Friday, April 22, 2016

Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Alonzo King LINES Ballet
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
April 21st, 2016

One of the main thematic threads in this spring’s dance season has been the relationship between movement and music. And this prevalence makes sense. The intersection between these two fields is full of rich opportunities, making it ripe for collaboration. But prevalent does not have to mean common. Or typical. Or conventional. And there was nothing common, typical or conventional about the treatment of dance and sound that happened on Thursday evening.

This was a program from one of the great pioneers of collaboration in dance, choreographer Alonzo King. His company, LINES Ballet, presented a penetrating double bill to open their 2016 Spring Season: the return of 2014’s Shostakovich and the world premiere of Sand. While each piece was distinct, they had a shared approach to movement and music. An egalitarian partnership percolated between the two disciplines – no leader, no follower. Both were allowed to be fully realized, each informing the other, but not making demands.

Shostakovich follows a classic multi-chapter structure – full company statements bookending a collection of overlaid vignettes, primarily pas de deuxs. Neither abstract nor narrative, Shostakovich sat somewhere in the middle ground. It definitely was not devoid of meaning or emotion, but it wasn’t a linear or deconstructed story either. This ambiguity served the work well, letting the physicality and score take primary focus.

As the ballet opened, limbs flew everywhere – arms circling, extensions lengthening to the heavens. From these first moments, it was clear that King’s choreography was not joining with Dmitri Shostakovich’s compositions in a traditional, neo-classical sense. The movement wasn’t punctuating or accenting particular aspects of the score, instead, both were expressing similar feelings, similar tones. It was such a compelling (and for me, delightfully unexpected) way in which to examine the deep connection between the physical and the auditory.

Dissonance read in off-center balances and broken extensions, virtuosic chromaticism in frenetic swirling. Suspended double voicing in the melodic line sang in the held lifts and demi-pointe slides across the stage. Much of Shostakovich’s music has an atonality to it, with no recognizable central key, and sometimes even a polytonality, with multiple keys occurring simultaneously. King expressed this aspect of the score with the split-view format that was used in many of the middle sections. Couples would be dancing different duets, but on either side of the stage or one upstage, one downstage. As a viewer, you had to consider and choose where your gaze would land and for how long it would remain in one place. A brilliant comment on atonality and polytonality. YuJin Kim and Brett Conway’s pas de deux in section five was a standout moment in Shostakovich. Dramatic and emotive, this slow, sensitive duet wowed in its nuance and in the dancer’s communication of King’s choreographic material.

While the flexibility is astounding, the repetitive split extensions in this piece wear thin after a while. And the lengthy variation where a soloist carried a long rod of light was a little puzzling. It may have made for some interesting visuals, but its connection to the larger work seemed tenuous. 

King’s newest collaborative project, Sand, is an eight-part dance with original music by Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran (performed live on opening night). The stage brightened to reveal a new organization of the space. The wings had been removed, and a back curtain of shimmery, flexible strands hung from the rafters to the floor. The cast assembled in the center and proceeded to share a powerful movement phrase, but not in unison. It was completed with their own sense of time and their own dynamics.

As Sand continued, the notion of change became very apparent. The company flowed in and out of the space, creating different scenes and donning an assortment of costumes throughout. Here was an exercise in perpetual motion.

LINES Ballet dancer YuJin Kim
Photo: RJ Muna
The technique and strength of this company deserves special mention. They eat up space; have a breathtaking attention to detail and a phenomenal capacity to communicate. Their acuity shines in Sand.

Sand was full of beautiful episodes; places where I didn’t want to think, I just wanted to watch and listen. The men’s duet (danced by Robb Beresford and Shuaib Elhassan) and the men’s quintet near the end of the dance were two such moments. As was the first time we realized that behind the back curtain, there was a platform, on which dancers would occasionally cross from one side to the other. And the juxtaposition of linear patterning against the gauzy backdrop spoke of the dance’s unique architecture.   

Sand had an innovative structure - full cast sequences were interspersed throughout the dance - and varied choreography that again worked in concert with the Lloyd and Moran’s music. Scalic patterns in the saxophone met pulsating isolations in the body; triplet patterns paired with a rippling motion in the hands and arms. From time to time, different intentions were also at play in the music and dance. And it worked. An accented fortissimo soprano note was countered with melty turns and soft developpés; the piano’s rumbling tremolo was crossed with a sweeping circular lift that barely skimmed the surface of the stage. Sand is truly a gorgeous work of collaborative art. But it could have been about ten percent shorter.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

"Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet"

Book review:

Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet
by Joel Lobenthal
published by Oxford University Press, 2016

Biographies may be a common literary genre, but writing a good biography is not an easy task. There’s the responsibility side - communicating an individual’s life is both a privilege and a serious charge for any author. But there’s also the structural/formal side to a biography. There has to be more than just the reporting of facts or the relaying of a personal timeline; the real-life narrative has to have intensity.

