Thursday, March 31, 2011

"5 Soliders" - an interactive dance experience

“5 Soldiers – The Body is the Frontline”
Rosie Kay Dance Company
Interactive film -

I am not usually a fan of dance films nor filmed dance. I find that in both circumstances, the viewer is at the mercy of the video artist – they decide what angles are seen, which dancers are featured, and at what distance the work is recorded. But, collaborators Aquila TV, Meshed Media and the Rosie Kay Dance Company have figured out how to conquer these obstacles. Their recently launched interactive version of Kay's “5 Soldiers – The Body is the Frontline” (at brings with it two significant contributions; not only does it speak to a unique relationship between dance and technology, but the piece itself is an absolutely brilliant choreographic work.

“5 Soldiers” is a three-part study of the soldier existence. The first segment examined training, with marching formations and unison choreography. As the five dancers breathed together, their synchronicity and oneness was evident, illustrating a very fundamental connection. Next came camaraderie, as the four men rocked out to house music in true fraternity, nightclub fashion. This comment on togetherness and brotherhood was powerful albeit brief, as the scene quickly morphed into a land of aggressiveness, objectification and sexualization. Celebratory dancing turned to angry punches, powerful shoves and headlocks. Then, as the lone female of the cast began a cycle of extensions (full pencheé arabesques, grand battements, lay-outs and splits in second), the men froze and creepily stared at her. Eventually, they appropriated her movements and this middle section ended with a confrontational standoff between her and the four men. “5 Soldiers'” final topic was that of battle, complete with a helicopter movement motif and an ending moment of mortality.

The numerous viewing options allow for ultimate audience customization. You can watch the entire piece shot from four different angles, you can track one particular dancer, or you can follow the performers' point of view via their 'head cam'. This system truly transforms the viewer into an active participant with the different perspectives delivering unexpected insights. The 'head cam' gave an extra dimension of physicality with its shakiness – an authentic experience of what was actually happening in the dancer's body as they moved through the choreography. The single-dancer tracking was equally revealing. As I watched the woman's solo in isolation, I realized that the movements themselves did not appear sexual at all, instead, it was her environment that had provided this earlier observed tension. Her variation was simply an exploration of the body's limits through extensions.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

ODC/Dance - "Dance Downtown: A Force at 40"

Elizabeth Farotte Heenan and Corey Brady. Photo by RJ Muna

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
March 12, 2011

The significant milestone of forty years deserves celebration and ODC is doing it up right with a three weekend, three program engagement at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Novellus Theater in downtown San Francisco.  The opening bill brought together two world premieres ("Speaking Volumes: Architecture of Light II" and "I Look Vacantly at the Pacific...Though Regret") with 1999's "Investigating Grace". 

Much dance performance centers around the notion of forms in space, and Brenda Way's "Speaking Volumes: Architecture of Light II" examined this concept very literally, with a stunning gallery of moving shapes.  The piece began with a soloist and a narrative voice; the narrator providing choreographic instruction and the dancer interpreting the words through movement.  This opening was so intriguing, almost like notation was being brought to life in performance.  And, right from this unique beginning, Way's focus on geometrical shapes was very clear.  As the piece continued, the idea of form was fully explored by soloists and groups, with lighting and set design and through choreographic alteration - differing articulations (staccato and smooth); range of dynamics; and changes in speed (augmentation and diminution).  Unfortunately, about three quarters of the way through "Speaking Volumes: Architecture of Light II", the dance took a wrong turn, with an attempt at Pina Bausch-style dance-theater humor.  This section came of out of nowhere and had nothing to do with the rest of the piece.  It was gimmicky and just didn't fit.  The work had been so choreographically sound up until that point, which made these last portions even more disappointing.

