Saturday, March 28, 2015

Empty Spaces

Pictured: Erin Kohout
Photo: Rogelio Lopez
Rogelio Lopez & Dancers
Empty Spaces
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
March 27th, 2015

The Dance Up Close/East Bay performance series has a long history of showcasing work from this region’s best emerging choreographic talent. And their current program, Rogelio Lopez & Dancers’ Empty Spaces, is no exception. For this, his first full-length evening of contemporary dance, Lopez went all in, presenting four simultaneous physical meditations in a single program.  

The sold-out audience was divided up and assigned one of four separate rooms. In each of these spaces, a distinct modern dance installation unfolded. Performers entered one studio, engaged in Lopez’s choreography for that space, then exited and moved onto another space to participate in an entirely different variation. An abundance of comings and goings made for a very organic and fluid atmosphere and a perfect portrait of the impermanence that fuels human interaction.

As you walked into Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, the mood was haunting. Not haunted, but haunting. A dark space; luminaries perched in the lobby; a background score of rushing wind. As Empty Spaces began, two women communicated a complex duet, equal parts intimate and bleak. Lit by handheld flashlights, the pas de deux was full of instances where they were forcing each other’s movements. And it was purposefully emotionless, almost stoic - clearly together in the space, but also very detached from each other. This distance was palpable even when they embraced. What a poetic environment Lopez had created – the pair was as close as could be and completely far apart at the same time. As other dancers joined the scene, contact improvisation style lifts made their way into the physical vocabulary. Even though that type of partnering calls for camaraderie, support and awareness, these sequences still felt confrontational. But mid-way through Empty Spaces, there was a turning point, during a women’s trio. The haunting nature of the piece still percolated but a tenderness also started to appear; a softer connection. This carried through to the end of the forty-five minute work, where embraces began to take on a newfound affection. And the final group sequence fed off this duality. What began as a unison set of swinging and circular motifs quickly fragmented like a turning kaleidoscope into various duets and trios.

Two through lines were present in Lopez’s Empty Spaces. Choreographically, no matter what step, what style or what dynamic, the movement always extended beyond. Beyond the fingers, beyond the toes, beyond the top of the head, beyond the solar plexus. The choreography was not about the endgame or making a specific shape, rather, it was a journey of continual energy and a pathway of growth. Narratively, Lopez revealed that the notion of something being ‘haunting’ exists on a spectrum. The term does not have a single point of definition, and while it often feels negative, it isn’t always that. Instead, it is a complicated and fluctuating idea with a wider interpretation. Haunting experiences can absolutely be foreboding, hopeless and traumatic. But others may be more of a mystical and unforgettable nature. And Empty Spaces demonstrated that on occasion, some may even contain a little ounce of grace.     

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


ODC/Dance presents
ODC/Dance Downtown
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
March 22nd, 2015

ODC/Dance marked its 44th home season with the annual yearly program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, ODC/Dance Downtown. Weekend one welcomed the return of last year’s boulders and bones, choreography by Brenda Way and KT Nelson, while the second weekend brought a set of world premieres – Nelson’s Dead Reckoning and another Way/Nelson collaborative project, The Invention of Wings.

The curtain rose on Dead Reckoning to immediately erupting action, like the start of a race. Dancers turned, jumped and dived around the stage in a swirl of movement, resembling fireworks. Legs kicked outward and arms pushed through space; Nelson’s choreographic vocabulary an unexpected combination of punchy and sculptural. Dead Reckoning reads as an A-B-A structure, with a fast, slow, fast section breakdown. Throughout each of these chapters, the motion was continuous; every instant feeding seamlessly into the next. By avoiding stops and starts, Nelson connected the dance’s sub-sections and kept the forward motion going. While that connectedness and continuity was a great achievement in Dead Reckoning, the middle section (the slow one) had its challenges. The movement intention definitely carried through and it had some beautiful solos (particularly by Jeremy Smith, Josie G. Sadan and Katherine Wells) but the functionality and purpose of this lengthy meditation was unclear. In the last movement of Dead Reckoning, we were treated to a pas de deux, danced by Natasha Adorlee Johnson and Joseph Hernandez, one of ODC’s most exciting pairings. Their pas de deux was brief, but these two dancers are simply electric when they are on stage together. Design-wise, lime green ‘snow’ (concept by ODC company dancer Yayoi Kambara) was utilized during the whole dance – falling from the rafters and from the hands of the dancers. By the end of Dead Reckoning, the stage was bathed in this snow, reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Carnations.

