Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!"

Smuin Ballet
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
December 24th, 2014

The twentieth edition of Smuin Ballet’s annual holiday production did not disappoint. With equal parts traditional and contemporary dance works, “The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!” closed 2014 with a hearty dose of festivity and celebration.

Titled ‘Classical Christmas’, Act I is all about technical ballet and time-honored holiday music. And of the fourteen short scenes, several (both returning favorites and new premieres) were stand out hits. Michael Smuin’s “Domine” was an elegant vehicle for company veteran Susan Roemer and newer Smuin dancer Nicole Haskins; both women floated ethereally throughout the entire duet. Choreographer-In-Residence Amy Seiwert experimented with the challenging pas de cinq structure in “Caroling, Caroling/Bright, Bright”. Lightness immediately abounded as the cast entered from stage right, and they aptly handled Seiwert’s significant choreographic requirements. Roemer again proved herself as a star of “The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!” with her interpretation of Smuin’s “Ave Maria”. From simple walking to flat-footed promenades to contemporary piqué turns, she captivated. Almost all dancers perform solo work, but not every dancer can command the stage during a solo like Roemer did on Christmas Eve.

Always a treat, “The Gloucestershire Wassail” is a delightful marriage of cultural/folkloric/Celtic movement and percussive dance. The unison in this piece has been better in previous years, though this particular cast made up for it with their pure, palpable, authentic joy. Act I’s second premiere, Nicole Haskins’ “Fantasia”, was absolutely lovely. As is common with most fantasia-forms, Haskins opted to mix styles, genres and structures to create a fun and unique hybrid. It was such a success, and had an almost ‘cheeky’ ending as Terez Dean leapt into Jonathan Powell’s arms.

Following intermission, we were onto the sixteen segments that make up Act II’s ‘Cool Christmas’. Company dancers Weston Krukow and Ben Needham-Wood choreographed the new premieres for this second half, “Mean and Green” and “Frosty the Snowman”, respectively. These humorous romps provided a nice addition and variety to an Act that otherwise was a little too similar to the past few year’s productions. Having said that, Sarah Nyfield sparkled in “La Calandria”. The foot percussion mixed with pointe work was out of this world and her petit allegro combination, particularly the assemblés, was something to behold. Nyfield also has these strong, lingering balances that Smuin Ballet, or the new Smuin Ballet, is becoming known for.
Every season, Smuin Ballet produces a variety of work in different formats, with one of the favorites being a collection of shorter scenes. This year’s “The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!” contained a remarkable number - thirty vignettes of varying length. And while the production came in at a very reasonable two hours, it does seem like each Act could afford to have slightly fewer sketches.  

Pictured: Rachel Furst, Photo: David Allen    

Monday, December 15, 2014


San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 14th, 2014

It’s that time of year again – San Francisco Ballet has just begun their annual “Nutcracker” at the War Memorial Opera House. This season marks an important milestone, as it is ten years since the company premiered Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s updated version of the classic Christmas ballet. It is a glorious production, full of merriment, festivity and optimism.

Even if you see “Nutcracker” every December, there is something new to discover each year whether it be outstanding performances (individuals or groups), narrative revelations or spectacular design elements. This year, it was the sequence of scenes that struck a chord. At each plot point, Tomasson crafted Clara’s journey with clever and creative insight and as such, similarly guided the entire audience’s experience.

We begin in the familiar – Act I’s festive party scene. Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum home is quite grand and fancy, yet it still contains all the expected holiday images: Christmas tree, gifts and guests. All are infused with anticipation, excitement and there is even a hearty dose of magic. After some joyous dancing and much general regalement, night falls, the party ends and the mood shifts. As Clara (portrayed by Amanda Jue) falls asleep, we see the start of a transformation. Drosselmeyer (the incomparable Val Caniparoli) orchestrates this ‘in between’ state where reality and fantasy start to collide - furniture moves by itself, the Christmas tree grows, and a battle erupts between toy soldiers and life-size mice. During this scene, the Nutcracker doll that Clara has been given for Christmas also comes to life. After defeating the King of the Mice, he removes his mask and becomes the Nutcracker Prince (at this performance, new principal Joseph Walsh). The Prince dances for Clara – when Walsh’s piqués morphed into multiple attitude turns, it was something to behold – and then the pair is led through a snow-filled forest, the final leg of transition. Tomasson’s snow scene is itself filled with internal transitory moments as boureés grow into piqués and pas de chats evolve into grand jetés.

Mathilde Froustey in Tomasson's
Photo ©Erik Tomasson
Act II finds Clara and the Prince arriving in a land of fantasy and wonder, greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy (one of my favorite ballerinas, Mathilde Froustey). A host of nations dance for their new guests, with a particularly spectacular Russian variation. The choreography for this short divertissement is always thrilling but this was the first time I’ve ever seen it performed without anyone from the soloist or principal rank. Led by Wei Wang with Francisco Mungamba and Francisco Sebastiao, the unison and technique were flawless. Froustey’s Sugar Plum Fairy was a delight. There is so much to love about her dancing: fluid turns, genuine stage presence, intense musicality and phrasing, super high jumps followed by silent landings and balances that freeze time. Towards the end of Act II, yet another moment of change occurs as Clara transforms into an adult (danced by Frances Chung). Chung and Walsh were absolutely sublime in the grand pas de deux; I hope to see more of their pairing in the coming season. Sunday night’s full-cast finale had a couple of rough moments, but the recovery in each circumstance was phenomenally good.

