Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"The Hard Nut"

Mark Morris Dance Group
presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
December 15th, 2012

Dance in December would not be complete without the “Nutcracker”, and Bay Area dance in December would not be complete without alternative “Nutcrackers”. They are everywhere and there is truly something for everyone. One of the best surrogates is Mark Morris Dance Group’s “The Hard Nut”, choreography by the great Mark Morris himself. Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 book, “Nutcracker and the Mouseking”, Morris has injected his unique flair into the story of Marie and her Prince, carefully placing it in the swinging 1970s. With Adrianne Lobel’s set design, costumes by the late Martin Pakledinaz, and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra under the direction of George Cleve, “The Hard Nut” is a delight for the senses.

Following Hoffmann’s narrative, Act I begins at the same place and time as most “Nutcracker” productions: Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum home. With Morris’ retro concept, there were a few extra special (and humorous) touches. If not for Tchaikovsky’s familiar score, we could have easily been watching “The Monkees’ Christmas Special” or “A Very Scooby-Doo Holiday”. The guests eagerly joined in the evening’s festivities, dancing versions of ‘the hussle’ and ‘the cakewalk’ while sipping drinks from old school hi-ball glasses. As usual, the entertainment for the party guests was provided by life-sized dolls, though appropriately, ‘Droid’ and ‘Judy Jetson-style’ characters were substituted for the typical jester and nutcracker.

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Twenty-two women and men danced Act I’s finale: Morris’ inspired snow scene. Whipping around the stage in gorgeous architectural formations, the dancers threw handfuls of snow, corresponding perfectly to accented chords in the score. As found in most Morris ballets, he begins the action, movement and choreography off-stage in the wings, which leads to an unmatched continuity, consistency and flow. The series of canoned saut de basque turns deserve special mention as the Zellerbach stage was transformed into a rare combination of blizzard and fireworks. It was like a life-size snow globe.

Act II unveiled ‘The Hard Nut’ portion of the story, featuring the King (Mark Morris), the Queen (John Heginbotham) and Princess Pirlipat (Jenn Weddel), followed by the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and French sequences. These latter divertissements were cleverly campy and choreographically sound: the hops on pointe in the Chinese variation a pleasant surprise. Morris’ take on the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ combined his signature modern dance vocabulary with imaginative staging; another use of choreographic canon creating an actual ‘blooming’ sensation.     

Sunday, December 16, 2012

San Francisco Ballet - "Nutcracker"

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 13th, 2012

Being slightly surprised by some recent musings on the San Francisco Ballet’s current “Nutcracker”, I want to state for the record that Helgi Tomasson’s version of the Christmas tale is not just good, it’s transcendent. His attention to the narrative is flawless, especially in his ability to match choreography and character in the divertissements.

Dana Genshaft and Sean Orza in Tomasson's "Nutcracker"
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Act I’s ‘Dancing Dolls’ provide our first example of ‘character meeting choreography’ as Drosselmeyer (the first time I’ve seen Yuri Possokhov in the role) takes three toy dolls, super-sizes them and brings them to life. First is the ‘jack-in-the-box’ character who leaps out of a Christmas present to surprise the party guests at the Stahlbaum home. His unpredictability and off-balanced-ness sang throughout the short solo with one noted exception: a perfectly square final pirouette. Dana Genshaft followed as ‘the doll’; pretend, rigid and unreal, she was a full-size replica of a child’s toy. Her straight-kneed boureés, sharp relevés and mechanical arms spoke to the main theme in the entire ballet: the intersection of make-believe and reality. Last of course was ‘the Nutcracker’ himself, a steadfast and powerful figure, whose strength was further revealed through his variation of parallel sissones and attitude fouettés.

The divertissements of Act II – Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, French and Russian – are also models of character and choreographic consistency. For Spanish, Tomasson taps into the stylistic arms and positions that already exist in the classical ballet syllabus. With some added dynamic flare alongside staccato lifts, the result is a Spanish pas de cinq that is the picture of exuberant fire. While hyperextension of the legs and extreme flexibility in the back can at times present problems, in the Arabian trio they work to the choreographer’s advantage, revealing a sultry mysteriousness. Tomasson’s choreography for this sequence always brings to mind Gerald Arpino’s “Light Rain” for the Joffrey Ballet - in a good way. The acrobatics and allegro of the Chinese vignette give an aura of elegance and lightness, perfectly executed by Daniel Deivison. French, danced at this performance by Kimberly Braylock, Megan Amanda Ehrlich and Rebecca Rhodes, exhibits an unpredicted duality, toggling between the sexy allure of the ‘can-can’ steps and the demure femininity of the ribbons (though I must admit, the ribbon props make me nervous every year). The Russian variation was as spectacular as ever, and it was also the first time I have seen it performed without Pascal Molat in the lead. Hansuke Yamamoto did a superb job, both in his technique and his stage presence. Though Tomasson’s choreography definitely meets the character required by each divertissement, unison in each of these dances can be a bit of a challenge from time to time.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Sasha DeSola’s glorious performance in the grand pas de deux. DeSola was just recently promoted to soloist, and she has met this challenge head on. Her technique has always been super solid, and that continues to ring true. But there is a change in her. Her command and air have developed substantially without affecting her youthful energy or obvious joy. One can see why she has moved out of the corps past some of her peers. 

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Ballet San Jose - "Nutcracker"

San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
December 8th, 2012

With its brand new “Nutcracker”, Ballet San Jose continues to inject life, vision and vitality into the South Bay’s performing arts scene. Choreographed by BSJ’s own Karen Gabay, this full-length holiday extravaganza is a thoughtful and fresh interpretation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, complete with elegant dancing and striking originality.