Way and Nelson’s The Invention of Wings starts with a prelude of sorts. With the house lights still up and the audience filing in from intermission, a long ream of white paper is rolled out on the stage from upstage to downstage. On one end, dancers were writing on the paper and at the other end, dancers were ripping off pieces, crumpling them into balls and placing them into a wire birdcage. Right from the start, there was a feeling of impermanence; something being created and them immediately being erased. The Invention of Wings is strong, rich and diverse from a design perspective. With light/scenic design by Matthew Antaky and visuals by Ian Winters and RJ Muna, something new and
Pictured: Corey Brady and Natasha Adorlee Johnson
Photo: RJ Muna
theatrical was constantly arising. Blood red fabric panels, men in black skirts being wheeled around the stage, numbers being painted on backs, a torn and fragmenting video screen, giant falling ribbons, figures clad in large white paper, a dancer rising out of the pit with a giant, flowing skirt. Even a leaf blower made an appearance. Events and scenes were constantly shifting and evolving, which again spoke of the initially established impermanence as well as the notion of the unexpected. Sometimes The Invention of Wings felt like a religious ritual; sometimes, a boy-band performance. Sometimes there was amplified vocalization and counting; sometimes a comment on corporeal presence. Putting all these ideas into the same piece can totally work; collage and layering can be very powerful in performance. But at the same time, with an abundance of different elements, it can be difficult for a dance to find its true identity. This core essence did prove elusive for The Invention of Wings.     

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Joffrey Ballet

Cal Performances presents
Joffrey Ballet
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
March 15th, 2015
by Heather Desaulniers

The Joffrey Ballet has a signature look, or maybe it’s more accurate to say a signature style. Fusion ballet. Fused genres sometimes get a bad rap because the term implies that two styles are simply being meshed together. But ever since Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe in 1973, The Joffrey Ballet has proven time and again that fusion ballet works. It is a distinct mix of traditional, classical elegance and edgy, contemporary surprise. And The Joffrey Ballet’s recent engagement at Cal Performances confirmed that they do fusion ballet better than anyone.

Val Caniparoli’s Incantations was full of geometric curves – from the costumes and spiral hanging lights (both designed by Sandra Woodall) to the abundance of upper body curves in the choreography. When Aaron Smyth was on stage, it was impossible to take your eyes off him, especially in the middle section of the ballet. His jump sequence had height, ballon and technical accuracy, but the landings! Not only did his heels fully meet the ground after every jump, the landings were silent. No sound whatsoever. Caniparoli’s choreography was spot on throughout Incantations, including a lovely pas de trois three quarters of the way through. There was just one puzzling moment. Toward the end of the piece, an African dance motif popped up in one of the men’s solos. The movement itself wasn’t puzzling, but the fact that it was only used twice and introduced so late in the game made it seem out of place.

Up next was Stanton Welch’s Son of Chamber Symphony, a three-part work that the Joffrey originally premiered back in 2012. The first movement was by far the best of the bunch - the music, lighting design and choreography conjuring a life-size chess game. The queen was present in this chapter along with five pawns. Each dancer got a chance to solo, showing what they could do as individuals, and through duets and group sequences, what they could accomplish as a collective. Unfortunately, the second and third movements lost this whimsy, and the forward momentum of the work stalled. Jeraldine Mendoza and Miguel Angel Blanco danced the second movement’s lengthy duet. Mendoza and Blanco both have significant technical and artistic acumen, but visually, they made a rather curious pair. And though Travis Halsey’s costume design showed some out-of-the-box thinking, the armpit cutouts on the men’s wardrobe were an odd choice and not very flattering. After a brief pause, Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili took the stage in the stunning pas de deux from Yuri Possokhov’s Bells – a meditation of dynamic highs and lows, choreographic simplicity and complexity, sweet moments alongside dramatic interactions.

The Joffrey Ballet’s Cal Performances program closed with creative gusto as the company took the stage in Alexander Ekman’s Episode 31. A solo dancer (dapperly attired in a suit) turns on a lamp downstage left, and begins to walk in slow motion across the front of the stage. The curtain periodically rises and falls revealing the rest of the cast looking part punk youth culture part futuristic restaurant staff (Luke Simcock’s costumes being a wild combination of black and white). Ekman’s choreography was equally diverse with ballet, tap, modern and calisthenics. And so was the mood and energy – a meditative section would morph into pandemonium; hysteria would halt to become stillness. As the first dancer continued his slow motion route around the edge of the stage, the curtain remained open revealing the fullness of the party scene. A community of folks working together, enjoying each other and celebrating life. As the suit finishes walking the perimeter, he turns off the lamp and Episode 31 is over. Why was he there? What was his function? Was he just an observer? Did he want to be part of the action? Was he trying to box in those who are unconventional? None of these questions were answered, and that is why Episode 31 is truly a great dance.