Joel Lobenthal’s current release from Oxford University Press gets both parts right. Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet is a thoroughly researched, expertly crafted biography, full of care, endearment and attention. And structurally, the book weaves and connects the personal and professional aspects of Osipenko’s life with acumen and verve. Upon finishing the 250-page book, Lobenthal has taken the reader on an expedition, one where they have glimpsed into this famed artist’s experience, what informed her career and the life choices she made.

Lobenthal has opted to divide the book into three large sections, each containing a number of brief chapters. This ‘short chapter’ approach definitely helps move the story forward. And it makes Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet very approachable for any reader, no matter their familiarity with Osipenko, Russian ballet, or dance in general. Part One moves from Osipenko’s youth to pre-professional student life to her early years in the Kirov Ballet to performance tours that took her into the West for the first time. Her outspoken, self-confident nature is present in these first eleven chapters, though at this point, it comes across more like minor defiances. Lobenthal foreshadows this on page 83 of the book, “Her real struggles with authority were yet to come.”

Part Two reveals and explores these challenges; a season of turbulence in Osipenko’s personal and professional life, and describes the Kirov Ballet’s climate during the 1950s/1960s where politics seemed to inform everything. Beginning with Nureyev’s defection, the reader gains a better understanding of the cloak under which Osipenko danced and how many different factors directly (and often negatively) affected her career. Lost opportunities leap from the pages in these twenty chapters, not only about this passionate ballerina who was brave enough to stand behind what she believed to be right, but also about the complex woman who was in love with being in love. One of the saddest stories lies in the last chapter of this middle section – a punitive and deliberate decision made by the company administration to cast this star ballerina as a village corps member in Giselle.

After a string of these kinds of career demotions, disappointments and humiliations, Lobenthal brings Osipenko’s resignation and final performance (a dramatic story itself) to the table in Part Three of Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet. Leaving the Kirov, her and her husband joining a new company, dealing with new but familiar issues of artistic control, her eventual move to the Hartford Ballet in Connecticut and her return to Russia. In this final section, the reader encounters the best portion of the book, chapter 32, entitled ‘Artistic Credo’. Touching and thought provoking, this penultimate chapter reads like a postlude – a beautiful reflection on ballet, culture, living and humanity.

If you are looking for a new dance biography to read this spring, Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet by Joel Lobenthal is a great choice. Academic yet accessible, the book tells a compelling and engaging story - the true story of a celebrated ballerina’s distinct journey onstage and off.

Friday, April 15, 2016

"A Cappella - Our Bodies Sing"

Oakland Ballet
A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing
Malonga Casquelord Theater, Oakland
April 14th, 2016

At many contemporary and classical dance performances, the relationship between the score and the choreography strikes. Is the movement unlocking nuances in the music? Are the musical phrases enhancing the physicality? Do the compositional elements have an even or uneven association in the work? Perhaps the music and movement are purposely co-existing in dissonance, the discord and tension between the two suggesting deeper narrative or structural themes. These are just some of the thoughts, questions and observations that arise when witnessing and considering these two fields in a single theatrical container.

With its 2016 spring program, Oakland Ballet, under the Artistic Direction of Graham Lustig, puts a unique twist on the simultaneous experience of sound and motion. A triple bill, A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing brings the voice together with the body. Each work on the program features a different a cappella score, provided by three Bay Area choral organizations.

All three pieces on the A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing program were multi-chapter suites - longer works comprised of short sequences. While an obvious commonality, each dance was incredibly distinct. First up was the world premiere of Val Caniparoli’s Beautiful Dreamer, a joyous, youthful, exuberant eight-part composition, set to music by Stephen Foster, performed by the Berkeley Community Chamber Singers under the direction of Derek Tam. With its combination of classical ballet, contemporary dance and rhythmic footwork, there was much to love in Beautiful Dreamer. The seated lift in the first movement; the Appalachian-inspired phrases where the upper body and arms remained still while the feet percussed in varied patterns; the driving motion of the entire work. Cristian Laverde König and Brent Whitney wowed in the structurally diverse “Oh! Susanna” duet – a combination of canon, unison and partnering. Abandon and surrender were at the heart of “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” pas de deux (danced by Chloe Slade and Gregory DeSantis) with its spinning, soaring circular lifts. At the end of the fourth sequence, the dancers slid across the stage and then relevéd into the wings in arabesque. And the final movement (the work’s namesake) was a swirling physical statement of multiple turns and recurring footwork. Such a dynamic start to this special evening.  

