Tuesday, December 31, 2013

“Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty”

A film by Jeffrey Ruoff
New Boston Films

In a few hours, 2013 will be a memory. And looking back at this past year in the performing arts, dance and film have been everywhere. In twelve short months, these creative collaborators have gone from artsy dance films to television competition/reality series to live interdisciplinary performance to 3-D movie telecasts to dance documentaries. In this last category, dance and film meet under unique circumstances, sharing a real-life story that allows the performing arts community to make the imperative link between today’s work and the past. But just like everything else, some documentaries are better than others. What distinguishes the best documentaries is when the subject matter is great and the filmmaking is great. Jeffrey Ruoff’s new film, “Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty” meets both criteria. While aptly chronicling the history of this dynamic, one-of-a-kind troupe, Ruoff mixes archival material, interviews, rehearsal footage and performance film with thoughtful and careful interdependence. From the early stages of inception to the present day company, “Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty” captures the ever-changing nature of artistic creativity.

The story told by “Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty” begins in the early 1970s at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The film notes that at this moment in time, the campus was dominated by a culture of newness, change and beginning. And for a small group of students, dance was part of ‘the new’. With no pre-conceived notions about movement and no previous training, these brave souls leapt into the creative forces of dance and physicality. Pilobolus was birthed (its namesake, a phototropic fungus) and the stage was set for collaborative practice and collective composition. While Pilobolus’ initial core group went through some changes, three voices emerged and came together as the artistic directorial team: Jonathan Wolken (who unexpectedly passed away in 2010), Robby Barnett and Michael Tracy, all of whom are interviewed throughout the documentary.

Through these interviews, the early years of Pilobolus are remembered: constructing movement vocabulary; building style; defining look. Shapes in space were a fascination for all involved and more specifically, how dancers moving together could create new and more intricate patterns. To that end, contact partnering really became embedded in Pilobus’ work. Rather than textbook contact improvisation, they envisioned a more collective, interactive conversation between bodies. The examination of formal choreographic concerns were of equal importance including issues of performance and process alongside space and time. But “Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty” is clear to show that for this group of artists, nothing was static. Instead, Pilobolus opted to look toward evolutionary systems and the migrating intersection of science and art.

With the background information established, Ruoff turns his focus to Pilobolus today, focusing on what has changed and what has stayed the same. After forty years, the company has grown into an arts organization with several different arms. “Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty” focuses mostly on the performing company, Pilobolus Dance Theater, and the teaching program, the Pilobolus Institute. For the former, Ruoff follows the group as they prepare for the 40th anniversary performance at Dartmouth College, featuring a new collaboration with Art Spiegelman. And with the latter, Ruoff gets a front row seat to a number of master classes.

With any good documentary, the viewer knows more about the subject matter than they did before. And with Ruoff’s documentary, this is certainly true – in thirty-eight short minutes, the audience has learned a great deal about Pilobolus and their vital contribution to the performing arts. But the great documentaries have an additional, somewhat quieter result. Aside from the gained knowledge and detailed information, they bring realizations. “Still Moving: Pilobolus at Forty” reveals that over four decades, the dance group has been able to morph while still staying true to its initial core vision. And for those who are lucky enough to be Pilobolus ‘insiders’ – dancers, artistic staff, technical team –  their personal experience is a deliciously unspecified, yet guided, journey.     

Monday, December 30, 2013

"XXmas: The Christmas Ballet"

Smuin Ballet
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
December 24th, 2013
Photo: Patrick Fraser

The holiday dance scene in the Bay Area has a wonderful sense of variety: ODC/Dance’s annual “Velveteen Rabbit”, numerous versions of “Nutcracker” and shorter holiday-themed works that become part of mixed repertory programs in the month of December. Another delightful mainstay is Smuin Ballet’s “The Christmas Ballet”. An evening-length production, “The Christmas Ballet” is a collection of short dance vignettes; the first half set to traditional music and the second to more popular, and sometimes humorous, selections. Not only is this year’s iteration (cleverly dubbed “XXmas: The Christmas Ballet”) a family-friendly festive celebration but it is also part of a company milestone, the twentieth anniversary season.

Act I, subtitled ‘Classical Christmas’, pairs dance with sixteen works of time-honored holiday music. And though all the music in this first half is very traditional, it is juxtaposed against a wide spectrum of different choreographic styles from classical, modern and neo-classical ballet to romantic and lyrical movement. Nicole Haskins absolutely sparkled in Michael Smuin’s ‘Zither Carol’, “XXmas: The Christmas Ballet’s” first solo. Even in this relatively short variation, Haskins stunning technique was a revelation. Her single-foot balances on pointe go on and on no matter the position (passé, arabesque or coupé). Her standing foot never wavered, not even in a deep fondu arabesque, and the dreaded front shoulder that tends to pop up during turning combinations was nowhere to be found. A premiere work for this year’s production, Robert Dekkers’ ‘The Bells’ was an advanced dissertation in choreographic form. A perfect and diverse marriage of canon, unison and accumulation leapt from the stage, mixing independent movement lines with interdependent group architecture. Peppered throughout were fast-paced transitions and details of the hands and head - signatures of Dekkers’ creative choreography. Smuin’s ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail” seamlessly fused two different choreographic forms: Irish dance and classical ballet. The two fit together beautifully in this crowd favorite; tombé pas de boureés were marked with parallel pas de basques while turned out pas de chats were combined with ankle rocking.   

