Friday, December 16, 2016

"The Christmas Ballet"

Smuin Dancers in
Ben Needham-Wood's White Christmas
Photo: Keith Sutter
The Christmas Ballet
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
December 15th, 2016

Social court dance, contemporary and traditional ballet, percussive rhythmical choreography, jazz, musical theater, comedy – together these genres make up 2016’s edition of Smuin’s The Christmas Ballet. With twenty-nine short vignettes split between two acts, this annual revue-style program speaks to range: the possibilities that exist within the performance and movement arts; the depth of talent and creativity within this iconic troupe; and a breadth and scope of choreographic vision, with work by company founder Michael Smuin, Choreographer-In-Residence Amy Seiwert, and current dancers Nicole Haskins, Ben Needham-Wood and Rex Wheeler. And in the midst of some particularly stormy weather, The Christmas Ballet brought warmth, fun and festivity to a very full house for the San Francisco opening Thursday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

As is their custom, Smuin started the night with the ‘Classical Christmas’ collection, an elegant, regal and well-curated mix of dance and music. Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Jonathan Powell delighted in Seiwert’s Noel Nouvelet, a sublime duet grounded in classical ballet technique, yet filled with unexpected twists, counter-balanced tilts and a significant use of demi-pointe. As always, Haskins sparkled in Smuin’s Zither Carol, a waltzy solo with balances that go on forever. For Unto Us A Child Is Born, another excerpt by Smuin, impressed with its celebratory nature, huge lifts, fast footwork, broad arabesques and emboîté turns. New company artists Valerie Harmon and Benjamin Warner led this dance with such grace and technique – their opening pas de deux, an absolute inspiration. With an array of contretemps and pas de basques, Wheeler’s We Three Kings (world premiere) has positioned itself to be a mainstay in The Christmas Ballet. This music shares a story of traveling, of a journey, and Wheeler aptly captured that narrative through dance, movement, patterning and stage architecture. And ‘Classical Christmas’ closed with Haskins’ buoyant, jubilant full cast work, Joy To The World.

Act II’s ‘Cool Christmas’ is packed with audience favorites: Santa Baby, Christmas Island and guest artist and former Smuin company dancer Shannon Hurlburt in the Celtic tap extravaganza, Bells of Dublin. Seiwert’s River, the second world premiere on the program, communicated a range of emotions. This dramatically charged, lyrical duet (danced by Yarbrough-Powell and Robert Kretz) was all about change and shifting directions with its beautifully orchestrated turns and lifts. One of the closing sequences was particularly memorable - Yarbrough-Powell facing Kretz in a fifth position lift just slightly off the floor, the pair spinning in a circle. Haskins’ new choreographic offering, J-I-N-G-L-E Bells, brought together nostalgic social dance and contemporary ballet. There was even a humorous nod to the famous swan cygnet variation from Swan Lake. Traditionally ‘Cool Christmas’ concludes with Smuin’s wintery White Christmas. This year, Needham-Wood premiered a re-imagined version of Smuin’s finale, one brimming with community, joy and a hybrid of choreographic styles. And the snow still fell both onstage and in the center orchestra!

I’ve remarked in the past that perhaps some editing, in terms of how many different scenes are in each act, would be helpful. This year I didn’t feel that way at all - 2016’s production was very well designed and organized by Smuin’s artistic team. With the exception of a couple of slow moments in the second half, the program had great forward motion and was thoroughly engaging.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

San Francisco Ballet - Nutcracker

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 10th, 2016

Snowflakes and sugar plums; magic and merriment – all await at San Francisco Ballet’s splendid Nutcracker, which just began its 2016 engagement on Saturday evening. Choreographed by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, this Nutcracker has it all: a forward moving narrative arc, character depth and development, thoughtful choreography, innovative artistic choices and formidable dancing. And while the Nutcracker certainly provides a meeting of holiday lore and classical ballet, Clara Stahlbaum’s journey is also a reminder of the porous space between reality and fantasy.

Act I takes its audience to the Stahlbaum family home on Christmas Eve, a space replete with all the excitement and wonder that this special evening holds. Amidst the lights, tree, gifts and fellowship, the aura of celebration and anticipation is palpable. Uncle Drosselmeyer (Rubén Martin Cintas at this performance) arrives with captivating mystery, and of course his masterful tricks and illusions. He awakens three life-size dolls to entertain the children – a jester character (Myles Thatcher) with his lithe developpés and splits; a princess doll (Lauren Parrott) with her single-footed relevés and boureés; and a Nutcracker Prince (Hansuke Yamamoto) with his parallel pas de chats and tours en l’air. The party concludes, the guests depart and everyone in the Stahlbaum residence turns in for the night. That is, until Clara (Anna Javier) comes downstairs looking for the Nutcracker doll that Drosselmeyer had given to her, and ends up falling asleep on the chaise lounge. In the moments and scenes that follow, a parallel dimension/dream world descends. Orchestrated by Drosselmeyer, furniture and surroundings transform and grow; a battle is fought between mice and toy soldiers; the Nutcracker Prince (danced by Carlos Quenedit, a cast change due to another dancer’s injury) comes to life. And during the battle scene, Alexander Reneff-Olson stole the show as the King of the Mice; his was one of the best interpretations I have ever seen, not just in this production of Nutcracker, but in many others as well. Bravo.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Act I closes with the glorious snow scene, my favorite part of the entire ballet. As Queen and King of the Snow, Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno were sublime. In the opening sequence, their unison work was spot on, and they had such suspension and release as they moved through the delicate lifts. The corps de ballet (which is always an ever-changing entity) looked great – a solid and cohesive team. And Froustey’s fouettés were a thing of technical and artistic magnificence.