Pictured: Coral Martin, Chloe Slade and Evelyn Turner in
Photo: John Hefti
While a glorious all-female sextet (Vajra Voices, directed by Karen R. Clark) sang the early music of Hildegard von Bingen, the company swept in and out of the stage left wings. This was the beginning of the program’s second world premiere, Divining, an uplifting five-chapter dance choreographed by Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton. Divining was prayerful, spiritual and meditative, but not at all quiet or solemn. Everything reached forward and outward, drawing the viewer in with drama. Arms extended into allongé; limbs into arabesque and second position. Bodies crept downstage; eyes looked to the horizon. Each movement was attentive and emotive whether in the serpentine torso, the unexpected hand positions or the scissoring legs. And there was room in the conceptual narrative for a variety of interpretations and responses to the work. Divining was a standout piece, and the entire company danced phenomenally on opening night.

Closing the A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing program was Lustig’s Stone of Hope (2015), an Oakland Ballet company premiere. The final dance suite of the evening, Stone of Hope was set to spirituals, energetically furnished by Nona Brown and the Inspirational Music Collective (directed by Brown). A wealth of enraptured choreography unfolded in the work’s seven movements – parallel jumps, embraces, grand battements, stag leaps, cabrioles. Coral Martin and Rudy Candia’s duet to “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” was a noteworthy moment. I loved how Lustig played with the notion of ‘being anchored’ in the choreography. The word ‘anchored’ certainly evokes images of strength, purpose and resolve, but it is equally about elation and exhilaration. Lustig demonstrated this breadth with vast jumps and gorgeous double attitude lifts. The gestural choreography and accented movements that accompanied Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech (brilliantly offered by Nelvin Moss) were well chosen and didn’t take the focus away from the power of the words.

But the biggest contribution that Stone of Hope makes is in its structure and format. Lustig has crafted a truly ensemble work. Stone of Hope is not for dancers and musicians; it is for a group of artists. They were together on stage; they interacted with each other – it was one cast, and an amazing one at that. Collaboration across fields is pretty common in contemporary performance but real-time, live creative collaboration like that in Stone of Hope is rarer than you might think. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

San Francisco Ballet - Program 6

San Francisco Ballet
Program 6
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 10th, 2016

As the curtain came up on Sunday afternoon’s performance at San Francisco Ballet, the action was already afoot. Dancers populated the stage, engaging in the joyful, buoyant movement that is Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s Prism (2000). As suggested by its title, Prism examines the full spectrum of ballet vocabulary and does so in three abstract chapters. Traditional temps levées and jeté entralaces burst forth, pas de chats travel backwards in space, lifts utilize both legs in attitude and demi-pointe work flourishes. The trio of Max Cauthorn, Myles Thatcher and Diego Cruz shone every minute they were onstage, whether in unison pirouette sequences, split jumps in second position or double tours.

Prism’s second movement opens with a luxurious duet of affection and adoration, danced by Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets. While still not conveying a particular story, these emotions and sentiments spoke loud and clear from the stage. Tan and Helimets went on to lead the corps in a beautiful partnering variation - an elastic, stretchy and elegant phrase. And while there were sky-high extensions and grand lifts, it was the quiet movements that truly stunned. When Tan walked towards Helimets with sweeping arms, it took one’s breath away. Francisco Mungamba’s solo work in the third movement had a number of standout moments, but the way he finished every pirouette was by far the most astonishing. After multiple rotations, he stopped in high relevé, in a perfect passé position and suspended in the air before closing. He was saying farewell to one step before moving onto to the next.

The middle spot on program six was reserved for Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas (2009), a suite of dances accompanied onstage by a solo piano (played with sensitivity and skill by Mungunchimeg Buriad). The cast is comprised of three couples, though Seven Sonatas actually reads like more of a sextet. The pairings change and shift (especially in the opening statement) and a number of solo variations occur in addition to the three duets. And speaking of the cast, what a group on Sunday afternoon – Lorena Feijoo, Carlos Quenedit, Dores André, Vitor Luiz, Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno. It was their remarkable dancing that was the highlight of this ballet.

