Thursday, June 28, 2012

"The Scottsboro Boys"

Photo: Henry DiRocco
presented by American Conservatory Theater in association with The Old Globe
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco
June 27th, 2012

Broadway has arrived once again in San Francisco with ACT's Bay Area premiere of "The Scottsboro Boys" (music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, and book by David Thompson).  Told in the form of a Minstrel show, the hit musical relays the tragic, true story of racial injustice that befell the infamous 'Scottsboro Boys': nine African-American teenagers who were accused of raping two young white women on a train in 1931.  If yesterday evening's opening night crowd is any indication, "The Scottsboro Boys" is sure to enjoy a fabulous and successful run in the city by the Bay.  

The choice to frame "The Scottsboro Boys" as a Minstrel show makes a lot of sense as both a narrative and formal device.  In addition to how the history of this genre plays into the time period (1930s) and the racially-charged storyline, the Minstrel structure has the capacity to reach the audience in very unexpected ways.  Choreographically, Minstrel steps provide a sense of familiarity and egalitarianism.  Even without a comprehensive dance education, one knows what the movements from that era look like (time steps, soft shoe, grapevines) and thus, when they appear onstage, their presence feels welcoming.  Similarly, the Minstrel affect of breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the viewer, whether asking a question or giving a punch line, also implies that we in the audience are privy to special insight surrounding the onstage action and events. 

Yet at the same time, placing this horrific tale into a comedically tongue-in-cheek format also seems absurd and pretty bizarre (though absurdity is not necessarily a bad thing).  Here are nine young men falsely accused and imprisoned; who faced years of countless trials, guilty verdicts and death sentences (even after one of the accusers re-canted her testimony); and endured abuse to the core of their beings, physically, emotionally and spiritually.  The talented artistic team realized that the graveness of "The Scottsboro Boys" must be wholly present along with the general Minstrel structure.  It couldn't be ignored or anesthetized; their grim reality requiring its own pulse and breath.  To that end, they interspersed serious, dramatic scenes and songs alongside the high-energy 'production numbers'.  One stand-out example is the first time 'The Boys' are in the jail cell together.  This was a moment of incredibly explosive energy - most of them didn't know each other; they didn't want to know each other; they were angry; they were frightened and they were trapped.  "Go Back Home", a somber and haunting arrangement for all nine voices, encompassed all of these feelings and emotions, with absolutely no reference to the show's Minstrel foundation.  The switching back and forth between serious and melodramatic did not lead to any continuity problems; rather in "The Scottsboro Boys", this theatrical juxtaposition worked to perfection.  

Charged with creating the various dance sequences for "The Scottsboro Boys", Director and Choreographer Susan Stroman had a number of issues to consider.  First, she needed to remain true to the Minstrel-style: classic tap dancing, stylized walking, dance with props.  Stroman knocked this one out of the park; her choreographic authenticity transporting the audience to a much earlier time - one of old-fashioned essences, cramp roll turns, Cincinnattis, half-breaks and full-breaks.  Her movement lexicon was both accurate and gorgeous.

Second, the choreography needed to reflect a complicated dualism - honoring the individuality of each character alongside the strength of the group as a unit.   And though I loved the inventive and dynamic dance routines, unfortunately this goal was only achieved part of the time.  Stroman's treatment of the individual characters was fantastic; the dances revealing nine unique young men, each with a different history and compelling personality.  As the youngest member of "The Scottsboro Boys", Eugene's tap extravaganza ("Electric Chair") spoke to his wasted youth.  Danced brilliantly by Nile Bullock, the piece began as an escape from what was happening and what was likely going to happen in his very near future.  As the number continued, it got more and more out of control and as the waltz clogs morphed to trenches, the tornado of horror that was circling around him was abundantly apparent.  Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson in "You Can't Do Me" was another example of the deep connection that Stroman made between the characters and the choreography.  Near the end of this primarily vocal number, Duncan engaged in an extremely slow soft shoe variation.  As he closed his eyes, and rond de jambed each leg in a deliberate, continuous circle, you could see him clinging to his inner sense of self.  

