Sunday, July 10, 2016

Selections from SPF9

SAFEhouse Arts presents
SPF9 (Summer Performance Festival)
July 6th-10th, 2016
ODC Theater, San Francisco

On Wednesday, July 6th, SAFEhouse Arts’ annual Summer Performance Festival (SPF) returned to the ODC campus for its ninth year – five days of cutting edge work from a diverse collection of emerging choreographic voices. What follows is commentary and thoughts on two shared programs from this vibrant festival: opening night’s performance of Alyce Finwall Dance Theater/Alma Esperanza Cunningham Movement and Saturday afternoon’s Peter & Co./ka·nei·see/collective.

As Finwall’s Haven opened, dancers Isabel Rosenstock and Katie Meyers faced the audience, heads down, hair swept forward. Keeping their faces obscured, they crawled downstage with their legs extended. Over the next twenty minutes, the duo cycled through an emotive and provocative pas de deux. Finwall’s choreography compelled with its combination of contemporary release technique and contact partnering peppered with flashes of classical ballet (turned out passé, attitude devant and even a supported grand rond de jambe). Haven also explored an array of compositional forms with partnering, solo work, canon and strongly danced unison sequences. But by far, the most striking aspect of the work was how Finwall envisioned the dancers’ hair as a theatrical device - throughout most of the dance, Rosenstock and Meyers’ faces would continue to be partially or completely hidden. While the wildness of the hair provided an interesting structural contrast to the specific and defined choreography, the purposeful action also posited a number of narrative questions. Perhaps by shielding their faces, Finwall was suggesting a move away from the performative space and inwards to the private and personal. Maybe covering their faces was indicative of an obsessive compulsion that couldn’t be shaken. Or was this a larger statement of egalitarianism? With camouflaged faces, it was easy to imagine that Haven’s two dancers could have been anybody, even those seated in the audience.

The masking of faces by hair was an ongoing theme in SPF9’s first performance, also factoring heavily in Cunningham’s SHE WENT/4 solos (danced by Ronja Ver, Keryn Breiterman-Loader, Karla Quintero and Arletta Anderson). As the work began, the house lights were up. A soloist (again with her hair swept forward) stood on an audience seat, singing. After her song was over, she began moving her torso side to side like a mannequin, a motion which quickly grew to frenetic shaking. She then ventured down the stairs towards the stage and when she reached her destination, she stood in a calm fifth position, and prepared her arms from bras bas to second.

With its four segments, each set to a different musical selection, SHE WENT/4 solos is a narrative exploration, to be sure. Though it was actually Cunningham’s choreography that spoke volumes for me. As in the first solo, each individual chapter mixed recognizable dance vocabulary with unpredictable physical activity and pedestrian tasks. Deconstructing norms and assumptions of what movement can or should ‘fit’ together, Cunningham seamlessly crafted each phrase into a choreographic stream of consciousness. Solo number two featured a repetitive footwork pattern of turned in lunges and traditional pas de bourées with moments of quiet and repose in open fourth position. The third movement was filled with quick isolations and sharp contractions, interspersed with deep pliés in second position. SHE WENT/4 solos’ closing chapter revisited the pas de bourée motif, this time accompanied by parallel developpés, mimed jumping rope and sitting amongst the audience. And the great thing about these kaleidoscopic movement sequences is that in each instance, surprise abounded – every moment a delicious departure from the expected.

Onto Saturday afternoon’s 3:30pm performance and the shared program from Peter & Co. and ka·nei·see/collective. For Interstice, Founder/Artistic Director Peter Cheng faced backward, lit from the side of the stage shin-buster style. He began circling though all kinds of curves and arcs in the spine, in the arms and in the torso. Pathways were explored to the front, side, back and sagitally; speeds varied from intensely slow to lightning fast; movements from tiny to vast and broad. While Cheng was certainly creating and sculpting shapes in space, Interstice was about the process of getting there, a study in articulation. An aptly named work (interstice of course meaning the ‘in between’), Cheng’s solo revealed the points along a greater journey. 

Pictured: Kalani Hicks and Sophia Larriva in
Peter & Co.'s Transverse Course
Photo: Afshin Odabaee
Peter & Co. also offered Transverse Course, a trio danced by Kalani Hicks Sophia Larriva and Alyssa Mitchel. Having seen a previous iteration of this dance last summer, many of my original observations held true, especially its structural and compositional diversity. But the wonderful thing about dance is that a piece is never the same twice (and with the exception of one dancer, this was a different cast). There is always an opportunity to uncover something new at every viewing. What stood out this time was a specificity and definitive nature within the individual movements. This is not to imply that the choreography wasn’t clear before, not at all. But an increased clarity in intention and communication definitely spoke from the ODC stage. From the smallest motion - slowly rolling through the foot to place it on the floor – to the big developpé extensions in second position, the attention to where the movement was coming from, where it was going and what path it was on was palpable.

Artistic Director Tanya Chianese of ka·nei·see/collective has a knack for creating ensemble works that have both strong technical choreography and deep narrative themes. And she has a keen ability to translate these goals to a large-scale format for a large cast – Masses is proof of this. Twelve dancers entered the space for a powerful, high energy, full-out opening sequence. Almost like reactive molecular dynamics, the cast adhered together, appropriating each other’s movements. Next, a few would break off and separate to explore another reality and then the cycle would repeat again. It was elemental, basal, even a little primal. Performers danced in close proximity (yet amazingly, no collisions); the dozen bodies onstage purposefully creating an atmosphere of congestion. Right from this first chapter, the message was percolating - Masses considered the individual existence in the context of the swarm, particularly issues of identity, decision-making, empathy and being aware.    

Reacting in the moment played out in a side-to-side exchange. Dancers traveled across the stage, while others emerged from the wings directly blocking their path. Brief partnered lifts moved these ‘obstacles’ out of the way; sometimes with care and attention, sometimes with indifference and annoyance. Near the end of Masses, a compellingly tender duet surfaced, accompanied live onstage by violinist Lucia Petito. As this beautiful conversation played out, the remaining ensemble sat in a line and stared straight forward into the audience. Were they missing what was happening right in front of them? Were they choosing to look away? Were they checking to see if we were watching? Or were they noticing that with the audience, they were even part of a much larger crowd? 

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