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