It was in the group cohesiveness that the choreographic vision suffered a little.  In this cast (which don't get me wrong, was absolutely wonderful), there was a fairly significant disparity in dance technique and training.  And I don't think that is particularly unusual - most casts vary when it comes to dance ability.   But when you have a show that features a ton of unison group dancing as in "The Scottsboro Boys", having dancers at such different levels becomes a visual distraction.  It almost seemed that the unison segments needed to be a little simpler, so that a strong sense of the group could also shine through.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Two by 24: Love on Loop"

Photo: RJ Muna
created by RAWdance
UN plaza, San Francisco
June 19, 2012

I love, love, love site-specific dance performance.  There is nothing quite like being in an unexpected space at an unusual time to remind you that dance is everywhere.  I am always astonished at the creativity of the choreographers and the agility of the dancers as they venture outside the theater/studio (and their comfort zone) to embrace alternative venues and share their art.  Site-specific work is even more special when it happens in the midst of the community, injecting dance into an everyday routine, blurring the lines between art and life.  RAWdance's "Two by 24: Love on Loop" had it all: an immersive experience, with deep narrative continuity, supported by sound technique and ground-breaking choreography.  Artistic Directors Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith truly are site-specific royalty.

"Two by 24: Love on Loop" was presented yesterday between 11:00am and 7:00pm, at UN Plaza; the day blessed with some gorgeous and rare San Francisco weather.  The piece unfolded on a large circular stone slate, with San Francisco's city hall perfectly framed in the distance.  Rein and Smith choreographed a single modern dance duet that was performed by twelve different couples over this eight hour period.  The lengthy installation was without starts or stops, instead, each pas de deux organically emerging as the previous one neared its completion.  Underneath the duets (in a similar loop) was Dan Wool's original composition; a combination of captivating music and political soundscore (regular conversations about love and marriage juxtaposed against commentary/debate on marriage equality).  The constant 'loop' of dance and music was ingenious, not just for its 'coolness' factor but also because it emphasized and spoke intimately of the formal and contextual goals within the work.  Powerful doesn't seem quite enough to characterize the impact of this entire package (setting, accompaniment, choreography, dance), yet I think that is the best word I can conjure right now.

Structurally, "Two by 24: Love on Loop" was a great throw back to the 1960 post-modern Judson era, where re-defining assumptions of what dance is, and challenging perceptions of where it can occur and how it can be viewed reigned supreme.  Rein and Smith brought their dance to a public place for free, so it could be part of the community, and exist for whoever happened to be present throughout the day.  There was certainly a diverse cross-section of the community at the performance - those who call Civic Center their home, those who work in the area, tourists and those who came specifically to see the piece.  And for every one of those people in the audience, their viewing of "Two by 24: Love on Loop" was different.  Depending on when they arrived or when they happened upon the dance, they would be encountering the duet at its beginning, in the middle or near the end.  In addition, depending on how long each person stayed, they may have had the opportunity to see the duet danced once or several times by different dancers (as I did).  All of these logistics add to and alter the experience, which makes this kind of public, outdoor performance so amazing - the audience becomes a participant in the art.

While the Judson Dance Theater was somewhat obsessed with structural integrity and dance for dance's sake, thankfully RAWdance is able to consider these issues while always in the presence of an equally commanding narrative.  "Two by 24: Love on Loop" was no exception - it had a conceptual theme, explored through the choreography and revealed through each pair's interpretation.  Rein and Smith sought to take us on the emotional, cyclical journey that is love, complete with vulnerability, affection, infatuation, passion, anger, trust, frustration, and abandon.  To that end, circularness was incredibly important to this work.  Visually, the dance was staged on a circular surface and being presented on the loop made the whole experience circular and repeating.  Choreographically, you could see the circular theme woven into the movements - the double-attitude turning lift, pirouettes in passé and the expansion/contraction of the breath.  Then, by having numerous couples perform the same duet, a unique circular pattern of love was painted; the same and different all at once.  Each had ups and downs; challenges and achievements; stagnation and growth yet distinctive to each couple. 