And then, in the final scene, we return to the Stahlbaum home to find Clara asleep on the chaise holding her Nutcracker doll. As she awakes and greets her mother, all are left to wonder, was it really a dream?     

Friday, November 21, 2014


Post:Ballet presents
Z Space, San Francisco
November 20th, 2014

Post:Ballet’s “Hi-5” program, running this weekend at Z Space in San Francisco’s Mission District, is all about newness. New dance, new casting, new accompaniment, new collaboration and most notably, the company’s first ever evening-length fall concert. In just five short years, Artistic Director Robert Dekkers, the performing artists, and the entire Post:Ballet family have built an arts institution that was so needed in today’s contemporary landscape – one that holds onto technical excellence while being unafraid of risk. The results have turned each Post:Ballet production into an anticipated event, and have endeared the company to dance aficionados and newcomers alike.

For this debut fall engagement, Dekkers arranged the “Hi-5” program from the oldest work (his first for Post:Ballet) to the new world premiere. 2010’s “Flutter” is one of my favorite pieces; not just from this troupe’s repertory, but overall. I never tire of it and each viewing has the power to surprise. Opening night’s performance was no exception with Jeremy Bannon-Neches, Christian Squires and Vanessa Thiessen taking on the dynamic trio (of this group, I’d only seen Squires dance “Flutter” before). And, for the first time ever, the accompaniment was performed live by The Living Earth Show. “Flutter” is such a contemporary work, yet at the same time, its structural design and construction speak from history. The three dancers are in constant motion, moving both independently and interdependently, like a three-part invention. Within the unison and canoned sequences, unexpected and gorgeous deceptive cadences abound. And if you look closely, you will see some genius fugal patterns in Dekkers’ choreography including instances of augmentation, diminution and inversion.

Up next was 2011’s “Sixes and Seven”, a delicate, specific solo full of intricacies. Again having seen this piece before, I was struck by how new casting has the capacity to change a work, not only providing an opportunity to see company artists in different roles, but also revealing new aspects of choreography. Tetyana Martyanova brought a fresh articulation and intonation to “Sixes and Seven”. As she approached each step, whether large or small, her attack was strong, yet elegant.  

The physically stark “Yours is Mine” is not brand new – Dekkers choreographed it this
Pictured: Raychel Diane Weiner
with Jeremy Bannon-Neches, Aidan DeYoung
and Christian Squires in "Yours is Mine"
Photo: Natalia Perez
summer for Atlanta Ballet and it was also featured earlier this week in DanceFAR’s benefit gala. But for much of the San Francisco audience, “Yours is Mine” was a new experience. It begins with a competitive, animalistic trio (Bannon-Neches, Squires and Aidan DeYoung) who, when faced with a change in their environment, react combatively to that altered circumstance. Acrobatics and martial arts inform the choreography and blend seamlessly with the contemporary (and even some traditional) physical vocab. Just over half way through, Raychel Diane Weiner enters the picture and at once, everything changes, drastically and dramatically. Her hypnotic energy places the men into a trance-like state; like she was casting a spell on them with her presence and with her movement.

Closing the “Hi-5” program was the world premiere of “Do Be: Tassel”, the first installment of a yearlong collaboration between Post:Ballet and The Living Earth Show. This piece is theatrical, unexpected and incredibly post-modern. One of the primary tenets driving the post-modern genre (in dance, at least) is how the line between life and art is porous and blurry. “Do Be: Tassel” aptly captures this sentiment. The stage is transformed into a living/dining room scene and the cast begins the piece posed amongst that set. A movement phrase of different postures evolves, which is communicated in several forms - sometimes the cast is in unison; sometimes dancers only do half of the sequence before moving on; or occasionally someone joins in part-way through. And while dancing, the ensemble is also in the process of taking off their costumes, and so, “Do Be: Tassel” unfolds in various states of dress and undress. Towards the end, the cast furiously throws clothing out of suitcases and chooses new items to wear. This disorganized moment is both delicious and poignant because process is messy. The space between life and art is not neat and tidy; it isn’t tied up in a perfect package. “Do Be: Tassel” breaks facades, digs beneath the surface and is committed to sparking a conversation about this reality. 

Post:Ballet in "Do Be: Tassel"
Photo: Tricia Cronin


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

DanceFAR 2014

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
November 18th, 2014

Every year, San Francisco has its fair share of amazing dance concerts – from stunning classical performances to outstanding contemporary programs. Yet, even in 2014, these two genres still remain pretty separate. But then there are the special evenings that bring traditional and modern dance companies together on a single stage, once again reminding San Francisco audiences of the great artistic breadth that exists in this region.

DanceFAR, Dance For A Reason, provides one such opportunity with its annual gala event, this year held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. But more than just being a phenomenal sampling of what the San Francisco professional dance scene has to offer, Dance For A Reason is all about giving back. All the show’s artistic contributions are donated, with the program’s proceeds benefiting The Cancer Prevention Institute of California and the UCSF Melanoma Center. In just three short years, DanceFAR co-founders Margaret Karl, Garen Scribner and James Sofranko have created something very special to support a cause that affects so many.