The intimate nature of Seven Sonatas is certainly compelling and I love how Ratmansky surprises the audience at the piece’s conclusion. Rather than bringing everyone back to the stage at once, he opts to re-introduce the cast with a collection of pas de trois. And in the final moments, each dancer expresses themselves individually instead of a unison or group charge. Having said that, the dynamics do stick out. While Seven Sonatas is actually the same length as Prism, it feels much longer and this is because the dynamics don’t change very much. There are a few exceptions. With its whimsical nature, Luiz’s solo halfway through offered a bit of dynamic range. And Sylve and Di Lanno’s pas de deux added some crescendo in its batterie and echappé motif and turning sequence. But for the most part, the sections in Seven Sonatas feel very similar to each other, at least in terms of flow, weight and ambiance.

San Francisco Ballet in
Wheeldon's Rush©
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush© (2003) is a fantastic piece for this company – an athletic work full of imagery and acceleration. And imagery is an important word here because it is the images in Rush© that stick with you, hours, weeks, even years later. Wheeldon’s use of second position, in relevé and in slides across the floor; his attention to the back of the body and how lifts may be experienced from different angles; the changing levels, the poses on the ground, the running motifs; the scissoring legs and forward propulsion of the body. And of course, the middle pas de deux, danced beautifully at this performance by Sasha De Sola and Luke Ingham. The stage darkens, except for a glowing red light on the backdrop. Costumed in black, the two dancers walk slowly toward each other. Once they meet, they immerse in a sculptural partnering sequence, full of off-center leans and sostenuto articulation. And while the mood is serious, it is also incredibly uplifting.

Monday, April 11, 2016

San Francisco Ballet - Program 7

San Francisco Ballet
Program 7
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 9th, 2016

While I would never presume that Program 7 was the triple bill that all San Francisco Ballet fans were waiting for, it was definitely the one that I was most looking forward to this season – George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (1947), Christopher Wheeldon’s Continuum© (2002) and the much anticipated premiere of Justin Peck’s In the Countenance of Kings. Program 7 more than lived up to my expectations.

The curtain rose to an elegant, regal tableau: a lead couple (Frances Chung and Vitor Luiz), four featured soloists, a corps of eight women and two hanging crystal chandeliers in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. A beautiful picture to launch a beautiful afternoon of dance. In true theme and variations form, a main statement, or ‘the theme’, was communicated first – here, a sequence of épaulement positions, delicate footwork and flowing port de bras. Over the next twenty-five minutes, a number of variations would follow, all paying homage to this primary theme, though they would be compositionally altered. Balanchine took the initial movement sequence, built on it, reverted in, developed it and moved it off the floor into the most extraordinary soaring choreography.

Two separate bourée chapters for the women delighted, as did Luiz’s series of pirouettes and tours. Chung was luminescent in Theme and Variations, her solo Russian pas de chats a thing of pure beauty and perfection. And in the main pas de deux, the circular attitude lifts drew gasps, as Chung’s foot touched the floor for a single second and she was whisked back up in the air, over and over again. A structural surprise, the men’s ensemble joined the action in the last third of the ballet, escorting the women onto the stage in the grandest of entrances. The promenade of waltz steps and chaîné turns that followed continued this noble atmosphere – the stage looking like a ballroom scene plucked from an epic story ballet.

While not the newest piece on Program 7, Wheeldon’s Continuum© was certainly the most avant-garde ballet of the group, a work that speaks of where ballet stands in the twenty-first century. Continuum© presents a chamber suite of brief duets, solos and two quartets, bookended by full cast statements and set to highly contemporary music by György Ligeti.

Carefully and deliberately, the eight dancers walk into the space (the women across the back and the men across the front) and proceed to communicate choreography of constant structural change – patterns, directions, circuits, and accents – all against an understated backdrop. The lighting, by Natasha Katz, evolved throughout the ballet’s forty minutes, simple and deconstructed yet captivating and effective at the same time. The final scene, where the shadows of the dancers were illuminated on the cyclorama was particularly beautiful.

