Monday, December 21, 2015

"Graham Lustig's The Nutcracker"

Pictured: Snowmaidens from
Graham Lustig's The Nutcracker
Photo: John Hefti
Oakland Ballet Company
Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker
Paramount Theatre, Oakland
December 20th, 2015

Sunday afternoon at the grand Paramount Theatre proved yet again that there is so much to love about Oakland. Before a sold-out house, Oakland Ballet closed 2015 with a delightful production of The Nutcracker, choreographed by Artistic Director Graham Lustig and accompanied live by the Oakland Symphony, under the direction of Michael Morgan. This version of the classic Christmas story is a must-see for East Bay dance patrons – intriguing choreography, talented artists and attention to narrative intricacies. At the same time, there is something more steeped in this and every Oakland Ballet performance. History. Lineage. Here is a thriving professional ballet institution that has been part of a city’s artistic landscape for more than fifty years – being in the midst of that legacy is certainly a special and unique experience.  

One of the joys of Nutcracker season is when you see a version for the first time. A new-to-you Nutcracker injects a level of novelty and innovation into the traditional holiday ballet – new design, new choreography, new vision. And this was the first time I had seen Oakland Ballet’s current adaptation. In Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker, the story is told through the eyes of Marie, danced by Ramona Kelley. The tale begins in typical Nutcracker fashion at her family’s home during a festive Christmas Eve party. But as this first scene unfolds, it becomes clear that this Nutcracker is anything but typical. It is memorable. The party is full of lovely choreographic sequences, making it much more dance-y than other productions: Marie and her friends’ series of piqués, pointework and partnering for the parent couples, arabesque allongée for Cousin Vera and her beau (Megan Terry and Nathan Cottam). There is a lot of action onstage, but it never once looked crowded, nor did the dancers ever have to truncate their movements. And the acting was superb. When Marie received and first danced with her Nutcracker doll, Kelley was a picture of pure joy while still maintaining her sparkling footwork.

As Act I continued, Lustig added some distinct marks of continuity. When the Nutcracker evolves from a tiny wooden doll into a full-size being, Lustig choreographed a pas de deux for him to dance with Drosselmeyer. While it was certainly an interesting choreographic moment, it also made so much sense as a plot point. These two characters are connected and linked; they should have a pas de deux together. Though I must say that I was worried throughout that duet and the ensuing battle scene that the head of the Nutcracker’s costume was going to come off prematurely, and that the mice were going to trip on their long tails.

After the battle is won, the Nutcracker does take off his mask and becomes a real-life Prince (danced by Gregory DeSantis). The first interactions between he and Marie were enchanting – shyness built into the parallel bourées; elation in the high lifts and spinning fish dive. Marie and the Nutcracker Prince went on to lead the winter forest scene, which glistened with snowmaidens and fluffy snowballs (and was vocally accompanied by the Mt. Eden High School Women’s Ensemble). Having the main characters reign over and travel through the snow forest was yet another example of Lustig’s attention to continuity. In so many other versions, the couple is absent from the scene or just watching the action on the sidelines. This is their journey and as such, their active participation is a spot-on narrative choice. The snowmaidens skillfully handled the intricate choreography, though the arms did get a little wild from time to time. 

Lustig’s Act II was every bit the ‘Land of the Sweets’ with peppermint candies, gumdrops and bakers greeting Marie and the Nutcracker. And the collection of divertissements that make up the majority of the act brought skill and energy. While some tricky choreographic transitions and lifts proved difficult on Sunday afternoon, there were many standout performances. The Russian variation (led by Emily Kerr and Seyong Kim) was a noteworthy and winning social dance. And instead of what is often a French sequence, Lustig substituted a German variation. This Baroque-style pas de trois was absolutely charming and danced brilliantly by Chloe Slade, Colleen Soltys and Jahmal Chase. Terry, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Cottam, as the Cavalier, sailed through the grand pas de deux with grace and aplomb. Lustig’s combination of lifts, supports and balances coupled with their wonderful partnering kept this part of the ballet (which can lag) moving forward with intensity and spirit.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

San Francisco Ballet - Nutcracker

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 16th, 2015

As the house lights dimmed in the War Memorial Opera House and the orchestra hit the first notes of the overture, an annual holiday tradition was underway – San Francisco Ballet in Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker. In past reviews of this wonderful version of the Nutcracker, I’ve commented on a number of different topics: the progression of the narrative arc, titles roles, specific scenes and Act II’s solo divertissements. What struck me this year was how Tomasson’s Nutcracker really celebrates the entire San Francisco Ballet family. From the school’s students to Principal Character portrayals to corps dancers performing featured roles, Tomasson’s Nutcracker holds the ‘whole’ of this impeccable artistic institution, one brimming with creative and technical acumen.

The special added excitement that comes from opening night pulsed from beginning to end. Act I’s dancing dolls personified that energy and drive, particularly Wei Wang with sparkling parallel sissones and jumps that changed diagonal with the utmost precision. As the Nutcracker Prince, Davit Karapetyan was the picture of courtliness. His first variation defied gravity, soaring through the air with every grand jeté entralace. Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham were wintery perfection as the Queen and King of the Snow. More than any other pair I’ve seen, the two were able to make the transition into the snow scene (which can feel a little abrupt) regally seamless. And Stahl, a soloist in the company, had a fantastic turn in a role often danced by one of the Principals – her final circuit of Russian pas de chats, fouettés and turning relevés were spectacular. By the end of the snow scene, there is quite a blizzard on stage, and this year, there seemed to be some additional weather in the mix. The snow was abundantly falling from above, but it looked like there was wind blowing from the sides of the stage as well, creating blustery circles. Bravi to the entire cast for braving the icy elements!