Pictured: Derrick Agnoletti and Aaron Rogers in Ekman's Episode 31
Photo: Cheryl Mann

Monday, March 16, 2015


Passion, Intrigue, Drama
ODC Theater, San Francisco
March 13th, 2015

This past weekend, sjDANCEco traveled north for its first ever San Francisco season. And the takeaway from their Passion, Intrigue, Drama program at ODC Theater is that dance theater is itself a diverse genre. There is multi-media/new media dance theater; collaborative interdisciplinary dance theater; absurdly obscure dance theater; and there is dance theater where the movement tells an accessible story of humanity and human interaction. Passion, Intrigue, Drama was a lovely reminder of this last style.  

A dive bar from decades past; drinking glasses strewn about; patrons in various stages of dishevelment; tables and chairs in disarray. This is the scene as Maria Basile’s Tango Fatal (2013) begins (scenario by Lorenz Russo). The bartender (played by Daniel Helfgot) immediately comes forward and begins introducing the cast of characters that frequent this particular establishment. Starting the work with this context was not only very entertaining, but also incredibly helpful – we knew who the characters were, a bit of their history and how they were related to each other. Program notes and gestural mime are just not quite the same. By no means were we given a complete biography, but it was a starting point, a place from which the dance could develop. It was a genius move, especially because the torrid, charged character connections are the heart and crux of this piece. Even though Tango Fatal is a fairly new work, it has a bit of a ‘throw-back’ feel to it, like it had been plucked out of an old Hollywood movie musical. Basile opted to primarily stick with contemporary movement phrases and variations with just a splash of tango and ballroom. The eight-member cast gave their all and, with the exception of a few awkward lift sequences, it was a great start to the night.   

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, José Limón’s 1949 masterwork, The Moor’s Pavane tells a story of desire, deception and despair. Four characters - the Moor, his wife, his friend and his friend’s wife – cycle through a set of elegant court dances, while a devastating narrative simultaneously unfolds. And that juxtaposition of regal appearance and evil reality informs the entire ballet. Many dance companies have The Moor’s Pavane in their repertory and much has been written about the piece since its premiere more than sixty years ago. So what sets one rendition apart from the others? The most successful iterations pay equal attention to each of the four characters. As the piece opens, the first image is of all four standing connected in a small circle center stage. It is clear from the start that their journey is intertwined and interrelated, with each having an equal role to play as it unfolds. sjDANCEco’s award-winning reconstruction (by Gary Masters and Raphaël Boumaïla, who also danced the Moor) is all about exploring these characters individually and as a collective group. This version is the real deal. The entire cast should be credited for communicating the storyline with their committed movement and extensive dramatic range, though a few of the big extensions did prove challenging balance-wise.

Monday, March 09, 2015

San Francisco Ballet - Program 3

San Francisco Ballet
Program 3
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
March 7th, 2015

The curtain rose at the War Memorial Opera House to reveal a black backdrop outfitted with a single strand white arc. Two couples costumed in solid-colored unitards entered stage right and began a short set of choreographic etudes. Beautiful, complete and brief, each excerpt was like a short conversation, full of intricate details – a flexed standing foot on the arabesque slides; a supported pirouette where the foot descended from passé to coupé. With this stark, clean and uncluttered statement from Hans van Manen’s “Variations for Two Couples” (2012), closing night of San Francisco Ballet’s third program (a quadruple bill) was underway.

Up next was Williams Forsythe’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” (1996), an exciting pas de cinq danced by Julia Rowe, Sofiane Sylve, Vanessa Zahorian, Carlo Di Lanno and Gennadi Nedvigin. As the title suggests, “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” was all about dizzying precision: constant motion, abrupt directional changes, dramatic shifts of weight. And the cast delivered one hundred percent on this complex equation. From big en dedans/en dehors turning sequences to subtler meeting of the hands in partnering, everything was right on point. As the only corps member in this particular cast, Rowe deserves special mention. She is full of fresh energy and inspired technique and can handily hold her own amongst the company’s soloists and principals.

