Sunday, April 27, 2014

Company C Contemporary Ballet

ODC Theater, San Francisco
April 25th, 2014

Company C Contemporary Ballet opened its spring season Friday night at ODC Theater in San Francisco's Mission District. A mixed repertory evening, the program expressed and captured the chamber company's dynamic twelve year history. “Aposiopesis” (2002) and “Partly Cloudy Suite” (2005) were joined by three 2014 works - “What's Behind Door #3” (which had its first performance earlier this year) and two world premieres, “New Country” and “Rise”. Aptly subtitled 'Adjusting the Lens', the five pieces on this program led the viewer on a journey through the genres, techniques and styles that makes up today's contemporary ballet scene.

Charles Moulton's “New Country” (world premiere) opened the program with high energy and enthusiastic vigor. Choreographic fusion filled the stage - ballet meeting up with a unique brand of country dancing. The resulting hybrid style conjured the culture of the Appalachian mountains, and with it brought a narrative of tradition and community through the stories of the people. Next up was an excerpt from Charles Anderson's ode to abstraction, “Aposiopesis”. In the third and fourth movements of this ballet, a circular theme was pre-dominant in both the larger stage patterning and the individual choreographic sequences. Upper body port de bras and renversés revealed the circle's expansive arches and broad curves. Edilsa Armendariz and Isaiah Sumler were absolutely sublime as the lead couple; when they were onstage, you couldn't take your eyes off them. Their pas de deux personified total abandon and complete trust. And as Sumler lifted Armendariz behind his back in a repeated attitude motif, “Aposiopesis'” circular focus reached new heights. Closing Act I was Anderson's “What's Behind Door #3”, a completely contrasting, concept-based ballet. Having been respectively preceded by a deconstructed narrative and an abstract work, “What's Behind Door #3” brought mechanics to the table. The piece was an exploration of how doors function and a translation of that mechanism into contemporary ballet and modern physicality.

Onto Act II and Patrick Corbin's “Partly Cloudy Suite”, an ensemble work for five women and one man. Chairs bordered the perimeter of the stage; an air and sense of casual-ness permeating the space. Dancers would take turns moving to the center and cycling through an assortment of variations, while the others sat calmly and watched the technique. It was a little like observing a dance class. Perhaps it was this casual nature or the lack of dynamics, but “Partly Cloudy Suite” seemed a little stale, and it was also very curious to have only one of the women wearing flat ballet shoes. Last on the docket for Company C's spring program was the world premiere of Maurice Causey's “Rise”. The ballet began with a sense of the expected and the predictable and quickly morphed into a gorgeous expression of the surprising and unforeseen. Conventional contemporary ballet suffused the opening moments, almost like Causey was setting a base-line. One that he would challenge and dissolve over the next thirty minutes. Quickly and with intensity, the movement ventured into off-center balances, parallel legs, atypical positions and men in pointe shoes. The score similarly shifted to include changing meters and complex time signatures. “Rise” was an essay of these delicious deviations. An otherwise flawless example of modern choreography, the lighting in the early segments was tough. Over and over again, a spotlight appeared on the stage floor and then floated upward to the backdrop. While the intention behind this particular effect certainly made sense for the piece, in reality, it distracted from what was actually happening on stage. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

AXIS Dance Company

Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, Oakland
April12th, 2014

AXIS Dance Company’s 2014 home season at Oakland’s Malonga Theater was an event to remember. Not only were there two amazing works from Guest Artistic Director Marc Brew and a dance film by Alex Ketley, but also on the program was a re-staged version of Yvonne Rainer’s preeminent post-modern work, “Trio A”.  

Pictured: Joel Brown and Sonsherée Giles
of AXIS Dance Company
Photo: David DeSilva
Seeing any version of “Trio A” live and in person is a gift. Such an integral part of the 1960s postmodern movement, this work still holds such value and necessity for the contemporary dance community, even close to fifty years after its premiere. “Trio A” is devoted to movement, physicality and choreographic tools. And because of its highly structural and formal concerns, the audience becomes privy to a rarely seen phenomenon. One where artistic creation, artistic process and an entire stream of artistic consciousness unfolds, free of constraints, narrative and assumptions. Under the guidance of répétiteur/stager Linda K. Johnson, AXIS Dance Company leapt into this monumental project, bringing the world premiere of their version, entitled “Trio A Pressured #X”. The integrity of the original project was intact – the single task-oriented movement phrase, the lack of eye contact with the audience, dancers beginning the sequence at different times and at different facings. For AXIS, “Trio A Pressured #X” featured four cast members (as opposed to the typical three), and two of the dancers were in wheelchairs. Rainer’s phrase was deeply understood and well-translated by all four, and Johnson did a superb job of staging the work, keeping its true intention yet being open to and exploring the possibilities that came with four uniquely different bodies.

