Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body"

Book Review

Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body
by Mark Franko
Revised Edition
published by Oxford University Press, 2015

The relationship between dance and text is a predominant theme in today’s choreographic/performance arena. It’s everywhere – in Dance Theater, interdisciplinary collaborations, mixed media immersions, classical ballet and contemporary dance. But of course, the interconnectedness of these two fields is by no means a new phenomenon – in fact, the conversation between movement and language may be one of the oldest dialogues there is.

In his book, Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body, scholar and author Mark Franko tackles this vast subject by looking at a particular period in history and a specific genre of choreography: French Court Ballet staged between the late 1500s and the late 1600s. By analyzing actual examples from that era, Franko unlocks the deep communion between dance and text during that century, while simultaneously making a connection to the present day.   

Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body impresses on many fronts. If French Court Ballet is a new subject for you, as it was for me, by the time you reach the end of the book, it will no longer be unfamiliar. In its five main chapters, along with a prologue and epilogue, Franko covers the topic with curiosity, breadth and plenitude. From the literal architecture of geometrical dance (where bodies spelled words and patterned narrative symbols) to a more deconstructed treatment of choreography and gesture as textual metaphor. Franko’s commentary on Burlesque Ballet includes the genre’s distinct physical vocabulary as well as the messages it was attempting to convey within a theatrical container. Both subtle and overt messages of sexuality, identity and gender fluidity; statements that brought to light the socio-cultural realities of the time. Chapter five takes us to the late 1660s where Franko shares a number of concurrent and related developments in dance and text: a move toward institutional/syllabus-based ballet, the rise of the comedy-ballet and a rethinking of the dance interlude in performance structure (his discussion of this last one is especially affecting and thought-provoking). The epilogue, titled “Repeatability, Reconstruction and Beyond”, brings a dance dramaturgy perspective to the table. While an interesting manner in which to close the book, some of the ideas posited in these last twenty pages are less convincing. But they do get you thinking, to be sure. And even though Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body focuses on choreography and narrative, Franko also manages to relate the two disciplines to the evolution of music composition in these hundred years - fugue versus single melodic voicing, harmony versus dissonance and much more.

Some structural components of the book deserve special mention. Because Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body focuses on language and physicality in French Court Ballet, there are a number of French quotes and literary excerpts throughout. I loved how Franko included the original French followed by an English translation. It not only gives atmosphere and context, but also helps transport the reader (at least this reader) to that time and place from so long ago. Also, amongst his thoughtful discussion and analysis, Franko cleverly unpacks terminology commonly used in dance studies - terms like avant-garde, burlesque, baroque, discourse, practice and theory. He provides a more comprehensive understanding of their meaning and intent, and encourages the reader to think differently and more broadly about these themes and concepts.

Another important achievement of Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body is that from the very beginning of the book, Franko draws a parallel between French Court Ballet and present-day performance. How can baroque court ballet speak to today’s choreographic endeavors? While it may not be the main thesis of the book, the connection Franko makes between the past and the present is undeniable. Even separated by hundreds of years, commonalities abound – a blurry border between art and life; an active approach to immersive viewership; performance art as a means to solution; a porous line separating the performers and the audience. I was particularly struck by how Burlesque Ballet of that period sounded very much like today’s Dance Theater.

Last point for potential readers. Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body is one of the most academic texts I’ve read, perhaps geared towards graduate level students in dance and performance studies. Much of the language is thick and heavy; knowing that ahead of time may be helpful.

Friday, June 24, 2016


The Inaugural Season
co-presented with ODC Theater
B’Way Theater, San Francisco
June 23rd, 2016

Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic change in June’s Bay Area dance programming. Just five years ago, the June schedule was very different from today. Certainly there were performances, but it seemed quieter. Not anymore. The last few Junes definitely indicate a new trend; a month jam-packed with outstanding dance from this region’s vibrant community. And this year is no exception.

June 2016 has seen annual festivals (Walking Distance Dance Festival, Fresh Meat Festival, San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival), home seasons (Hope Mohr Dance) and ongoing choreographic residencies (RAW at SAFEhouse Arts). Having just graduated their first class of dance MFAs, St. Mary’s College of California also introduced the MFA Student Thesis Concert Series this June; five separate programs showcasing the group’s final projects.

Last night at ODC Theater, there was yet another landmark June event: the Inaugural Season of SFDanceworks, a brand new dance company under the Artistic Direction of James Sofranko. In his introductory message, Sofranko shared the vision driving SFDanceworks – to showcase breadth in dance performance, across both time and style. And with this first program, he has more than delivered on that goal and vision. Five pieces (some new, some restaged); each one a unique choreographic statement of physicality, content and form.   