Following the orchestral prelude, the audience is welcomed to a Christmas Eve celebration. Dr. & Mrs. Stahlbaum, Fritz and Marie are enjoying the festivities with their friends and anticipating the arrival of Drosselmeier. In Gabay’s version, the child Marie is danced by an adult, Maria Jacobs-Yu at this performance. Though present in many “Nutcrackers”, this age discrepancy can come across as strange, melodramatic and badly overacted. Not here. Jacobs-Yu was, in fact, one of the best Maries I have ever seen, making a complete theatrical transformation. Her buoyant movements expressed and created a true, youthful joy - the ballon in her Act I battement jetés providing a particularly fantastic example. And, the childlike wonder and amazement that she conveyed when the Nutcracker became the Prince late in Act I was both palpable and incredibly genuine.

Party scenes frequently contain an ‘entertainment’ portion for the onstage guests, usually facilitated by the mysterious Drosselmeier. Often a type of magic show, Gabay’s “Nutcracker” opted instead to stage ‘The Hard Nut’ story for the party guests and the audience. ‘The Hard Nut’ makes up the middle third of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Nutcracker” book, yet is often left out of the ballet entirely. It was delightful to see this narrative brought to life and put back into the ballet where it helps to explain the link between the Nutcracker and the Prince. Particular attention must be paid to the two suitors in this scene (Akira Takahashi and Peter Hershey) for their amazing precision and unison work. The choreography for this duo (and for many others throughout the ballet as well) also revealed Gabay’s clear talent for incorporating ample batterie in both men’s and women’s variations.

As we moved beyond the party into the snow and forest scenes, there were some noted cast omissions: no snow queen, no snow king and no sugar plum fairy. Though surprising at first, Gabay’s choices were both smart and narratively sound. Without a snow queen, king or sugar plum fairy, Marie and the Nutcracker Prince (Ramon Moreno) retain the primary focus and remain the stars of the ballet, which is of course, right on point. To that end, Jacobs-Yu and Moreno danced many different pas de deuxs throughout the evening, all of which were absolutely lovely: interesting lifts coupled with an innovative treatment of arabesque at its varying heights. Occasionally, the duets got a little busy, almost like there were too many steps for not quite enough music. But the majority of their dancing was a joy to watch and the choreography highlighted their individual strengths: Moreno’s powerful jump and Jacobs-Yu’s classic pirouettes (a completely square preparation without any hint of ‘winding up’).

Photo: Robert Shomler

Act II journeyed to ‘A Christmas Forest’ for four inspired divertissements: Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian (French was missing for some unknown reason). I am a sucker for any dancemaker who utilizes the full petit allegro oeuvre, including such unsung heroes as temps de cuisse and entrechat trois. Along with the presence of second position in choreography (certainly an ode to Balanchine), Gabay has turned these traditional vignettes into her own  combination of accuracy and newness. Next came the Waltz of the Flowers, which in Ballet San Jose’s “Nutcracker” is a dance for eight women and eight men. With so much flow and physicality, this partnered group sequence oozes elegance. And because of the numerous lifts, the ‘down, up, up’ pulse of the ¾ time signature was given much more of an emphasis, leading to an important, and albeit too rare, interdependence between the music and the movement. The Nutcracker Prince and Marie danced the leads in the Waltz, again propelling them to where they were meant to be: at the center of the ballet. 

Accompaniment by Symphony Silicon Valley was the icing on the cake.  Under the direction of conductor George Daugherty, the music was dynamic, articulate and interactive, exactly what is required of and demanded by a Tchaikovsky score. Daugherty and the musicians of Symphony Silicon Valley were adept in creating a conversation between the instruments, allowing for a more complete understanding of the subjects, themes, answers and counterpointe present in the entire “Nutcracker” composition. 

For more on the "Nutcracker", read my review of E.T.A. Hoffman's book on Dance Advantage:


Sunday, December 02, 2012

"reveries and elegies"

presented by Mary Armentrout Dance Theater 
The Milkbar, Oakland
December 1st, 2012

The queen of Bay Area post-modern dance is back with her newest performance installation, “reveries and elegies”. Mary Armentrout Dance Theater has created a multi-section, site-specific, mobile work that will live and breathe in four different spaces over the next three months; the Milkbar in Oakland being its first stop this past weekend. Performed by an all-female cast (Natalie Greene, Frances Rosario, Erin Malley and Armentrout herself), “reveries and elegies” invites the viewer on a multi-disciplined journey of process and discovery. During Judson Dance Theater’s heyday (early 1960s), experimentation, absurdity and the peripheral aspects of performance came together with dance and choreography in a vast theatrical incubator. The pioneers of post-modern dance embarked upon this exchange of imaginative ideas more than fifty years ago and Mary Armentrout Dance Theater is one of the closest representations we have of their legacy.

Photo: Ian Winters
Through “reveries and elegies’” seven different scenes, narrative themes and compositional tools brought content and structure together.  Doors were one such narrative device. Doorways and doors themselves have an obvious purpose: to allow entrances and exits from a particular space.  But in Armentrout’s work, these doors say so much more and ask so many different questions: are they leading somewhere or providing an escape; do they reveal or hide; are they keeping one out or letting one in? These propositions were most apparent in the first two vignettes, where the actual opening and closing of doors was combined with a video overlay of Armentrout repeating similar entrances and exits. The combination of the two (the actual and the projected) provided a multi-level visual, reiterating Armentrout’s narrative complexity.

