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.      

Monday, July 02, 2012

34th Annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival

presented by World Arts West presents
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
June 30, 2012

The month-long San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival embarked on its final weekend at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with a signature blend of excellent performance, creative fusion, cultural education and artistic sharing.  Eight amazing companies graced the stage in two-hours of distinct physicality and national identity.  This impressive combination of large and small groups included Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose & San Jose Taiko (India & Japan) which gave us two very different styles of dynamic percussion and Mariam Gaibova & Abbos Kosimov (Tajikistan & Uzbekistan) who demonstrated the unique relationship between the musician and the dancer.  Likha-Pilipino Folk Ensemble (Philippines) incorporated phenomenal props into their traditional narrative ritual dance while Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu (Hawai'i) intricately layered movement and song.  Gadung Kasturi (Indonesia) painted a complete theatrical picture, merging beautifully into Theater Flamenco's (Spain) creation of living sculpture. Lastly, Ballet Folklórico de Carlos Moreno (Mexico) showed utmost precision followed by the pure joy and elation of Diamano Coura West African Dance Company (Liberia).  This long-running festival (currently completing its thirty-fourth year) is successful for many reasons but perhaps the most compelling is that it is equally for the music lover as it is for the dance fan.  All participants are multi-talented performers; professionally versed in both movement and sound.

For me, there were two stand-out performances, one in each Act.  The very first offering brought together two San Jose artistic organizations - Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose (Bharatanatyam dance of South India) and San Jose Taiko (Japanese drumming).  Each group was first featured on their own.  The Taiko drummers highlighting their complete physical integration and the Bharatanatyam dancers showcasing fast pirouettes, deep pliés and footwork sequences (amplified by their footbells).  Then, the two groups combined in a unique cultural interplay; a question and answer between the two.  While each company certainly had its individual characteristics, the fusion of them was the most interesting part of the performance.  Unpredictable and unexpected, it worked perfectly, due to their percussive commonality.  Neither pulled focus or became overpowering; instead the two San Jose troupes providing a stunning synchronicity of dance, music and cooperation.     

Photo:RJ Muna
Toward the end of Act II came the extraordinary dancers, colorful costumes and artistic exuberance of Ballet Folklórico de Carlos Moreno.  Yet another display of traditional foot percussion, this company was clearly a crowd-favorite.  The footwork patterns in the three traditional Mexican dances that they brought to this year's Ethnic Dance Festival - 'La Carretilla", "La Iguana" and "El Zapateado" - were almost super human in both their speed and exactness.  And, one can see how this style of dance has informed other percussive genres including tap, clogging and step dancing.  This group's commitment to and love of their cultural heritage was an absolute joy.  

While the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is a wonderful collection of the diversity and cultural variety that our region has to offer, some logistic aspects of the festival 's final weekend were a little disappointing.  At Saturday's matinee, the lobby bells rang with their typical warning, signaling that the show was about to begin and ushering the patrons into the theater to take their seats.  Then we waited and waited.  The curtain time of 3:00pm passed by in addition to fifteen extra minutes.  No announcement came nor was there an indication as to what was happening.  Now of course, fifteen minutes may not seem like a big deal, but when the audience is full of children (as it often is at a matinee), starting on time is pretty important.  Or, if a prompt curtain is not possible due to unforeseen circumstances (which absolutely happen and are totally understandable), the delay should have been announced.  That way, the kids could have gotten up and moved around.