, "Brahms-Haydn Variations" was maybe the closest thing to neo-classical abstraction that I have seen in a long time;  Michael Smuin created beautiful intricate movement to transcendent music.  Yet, it cannot be considered purely abstract because the music provided the conceptual basis for the choreography.  Smuin's inventory of ballet was complete, including the use of 2nd position in plié, on pointe and in the air, which, with the exception of Balanchine, is rarely found in staged choreography.  The duo of Jean Michelle Sayeg and Ben Behrends deserves special acknowledgement for the outstandingly buoyant lifts in the finale.  Theirs was truly a combined effort; working together as a team. 

Trey McIntyre's "Oh, Inverted World" still celebrated the ballet syllabus, but turned everything that could be expected from that tradition upside down.  Although no one except McIntyre himself can really be sure of what he was trying to say with this work, it seemed that his conceptual basis was the idea of athleticism and dance.  Here were the athletic possibilities; a complete study of physicality.  So many choreographers today attempt to examine the depths of human movement by taking dancing out of the equation and deconstructing movement to a mere skeleton of its former self.  But McIntyre shows that subtracting and taking away is not the only method with which to explore the complexity of choreography - "Oh, Inverted World" was rich unexpected dance to dynamic unexpected music. 

Smuin's "Bluegrass/Slyde" rounded out the evening with a fun conceptual foundation of line dancing, jazz, social dance, tap and musical theater.  The set was a collection of scaffolding and three rotating poles that were abundantly utilized throughout the eight-section dance.  I must confess that the inclusion of these poles made the piece look a little gimmicky.  There were moments where the poles assisted in creating some interesting images (when the men jumped high onto them and spun effortlessly in a standing parallel position) but for the most part, these few instances were not enough to make the set worth it.  The tap section was inventive, though the paddle, roll, shuffle sequence not in sync, but again the use of the poles for extra percussion was unnecessary.  The final romantic pas de deux between Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Travis Walker reinforced that Smuin's choreography is good enough to stand on its own.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Kelly Kemp & Company / Number 9

"7 ways to hide your self from the rest of the world"
ODC Theater, San Francisco, CA
January 30, 2011

ODC is filling San Francisco's Mission District with decadent dance performance in this, the inaugural season of their new theater and campus space.  Most recently, Kelly Kemp & Company / Number 9 graced the stage with "7 ways to hide your self from the rest of the world".  Well-developed structural modern choreography paired with an investigative narrative generated probing questions about how personal history informs current action.

One dancer began the piece by reciting a list of situations that happen in life; every sentence starting with the word 'when'.  Existing on different parts of the seriousness spectrum (i.e. 'when they got divorced' versus 'when I lost my keys'), some of the circumstances clearly occurred long ago while others may have transpired just last week.  The intoxicating part of the piece was not the introduction of these 'when' statements but instead the treatment of the 'then'.  Rather than responding with 'then I' or 'then this happened', the 'then' was expressed choreographically.  In the forty minutes that followed this first verbal segment, Kemp demonstrated that the reaction to specific instances can be so different: ambiguous, defined, slow, contentious or peaceful.

A long passage from the middle of "7 ways to hide your self from the rest of the world" really captured Kemp's narrative purpose.  A male soloist began onstage with three women and performed very freeing choreography, almost as if he was metaphorically purging these 'when' events from his consciousness and being.  Eventually the entire cast joined him, dancing in circular, expansive and uninhibited patterns.  Not everyone was moving at all times, in fact, some of the cast was at rest while others became swept up in their physicality.  Regardless, the whole scene was one of hopeful and successful cleansing; almost an exorcism of persistent demons.  However, Kemp did show that moving on is not always possible for everyone.  The recapitulation of the 'when' stories at the end of the work symbolized that sometimes what has happened in our lives still rages on in the head, heart and the soul no matter how hard we try or have tried to work past it.

Overall, the company was very impressive in their ability to translate the content through text and dance, though a couple of the company members were not as technically sound as the others.  I agree that not everyone in a given group needs to be the same; cookie cutter dance companies are a little predictable and boring to watch.  But, a general base level of technique is a good idea.          

Thursday, February 03, 2011

"Giselle" - San Francisco Ballet

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA
January 30, 2011

More than any other classical story ballet, the success of "Giselle" rests on the shoulders of the ballerina cast as the tragic heroine.  Last Sunday afternoon brought us Sarah Van Patten in the title role and because she was Giselle, San Francisco Ballet's "Giselle" was fantastic.

Van Patten's first variation was stunning - her balletés delightfully springy; her long arabesque light and airy yet full and gooey at the same time.  Because of her attention to detail and mastery of technique, we were spared the thud of pointe shoes hitting the stage at the completion of each step; no unplanned audio distracted from Tomasson's choreography.  Some of her subsequent petit allegro sections needed more plié and heels that closed completely to the floor because when her heels are released, Van Patten has super relevé power.  It is those split seconds of repose that are exciting - when the weight is distributed on the whole foot in between each quick, intricate movement.  Van Patten plays the village maiden with a perfect level of navieté and anticipation.  But, I must admit, I was skeptical whether she would be able to pull off the 'mad scene'.  I was wrong.  She gave levels to that scene that I had never witnessed before: a delusional remembrance of innocence, a quiet descent toward psychosis, a maniacal laugh, panic and paranoia.  

