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.