Repetition was also an important theatrical and compositional tool used throughout the piece both in text and in movement. All of the seven scenes had some version of “reveries and elegies’” chosen phrasal accompaniment – ‘life is so strange’ – sometimes spoken live, sometimes recorded. Other segments used gestural repetition in the old-school dance-theater style. The fifth movement (‘reverie of dislocation #1: CONTENT’) found Armentrout continually breaking dishes by throwing them onto a cement floor, indicating fragmentation and the difference between perception and reality. There was an obvious audible shock every time she dropped a dish, but again, much more was underlying this repeated action. And, repetition in dance theater has a very dizzying effect of not only emphasizing a point but also anesthetizing the audience to that act in the same moment. 

“reveries and elegies” brought video into a much more dominant role. Movement was definitely present throughout the hour and fifty minute installation; however, the majority of it was reflected on screen, with just a few of the segments having in person codified modern dance sequences. My favorite was the second divertissement, a solo movement study entitled, ‘elegy for the things we will lose’. Here was a clear statement on the duality of searching: for a feeling; a sensory déjà vu; a hint of understanding. To that end, parallel boureés on high demi-pointe were employed, demonstrating instances of uncertainty, imbalance and precariousness. In contrast, they were juxtaposed against a recurring homebase posture of comfort and security: Armentrout lying on her side with legs extended and feet flexed in a small parallel second position.    

The fourth section (‘elegy in the dying of the light #1’) was another highlight. A quartet for all four women, they appeared and disappeared up and down a staircase, morphing in and out of view in a gestural collage. I couldn’t totally tell whether they were playing different characters or perhaps exhibiting different aspects of the same character, but the visual was so intoxicating that I don’t know if it actually mattered. Each of them engaged in a purposely overdone, melodramatic, mimetic vocabulary phrase. With the accompanying candelabras and Southern Bell styled dresses, it was like watching an old movie, one in which the heroine might have had multiple personality disorder.

“reveries and elegies’” makes three more stops: Interface Gallery (486-49th Street in Oakland), CounterPULSE (1310 Mission Street in San Francisco) and Baker Beach. Do not miss the opportunity to experience post-modern dance as it was intended. 

Further details and information can be found at: http://www.maryarmentroutdancetheater.com/

Monday, November 26, 2012

"Angles of Enchantment"

Garrett + Moulton Productions
ODC Theater, San Francisco
November 24th, 2012

With their newest evening-length work, Garrett + Moulton Productions have restored my faith in avant-garde, experimental, interdisciplinary, contemporary choreography.  “Angles of Enchantment” has all the necessary components of noteworthy modern dance: form, structure, narrative, concept, collaboration and technique.  Whimsy and humor also played an ample role in “Angles of Enchantment”, but its use always made absolute sense.  There was no ‘movement for movement’s sake’ nor dance-making steeped in the ridiculously absurd.  This was real; this is what San Francisco modern dance should aspire to. 

Photo: RJ Muna
As the piece began, we were introduced to the entire company (dancers Tanya Bello, Carolina Czechowska, Tegan Schwab and Nol Simonse) through short image vignettes, captured in different sized spotlights all over the stage.  Organized as solos, duets, trios and quartets, these were like preparatory remarks; a physical manifestation of preliminary phrases, words and ideas.   Following this gorgeous prelude, the cast moved onto its first main group sequence, journeying through an imaginary forest, complete with a scattered, shadowy light pattern and fluttery, fairy-like choreographic batterie. These opening moments set up the formal structure that would continue throughout the seventy-minute piece: short, individual scenes that examined and spoke to the same concept.

Narratively, “Angles of Enchantment” was all about the path of discovery one makes using their imagination.  About a third of the way through the dance, Simonse had a solo that was clearly about learning to let go and forgive.  Later, the three women performed a divertissement that revealed a trio of wonderfully hopped-up, disco-style Swan Lake cygnets.  Combining turned out pas de chats with flexed attitude relevés illustrated the importance of experimentation – taking perhaps one of the most famous ballet variations and flipping it one hundred and eighty degrees.  Czechowska spent another entire section in a giant tree costume with a huge headpiece and Southern Belle-style hoop skirt.  As she traveled slowly, calmly and quietly along a diagonal line, a comment on humanity was abundantly clear: we are more the same than we are different.  Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton’s conceptual foundation of discovery through imagination was pure, relatable, universal and consistent.

Garrett and Moulton have a rich history of successful choreographic collaboration so it would stand to reason that they would seek out equally brilliant design and music collaborators.  Both Audrey Wright’s lighting design and Margaret Hatcher’s costumes were inspired.  But, the music was really something else.  Composer and performer Peter Whitehead was a one-man band, who literally had a treasure chest of instruments on his raised platform downstage right.  Combining string, percussion and voice, Whitehead was not accompanying the dance performance.  His role as the fifth performer was apparent in the entire work, but most pointedly in the two scenes where one of the women sat with him to learn how to play some of the instruments (again, a reference back to the narrative). 

Technically, Bello, Czechowska, Schwab and Simonse were very well matched.  They are certainly different dancers (no cookie cutter corps here), but their performance experience and modern dance acumen was clearly on par with each other.  My only technical quibble was with the turns.  Each of them had a habit of ‘winding up’ prior to many of their turns, both in their torsos and with their arms.  It almost gives away the turn when dancers do that.  And from a choreographic standpoint, I loved almost the whole piece, except for the long tag at the end.  About five minutes before the final blackout, there was a return to the short choreographic snippets in numerous pools of light.  Because “Angles of Enchantment” began this way, it would have made more sense to end the piece there.  The recapitulation of that first idea was much stronger than the extended coda.