Tomasson's movement passages for Act II revealed two sides of this complex character.  When Giselle was dancing amongst the Wilis without Albrecht, there was a very academic interpretation of the movement, almost lacking any feeling.  This is a complement not a criticism - there was a perfection of physicality, yet an emptiness of expression.  As Albrecht became part of the action, Van Patten's upper body immediately opened up with communicative freedom.  And the lifting of her leg in relevé long as she first sees him was the perfect representation of expansive searching. 

Of course, there were other notable moments in San Francisco Ballet's "Giselle".  Daniel Baker was probably the best Hilarion I have ever seen, and Frances Chung was appropriately stoic and calculating as Myrtha.  The corps women had a wonderful performance last Sunday; they have begun to gel as a group, a definite improvement over last month's "Nutcracker".  Tiit Helimets, as Albrecht, was the superior technician of the group, though his acting was not as convincing as it could have been. 

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Company C Contemporary Ballet - Winter Program 2011

Castro Valley Center for the Arts
January 29, 2011

Today's choreography makes a lot more sense when it is paired with some historical understanding of form and content in American dance. And, looking backward definitely sheds some light on what we are now seeing in the twenty-first century. The modern dance giants (Graham, Humphrey, Weidman, etc.) were committed to their own defined, specific movement syllabus and created dances using that vocabulary. Though they had this set physical language, their pieces seemed to primarily revolve around the narrative, so much so that the structure (the choreography) became subservient to the story; more of a vehicle for the expression of their epic, high-level narrative. The second generation of modern dance choreographers (Sokolow, Maslow, Dudley, Tamiris, to name a few examples) saw the value of their predecessors work, yet their choreography sought a more equal treatment of form and content; a better merging of these two elements in performance so that the steps remained significant in their own right and could support more relatable stories without becoming lost within them. Then came the 1960s, and the post-modernists turned everything inside out, abandoning the narrative altogether and adopting the notion that dance should be valued for what it is – pure human movement, not saying anything or meaning anything, just existing. They also re-defined the assumptions of what type of movement could be dance, who could do it and where it could be viewed. They stripped away all the peripheral elements (especially the narrative thematic) and de-constructed dance to its physical essence. At the same time in the land of ballet, Balanchine was all over the form/content spectrum: linear story ballets, abstract expressions of music and instances of deconstructed narrative where an idea, concept or image served as the jumping off point for his movement vision.

One paragraph does not even scratch the surface of choreography's longstanding relationship with both story and structure, but it does provide some helpful insights that inform where we are now. And, every once in a while a dance program comes along that really speaks of this historical chronology. Company C Contemporary Ballet's Winter Program 2011 was just that – a stunning, multi-faceted visual journey through form and content, told through four pieces choreographed in the past fifteen years.

We begin in the land of the deconstructed narrative, where no linear story exists, and concepts, notions or ideas take center stage. Daniel Ezralow's “Pulse” had the dancers sliding in and out of the performance space in a wide second position, not just as a recurring motif, but overwhelmingly present throughout the entire work. Here Ezralow was demonstrating impermanence and lack of commitment – how today we leave a situation as quickly as we enter into it, and the difficulty we face in fully giving of ourselves; instead choosing to stay very much on the surface.

James Sewell's “Appalachia Waltz” was an ode to several different styles, including Graham, Balanchine, Mark Morris, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. This amalgamation really makes sense because the Appalachian region itself was and is a rich cultural compound. The costumes brought visions of Graham with the leotard-style, long-sleeved, full-length dresses; the poses evoked Balanchine's three muses (“Apollo”); the canon sequences brought Morris into the mixture; and the floorwork spoke of Arpino and Joffrey.

“Indoor Fireworks”, by Charles Anderson and Benjamin G. Bowman, opened with a 1960s scene; the entire cast channeling youth, joy, exuberance and society, and the piece definitely channeling Twyla Tharp's “Deuce Coupe” (although I would argue that “Indoor Fireworks” is maybe better than “Deuce Coupe”). Its purpose was not to fuse ballet and modern dance vocabulary together under the common force of youthful vitality; rather, it showed the passion, desperation and explosiveness (hence the title) of this generation. Of the nine sections, “Poisoned Rose” and “Baby Plays Around” particularly stood out. The former, a duet between Edilsa Armendariz and Robert Dekkers was a sexy, smooth stream of consciousness from beginning to end; seamless transitions with no stops or pauses. And Dekkers solo - “Baby Plays Around” - reminded us that a simplistic position can be so powerful. At several points, he stood on a high relevé in fourth - solid yet searching at the same time. “Blame it on Cain”, a trio for Kevin Hockenberry, David Van Ligon and Jeffrey Ware was the only segment that needed a bit more rehearsal. Their footwork was not well-synchronized and the spacing was off the entire time. They just didn't seem to be working together as one unit.
Robert Dekkers of Company C Contemporary Ballet in the premiere of Charles Anderson and Benjamin Bowman's "Indoor Fireworks".  Photo by David DeSilva

I have purposely left “Ominous Rumblings of Discontent” (choreography by Maurice Causey) out of the discussion, because the piece itself was confused. Not confusing, but confused. There was too much happening (both formally and narratively) to possibly converge into a cohesive piece of this short length. I think one of two things would be helpful for this work and am not really sure which would be the better option. Either some serious editing needs to happen so that the focus is stronger and clearer, or the piece should be expanded into a full-length work, so that all the information and material can be spread out and presented more convincingly.