Act II continues Clara’s magical sojourn to a vibrant world of diverse characters, variations and divertissements, all under the command of the Sugar Plum Fairy (an inspired performance by Sofiane Sylve). The Spanish pas de cinq handily and musically delivered their brief but complicated offering; the French trio keenly maneuvered their choreography while simultaneously managing the sometimes uncooperative ribbon wands. WanTing Zhao, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Anthony Vincent (all soloists with the company) gave an intoxicating interpretation of the Arabian pas de trois - sinuous, stretchy and sensual. But the off-center stage spacing was a little curious at times. It was unclear whether this placement was purposeful or not, though it certainly did not detract from their impassioned performance. The audience favorite Russian trio (led by Wei Wang with Benjamin Freemantle and John-Paul Simoens) delighted with acrobatic leaps, rhythmical musings and textbook unison. And Francisco Mungamba’s Chinese variation was definitely an Act II highlight – sprightly and playful, with technical accuracy and precision.

Once again, the corps impressed as the Waltzing Flowers, and as the featured soloist, Sylve shone with grace and aplomb. Tomasson’s choreography for this scene runs the gamut from turning sequences to footwork patterns, from petit allegro to grand allegro, and yet, it all clings to the foundational ‘down, up, up; down, up, up’ meter of the music’s three/four time signature. Simply gorgeous.

As the ballet nears its conclusion, there is yet another moment where reality and imagination meet. Clara transforms into an adult and she dances the grand pas de deux with the Nutcracker Prince. Vanessa Zahorian and Quenedit were technically sound as they moved through this duet, their subsequent solos and then, the coda, though for me, opening night’s grand pas de deux was missing its narrative dazzle.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

DanceFAR 2016

DanceFAR 2016
Pictured: Dores André
Photo: Quinn Wharton
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
Nov 29th, 2016

DanceFAR’s (Dance For A Reason) annual fall gala never disappoints. Co-founded by Margaret Karl, Garen Scribner and James Sofranko, it has been a shining star in the San Francisco dance season for the past four years and 2016’s edition (the fifth anniversary) was no exception. Each year DanceFAR hosts a diverse group of local and visiting dance artists in an evening-length concert benefitting the Cancer Prevention Institute of California (CPIC). And aptly, this year, the gala was held on Giving Tuesday. Outstanding performances with an authentic sentiment and genuine spirit of giving back - this is DanceFAR.

Duets dominated both halves of the program, each delivering a distinct perspective on physicality and movement in space. Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Ben Needham Wood of Smuin opened the night with a stirring pas de deux from Stanton Welch’s Indigo. Toggling between luxurious flowy movements and staccato pulses, this brief excerpt left you wanting more. And the ending lift was spectacular – Yarbrough-Powell in a seated position, balanced high above Needham Wood’s head. Specified directional shifts reigned supreme in Robert Moses’ This State of Annihilation, danced by Norma Fong and Crystaldawn Bell Galante of Robert Moses’ KIN. Half unison, half partnering/soloing, this unique take on contemporary technique blended second position, arabesque and passé with intense traveling sequences, including chaînés on the diagonal, pas de basques and even some soft shoe time-step footwork. Next, Jermaine Spivey and Spenser Theberge took the stage in an excerpt from their Rather This, Then, an essay on articulation, physical possibility and in-the-moment interaction. Billed in the program as a ‘structured improvisation’, I was so curious whether there was any set phrase material or perhaps, key prompts informing this captivating work.

ODC/Dance brought a portion of Kate Weare’s Giant, one of the three ensemble offerings on the program. Mechanized patterns and lush undulating meet in this dance, as does a strong statement of control and power dynamics. Several points throughout the piece saw one dancer orchestrating and shaping the movements of another. Julia Adam’s tortured duet Grandma and the Wolfie followed, performed by Travis Bradley and Virginia Pilgrim Ramey. While compelling for its technical accomplishments, it was the form of this duet that really struck. It began almost like a solo for Pilgrim Ramey with Bradley traversing the perimeter of the stage around her. And then later, much of the initial phrase material recurred, but this time, partnered. A very interesting structural approach indeed.

An audience-favorite from last year, Art of Teknique was back with another phenomenal freestyle program of physical poetry. And dawsondancesf closed DanceFAR’s first half with an excerpt from Gregory Dawson’s Gestures and Angels, a contemporary ballet full of passion, ferocity, speed and level changes.

The second half of DanceFAR 2016 began with a dance of storytelling, an excerpt of Tristesse by Marcelo Gomes. Gomes and Sterling Baca took turns expressing their reality through movement as the other sat ‘listening’ intently downstage right. Baca’s part of the conversation was peppered with suspension and release while Gomes’ was humorous and playful, and even had a little West Side Story snapping built in. Flying Under the Radar premiered @_FUTR_, a highly technical contemporary duet with costumes that reminded of Alwin Nikolais.

Sofranko’s SFDanceworks presented the world premiere of Danielle Rowe’s For Pixie, expertly interpreted by Brett Conway and Laura O’Malley. Here was a snapshot of a couple; a glimpse into their relationship. The partnering had such a wonderful forward motion to it, entwining these two souls for this one moment in time. An emotively rich duet was proffered by Alivia Schaffer and Dwayne Schueneman of AXIS Dance Company in Judith Smith’s In Defense of Regret. Schaffer and Schueneman spent the majority of the duet near each other, but separated. When they finally grasped hands and circled each other, it was pure and poignant.

Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno of San Francisco Ballet danced the Diamonds Pas de Deux from George Balanchine’s Jewels, an elegant, regal and grand expression of technical brilliance and beauty. And while the piece does not seek to tell a story, there is a narrative fiber hidden deep in the choreography. As the dancers float, glide and move about the space, there is a subtle elusiveness at play, like they are trying to actually catch the sparkle and glimmer of a diamond. DanceFAR 2016 concluded with an excerpt from Garrett + Moulton Productions’ summer premiere, Speak, Angels by Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton. In an expression of constant motion, six soloists and a movement choir of eighteen embodied the joy, intensity and fervor that is choreography and community. A perfect ending to a glorious night. 

Monday, November 07, 2016

Funsch Dance Experience

Pictured: Nol Simonse and Christy Funsch
Photo: Robbie Sweeney
Funsch Dance Experience presents
Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice
ODC Theater, San Francisco
Nov 5th, 2016

Funsch Dance Experience’s newest world premiere is truly striking – its composition strikes, its content strikes and its concept strikes. Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice hits on all cylinders. Choreographed by Artistic Director Christy Funsch, the five-part dance suite invites its audience to consider form, structure, physical architecture and connective choreographic tissue. While not suggesting a linear narrative, Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice also takes a deep dive into conversations around grandeur, display, distillation and simplicity. In addition, with its unique ‘work-within-the-work’ format, the sixty-minute ensemble piece brings together past and present contemporary dance with a special inlay as its third chapter – a rare performance of Daniel Nagrin’s 1965 solo Path. And Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice manages to accomplish all of this with a cohesive spirit, clever innovation and captivating performances.

Upon entering the theater, one noticed purple and green fabric draped around the deconstructed stage. Two cast members (Yvette Niccolls and Desiree Rogers) sat behind a golden table like judges adjudicating a competition. The setting conjured an arena, an exhibition – a perfect frame for the questions that Funsch was positing. In the center of the space, Funsch and Nol Simonse danced an ever changing duet; at one moment full of sculptural poses, then instantly morphing to highly technical dance phrases and next to recognizable motions and gestures. As the examiner characters and the audience watched, the condition of being ‘on display’ seeped through the room. Contact partnering abounded, with Simonse being the one who was lifted, balanced, supported, carried and as the prelude closed, dragged. And throughout the pas de deux, watching Funsch and Simonse dance together, the viewer couldn’t help be aware that they were in the presence of something extraordinary – these longtime dance collaborators are kindred spirits to say the least.

Part I, ARTIFICE brought the quartet of Arletta Anderson, Chinchin Hsu, Courtney Moreno and Karla Quintero into the space to begin the longest of the dance’s five segments. As Niccolls and Rogers continued their scrutinizing gaze, choreographically, a time of extremes unfolded. There were athletic, energetic calisthenics – large, wild runs; scissors jumps, buoyant pony steps. There were mindful, concentrated motions – kinesthetic torso undulations; placed hands, circling, splaying fingers. There were anatomical articulation studies – limbs cycling from straight to attitude, from pointe to flex. And there were oscillating statements of balance, counterbalance and off-balance-ness. But the genius of this section was in the physical vocabulary/dynamics connection. It wasn’t a big=loud and small=quiet relationship – instead, there was a refined, egalitarian swath of physicality. One where every movement equally captured attention and provoked curiosity.

After the musicians and the cast had exited the space, Funsch began Nagrin’s Path. Holding a long wooden beam (I’m assuming it was similar in length to what Nagrin originally used, which was twelve feet) parallel to the ground, Funsch, in silence, began to travel along the diagonal from upstage right to downstage left. With defined and determined specificity, she repeated Path’s single footwork phrase (step, step, chaissé into demi-plié in second position, pas de boureé, side step) along this trajectory. All the while the beam remained completely still. Path had no pretense, no extras. It was this choreographic material, in this space, being performed in this moment. And though the solo is very clearly task-driven and goal-oriented, I couldn’t help also feeling a contributing narrative undertone, a sense of pensive soberness filling the stage.

The final two segments of Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice found the quartet returning to the stage, first with Funsch, and then on their own. And the judge characters also reappeared, except this time, the two women faced each other rather than casting their view on the dance happening in front of them. This difference in posture was key, greatly informing the conclusion of the dance. In this final section, titled Part II, EFFORT, Anderson, Hsu, Moreno and Quintero rediscovered their physicality in the space. But it felt very different from their first quartet – raw, sumptuous, visceral and increasingly tactile. Like there had been a shift from the external view to the internal impulse, and perhaps a freeing from some expectations, constraints or rules.

And I cannot close this discussion without mentioning the brainy and astute device that Funsch injected into Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice. At various moments throughout the work, the cast broke the fourth wall. Sometimes the lights came up, sometimes they engaged directly with audience members, sometimes both. What better way to pose questions of display than by examining and dismantling the conventional audience/performer relationship, even if just for a brief instant.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Pictured: Mallory Markham and Jessica Egbert
Photo: Summer Wilson
The Anata Project
Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco
Oct 15th, 2016

Rain and wind whirled outside, harmonizing together in a blustery fall storm. Inside Joe Goode Annex, The Anata Project’s sixth home season brought a similar meeting of powerful and forceful elements – the body and the mind. How do thoughts, feelings and beliefs translate into actions and reactions? How are the physical and the emotional connected? Can we separate the two? Would we ever want to? Founder and Artistic Director Claudia Anata tackles these penetrating questions in an evening of world premieres, inviting the viewer to consider a confluence of human states through film and contemporary dance.