First up were the program’s three world premieres, beginning with Penny Saunders’ Joe & Ida, a co-production with Grand Rapids Ballet. An ensemble dance for six (three men, three women), Joe & Ida is a clever artistic investigation of romance and relating. Anne Zivolich-Adams and Garrett Anderson danced a broad duet, conveying a long and varied history. In contrast, Dana Genshaft and Ben Needham-Wood’s pairing felt new but magnetic, the two clinging to each other at every moment. Near the end, we encountered the third couple in an inspired interaction. As they faced each other, Amber Neumann and Kendall Teague were being posed and orchestrated by the other four dancers – hands moved into specific positions, bodies adjusted like puppets. It was like they were trying to teach the two how to relate to each other. This was met with a priceless look from Neumann and Teague; a silent query of, “do we really want to relate to each other like they do?” While the three duets were the meat of Joe & Ida, Saunders also injected several sections where everyone was onstage, including the spectacular cannoned wave sequence. Not only did this provide a sense of the whole but also, it explored the notion of relating as a collective. Choreographically, Saunders defies categorization, and in a good way. From contemporary release technique to fencing motifs to robotic isolations to gesture to Fosse-inspired vignettes – Joe & Ida had it all and it all fit together. And the choreographic impetus and point of articulation particularly fascinated - movements initiating from the limbs, the torso, the head and the spine.

Shifting gears into the dance theater arena, members of the company rolled out a large square of white material center stage. Onto it, a stunning video of rustling flowers appeared and Neumann stepped into a living meadow. This was the opening image for Genshaft’s Portrait, a solo inspired by 19th century novelist Georges Sands, the penname of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin. Through a vivid mélange of music, costume, projection, lighting, props and choreography, Portrait celebrated a fluidity of the self and the soul. Gorgeous balances and extensions unfurled (Neumann held a lengthy attitude in second position and then effortlessly rose in relevé) as the video landscape evolved beneath her feet. The projections on the floor were a breathtaking theatrical device, but there was something else that struck about that square of material. While communicating this free and multi-faceted spirit, Genshaft had Neumann remain within that designated space. Perhaps this was to comment and highlight the societal and cultural constraints against which this individual battled. I hope Portrait is expanded at some point; I want to know more about the story.

Zivolich-Adams entered from up right and crossed the back of the stage in a series of stylized ball-changes – down in plié, up in relevé - a fast-paced, staccato start to the program’s next solo. Set to music by Bob Crosby, Sofranko’s Z takes neo-classicist structure and sets it in a contemporary container. In true neo-classical style, the percussive nature of the score was revealed and accented by the choreography - the meter and the rhythmical figures reading in each physical motif. And like most neo-classical work, Z was about the dance itself, about Zivolich-Adams’ performance in the space, rather than tied to any particular narrative line. Z also brought a distinct flavor to the table – a fun, flirty and playful one. Too often, contemporary dance gets stuck in an overly serious and angsty course. But this artform can equally convey great light, joy and laughter. Z reminds us of this.

Pictured: Garrett Anderson and Tobin Del Cuore in
Lubovitch's Concerto Six Twenty-Two
Photo: Andrew Weeks
Closing the first part of SFDanceworks’ inaugural program was the adagio duet from Lar Lubovitch’s Concerto Six Twenty-Two (1986), danced with precision and care by Anderson and Tobin Del Cuore. Certainly a highlight of the evening, this is a beautiful, timeless work of art filled with choreographic range. Scored by Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto in A Major”, simple and elegant pedestrianism read as the two men walked towards each other. Sculptural positions were created as rounded arms touched overhead. Floaty jumps and brisés had a hopeful air; arabesque extensions stretched in longing. And the partnering. This excerpt is a quintessential pas de deux, a true dance of two people working together. Lubovitch crafted an experience where the performers share the partnering roles throughout – each one becoming both the supported and the supporter. Narratively, much could be read into the dance, and I’m sure there were numerous interpretations in the audience last night. For me, the mutual-ness and reciprocity in Lubovitch’s work speaks a message of compassion and grace.