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Act II’s Spanish pas de cinq, all corps de ballet dancers, was the best I’ve seen. This is a short variation and with five dancers, it can get a little cluttered, but this particular quintet had both technical unity and fitting style. The Arabian trio was equally impressive. Even with difficult turns that end in extended arabesque (and also have very little preparation), Gaetano Amico and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira nailed every single step, and WanTing Zhao shone with serpentine sinuousness. In the Chinese divertissement, Lonnie Weeks brought precision and lightness to the stage. The French pas followed, a lengthy variation for three women, who also have to maneuver hand-held ribbons. Corps members Rebecca Rhodes, Maggie Weirich and Ami Yuki accomplished their task handily, though spacing proved challenging from time to time. And corps dancer Esteban Hernandez led the Russian pas de trois with Francisco Sebastião and Blake Kessler, both apprentices with the company. This sequence has historically had some powerhouse dancers in its leading role (Pascal Molat, Hansuke Yamamoto and more recently Wei Wang) and these three men rose to the occasion, especially when they returned in the reprise section. Hernandez’s opening jump drew elated gasps from the audience.

The Waltzing Flowers sequence (led with beauty and grace at this performance by Sugar Plum Fairy Vanessa Zahorian) is one of the most beautiful scenes in Tomasson’s Nutcracker, full of lovely and charming choreography. While nothing went awry last night, something did seem a little off during the scene. I couldn’t quite figure out what the missing piece was.

As the Nutcracker entered its final chapter, the grand pas de deux, solos and coda claimed the stage. Karapetyan’s variation was truly gallant, in every sense of the word. And though it is still a little strange to see a grown-up Clara (Frances Chung at this performance) dance to the music that bears the Sugar Plum Fairy’s name, the piece is entrancing. Imaginative and unexpected turns and relevés abound and Chung delivered one hundred per cent.     

Monday, December 07, 2015

EmSpace Dance & detour dance

EmSpace Dance & detour dance
NOHspace, San Francisco
Pictured: Eric Garcia, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart & Kat Cole
Photo: Kegan Marling
December 6, 2015

If there was one word that could describe Sunday night, it would be unsettled. The weather in San Francisco was chilly, gloomy and uncertain. It was the perfect backdrop for the evening that would soon unfold at NOHspace in the Mission. In a shared billing, EmSpace Dance and detour dance brought two works, Whether to Weather and Beckon, respectively. Both pieces courageously abide and traverse the unsettled, uncomfortable and sometimes unnerving corners of human relationships.

EmSpace Dance’s Whether to Weather, conceived by Founder/Artistic Director Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and written by Brian Thorstenson, brings unsettled relationships to light by exploring two different journeys. In the thirty-five minute piece, the story of two male romances is told concurrently - one text-based and the other, choreographic. In the piece, the former has been ongoing for some time, while the latter is new and novel.

Whether to Weather begins, not with a duet, but with a gorgeous dance solo, performed by Kegan Marling. A combination of expansive movements - arabesque turns, long attitude poses - meet specific, placed gestures and articulate spinal undulations. Performed to Max Richter’s re-imagining of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (each aspect of the dance relationship is set to one part of this brilliant musical composition), this first dance had a sense joy, yet also a sense of searching.

Whether to Weather toggles back and forth between the two relationships, and following the opening choreographic segment, we meet the second couple. Here are two people existing together in space, but in a very disjointed fashion. Like they are speaking two different languages and neither is able (or maybe even wants to) translate the other’s words. This was apparent whether they were discussing landscaping their home or as they respond to a natural disaster. Most of their relationship is expressed through language, though in the middle of one vignette, the two sing while one plays the accordion. It was both touching and incredibly impressive.  

When the dance couple meets, they engage in a flirty and seductive exchange. But by the next time we encounter them, they have clearly moved to a different phase of their relationship. A tender and connected duet evolves – heads leaning on shoulders, arms intertwined, excited spinning lifts. And in their last pas de deux, the pair have come full circle and appropriated each other’s role from earlier: the searcher has become the seducer and the seducer, the searcher.

As Whether to Weather concludes, both relationships have fractured, though in different ways. The work was thought provoking, engaging and clever. How Stuart wove the two relationships into one work was really quite something.

The unsettled atmosphere continued in detour dance’s Beckon, choreographed by co-Artistic Directors Eric Garcia and Kat Cole, as inappropriate interactions took center stage. An ensemble dance theater work, Beckon explored the notion of ‘uninvited’ – the uninvited guest; the uninvited attention; the uninvited commentary; the uninvited response. While narratively driven, Beckon did not follow a linear story. Instead it progressed as a collection of captivating and often troubling vignettes.

Beckon begins in the pitch black, with the cast singing together, almost meditatively. But quickly that breaks into a unison animalistic movement phrase. Combative, angry, unrelenting and confrontational, it traveled straight towards the audience. The dancers did a fantastic job embodying this difficult primal vocabulary.

What struck me most about Beckon was the imagery. Whether communicated through movement, text or song, strong visceral themes penetrated every moment. Prowling quest for possession; undesired invasion of space; caged leering; glares and stares. Choreographically, flinging motions, syncopated percussive rhythms, and gestures (some like baseball signals) filled the room. And the final pas de deux between Kevin Lopez and Scott Marlowe was a tempestuous struggle, with equal parts fight and volatile passion.