Friday, November 16, 2012


LEVYdance presents
“AMP – Coasts Collide with LEVYdance and Sidra Bell Dance New York”
ODC Theater, San Francisco
November 15, 2012

As a critic, I hate characterizing any performance as ‘interesting’; it is such a blank statement.  But, interesting is really the only word I have to describe “AMP”, a shared modern dance program between LEVYdance and Sidra Bell Dance New York.  All of the dancers from both companies did a superb job; however, the choreography itself was a very mixed bag.  Benjamin Levy presented two beautiful contemporary works which bookended two unsuccessful avant-garde pieces by Sidra Bell.

The program opened with a short pas de deux - “Falling After Too” (2003), choreography by Benjamin Levy and Darrin Michael Wright; piano composition and live accompaniment by Anthony Porter.  Porter’s score for this work was very reminiscent of Debussy, which immediately brought to mind the nature of Impressionistic music.  Debussy and his peers came on the scene as the Romantic era came to a close and the 20th Century composers were on the rise.  In this short, ambiguous period, conventions and characteristics were porous, flexible and changing.  Levy and Wright’s duet spoke to a similar fluidity.  Were the dancers moving on their own or being manipulated by each other; were they making individual decisions or reacting to each other’s choices; was it a combination of all of these possibilities?  “Falling After Too” was wonderfully and deliciously unclear.     

I like dance theater just fine.  It might not be my favorite genre, but when it is done well - à la Bausch, Goode and Forsythe - I completely appreciate it.  Sidra Bell’s “less” (for LEVYdance) and “Nudity” (for her own company) were just not good dance theater.  “less” featured a contorted, grotesque, tribal, animalistic movement vocabulary accompanied by a soundscape of amplified noise.  Sequences of crawling and stalking were interspersed with command/obey segments in which one dancer yelled instructions at the others.  Absurdity is a common theatrical tool in dance theater, yet, in good dance theater, the absurdity has a place, a reason and an intention.  Here, we were witnessing absurdity for its own sake, which comes across as nothing but self-indulgent.  The huge false eyelashes, futuristic make-up and blaring floorlights made “less” feel like an assault on the senses.  One saving grace was that the movement style was certainly different for the LEVYdance performers and it is always good to see a company venture outside their comfort zone. 

Following intermission, the dancers of Sidra Bell Dance New York took the stage in “Nudity”.  The beginning of the piece felt like ‘more of the same’, except that this time the performers were costumed in black rather than the white from “less”.  However, the dance did change and evolve differently.  Though the physical language had similarities, snippets of ballet were infused throughout (changement, allongé, balloné, attitude turns, developpé à la second and 5th position of the feet).  The ballet was a welcome addition, though Bell’s point (no pun intended) was that ballet is stifling; ballet is bad.  This message was received loud and clear in the first three minutes so I’m not sure why the piece was so long.  The most shocking part of “Nudity” were the two instances where the dancers ventured into the audience, whispering in people’s ears, clutching their faces, and touching their shoulders.  Right now, notions of discomfort coupled with a desire to breakdown the boundaries between performer and viewer are super trendy in modern dance.  But you can still examine these issues without having your dancers actually touch people.  I witnessed audience members recoiling and getting angry due to the invasion of their personal space.  To be fair, I must also admit that from the resounding chorus of bravos as the lights dimmed, at least half of the audience clearly loved Bell’s work.  “less” and “Nudity” were not for me, but they obviously spoke deeply to others.

The last piece on “AMP’s” bill was Levy’s 2008 work, “Physics”.  After close to an hour of the bizarre, I was overjoyed to see his choreography reclaim the stage.  A quartet, this contemporary work explored points of contact, some familiar and conventional, others not: finger/chin, hand/clavicle, heel/lower back, arm/waist, palms, wrists.  The piece questioned what is built from these initial physical meetings: what grows from them; what energy do they have; what affection may be present; what promises are contained; what possibilities exist and what resentment lies in wait.  It was gorgeous.

Photo: David DeSilva

Last week, I complained about some logistical issues at another ODC Theater event.  So I must also mention that in between Thursday night’s performance and the Q-and-A with the artists, audience members who weren’t wanting to participate were afforded a few minutes to depart. Much appreciated.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

ODC/Dance "unplugged"

ODC Dance Commons, San Francisco
November 9th, 2012

For any dance artist, the lecture-demonstration is a tricky format, presenting very different challenges than traditional performance.  And when looking at any group of lecture-demonstrations, the statistical bell curve is wholly present: some are good, some are bad and most fall somewhere in the middle.  This weekend’s ODC/Dance “unplugged” was one of the greats.  ODC/Dance’s Artistic Director and Founder Brenda Way provided a holistic look at her current project, “Life Saving Maneuvers”, from first concepts to early images to movement sequences, all culminating in a full-length performance of the dance.  Here was a genuine communication of choreographic practice, a commitment to community education and a tangible passion for artistic undertaking.  The hour-long event allowed the audience to witness “Life Saving Maneuvers” from two very connected perspectives: process and progress.

Photo: Steve Maller
A traditional lecture-demonstration filled the first twenty minutes. Way verbally shared her initial ideas for the work, and the dancers showed how those ideas manifested into physical images, textural characteristics and movement vocabulary.  We saw how the choreographic phrases were developed and built and how at times, the final results ended up as Way stated, “having nothing to do with the source”.  The most interesting take-away from this lecture-demonstration segment was how Way and the dancers really embrace the concept of letting go: releasing control of the piece, allowing it to take its own shape and conceive its own life. 

