Monday, July 29, 2013

SKETCH 3: Expectations

Photos: David DeSilva
presented by Amy Seiwert’s Imagery 
ODC Theater, San Francisco
July 25th, 2013

Good choreography leaves its audience asking questions. And the best choreography evokes questions for which there may not be any answers, instead sparking personal reflection, authentic conversation and spirited debate. Thursday night at ODC Theater was a great night of contemporary ballet. Amy Seiwert’s Imagery presented the third iteration of their SKETCH series -  Expectations – with new works by Seiwert, Val Caniparoli and Marc Brew. In Seiwert’s delightful opening remarks, she shared that the SKETCH is all about inviting established choreographers to create new ballets while working within their own identified risk or set of risks. And while there was no unifying theme other than that process, similar thoughts and observations kept coming up during the program. Was that situational? Was that on purpose? Again, these are the inquiries that emerge from great choreography.

Caniparoli’s “Triptych” was inspired by a photography collection – Lalage Snow’s “We Are The Not Dead”. Each photo set, a few of which appeared in the SKETCH program, shows three images of the same soldier – before, during and after deployment. The militaristic thread was woven throughout the ballet from the camouflage costumes to the recurring ‘standing at ease’ motif. Moving in and out of different lines and groups, the cast of eight painted a canvas both on the stage and in the air around them. Caniparoli injected instances of elegant simplicity (the beautiful side-by-side single arabesque turns) while also examining a complicated narrative. “Triptych’s” first movement was appropriately accompanied by a polyphonic score. This Baroque-style music dynamically interplays the importance of each voice and the mixing of all the lines together; independent and interdependent at the same moment. Because the piece was titled “Triptych”, it was easy to assume a three-part formal structure. But the work was really only two segments. Perhaps the absence of this third part was narratively-driven - the ‘after’ is still being lived out by these soldiers; still unfolding; still in process; still to come.

Four couples scattered about the stage in their own individual squares of light opening Marc Brew’s “Awkward Beauty”. As they cycled through a series of complicated sculptural lifts while smoke dissipated in the air, a searing anticipation built. Subsequently, the company retreated to the back wall, and began a hypnotic physical wave; changing the visual landscape from left to right, right to left, and back again. Throughout “Awkward Beauty”, Brew used this upstage wall for a home base of sorts, a place where dancers retreated to, where vignettes methodically unfurled. This living, breathing billboard revealed some of the most interesting pictures and images of the piece. But the ending moment was by far, the coolest and most memorable. A woman was lifted high in the air floating above her partner’s head. He then began to spin, slowly at first and then accelerating to whirling dervish speed. With this lift and turn, Brew created a human propeller center stage. In addition, “Awkward Beauty” provoked one of those ‘was that supposed to happen’ type of questions. The work had four women in its cast; three were in pointe shoes and one wasn’t - very curious.

SKETCH 3 closed with “The Devil Ties My Tongue”, perhaps the greatest choreographic work from Amy Seiwert thus far. “The Devil Ties My Tongue” takes the viewer inside a popular yet complicated trend: deconstructed narrative in contemporary ballet. To effectively and successfully work within this structure, a dance must communicate a dual identity. The choreography must have formal authority, merit for the movement in its own right. While at the same time, the piece is still loosely based in a concept, idea or image, in this case, Leonard Cohen’s poem “S.O.S.”. The shinbuster light effect established the drama right from the get-go, feeding into a gorgeous and intense pas de trois. Creating a trio is not easy, and this one was very well done, reminiscent of another great pas de trois: Gerald Arpino’s “Light Rain” for the Joffrey Ballet. The intensity continued and mid-way through the piece, a compelling duet spoke of desire, longing and need. Creepy and eerie, the closing moments found a female dancer flailing about while one of the men whispered in her ear over and over again. In “The Devil Ties My Tongue”, again there was a mix of pointe and flat shoes for the women, but this time it was an equal division of two and two. Still the question arose, ‘was this intended’? If so, maybe Seiwert was making a comment on the role of fusion in dance. When it comes to fusion, the focus tends to be on mixing traditional and contemporary movement together in a single work. But in this case, Seiwert seems to be considering fusion within ballet itself; a mixing and melding of pointe work and non-pointe work.              