But Garcia and Cole also spoke to the other end of this narrative spectrum. Beckon had moments of calm. A dancer gently placed apples in a line after they had been rolled out to her, bringing order to a chaotic situation. There were moments of camaraderie. A duet where two women gently leaned on each other, keeping a humane point of contact throughout. The entire cast offering their hands to each other; supporting each other in lifts; working together to create shapes in space. While the majority of the material in Beckon definitely (and purposefully) was unsettled, there were these beautiful flashes of respect and kindness amongst the storm.  

Sunday, December 06, 2015


Katharine Hawthorne
ODC Theater, San Francisco
Dec 5th, 2015

Katharine Hawthorne’s newest full-length contemporary dance, Mainframe, is an ensemble work. It has a cast of ten – five dancers and five old-school computers. The computers serve multiple functions throughout the piece - as seats, dance partners, props, set design elements, platforms and companions. And the sixty-five minute piece is all about the convergence of and the intersection between human behavior, machines and technology.

Before the main body of the dance began, Mainframe offered an introductory segment to set the mood. A see-through scrim was hung at the very front of the stage, with columns of light set against the back wall, and four of the five dancers present in the space. Through geometric, linear, pulsating movements and circuits, it felt like the dancers were in a real-life, full-size version of a video game, complete with players, routes and strategies.

Then the scrim dropped to reveal a single, early model computer, bathed in a spotlight and situated directly center stage. Dancer Gary Champi approached this object with equal parts curiosity and cautiousness, a narrative that would inform much of the dance that followed. In this pas de deux of discovery and greeting, he searched for signs of life and reaction in this
Pictured: Suzette Sagisi
Photo © Ben Hersh
rectangular box. And by the end of the initial interaction, we weren’t sure what he thought about this odd new entity. Was he frightened? Was he intrigued? Was he interested? As Champi pondered this addition to his environment, he was joined by the rest of the cast who resurrected the geometric, linear movements from Mainframe’s opening: shape-based poses and mechanized isolations, some almost inspired by puppetry.

Mid-way through the work, Hawthorne devised a series of gestures, each the manifestation of a command. From everyday computer functions to obvious physical instructions to high-level existential directives, it was a fantastic sequence, both conceptually and as performed by the dancers. As Mainframe moved towards its final chapter, one of the computers was taken apart. And the process of dissection revealed a prism of feeling. There was intrigue as to the internal components of the machine. There was disappointment as to what was not found. There was joy in the unexpected.

Choreographically, Mainframe had some stunning and poetic moments. Hawthorne’s work is always incredibly athletic and innovative, but Mainframe took that physicality to a new and exciting level. It was almost as if the suspension and release foundation had received an extra dose of contemporary technique. Multiple relevé phrases found the dancers balancing (at length) on one foot while the working leg shifted from position to position. Turned out grand rond de jambes soared through the space. And this cast was certainly equal to the task.

The dancers’ relationship to one another was another striking force in Mainframe. While they spent ample time in close physical proximity or sometimes even in contact, there was a purposeful distance, disengagement and disconnection. In most instances, it was the computers who were their dance partners, not each other. Seemed a befitting cultural observation – we are so often around others, yet at the same time, completely disassociated. Engrossed and enmeshed in technology rather than in human relationship.

As the lights dimmed on Mainframe, Champi and the computer danced a final duet, steeped in emotion and feeling – the curiosity and cautiousness from the beginning had given way to joyful attachment. While it seemed a hopeful note to end on, I wonder if Hawthorne was challenging the audience with this final image. Was this actually a happy ending? Or did it reveal a void and sadness; a lack of human interaction?

Monday, November 23, 2015

"Raising the Barre"

Book Review
Raising the Barre
by Lauren Kessler
Published by Da Capo Press

It’s the fourth week of November, which in the ballet world means one thing. It is Nutcracker time. Some productions are already underway, while others are entering the final stage of rehearsals. Between now and New Year’s Eve, most national and regional companies will be immersed in this yearly dance tradition.

With the release of Lauren Kessler’s Raising the Barre, published by Da Capo Press, there is a new way, another means by which to experience The Nutcracker. It is an entertaining one; an unexpected one. Raising the Barre chronicles a unique and unusual objective – Kessler sets out to perform in Eugene Ballet Company’s The Nutcracker. While certainly a Nutcracker aficionado, having attended performances year upon year, Kessler, now in “midlife” as she describes it, hasn’t set foot in the ballet studio since she was a preteen. And yet, performing as part of this professional production is her goal. Raising the Barre is the story of her journey.

Journey is an important term here because it is the notion of ‘the journey’ that makes this book special. Raising the Barre isn’t only about Kessler’s journey to the Nutcracker stage, it is about many other related journeys. The exciting ones, the sad ones, the risky ones, the seemingly impossible ones. And it is told through her incomparably funny and sharing voice. Raising the Barre is intimate, in the sense that it is almost written like a journal. But at the same time, it is accessible, relatable and far-reaching. A highly enjoyable read, Raising the Barre is a perfect way to usher in The Nutcracker season.

Raising the Barre begins with a very literal journey. In the first chapter (titled ‘The Binge’), we follow Kessler as she travels to see six different Nutcracker performances: Joffrey Ballet, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Eugene Ballet Company. This trip ignites and re-ignites something deep within the author - a personal journey that Kessler undertakes and describes in the pages that follow. Questions of ‘what’s next’, ‘why is it next’, ‘what do I want from what’s next’ abound.

An array of journeys unfold in the subsequent chapters. The historic journey of The Nutcracker story from dark fable to the world-famous full-length holiday ballet. The gutsy journey of taking something on without knowing how or if it will work out. A journey of significant and varied research; a journey taking stock of ingrained thoughts and beliefs. A journey of meeting new people and building new relationships; a journey of pre-training before stepping foot into a ballet class. The transformative nature of ‘the journey’ leaps from every page.

