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