Act II’s ‘Cool Christmas’ brought fifteen additional dance sketches, each set to a more contemporary musical arrangement. Amy Seiwert’s “I Pray on Christmas” was all about community togetherness and a liveliness of spirit. The lyrics of the song deliver an important message, but when combined with Seiwert’s upbeat and jazzy social dance theme, it becomes clear that serious doesn’t have to be downtrodden or melancholy. There can be joy and hope present as well. Seiwert’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, the second premiere work in the 2013 line-up, again took ballet to a new place, playing with what the art form can do, not what it is. While exploring the role and definition of ballet today, Seiwert created a complex mosaic where ballet, hip hop and jive intersected. Percussive dance was the final highlight of “XXmas: The Christmas Ballet’s” second half with three fantastic pieces of Michael Smuin’s choreography. From the rhythmical waltz clog of ‘Droopy Little Christmas Tree’ to Shannon Hurlburt’s tour de force ‘Bells of Dublin’ to the men’s group performance in ‘The Blackville Reel’, percussive movement reigned supreme. The line of unison double pull-backs in ‘The Blackville Reel’ was particularly magnificent as it soared and floated from downstage toward the back cyclorama.

The only malady that “XXmas: The Christmas Ballet” suffers from is too many isolated dance sequences. The overall length of the performance is absolutely perfect; it doesn’t need to be shorter. But when there are over thirty scenes in two plus hours, it creates too much stopping and starting.     

Thursday, December 12, 2013


War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 11th, 2013

December means many things: Christmas shopping and holiday parties; snow and winter sports; baking and decorating; reflecting and preparing for the year ahead. And in the dance world, December means “Nutcracker”.

Each December, the performing arts community and the “Nutcracker” become reacquainted. Folks may attend a single “Nutcracker” or several different ones. The shows can range from school versions all the way to professional companies. “Nutcrackers” may be brand new or they may be part of an annual tradition.

For a dance critic, the challenge here is keeping “Nutcracker” commentary fresh. And in pursuit of this goal, a plethora of techniques and strategies can be employed. One obvious choice is to focus on something unique every year; a new focal point, if you will. Perhaps the story, the choreography, a particular role or one specific scene. This year, let us look to the standout performances from opening night of San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker”. 

While Act I’s party scene is more of a narrative experience, it does have some lovely (and challenging) variations, especially in Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s production. The Doll is one such dance, and as interpreted by Elizabeth Powell, it is the first performance highlight. Powell is technically strong, but what made her ‘doll’ better than others was her ability to stay true to character the entire time she was on stage (both in her featured solo and when she reappears briefly before the battle scene). Many dancers are able to convey the doll’s isolated movements but tend to lose the character authenticity when the choreography gets difficult. And it does. The doll does multiple sets of single footed relevés and a circular series of quick piqué turns. Powell and her role were one; hers was an amazing transformation.

Joan Boada in Tomasson's "Nutcracker"
Photo ©Erik Tomasson
The second noteworthy performance of the evening was Joan Boada as the Nutcracker Prince. Boada’s virtuosity in the grand pas de deux, his solo and the coda was out of this world. Not just because of his astonishing multiple turns (which he completes up in turning position, rather than down on the floor), dynamic circuit of jetés en tournant or gravity-defying ballon, but also because he hits every fifth position, whether in preparation or in transition. And his smile radiates pure joy, not at all pasted on. In addition, Boada pays equal attention to the Prince’s various storytelling interludes – those sections of the ballet that are more about acting and less about choreography. 

The final mention goes not to an individual but to a group of dancers – the ‘Waltzing Flowers’, led by Sugar Plum Fairy Vanessa Zahorian. One of Act II’s longest movements, this year’s performance was one of constant motion and beautiful suspension. The corps de ballet is a continuously changing entity, with new dancers being added and others moving on. And because of this, it can be tough for the corps to gel as a group. But this particular sub-set of the corps de ballet was a technical and narrative team, working together to convey the grace and elegance of this chapter. Throughout the waltz, the Sugar Plum Fairy has several featured moments – Zahorian transcended expectation. The landings of her jumps were as light as air; inaudible at times. And her relevé fouettés were magic.

There was only one thing that seemed out of place at San Francisco Ballet’s opening night performance, and it was the internal bows. In any ballet, including “Nutcracker”, there are the final bows, where all the participants take their well-deserved acknowledgement. But there are also bows that happen within the performance, usually following a featured variation. The majority of them were spot on, but a few were really drawn out, and not as a response to the applause. It felt strange, even maybe a little awkward; some tightening up would be helpful.       

Sunday, December 08, 2013


Joe Goode Performance Annex, San Francisco
December 6th, 2013

Over time, a lovely sense of familiarity can develop between a dance company and its audience. Viewers pick up on the ensemble’s choreographic style, movement dynamics and preferred collaborators. Then comes a piece (or two) that they didn’t expect, an entirely different work that seems out of the ordinary, not the norm. Critics often describe this as a departure. But it isn’t. The ‘surprising’ and the ‘unexpected’ are indicators of artistic growth and compositional exploration. In the performing arts, there is nothing worse than stagnation or the status quo - different is good; divergence, a necessity. 

