Monday, April 30, 2012

Soul Project

Photo: Anja Hitzenberger
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presents
David Zambrano - "Soul Project"
Yerba Buena Forum
April 27th, 2012

Post-modern conventions meet twenty-first century movement; chance methods meet 1970s decor; mobile performance meets a single gallery space; all while challenging accepted notions of dance/music yet still celebrating those entities.  Sounds like an impossible artistic prescription for a single evening's event.  Yet, David Zambrano and the six performers in "Soul Project" accomplished each of these goals, and they managed to do it all while making their performance fun, astonishing and completely accessible. 

"Soul Project" came to San Francisco as part of Yerba Buena's 'DARE: Innovations in Art, Action and Audience', and with its examination of artistic presumption, it was a perfect choice to conclude the program's 2011-2012 season.  A collection of solos set to soul music hits, Zambrano's piece unfolds in a large empty room, demarcated only by large pools of psychedelic light.  Each dance emerges organically in the space, without announcement.  And over eighty minutes, the audience moves about the room trying to catch the best view of whichever dance has come next - no directions leading to each sequence nor any warning that the next solo may start right next to you.  The audience is encouraged to stand, sit, dance - however they feel moved - as the seven performers go full out for each of their technically difficult variations.

Boundaries and lines were conquered and erased in "Soul Project"; making it a true experiment in egalitarianism.  With the set-up, the audience and the dancers became more of a singular group.  Instead of the separation that occurs in traditional stage/seating arrangements, the audience were active participants in the event, moving from area to area and mixing with the soloists.  This tested the accepted notions of what a performance entails, where and how it can occur, and succeeded in blurring the line between viewer and artist.  Because chance methods are used to determine the order of the solos at every performance, each viewing experience is unique, which makes another egalitarian statement: every solo is of equal importance.  

Choreographically, each vignette expressed a different movement style and genre, though a common denominator of torment was present throughout, bonding the solos together in cohesiveness.  The powerhouse "And I am Telling You, I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls" brought contemporary, modern choreography to light with an extended use of the torso alongside the notion of stillness; "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" journeyed to the seventies with pas de boureés and jazz splits a plenty; "Night Life" incorporated yoga/acrobatics with an extensive opening head stand; and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" added a hip-hop essence - staccato isolations juxtaposed with a legato melody.  The most powerful sequence, for me at least, accompanied "At Last".  Working against typical expectations, here was a percussive expression of the sumptuous ballad.  Foot and body rhythms revealed a layering within the song, and provided a multi-dimension sense of abandon and desire. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Labayen Dance/SF - Spring Season 2012

Photo: Andrew Faulkner
"Revivals & Premieres" - the choreography of Enrico Labayen
with guests Brendan Barthel, Frederick Gaudette, Daiane Lopes da Silva & Laura Bernasconi
ODC Theater, San Francisco
April 21st, 2012

The juxtaposition of old and new in dance performance is very special.  Any opportunity to honor choreographic past while simultaneously looking toward the future is a rare gift to share with any audience.  Labayen Dance/SF's spring program at ODC ("Revivals & Premieres") offered a unique and exciting chronology, pairing four new works alongside 2010's "en-Gulf-ed", "Glass" and 1996's "Cloth".  The evening was a triumphant testament to this modern dance company's eighteen-year history.

Six shorter compositions comprised the first half of the program, four of them choreographed by Artistic Director Enrico Labayen.  "en-Gulf-ed", Labayen's response to the Gulf Coast's environmental catastrophe, is stunning.  An ode to Pina, the stage was covered in dark green trash bags that were transformed into moving water by Jose Ma. Francos'  lighting design.  From beneath the set, a single dancer (guest artist Daiane Lopes da Silva) emerged; her costume adorned with the same trash bags.  Her trudging movements challenged the space around her as she searched for a way to extend out of the muck; a living being forced to exist in oppressive surroundings.  Fittingly, the work was without resolution, as is the case with environmental disasters - we often do not know what the true consequences will be.  Labayen's new work, "Alone", followed dancer Laura Bernasconi as she slowly and methodically navigated a rectangular-lighted pathway.  The short, minimalistic work celebrated the beauty in simplicity - as Bernasconi walked, the arch of her feet and the articulation in her metatarsals astounded and amazed.  2010's "Glass" took on the multi-faceted dimensions within a single entity, wherein individuality reigns supreme.  The choreography itself chased a true fusion of genres with a modern take on traditional, and at times almost classical, technique.  The second section featured Jillian Davis, a statuesque dancer who easily adapts to any genre.  She has an overwhelming presence on stage though in "Glass", her arms were a bit distracting; almost a mis-match/disconnect between her upper and lower body.  "Cloth", choreographed in 1996 and the winner of The Isadora Duncan Award for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography, was by far my favorite piece of the evening.  Labayen's dance for two men (Victor Talledos & Brendan Barthel) was not what we expect from a duet, and in a good way.  Pas de deuxs tend toward romantic attachment, whether the pairing is between two women, two men or a man and a woman - this is what we look for when any couple is dancing together.  But, relationships are so much more than that and "Cloth" spoke to tension rather than affection.  It had an edge to it where, for whatever reason, these two men were obviously keeping each other at arm's length.