A little less than halfway through Raising the Barre, Kessler reaches a pivotal point, her journey back to ballet class (a major step towards her ultimate goal of performing in EBC’s The Nutcracker). In this second half of the story, the ‘journey’ theme continues. There is a journey of camaraderie. A four-month log-book where Kessler chronicles her journey of prioritization. A journey to re-define words that have been given too much power; the journey from outsider to insider as she ventures into the ballet company. The realities of learning her assigned role in the ballet; the road to the first performance (which fittingly included an actual bus journey); the joys and perils of dance touring. And in a lovely cadence, Raising the Barre does not end with the first performance of The Nutcracker, but instead concludes after the curtain has fallen on closing night as Kessler sits alone contemplating the past year’s events. The true conclusion of her epic journey.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


Fog Beast
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
November 20th, 2015

This doesn’t happen very often, but last night, I think I might have seen a new performing arts sub-genre. Presented in partnership with Dance Up Close/East Bay at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Fog Beast’s CHANGE was physical theater, but it was more than that. It was performance art, but still, something more. It was mixed discipline, but it was more than that too. CHANGE, conceived by Fog Beast co-directors Melecio Estrella and Andrew Ward with composer Ben Juodvalkis, is a Dance Theater Rock Show. And a really, really good one at that. A smart collection of music, movement and scenework expressed a message of shifting climate realities – done with an appropriate level of seriousness, but also with a healthy dose of fun and parody.

Fog Beast entered the space by walking down an aisle, dressed in white robes; a spiritual, almost religious opening to the work. Immediately, the quintet set about organizing the room, moving the mobile set pieces around, manipulating their environment and taking turns
Photo: Jessica Swanson
at pre-set microphones where they vocalized an array of nature sounds. And then, they suddenly became a full band and offered up a theme song for CHANGE.

Ward ventured away from his post at the drums and began giving a lecture/presentation on water, drought and climate change. After providing one set of facts, the band would punctuate the narrative with a portion of the theme song. A fascinating rondo structure developed between the text and the music (ABACADA), where each presentation slide was the ‘new’ material (the ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’), and the song served as the returning ‘A’ motif. 

Movement-wise, CHANGE utilized a number of different physical vocabularies. There were transitional tableaux – pictures that began in a frozen state and through slow, measured movements, morphed into something different. Swirling motions also informed many of the movement phrases: serpentine arms, spiraling backs and turns that evoked atmospheric water images. Kristen Greco treated the audience to a brilliant scene, in which she became a duck through small reflexive movements. She wasn’t just playing a duck, she was embodying the spirit of a duck, becoming that animal. And three-quarters of the way through CHANGE, Caroline Alexander took an extraordinary turn as a perky, cheerleader-type giving a public service announcement. 

What really blew me away in CHANGE was every Fog Beast performers’ wide-ranging talent. Lots of companies do dance theater and do it well. In their ranks, they may have dancers who are also talented actors. Perhaps they can sing too or even play an instrument. But it’s pretty rare that an entire cast is this highly skilled in multiple disciplines. The musical acumen was particularly strong; every individual in this quintet is an incredibly accomplished instrumentalist, vocalist (there was three-part, if not four-part harmony in a number of spots), and in a few cases, both. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why it felt like CHANGE was a Dance Theater Rock Show. We were watching Dance Theater, to be sure, yet we were also watching an amazing musical ensemble.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

DanceFAR 2015

November 10th, 2015
Pictured: Brett Conway
Photo: Quinn Wharton
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

The term ‘dance gala’ evokes specific images. Stylishly attired patrons; an all-star performance line-up; a penetrating air of celebration – all things you might expect at such an event. Last night’s DanceFAR (Dance for a Reason) was every bit the true gala; each of these elements present and accounted for. But if that’s all you saw, you kind of missed out. What really sets DanceFAR apart is its genuine spirit of giving back. From the opening remarks to the inspired performances, authenticity was woven into every moment of the evening, an evening that benefits CPIC, The Cancer Prevention Institute of California. Margaret Karl, Garen Scribner and James Sofranko have created something special, something different with DanceFAR. This stunning annual gala, which in four years has become a pillar of the San Francisco dance year, is the result of their resolute and committed vision.   

2015’s edition brought together a host of regional dance artists, along with a few special guests, for this spectacular one-night performance. The well-crafted and well-curated program opened with Alonzo King LINES Ballet in the Men’s Quintet from 2008’s The Radius of Convergence. In this dance, two choreographic phenomena are at play - walking in patterns and technical solo sequences – and the five men fluctuate between these two states. Whirling turns of every kind permeated the solo work: pirouettes, attitude front and back. And every structural aspect, including the walking, was lush, elegant and luxurious. Dance writers often use the word ‘breathtaking’ to describe movement, but this was literally breathtaking. As the lights dimmed, you could hear the audience gasp. What an amazing start to the night!

The world premiere of an untitled duet, danced by Garen Scribner and Danielle Rowe, choreographed by Scribner, Rowe and Michelle Fletcher, followed. Two dancers were side by side in large circular pools of light, and began a movement phrase filled with isolations. The choreography was fantastic but it was their changing relationship that really drew me in. First, they seemed to not acknowledge each other, then it looked like they were passing the movement back and forth, and near the end, there was even a unison phrase.