Then came a full run-through of “Life Saving Maneuvers”, a 35-40 minute composition set to premiere in March 2013.  This was not a snippet nor an excerpt of the material; not an appetizer nor an amuse-bouche.  Instead, we were watching a live experiment with a new recipe.  For the critic, these ‘previews’ or ‘works-in-progress’ are an invaluable device; a moment to simply experience the dance, without the pressure to jump right into analysis or get lost in the choreographic minutia.  Having said that, some observations obviously came to mind while watching the piece.  “Life Saving Maneuvers” had an strong, constant narrative of support, illustrated at so many different junctures: the men moving in unison, attached to each other in a train formation; the opening circuit where the women were hoisted on the men’s backs; the desperate, frightening, risky, and shocking ‘run, jump, fall and catch’ segment.  It was exciting to see ideas and movements from the lecture-demo present in the work and I also really enjoyed seeing new blood in the company, especially amongst the women.  I hope ODC/Dance continues to add this intoxicating, new energy to its roster.  My final thought as the lights dimmed was that I want to savor this artistic and choreographic recipe again, whether it has exactly the same ingredients or an infusion of new flavors.

Overall, “unplugged” was a rousing success: an evening of honest sharing, solid education and fantastic performance.  The only disappointing part of the night was the final discussion between the viewers, Way and the dancers, facilitated by ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke.  Typically, a ‘talk back’ between the artists and the audience is preceded by a brief pause, even if just a few minutes.  During this time, those audience members who prefer to consider the work on their own and ponder its implications have the chance to leave and those who wish to participate in the interactive conversation can stay.  We were given no such opportunity and were kind of stuck in our seats.  Obviously, it was possible for anyone to leave at anytime but because of the studio setting, it would have been incredibly disrespectful, disruptive and frankly, just plain rude to get up and go in the middle of this dialogue.  While I applaud ODC for engaging everyone in the artistic process and completely understand the value that can be gained from such an exchange, the logistics of this final portion could have been handled better.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Russell Maliphant Company

A Sadler’s Wells London Production
presented by San Francisco Performances
Lam Research Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
October 14th, 2012

Russell Maliphant’s 2010 work, “AfterLight”, is a physical sonata of hypnotic visuals.  Within the exposition (a lengthy male solo), development (introduction of duos and trios) and recapitulation (the return to the single male dancer), fluidity reigned supreme. “AfterLight” is a stunning and complete exploration of how light and the manipulation of it becomes theatrically causal, affecting mood, movement and perception.  With last weekend’s engagement of the Russell Maliphant Company, San Francisco Performances has once again introduced an amazing single-choreographer led troupe to Bay Area audiences.

Thomasin Gülgeç’s opening solo was really quite something. The combination of light (designed by Michael Hulls) and Maliphant’s movement created such a strong and unusual visual effect, to the point where the light itself became an active performer.  Lit from an overhead spotlight, the choreography was centrifugal - twisting, turning, spiraling, unwinding - so much so that it looked like Gülgeç was positioned on a rotating disc.  Nijinsky-inspired arms were prevalent in the twenty-minute variation, reflected by his signature 5th position and moments where the arms wrapped around the head. Gülgeç captured fluidity and gracefulness throughout his whole solo whether walking, spinning or changing levels from standing to floorwork (which happened quite often).  He was absolutely exquisite in this role.  His back and spine are super flexible, perfectly matched with Maliphant’s choreography, though because of his upper body’s flexibility, his ribs were constantly popped to the point of hyper-extension.  This occasionally took away from an otherwise brilliant performance. 
Photo credit: Johan Persson

The two women in the cast (Silvina Cortés and Gemma Nixon) were introduced in the next section with a unison duet (which eventually morphed into a group sequence with all three performers, followed by a set of pas de deuxs).  This portion of “AfterLight” was performed behind a scrim with a scattered light pattern, giving a dream-like ambiance.  The choreography carried the same hypnotizing fluidity as was evident in Gülgeç’s solo, though the women had a slightly more difficult time maintaining the smooth, legato quality.  While most of the dance stayed at a uniform dynamic level, we did see a bit of change during this lengthy middle segment.  Cortés and Nixon broke into a set of frenetic chaîné turns, built a crescendo with punctuated, staccato motions and also executed some long leg extensions. 

“AfterLight’s” last scene took us back to the beginning of the work, as Gülgeç once again commanded the space.  Delicate flute music accompanied Maliphant’s choreography as the soloist moved in and out of the shadows.  In the final moments, Gülgeç took his place center stage, this time bathed in a strobe light effect and as the curtain fell, everything dissolved and disappeared together – the light, the mood and the dance.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Zhukov Dance Theatre

PRODUCT 05: Coin/c/dance
Z Space, San Francisco
September 27, 2012

In the past year or so, much of the modern dance I’ve seen in the San Francisco/Bay Area has had a large narrative component.  This is not a good thing or a bad thing; it is simply a common thread that I have witnessed.  So, it was a wonderful change of pace to attend a performance where narrative connotations certainly existed but formal considerations were given an esteemed place of prominence.  Zhukov Dance Theatre’s fifth home season at San Francisco’s Z Space accomplished this delicate balance with “Coin/c/dance”; a beautiful etude of choreographic experimentation.  Here, Artistic Director Yuri Zhukov (in collaboration with his company of seven dancers) examined, deconstructed and applied the ideas of randomness and circumstance to modern dance vocabulary.  And through the fascinating one-hour structural study, Zhukov showed how purposeful choice and random occurrence can shape, change and create choreographic dynamics. 

The beginning was a collection of full-company cluster sequences that explored every corner of the stage space.  Some ‘follow-the-leader’ style phrases emerged where one dancer initiated a movement that some or all of the others would then assume.  From the very start, Zhukov’s revelatory dynamic results were evident.  As the performers cycled through this initial introduction, differing speeds and styles of articulation took over, and a simple floor roll was suddenly part of a spectrum - varied characteristics and distinct features.  In the callisthenic-type motif that followed, a similar dynamism transpired.  When the jumpy, buoyant segment was carried out from beginning to end, it had a perky airiness, but when single movements from the phrase were isolated, they took on a slow, almost haunting quality. 