Friday, July 26, 2013

Napa Valley Festival del Sole

The Dede Wilsey Dance series
Ballet Gala
July 19th, 2013
The Lincoln Theater, Yountville

Every year, balletomanes and ballet novices (and those who fall somewhere in the middle) join together at Yountville’s Lincoln Theater, in eager anticipation of the Napa Valley Festival del Sole’s Ballet Gala. This year’s program featured nine excerpts from eight different ballets, including Raymond Rodriguez’s reconstruction of ‘suite’ from Michel Fokine’s “Paganini”. A bicoastal cast, sixteen members of Ballet San Jose were joined by three phenomenal guest artists – San Francisco Ballet’s Tiit Helimets and American Ballet Theatre’s Stella Abrera and Sascha Radetsky. With variations from “Swan Lake”, “Leaves Are Fading”, “Giselle” and others, the variety and beauty of classical ballet was heralded to the packed house. The evening’s only downfall was that curtain time was delayed for nearly thirty minutes.

Three variations from “Swan Lake” opened the program. First a musical overture by The Russian National Orchestra under the direction of George Daugherty, followed by the pas de cinq and lastly, Act II’s pas de deux. While the pointework was stunning throughout the pas de cinq, much of the choreography had to be shortened and compressed. The Lincoln Theater is beautiful, but the stage is small and so a five person divertissement was a bold choice for this event. A truly sublime pairing, Ballet San Jose’s Alexsandra Meijer and San Francisco Ballet’s Tiit Helimets were up next with Act II’s pas de deux. Meijer and Helimets’ technical and narrative interpretation of this well-known duet was a highlight of the entire evening. The pas de deux from “The Toreador” (choreography by Flemming Flindt after August Bournonville) journeyed to Spain, with dramatic choreography and stylistic flair. In addition to the expected lifts, poses and balances, some delightful side by side unison was danced by Ballet San Jose’s Maria Jacobs-Yu and Alex Kramer. American Ballet Theatre’s Stella Abrera and Sascha Radetsky followed with the pas de deux from Tudor’s “Leaves Are Fading”. A conceptual duet, Abrera’s willowy grace and Radetsky’s robust strength captured every nuanced moment of suspension and release. Act I closed with the aforementioned reconstruction - ‘suite’ from “Paganini”. Again, the cast of ten was very squished on this particular stage, but despite that, no one can deny that as the Divine Genius, Amy Marie Briones (Ballet San Jose) stole the show with a rare combination of strength, flexibility and fearlessness.

The shorter Act II brought a collection of famous pas de deuxs from “Giselle” , “Le Corsaire”, “Méditation from Thaïs”, and “Don Quixote”. Ballet San Jose’s Karen Gabay was striking in “Giselle”, truly otherworldly. A nice complement to their lyrical duet in Act I,  Le Corsaire’s ‘pas d’esclave’ was all about Abrera and Radetsky’s technical acuity. The entire variation was about as close to perfect as is possible. The complicated and sometimes awkward lifts in “Méditation from Thaïs”, were easily and effortlessly handled by Meijer and Helimets. And Ballet San Jose’s Junna Ige and Maykel Solas closed the gala in style with the dynamic and technical tour de force that is Don Quixote’s final pas de deux.

Because Ballet San Jose danced the lion’s share of the varied repertoire, the Napa Valley Festival del Sole’s Ballet Gala was a unique opportunity to see the South Bay company outside of their home theater. This group can jump and turn with the best of them and their batterie is incredibly intricate - the enunciation and articulation is really quite something. Having said that, there were some basics that weren’t given the same attention and focus. In terms of pointed feet, the transitional steps and petit allegro sequences were not consistent. So, when it comes to technique, it was kind of an odd mix from this ballet company. On the one hand, undeniably detailed skill and on the other, some missing fundamentals.

