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.