Act II brought the only world premiere work of the evening, “Manifesto” by San Francisco Ballet corps dancer Myles Thatcher. A full cast piece set to J.S. Bach, “Manifesto” is a noteworthy physical essay. While choreographically commenting on dynamics, structure and form, it also reads like a contemporary, twenty-first century court dance. Thatcher is a choreographer to watch – he has a mindful, delicate approach to space while still harnessing passion, accent and surprise. In the ballet’s exposition, this rare combination
San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's "Manifesto"
Photo© Erik Tomasson
played out in some lovely pas de trois moments between Jennifer Stahl, Sean Orza and Steven Morse. With his authentic joy, integrated stage presence and the technique to back it all up, Morse continues to distinguish himself at SFB. The middle section of the ballet expanded previously introduced material – adjusting it, pushing it beyond its limits and dismantling expectations. Hansuke Yamamoto and Dores André made the most sublime pair during this development chapter; their pas de deux stretching into one long legato phrase. The ensemble returned to the stage for the stunning finale of “Manifesto”, a picturesque tapestry of shapes, positions and diverse motion.

Program three concluded with “The Kingdom of the Shades” scene from Act II of “La Bayadère”, choreographed and staged by Natalia Makarova (after Marius Petipa). With Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in the leading roles, everything was grand, classical and regal. Turning sequences from both (Kochetkova’s piqué posés and Walsh’s fouettés) wowed the audience; it was some of the best technical dancing of the night. After recovering from a couple of rough patches, the featured Shades variations also delighted. And the women’s corps de ballet outdid themselves with their attention to detail. In last season's third program, the extension heights varied quite a bit in this famous scene. But in program three 2015, all twenty-four women were in sync; working together as a team.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

San Francisco Ballet - Program 4

San Francisco Ballet
Program 4
War Memorial Opera House
February 28th, 2015

The double bill format is a rarity at San Francisco Ballet, with most mixed repertory evenings (at least over the past five years) featuring three separate dances. But fewer works does not mean less breadth or diversity. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and his creative team crafted a fabulous fourth program that reflected both classical and contemporary ballet - Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” (1969) and Liam Scarlett’s “Hummingbird” (2014). And San Francisco Ballet is a company of dance artists who are not only well versed in each tradition, but as this program demonstrates, they excel at both. 

Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in Robbins' "Dances at a Gathering"
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” was and is a breathtaking masterwork of elegance, exuberance and grace. Set entirely to Frédéric Chopin’s music (played by the brilliant Roy Bogas on piano), this lengthy one-act ballet suite is a true collaboration between 20th century neoclassical movement and 19th century Romantic music. While there are many tenets and conventions associated with the Romantic era in music, one of the most fascinating is the player’s interpretation of the score. Individuality was of utmost importance; personality and virtuosity celebrated and encouraged. Robbins took these themes and in “Dances at a Gathering”, infused traditional ballet vocabulary with the unexpected; instances of sheer delight and surprise. Amongst the collection of solos, duets, trios, and full cast sequences, standout moments included Vanessa Zahorian’s chaîné turns on demi-pointe, Maria Kochetkova’s side split that folded into a double passé, Davit Karapetyan’s double tours en l’air that landed in a grand plié, Mathilde Froustey and Vitor Luiz’s series of grand jetés that traveled backwards and the jump combination that toggled back and forth between sissones and soubresauts. Even the structure of “Dances at a Gathering” was atypical. Rather than beginning with an ensemble variation, it began with a captivating solo by Joseph Walsh. And though the ending did feature the entire cast of ten, it was a quiet scene of community. A serene finale of walking through space together, moving through a shared port de bras, bowing and curtseying in reverence, bidding each other farewell.  

Scarlett’s “Hummingbird” made quite a splash when it premiered last April at San Francisco Ballet, so it was no surprise that the contemporary piece was back for a return engagement this season. Saturday night’s cast was almost the exact group that I saw last year, and thus, many of my initial thoughts were the same. Rather than repeat that discussion, it seemed more useful to turn toward things I hadn’t previously mentioned. First, the visuals. John Macfarlane’s scenic and costume design for “Hummingbird” is quite stunning. A large black and white painted sheet scrim hangs from the theater rafters and meets a floor ramp. This scrim moves and transforms the space throughout the ballet, almost appearing as if it is rolling. The ramp converts the upstage space into an entrance and exit option, and when Scarlett uses that ramp during “Hummingbird”, it looks like figures are appearing out of nowhere. All the costumes are simple, in muted grays, blues, steels, charcoals and whites, which fits the piece perfectly. With “Hummingbird’s” constant sculptural motion, having busy costumes would take away and pull focus from what was happening on stage. Onto some choreographic observations. Last year I commented that on occasion, some of the partnering looked a little awkward. That was definitely different this time around. Without compromising the passion and power of Scarlett’s choreography, the transitions were better and as such, the positions looked clearer. And I noticed an important choreographic moment that I had completely missed before. Yuan Yuan Tan quickly boureéd backwards across the front of the stage, flat-footed. An instance of fluttering, perfect for a ballet with the title “Hummingbird”.