Photo: Sandy Lee
In addition, Zhukov experimented with the juxtaposition of stage design and choreographic dynamics.  The middle section of “Coin/c/dance” featured two men who oscillated between dancing and manning a rolling shin-buster - as one performed a solo variation, the other moved the light around the space.  The effect was stunning.  There were times when the placement of the light amplified a single arm swing, making it animalistic, aggressive and sexy.  Or, an upper body circular port de bras was transformed from demure to seductive.  It was almost as if Zhukov had created and envisioned a pas de trois between three performers – the two male soloists and the mobile light source itself.    

I do believe that the final fifteen minutes of “Coin/c/dance” was misplaced.  About three-quarters of the way through the piece, a very dramatic scene unfolded – every dancer was onstage, performing vibrant, diverse choreographic sequences, all ending in a sudden blackout.  I, and I would guess others in the audience, thought this was the thrilling finale, but surprisingly, there was more to come.  This group segment seemed a perfect and logical stopping point; gorgeous, well-timed and so, so strong.  In comparison, the material that followed was unfortunately, a bit of a let-down.  Perhaps a re-ordering of the dance might be something to consider.

The formal and structural nature of Zhukov Dance Theatre’s “Coin/c/dance” also evoked crucial theatrical and compositional questions.  Was the entire piece completely choreographed and planned out?  Were there some moments that truly happened by chance or by accident?  Were we seeing real-time reactions at play?  These questions are incredibly important in the modern dance scene.  So much so that I was tempted to go back and see “Coin/c/dance” again, compare the two viewings and determine if they were the same.  Kudos to Zhukov Dance Theatre for bringing the choreographic process back to the stages of San Francisco.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Zaccho Dance Theatre - "Sailing Away"

San Francisco
September 13, 2012
Photo credit: Anthony Lindsay & Wilfredo Pascual

Last week, San Francisco’s Union Square was its usual bustling self; tourists, shoppers and workers all going about their typical routine.  Yet, each afternoon between September 13th and 16th Market Street was the site of much more than daily activities, errands or sight-seeing.  It became a place where art and life merged and intersected as Zaccho Dance Theatre re-staged their site-specific, mobile dance theater work: 2010’s “Sailing Away”. 

Starting at Market & Powell and traveling down to Battery, eight performers brought “San Francisco’s Black Exodus of 1858” to life, depicting a time more than one hundred and fifty years ago.  Faced with hostile threats and increasing racial discrimination, African American citizens departed San Francisco in search of peace, unencumbered prosperity and true freedom.  In sharing this historic event, choreographer Joanna Haigood has managed to successfully fuse narrative strength and post-modern sensibilities.  Not many dancemakers can accomplish this lofty goal and with “Sailing Away”, Haigood has proven herself once again as an artistic tour-de-force.

“Sailing Away” begins with a tableau: eight performers (seven dressed in period costume, one in modern attire) frozen as if they are sitting for a portrait. Then, one by one, they break their position and begin to slowly amble down Market Street.  Each cast member had a specific trajectory over the seven blocks: some walked ahead while others stopped in different locations to perform solos, duets or trios before continuing their journey.  In addition, there were also moments on the route where the entire group came back together to form picture vignettes. 

Despite the different configurations and physical vocabulary in the beginning of the work, a common serenity and awareness was present in everyone’s gait. No one was in any hurry, rather, each dancer grasped every possible opportunity to take in their surroundings. Then, as the group got closer to the end of their path, the movement and demeanor changed.  The forward propulsion took on more urgency, characterized by wild spinning lifts and desperate chaîné turns.  One man, who carried a ship’s anchor throughout the dance, stopped to reveal a violent, tenacious solo variation. Full of shaking, clenched fists, he seemed to be silently screaming, “why?”. “Sailing Away’s” venture down Market Street was a complex one: deliberate and intentional yet labored and haunted at the same time.

Alongside the costuming and props, Haigood used structural choreographic tools to highlight the narrative theme.  A dynamic combination of solos and group sequences facilitated the story from both collective and individual perspectives.  This was clearly happening to a group of people, yet within group, it was affecting each individual in very unique and personal ways.

“Sailing Away” also required active participation from its audience.  Not only did we follow the eight performers for the length of the piece, but we also chose whether to stop and watch one dance, or to keep going onto what was happening ahead.  Your decisions, as a viewer, composed the piece for you: what you saw, what you missed, who you watched and who you ignored.  “Sailing Away” is not for the passive watcher; Haigood and Zaccho Dance Theatre have created a choreographic experience that demands a culpable, responsible observer.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

ODC/Dance Summer Sampler

ODC Theater, San Francisco
August 11th, 2012

So many San Francisco/Bay Area dance companies have embraced new ways to share their work with the audience.  In addition to their ‘primary’ home seasons, many groups are now offering shorter mixed repertory collections in smaller more intimate settings.  This brings dancers, patrons and the choreography itself together in a very different, yet exciting way.  RAWdance has its ‘Concept Series’, Diablo Ballet invites us ‘Inside the Dancer’s Studio’ and ODC/Dance offers a ‘Summer Sampler’.  This year’s ‘Summer Sampler’ was not only a unique opportunity to see a major company off-season but also a chance to say goodbye to one of their long-time dancers, Daniel Santos.