RAWdance’s newest evening-length production, “Mine”, is one such deliciously unpredictable tour de force. Choreographed by Co-Artistic Directors Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith, everything about the fifty-minute work is utterly primal, to the point of animalistic. The very essence of human nature, instinct and emotion is under a honest microscope. And while “Mine” is a truly collaborative performance experience, its core is still rooted in the strength of contemporary dance technique.

The set, designed by Sean Riley, demanded instant attention upon entering the space. A complex arrangement of weighted ropes and pulleys hung from the ceiling, some that would be utilized during the dance and some that were present to frame the action. “Mine” was anything but a casual event, though the start of the performance was very informal and appropriately blurry. As audience members were still being seated and the crew was making its final preparations, dancers began to take the stage area one by one, each stopping at a center mark for an extended period of time. An intense moment of sacred preparation, they were silencing the world around them and entering into a personal and internal trance.

“Mine’s” first segment was a concerto of partnering and levels for the entire company (Kerry Demme, Aaron Perlstein, Laura Sharp, Rein and Smith). These early moments also saw the dance’s first aerial injection (a rope), which added a number of important qualities to both the movement and the meaning. While providing a new physical sense of space, this rope also had a dual narrative character - it was an instrument of command while simultaneously being an instrument of liberation. In addition, the use of ropes led to some ‘tug-of-war’ motifs, and some ‘tantrum-like’ incidents. The delicate balance of exercising will amongst a community of individuals was illuminated for all present to confront and consider.

Photo: RJ Muna

The middle of the piece housed some dramatic and compelling scenes, two of which require special mention. In one, the entire cast gathered together. They began to creep forward, very slowly, moving their hands and arms in unison. A primal march of stalking and ensnaring was underway. Later, three bird cages were lowered from the ceiling, enclosing the heads of three dancers. While they cycled through a set of parallel developpés, parts of their physical being were immobilized while others were free.

Throughout “Mine”, the sickled foot kept making repeat appearances, and this was neither an accident nor for esthetic purposes. The modern dance ‘flexed foot’ came into being for many reasons, one of which was in response to the exaggerated ‘pointe’ that is found in classical ballet. But a sickled foot is something different altogether. While usually the result of not paying attention, in “Mine”, sickling was absolutely purposeful. This position of the foot was a deliberate act of both defiance and control, floating in a precarious state between the extremes of pointing and flexion.           

Thursday, December 05, 2013

“The Other Mother: A rememoir” by Teresa Bruce

“The Other Mother: A rememoir”
by Teresa Bruce
Joggling Board Press
released November 5th, 2013

The eight parts of speech – nouns, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections - are a writer’s best friend. These grammatical building blocks are the foundation of everything literary. But there are some writers who do more than utilize these parts of speech, they transform and re-design them, making something unexpected and surprising. It is they who craft the written word into a living entity – Teresa Bruce is one such author. 

Bruce’s newest endeavor, “The Other Mother: A rememoir” (nationally released on November 5th by Joggling Board Press), recounts the lives of two women – herself and Byrne Miller. Though from very different generations, they bond over dance, over loss, over curiosity, over the present and over the future. And while it is true that dance frames the entire book, “The Other Mother: A rememoir” is not a story about dance; it is a story about extraordinary and plain moments alike. It is about real experience and authentic interactions.  

“The Other Mother: A rememoir” travels through time as it follows its three narratives: two individual stories (Teresa’s and Byrne’s) along with their shared experience after meeting in 1991. Beginning with a referential date and location, each chapter is one piece of a dynamic puzzle. And while these short vignettes leap from the 1990s to the 1930s to the 1970s and toggle between storylines, the flow is flawless. One particularly lovely cadence is the re-telling of the women’s first introduction – Teresa’s perspective is given in chapter eight and Byrne’s in chapter forty-one.

As noted, “The Other Mother: A rememoir” is not exclusively about dance, but the performing arts thread is strongly woven throughout the work, taking on actual, inadvertent and metaphorical roles. As recalled by Bruce, dance was a very real journey for both women. The reader first meets Teresa as a young budding ballerina and sees how many years later, she returns to contemporary movement as an adult. Byrne’s life in dance was anything but typical, including several long sabbaticals. Her dance trajectory moved through many seasons and included stints as a Burlesque showgirl, contemporary dancer, choreographer/Artistic Director and community dance maven. Those are the dance details, the lines on the résumé.

But on a much deeper level, Bruce shares how dance was present and moved through both lives far beyond the studio, stage and rehearsal hall. Dance terms and verbiage were brilliantly peppered within the regular prose to describe relationships, circumstances, reactions and situations. One particularly poignant example is when dance terminology is used to illustrate Byrne’s reaction to a devastating medical diagnosis in her family:

“She reached for a barre that wasn’t there, off balance. She struggled not to fall, gripped her feet in second position parallel, knees bent in demi-plié…She exhaled, hands flexed at the end of hyperextended arms. She was pushing away the word, the palms of her hands telling the doctor no…” (p. 154)    

Another noteworthy instance comes at the end of the book when Bruce compares the connective tissue in ballet to the notion of moving on. Her thoughts on how transitional steps make grand motions possible was transcendent and universally applicable.