I'm certainly not against humorous dances because Kimi Okada's "I Look Vacantly at the Pacific...Though Regret" was delightfully fantastic.  Her stunning characterization of differing language, customs and conventions gave a refreshing, funny and child-like interpretation of cultural misunderstanding.  "Investigating Grace", also choreographed by Artistic Director Brenda Way, combined ballet, modern, jazz, gestural and pedestrian movements in a study of elegance.  Every lush sequence spoke to the expansive and graceful possibilities that exist in the human body.  The greatest achievement of "Investigating Grace" was that Way was able to show this polish and refinement in moments of stillness, when rolling on the ground and even in the most frenetic choreographic sequences. 

The repertory choices for this fortieth anniversary celebration were a little surprising.  Of the seven pieces that will be performed during the month of March, three are world premieres, two were choreographed over the last five years and the last two were from the 1990s.  What about the company's earlier period?  It would have been both interesting and appropriate to see a more varied selection of works, truly reflecting ODC's four-decade history.  Aside from that, this evening was a testament to the accomplishments of this amazing group of artists.  Here's to the next forty years! 

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Ballet San Jose -"Swan Lake"

The San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, San Jose, CA
February 26, 2011

The story of “Swan Lake” has certainly gotten a lot of attention over the past few months. While it has played out on the big screen and in the dance discourse, some companies are offering even further analytic opportunities by featuring the classic ballet as part of their 2011 season. Ballet San Jose's version, choreographed by Artistic Director Dennis Nahat, provides a unique take on the traditional story with an expanded treatment of Baron Von Rothbart and a much-needed inventory of ballet's technical oeuvre. With his attention to detail, Nahat's “Swan Lake” could be aptly retitled, “Swan Lake: The Return of Artistic Intricacy”.

Nahat's interpretation of Von Rothbart is brilliant. With Rothbart being the evil manipulator of this story's individuals, situations and events, it makes complete sense that he should be very present throughout the entire ballet (and in many productions his appearances are fairly minimal). In the prologue, we meet Von Rothbart for the first time as he captures four maidens and transforms them to swans. Though it would have been more effective for Odette to be one of those four women, these opening moments paint a villainous portrait. As the ballet continues, Von Rothbart's purpose becomes the interruption and halting of Odette and Siegfried's emerging relationship. To that end, Nahat has created several pas de trois for Odette, Siegfried and Von Rothbart (danced by Jeremy Kovitch) to represent Rothbart's interference. These trios definitely speak of his vicious intentions, though they also embody the struggles of all three characters: Odette's struggle for freedom, Siegfried's struggle for love and Von Rothbart's struggle for domination.

Photo by Robert Shomler
San Jose Ballet's corps is very good, one of the most mature groups (not necessarily in age, but certainly in artistic rigor) that I have seen in a long time - they really work together as a team. This is not a company who has their corps de ballet stand around framing the action; they are active participants. We first encounter them as the courtiers in Act I performing some very inventive choreography. Nahat is not afraid to use demi-pointe for the women as its own position, as opposed to its more common transitional use. This allowed discoveries and opportunities for steps and sequences that so many other choreographers miss. I must admit that at times, the corps looked a little cramped in the stage space, but because of their impressive aggregate sensibilities, they made the best of it. Act II's swan chorus was a beautiful display of delicate choreography - prancey front attitudes alongside wispy pas de chats. Softer pointe shoes would have been a nice addition to the scene.

Photo by Robert Shomler
The role of Prince Siegfried was the perfect showcase for Guest Artist Carlos Acosta's fantastic technique. His variations in Act I highlighted his spectacular plié, and his ability to end a multiple pirouette up in passé relevé rather than down in a closed position; a Cecchetti adage that we seldom see nowadays. Alexsandra Meijer's portrayal of both Odette and Odile was superb. As she first met the Prince, the fear and terror were apparent in every part of her being, not just in her arms as is often the case with many Swan Queens. And, as she was pulled away by Von Rothbart at the end of the second Act, her boureés screamed of her desperation, helplessness and panic.  Her Odile was enticing and alluring, though the technical requirements of this powerhouse character (specifically the fouettés) did present some challenges last Saturday night.