Opening the program was Anata’s It Fades, a short dance film featuring company artists Jessica Egbert, Julie-Ann Gambino, Yuko Mondon and Mallory Markham. In a stunning collage of shadows and light, small scenes, short phrases, gestures and postures appeared and disappeared on the screen; existing for a moment and then morphing into something new. It Fades, as the title suggests, reveals the ephemerality and fleeting nature of dance and movement, and does so with beauty, grace and an innovative spirit. And starting the evening with a prelude film (as last year’s home season did) also affords a wonderful opportunity for the audience to quiet outside forces and enter into this space and this work.

After a short pause, Egbert, Gambino, Mondon and Markham took the stage in the program’s main event, notjustmoreidlechatter. Mondon faced the audience, while Egbert, Gambino and Markham sat facing upstage. Her entire body pulsed through the opening solo, erratically changing directions, frenetically twinging, desperately searching for an elusive calm and quiet. It looked like she was fighting a treacherous battle, caught between control and chaos. Eventually she joined the other three dancers on the floor, and the quartet began a meditative, systematic series of rolling – rolling through the spine, rolling on the floor. The entire time, they faced away from us, truly at one with the tasks and movements at hand. Through a subsequent set of cluster structures, they emerged from this formation and notjustmoreidlechatter expanded into the space.

While not attempting to relay a story (neither a linear nor abstracted one), notjustmoreidlechatter was definitely steeped in a strong narrative/conceptual foundation, as the connection between the corporeal and the emotional oozed out of every pore. Anata, through her inspired choreography, and the dancers, through their superb performances, were able to demonstrate the range and breadth of the complicated human experience. Circular motions – running in a circuit, turns in attitude, quick grand rond de jambes - suggested cyclical thoughts, perhaps even a rumination cycle. Slow careful walks spoke of uncertainty, trepidation and maybe even fear. Repeated and crescendoed leg swings signaled a haunting, infectious, pervasive belief. While the majority of the material was of a heavier and more serious note, joy and abandon also played a part in notjustmoreidlechatter. Upper body releases sang of wonder and contentment; contact-improvisation style partnering of community, solidarity and support. 

Mid-way through notjustmoreidlechatter, Anata injected a repetitive unison sequence, the four performers wiping the floor with their hands, in a windshield pattern. While the movement was very mechanical, at the same time, it evoked a feeling of comfort and familiarity in its repetition. Interspersed through this mesmerizing sequence were individual moments of dissention - arms extending to the ceiling, changes of direction – and then returning to the original movement. A statement illustrating the complexity of group dynamics and individual agency.

As the piece closed, the quartet sat in a diagonal line, feet pointing towards stage right; the lights began to dim and they bowed their heads gently. It was a striking scene, visually, narratively and physically. A point of repose, a cadence, an ending, yet not really the end at all. It could have just as easily been the beginning. The cast could have started the early rolling motif, only at a different facing. The body/mind connection is one that isn’t done, it isn’t finished. It’s a continual process and notjustmoreidlechatter is a stunning reminder of that surety.  

Sunday, October 09, 2016


Pictured: Kelsey Gerber
Photo: Rob Best
ka·nei·see | collective presents
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
Oct 8th, 2016

The stage was bare, except for three flexible strands of paper stretched across the back wall. Dancers entered the space, arms cycling through simple port de bras (fourth position to third arabesque to first), while simultaneously interacting with the bands of paper. More performers joined, and tenderly, carefully, with both attention and affection, stepped in and out through the porous structure, even developpé-ing from front through passé to the back while holding onto the fibers. Next the cast moved to the center of the stage and began pulling toilet paper from the wings into large piles in front of them, like meringue pillows or the skirt of a billowy tulle ball gown. In these first moments, it was clear that the rolls of toilet paper were to be an active participant in the work, not merely a prop, not only an object to be arranged, not just a set dressing, but a functioning theatrical device in Readymade.

ka·nei·see | collective’s newest world premiere looks to Marcel Duchamp’s Readymade art movement of the early 1900s, where ordinary objects were proffered and set into an artistic container and frame. But it does so with an abstracted approach. In the program notes for Readymade, Artistic Director Tanya Chianese shares this statement as a guide to her piece, “Readymade is not about Duchamp’s work, but instead aims to invoke his iconic idea of do-it-yourself power to reshape one’s own life by changing how we view things.” And this contemporary dance composition certainly lives into that vision. While deskilling frequently arose in the discourse around Duchamp’s work, Chianese’s Readymade is more about disrupting assumptions, subverting expectations and reshifting perceptions, challenging its audience to parse out their own modes and patterns of viewership.

A fifty-minute ensemble work for ten women, Readymade is constructed as a suite, fourteen small scenes flowing seamlessly from one to the next. Set against the growing toilet paper backdrop, the early vignettes were dominated by Chianese’s formidable choreography, innovative yet technically grounded at the same time – a modern release solo accompanied by a Greek-style chorus, a contact improvisation inspired trio, a varied quartet and an accumulation phrase of recognizable movement gestures (fanning one’s face, shushing, etc.). Then the dancers retrieved the rolls of toilet paper and carefully unfurled one long stream in front of each of them. Pressing their palms to the paper, they directed its gaze, guiding its view like a beam from a lighthouse. And what happened next was the crystallization of the entire piece. It was a quiet moment, but so narratively rich and revelatory. The cast picked up the rolls, turned them on their side and looked directly at the audience through the hollow center. In that instant, the questions of viewership sang from the stage. What are we seeing? How do we edit our lens? How broad or narrow is our scope? Are you watching us or are we watching you?