Saturday’s program featured choreography spanning the past six years, with KT Nelson’s “Cut Out Guy” (2012) and Brenda Way’s “Unintended Consequences” (2008) and “Parts Of A Longer Story” (2006).  In the program notes, Nelson shared that “Cut Out Guy” was a tribute to school-aged competitive wrestlers.  She handily captured the complex array of skills and traits that is these phenomenal athletes.  The notions of balance, centeredness, agility, litheness and grace abounded through the dancing of Dennis Adams, Justin Andrews, Corey Brady, Daniel Santos and Jeremy Smith.  Looseness was illustrated by ‘shaking’ sequences, flexibility in the leg extensions and the strength, oh my, the feats of strength she created.  Adams picked up one of the other dancers on his shoulders and upper back, rising all the way from the floor to standing.  Another dancer balanced himself in the air by holding onto only the torso of a second dancer.  Nelson and these 5 men were totally ‘in the zone’ with this study of physical and mental ability.

I did like both the movement and the performances in “Unintended Consequences (A Meditation)” - especially Vanessa Thiessen’s opening variation and the final unison section - though the piece was really the weakest of the three.  Chunks of differing choreographic material had been put together in sequence but were lacking any transitional linkage.  Much of the dance seemed like it came out of nowhere and was artistically independent from and unrelated to what had just occurred.  Maybe that was Way’s intention with this work; a kind of absurdist take on juxtaposing unrelated movement.

Photo: Margo Moritz
It was well worth the wait to see Way’s “Part Of A Longer Story” as the ‘Summer Sampler’ finale.  ODC/Dance performed Parts I and II of this 2006 work and it was absolutely magical.  Set to Mozart’s gorgeous Clarinet Concerto in A Major, Way managed to create an interdependent relationship between the music and the movement,  each breathing life into the other.  I don’t use the word masterpiece very often, but “Parts Of A Longer Story” is a true masterpiece, one of those once-in-a-lifetime creations.  Genre-wise, the work is a fusion of traditional ballet and modern whimsy: attitude turns ending with a hand flourish, slow developpés culminating with a staccato flexed foot.   Part II, a long duet between Santos and Thiessen, was all about sustained regality.  Through the lushly beautiful, yet simple musical theme, promenades glided, hands floated and legs lengthened as far away from the body as was humanly possible.  Here was a true pas de deux, a dance of two, where the first half finds Santos and Thiessen dancing in the same space, yet separately.  And then, right before the final recapitulation of the theme, they come together for an even fuller understanding and statement of suspension.  Way has captured the perfect physical representation of the long appoggiatura, a non-chord note which sits in dissonance and then finally leans into its musical resolution.  Stunning.  This piece will live forever.  


Friday, August 10, 2012

"Dance and Acrobatics"

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® present
Oracle Arena, Oakland, CA
August 8th, 2012

I have always made a clear and definite separation between dance and acrobatics.  Though I can concede that each genre uses aspects of the other from time to time, they just seem like very different entities to me.  However, I’m starting to re-think this demarcation a little bit.  With the combination of Olympic gymnastics coverage and my recent trip to the circus (Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® “DRAGONS”), the line that I have drawn in my head between dance and acrobatics is getting fuzzier and fuzzier.

Typical for a circus show, “DRAGONS” was broken into two halves, each comprised of six to eight short ‘acts’.  Some of these were traditional, old-school circus stand-bys: large cat exhibition, tight rope, clowns, etc.  And then there were the acrobatics: trapeze, human pyramids and aerial work.  It is with this last category that I began to reconsider my somewhat static opinions surrounding acrobatics and dance.  And this time, I noticed much more cross-over between the two than I had in the past.  One particular sequence really drove this idea home.  Performers were suspended high above the ground in clear, transparent orbs that were engineered to toggle between being closed and open.  This allowed for a range of movement from gymnastic backbends within the closed orb to more dance-y split jetés, separating the two hemispheres.  Throughout this dynamic scene, it was clear that all of the participants were doing both aerial dance and artistic acrobatics.  They used every part of their body to counter balance and create shapes in space, and moved flowingly from one pose to another with transitory awareness.  As I watched their routine, I became fascinated with a duality.  The movements were so similar to those used by San Francisco modern dance companies who specialize in aerial choreography.  But at the same time, this was clearly a circus act. 

In any event, this experience got me thinking more about the blurry and complex relationship between dance and acrobatics.  And in this case, external forces like intention, context, format, costuming and location determined the movement’s categorization.  If I had seen the exact same variation on the side of a wall in San Francisco, without a doubt, I would characterize it as aerial dance, but here at “DRAGONS”, I was definitely seeing circus acrobatics.  Interesting how outside factors have so much influence on perception.

Monday, July 30, 2012

SFB at Stern Grove

San Francisco Ballet
at Stern Grove Festival
July 29th, 2012
Sigmund Stern Grove, San Francisco

Each year, I look forward to so many different dance performances but probably my most anticipated is the San Francisco Ballet at the Stern Grove Festival.   A day filled with an amazing picnic lunch, great seats, and lively, engaging discussion with the most fun group of dance enthusiasts.  What more could one ask for?  Well of course, the performance (incidentally, the ballet’s only SF engagement between May and November) is the quintessential element of this one-of-a-kind experience.

I have said this many times before with respect to San Francisco Ballet’s programming, and it is certainly worth repeating.  Without fail, the company manages to present work that highlights their diverse repertory and the dancer’s artistic/technical acumen.  Now, that doesn’t mean I like every piece, but I always appreciate their commitment to showcasing range and depth and the 2012 Stern Grove program was no exception.