Premieres by guest choreographers Laura Bernasconi and Frederick Gaudette rounded out Act I, each speaking in its own way to the idea of two becoming one.  Bernasconi expressed her concept in "Marriage Song", a duet danced by Talledos and Lopes da Silva.  And, Gaudette's "For 2", elegantly expressed a complete notion of soul mates - the good, bad, easy, difficult, playful, sorrowful and joyful.  Reflecting a detailed understanding of love, dancers Jaidah Terry and Gaudette were well-matched - the electricity between them palpable. 

The world premiere of "Kulang Ang Dasal" comprised the whole of Act II.  A five movement, haunting narrative work, the piece combined different groupings of the entire company while images of children in concentration camps were projected on the back scrim.  Every aspect of the piece emphasized and spoke to Labayen's interpretation of imprisonment.  The cast were costumed in striped leotards and the choreography was constrictive.  Dancers continually tried to reach out and extend, only to be pulled back to the place where their movement had originated - they simply could not get out.  With imprisonment at its core, "Kulang Ang Dasal" journeyed through human emotion.  What stood out to me was how the dancers seemed alone even amidst a crowd around them; a solitary sadness weeping from the performance space.  The unison sequences were technically challenging - the cast of fourteen attempting double promenades in attitude all at the same time - a bold move from a bold choreographer.     

Monday, April 16, 2012

San Francisco Ballet - Program 7

Balanchine Masterworks
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 14, 2012

A visit to the San Francisco Ballet during Program 7 (Balanchine Masterworks) is like a journey to the neoclassical royal courts.  The King (Balanchine himself) lives in the choreography; the Crown Prince (Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson) brings the ballets to fruition; and the court (the entire San Francisco Ballet company) flawlessly interprets "Divertimento No. 15", "Scotch Symphony" and "The Four Temperaments".  Yet, when viewing these three dances, it becomes equally clear that Balanchine is also the predecessor of today's contemporary and 'fusion' ballet.  "Divertimento No. 15" , "Scotch Symphony" and "The Four Temperaments" all speak of both neoclassical fervor and contemporary risk.
Sasha DeSola and Hansuke Yamamoto in Balanchine's "Divertimento No. 15"
Photo: Erik Tomasson

From the very beginning of "Divertimento No. 15", one can see Balanchine's commitment to egalitarianism.  Yes, there are dancers who have leading roles and those who are dancing corps parts, but each group are equal contributors and participants to the look and structure of this ballet.   A common denominator for every member of the cast is the attention to and command of petit allegro - each staccato sequence attacked with vigor and precision.  Another thread running through the whole of "Divertimento No. 15" was the emphasis on the 'up' in every movement.  In each relevé, echappé, and the end of each pirouette, you could feel a breath before the closing or landing; it was almost a little hint of Cecchetti mixed in with Balanchine's neoclassicism.  Courtney Elizabeth was an absolute delight, and corps member Sasha DeSola (who was cast in one of the five leading female parts) glowed with an intoxicating innocence and hopefulness.

"Scotch Symphony" had a bit more narrative to it than the other two works on the program.  The opening group scene was visually stunning with the Scottish backdrop and costumes - Balanchine injecting bits of Scottish flair into the ballet vocabulary, again focusing on footwork, beats and petit allegro sequences.  Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro danced the romantic leads, portraying the excitement of love mixed with the tragedy of that which you cannot have.  Both concepts were present throughout the twenty-five minute piece, and the underlying theme of desire informed all the movements and choreography.  "Scotch Symphony" is a wonderful ballet, though this performance was affected somewhat by the pairing of Zahorian and Domitro.  Both danced beautifully on their own, though together, they seemed to be having some balance issues and just didn't look particularly comfortable with each other. 

Kristina Lind and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments"
Photo: Erik Tomasson
A fitting close to program seven was the masterpiece of "The Four Temperaments".  First performed in 1946, "The Four Temperaments" is both the oldest of the three ballets in this Balanchine evening and also the most contemporary, in terms of its choreography.  Everything is off-balance, counter-balanced and off-center, with a plethora of complex partnering.  The entire San Francisco Ballet company is made for this work, but the quiet stand-out performance for me was Kristina Lind - with her captivating and articulative feet, she is a star in the making.