Pictured: Margaret Karl and Garen Scribner
Photo: Sandy Lee
Act I opened with Smuin Ballet in an excerpt from Garrett Ammon’s “Serenade For Strings”. What began as quiet, flowing movement quickly exploded into a wave of physicality – both innocent and exciting at the same time. Ballet San Jose’s Lahna Vanderbush and Kendall Teague followed in an excerpt from “Minus 16” by Ohad Naharin, a hauntingly stark duet. Post:Ballet brought Robert Dekkers’ “Yours Is Mine”, an intensely physical quartet with underscores of confrontation, aggression, competition and seduction. Special guests Ana Lopez and Garrett Patrick Anderson from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago communicated the idiosyncrasies of a relationship in an excerpt from “Deep Down Dos”. Alejandro Cerrudo’s choreography was full of hope, looking beyond the present moment. And the duet was beautifully bookended with the same intertwined posture at the beginning and the conclusion. Kate Weare’s “Drop Down” for ODC/Dance is one of the most charged pas de deuxs I have ever seen. And even though I know that there is a dramatic fall about two thirds of the way through, it still has the power to shock me each time. Act I closed with San Francisco Ballet in Hans Van Manen’s “Solo”. This trio (danced by Hansuke Yamamoto, Joseph Walsh and Pascal Molat) is full of unexpected turns and sculptural balances. But the most compelling part of “Solo” is that, as the title suggests, it speaks to and reveals individual personalities. Incidentally, Walsh’s sequence of piqué turns ending in arabesque was one of the best combinations of the entire night.

Tap artist Joe Orrach quite literally kicked off the second Act with two lightning-fast percussive dance solos. Orrach was a great addition to the line-up; the unaccompanied a cappella segments in his performance being of particular note. Up next was SFDanceworks in Penny Saunders “Berceuse”, danced by Pablo Piantino and Saunders herself. “Berceuse” is a gorgeous duet full of shifting circumstances – directional, weight, centeredness and the choreography itself has a rare quality of being both accessible yet incredibly complex. Maurya Kerr’s tinypistol offered an excerpt from “Wantful”, a tense contest of intention and exertion of will. Guest artists Danielle Rowe and Brett Conway from Nederlands Dans Theater I danced Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot’s “Softly, As I Leave You”. A day later, I am still thinking about their performance and definitely hope to see this piece again. Its mixture of trapped desperation and unencumbered abandon was certainly a highlight of DanceFAR 2014. Last but certainly not least, Alonzo King LINES Ballet took the stage in an excerpt of King’s “Rasa”, complete with live musical accompaniment. The company dancers shone brightly in this physical tour de force, where different styles and movement genres were astutely woven into a masterful movement hybrid.  


Monday, November 17, 2014

JuMP 2014

Photo: Kegan Marling
ODC Theater, San Francisco
November 14th, 2014

Choreographic series, programs and residencies are common within the contemporary dance scene. But choreographic programs that are focused on making new work without a ton of other requirements and parameters are actually kind of rare. JuMP, the brainchild of Fact/SF Artistic Director Charles Slender-White and Jeanne Pfeffer, fosters this kind of choreographic nurture, providing the necessary infrastructure and environment for an artist to, as the title states, ‘Just Make a Piece’. In this, JuMP’s inaugural year, Fact/SF presented a shared program of two very different works at ODC Theater – “Stepset Shift” by Charles Slender-White and “Open Source” by Liz Tenuto.

The cast of six entered the stage space for “Stepset Shift” in pointe shoes and purple costumes (designed and constructed by Melissa Castaneda), complete with the unfinished cage of a tutu. This first image immediately (and brilliantly) set the tone for a piece where Slender-White would examine the possibilities within a genre that is still on an evolutionary journey. “Stepset Shift” was informed by the movements that happen in the opening center work of any ballet class: tendus, port de bras, temps lie. These fundamental steps establish the positions of the body and the shifting of weight, and are a necessary foundation for the more complicated exercises that follow. In “Stepset Shift”, Slender-White took these steps in a different direction and utilized them as a point of discovery. His épaulement progressed into off-center upper body motions; classical bourreés simultaneously co-existed with contemporary combinations. “Stepset Shift” was not a condemnation of classical dance, nor was it critical. Instead, Slender-White was using the oeuvre in a wonderfully experimental light, and in doing so, uncovering new physical possibilities.

Following intermission, JuMP 2014 continued with Liz Tenuto’s “Open Source”, a contemporary performance mosaic of delightfully weird extremes, ranging from calm to total hysteria. In “Open Source”, the Fact/SF company dancers became a rag-tag band of purposefully neurotic characters. Opening with a robotic unison sequence reminiscent of old-school aerobics, it looked like a group of modern-day hipsters had found their way back in time to the 1980s. Polar extremes were rooted within this first choreographic sequence as moments of high energy fed into complete relaxation. This theme continued throughout – a particularly clever iteration was when Parker Murphy was dancing to his own soundtrack, while the five women ignored him and broodingly sat eating at a table. And after some additional hyper vignettes, “Open Source” closed with the ensemble huddled together in a very affectionate, tender and intimate moment. While the conceptual framework of extremes was very apparent in Tenuto’s piece, there was also a larger narrative at play in “Open Source”. But at a single viewing, making a connection with that overarching idea/story was a challenge.    

Monday, November 10, 2014

AMP 2014

co-presented by LEVYdance and ODC Theater
ODC Theater, San Francisco
November 9th, 2014

Sunday night at ODC saw the closing performance of LEVYdance’s Fall Home Season, AMP 2014. In this, the Artists Maximizing Potential series’ second round, LEVYdance and Loni Landon Dance Projects collectively brought “Meet Me Normal” to the stage, an evening-length world premiere contemporary dance choreographed by Loni Landon.

