Thursday, February 27, 2014

San Francisco Ballet

Program 3
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
February 25th, 2014

Not all triple bills have a unifying theme. And at first glance, the third program of San Francisco Ballet’s 2014 season looks like one such evening: ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ from “La Bayadère”, Act II, “Ghosts©” and “Firebird”. But there is a common denominator running through these works. For this mixed repertory program, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson has chosen three ballets that each highlight a style of storytelling: classical narrative, abstract narrative and mythical narrative.

Though the full-length “La Bayadère” is not my favorite ballet, ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ scene from Act II is really something else – visually transcendent and technically complex. And this particularly staging by legendary ballerina Natalia Makarova (after Marius Petipa) is inspired. The women’s corps de ballet are front and center as they travel down the famous ramp with a well-known series of plié arabesques and tendus devant. Not only do the dancers have to contend with the technical difficulty of the steps but also, they must be cognizant of their spacing, which was well done. High extensions gain serious praise in today’s ballet world; most of the time, it seems like the higher the leg, the better. And many of the San Francisco Ballet corps’ women have sky-high arabesques and developpés in écarté. But in ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ scene, these high extensions are actually problematic. This is one of those moments where uniformity is required, and it was missing on Tuesday evening. The corps struggled with their cohesiveness; the dancers with the higher extensions really needed to adjust. In contrast, the soloists danced their respective variations exquisitely (though I’m not a fan of winding-up before pirouettes). The stately, regal pas de deux for Nikiya and Solor (danced by Maria Kochetkova and guest artist Denis Matvienko) was the perfect combination of passionate emotion and technical acuity. Incredibly steady partnering (absolutely no wobbles or shaking hands) met palpable passion with an equal dose of magnetism and playfulness. 

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Ghosts©” is a mysterious oscillation between the old and the new. An ensemble work with featured pairings and trios, the ballet blends nostalgic costuming, postmodern sculpture and an atonal score with contemporary choreography. As one might expect from the title, “Ghosts©” contains a variety of floating, whirling and drifting movement sequences. And there is a definite sense of purposeful ‘off-balanced-ness’ as the dance and dancers wander through time.

San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov's "Firebird"
Photo ©Erik Tomasson
A character-driven, mythical story, Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird” is an expression of universal extremes – night vs. day; good vs. evil; real vs. imaginary; love vs. loneliness; sacrifice vs. gain. And because “Firebird” is such a character-driven ballet, it was the interpretations of the primary roles that really ‘made’ the performance. Sarah Van Patten’s Firebird had a wealth of complexity and artistic depth. She could be commanding yet shy, powerful yet delicate, otherworldly yet human all in the same moment. With a similar intricacy, Sasha De Sola and Tiit Helimets as the Prince and Princess combined love’s innocence, youth’s carefreeness, and naïveté’s hopefulness. And Pascal Molat completed the story with his phenomenal version of the wicked Kaschei.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

San Francisco Ballet

Program 2
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
February 21st, 2014

San Francisco Ballet’s second program of the 2014 season joined three contrasting works - the premiere of Val Caniparoli’s “Tears” alongside two of last season’s favorites, Alexei Ratmansky’s “From Foreign Lands” and Wayne McGregor’s “Borderlands”. Another testament to the repertory breadth and artistic diversity of this company, program two was the perfect triple bill. 

While the title of Val Caniparoli’s newest work for San Francisco Ballet may imply sorrow and despair, “Tears” is actually about healing. A dance for three couples and a chorus of four men, this contemporary ballet reveals that the cleansing of the soul is an active process requiring constant and forward motion. As the main featured couple, Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz gave a passionate yet solid performance. Certainly a difficult artistic intersection to maneuver, they approached each moment with full authentic emotion, while still maintaining textbook technical integrity. Next, Sasha De Sola and Tiit Helimets took the stage with a partnering variation that spoke of abandon and vulnerability. This duet said that there is no half way; each lift and balance required complete commitment, utter surrender and ultimate trust. Well-suited partners, De Sola and Helimets were a strong casting choice; I hope to see more of their partnership in the future. The male quartet (Gaetano Amico, Sean Orza, Benjamin Stewart and Myles Thatcher) provided the fluid foundation for Caniparoli’s “Tears”. Unobtrusive, yet crucial, their choreography was peppered with suspension and release, serpentine vocabulary, and tours en l’air that melted into the floor. Daniel Deivison and Ellen Rose Hummel served as “Tears’” third couple. The established passion and abandon of the other two pairings was still alive, but it was different, and in a good way. Deivison and Hummel embodied a reserved and gentle knowing, almost as if they shared a private secret. Caniparoli’s “Tears” is a beautiful ballet suite; a set of constant moving pieces that did not stop until the curtain came down. And two truths reigned supreme: being in the moment and the expression of process.