Alongside these simple and profound statements were contrasting high-octane choreographic phrases. Following a diagonal line of toilet paper rolls, the ensemble vaulted from upstage left to down right. Energetic dynamics, level changes, long extensions, grand rond de jambes and wafting arms filled the space. And watching these dancers travel full out at full speed, it is impossible not to mention the company’s noteworthy and impressive spatial awareness. Humor also played a role in Readymade. Another soloist stood still on stage, while roll and after roll of toilet paper were lofted and hurled towards her. Joined by three other dancers, a choreographic sequence from earlier in the work recurred, this time amidst all the tatters and clouds of paper – reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Carnations (1982). And while this scene was very funny, it also continued to pose penetrating narrative and structural questions – how does context change a phrase; how does setting affect the physicality?

Monday, October 03, 2016

"Constants & Variables"

Twisted Oak Dance Theater presents
Pictured: Ninja Hoops
Photo courtesy: Ninja Hoops and Hoopologie
“Constants & Variables”
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
Oct 2nd, 2016

Consider ‘constants’ and ‘variables’ through a mathematical and algebraic lens - terms in an equation, fixed/consistent versus changeable/unknown. Twisted Oak Dance Theater has chosen this apt title (“Constants & Variables”) for the company’s annual curated program at Dance Mission Theater. Each year, Director Colin Epstein assembles a new performing arts salon, a shared concert with returning mainstay constants and newer variables alike. For the fifth anniversary edition of this program, which ran this past weekend, Epstein invited a cohort of alumni from past years - Mid to West Dance Company, One Thought Theater, Twisted Oak Dance Theater, Ninja Hoops, Heather Arnett and 13th Floor. In addition, ka·nei·see | collective joined Friday’s performance, previewing their full-length work Readymade, which will have its premiere next weekend also at Dance Mission Theater.

Opening the program was Mid to West Dance Company’s Faces and People, an ensemble work for six dancers choreographed by Sarah JG Chenoweth, Rebecca Chun and Mo Miner. A joyful expression of fluidity and connectedness overwhelmed the stage from the first entrance to the blackout – bodies moving through space, carving out the space and creating shapes within the space. Whether staccato or legato, in unison or cannoned timing, partnered or individual, each movement flowed deliciously into the next. Hands sliced through the air, upper bodies swung forward in rebounding curves, hips undulated, legs battemented in second position, arms swept like birds’ wings. Lush physicality, phrasal connectivity, forward motion and delightful performances – a beautiful start to 2016’s “Constants & Variables”.

Twisted Oak Dance Theater brought Epstein’s Untangled, an interdisciplinary mix of dance, text and scenework set in an abstracted theatrical container. Characters from different realms came together - three muse-like orchestrators, a devilish imp and a human - in a game of control that ultimately became a parable of choice and structure. And peppered throughout the program were three comical interludes by One Thought Theater on the meaning of art, one of which called on the audience for participation.

Two apparatus offerings were up next. First, Ninja Interrupta by Ninja Hoops’ Zach Fischer and Marria Grace – a super fun and playful combination of martial arts, acrobatic choreography, juggling, humor and of course, hoops. One might assume that Heather Arnett’s Saving Seats was a solo but it was in fact a quintet, a cast of one dancer (Arnett) and four chairs, one of which was attached to Arnett’s back throughout the entire piece. An innovative approach to the relationship between movement, props and set pieces, Saving Seats found the soloist ‘partnering’ with all of the chairs – I definitely look forward to seeing more of Arnett’s work in the future.

13th Floor closed the 2016 “Constants & Variables” program with The End of the Story, a multi-genre physical theater composition with cleverly tangled plot points and purposeful quirky melodrama. Narratives of interruption, unexpected turns of events and porous portals between life and death were explored through a narrator and two couples. Choreographically, a recurring waltzy sequence acted as a break in the action, injecting some winsome charm. And the group dance at the end was a hilarious physical mash-up; an farcical vaudevillian take on everything from contemporary dance to pas de deux partnering to 1970s jazz pas de boureés.   

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"What Do I Remember"

Pictured: Yuko Monden, Kiplinn Sagmiller,
Dwayne Scheuneman and David James Silpa
Photo: Robbie Sweeny
Wei-Shan Lai & Dancers
What Do I Remember
Z Below, San Francisco
August 27th, 2016

Four dancers entered the space and began repetitive motions – a pivoting foot, a torso melting to the side, an arm bent and then straightened. As each cast member repeated these various choreographic tasks, their eyes and heads tried to follow and comprehend the movement. But the body and mind couldn’t quite connect; they were purposefully disjointed. Desperately trying to work together, these two entities were consumed by crossed channels, lost in a sea of mixed messages.

How are the physical and the neurological related; how do the body and brain respond to loss, grief and fear; how can recollection and repetition lead to new pathways and connections – these are the themes that lie at the heart of What Do I Remember, a new world premiere by Wei-Shan Lai & Dancers. Artistic Director/choreographer Wei-Shan Lai has assembled a host of talented collaborators to bring What Do I Remember to life - media designer Olivia Ting, scenic designer Chih-Wei G.V. Chang, lighting designer Heather Basarab, composer Ben Juodvalkis, cinematographer Joel Wanek and neuroscientist Yu-Wei Wu. And the entire project speaks of ingenuity, innovation and authenticity.