Monday, July 22, 2013


Four Plays
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
July 18th, 2013

When it comes to summer dance offerings in the San Francisco/Bay Area, every year is different – sometimes there is a ton of great stuff to see, and in other years, not so much. But there are a few ‘must-sees’ every summer, and  Post:Ballet is definitely one of them. After showing previous years at the Cowell Theater and the Herbst Theater, Post:Ballet opened its fourth home season at Yerba Buena’s Lam Research Theater. Aptly titled “Four Plays”, the collaborative mixed repertory program revealed Artistic Director Robert Dekkers’ creative genius and the off-the-charts talent of every Post:Ballet dance artist.

Photo: Tricia Cronin
The evening’s first three pieces came from the Post:Ballet choreographic archive: 2011’s “Colouring” and “Sixes and Seven” along with 2012’s “When in Doubt”. An interdisciplinary work, “Colouring” is all about process – the process of building material; the process of melding it together; the process of interdependence; the process of experimentation. Throughout the performance piece, different practitioners (choreographer, dancers, visual artist, musician, photographer) interact in real time. Not only is this a cool and fresh approach to artistic collaboration but also gives the audience a glimpse at what happens behind the scenes.

A solo that oozes duality, “Sixes and Seven” features choreography that is delicate and internal yet vast and sweeping at the same time. Impeccably danced by Jessica Collado (at Thursday’s performance), “Sixes and Seven” contains a delicious element of mystery to it. The soloist is taking inventory of her surroundings yet seeing something that the audience cannot; sharing part of her world, but keeping some things to herself.

“When In Doubt” examines collective co-existence – how we adapt, how we imitate, how we work together and how we stay true to ourselves in the midst of community. The dance is maybe a little too long, and much of the movement and staging seems similar. Having said that, the two main trios stood out for their narrative depth and choreographic ingenuity. Jane Hope Rehm, Aidan DeYoung and Ricardo Zayas were up first. Throughout their variation, Rehm was pulled, dragged and manipulated into various positions, almost like a puppet or doll. But as the trio continued, it became clear that she was not at all a passive player. Rather, this was bravery – a showing of complete trust and utter vulnerability between three people. The second pas de trois - danced by DeYoung, Zayas and Christian Squires - performed the exact same choreographic phrase but not in exact unison. From an audience perspective, this can often feel a little unsettling. Was the section under-rehearsed? Was one of the dancers just out of sync? In this case, the lack of unison was purposeful; it was serving the narrative. Here was a significant comment on individualism – the dancers were cycling through the same choreography but in their own time, at their own pace. Though not my favorite piece, “When In Doubt” certainly had these deep moments of clarity and meaning.

Photo: Tricia Cronin
Act II brought the premiere of Dekkers’ newest work, “field the present shifts”, a piece that blended his signature choreographic style with chance processes. Set amidst a field of gorgeous dangling sculptures, “field the present shifts” had a somewhat scientific opening. Over and over again, dancers clustered in small groups and then broke apart into the space - scattering and re-adhering. It felt like watching particles react under differing circumstances and changing states. A slow, meditative section followed, accompanied by constellation-style video graphics on the back wall. In this segment, the dancers carved out positions in the space, like sculpture. With each extension, attitude turn, and arm movement, at every level of intonation and point of articulation, the resistance in the space was tangible. Again, many of the unison sequences varied, with some dancers taking longer in a turn or holding a position for a shorter duration. They were all staying in the moment and exercising the freedom they had been given to alter the phrase. One interesting result of these ‘faux unison’ moments was that it allowed the audience to really choose who they were going to watch. Every dancer was identifying themselves as part of the group, but also as individuals. The penultimate vignette found the music in rallantando, the sculptures being lowered to the ground and the movement slowing. This sequence was steeped in emotion – awe, relief and a little bit of sadness. Though it almost felt like the work was ending here, it was only a moment of repose, of suspension, of unresolved cadence before the recapitulation of the opening theme.