The San Francisco Ballet began with George Balanchine’s “Scotch Symphony” from their preceding season.  I love this ballet, particularly because of its dynamic contrast: quick batterie against elegant adagio; playful allegro alongside emotional pas de deux.  Nicole Ciapponi shone as the ‘scotch girl’.  She successfully executed the vast array of footwork in the role, from the traveling brisés to stationary jètés to pliés on high demi-pointe.  Ciapponi has the wherewithal to dance any style, any part, and this time, it was exciting to see her as a batterie/petit allegro soloist.   Another standout performance came from within the “Scotch Symphony” corps. Dustin Spero has the regality and sharpness necessary for this ballet.  Every movement was precise and exact, whether posing in a lunge or completing an entre chat six.  He morphed into his character totally; projecting an advanced interpretation and understanding of this work.  Maybe soon we will see him as one of the demi-soloists in Balanchine’s visual masterpiece.

Two shorter ballets filled the middle portion of the program.  The first, “Spinae”, choreographed by corps de ballet member Myles Thatcher and danced by SF Ballet apprentices and trainees, lived up to and even exceeded the expectations of its title.  Thatcher fully examined every possible articulation, contraction and release that can be found in the spine.  The sinewy syntax was so lush and developed that at times, it seemed that the dancers were literally swimming through space and Thatcher’s inventive running leaps are reminiscent of early Édouard Lock.  The trainees and apprentices are truly fantastic technicians and performers – it was both a treat and an honor to see them dance on Sunday.  Having said that, the men could use a little more attention to their demi-pointe; generally speaking, the arch of their feet is a little underdeveloped. 

Next came Hans van Manen’s “Solo”, danced by Gennadi Nedvigin, James Sofranko and Hansuke Yamamoto.  The most interesting aspect of this work is how van Manen chose to mirror Bach’s music through the physical form.  Each man embodied a different theme, seamlessly juxtaposing and layering, which is exactly what Bach was doing with the themes in the score.  Much of Bach’s music has no stopping point, no cadence, until the end of the composition is reached.  Similarly, Nedvigin, Sofranko and Yamamoto ushered each other on and off stage so that the movement also never stopped.  van Manen captured the polyphonic texture through every playful interaction, and kept true to the compositional elements from the Baroque period - utilizing augmentation, diminution, sequence and inversion. 

“Number Nine”, Christopher Wheeldon’s colorful ménage, acted as the finale of the afternoon.  Yet another example of the company’s diverse repertoire, this contemporary ballet featured four couples (who were well-suited both technically and visually), supported by a corps of sixteen.  One of the four solo women, Sasha DeSola, is fast becoming a favorite of mine.  She is an absolute delight to watch and has the technical chops to match – textbook fouettés, and her rond de jambe en l’air absolutely soars.  Gennadi Nedvigin’s jumping entrance was super-human; he was almost horizontal to the ground and landed with such presence and composure.  He definitely drew a number of audible ‘wows’ from the audience.  Though I enjoyed the overall performance of this ballet, “Number Nine’s” choreography is just a little busy for me.  Wheeldon has so many different pairings, sequences and variations happening all at once that the stage becomes a little schizophrenic.  However, to be fair, he does pull the group together for the final moments, which for me, are the most cohesive of the work. 

Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz performing a pas de deux from 
Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote. 
Photo by Erik Tomasson

Thursday, July 05, 2012

"Walking Distance Dance Festival - SF"

presented by ODC Theater on the ODC campus, San Francisco
June 29th - July 1st, 2012

This past weekend ODC successfully launched its first ever "Walking Distance Dance Festival", a three-day event aimed at bringing together multiple companies, short programs and the dance audience.  Spread throughout the ODC Campus, each performance was offered at two different times in either the Mott Studio, the B'Way Theater or in Studio B of the Dance Commons.  With the adjacent locations and the numerous choices, patrons could easily see a diverse sampling of modern dance in a single evening or afternoon.  The inaugural festival also happened to coincide with the Dance/USA conference (which was convening in the city) - what a special opportunity to share the San Francisco artistic spirit and our quality choreography with colleagues from around the country. 

I took in one performance during this amazing weekend, a combined program featuring two of my favorite companies: RAWdance in "After 5:00" and Hope Mohr Dance in an excerpt of "Reluctant Light".  RAWdance's co-artistic directors Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith served as both the choreographers and performers in the passionate and volatile "After 5:00".  This dance highlighted how personal, individual baggage speaks to, lives, thrives and affects current relationships; an interchange of inner demons and control.  The piece began with Smith sitting in a chair slowly pouring water on Rein.  She moved away from him and engaged in a stunning solo, traditional modern technique with an edge - beautiful turned out attitudes and developpés in parallel second.  Smith took over the space with his own solo, with the initial moments returning to the water motif.  He slowly emptied the bottle over his head, almost like a painful cleansing ritual.  His dance was emotionally charged, informed by real fear.  The water had revealed something; a feeling, event or experience that was clearly tormenting him.  Then, Rein and Smith came back together at the end of "After 5:00" for a tempestuous duet - at times clinging to each other while at others, pushing and flinging each other away.  I love many things about this company, but one of their most important choreographic achievements is that the narrative is constant.  It informs everything in any given piece and remains true through every movement variation.

I had seen the premiere of the full-length "Reluctant Light" at Z Space back in March, and it was fascinating to see Hope Mohr Dance again in this work, this time in an excerpt.  Doing an excerpt of an entire piece is not easy at all; you must capture the essence and message of the work without the full choreographic material.  Hope Mohr Dance did this very well.  I still saw the juxtaposition of encasement and freedom, yet, there were also new discoveries, including a more layered exploration of 'assumption'.  I felt like there was a set of different questions being asked: what does a structure or boundary suggest; how does it temper behavior; how does its assumed role challenge or hinder interactions; what happens when we re-purpose an entity; how do we try and control our surroundings?  I wonder if these observations simply came from a second viewing or from the fact that in the 'Walking Distance Dance Festival', "Reluctant Light" was presented in a smaller setting and more intimate venue.