What Do I Remember is full of recollection, mostly expressed through storytelling. All four dancers (Yuko Monden, Kiplinn Sagmiller, Dwayne Scheuneman and David James Silpa) share vulnerable personal narratives, including Scheuneman’s tragic recounting of how he lost the use of his legs. With these recollections, Lai is demonstrating how the act of speaking something out loud, the act of expressing can in itself build new pathways in the brain and in the body. It isn’t about forgetting what happened; it’s about understanding your relationship with that memory today.

Repetition also played a huge role in What Do I Remember, again in an effort to reflect the creation of new physical and mental pathways. Text phrases (“everything will be okay”) were repeated; group lifts were sequenced; a gorgeous penchée arabesque/rond versé recurred. And as these elements repeated, you could see them change and evolve, just like memories.

Choreographically, there was also a significant shift over the piece’s forty-five minutes. The initial detached, jarring movement phrases became more fluid, indicating a different bond between the body, mind and spirit. And there was one lengthy section in the middle of What Do I Remember that deserves special mention. All four dancers were sitting cross-legged on the floor, cycling through a series of arm gestures. It was so tranquil and meditative, like as a community, they had found a special sense of peace through a practice of mindfulness.

Friday, August 05, 2016

"Do Be"

The Living Earth Show and Post:Ballet present
Do Be
Z Space, San Francisco
Aug 4th, 2016

Get set for a deliciously wild ride of imagination, whimsy and capriciousness with Do Be, an artistic experience created by Post:Ballet and The Living Earth Show. Post:Ballet’s Artistic Director Robert Dekkers and The Living Earth Show co-founders Travis Andrews and Andy Meyerson have launched a production filled with innovative choreography and narrative revelation set amidst epic unconventionality. In addition, Do Be speaks to the convergence of compositional independence and interdependence. Each of its six individual chapters is its own unique theatrical container, featuring a different commissioned score, performed live by Andrews on guitar and Meyerson on percussion. And yet there is an undercurrent of connection running through. The resulting full-length work takes a deep dive into creative collaboration and explores the choreographic, musical, design and conceptual possibilities within twenty-first century dance theater performance.

A mystical prelude of sorts, Pasturing I served as an introduction and invitation into the strange and unusual world of Do Be. Right from the start, the notion of extremes rang clear. Slowly the dancers entered the stage, costumed in a heady mix of futuristic metallics and romantic gauze, by Post:Ballet Creative Director Christian Squires. Jacob Cooper’s ambient, atmospheric score was peppered with sounds of breaking dishes and power tools, which happened live in an opaque onstage cubicle and was projected on the floor downstage center. Unison duets and partnered pas de deuxs emerged in the space; Dekkers’ choreography varying from specific gestures to high extensions to Graham-inspired pleadings, spirals and floorwork. The mood shifted from measured and meditative to dramatic and expansive and back again. You didn’t know what to expect from one minute to the next, and that was glorious.

I had seen the next two chapters before, on separate occasions – Family Sing-A-Long and Game Night last summer and Tassel in the fall of 2014. Many of my original observations held true, though with both there was also an opportunity to experience newness. Family Sing-A-Long and Game Night posits the familiar – well-known folk and children’s songs, egalitarian movement and party games - repetition, accumulation and crescendo bringing a sense of theatricality to each. But at its core, Family Sing-A-Long and Game Night is all about defining oneself in situations that are steeped in assumption - challenging constraint, messing up structure, confronting the appropriate. This could not have been clearer in the ‘chair sequence’. As the company sat in chairs, moving in unison, their feet twitched, they swayed back and forth, they drew their knees to their chest. It looked like a group of children or adolescents (or maybe even adults) struggling with certain expectations of behavior. While half of the company cleaned up the birthday cake that had been presented to and wrecked by Charles Martin at the end of Family Sing-A-Long and Game Night, Tassel began to unfold, and the notion of extremes was revisited. At first, its series of gestures and sculptural poses seemed somewhat sedate and calm. But quickly, that stylized physicality built and grew into a chaotic frenzy. Bodies ping-ponged all over the stage, clothes were discarded; a group of individuals disengaging with one reality and searching frantically for another.

The Bell, The Ball, The Bow-Tie & The Boot signaled the second half of Do Be. Four dancers in rolling mobile wardrobes encircled a soloist (Kar Will.), while swarming patterns were projected on the stage floor. Throughout the lengthy sequence, Cora Cliburn, Aidan DeYoung, Gabriel Mata and Vanessa Thiessen would emerge from their cocoons in different costumes to engage with Will. in a variety of interactions. It felt ancient and apocalyptic, primal and mysterious, all at the same time. I also couldn’t shake a retro, old school video game vibe. And while this segment felt a little long, there was plenty to capture the attention, from gorgeous upside down balances (on the neck and shoulder) to platform pink high heels. Even gummy worm candy made an appearance.

Rachel Coats with Andy Meyerson of The Living Earth Show
and the dancers of Post: Ballet
Double Happiness from Do Be
Photo: Natalia Perez
By far, the highlight of the evening was Double Happiness, a flowing ensemble dance, gorgeously led by Rachel Coats. In a yellow tulle skirt with balloons attached to her back, Coats began sweeping through the space - developpés soaring in second position, high relevés freezing in time. Following her phenomenal solo, Coats was joined by four similarly costumed dancers (Cliburn, Caroline Langner, Martin and Jackie McConnell) and by Will. A feeling of forwardness, encouragement and community overwhelmed the stage. But Double Happiness was still avant-garde, to be sure. As the five yellow-clad performers stood on an angle, vibrating their hands, moving shoulders up and down and shaking their heads, it was like Serenade had been injected with a high dose of nervous energy and anxiousness.