Vanessa Zahorian and Luke Ingham in
Wheeldon's Continuum©
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Specificity and clarity of intention informed all the choreography. Koto Ishihara cycled through a whimsical solo, complete with Cecchetti-inspired arms; Myles Thatcher and Lauren Strongin offered a pas de deux of living physical sculpture. But the standout performance in this ballet was given by Vanessa Zahorian. Wheeldon’s choreographic vocabulary suits her well – the flexed feet positions, the compressed attitudes, the inverted lifts. The middle section’s pas de deux may be on the lengthy side, yet it commands attention with changing conditions, innovative choreography and Zahorian and Luke Ingham’s spectacular dancing.

And then the finale - Peck’s In the Countenance of Kings. This thirty-five minute ensemble work did not disappoint. It is glorious piece of choreography set to a stunning score by Sufjan Stevens. As the curtain went up, the cast was assembled in a cluster upstage center. Gently and gracefully, they unfolded from their opening position, leaving Francisco Mungamba alone on the stage. In his solo, moments of breath and suspension abounded. Accents were ‘up’ and initiated from a deeply internal place. And the arpeggiation in the music rippled through his every movement. The corps returned and took over the stage in a cascading wave-like phrase, which then lead into a series of duets. Henry Sidford and Strongin’s pairing elicited lofty grand rond de jambs, joyful jetés and elastic developpés. Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Norika Matsuyama blazed with vitality and energy, every extension seeming to go on forever. And Mungamba and Isabella DeVivo brought a jazzy duet full of abandon and flair, with some charming emboîté turns. The depth of talent in this company was readily apparent on Saturday afternoon, especially considering that with the exception of two soloists, the entire cast was from the corps.

Peck infused the ballet with abundant directional shifts, including the recurring and athletic arabesque motif. But what made the changes even more potent was how so many were initiated in the upper torso and solar plexus; like the movement started in the soul and the body followed suit. And still there was more to love about In the Countenance of Kings! Peck’s treatment of Stevens’ orchestrations was inspired. He used the complex time signatures to unlock endless choreographic possibilities. What can happen when there is five or seven beats per bar? Or when one measure is in duple meter and the next is in triple? Or when a quarter note is equal to one and then suddenly, an eighth note is equal to one and then, without warning, it’s a half note that is one. The result of his inquiry was a visual feast that electrified the space right up until the final moment when the cast ran full speed into the downstage left wing.

Friday, April 08, 2016

"All Roads Are Lined With Teeth"

Sharp & Fine present
Pictured: Sonja Dale and Jane Selna
Photo: Shannon Kurashige
All Roads Are Lined With Teeth
ODC Theater, San Francisco
April 7th, 2016

I am loving the new ‘dance play’ genre. And I’m purposely calling it new, because I think it is something current, something of today. The dance play is different from Dance Theater and it’s different from the traditional dance dramas brought by the modern dance pioneers. In a dance play, the text and movement have a highly egalitarian relationship. Neither really takes the lead, instead the elements are woven together to unlock and reveal nuanced narrative fibers. The collaborative material is striking and powerful in its own right and yet never seems compartmentalized or unrelated to the larger work. The dance play truly feels like a creature born of the twenty-first century contemporary performance field.

Since December, I’ve seen four dance plays, the most recent being last night’s premiere of Sharp & Fine’s All Roads Are Lined With Teeth, choreography and direction by Megan Kurashige and Shannon Kurashige, text by Amber Hsu and score by Aram Shelton. All Roads Are Lined With Teeth tells of the human journey, specifically the journey of one woman. Shared by the cast of five, hers is a non-linear and non-chronological course of searching, discovery and change. One that ranges from complex and chaotic to tumultuous and perilous and even to ordinary and still. As the musical quartet underscored seventy minutes of action, dance scenes fed into text scenes and vice versa, and sometimes both unfolded concurrently in the same vignette. And in communicating the work’s nonlinear narrative, it felt like two main conceptual components were at play (both of which are found in the title) – the road and the teeth.

A soloist reluctantly entered the space and knelt downstage left. One by one, the other four dancers joined her, each carrying a bench, which they placed into position and jumped onto. A movement phrase developed on and around the benches, and in the first text soliloquies, we are introduced to the woman. We meet an individual who is in a place of transition, approaching the next leg of her uniquely personal journey. The dancers freeze in a mid-run posture, and the viewer knows that this woman is in the midst of traveling a new road.