Alex Ketley’s dance film, “The Gift (of Impermanence)” was a visual poem, a tribute to the work of this extraordinary contemporary dance company. Through a revue collection of snippets, excerpts and remembrances, dancers met, interacted with each other through movement and then parted. “The Gift (of Impermanence)” was not a historic chronology of AXIS Dance Company’s past twenty-seven years. Rather, through beautiful and touching dance imagery, Ketley was claiming AXIS Dance Company’s present artistic moment. Marc Brew’s 2008 work, “Remember When”, also began with a film/video segment. A black and white mall scene bustled on the backdrop; its focus, the escalator. Images of Brew dancing in his wheelchair overlaid with the mechanism of the cycling staircase. The film continued and combined with Brew, who was now downstage left. Specific, placed and accented movements spoke of mechanical processes, but with a lush, expansive undertone.

Following intermission, Brew premiered his newest work, “Divide”. Another quartet, this conceptual dance hinted at the space between perception and reality. The lighting design (by Allen Willner) was key to creating and maintaining this theme. Lines and squares of light appeared for a time on the stage, and at one point or another, all four dancers dealt with their real but imaginary existence. When the light was present, it created a true line or space of demarcation. Sonsherée Giles’ first solo traversed a balance beam of light – fondu arabesques, turns, pivots, shifts of weight – all never leaving that illuminated line. Later groups of dancers traveled in and out of light squares that appeared, disappeared and reappeared around the perimeter of the stage. Thinking along the title of the piece, were these divides actual or projected? Mid-way through “Divide”, Brew created a gorgeous pas de deux that had one of the most stunning dance poses ever: Joel Brown extended his upper body sagittally to the ground and placed his right palm on the stage; Giles stood on the left wheel of his wheelchair and extended her leg in a classic modern dance tilt. This long second position was breathtaking.  

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Hope Mohr Dance

ODC Theater, San Francisco
April 11th, 2014

Hope Mohr Dance marks their seventh San Francisco home season this weekend with a collection of premiere works. In association with ODC Theater, Mohr and her company presented a trio of new contemporary pieces, “Route 20”, “ridetherhythm” and a major collaborative endeavor, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”.

The first half of the program was all about the intersection of science and the performing arts. “Route 20”, a shorter piece danced by Jeremy Bannon-Neches, James Graham and Tegan
Hope Mohr Dance in "Route 20"
Photo: Margo Moritz
Schwab, spoke of natural processes. A melting ice sculpture hung just left of center dripping into a metal pan - processing live and in real-time. Mohr’s choreography followed that theme with a deep technical foundation, yet envisioned with her creative eye. The dancing was strong and clear; the narrative, angst-ridden almost to the point of desperation. All the pieces were there. Yet even still, something was missing in “Route 20”; something in the internal connective fibers of the dance.

“ridetherhythm” gave insight into the mind of the scientific genius. With lab coats, a whiteboard and repetitive spoken equations, the scientific process again took center stage. “ridetherhythm” was much more of a dance theater composition with ample text, song, scenework, and some, though not many, choreographic phrases. In any dance theater work, absurdity is a necessary component and “ridetherhythm” stepped up, from time to time resembling a manic psychotic episode.

For Act II, the musicians (Michael Coleman, Henry Hung, Tommy Folen, Gerald Patrick Korte) and the Hope Mohr company dancers took the stage for “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”. All the collaborating artists began warming up during the intermission, and the piece organically (and beautifully) evolved from the preparation phase directly into performance. The casual atmosphere remained for the majority of the work – the house lights up and performers scattered around the perimeter of the ODC Theater space. In the program notes, Mohr included a quote from Steve Paxton about intervals in music. And that is definitely what emerged from the stage. At the very basic definitional level, a musical interval is the distance between two notes. But that is only part of the story when it comes to musical intervals – the quality of each measurement (major, minor, perfect, augmented and diminished) providing the more interesting nuance. Mohr injected and worked these various conditions into “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”. The tritone (augmented 4th/diminished 5th) was reflected in the falling sequence. An inability to stay upright certainly spoke to this interval’s edgy, dissonant sound. The bright, cheery nature of the major intervals shone in the temps leveé in arabesque. And of course, nothing could represent the perfect intervals more than a classic turned out passé retiré. A truly collaborative event, the dancers and musicians played out a number of improvisational and chance games for the audience as part of the piece. That type of ‘in the moment’ experience is certainly exciting for the performers; adjusting to and being present amongst unexpected, changeable circumstances. But is it really that engaging for the audience? In my opinion, no. And while it is true that art shouldn’t be created solely to appease or please its audience, their engagement with the work definitely matters.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

San Francisco Ballet - Program 6

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 9, 2014

San Francisco Ballet’s current mixed repertory evening, Program 6, brings together work by three of today’s great ballet choreographers. Mark Morris’ “Maelstrom”, Helgi Tomasson’s “Caprice” and Yuri Possokhov’s “The Rite of Spring” share this exciting triple bill - yet another testament to the artistic breadth and scope of both the San Francisco Ballet creative team and the company dancers.