Pasturing II ushered Do Be to its conclusion. Though it was the final chapter on the program, it was actually the first time that the entire company was onstage together. They traveled from the back of the space towards the audience, first in slow motion, and then moving with increased power and drive. Giant lifts, cantilevered partnering and dizzying spins were interspersed with moments of repose. Suspension and release informed movable group structures that came together and broke apart, only to be reformed somewhere else. And in a lovely cadence, the entire Do Be village descended on the stage, led by Dekkers, Andrews, Meyerson and Squires – every collaborator celebrating and delighting in this considerable artistic accomplishment.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Speak, Angels"

Garrett + Moulton Productions
Pictured: Nol Simonse
Photo: RJ Muna
Speak, Angels
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
July 30th, 2016

The orchestral ensemble and five vocalists took their places upstage. Out of the darkness, an eighteen-member movement choir and six company dancers burst into the space with optimistic energy – lifting each other high in the air, leaping in jubilant assemblés, arms fluttering with joyful promise.

A buoyant opening to Garrett + Moulton Productions’ Speak, Angels, the latest full-length work created by the incomparable team of Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton. Speak, Angels is both stirring and uplifting; a beautiful piece with a multi-layered narrative. It is a project that fills the stage with abundant and varied artistic voices. A dance that shares inspired choreography performed by accomplished practitioners. And while Speak, Angels certainly bears similarities to the company’s previous work (thematic fibers, structural composition and choreographic style), this new world premiere is definitely doing its own thing.

Hope and community flourished throughout the piece (like that shown in the first sequence), yet the face of real challenge was also present - struggle/sorrow and assurance/care co-existing on the stage, as they so often do in life. In Vivian Aragon and Nol Simonse’s first pas de deux, it felt like their bodies were actually crying, while the movement choir tenderly embraced each other in the background. This led into a contemporary court dance for Alison Adnet, Carolina Czechowska, Michael Galloway and Ryan Wang (who were eventually joined by Aragon and Simonse) where fellowship and collective strength sang into the space. In another scene, Czechowska reached through the air, searching for Galloway - he was right in front of her but she couldn’t find him. Aragon and Simonse spent one phrase being lofted by the movement choir. While the accompanying music was somewhat somber, they were being encircled with love. And though the piece slowed a little from time to time, Garrett and Moulton even managed to inject a little humor and whimsy along the way.

The six solo dancers (some veterans of the company, some more recent arrivals) showed great spirit and vitality throughout the hour-plus work. And it was particularly exciting to see real-time dialogue between these dance artists - new relationships developing, existing partnerships deepening.

One notable difference in Speak, Angels is that the role of the movement choir seemed more expansive than in past iterations. Yes, they still communicated a captivating gestural score and embodied a living physical framework, but in addition, there were increased choreographic opportunities for the complete ensemble, for smaller groups and for individuals. And I loved how mid-way through the dance, the movement choir slowly traveled from one side of the stage to the other. It was so subtle (you really didn’t notice it was happening) yet so effective - a true homage to the mystery of changing circumstances.

Friday, July 29, 2016

"Double Exposure"

ODC Theater presents
Double Exposure
ODC Theater, San Francisco
July 28th, 2016

Every once in a while, you encounter a contemporary dance company that is extraordinarily special. One that stands out. A group that combines choreographic excellence, innovative structures, groundbreaking concepts and impeccable performances. RAWdance is one of these rare treasures. Co-Artistic Directors Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein are pioneering artists who continually astound with their talent, wit, intelligence and authenticity.

RAWdance’s newest project, Double Exposure, adds yet another creative triumph to their already impressive oeuvre, one that turns to curation, process and form. A collection of thirteen duets, made by sixteen West Coast-based choreographers and danced by Smith and Rein, Double Exposure is an archive of today’s contemporary dance community. It is a testament to the breadth and diversity of choreographic practice. And it is stunning collage of physicality, combined into a single evening-length work.

Double Exposure’s duets were performed in series, one right after the other, with the name of the choreographer illuminated on the back wall. In between each two-four minute variation, a brief pause allowed the dancers to change costumes or sometimes re-arrange the stage space (a stunning display of organizational logistics in its own right). These interludes never felt like a stop in the action, rather, an extension of the dance itself. Many of the breaks included video of or live talking by Smith and Rein. A breaking of the fourth wall to share charming facts about each other, their thoughts about this particular piece of work and in one case, a karaoke mash-up.

Double Exposure opened with Smith and Rein’s own duet. On two chairs, facing each other, they explored different points of contact: forearm grasping forearm, palms cradling the head and feet pushing against the torso. Joe Goode’s mix of text, mirroring, movement scoring and vocals added a dose of realism and humor to the stage. And it also introduced the first instances of that direct and personal conversation between the performer and the viewer (which, as previously mentioned, would recur throughout the work). KT Nelson’s offering was a pas de deux in the true sense of the term. A ‘dance of two’, Smith and Rein never once touched during this highly technical sequence, and yet the continuity and connection of their pairing was overwhelming. Next came a sexy, smoldering statement from Amy O’Neal – a craving pulse rippling through torsos, spines and even the wrists.