A deconstructed narrative work, “Meet Me Normal” was definitely about something, but it did not follow a linear storyline. It asked questions and provided insights; it challenged preconceptions and revealed reality. And it did so around a very accessible and relatable subject matter – the emotions and circumstances that inform human interactions. Throughout the forty-five minute piece, Landon and the cast of six (two LEVYdance company dancers, two performers from Loni Landon Dance Projects and two guests artists) thoroughly examined the entire spectrum of this concept. From the opening duet, issues of control, submission and power were introduced. In a given interaction, does one party attempt to dominate, while the other follows? If so, is that dynamic static or in a constant state of flux? Subsequent sequences spoke to detachment. Two women danced a lovely unison variation, and their movements were totally in sync. Yet at the same time, they seemed purposefully unaware of each other, communicating that sometimes we can be engaged in an interaction and not even know it.

The men’s duet in the middle of “Meet Me Normal” (danced by Stephen DiBiase and David Maurice) was a rich section, where the narrative continuously layered and evolved. It began with DiBiase and Maurice facing each other and matching their movements and gestures. An example of listening in an interaction, this message recurred in many of the following vignettes. Then, this quiet, meditative movement morphed into something else. DiBiase and Maurice kept trying to hug each other, but were unable to actually make contact. Uncertainty and insecurity had crept into their interaction.

Photo: Ross Marlowe
As “Meet Me Normal’s” final third was underway, Landon’s exploration of human interactions was still uncovering new information. Protectiveness and tenderness entered the mix as the women lightly touched each other’s faces and shoulders. Then, as the full cast stood in a line, and the movement rippled in a physical canon wave, imitation was the overarching message. Even the element of surprise was present. As Michaela Burns slowly exited the space, she was scooped up and brought back into the scene. An otherwise complete dissertation on the nature of human interaction, it was a little curious that “Meet Me Normal” was missing playfulness, friendliness or joy.

Landon’s choreographic vocabulary in “Meet Me Normal” had a wonderful sense of initiation. Though the movement style certainly varied, much of it started externally, from the knee, hip, foot or elbow, particularly in Lavinia Vago's closing solo. It almost was a little ode to puppetry and a reminder that interactions are sometimes controlled and guided by outside forces.       

Not only was the piece an overwhelming success, but it was also a testament to the breadth of LEVYdance’s AMP program itself. In November of 2012, the first AMP showcased work by two different choreographers in a shared evening - two dances by Artistic Director Benjamin Levy, and two by Sidra Bell (one danced by LEVYdance and the other by Sidra Bell Dance New York). Almost exactly two years later, direct artistic collaboration took focus as two companies (LEVYdance and Loni Landon Dance Projects) created and performed in Landon’s piece together. Successful residency programs are the ones that experiment with different formats and it was heartening to see that LEVYdance’s AMP series is continuing to forwardly seek new and risky experiences.     

Monday, October 27, 2014


Co-presented by Piñata Dance Collective & Temescal Art Center
Temescal Art Center, Oakland
October 25th, 2014

The Temescal Art Center in Oakland was aflame with excitement and occasion for the opening night of the first ever !FLACC!, Festival of Latin American Contemporary Choreographers. This inaugural evening of movement, music and community featured a collection of eight solos and duets, stylistically spanning the contemporary genre. A packed, enthusiastic house plus diverse performance offerings equals a very successful launching of this new festival program.   

Dance theater was first up with “Metadonna”, co-choreographed by Compañia de Artes Vivas and Alariete. Blending text, movement, set, props and vocalization, the piece stayed true to the dance theater esthetic with blurred situations and confrontational circumstances. “Transitional Fluid” followed, a work-in-progress choreographed and performed by Diana Lara. Interdisciplinary in nature, “Transitional Fluid” had a narrative framework, multi-media video and textwork. But the most compelling element was Lara’s neo-classical choreographic approach in the opening moments. As train sounds pulsed in the background, expansive movements and physical gestures equally and captivatingly marked the score.  

Next up was Zari Le’on’s “In my Mother’s house there is still God!”, my favorite piece of the evening. Costumed like an evil fairytale queen, Le’on began downstage center with her back facing the audience. Strong, punctuated movements led her forward and back: extended arms with a fist, percussive feet, deep lunges, grand pliés in a wide 2nd position. Le’on wove a spell to the milky, electronic score and with the exception of a few turns at the end, we never saw her face. This choice added an unexpected aspect of anonymity to the dance. Act I closed with the second draft of Rogelio Lopez’s “Love in a Box”. This work brought a fascinating structural/compositional element to the !FLACC! line-up. The only illumination utilized in the piece was a flashlight that was passed between the two dancers. Our gaze was being controlled by where that light fell and how it was used; as such, viewership became a much more fluid and changeable experience.