Right from the opening sequence, constant motion was the name of the game with Morris’ “Maelstrom”. Morris has a gift for combining music and movement, specifically in his ability to punctuate staccato and accented moments in the score. This thoughtful physical emphasis was sprinkled throughout the neo-classical work: hands in a ‘stop’ position, sparkly temps de cuisse, quick directional shifts and a recurring tilt in second position. A ballet for seven couples, last night’s cast featured some of my favorites from the women’s corps de ballet. A long-time corps dancer, Shannon Rugani is always a joy to watch; solid, skilled and completely in the moment. Ellen Rose Hummel’s unique combination of authenticity and artistic depth is simply endearing. And Julia Rowe is a sublime dancer (well-paired with soloist James Sofranko), one likely to ascend quickly through the ranks. Morris choreographed “Maelstrom” in 1994, and considering the age of many classical repertory ballets, twenty years is not that long ago. But, this particular work looks a little dated; still lovely, but dated. 

Program 6’s second offering is the world premiere of Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s “Caprice”. A shining work of neo-classical brilliance, “Caprice” had all the hallmarks of this popular ballet genre: close relationship between movement and music, classical vocabulary
Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Tomasson's "Caprice"
Photo ©Erik Tomasson
re-imagined with a contemporary eye, modern design elements, and speed. Framing the entire five movement work was a mobile set (by Alexander V. Nichols, with lighting design by Christopher Dennis). As each new chapter began, columns of light shifted into new and different configurations. The pas de quatre in the second movement was filled with delicate, yet mature partnering – melty and sinuous at the same time. Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham stole the show with their highly lyrical pas de deux – the pair soared and floated through Tomasson’s gorgeous choreography. Tan and Ingham were truly ethereal and angelic. The finale brought speed to the table, with a petit allegro variation for the male corps – complex batterie along with unison double and triple pirouettes.

After a phenomenal premiere last season, Yuri Possokhov’s “The Rite of Spring” returned to the War Memorial Opera House stage in the evening’s final performance. Possokhov’s version of this hundred-year-old ballet is extraordinary in every sense of the word. The story of community anguish hangs in the air throughout the entire forty minutes. And Possokhov wove this narrative through every aspect of the ballet – choreography, design, costumes, hair. Stravinsky’s music underscored a palpable sense of precarious circumstance and terror, like a spell was being cast on the group. Dores André gave another standout performance as the sacrifice. Caught and trapped in the mania around her, her movements spoke of imposed positioning and intense manipulation. In an interesting twist, Possokhov’s “The Rite of Spring” actually concludes with a glimmer of hope. In the final scene, there is a brief blackout. Then the lights come back up to find André’s character gone. Whether she had been saved or not, there is a sense of relief; her ordeal is finally over.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

“Shostakovich Trilogy”

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 8th, 2014

San Francisco Ballet’s 2014 season has passed its half-way point and the final four productions will unfold in the next two months. And though not all of the programs have yet to hit the War Memorial Opera House stage, it is safe to say that Program 5, Alexei Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy” is one of the best this year. A San Francisco Ballet and West Coast premiere, co-produced by American Ballet Theatre, this abstract masterpiece captures its audience from beginning to end. In each of the three acts, a particular aspect of Dmitri Shostakovich’s compositions is explored through choreography. And, the work carries a great truth - Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy” is one of the great marriages between movement and music.  

Set to Shostakovich’s ‘Symphony #9’, Part I was all about atonality. ‘Symphony #9’ exists in that ‘in between’ tonal space; sometimes it sounds major, sometimes minor, sometimes modal, sometimes none of the above. Ratmansky choreographed in a similar fashion, transcending typical notions of genre and style. He created an amazing array of movement that was equally atonal in nature; a mirroring of ‘Symphony #9’s’ glorious ambiguity. Parallel legs spoke of contemporary technique; Russian pas de chats of traditional ballet vocabulary. Neo-classicism also played a role as the entire cast executed difficult sequences at high speeds and with great boldness. In addition, musical motifs were marked by cleverly matched physicality (the drumming arms); another trademark of the neo-classical era. Variety also occurred in the dynamic feel of the multiple scenes. Pascal Molat’s opening variation (with the corps men) had a humorous quality; while Luke Ingham’s solo towards the end of the work (which also featured a phenomenal double arabesque turn) was dark and mysterious.