Dramatic and clever use of costuming and props informed Monique Jenkinson/Fauxnique’s contribution - a duet that revealed the space between constraint and possibility, using a broad range of movement (from classical ballet all the way to pedestrianism). Holly Johnston brought a narratively-charged piece to the table. Though I’m not completely sure of the exact message at play, the extremely athletic choreography had a sense of urgency and alarm, appropriately underscored by storm-like sounds. Slow, small, contorted movements took focus in Shinichi and Dana Iova-Koga’s duet – fingers reacting to the air, toes articulating one by one. While this style of movement isn’t my personal favorite, the contrast between it and the previous excerpt certainly made for an interesting visual. Tahni Holt’s work was all about struggle with Smith and Rein engaged in a wrestling match, fighting for control and power. Kate Wallich took on form and structure with circuits, repetitive patterns, directional changes and unpredictable lifts. And the turning/spinning segment center stage was a highlight of the entire evening, reminiscent of a record player.

RAWdance's Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein in
Amy Seiwert's duet from Double Exposure
Photo: Andrew Weeks
David Roussève crafted a unison movement phrase for Smith and Rein, one that would morph and evolve over its duration. With decision-making and text prompts, the phrase was repeated multiple times with higher intensity and at faster speed. What started as lyrical quickly became a swirling tornado of energy and emotion. Clarity and intention ran steadily through casebolt and smith’s choreography. This was apparent not only in the specificity of each motion’s beginning and ending point, but also in the journey from one place to another. Ann Carlson provided the most character-driven chapter of Double Exposure. Smith and Rein seemed to be portraying different stages of life – as infants, children, adolescents and adults. A late eighties prom vibe emerged for the final duet, by Amy Seiwert. With such a recognizable scene also come assumptions of what movement might unfold. Seiwert challenged that notion by creating a very contemporary duet in this nostalgic place. There was an egalitarianism surrounding the container, and a delightful unexpectedness in the experience.

Any discussion of RAWdance’s Double Exposure cannot conclude without mentioning Smith and Rein’s radiant performance. The pair moved through thirteen varied duets with such grace, confidence, rigor and strength - all in, all the time. Phenomenal dancers; gifted communicators; accomplished artists. Double Exposure is a definitive tour de force.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Festival Napa Valley 2016 - Dance Gala

Festival Napa Valley 2016
Dance Gala
Dede Wilsey Dance Series
San Francisco Ballet
Lincoln Theater, Yountville
July 22nd, 2016

In individual pools of light at opposite corners of the stage, San Francisco Ballet’s Frances Chung and Aaron Robison faced each other. With sweeping arms, they began a riveting physical conversation that the corps de ballet would soon join. Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s The Fifth Season was underway, as was Festival Napa Valley’s annual Dance Gala.

The Dance Gala is always a highlight of the festival, but this year was particularly special with San Francisco Ballet performing the entire program for the first time. And what a program the company designed for this event! A perfect sampler of classical and contemporary favorites, danced by magnificent world-class artists.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in
Tomasson's The Fifth Season
Photo © Erik Tomasson
An ensemble work for three couples and a corps of eight, Tomasson’s The Fifth Season is a suite of spectacular moments, one that both celebrates and transcends ballet’s various genres and styles. This full-length work, originally choreographed in 2006, strikes a perfect balance between traditional, neo-classical and contemporary choreography. Off-center balances meet textbook developpés (Robison’s écarté extension especially impressed); silky suspensions combine with staccato demi-pointe boureés. In addition, moods and atmospheres vary from the mischievous tango (led by Mathilde Froustey) to the emotive, sculptural pas de deux by Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets. A luminescent start to a phenomenal evening.

Next, the company delved into the narrative story ballets of the late 1800s, with Vanessa Zahorian and Vitor Luiz in the pas de deux from Le Corsaire (choreography after Marius Petipa). Stately and regal, this excerpt was the perfect contrast to the first piece. A signature grand pas de deux with individual variations and coda, it features bravado jumps on the diagonal, lightning fast turns and sharp relevé phrases. And in true classical ballet style, each dancer takes the spotlight with a fouetté sequence near the end.

A collection of duets and one trio made up the second half of Festival Napa Valley’s 2016 Dance Gala, beginning with the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After The Rain©, performed by Tan and Luke Ingham. Originally choreographed in 2005, the movement is innovative and contemporary. But for me, this piece is the utmost statement of elegance and grace - non-traditional poses and lifts creating beautiful snapshots in space. Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno took the Lincoln Theater stage in the pas de deux from William Forsythe’s famed 1987 ballet in the middle, somewhat elevated. A cutting-edge physical essay of possibility, extremes flourish throughout – in the hands and in the joints, in plié and in hyperextension. Maria Kochetkova and Angelo Greco closed the program in the Act III pas de deux from Don Quixote. Another Petipa story ballet from the late 1800s, this duet is full of spectacle and technique, verve and flirtation. Sky high lifts thrilled, as did Kochetkova’s final fouetté series.

But by far the highlight of the evening was Solo (1997), choreographed by Hans van Manen. Solo is everything contemporary choreography has the potential to be – a stream of varied and intoxicating physicality; a dynamic and playful demeanor; a continual pulse of fun and joy. Danced at this performance by Principal Joseph Walsh, Wei Wang and Francisco Mungamba (both of whom were recently promoted to the Soloist rank), Solo feels like a friendly competition, one with healthy and equal doses of camaraderie, banter, showmanship and fraternity. I’ve seen a number of different casts dance this extraordinary composition and have loved the piece every single time, but there was something about this casting. Walsh, Wang and Mungamba were exceptional in their individual dancing and in their interactions with each other – I hope this trio reappears in future.