I was fortunate to see the duet done by two women (Suzy Myre and Elizabeth Chitty), a man and a woman (Wendy Rein and Jeremiah Crank) and two men (David Schleiffers and Todd Eckert).  Each couple's love story was so different and compelling.  The passion between the two women (Myre and Chitty) ran the gamut from volatile to desperate; Rein and Crank added a sense of maturity, mutual respect and personal connectedness; and Schleiffers and Eckert exuded tenderness and sheer joy.  During the breathing motif, each set of two dancers stood facing each other; their chests expanding and contracting together.  This was a special moment - two people truly in-sync and lost in each other; nothing else existing in the entire world but them.  I felt like that one instant revealed a significant message: love is personal, individual and does not fit into some pedantic definition created by the fearful.

"Two by 24: Love on Loop" clearly outlines the struggle for marriage equality and the bizarre intersection of human emotion and political agenda.  But much more simply, Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith's new piece is a beautiful comment on the gift of love.  Two adults in love with each other should be celebrated, cherished, supported and have equal rights. Period.


Monday, June 11, 2012

"The BY Series"

Photo: RJ Muna
Robert Moses' Kin
ODC Theater, San Francisco
June 8th, 2012

With a new modern dance program featuring work from four divergent choreographers, Robert Moses' Kin has hit a home run.  "The BY Series"  offered two pieces by Moses - "Helen" (2012) and "Scrubbing the Dog" (work-in-progress) - alongside Ramon Ramos Alayo's "What Happens After you Fall (premiere), Molissa Fenley's "The Vessel Stories" (2011) and Sidra Bell's "Radience & Polarity" (premiere).  Though the dances differed greatly from each other in both scope and structure, there was a common thread that ran through the two hour performance: here was an evening of deconstructed narrative.  While no linear stories were being told, each piece had a very clear and definite conceptual basis and narrative imagery.

A premiere from April, Moses' "Helen" opened the evening.  And with this being my second viewing, I found a renewed sense of the work.  As the cast cycled through the opening moments, there was a sense of calm routine, almost a worshipful meditation (though not religious in any way).  The intensity and speed picked up revealing the complicated notion of idealization.  Putting something or someone on a pedestal never works out well; it is a dangerous, impermanent and precarious place.  This depiction of falseness continued throughout "Helen", with it being most choreographically pronounced in Moses' sliding motif.  As the dancers slid across the stage and in and out of position, it was clear that Moses was commenting on idealization's impermanence. 

The other two compositions in Act I were physical tour de forces featuring the men and women of the company respectively.  "What Happens After You Fall", a world premiere by Ramon Ramos Alayo and danced by Brendan Barthel, Dexandro Montalvo and Victor Talledos, was all about support.  With its complex array of partnering and lifts, Alayo created living sculpture, beautiful and functional at the same time.  His seamless pas de deux and pas de trois sequences featured some very unexpected movements (my favorite was how he had the men gently catching each other by using the foot at the nape of the neck).  This powerhouse athletic piece was a total examination of fall and recovery as well as trust and abandon.  Molissa Fenley's 2011 "The Vessel Stories" had a much more structural focus.  Crystaldawn Bell, Norma Fong, Josie Garthwaite Sadan and Katherine Wells demonstrated the different ways that we can understand the diagonal: in the line of the body, in turns, in staging.  Fenley sought to explore what happens to the diagonal when used in unison, in cannon, when traveled backwards, etc.  Much more balletic than any of the other four offerings, "The Vessel Stories" was danced exceptionally well but the piece itself was far too long and very monotonous.