“field the present shifts” was a gorgeous piece of art – stunning choreography, incredible visuals, inventive lighting and brilliant dancing. The only downside was the costumes – the variegated color looked a little strange (though the bright orange was fantastic) and there was an odd ruffle in the design. They just weren’t particularly flattering.      

Friday, July 12, 2013

Botany's Breath

presented by The Conservatory of Flowers and Epiphany Productions present
at The Conservatory of Flowers, San Francisco
July 10th, 2013

Epiphany Productions Sonic Dance Theater’s newest collaborative experience opened Wednesday evening at San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. A mobile, site-specific dance performance created by Artistic Director Kim Epifano, the dancers and the audience traveled through the cavernous recesses and diverse climates housed in this phenomenal building. The choreography utilized everything present in the space: bricks, dirt, interior design, horticulture, sculptures, fences, rocks. Yet even in this fixed space of prescribed parameters, “Botany’s Breath” was all about big ideas. From the extensive collaboration to the expansive physicality to the primary narrative theme, the fifty minute piece thoroughly examined the notion of awareness, and specifically the pull between internal insight and external stimuli.
Dancers: Colin Epstein, Marina Fukushima
Photo: Andy Mogg

The collaborative nature of the project was not only reflected by the meshing of choreography, lighting, video, score and text, but also by how the company multi-tasked throughout. Every performer took on multiple roles; no one was just a dancer or only a musician. Dancers accompanied choreographic phrases through song and the playing of various musical instruments. The musicians vocalized and became part of every scene’s visual landscape. Each collaborative aspect of the performance brought “Botany’s Breath” to life, and the team effort was very apparent. 

Choreographically, “Botany’s Breath” covered a wide spectrum and diverse vocabulary, drawing from different styles, intonation and articulation. Epifano tapped into this vast lexicon by marrying large swimming motions with smaller reflexive movements. Her choreography was beautifully expressive in its own right but it also spoke volumes on the deep and complex relationship between inward and outward sensibility. Broad sweeping arms and circular running reached out into the space, while a jerkier, staccato pas de deux took a couple back inside their own personal reality. Dancers folded into the plant life and camouflaged their presence while contact improvisation-style lifts and group unison segments created a sense of egalitarian community and collective goals. “Botany’s Breath” was a delicious collage of this internal and external imagery and a brilliant comment on how life is drawn to both sensations. Two moments of visual perspective also deserve special mention. The first showcased choreography through a sculptural opening and the second through mirrored doors. Both instances had that internal/external duality – the vignettes were occurring in the distance, but at the same time were also very near.  

The audience was broken into several clusters and ushered through the performance space via different routes. Planning this circuit cannot have been an easy task and it was carried out very well. Having said that, any site-specific mobile work will always bring with it a few logistic challenges. Even though the audience had been sub-divided, the groups were still too big for the tight spaces in the Conservatory of Flowers. That meant that from time to time, it was hard to see the performance. To be fair, the audience was warned about this. In the introductory remarks, the group was told that they might not be able to see everything at all times. And, if that did end up being the case, there was plenty of amazing plant-life and stunning butterflies to take in. But, “Botany’s Breath” was a dance performance. As such, missing some of the choreography was a little disappointing, even with the advanced notice of that possibility. Also, it would have been nice if the performance circuit included a few more extended stops. Most of the time, the audience was in transit. While that did lead to some interesting glimpses of material, a longer stay at some of the performance areas might give more time to fully experience and digest the lovely choreography and the exquisite dancing.