Next up was Ratmansky’s interpretation of Shostakovich’s ‘Chamber Symphony’ – an ode to the drama, uncertainty and complexity of chromaticism. The music is not solely chromatic, but the chromatic scale is heavily utilized throughout the symphony. As it ascends, this half step scale brings with it a sense of anticipation and then, an equal wildness and desperation occurring in its descending form. It carries with it the unmistakable dissonance of the elusive minor second interval and a hope for resolution. Ratmansky beautifully transferred this musical tenet into this second movement of “Shostakovich Trilogy”. Jaime Garcia Castilla’s main solo had all the abandon of the descending chromatic scale as did Mathilde Froustey’s divine spinning turn in attitude that went from standing all the way to the floor. And the corps de ballet’s entrance mid-way through the piece was filled with excitement and forward motion, just like the ascending chromatic scale.

Shostakovich’s ‘Piano Concerto #1’ served as the final section of the ballet; a physical expression of musical details and intricacies. Ratmansky brought the score to life by injecting similar choreographic subtleties: the slight movement of the head, a downward glance, Sofiane Sylve’s lightning fast batterie sur le cou de pied, Joan Boada’s flexed frappés. The corps worked together to create picturesque living sculptures and though there was an unexpected collision on stage, ‘Piano Concerto #1’ also featured a brilliant set of side by side pas de deuxs. Danced by Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets, Frances Chung and Joan Boada, the unison was impeccable. The success of Part III was not just the mere presence of these choreographic details, but how Ratmansky wove them together into something truly grand and magnificent. If ever there was a ballet that fully comprehends the relationship between movement and music, it is Alexei Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy”. 

Pictured: San Francisco Ballet in Piano Concerto #1 from
Ratmansky's "Shostakovich Trilogy"
Photo ©Erik Tomasson

Friday, April 04, 2014

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

presented by
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
April 3rd, 2014
Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in "Times Bones"
Photo: Margo Moritz

2013-2014 has been a celebratory season in Bay Area dance with many companies marking important and historic milestones. Margaret Jenkins Dance Company is certainly one of them; commemorating forty years of contemporary choreography and performance. That kind of artistic longevity is really something and it demands serious and significant recognition. The festivities began with a weekend of performances at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts - the West Coast premiere of 2013’s “Times Bones” and the world premiere of “The Gate of Winds”, a collaboration between Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and Kolben Dance Company.

Structurally, Jenkins’ “Times Bones” is made up of two components: a prelude (which took place in the YBCA Forum space) and the body of the work (which unfolded in the main theater). So to some extent, “Times Bones” was a mobile dance, with the dancers and audience moving from one location to another during the performance. The prelude section was absolutely gorgeous. As the company gathered at one point of a cross-like floor structure, Jenkins sat at the other end, speaking through the company’s history. An audio archive of the past four decades was shared – lists of pieces, participants, collaborators. And the dancers accompanied the text with snippets and excerpts of the referenced work. Jenkins’ remembrance did not occur in chronological or linear order; rather it was an interdependent cluster of time and events. “Times Bones’” opening sequence was an ode to the life work of this Bay Area modern dance pioneer; a visual encyclopedia; a physical autobiography. Ever changing, ever evolving, ever authentic.

As compelling as the prelude was, the main portion of “Times Bones” had some issues. Mobile performance can definitely work, but in this case, moving the entire audience from one space to another broke the cohesiveness of the piece. And it was very difficult to re-connect with the performance in the second space. The remainder of “Times Bones” was a lengthy stream of consciousness, primarily introspective, controlled and almost meditative in its nature. For the most part, the dynamics stayed the same, though from time to time, the choreography varied and crescendoed (including an interesting pseudo-jazz, hip hop phrase). Jenkins’ signature group architecture made for some beautiful cluster designs and the dancers really gave the entire work their all. But at a total of more than ninety minutes, this dance was just too long.

Collaboration in live performance brings with it a host of challenges and opportunities. And making a dance with two different companies (in this case, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and Kolben Dance Company) is particularly unique. Keeping the special-ness of each group is important, yet there is a necessity to move forward together - to learn, grow and stretch boundaries. “The Gate of Winds”, a new collaboration choreographed and directed by Margaret Jenkins and Amir Kolben, got everything right. “The Gate of Winds” is a choreographic dissertation on motion. Whether pedestrian or stylized; unison or solo; allegro or lento; loud or quiet; aggressive or graceful, every type of motion was thoroughly tested and explored. Movement was almost constant onstage, in fact, there were very few instances of stillness in the forty-minute work. A percussive sequence mid-way through the dance deserves a special mention; a collection of phrases where feet, hands, vocals and breath took on a dual purpose: as a living score and the choreography at the same time. And “The Gate of Winds” perpetual motion continued right up until the end. The curtain was slowly lowered, while both companies continued the contemporary choreography, full-out and with abandon.