Diablo Ballet took the stage in an excerpt from AnOther, choreographed by Robert Dekkers. The work began in a golden yellow light (design by Jack Carpenter), which slowly brightened to illuminate the seven-member ensemble. Christian Squires’ costume design joined buttoned shirts and suspenders for the men and a variety of springtime dresses for the women. Together these two visuals created a frontier-feel, a suggestion of another time, an earlier one. AnOther seemed narratively driven, though not necessarily following a specific storyline. The seven paired off throughout, but not always with the same partner, revealing a community of people rather than a collection of couples. And their gaze was focused outward, like they were looking for something or someone. In a beautiful moment of stillness, all seven came to the front of the stage and stared aspirationally into the darkness.

Silicon Valley Ballet’s Brett Bauer and Ommi Pipit-Suksun danced the classic pas de deux from Act II of Giselle, one of my personal favorites. While both Giselle and Albrecht are individually featured in Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot’s choreography, this is really Giselle’s variation and Pipit-Suksun delivered. She reached a beautiful end point with each developpé and posé, but the thrill was seeing her move through the transitional space; her journey to every destination.

The second world premiere of the evening was offered by SFDanceworks – Penny Saunders’ Coming To, performed by Garrett Anderson and Adrienne Lipson. This was an intricate duet where the dancers were constantly entwined, even when they weren’t actually touching. As Coming To continued, the movement and dynamics grew stronger and stronger, like they were being fed. And the long diagonal sequence towards the end of the piece was a perfect marriage of choreographic mastery and technical skill.

Closing the first act was San Francisco Ballet in the tango section from Helgi Tomasson’s The Fifth Season (2006). A powerhouse team of principal dancers performed this dramatic, contemporary quartet (Mathilde Froustey, Tiit Helimets, Vitor Luiz and Luke Ingham). The homage to Rubies at the beginning of the ballet is absolutely delightful and the choreography that follows is provocative and fun yet sophisticated and refined.

Act II’s set of four duets, bookended by two group works, continued the marvelous program. Kicking things off was an excerpt from Garrett + Moulton Productions’ The Luminous Edge, which just this summer enjoyed a return engagement after its premiere in the fall of 2014. The juxtaposition of the solo company dancers and the movement choir makes this work stand out, no question. So much happens onstage, but it never feels overwhelming – instead, the space percolates with life, movement and fervor.

Guest artists Stella Abrera and Marcelo Gomes (both principals with American Ballet Theatre) bestowed a sublime pas de deux from Swan Lake. There was so much to love in this duet – technical prowess, narrative complexity, and partnering at its best. Now if Swan Lake had a polar opposite, it was the next performance, a freestyle/hip hop/B-boying duet by Art of Teknique. Everyone was completely enthralled, fascinated and amazed by what these two young dancers could do, and by far, it garnered the strongest and most enthusiastic audience response of the evening.

LEVYdance’s Michaela Burns and Yu Kondo danced Benjamin Levy’s Comfort Zone, an emotionally charged duet that stretched from antagonistic to tender. A large spotlight glowed in the center of the stage; sometimes the dancers occupied that light and sometimes they danced on its periphery. The light certainly had significance, mysterious though it was. But whatever space the pair inhabited, creative choreography abounded.

Another special treat awaited with a pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s Broadway hit, An American in Paris. Scribner, a current cast member, was joined by San Francisco Ballet’s Dores André for this romantic, fairy tale pas de deux. Closing DanceFAR 2015 was part of Amy Seiwert’s recent premiere for Smuin Ballet, Broken Open – a thorough sojourn into ballet vocabulary, its structure, its possibilities, its present and its future.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

JuMP 2015

Photo: Kegan Marling
JuMP 2015
co-presented by FACT/SF and ODC Theater
ODC Theater, San Francisco
October 30th, 2015

The score was made up of ambient street sounds, happening in real-time only two blocks away. Four dancers stood in a line, facing upstage while a fifth approached them from downstage left. Her movements started like a wave, washing over the floor, then as she got closer, morphed into tiny, staccato impulses in the hands, arms, back and head.

These were the opening moments of Still Life No. 3, by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg, and FACT/SF’s 2015 JuMP program. This is the second consecutive year for the commissioning residency, designed to allow dancemakers the opportunity to, as the title conveys, ‘just make a piece’. I love this sentiment; I love the supportive environment it proffers; and I love that a San Francisco contemporary company is fostering this kind of outlet for the choreographic community. This year’s edition joined two new works on a shared program, Simpson and Stulberg’s Still Life No. 3 and spread t h i n, by FACT/SF Founder and Artistic Director Charles Slender-White, both danced by the FACT/SF company artists.

As Still Life No. 3 continued, the soloist joined the line of four dancers and the entire group began moving slowly in unison – pivoting, shifting, taking single steps front and back, heads curving forward and then lifting to the ceiling. Here was an early statement of individuals working together; acting, reacting and sculpting shapes as a whole entity. Then the line fractured and different patterns emerged. Through mechanized walking and held positions, dancers went out on their own, or formed smaller internal groups. After an impressive and slow grand plié in first position, the quintet came back together in a sequence that took its lead from the opening solo – waves plus isolations. And these isolations themselves had an interesting quality and intention, almost with marionette or robotic characteristics. In Still Life No. 3, Simpson and Stulberg are looking at what movement is, how it appears, and how it can be altered. The dance is a complete movement dissertation, at times minimalist and pedestrian, at others, complex and stylized.

The FACT/SF company spent the majority of Still Life No. 3 facing away from the audience. They had on matching dark blazers, but were wearing them backwards. At first, I wasn’t wild about the costumes, but as the dance progressed, I came to realize that not only were they a fitting design, but a genius move on Simpson and Stulberg’s part (who together, also did the costumes). Visually, the choreography and the movement claimed the spotlight – the viewer could completely focus on what the body was doing, and not be distracted by anything else. And the movement/physicality was the point of this dance. The costume design showed inventive and outside the box thinking, and truly served the work well.   