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's "From Foreign Lands"
Photo© Erik Tomasson
Adding a different flavor was Alexei Ratmansky’s “From Foreign Lands”; a quietly sweet and delicately tender ensemble composition. A dance on the theme of fours, full cast variations bookended multiple different quartet groupings: two pairs, one man and three women; one woman and three men; and four couples. Ratmansky’s choreography in each of the movements was delightful - the Italian quartet, playful, fun and highly energetic; the Spanish sequence, dramatic and humorous. Though at Friday night’s performance, some of the unison was problematic from time to time in a few of the sections. Simone Messmer gave a standout performance in the German dance. Messmer sparkled onstage, literally lighting up the space. At the same time, she maintained an aware and authentic presence with everyone around her. The resulting picture was truly luminous, and an audience can discern a manufactured version from a case like this one, where it was absolutely real. “From Foreign Lands” is a lovely light-hearted ballet; no fanfare, yet still dynamic and compelling. 

The evening’s final ballet contributed yet a third stylistic genre, Wayne McGregor’s contemporary assay, “Borderlands”. When I saw this piece last year, the formal and structural concerns took focus, so, this time, I opted to take a content approach, looking at it through the lens of abstract imagery, general concept and deconstructed narrative. “Borderlands” does not tell a linear story at all, but there are a number of interesting narrative ideas present. A sense of having to endure uncertainty and adapt to different circumstances definitely underscores the entire work. As well, the juxtaposition of individual physicality against a vastness of space and scope is another ongoing narrative theme. Though she did not take center stage until the two-thirds point, Dores André stole the show. With her unique combination of extreme flexibility, innate strength and spatial instincts, she was meant to dance McGregor’s choreography. And though seldom used, the unison in “Borderlands” was really quite something; so much so that it deserves a special accolade.            

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Hamburg Ballet in Neumeier's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Photo ©Holger Badekow
The Hamburg Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
February 12th, 2014

Dreams can be strange, confusing and non-linear; starting out one way and then  morphing into something else without explanation or warning. And so, a ballet about a dream should be equally odd and curious. In another mid-February engagement at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, the Hamburg Ballet returned with a full-length production encapsulating this universal experience – Artistic Director John Neumeier’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Perfectly timed for Valentine’s week, unexpected love and intertwined relationships take center stage in Neumeier’s 1977 version of Shakespeare’s comedic masterpiece. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” takes its participating characters on an unusual journey, oscillating between the conscious and the sub-conscious and revealing the porousness that exists between the two states of being.   

The ballet’s most notable achievement is its dream sequence, which makes up the majority of Act I. Appropriately weird and mystical, the dream successfully blurred the lines between reality and fantasy. Manic motion and constant change were expressed through extremely fast boureés, Russian pas de chats and grand rond de jambes. A sense of ‘the unexpected’ even permeated the partnering, leading to some spectacular visuals (including a mid-air developpé à la second). Add in smoke effects, ambient music and mobile set pieces, and the result was a deliciously unpredictable apparition.

Translating Shakespeare’s comedic tale into a non-textual format is not easy to do. The complex scenarios, the varied characters, the interwoven lives; all three presented a big challenge. By the end of Act I, things were starting to become clear, but even with a general understanding of the plot, it was a little hard to keep track of what was going on. Having said that, with a storyline like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, some uncertainty may have been the right call.

The length of the production was problematic. About three-quarters of the way through each of the two acts, there was a very clear and palpable stopping point. The audience reaction in those moments spoke volumes; they thought each half was over and their presumption seemed right. But in both cases, the action continued for quite a while longer, and because definite cadences had already occurred, it felt extraneous. In particular, Act I clocked in at around eighty minutes.        

The style and choreography of this “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” may not be to everyone’s artistic taste, but the dancing itself was phenomenal. The leads were great: tremendous technique, believable acting and artistic sensitivity. However, the real stand out group was the men’s and women’s corps de ballet. Neumeier’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” charges its chorus with both traditional (in the first scene and at the wedding) and contemporary ballet vocabulary (during the dream). Each corps dancer met that call with authentic intention, mature confidence and technical acumen. They were a delight to watch. 

Saturday, February 08, 2014

"Ebb + Flow"

Mills College Dance Alumni Concert
Lisser Theater, Oakland
February 7th, 2014

On the first Friday of every February, the Mills College dance community (alumni, friends, family and current students) gather on campus for the annual Dance Alumni Concert. Aptly titled “Ebb + Flow”, this shared performance features a curated collection of work by Mills College Dance Department alums. 2014’s iteration brought six diverse compositions, choreographed by graduates from the past three decades.

First up was Garth Grimball’s “Casa Tomada”, which featured live guitar accompaniment by composer Brian Baumbusch and performance by Grimball and Deanna Bangs. A quiet work of post-modern choreography, contemporary sensibility and narrative framework, “Casa Tomada” had a lovely arc. First, a couple was calmly seated in an open wooden box structure. There was an overwhelming sense of assumed and accepted repetition; a statement of the usual, the constant, the norm. Next, complete and methodical articulation of the hands and feet were added to the picture. The dance continued its crescendo in both intensity and off-balancedness so that by the end, a clear message had emerged. Typicality was no longer enough. Sandra Scheuber’s “Blue” followed, a purposely humorous and melodramatic quartet about sadness and despair. While “Blue” provided a nice variety and contrast to the overall program, tying modern choreography so closely to popular music is tough to do, and the work did seem a little out of place.