Act II opened with a deconstructed narrative solo choreographed and danced by Natta Haotzima. A large picture frame styled set piece graced the center of the stage space and Haotzima was blindfolded throughout – a conceptual meditation on visibility. Eric Garcia and Kat Cole, co-Artistic Directors of detour dance, presented an excerpt from “Imitations of Intimacy”, danced by Garcia and Liane Burns. A comical contest of wills – who would give in, who would dominate, who would triumph – the excerpt also featured the best technical dancing of the night. Festival organizer Liz Boubion’s “Novia Muerta” took in the entire emotional spectrum. From tortured, gnarled almost Butoh-inspired motions all the way to pure, unadulterated, vibrating elation, “Novia Muerta” was an entertaining narrative roller coaster. The closing piece brought Lopez to the stage in a triptych by Catherine Marie Davalos. This work was all about directions, moving towards and away, sideways and every other way imaginable. A narrative encapsulation of complexity, it was also a perfect way in which to close the dynamic first iteration of !FLACC!.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

"Peter and the Wolf"

Sharp & Fine presents
“Peter and the Wolf”
ODC Theater, San Francisco
October 24th, 2014
Pictured: Megan Kurashige, Theo Padouvas
Marissa Brown Photo: Shannon Kurashige

The story of “Peter and the Wolf” is a narrative tapestry; a challenging (and often dark) adventure complete with unexpected circumstances and an ever-changing landscape. What a perfect match for contemporary dance performance - a field that is very familiar with those characteristics and themes. Sharp & Fine’s new evening-length version of “Peter and the Wolf” is a delight - full of surprise moments, revelatory structural components and a rare choreographic vocabulary. Co-founders Megan Kurashige and Shannon Kurashige have teamed up with composer/musician Theo Padouvas to re-create this classic tale for a twenty-first century audience.

With the exception of the protagonist Peter (boisterously and spiritedly portrayed by Katharine Hawthorne), the remaining four characters were concurrently embodied by both a dancer and a musician. The four incredibly talented musicians in the cast played throughout the hour-long work, but had a specific connection to one of the animal personalities – cat, bird, duck and wolf. Having dance/musical counterparts was such a smart and amazing way to communicate the characters. It provided a depth and dimension that was surprising, in a good way. And as the piece unfolded, we started to see these characters not as having two performers, but as one cohesive entity.

The musicians were called upon to move too, and not just walking around the stage space. Carson Stein (dancer) and Theo Padouvas (cornet) danced a beautiful duet together, in which Padouvas held his own as a significant interdisciplinary performer. And the fight between the wolf and the duck was made more volatile by the participation of both the dancers and the musicians. Joshua Marshall (on tenor saxophone) and Padouvas circled each other menacingly, ready to pounce at any second. Because the character synthesis had been so strong throughout “Peter and the Wolf”, it was definitely missed in the final duet between the two title characters. Hawthorne and Marissa Brown (as the wolf) danced the vignette with verve and skill, but the saxophonist was not integrated into the picture until the end of the pas de deux. That duet seemed to be missing the extra ‘charge’ that the other scenes (where the dancers and musicians were equally involved) had.

Megan and Shannon Kurashige’s choreographic vocabulary in “Peter and the Wolf” was a compelling blend of contemporary and classical technique. It never felt like they were going in and out of these two traditions; instead, the contemporary fed off the classical and vice versa. The results were stunning. Duets were filled with gorgeous turned out extensions, grand rond de jambes and upper body curves. The movement variations created for Peter joined passé turns, relevés and broad leaps that ate up space. Hawthorne aptly handled this complex and beautiful choreography; her steadiness on demi-pointe (regardless of the position), an inspiration.     

Monday, October 06, 2014

"Paul C.'s Homeroom Journal"

Dance Up Close/East Bay presents
Stranger Lover Dreamer in
“Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal”
Photo: Matthew Kertesz
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
October 5th, 2014

A recent conversation with a wonderful San Francisco choreographer has me thinking about viewership. How do we see dance? What do we look for? What moves us in performance? Are we more interested in conceptual themes or in form, structure and functionality? I tend towards content – I like to try and figure out what a piece is about and look for narrative implications in the movement. It’s not that I don’t recognize structure, but it doesn’t speak to me in the same way that story does. So I decided to do an experiment – begin by approaching a piece from a formal perspective, and see where it leads. What I learned is when you look at the structure, form and function of a contemporary performance work, a host of discoveries abound, even a few narrative revelations.

“Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal”, a new ensemble work by Stranger Lover Dreamer, takes its audience on a journey back to the odd, glorious microcosm that is high school. Inspired by a found, anonymous journal (the author is simply referred to as Paul C.), this contemporary dance collective (led by Andrew Merrell, Elizebeth Randall and Shaunna Vella) has crafted an evening-length, site-specific, mobile work that is incredibly entertaining, with a perfect mix of depth and humor.

The first triumph of this piece is in its setting - Shawl-Anderson Dance Center had truly been transformed. The lobby became a high school hallway on the first day of a new school year. The cast mingled with the audience; the Principal was keeping order; music was playing; photos were happening. Following the homeroom introduction, the audience was divided and led through multiple different spaces – my group’s schedule was homeroom, gym class, art and then finally assembly. Each individual studio was thoughtfully and appropriately outfitted with posters, trophies, school supplies and in the main room, an old-school overhead projector. To kick things off, we were each given our own journal, and an assignment from the Principal. Consider three questions and jot down thoughts, comments and responses: who do we think we are; how do others perceive us and who do we want to become. The setting was nothing short of perfection.

