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.