Act II began with Moses' current work-in-progress "Scrubbing the Dog".  At the April YBCA performance, we were treated to the opening pas de deux from this dance, and I was very excited to see where it had gone since then.  Moses did not disappoint.  I still saw the concept of community in the piece, though now it had a quirkier element to it (in a good way).  The array of different costumes painted an accurate picture of community; nothing geographical, just different individuals existing in the same space.  Yet, as the dance wore on, it was clear that Moses was also bringing our indifference to attention.  As the dancers maintained blank stares, "Scrubbing the Dog" asked whether people in a community really take the time to see and know each other.  Are we willing to be vulnerable and real in order to reach a deeper level of relationship?

"The BY Series" closed with the world premiere of "Radience & Polarity", choreography by Sidra Bell.  Another dance for the four women of the company, "Radience & Polarity" struggled with notions of beauty, strength, seduction, insecurity and power, all from a female perspective.  Bell challenged our assumptions and pre-conceptions surrounding these issues, injecting them with feelings of anger, joy and independence.  Norma Fong danced the lead role and her long expressive torso told an entire story all on its own: a vast physical history and intimate personal experience of one woman. 

I love watching the physical energy and artistic commitment of this company and it was a delight to see them successfully embody so many different choreographic sensibilities.  After their April home season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, I had noted that the group dynamic seemed a bit off, with some dancers pulling too much focus.  Two months later at this performance, Robert Moses' Kin was a model of cohesiveness; a true collective, working together as a team.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

"300 Years On: A Dance Collection from the Reign of Louis XIV"

presented by The SF Early Music Society in association with Musica Pacifica
June 6, 2012

The historic origins of ballet are well-documented in textbooks, museums, literary and performance journals and on film and television.  But we hardly ever get a chance to see a live performance of early choreography - there's just not enough current companies who seek to interpret and re-stage court dances of the 1600 and 1700s.  This made last night's production of "300 Years On: A Dance Collection from the Reign of Louis XIV" such a rare delight.  Here was Baroque music (performed by Musica Pacifica) combined with a number of that same period's set dances (passepied, sarabande, gigue, rigaudon, etc.).  For a couple of hours, the audience was transported back in time and journeyed to a place of opulence, sophistication and placed movement.

Throughout the evening, Musica Pacifica switched back and forth between solo pieces and dance accompaniment, each work demonstrating their unique Baroque sound.  In addition, they managed to evoke a broad cultural sense in the music - like a royal court and the peasant countryside all at the same time.  This chamber group is committed to maintaining the authenticity of the Baroque compositions, though they do inject some interesting influences from later periods as well.  During the 'Airs Suite', there were true moments of rubato, or 'robbed time'; a technique most commonly associated with the Romantic era in music, where time is borrowed from one measure and then replaced in another.  Its tempting to dismiss these adjustments as ritardando/a tempo markings in the score, but they were much more complex than that.  If you listened closely, there were clear and definite rubatos being juxtaposed against the Baroque sensibility.

Photo: Nicholas Kish
Four dancers (Linda Tomko, Olsi Gjeci, Ken Pierce and Jennifer Thorp) took the stage following the overture, performing their first set of diverse enchaînements.  So much was happening during each individual dance, though the most common and compelling element was the footwork.  Changement, assemblé, pas de boureé, glissade, sissone, and jeté were present in many of the short dances (though the jumps here were very low, barely leaving the ground at all).  Despite ballet's significant evolution over hundreds of years, these intricate steps from Louis XIV's era remain in the lexicon and inform today's petit allegro vocabulary.  It was fascinating to see them at this early stage of development.   

Equally interesting were the differences.  As illustrated by Tomko, Gjeci, Pierce and Thorp, third position of the feet was prevalent, almost the "home" position for the Baroque dancer.  We still have third position, but today it is more of a teaching tool; the fully crossed fifth having replaced and surpassed third to some degree.  The use of the arms was another noteworthy difference.  This choreography initiated arm motions from the wrist, whereas now, we think of the arms starting from the back.  Two different approaches with very different visual results.