Monday, July 01, 2013


presented at the Frameline 37 Film Festival
Castro Theatre, San Francisco
June 29th, 2013

“TEST”, a new film by Chris Mason Johnson, takes its audience back in time to San Francisco, 1985. Stylistically, it was a time of Walkmans and answering machines. A time of boom boxes and back-combed bangs. Choreographically, it was a time when narrative and structural modern dance were reconciling after years of separation. It was also a time when the AIDS health crisis was in its early years. A time when there were so many questions about the disease and not enough information and answers. It was a time of fear, doubt, anger and confusion. “TEST” follows this theme of uncertainty. Writer, director, and producer Chris Mason Johnson, choreographer Sidra Bell, composer Ceiri Torjussen along with the entire artistic and production team have created a film that brings this important message to the big screen in a fresh, exciting and artistically meaningful way.  

“TEST” is told through the eyes of Frankie, a gay modern dancer who is part of a small contemporary company in San Francisco. Much of the film centers around his modern dance community, with multiple scenes taking place in the rehearsal studio, backstage at the theater, and the fictional company in performance. Most of the other characters in the film are part of Frankie’s dance troupe; the people he interacts with day in and day out. And through his personal and professional experiences, the audience comes to realize that dance is not only Frankie’s occupation, it is his passion and his outlet.

At the beginning of the film, Frankie (brilliantly portrayed by Scott Marlowe) is experiencing intermittent bouts of dizziness and blurry vision. While his condition helps to establish the relationship between him and his doctor (which recurs later in the movie), the vertigo is really a metaphor for Frankie’s uncertainty. Everywhere he looks and everywhere he is, there are things and circumstances that he cannot control. As he deals with chaos in his apartment, his home is uncertain; as an understudy in the dance company, his career is uncertain; and as a gay man in the mid-1980s, his health and future are also uncertain.

Sidra Bell’s choreography, which is featured in the fictional company’s rehearsal and performance sequences, also speaks to “TEST’s” theme of inherent uncertainty. By creating dynamic and edgy contemporary movement that also had glimmers of classical ballet, Bell’s work moved between genres, not easily categorized. In addition, the narrative and conceptual foundation was constantly changing. A sense of doom was illustrated by gnarled
hands, staccato contractions and motifs where the eyes and mouth were covered. Then there would be an immediate shift into free flowing attitude turns, stretchy extensions and passé pirouettes. Each physical phrase toggled between fear and hope with no resolution. It was totally uncertain which emotion was going to dominate or whether there would even be a winner at all.

Perhaps the most powerful scene in Johnson’s film was also one of the shortest and quietest. Prior to one of the performances, the camera panned in on the company in the midst of their onstage warm-up. Dancers wearing headphones  stood at the barre, cycling through their routine preparation exercises. Here were individuals in their own world; their own space, yet at the same time, absolutely melded together as a group; as a company. With this brief vignette, Johnson made a striking comment about uncertainty – while it is personal and unique, it can also deeply affect an entire community.

Near the end of the film, Frankie decides to take an HIV test (which was still relatively new in 1985) and the results drastically alter his existence. His uncertainty is still there, but he seems able to live into it or live with it rather than being afraid of it. We see Frankie making the most simple, and sometimes humorous changes to his environment (unraveling a phone chord and turning the rodent in his apartment into a pet) to more fundamental choices - letting loose and allowing himself to have some fun. But Johnson was very purposeful and clear that the uncertainty in Frankie’s life had not disappeared; instead, it had evolved and become something different.

Casting dance films can be tricky. Do you choose actors who can kind of dance? Dancers who are acceptable actors? Do you opt for a body double for the main dancing scenes? The cast of “TEST” had it all – phenomenal professional dancers who were equally talented actors. Marlowe gave a truly unforgettable performance, constantly injecting layers and nuance to a character who was onscreen for the entire movie. Matthew Risch’s Todd had an unexpected depth, a strange yet vulnerable combination of boorishness and kindness. And then there were those who stole their respective scenes sometimes with only a few lines: Myles Thatcher as Sam, Rory Hohenstein as Tommy, Katherine Wells as Molly and Madison Keesler as Jennifer. Chris Mason Johnson’s “TEST” is a necessary addition for any video library, a must-have for those who love dance movies, stories of San Francisco and intimate, honest films that glimpse into the human soul.

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