The triumph of Bruce’s book is not only in its storytelling but also in its title. Her use of ‘rememoir’ is purposeful, important and revealing. ‘Rememoir’ feels like ‘remembering’ – a verb; an action. And as such, “The Other Mother: A rememoir” proclaims that human life is a work of verbs, both active and inactive: of doing, of believing, of deciding, of being. 

For more information on “The Other Mother: A rememoir” or Teresa Bruce, visit her blog at www.teresabrucebooks.com 

Saturday, November 23, 2013


presented by LEVYdance and Fort Mason Center
Photo:RAPT Productions/Kitfox Valentin
The General’s Residence, Fort Mason, San Francisco
November 22nd, 2013

Have you ever been to a dinner party and speculated as to what was really going through the minds of your fellow guests? Or have you ever wondered if something unexpected might happen in the course of the evening? If so, LEVYdance’s “Romp” is for you. A site-specific contemporary dance event, the 2013 iteration (held at the General’s Residence in Fort Mason) combines mobile performance, mingling and a meal into three glorious hours. With choreography by Benjamin Levy and direction by Scott Marlowe, “Romp” takes you behind the façade, revealing the real and the authentic. And along the way, there are some delicious surprises, quite literally and figuratively. “Romp” is exquisite postmodern dance with a hearty helping of style and panache.

Guests were encouraged to arrive early so that they could enjoy drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the main foyer of the residence prior to the performance. From the beginning, a chill, casual yet intimate environment was established where friends met up, patrons chatted with the cast and the audience admired the building’s architectural details. Once eight o’clock hit, everyone was ushered into the first of four performance spaces that would be utilized throughout the piece. Chairs in the large ballroom were scattered about, facing all different directions. And once the audience was seated, the cast broke into full-out movement – a celebratory party flash mob of sorts. Twelve dancers moved with equal parts ease and abandon, dancing amidst and in between all the chairs. No fourth wall or proscenium arch was welcome at this party, where the line between viewer and performer became wonderfully porous and fuzzy. Members of the audience were invited to dance with them, which allowed for a simultaneous re-arranging and re-organizing of the seating into a large square perimeter. Then, the main trio took the space, and the narrative shifted. During this long segment (performed by LEVYdance company members Scott Marlowe, Yu Kondo Reigen and Sarah Dionne Woods), the intensity was palpable; the dancers internally tortured. Demons were exorcised through ample introverted and small reflexive movements; therapy happening in real time, through physical expression. The choreography was haunting yet beautiful; the performances, personal yet open.

Next we were led downstairs to a barroom for a much shorter second vignette. Here, Marlowe, Reigen and Woods dug even further into Levy’s complex narrative marrying a sense of hesitancy, trepidation and uncertainty alongside propriety and balance. The low ceiling in this space imposed some very real physical limits that were both well-integrated in the choreography and well-handled by the dancers. Ushered back upstairs into a small room right off of the main dining area, the audience witnessed “Romp’s” third chapter. Three different dancers (who had also appeared at the beginning of the first scene) stood on steel rolling tables, while smoke billowed from the floor. They moved in unison with a very purposeful and exact clarity, while an undercurrent of sanitization pulsed beneath.

The banquet hall served as “Romp’s” fourth and final performance space. While the audience was seated at long banquet tables, the entire cast returned and movement, gesture and choreography happened on the table surfaces, around the chairs and in the middle of the room. Again, thoughts took on a physical form, coming to life in a truly honest fashion. And, Marlowe, Reigen and Woods’ final pas de trois centered around food, drink, community and adventure. An apropos conclusion seeing as how all those present were about to share a meal together.  

Good dinner parties are the result of impeccable planning. But an evening goes from good to great when ‘the real’ and ‘the authentic’ are welcomed and honored guests. Those are the events that folks talk about years later; the ones that are etched in memory; that which becomes fodder for amazing stories. LEVYdance’s “Romp” is one of the greats.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Diablo Ballet

Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
November 15th, 2013

Diablo Ballet’s 20th Anniversary is in full gear! After opening this momentous season last weekend at Ohlone College’s Smith Center in Fremont, the company took the stage for three performances at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts. A mixed repertory evening, this first program featured three works; none were world premieres, but all were fairly new to the Diablo Ballet repertoire. This triple-bill serves as confirmation as to why this company continues to thrive in an uncertain artistic landscape – talented and dedicated technicians coupled with an artistic team that is committed to a diverse canon of work.

Up first was Mário Radačovský’s “Compulsive”, a short solo piece danced Friday evening by Derek Sakakura. Though brief in duration, “Compulsive” has a rich narrative. Control is the centerpiece – fighting for control, pretending to be in control, dealing with not being in control. Radačovský’s movement vocabulary aptly reflected the underlying message, with a clever combination of technique and humor. A recurring pas de basque sequence clearly spoke to the façade of control that we so often seek to convey. A terrific turner, Sakakura could not have been a better casting choice for this ballet. He is a perfect match for Radačovský’s choreography, which is full of dynamic and sometimes unusual turning combinations: pirouettes with one leg extended to the front at ninety degrees, double piqués ending in full arabesque.