Teeth served as an ongoing and multi-layered metaphor throughout the piece. Something that appears static but is actually a dynamic and changing entity. A voracious force in unimaginable circumstances. An elusive non-defined structure. A unifying, shared phenomenon. And as the mid-point monologue illustrated, a particular course of development that if interrupted, can lead to a host of complications. It was genius how the project’s collaborators were able to apply the teeth analogy to so many different aspects of the human condition.

The middle of All Roads Are Lined With Teeth also had some noteworthy choreographic moments. A structurally diverse duet spoke with long attitudes, quiet gestures and imposed positions. A dark and frenetic ensemble scene found bodies being dragged from one place to another. Dancers convulsed, contracted and extended through the unison phrase that followed. The togetherness of this movement was tricky from time to time, but with the brewing narrative discord in this chapter, it really didn’t matter. Having said that, the middle of the work also had a couple of challenges. For the most part, the dance, text and music kept All Roads Are Lined With Teeth moving in a forward trajectory. But there were some points in the mid-section where the piece slowed and the thread of the woman’s story got a little lost, at least for me. However, the narrative most certainly returned and resurged in the last third as All Roads Are Lined With Teeth reached an unexpected and heartrending conclusion.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

"Still Life Dances"

Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations presents
Still Life Dances
ODC Theater, San Francisco
Pictured: Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg
Photo: Jenny Stulberg
April 1st, 2016

Sub-divided into two sections (one large, one small), a wall structure sat mid-stage. Choreographers Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg entered the space and began a collection of fluttering movements and succinct, staccato gestures. Initially they were in unison and then subsequently broke off into unique and different phrases.

With these first images, Still Life Dances was underway, an evening-length program by Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations, featuring three pieces from their Still Life series – Still Life No. 1, hold (STILL) and the newest chapter, Still Life No. 4. All are inspired by work from the de Young museum yet they do not seek to be literal interpretations of the paintings. Instead, Still Life Dances embodies their spirit, examining formal elements in composition and drawing a number of parallels between the two fields.

As Still Life No. 1 continued, its structure toggled between moments of togetherness and individuality along with some brief instances of repose. The choreography evolved from the microscopic finger twitches, nods and flexing feet to vast dives, rolls, extensions and then back again. As Simpson and Stulberg embraced in a resting pose, an image of the two in the same attitude was simultaneously projected on the larger of the two walls. They exited the stage and the film hold (STILL) started rolling. Set in an industrial-looking site against a spectacular natural background, movement from Still Life No. 1 played out in hold (STILL). Certainly a brilliant connective fiber in the program, it was the considerations of subjectiveness and viewership that awed with these first two works. Contemplating this movement in the same space, yet in two distinct formats and with a different lens of familiarity made for a deviceful opening to Still Life Dances.

Up next was the evening’s premiere work and the final piece on the program - Still Life No. 4, a thought-provoking quartet. One dancer slid on her back toward the wall. As she met the structure she placed her palm against it, touched her head and swiveled her feet. Two other dancers hovered at the top of each wall, slung over the edge, while a fourth sat against the very back of the stage, with her palm similarly pressed flat. The choreography was intriguing and the dancers performed beautifully. But it was its treatment of perspective that stood out most in Still Life No. 4, particularly the shifting and changing of perspective. Simpson and Stulberg’s movement actually altered the stationary walls. Unexpected angles and foci emerged throughout the dance. Unison footwork patterns performed against the wall made it seem like a floor. As the dancers hung from the structure, dangling their legs like a pendulum, the wall seemed freestanding. Sometimes the wall felt like a ceiling (in the opening slide sequence, for example), sometimes, depending on how the dancers sat at the seam between the wall and the stage, it felt like part of a box. Occasionally the movement made it seem short, at other times, tall. With compositional depth and complexity, Still Life No. 4 invited its audience to view an entity in a variety of contexts, contexts that were created by choreography.

Yet there was even more to uncover in Still Life No. 4. Still life paintings are often of items that we know, things that are commonplace. While certainly stylized and placed in a theatrical container, much of the movement here was also recognizable and relatable. The hand actions; the sitting positions; the pedestrianism. It was accessible vocabulary, like those in still life paintings. At the same time, the choreography was very realistic and functional. The recurring slide motif moved the dancers across the space. It didn’t appear to be representing a feeling or conveying some part of a story; it was getting them from one spot to another. And yet there was a freedom that if some emotional response was evoked by a particular movement, it was welcome. Still Life No. 4 impressed on many fronts, though this amazing (and rare) combination of egalitarianism, realism and openness may have been its crowning glory.