Slender-White’s spread t h i n emerged directly out of intermission; house lights still up, stage glowing, the dancers dressed in all black. In stark contrast to the previous work, the five stood facing the audience and for a long time, were still and just stared. Then together, they moved forward, reciting a phrase in whispered tone while their arms, heads and upper bodies accented certain words. A lengthy circular running segment followed, neither panicked nor frenetic, but certainly charged. It was as if the dancers were communicating a simultaneously polar experience. On the one hand, they knew where to go, but at the same time, seemed a little lost. The narrative of uncertainty read loud and clear. The running was peppered by violent and dramatic collapses, the point of articulation being in the torso. And during the running/collapse motif, five small black boxes with attached balloons were brought out and placed on the stage.

The introduction of the black boxes ushered in spread t h i n’s second major chapter, a floor sequence steeped in body percussion. Dancers came in and out of this movement phrase - sometimes doing the whole series from beginning to end, sometimes in a partial expression, or even changing the choreographic order. And again, there was a narrative struggle being played out; one that posed a question. Should we conform to the collective or branch away on our own?

The black boxes were an intriguing element to the work. After wiggling around them in a protective cradle, the quintet tentatively left them behind. Walking in a yoga-style downward facing dog position, the balloons were now balanced on their backs and the boxes were in the past. What were these boxes? Safety? A place of serenity? Some event from long ago? Maybe none of these; maybe all. As a theatrical tool, they were curious and compelling. I definitely wanted to know more about them and I still want to know.

Otherworldly, mystical and celestial describe the final part of Slender-White’s spread t h i n. The stage went dark, revealing lights on the balloons. The company revisited the first text and movement phrase; after which the balloons floated up and the dancers were lit from above in circular pools of light. In this stunning scene, their bodies moved through space, and time seemed to slow down, at least for a brief instant.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

"Arcane: A Tale of All Hallows' Eve"

Company C Contemporary Ballet in Arcane: A Tale of All Hallows’ Eve
Photo: Jorge Alejandro Gomez
Company C Contemporary Ballet
Arcane: A Tale of All Hallows’ Eve
Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco
October 25th, 2015

It’s been exactly a year and a half to the day since I’ve seen Company C Contemporary Ballet in performance. In that time, the company has gone through a major overhaul, with a shift in its production model being perhaps the biggest change. Instead of a typical fall and spring season, Company C opted to move to a more project-driven system. For the first of these projects, Artistic Director Charles Anderson went all in - Arcane: A Tale of All Hallows’ Eve premiered this weekend at Fort Mason and runs until the 31st.

Arcane is a brand new one-act narrative ballet, a Halloween story by Ben Bowman and Anderson. It is an ensemble work, complete with principal dancers, a corps and a children’s cast. An original score by Mike Krisukas is played by a live orchestra, conducted by Mary Chun; the stage is filled with phenomenal design elements – costumes by Laura Hazlett, lights and scenery by Patrick Toebe. And a narrator, John Hale, frames the action throughout.

The ballet follows the Halloween night sojourn of its title character, Arcane, a celestial being danced at this performance by Phyllis Affrunti. Using dance and text, a collection of short scenes relays her travel - those she meets, the scenes she encounters, the events she creates through her spellbinding forces. She is joined by an astrologer. We are told that he is Arcane’s human proxy, though that part of the story gets a little lost and so the astrologer comes across as more of a traveling companion.

Arcane was a little slow getting going, but by the third vignette, the cast had hit their stride. As Arcane and the astrologer, Affrunti and Taurean Perez did very well, especially navigating their complicated, and sometimes busy, choreography. But the most impressive group of dancers was the corps, who in a single hour had to embody so many different characters (stars, pumpkins, ghouls, skeletons), each with unique choreography and complex costumes. In fact, my favorite variation was the orphan trio of Alice Cao, Alysia Chang and Colleen Soltys. Technically, sharp relevés and échappés met expansive turns and waltz steps. And the three were spot on in their character portrayal.

A number of other standout moments deserve particular mention. As Arcane’s journey occurred over a single night, different clock motifs were crucial to the ballet’s storyline. Anderson’s take on time was incredibly innovative and clever. The light show duet halfway through absolutely thrilled the audience. It was cool and different, but for me, went on a little too long. At the beginning of the Halloween ball scene, there was a lively dance for the entire group – quirky movement side by side with traditional ballet. Though in instances like this one when the whole cast was present, the Cowell Theater stage appeared a bit small. It looked like they didn’t quite have enough room for some of the extensions and traveling steps.

Company C Contemporary Ballet’s Arcane: A Tale of All Hallows’ Eve is entertaining, fun and very fitting for the end of October. Though there are a few darker moments (like the dead bride dance), overall, it is a family-friendly way to access contemporary ballet this Halloween season.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


The Anata Project
Z Space, San Francisco
October 24th, 2015

Z Space was a cozy, intimate haven on Saturday night. Chairs and couches were arranged all over the main floor, right up against the stage. An area rug was marking the center aisle. A perfectly chosen playlist hung in the air. You couldn’t help feeling welcome, at home and relaxed as you walked into the environment. You could disconnect from the outside bustle and be in the room, present in the moment. And that moment was all about The Anata Project’s fifth home season. Comprised of two world premiere works by Founder Claudia Anata Hubiak, the evening paired a short dance film, By My Side with an ensemble contemporary dance composition, HomeBody. For me, the common thread woven throughout the program was the study and expression of group dynamics.