Vicente Nebrada’s “Our Waltzes Trilogy” was next – a work for three couples that was accompanied live, and on stage, by pianist Roy Bogas. Waltzes are based in a three/four time signature, with the first beat of each bar serving as the dominant strong beat, and the two and three being weak beats. Because of this compositional structure, sometimes when choreography is set to a waltz, the two and the three get ‘thrown away’ and discarded. The triumph of Nebrada’s “Our Waltzes Trilogy” is that every beat of each measure was given equal attention and equal importance. And, the artists of the Diablo Ballet did a magnificent job translating that musical/choreographic connection onstage. Having said that, “Our Waltzes Trilogy” was perhaps one of the most difficult partnering pieces that I’ve seen in a long time. On a positive note, the duets were full of unexpected abandon and creativity. Though from time to time, the complexity of these variations did lead to some cumbersome moments. But these few instances did not take away from the work as a whole - Mayo Sugano sparkled with every piqué balance and the final unison sequence was danced brilliantly by the entire cast.
Photo: Aris Bernales
A witty and fun way to close a beautiful evening of dance, the 2013 edition of Sean Kelly’s “A Swingin’ Holiday” was the final work. With historic costumes, big band music (again, live accompaniment by Greg Sudmeier and the Diablo Ballet Swing Orchestra), and sexy, inventive movement, “A Swingin’ Holiday” looked like a scene from old Hollywood. The score was filled with different arrangements of holiday favorites, and the choreography, a wonderful fusion of styles (ballet, jive, social dance, jazz). Diablo Ballet is having a celebratory year and “A Swingin’ Holiday’s” festivity and merriment was right on point.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

WERK! Performance Festival 2013

presented by The WERK Collective 
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
November 10th, 2013

This past weekend, Dance Mission Theater was home to the WERK Collective’s WERK! Performance Festival. A group of emerging San Francisco/Bay Area dance artists, the 2013 edition brought three days of cutting-edge modern dance by four different choreographers (Tim Rubel, Samantha Giron, Ashley Trottier and Alyce Finwall) to San Francisco’s Mission District. The final program on Sunday evening paired two exciting one-act contemporary works: Samantha Giron Dance Project in “The Dirt on Dorian Gray” and Alyce Finwall Dance Theater’s “Shapeless Crown”. Though diverse in many ways, both offerings had an underlying commonality: a conceptual, deconstructed narrative.

Samantha Giron’s unique blend of contemporary and street movement filled every moment of “The Dirt on Dorian Gray”. What began as a haunting and hypnotic solo grew over the dance’s thirty-five minutes into a deeply nuanced interplay of duos and trios. And whether one, two or all three of the dancers (Clare Schweitzer, Kristin Damrow or Esther Bramlett) was being featured, a single concept or image was clearly woven throughout the work: palpable anticipation. Peppered amongst Giron’s pulsating full body physicality were

Pictured: Clare Schweitzer in "The Dirt on Dorian Gray"
Photo: Adrian Mendoza
numerous instances of sustained and suspended positions. Sometimes it was two arms reaching out in the space; sometimes it was a tendu on the floor with the other leg was in plié. These were not moments of stillness, posing or waiting, but active expressions of anticipatory kinetic energy. Giron has created a delicious tension between the slow, pulled motions and the faster accented sequences. Neither was meant to be ‘the better’ or ‘the optimal’, instead the juxtaposition simply exposing the presence of both in the human form. In addition, “The Dirt on Dorian Gray” reflected a structural cohesiveness with some well-placed choreographic tools – repetition and accumulation were married with a hearty dose of accelerando and rallantando.  

Alyce Finwall’s “Shapeless Crown” explored the personal and professional existence of ‘the dancer’ – the expected and unexpected; the conventional and out of bounds; the real and the illusion. Her company of four (Julia Hollas, Vivian Aragon, Jackie Goneconti and Troy Macklin) completed a choreographic marathon of genre, style, humor and intensity. From a farcical bowing scene to supported classical pirouettes to contact improvisation pas de deuxs to showgirl kick-lines to musical theater jazz to dance theater absurdity, they covered a plethora of ground in one single work. A gorgeous contemporary sequence acted as a ritornello between many of the different variations, bringing the cast back together as a whole entity and back to the foundation of modern technique. And a delightful surprise came at the end of “Shapeless Crown” as this repeated interlude phrase was danced in reverse.

Both “The Dirt on Dorian Gray” and “Shapeless Crown” had inventive choreography, beautiful dancing and a solid conceptual basis. But each piece did seem a little long and perhaps in need of a tiny bit of editing. The ideas and images were very clear, and still would have been clear even with less material.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Zhukov Dance Theater

Product 06
Miner Auditorium, SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco
October 29th, 2013

Zhukov Dance Theater’s sixth home season was all about newness. The two-night, mid-week run saw the world premiere of two works – “Enlight” by Yuri Zhukov and “Spider on a Mirror” by Idan Sharabi – in a relatively new (and super cool) venue, the SFJAZZ Center. Once again, Zhukov has proven that he is an artistic force to be reckoned with. Product 06 certainly gives the audience what it has come to expect from this great contemporary company: a stellar cast, an exciting program and dynamic choreography. But in addition, this year’s presentation has an underlying pulse of change; a sense of morphing; a looking beyond the status quo. And, this newness is unfolding in a great way.