As the 2012 season comes to an end, I find myself wondering if there will be some new female principal dancers in the company come next year.  The current female principals are great and I certainly don't mean as a replacement for any of them, but rather, in addition to them.  With 12 men and only 8 women in the principal tier, it seems that the current group of women has been shouldering more than their share this season. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Maine Island Dance Festival

Maine Island Dance Festival
June 25th-30th, 2012
Chebeague Island, Maine (near Portland, Maine)

As April is now well underway, advanced and professional dancers are searching for that perfect summer program: one that can build strength, challenge physicality, push boundaries and introduce new techniques.  Summer intensives allow time and space to explore dance and choreography in a way that is difficult during the regular and incredibly busy dance season.  These experiences are precious, unmatched and absolutely necessary for every artist.

This summer, spend a week in the picturesque Northeast, taking part in the Maine Island Dance Festival's inaugural year.  This exciting new project seeks to bring the cutting edge of contemporary modern dance to the classroom and stage with three dynamic artists, teachers, performers and educators: Lillian Barbeito (co-director of BODYTRAFFIC); Andrew Cowan (choreographer/master teacher for Shen Wei Dance Arts); and Holly Rothschild (artistic director of String Theory and Strange & Elegant choreography and performance installations).  Each day begins with technique classes, including study of Countertechnique with Lillian Barbeito; Reactive Body Technique with Andrew Cowan; and release based movement/Improvisation with Holly Rothschild.  These particular practices, though varied, all contain a holistic curiosity at their core; examining how the mind, spirit and body are inextricably linked.  Repertory studies and site-specific choreography fill the latter portion of each day's curriculum, with a performance showcase being produced at the conclusion of the Festival.

For further information, please visit:

Or contact at:

Monday, April 02, 2012

Robert Moses' Kin

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
March 30th, 2012

Last weekend, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts welcomed Robert Moses' Kin for their spring performance series: an evening that celebrated the past, present and future of this outstanding Bay Area company.  A breathtaking chronology, the program featured three pieces from the past ten years - "The Soft Sweet Smell of Firm Warm Things" (2001); "Biography" (2003); "Speaking Ill of the Dead" (2006) - alongside the world premiere of "Helen", and excerpts from the upcoming "Scrubbing the Dog".  Each of the five dance works demonstrate Moses' distinctive movement style and his rare, refreshing take on the relationship between content and structure in modern dance.  His conceptual basis is always there, always present, yet never too obvious, which is good.  The message is housed deep within the technical elements of the dance; the two doing more than co-existing in the same space, instead becoming completely entrenched in each other.    

Photo: RJ Muna
Of the five works on the bill, three were stand-outs for me.  First, "The Soft Sweet Smell of Firm Warm Things" revealed the genius of Moses' staccato specificity.  Each movement had an incredible clarity of intention, purpose and execution, with an obvious start, trajectory and ending point; no floppy positions or ambiguity in space.  The physicality was exact.  This brought a renewed metrical quality where even the spotting head in the pirouettes took on part of the rhythmic phrase.  "The Soft Sweet Smell of Firm Warm Things" also played with elements of accumulation and individuality.  The dance opened to find four women engaged in the same movement sequence, and then organically, they each began to accumulate different material and build on the original phrase.  Although there were elements of a canon, it wasn't really a true 'round'; rather, here were different building blocks born from the same initial idea - almost like a tailoring of the choreography to technical strengths, personality and narrative cohesiveness. 

The excerpt from "Scrubbing the Dog", danced by Brendan Barthel and Crystaldawn Bell, gave an egalitarian message of searching, kindness and generosity.  Paul Carbonara's folksy musical composition paired perfectly with Moses' pas de deux; a relatable, accessible feeling of community percolating from the stage.  I am so excited to see this full-length work when it premieres in the company's summer season this coming June.

2003's "Biography" tackles race and cultural existence in the arts with challenging choreography and captivating light design, accompanied by a fitting soundscore (a 1961 talk with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Emile Capouya and Alfred Kazni).  The dance unfolded within various boxes of light around the stage (designed by Matthew Antaky).  These 'shapes' created both real and imaginary boundaries - "Biography" examined these set parameters, how they came into being and what happens when someone dares to step outside them.    

Overall, the evening was a resounding triumph though there is a need for some of the dancers to spend a little more time on their spatial awareness and technical unity.  I'm not saying that company members need to dance exactly the same, in fact, there is nothing more boring than a group of dancers who look like cookie-cutter versions of each other.  Having said that, there is a big difference between dancing a solo and being part of a group variation.  Sometimes standing out too much is not a good thing.  I'm all for dancing full-out every moment you are on stage, yet, you must couple that abandon and passion with a larger sense of the group so that you don't look like you are soloing when you aren't supposed to be.