Onto structure, form and functionality. “Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal” was like a living diary; a collection of vignettes and dances. Each was introduced with a date and a short verbal statement (from Paul C.’s journal), and they occurred in random, rather than chronological, order. In the first homeroom sequence, the overhead projector worked in concert with sculpted choreographic shapes. Dancers would create and hold a posture, which would then be traced on the overhead projector. Functionally, it brought active projection and real-time movement together as collaborating theatrical elements. But it also revealed some content, specifically the space between perception and reality. Other dances functioned to introduce and celebrate different personalities and idiosyncrasies. In gym class, one trio focused on individual interpretation and internal reflection through gestural movements. The ‘yes I do like snow because it is awesome’ ensemble dance was another ode to individualism. Every hand gesture was unique; the cast was reacting to this phrase in distinct ways – both verbally and physically. And how it revved up into a crazy tornado, perhaps like a snow blizzard, was delightful. Still other choreographic sequences functioned as more literal interpretations of the journal entries. In art class, the ‘we’re writing…’ scene saw arms and legs writing in the space; in the air, on the floor, quickly, expansively. From a functional perspective, there was such range and diversity, and that made every moment in “Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal” wonderfully unpredictable.

By far, my favorite choreographic segment was Randall’s ‘Under my bed is a trundle…’. One soloist cycled through the technically demanding choreography; levels constantly changing, evolving from one state to another. The cast was scattered around the space, standing still, clutching pillows. Choreographically and visually, it was a very moving experience.

Contemporary dance performance is important, but I don’t know how often it is also fun. Stranger Lover Dreamer’s “Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal” is both. The show runs for another weekend at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley – go see it.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Joe Goode Performance Group

Z Space, San Francisco
October 3rd, 2014

When describing dance performance, I tend to use the verbs ‘reviving’ and ‘restaging’ interchangeably. But actually there is a huge difference between the two. Classical and contemporary companies restage work all the time – there may be a new cast, or it may be in a new space, though for the most part, these are restatements of existing repertoire. Revivals take things a step further. Yes, they may also have a different cast and be on a different stage, but revivals breathe new life into a work. Joe Goode Performance Group’s fall program (presented with Z Space) is a shared program of revivals – two distinct works that are still on an artistic journey.

The evening opened with Goode’s iconic piece from 1987, “29 Effeminate Gestures”, performed by Melecio Estrella. The work begins in striking extremes. Estrella starts in the audience wearing mechanic overalls and a trucker hat. He slowly makes his way onto the stage space where he destroys a chair with a chainsaw. Estrella then moves upstage left,
Pictured: Melecio Estrella in "29 Effeminate Gestures"
Photo: RJ Muna
converts the top of his jumpsuit into a belt, and in his newly revealed shimmery purple tube top, begins the circuit of “29 Effeminate Gestures”. While these initial scenes seem opposed, the genius of the work is in their fluidity. As the solo continues, the original set of gestures remains but they are also simultaneously morphed into another state of being. This process is seamless and continuous with no defined moment of transition. It happens right before your eyes yet it is impossible to pinpoint the instants where the experience changes.

An ensemble work, 2008’s “Wonderboy” is a vision of what the present day and future can be, a comment on the space between reality and imagination and a discussion of fear. Under Goode’s Artistic Direction, each of these themes are explored and examined through the eyes of a boy, a puppet created and constructed for this project by collaborating Director of Puppetry, Basil Twist. The concept is cool; the communication is clear and the construction is clever, and it is in this last area that the piece makes one of its most significant achievements. “Wonderboy” is definitely a narrative tour-de-force, though its structure, form and style speak to the evolving nature of dance theater itself. Goode’s dance theater thinks outside the box with a unique combination of movement, scenework, text, music, humor and depth. And in “Wonderboy”, the absurdity and bizarreness that is typical of many dance theater works is not at play and it is not missed. Successful dance theater should not be defined by a list of characteristics and tenets, but by the trajectory of each individual work and Goode’s “Wonderboy” bravely marks its own path. On the whole, the piece was very dance-y, and that was terrific – Goode’s movement vocabulary and choreography is compelling and the dancers are phenomenal. But, the many choreographic segments were very alike. This entire group also has an incredible (and rare) musical talent, which rightly finds its way into much of the company’s work, including “Wonderboy”. But the musical interjections are starting to blend together. From one piece to the next, it’s the same harmonies, the same vocal tone, the same dynamics, the same tempi, and so how the music relates to each specific piece is getting a little lost.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mark Morris Dance Group

presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
September 28th, 2014

Mark Morris Dance Group’s fall engagement at Cal Performances demonstrated the evolving nature and breadth of neoclassical dance. Program A brought a collection of four Bay Area premieres. Two were solid old-school neoclassical compositions with the requisite technical proficiency, unexpected (and delightful) movement choices and musical exploration. The other two pieces on the program pushed the boundaries of this stylistic genre, stretching the form even further with both innovative physical syllabi and cutting-edge conceptual approaches.

Program A opened with Morris’ “The Muir” (2010), a work for three men and three women, featuring stunning vocalists cycling through a set of enchanting folk songs. “The Muir” was a pretty traditional example of neoclassical dance, with movements that punctuated and emphasized the score. Full of clever and humorous moments - the men crawling along the floor to a pulsating beat, the waving and pointing hand gestures, miming empty pockets – it was like a tongue in cheek court dance. Yet the ending was somber and heavy as one sole dancer was left alone on the stage. “The Muir” is a physically demanding piece for the entire cast, though the men’s choreography stole the show. There was only one problematic step that recurred throughout – the attitude derriere. It was neither turned out nor parallel; this ‘in between state’ looked unintentional, and frankly, a little sloppy.