Doug Baum in Yuri Zhukov’s “Enlight”
Photo: Sandy Lee
“Enlight”, Zhukov’s newest choreographic endeavor, confronts its viewer with a challenge: explore the notion of visibility. A soloist opens the work dancing in and around a square of light placed center stage. Following this first variation, nine similar squares of light appear all over the floor and the entire company proceeds to interact with them. Sometimes the entire body was visible; sometimes only a finger or toe; sometimes a full arm or leg. During the contrasting middle section, the entire stage was lit, but at a low percentage. While this lengthy segment brought a change in lighting, it also revealed a shift in the choreography as longer, stretchier, elastic physicality moved to the forefront. The addition of a strobe effect added an element of time to the exploration of light. And, the final scene incorporated a large white sheet to layer yet another aspect to the question of ‘what we see’. Throughout “Enlight”, Zhukov’s attention to level was captivating; lying, sitting, kneeling, standing and elevated postures holding an intrinsic place in his choreographic vocabulary. While the idea of visibility definitely has narrative implications, “Enlight” was more of a structural assay. The choreography and movement spoke equally to what is seen and what is not seen, and how that reality is in constant evolution.     

Individual idiosyncrasies and personality characteristics took center stage in Idan Sharabi’s “Spider on a Mirror”. The beginning moments find the entire cast scattered around the space making small body adjustments and minor pedestrian alterations to their stance. An unobtrusive shoulder lift here; a quiet foot pivot there. These small shifts quickly exploded into full-out variations. Though still initiated by those first motions, this time the choreography permitted a more complete and abandon expression. “Spider on a Mirror” continued in this clever fashion, toggling between the unremarkable and the voluminous. And with that back and forth also came the difference between observation and celebration. The small movements were simply a noticing of each person’s distinctiveness and the expansion of those motions was a tribute to that individualism.

Both of the pieces featured in Zhukov Dance Theater’s Project 06 were steeped in strong contemporary technique, yet, both also seemed to be slightly influenced by the genre of dance theater itself. Constructing dance theater is a complicated business, and there is often a temptation to either a) add too much theatrical syntax or b) add something new far too late in the piece. When either instance occurs, the flow of the work can be compromised and the latter did happen a little in both dances.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Nederlands Dans Theater

presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
October 23rd, 2013

Cal Performance’s dance season is off to a brilliant start with Nederlands Dans Theater’s two-night, mid-week engagement. These days, contemporary dance can be, and is, a lot of different things: mixed media, post-modern, interdisciplinary, dance theater. Though this variety and innovation is exciting for the genre, contemporary technique and contemporary movement can get a little lost in the overwhelming crowd of theatrical entities and performance tools. Nederlands Dans Theater has found the right balance. They are a true contemporary company – forward-thinking, risk-taking and cutting-edge – but at the same time, actively in pursuit of technical proficiency and clarity. If there ever was a company that defined what contemporary dance should be, it is this one.

Opening the program was 2009’s “Sehnsucht”, co-choreographed by Artistic Advisor Sol León and Artistic Director Paul Lightfoot. Created in Sonata form and accompanied by a phenomenal classical score, the work had a very clear tripartite structure, comprised of an exposition, development and recapitulation. Part one introduced a trio of dancers: a soloist, posed slightly right of center, and a duo inside of a large scene box that was suspended and inset in the scrim. Throughout this beginning statement, the scene box continually rotated as the two dancers performed a soulful duet. As the set changed, postures were altered; standing became sitting and then suddenly, morphed into swinging. Question arose - what plane were they dancing on; what surface was the floor? So, right from the start, it was clear that “Sehnsucht” was expressing and examining two different, but related themes: perception and perspective. And while the piece’s narrative and design challenged ‘what should be’, ‘what is expected’ and ‘what is’, the choreography was equally insightful. Incredible extensions and dramatic off-balance positions were coupled with low attitudes and simple tendus à la second.

Company members of Nederlands Dans Theater perform "Sehnsucht" Photo courtesy of Nederlands Dans Theater

As the men’s and women’s ensemble entered from the wings, the development of “Sehnsucht” was underway. Again, the audience was confronted with a new perspective and different perception – the arriving cast (both men and women) was costumed only in black pants. For this lengthy second segment, the stage was full of NDT’s remarkable dancers, flying through the air, eating up the space. Absolute wonder exuded during a recurring group sequence (developpé écarté followed by a side split jèté). The final recapitulation brought us back to the beginning scene and “Sehnsucht” concluded with a fitting cadence: the same contemporary pose that had opened the work.

This intermission was more than just a break, instead, it was an ‘audience choice’ situation. You could certainly go out into the lobby; however, if you opted to stay in the theater, the longer, twenty-five minute intermission was like an old-school, post-modern ‘happening’. Three dancers took turns slowly moving across the stage; methodically, carefully and at a snail’s pace. And while this Butoh-inspired pedestrian circuit was in progress, the curtain had been slightly raised, so you could also the crew transforming the stage for the second work.

