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.      


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mary Armentrout Dance Theater

“fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”
Z Space, San Francisco
September 13th, 2014

Post-modern choreography has always sought to take risks, avoid stagnation and challenge the status quo. Fifty years post-Judson, twenty-first century post-modern choreographers still continue this forward propulsion, seeking new understandings of dance, choreography and theatricality. But they are going about it in a different way, and they are onto something big. Many of post-modernism’s primary tenets remain – egalitarianism, non-conformity and blurring the lines between life and art – but there is a renewed sense of direction. Conventional dance performance models can work within this ethos. Attention to content and meaning does not take away from the attention to form and structure. Story is valid and good. This isn’t a new stylistic hybrid; it is not post-modernism-lite. This is post-modern dance for the twenty-first century.

“fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”, Mary Armentrout Dance Theater’s newest performance installation, is a great example of twenty-first century post-modernism. Through video, text phrases, dance, props and scenework, Armentrout has crafted a piece that is avant-garde, thinks outside the box, and blurs the space between life and art while still being relatable. And the narrative is perhaps the work’s most important feature. “fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together” is about love and relationships, about their permanence and transience, and the search for understanding in the context of that partnership.

Keeping to true fantasia form, Armentrout opted for a unique structural format – a prologue followed by four chapters. The prologue unfolded in Z Space’s lobby while the crowd milled about prior to the performance. Cozy arrangements of couches, tables, and chairs were scattered around the large industrial space (an interesting juxtaposition of elements in itself), and the audience was invited to experience the videos at each of the stations. Non-conformity was the post-modern element at play seeing as how the audience had to make the choice to opt in and participate. We were not being guided around, nor was the video loud enough to take focus. It was genius – right from the beginning, the audience was an active participant, making the decision to engage (or not) in the work.

Then we moved into the theater for the four main chapters of the performance, starting with ‘in the still of the night’, a duet for Armentrout and Rogelio Lopez. Visually, this pas de deux was about as vulnerable as you could get – both dancers weren’t wearing anything. The choreography was completely real, filled with tender, affectionate movements. From the very subtle when their heads rested against each other to the more complicated acrobatic balances, the dance was all about genuineness and authenticity. And the physical vocabulary was compelling in its structural integrity and for its narrative implications – form and content were never at odds; instead, they were simpatico.

Repetition, movement and character dimensions were all highlighted in the second section of “fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”, ‘love is like a string’. Both in person and on video, multiple performers appeared representing different personality traits of the two main characters, while Armentrout explored, through text and movement, what it means ‘to know’ in a relationship. Next up was episode three, ‘talking heads’, where the mundane and the bizarre collided in a deliciously creative (and revealing) fashion. Armentrout and Lopez played out a typical everyday conversation between two partners – how was your day, what are we going to have for dinner, etc. But instead of speaking to each other, they spoke into individual video cameras; their faces simultaneously projected onto chairs, hanging high above the stage. Here was a profound comment on the fluidity of attention and how detachment can easily become part of the picture even when two people are physically in the same place.

In ‘darkness monologue’, the final movement of Armentrout’s “fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”, the audience was asked to move onto the main stage space. Pillows and chairs were provided and we were instructed to get comfortable and listen to an auditory meditation while the room went dark. Egalitarianism reigned supreme in this section as the viewer once again took on a participatory role. Yes, we were listening to Armentrout’s voice relaying her own personal journey. Yet, being physically present in and on the stage space had a very dramatic effect. Each individual was transported into the center of the performance experiment and invited to experience the words on their own terms – maybe they remained an observer; maybe they related to the story. It was a powerful, egalitarian and authentic cadence to this twenty-first century post-modern fantasia.