2012’s “A Wooden Tree” followed – an ensemble dance set again to folk music, this time by Ivor Cutler. The cast looked like a group of hipsters (a comically unstable group at times) at a social dance club. Again Morris’ movement reflected the score, but this time that interpretation was taken to a new level. The words/lyrics were also visually incorporated into the dance and into the interactions between the dancers - the women’s telegraph sequence was particularly phenomenal.

Following intermission, company dancers Sam Black and Jenn Weddel took the stage in Morris’ “Jenn and Spencer” (2013), another dance that spoke to the new neoclassicism. Everything about this piece was narratively charged, and the pas de deux had a sustained drama and tumult. Even the slower phrases lacked tenderness, instead replaced by a
Morris' "Jenn and Spencer"
Photo: Stephanie Berger
wildness and constant coiled energy. Black and Weddel danced Morris’ complex choreography with skill, aptitude and abandon. One particular highlight was Weddel’s circuit of gorgeous leg extensions, while Black inched forward on the floor. “Jenn and Spencer” is a force, and incidentally, featured the most groundbreaking choreography and gutsiest performances on this program.

Closing the day was 2011’s “Festival Dance”, which took the audience full circle, returning to time-honored neoclassicism. “Festival Dance” is a full cast extravaganza, with ample partnering, and lovely, joyful, flowing movement phrases. In the rondo section of the piece, there is a particularly impressive spinning lift, where the women flip their body and leg position mid-spin. It was so free and expansive.

While Program A did show the breadth of the neoclassical genre, the actual repertory choices overlapped too much. Even though the music was different, the costumes were different and the casting was different, three of the four pieces had a folksy, social dance thing going on. And stylistically, “Festival Dance” and “The Muir” were very similar. “Festival Dance” may be a tiny bit more technical, with slightly more character vocabulary, but the two pieces that bookended Program A were a little too alike for my taste.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Bridge Project 2014

presented by Hope Mohr Dance
in association with the Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco
September 27th, 2014

Hope Mohr Dance’s 2014 Bridge Project was a phenomenal celebration of West Coast post-modern dance, bringing together four powerhouse choreographers in a single program – Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, Lucinda Childs and Hope Mohr. Subtitled “Have We Come A Long Way, Baby?”, the evening provided a holistic encounter with post-modernism. The history and lineage of the genre was definitely there, but at the same time, this was a live, in person and real-time experience with post-modern movement, physicality and composition.

Legendary post-modern icon Anna Halprin kicked off the event performing in her 1999 dance, “The Courtesan and the Crone”. Donning a floor-length gold jacket and an ornate mask, Halprin (at ninety-four) demonstrated with this short work the transformative power of costuming. The articulation of her hands, shoulders and head were so subtle, though striking, and gave the piece a light, humorous, almost flirty sense. But at the end, Halprin took off the mask and the cloak, and an intense angst was revealed. Up until this point, the pain and suffering had been completely hidden behind the costume and mask, again speaking to how non-dance theatrical elements have the ability to drastically alter circumstance and situation.

Simone Forti followed in her “News Animation”, a structured improvisation of text and physicality. Forti spoke throughout the performance, making both small and big pronouncements, and the accompanying movement that developed seemed informed by these statements, observations and thoughts. Pathways abounded – straight, back and forth, circular, fragmented. Levels changed; directions shifted and dynamics ranged from forceful to quiet. And even in the midst of her improvisation, you could tell that Forti was searching for connectivity between ideas and existence at that exact moment, in this particular space.

Next up was Hope Mohr performing in Lucinda Childs’ “Carnation”, a work from 1964 that sought to re-imagine and explore the possibilities of everyday, familiar items. A trash bag was a shoe, a colander was a hat, sponges combined with foam cylinders to make a sandwich. But the most interesting aspect of “Carnation” is the multiple reactions that it evokes. As these objects were presented in their various odd visual manifestations, the audience laughed at the absurdity and ridiculousness. But for me, the piece isn’t funny at all; it is actually a deep comment on expectations, preconceptions and pretense versus reality.

Pictured: Peiling Kao in Hope Mohr's "s(oft is) hard"
Photo: Margo Moritz
Closing the program was the premiere of Mohr’s “s(oft is) hard”, danced by Peiling Kao and inspired by Mohr’s personal journals as well as her own past experience of journaling (she shared this with the audience in the program notes). Ben Juodvalkis’ score combined writing sounds, some occasional musical interludes and what I assume was Mohr’s voice reciting dates, the first from 1945 and the last, the present date. An internal, personal journey unfolded on the stage (and was simultaneously projected on the back wall), the movement accumulating from very small reflexive adjustments to large rolling and diving sequences. The interesting question here was one of context. We were watching a physical monologue but it was someone else’s story - one that we had no unique insight into or understanding of. Were the dates in the soundscore random? Were the movement choices representing something that happened on those specific dates? Or was there no direct correlation at all between the dates and the dance? The context was uncertain, it wasn’t easy to figure it out, and that was great.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Synaptic Motion"

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, San Francisco
September 20th, 2014

Clarity of intention is fluid in contemporary dance performance. Sometimes you know what a piece is about; sometimes you don’t; and sometimes it isn’t about anything. Capacitor’s “Synaptic Motion” definitely fits into the first category. Artistic Director Jodi Lomask’s world premiere work utilizes brain scans and other neurological imaging tools in an effort to explore, discover and examine the physical manifestations of creativity. It is a cool and innovative concept. And when “Synaptic Motion” kept to its conceptual foundation, the results were fascinating.
Capacitor in "Synaptic Motion"
Photo: RJ Muna