As the lights went down, 2010’s “Schmetterling” (another piece of León/Lightfoot co-choreography) occupied the space. “Schmetterling” is a delightful and at times, very humorous, series of primarily solos, duets, and trios set to music by The Magnetic Fields and Max Richter. Another strong and clear narrative, the dance spoke to individuals and individualism but “Schmetterling” was not quite as compelling as “Sehnsucht”. Too much extra ‘stuff’ was present. The trench coat/dress/beret costumes were a little distracting, and there was a ton of ‘dance theater’ style facial expressions and vocalizations. Each of the variations in the piece was beautifully performed and creatively crafted and because of that, these extraneous elements weren’t really necessary. The dance and the choreography was abundantly strong; it didn’t need ‘more’.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"A Rite"

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and SITI Company
Lam Research Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
October 12th, 2013

This year in dance has been all about “The Rite of Spring”. With 2013 being its hundredth anniversary, the ballet’s history has been the topic of conversation. It still seems quite impossible that “The Rite of Spring” premiered one hundred years ago. With its challenging narrative, surprising score and dramatic movement, it could easily have been the brainchild of one of today’s contemporary ballet choreographers, dance theater directors or modern interdisciplinary artists.

What today’s dancemakers have done this year is re-envision, re-create and re-think “The Rite of Spring”. And as a result of their efforts, audiences have been treated to version after version of this tragic ballet in the past ten months. “A Rite”, co-produced and co-performed by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company (Artistic Director Bill T. Jones) and SITI Company (Artistic Director Anne Bogart), was an epic performance adventure. Impeccably crafted and artfully designed, “A Rite” was not only the best re-imagining of “The Rite of Spring” I have seen this year, but perhaps one of the best dance works I have seen in the last five years. With every moment, the entire sold-out audience brimmed with palpable anticipation - we couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. Making the experience even more special is that “A Rite” is part of a month-long celebration at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, marking the thirtieth anniversary of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

Jones, Bogart and the cast have crafted a true character-study, and that is what  makes “A Rite” a masterpiece. Through dance, theater, text, humor, scenework, music and body percussion, here was a comprehensive character examination (told with equal parts hilarity and seriousness): the history of the original production, the story behind the compositional score, the narrative of the real-life players, the psyche of the onstage personas. “A Rite” is not just choreography, not just performance, not just dance theater; it is the whole package.

"A Rite"
Photo: Paul B. Goode
The opening moments were like watching an old Hollywood epic movie with the complex collage of music, movement and lights. Right from the start, the notion of community was key; the cast moving together in lines and in groups. Sometimes this occurred with unison movement, while in other instances, the collective worked as one (specifically the sequences with chairs and stools). In addition, there were two large choir scenes, where cast members sang multiple different parts. When combined, their individual voices created a very literal and figurative harmony.

Jones’ choreographic greatness glimmered throughout. The most notable instance happened during a very short solo - a death-defying double attitude jump collapsed onto the floor, and was followed by a stunning multiple turn in parallel.

Approximately two-thirds into “A Rite”, there was a long divertissement where three large doorways were introduced. The cast wove in and out of these spaces and spiraled around each other in the main part of the stage. Though the scene was mimicking the polyphony in the score (where independent musical lines mix with other additional voices, creating an equal interdependence), it really seemed like the life-size physical architecture of a clock, and as such, a comment on time.

The character study yielded important findings. More than any other iteration of “The Rite of Spring”, this version really helped the audience understand the complicated inner emotions of ‘the chosen one’. “A Rite” revealed the depth of this primary character and the combination of heartbreak, sorrow, anxiety, expectancy, and even at times, relief that is their experience. Also, Jones and Bogart have envisioned a story where death is not the end, but resurrection. As the a cappella group section returned, there was a slow but solid recapitulation – the community was still kicking.    

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Paufve | dance
Hillside Swedenborgian Community Church, El Cerrito
October 11th, 2013

“Soil”, the newest performance piece from Paufve | dance, is both a treasure and triumph for the modern genre. An hour-long event danced by Randee Paufve, “Soil” brings five solos (some premieres; some past works) by four different choreographers: Kate Weare, Gregg Bielemeier, Della Davidson and Paufve herself.

Set in a gorgeous building high atop a hill, the ‘mobile’ piece inhabits different parts of a single room. The first solo, Paufve’s “Laying Ground” (2008), unfolded in front of large bay windows just as the sun was setting. A moment of closure meeting an instant of beginning, accompanied by an earthy cello score. From there Paufve journeyed to the center of the space for the premiere of Kate Weare’s “Erie Lackawana”. Every movement of this solo variation had a tactile presence – whether small flutters in the hand or lengthy arabesque poses, Paufve seemed to be truly ‘touching’ the space around her, as opposed to creating shapes within that space. It may be somewhat of a buzz word in modern dance today but “Erie Lackawana” had a very real sense of organic-ness.

Photo: Pak Han
Solo #3, the premiere of Gregg Bielemeier’s “…it’s kind of a secret but she screams like a girl…” was a stand-out hit. Like all good dance theater, this vignette had comedy, absurdity and a strong technical foundation. It began with a scene of Paufve getting into character, almost like watching her prepare backstage in a dressing room. She put on her costume, did her make-up and donned a short blond wig, transforming into a wonderful combination of the real-life Chloe Sevigny and the fictitious Carmela Soprano. Medium-sized bouncy balls were scattered around the floor, getting kicked and swatted as Paufve cycled through the fun, yet sound choreography. “…it’s kind of a secret but she screams like a girl…” concluded with a hilarious set of personal reflections as Paufve (outside) used a set of window panes as her own personal mirrors.