More than any other piece on the program, Alejandro Cerrudo’s Lickety Split (2006) felt like a contemporary suite - a collection of individual, yet interdependent statements that together formed one complete work. As the lights came up on Lickety Split, the six dancers walked in slowly and deliberately, three women from one side of the stage, three men from the other. Abruptly, four darted out of the space leaving Genshaft and Anderson alone. A tender pas de deux unfolded between them. Subsequent duets added different moods to the mix: sensuality, abandon and passion (Zivolich-Adams and Needham-Wood) alongside whimsical competition (Neumann and Del Cuore). And Anderson delighted with a comical solo that perfectly broke the fourth wall. But it was the structure of Lickety Split that really stood out. Cerrudo managed to connect each of the sections with seamlessness and ease, infusing the work with brief interludes to avoid stops and starts. Dancers slid across the stage like living curtains. One pas de deux transitioned to the next through a short trio or quartet. Unison episodes changed the stage dynamic between chapters. A constant flow of changing physicality in less than twenty minutes – the piece is indeed aptly named. As Lickety Split came to its conclusion, the entire ensemble cycled through a series of big movements and complex stage architecture. It was a fitting finale to the dance, though it was the one time in the entire program that it looked like the company needed to be on a bigger stage.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Hope Mohr Dance

Hope Mohr Dance
ODC Theater, San Francisco
June 9th, 2016

An evening of brilliant theatrical extremes awaits with Hope Mohr Dance’s newest program, showing this weekend at ODC Theater. Celebrating their ninth home season, the company’s double bill brings two diverse compositions - a world premiere dance theater wonder paired with a more abstract, conceptually enigmatic, choreographic opus.

Hope Mohr’s Manifesting was one of the best dance theater works that I have seen in a long time. Not only is it a smart, witty and complex marriage of movement, music (by Beth Wilmurt), text and design, it is highly entertaining and engages the viewer from beginning to end. And achieving both of these goals matters. As such, Manifesting is quite an important addition to the oeuvre of dance theater. In the program notes, Mohr shares that this new piece is “inspired by artist manifestos…” and to that end, Mohr has crafted a distinct container to explore the creative mind and its process - what drives it, what it wants, what it rejects, what it chooses, what it discards and what it ruminates on.

Folding tables were arranged in a C-formation on the stage; mikes, masks, papers and books layered on each. The scene reminded of a table read for a play, a space for a cast to workshop ideas and material. And workshop they did. They challenged and revealed themes of viewership, expectation and judgment; they posed internal and external questions of themselves and their work; they donned animal masks (by Tiffany Amundson) and recited excerpts from iconic artist manifestos, including Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 ‘no manifesto’. All in an effort to crystallize their own creative desire. But in true dance theater fashion, there was no resolution to the story, and that was wonderful. Manifesting allowed its audience to glimpse and witness an active process, unfolding over a specific period of time and in this particular space.   

Pictured: Tara McArthur, James Graham and Jenny Stulberg
in Hope Mohr's Manifesting
Photo: Margo Moritz
Compositional devices of accumulation, repetition, appropriation and development factored strongly in Manifesting. As did a dynamic interplay between the performers – combative/competitive in one moment and supportive/intimate in another. The movement vocabulary had a similar breadth and diversity, ranging from compulsive athleticism to primal physicality. This, combined with the masks, provoked an interesting comment on the space between the animalistic and the cerebral. And the music definitely deserves special mention. Wilmurt took us on a stylistic journey from chant to swing to musical theater, and the company delivered at every turn with their phenomenal vocal performance.

On the other side of the spectrum sits Mohr’s Stay (2015), a non-narrative choreographic response to Francis Bacon’s paintings. In vast contrast to Manifesting, the stage was open and uncluttered with bright blue flats and mobile neon green arrows. Onto this landscape Mohr created an array of evolving physical architecture as bodies shifted in and out of a series of image-based scenes. While Stay is certainly not story-based, to say it is completely abstract doesn’t feel quite right either. Because there was tangible emotion, and identifiable moods at play. Tender motifs, like when James Graham’s foot gently caressed Parker Murphy’s cheek. Or the more dark and foreboding atmosphere of dancers appearing to devour each other’s hands.

For me, the most intriguing aspect of Stay was the dancers’ roles in the various vignettes. How Mohr injected active and passive participants in much of the staging. And how that structural intention changed the imagery and the visual perspective. Stay is also a very technically demanding, dance-filled work. Balances held in complicated off-center positions, extensions beginning when the body is upside-down. The talented cast communicated this challenging choreography with acuity and fervor.

Stay was an encore from last year, so I completely understand why it closed the program. World premiere first, returning piece second. But with the nature of each individual work, it seemed that the reverse order would have made more sense.