By My Side introduced a couple, danced by Ashlie Kirby and Victor Talledos, in a household setting. On and in front of a black couch, they cycled through an inventive duet full of knowing gestures and playful interactions – tapping each other on the shoulder, embracing, laughing and joyfully dancing all around the room. They were at ease, comfortable and fully known. The hook of By My Side is that you do not realize in its five minutes that Hubiak is portraying a much longer passage of time. Near the end, a pregnancy becomes clear and in the final scene, a baby enters the picture as two become three.

The Anata Project
Photo: Summer Wilson
Then came the main event, HomeBody, an evening length premiere dance. A cluster of performers arranged themselves up left, while a soloist crawled onto the stage, eventually making her way toward the pile of bodies. As the score began pulsating, the group slowly untangled, rolling away from each other, yet still attempting to make contact with their hands. They reached for members of the group and tried to take on each other’s motions. Visually, it felt basal, almost cellular in nature. Scattering and coming together; venturing out and returning back.

HomeBody’s next major section kept this group dynamic going, but added an element of freedom and individualism to the mix. Lively and exciting movement phrases unfolded all over the stage; dancers forming and re-forming in duets, trios and as a full cast. Groupings were on display, and in HomeBody, Hubiak used these different formations as both a structural tool and a narrative one. Group dynamics change and evolve, which leads not only to interesting dance architecture, but an array of conceptual truths, ranging from camaraderie all the way to exclusion.

Exclusion definitely read in the next scene as another soloist took center stage and her whole body began shaking. Everyone else distanced themselves, standing far from her and silently staring. She was the odd one out; the one who’s reality was different than the others. While she wasn’t being purposely excluded, she wasn’t included either. And the silent stares around her spoke volumes about disengagement and grief. A more aggressive section followed, about two thirds of the way through the piece, one where the dancers were experimenting with issues of dominance and control. While it wasn’t at all violent, the intention behind the pushing motifs and flinging lifts definitely felt more pointed. In a beautiful counter, a touching, poignant sequence of support and encouragement emerged – hands gently assisting other dancers as they rolled; an abundance of counterbalanced poses where both parties’ cooperation was required to make the task possible.

And then, a surprise chapter. The company left, all but one lone dancer – the same soloist who had crawled onto the stage at the beginning. Hers was a hauntingly glorious variation, both in choreography and in performance. Themes of remembrance penetrated the movement: reaching out into space and trying to encircle those who were no longer there. One by one, the dancers re-entered the scene and joined her in revisiting the early ideas in HomeBody, scattering and adhering. And in a lovely egalitarian moment, the ensemble ventured into the audience and sat on a couch, together as a group and together with those who had come to share in this moment. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary

Cal Performances presents
Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
October 18th, 2015

Much has been written in anticipation of Twyla Tharp’s 50th Anniversary Tour – diverse, thoughtful and engaging commentary on this dancemaker’s iconoclast status and incomparable contribution to dance and choreography. Now this eagerly anticipated tour is underway. And over the weekend, Tharp and her company visited Cal Performances. Rather than revisiting themes from the already published discussion, it seems right to turn the attention to the dances that are part of this exclusive program.

The afternoon kicked off the first of two preparatory fanfares, with original music by John Zorn. Trumpets sounded and two men simultaneously burst out of the wings in flight. Here was a grand announcement; a true call to witness the splendor of bodies in motion. And there was just the right amount of sass as the brief segment closed.

I wrote more notes during the Bay Area premiere of Tharp’s Preludes and Fugues than I have in a very long time, simply because each of the many vignettes had such a distinct and compelling flavor. Preludes and Fugues is a choreographic tour de force, clever and unexpected, but also a truly beautiful marriage of Tharp’s physicality and J.S. Bach’s music (from the “Well-Tempered Clavier”). Rather than giving a synopsis of each individual scene, a sampling of this unforgettable artistic composition is what follows.

The point of entry into the work was one of delightful familiarity. Tharp opened Preludes and Fugues with a subtle duet to Prelude 1 in C Major. With this well-known Baroque selection, Tharp smartly offered a scene of social dancing. Visually and audibly, this was an initial statement of egalitarianism. Then the gears shifted dramatically as Prelude 2 in C Minor sung through the air. Traditional ballet vocabulary ruled the stage until the presto portion of the piece, when whimsy took a turn in the spotlight. These first moments of Preludes and Fugues were about as different as you could imagine – and the rest of the dance held to that same surprise and excitement.  

Pictured: Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelley,
Nicholas Coppula, and Eva Trapp-Coppula
Preludes and Fugues
credit: Ruven Afanador
In many of the subsequent sections, elements of fugal structure were very apparent in the choreography and staging – representations of the subject, countersubject and answer along with fugal devices like sequence, augmentation, diminution, inversion and retrograde. Dancers entered and exited the canvas at different moments with all types and styles of movement: jerky contractions; flowy waltz steps; tilted, flexed promenades in second position; battement en cloche; boxing gestures. Dynamics ranged from speedy to lush to mechanized. And from time to time, there was a sense that things were emotionally charged. It was a luxurious mélange of textures and an interdependent choreographic immersion.  

The trio formation seemed to be a favorite structure throughout Preludes and Fugues. Mid-way through, three women of the company danced an amazing unison trio – petit allegro mixed with Celtic influences and pivot turn directional shifts. It was some of the best technique of the entire program. Tharp’s expression of Fugue 11 in F Major was spellbinding. This particular key has some edge to it. Even though it is of a major quality, there’s some faint darkness lurking underneath. Tharp set a duet of quiet restraint that adeptly highlighted these dim shadows. Some of Bach’s minor key compositions end with a Picardy third, where the mediant note is raised a half a tone to create a major chord. This happened a number of times in the dance, but in one particular instance, the soloist shuddered right as that major chord struck. It was an extraordinary moment. And the piece closed with a restatement of the first prelude, though the choreography was different. The entire company joined together for a circle dance, and a few of the main movement themes recurred. But what was most striking about this last vignette was the stage patterning. The company looked like stars forming and reforming in gorgeous constellations.