1991’s “Flying Over Emptiness” (choreography by Della Davidson) took the fourth spot on the program, with a hefty injection of drama and expansive movement. A particularly compelling wing motif suggested the pure essence of breath, further emphasized by the wind soundscore. And as the solo closed, it had descended into a tortured, gnarled web. The final dance of the evening was the premiere of Paufve’s “Endless Mountain”, a piece that exuded primitive strength. Reflecting the vast choreographic spectrum that is Paufve’s work, “Endless Mountain” deliciously toggled between the introspective and the inclusive. The live musical accompaniment didn’t quite have the same breadth, instead remaining in an atonal, avant-garde, improvisational space for the duration.  

An hour of solo performance is no joke, and as one might expect, there had to be slight pauses between the segments for costume changes, setting up the next space and of course, a break! These transitions can be very tricky, and here, were handled brilliantly – there was no ‘stop and go’ feeling. Rather, there was great attention to maintaining the flow of the performance during those in between spaces.

However wonderful the choreography and the dancing, “Soil” did have one issue that came up a couple of time – a disconnect between the movement and the music. Of course, it is extremely common in contemporary performance for the score and the choreography to be different, sometimes even at odds with each other. But there is divergence and then there is distraction. In the second and fifth solos, the latter was true; at times, the music was actually distracting from what was happening on stage.  

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Smuin Ballet

Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
October 5th, 2013

With a two week engagement at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts theater, Smuin Ballet has kicked-off their twentieth anniversary season. The company has never looked better – the familiar faces are as solid as ever and they have been joined by some exciting new company members. “XXtremes” is all about contemporary ballet, a triple bill featuring Amy Seiwert’s “Dear Miss Cline”, Jiří Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land” and Michael Smuin’s “Carmina Burana”. “XXtremes” runs until Saturday – don’t miss your chance to celebrate this important moment in Smuin Ballet’s history.

A nostalgic period ballet, “Dear Miss Cline” is choreographer-in-residence Amy Seiwert’s tribute to the music of Patsy Cline. When it premiered two years ago, it became an instant fan favorite, though it wasn’t particularly a favorite of mine. However, this time around, “Dear Miss Cline” was fun and springy; just delightful. This goes to show that casting really matters. A few of the cast members were the same as during the world premiere, but the injection of some new blood was vital. It gave “Dear Miss Cline” a buoyant energy and youthful presence that was definitely missing two years back. Jonathan Dummar had the performance of a lifetime on Saturday evening. Whether arabesque, attitude or a traditional pirouette, his every turn finished up in the turning position rather than down on the floor. You often talk of dancers soaring in jumps, but Dummar truly soars in his turns. And though “Dear Miss Cline” is a group piece, new company member Nicole Haskins shone in her slightly more prominent role.     

Terez Dean and Christian Squires in "Dear Miss Cline"
by Choreographer in Residence Amy Seiwert 
Photo credit: David DeSilva

Jiří Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land” is a new work for Smuin Ballet, though it was originally choreographed in the mid-1970s, two years after the death of choreographer John Cranko. A work dedicated to Cranko, “Return to a Strange Land” takes its cast of six through four separate contemporary ballet movements, each conveying a distinct emotional quality. The first movement was full of motion and swirling, like getting lost in a sea of information. Next came a variation full of abandon yet marked by an underlying notion of mature restraint. The third duet was about falling, punctuated by quick staccato boureés and last, Kylián created a mirage of living sculpture. Bodies morphed from one state to another; some images were subtle (a flick of the wrist) and some were dramatic (the extension of the entire body).

Closing the “XXtremes” program was Michael Smuin’s 1997 masterpiece “Carmina Burana”. With 2013 being the “The Rite of Spring’s” hundredth anniversary, dance patrons have certainly been treated to their fair share of ritualistic drama over the course of this year. “Carmina Burana” is something different altogether, but there is that sense of hypnotic ritual to it, with the presence of the crowd and the chosen one. Smuin’s “Carmina Burana” definitely has a strong narrative (more so than many of his lyrical ballet works), but the real triumph with this piece is how Smuin married the complex score with appropriately complex movement. And performance-wise, the men’s trio (Ben Needham-Wood, Aidan DeYoung and Eduardo Permuy) stole the show – their unison was otherworldly.  

While “XXtremes” brought together three diverse choreographic works, there were some problems with structure and repertory choice. First was the program order. Smuin’s “Carmina Burana” is an epic piece, quite long and with a dynamic level doesn’t vary that much. It would have made more sense for it to open the program rather than close it. Second, each ballet featured in “XXtremes” had a similar compositional form. All three were made up of smaller scenes/vignettes, each with their own defined beginning and ending. On its own, this structure is tricky; small individual snippets can make it difficult to maintain forward momentum and choreographic continuity. It can feel too much like a ‘stop and go’ experience, and not enough like a comprehensive work. However, this type of formal structure can also be completely successful. The issue here was not the individual variation style but that every piece on the “XXtremes” program had this characteristic. When celebrating the breadth of a ballet company, at least one of the repertory choices might have reflected a different formal structure.