After the performance, a neurologist generously shared with me the following insight and definition: “neurology is the study of the brain, and the brain is about building connections with other things – other neurons, other networks, other systems”. From the moment you walked into the space, that organic process was evident; themes of change and evolution abounding. The YBCA Forum had been organized almost like a dance exhibit, with few available seats. Instead, the audience was encouraged to stand and move around the room to view the performance from different angles (another cool idea, but it did make it difficult to see from time to time). Much of the action was focused in the center stage space, though surrounding structures and apparatus also served as additional performance platforms. In many of the early scenes, the dancers strung together lines of physical and movement material; adapting and reacting to circumstance with flexibility and pliability, the dynamics ranging from stretchy to shaky. In the first group sequence, a pulse was choreographically derived into small upper body isolations and stunning double pliés. In a later vignette, the ensemble stood in an arc, and one by one, chaînéd to the opposite end, constructing a circular pathway with a circular movement – real-time creation and real-time conversion. These specific variations (and others) really stayed with the conceptual intention and were seeking to express what happens in the brain during the creative process. This was not a linear story, nor was it a deconstructed narrative. “Synaptic Motion” took an initial idea, gained perspective through source material, transferred those findings into original movement, sound and video and then communicated them to an audience.    

“Synaptic Motion” triumphed when the phrase material was both visually interesting and conceptually sound. Unfortunately, there were several scenes in the seventy-minute performance that only fulfilled the visual side of that equation. Each acrobatic variation was impressive and spectacular, no question. But the conceptual connection was a little tenuous. When aerial/acrobatic/contortion work took center stage, the piece tended to go in and out of focus and the flow was compromised. But on second thought, maybe that was kind of the point. Perhaps it was one of the lessons to be learned. Creativity isn’t a linear experience; it is filled with equal parts excitement and transformation, doubt and disruption.   

Friday, September 19, 2014

"The Luminous Edge"

Pictured: Dudley Flores
Photo: RJ Muna
Garrett + Moulton Productions
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
September 18th, 2014

Retro is chic and classic. Contemporary is cool and edgy. Mix the two together, and the possibilities are endless. So what happens when retro meets contemporary in modern dance performance? The result is renewal. And that is what “The Luminous Edge” is all about.

Garrett + Moulton Productions’ newest full-length evening work, currently showing on the Yerba Buena main stage, demonstrates the value of pairing the past and present together onstage. Featuring live music directed by Jonathan Russell with special guest singer Karen Clark, this world premiere had forward thinking, innovative choreography (by co-Artistic Directors Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton) and a timeless narrative. But the structure of the work was the most compelling element. As they have done in a number of previous compositions, Garrett and Moulton opted for a combination cast: company dancers and a movement choir. The inclusion of the chorus is a bit of a retro choice in today’s performing arts landscape. But in “The Luminous Edge”, the connection between the featured dancers and the corps is anything but old-fashioned. And while there are definitely hierarchical issues at play, this particular form provided visual framing, narrative support and theatrical interactions that made “The Luminous Edge” a special combination of retro and contemporary.

The visual framing started in the opening moments of the dance. The lights went up to reveal the movement choir in two lines on either side of stage. While walking back and forth, the lines weaving, they created a corridor to ‘introduce’ the cast members. And in a beautiful cadence, they returned to these original positions at the end of “The Luminous Edge” to help the cast say farewell to each other and to the audience. Yet the ending was brilliantly deceptive – only four of the dancers retreated backward into the abyss, leaving one couple downstage center. Renewal was clearly still in process. The movement choir’s role was changeable and fluid throughout the piece – sometimes they were onstage, sometimes absent, sometimes together as a group, sometimes separated. During much of the choreographic action, they were in a moveable bleacher formation. Organized in three rows, these eighteen dedicated performers provided a physical score of (mostly unison) gestural phrases; movement and narrative context for the various solos, duets, and group sequences.

By interacting with the company dancers in a mutual conversation, the movement choir was equally involved in bringing the renewal narrative to life. In two separate instances, the cast stood in individual spotlights around the stage space. Each of the six company dancers was joined by three movement choir performers whose hands flowed, washed and waved over them. Here the chorus was helping them evolve from one state to another, almost like guardian angels. In another striking, yet contrasting, scene, the movement chorus was strewn about the stage in a chaotic frenzy catching dancers Tegan Schwab and Nol Simonse in a human tornado. Only once in the entire seventy-five minutes did the movement choir’s contribution not make sense - the vocalization sequence. Up until this point, the eighteen performers had been silent and so the decision to all of a sudden mix sound and gesture was curious. It seemed out of place and compromised their carefully cultivated movement power.

While the structure of the work was most intriguing, there were also a number choreographic and performative highlights that deserve special mention. Carolina Czechowska’s early solo (accompanied by the movement choir) was something else. Renewal is a constant process, of both big and small movements; simultaneously quiet and loud. Czechowska’s variation spoke to that complexity – blending the subtle presentation of a single arm and the strength of demi-pointe balances with the vast luxury of attitude turns and arabesque extensions. In addition, the pairing of Schwab and Simonse was incomparable. Anytime they were onstage, especially when they were dancing together, the emotive breadth, personal rapport and technical acumen left you wanting more. Lastly, Garrett and Moulton injected a number of highly energetic full cast choreographic scenes throughout “The Luminous Edge”. This bit of whimsy and spirit was a welcome addition to the lengthy work, which did tend towards similar material and single-level dynamics.