If you have a chance to see Tharp’s Preludes and Fugues, you must take it. Words and descriptions are fine, but they cannot do this dance justice. It really is a masterwork by a master artist.  

The Second Fanfare was completely different from the first. A red glowing scrim was the centerpiece, which the company appeared both in front of and behind. Through this brief prologue, an eccentric group of characters was introduced, like the opening credits of a large production.

Yowzie was that larger work and it spanned a number of decades and eras. The music was early American jazz; the scenic backdrop had a 1980s graphic style to it; and the costumes crossed the hippie/bohemian generations with circus stylings and even a little of today’s hipster culture. The choreography was quite varied, but generally, Yowzie felt hard-hitting and show stopping. And it was packed with humor that veered toward the campy and farcical. 

As much as I loved Preludes and Fugues, I found Yowzie to be a bit of a mixed bag. And this wasn’t a reaction to the very different styles of the two works. Both dances were full of rich artistic material, though in Yowzie, the visuals got a little overwhelming. Just too much happening all at once. The characterizations were also a little hit or miss. For the most part, the company did a great job of bringing their zany characters to life. But there were a few that looked a little confused. Now maybe they were just playing a character that exists in that state of uncertainty. Totally fine. But if that was the case, it didn’t read particularly well or clearly from the stage.

Having said that, Yowzie had moments of real brilliance and sheer joy, which is why for me, it was a mixed bag. The male Burlesque duet (John Selya and Ron Todorowski) was phenomenal. Complete with mimed make-up applications, some warm-up burpees, and spot-on dancing, what a wonderful scene! Matthew Dibble’s featured solo brought together sexy old-school jazz with some well-placed hip-hop and acrobatics. Savannah Lowery and Kaitlyn Gilliland’s turning series was lavish and impressive, especially with the large black hats they were wearing. And when the entire cast returned to the stage in the final segment, there was a choreographic party like no other.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer"

Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer
by Jack Walsh
screened at the 2015 San Francisco Dance Film Festival

I remember the first time I saw Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A. It was postmodern week of an undergraduate dance history class. The reading had included basic survey information on Judson Dance Theater – who the main participants were, when it occurred, where the performances took place and what the collective had produced. The week’s lecture touched on much of that same material and then the old movie reel version of Trio A was screened and discussed. While most of my classmates were in awe after viewing this piece of choreography, I was confused and didn’t understand it at all. Why did they love it so much? Were they just reacting to the fact we had been told it was a seminal piece of postmodern dance? Or had I missed something, something really important?

Years later and after much study, I know that I had missed something. On that day, I had a general sense of ‘the who, when, where and what’ that was Judson Dance Theater. But I did not have any of ‘the how’ nor ‘the why’. And I needed some of that context to both understand the work and appreciate its contribution.

It would have been amazing if a film like Jack Walsh’s Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer, recently screened as part of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival’s 2015 line-up, had been part of that first conversation. While it is not meant as a comprehensive history of Judson Dance Theater or postmodern dance, Feelings Are Facts provides that necessary and first-hand context to understand the postmodern period in dance history (specifically some of ‘the how’ and ‘the why’). And it does so by following the trajectory of one particular artist: Yvonne Rainer. A chronology of Rainer’s journey, the documentary combines archival documents, video footage and personal interviews. All this comes together to give a deeper insight into a creative mind and spirit; one that helped change the face of artistic form, structure, content and composition.

The timeline of the film is somewhat unconventional and non-linear, though with it being about Rainer, perhaps that is how it should be. It jumps around from era to era, and from Rainer’s professional experience to her personal life.

Walsh begins Feelings Are Facts with early footage of Rainer dancing her 1966 work, Trio A. Interspersed in these first few minutes are responses to the work from a number of dancers, choreographers, practitioners and scholars. Folks like Rainer, Steve Paxton and Wendy Perron (among others) speak about what Trio A was, what it meant and what it did for the field. After that initial introduction, Walsh heads back in time to when Rainer moved New York to become a dancer. He takes us through Rainer’s discovery of the New York arts scene to her experimentation with different dance techniques to the composition class that
Yvonne Rainer in the "Bach" section of Terrain (1963)
Yvonne Rainer, Judson Memorial Church, New York, 1963
Photo: Al Giese
birthed Judson to the heyday of the Judson Dance Theater. Walsh also references a number of amazing choreographic excerpts (some, recent reconstructions) from that rich time of dancemaking: Three Satie Spoons, Chair/Pillow, Three Seascapes. Onto the late 1960s/early 1970s and the Grand Union project. I’d only ever seen still photographs of Grand Union, so it was really something to see live video from that time. Next, Walsh tracks Rainer’s transition into film and cinema, and in the middle of Feelings Are Facts, goes back to the very beginning – Rainer’s childhood and adolescence. Then we timehop again to when Rainer returned to dance, choreography and performance. And in a lovely cadence, Feelings Are Facts concludes with a recent example of Rainer in Trio A.

Because it doesn’t follow each decade in chronological order, Feelings Are Facts feels a little like a collage, pieces of interdependent material overlaid and superimposed into a larger structure. Walsh has made a great film – educational and accessible while engaging and entertaining. And with each year’s collection of short and feature-length films (like Feelings Are Facts), the San Francisco Dance Film Festival is continuing to forge a legacy of curating excellence.