Act I concluded with an excerpt from “Six Suites”, a terrific collaborative project, setting six different choreographic intentions to Bach’s music. This portion highlighted three sections – the first, an example of abstract expression; the second, narrative interpretation; the third, creative process. Amy Lewis began with a circular, flowing and vast solo that ate up the stage space. With its constant motion, Lewis was reflecting the equally continuous nature of much Baroque music. Very few internal moments of cadence and repose exist, and so, rest does not come until the very end. Sonsherée Giles’ second variation introduced a delicious narrative foundation. High relevé dancing juxtaposed against abrupt and violent falls spoke to a common desire: trying to keep it together and the reality of not being able to do so. Janet Das took the stage in the third segment of “Six Suites”, providing a glimpse into the creation and extraction of movement phrases. Das did not dance to the music, but rather in concert with it, accumulating interesting sets of movement motifs and physical circuits. Her hinge plié deserved particular commendation. “Six Suites” is successfully examining the marriage between different choreographic styles and Baroque scores. At some point, I hope to see the entire work.

Pictured: Megan Nicely
Photo: Yana Kraeva
Act II opened with Megan Nicely’s “Somatic Experiment #1: Scrunch”, a visceral, immersive and creepily spooky choreographic wonder. From its vocalization score (provided live by Jim Brashear) to its deconstructed set to its gritty, animalistic syntax, this piece is all dance theater. And though the narrative has an aura of mystery, “Somatic Experiment #1: Scrunch” appeared to be a physical expression of neurosis or insanity. Rebekah Brown’s “Boots” focused on the journey – individual pathways, personal experiences and navigating life, both from a collective and individual perspective. Well-danced and creatively organized, the only surprising element was the ending, which was both unexpected and maybe even a little abrupt. For the evening’s finale, Jalila Bell offered the world premiere of “D4L”, which was all about layers, evolution and accumulation. In a work that showcased the best technical performance of the evening, Bell was able to fuse hip hop, jazz, break-dance, modern, and traditional African dance into a unique hybrid. Each genre maintained its individual integrity while also working together to form a cohesive whole.   

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Modern Masters

Cal Performances presents
Martha Graham Dance Company
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
January 31st, 2014

As January comes to an end and February begins, Cal Performances is all about iconic modern dance. For two nights, the Martha Graham Dance Company takes the Zellerbach stage in a program of Graham’s most celebrated works: “Appalachian Spring”, “Cave of the Heart” and “Maple Leaf Rag”. Of course, Graham technique is the common denominator that runs through the entire evening, providing the formal structure and foundation of each work. But content-wise, the three pieces are very different: one deconstructed narrative, one dramatic story and one abstract composition.
Katherine Crockett in "Appalachian Spring" 
Photo: John Deane

“Appalachian Spring” tells a classic tale of hopeful anticipation. And even though it premiered almost seventy years ago, the universal message and vast physicality keep it relevant today. Right from the start, this dance shepherds its characters towards the future and what lies ahead. As each of the eight cast members enter from stage left, slow, methodical walks propel them forward onto their front leg. These reaching motions continue throughout the thirty minute work: in the husbandman’s travelling sautés, the followers’ parallel sissones and the bride’s arabesque airplane turns. There was also a deep feeling of community amongst the characters; a sense of joy and comfort that they were looking to the horizon together. The most serious moment in “Appalachian Spring” is the preacher’s variation two-thirds of the way in. But even in that dramatic sequence, a glimmer of reassurance shines through. Difficulties, sorrow and pain will come, but in those moments, no one is alone.

As much as “Appalachian Spring” is hopeful, 1946’s “Cave of the Heart” is dark. Based on the story of Medea, “Cave of the Heart” explores the cycle of jealousy. An angsty dance for four, the piece follows Medea as she experiences early inklings of jealousy and then as those initial emotions build into uncontrollable rage. The Graham contraction is a perfect vehicle for such a narrative. It starts with a deep internal impulse, which then radiates outward and grows to overtake the entire body. “Cave of the Heart” shows how quickly jealousy can turn into insanity, consuming the entire human spirit, and taking over like a multiplying virus.

The last piece on the program was also the final piece that Martha Graham completed, 1990’s “Maple Leaf Rag”. A humorous romp for one featured couple and an ensemble chorus, “Maple Leaf Rag” is quite literally Graham technique set to music. All the highly stylized aspects of Graham were present: cupped hands, prances, upper body curves, the tilt in second position. I even saw a Graham fall on one. But the movement was not at all stuck in the past; in fact, the dance shows how her syllabus was able to maintain its physical integrity yet also how it evolved over time. If neo-classical modern dance ever existed, “Maple Leaf Rag” is it. Though the term is more commonly reserved for a style of classical ballet, “Maple Leaf Rag” has all the characteristics of neo-classical choreography: speed and precision, a re-thinking of traditional movement and an emphasis on how the choreography punctuates the score.