Saturday, June 24, 2017

Joe Goode Performance Group

Joe Goode Performance Group
30th Anniversary Season
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
June 23rd, 2017

Before heading to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater to catch Joe Goode Performance Group’s thirtieth anniversary program, I decided to look up the gifts that have historically marked three decades. My search yielded two primary results – pearl (traditional) and diamond (modern). So then, I started to list some common descriptors for these two stones. Pearl brought to mind things like rare, smooth and timeless, whereas diamond conjured strength, sparkle and faceted. And with diamonds, there was also the additional characteristic, as an oft symbol of long-term commitment – certainly apt considering that the evening commemorated thirty years of Artistic Director Joe Goode’s creative innovation and boundary-pushing art. All of these properties and qualities were present in Friday night’s winsome bill, the first half comprised of excerpts from four past works (2004’s Grace, 2011’s Rambler, 2009’s Wonderboy and 1991’s Remembering the Pool at the Best Western) followed by the company’s newest endeavor, Nobody Lives Here Now.

When I think of the term rare, the synonyms distinct and unique also immediately pop up, and each offering on the program lived into those words. From the intense physicality of Grace to the vocally driven Rambler to the puppetry and storytelling in Wonderboy to the realm straddling, emotionally charged Remembering the Pool at the Best Western to the dance theater opus Nobody Lives Here Now, each piece distinguished itself as rare and exceptional. The transitions between the first four excerpts were the epitome of smooth – one morphed into the next with care and attention, never an abrupt halt or jarring shift. And in terms of being timeless, all five performance works on the program revealed ‘timeless narratives’, themes that transcend a specific point in time, and so, can always speak to audiences. Relatable human experiences like being pulled in different directions, feeling isolated, loss, grief and personal identity. A pearl of a program indeed.

Strength read throughout each chapter of the night, though two examples in particular stood out. Marit Brook-Kothlow, Andrew Ward and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello’s opening trio from Grace was one such moment. An incredibly technical excerpt with shape-based, clearly defined movement, Grace was forceful and powerful. The partnering between the three dancers was dynamically acrobatic, and at one point, in a cantilevered balance, Brook-Kothlow seemed to effortlessly swim above Ward and Barrueto-Cabello. In Wonderboy, the men’s choreographic section provided a different take on strength. Again, Goode’s phrase material was specific and vibrant, yet in each connection between the four men (Barrueto-Cabello, Melecio Estrella, James Graham and Ward), a nurture and openness was so present and palpable. Here was strength shown through vulnerability and trust. Sparkle definitely made its appearance in the program too, specifically in the make-up and costume design for Nobody Lives Here Now.

Last, moving onto faceted…or perhaps multi-faceted is the better term. In Rambler, linguistics, gender stereotypes and social norms converge, through movement and text and within a decidedly humorous Western/cowboy container. And the text was treated (at least in this excerpt) in two different ways, through Patricia West’s spoken soliloquy and through Goode’s song, both cloaked in extremes and alluding to the connective narrative tissue. Remembering the Pool at the Best Western brought characterization and choreography to the table (figuratively and literally as Goode is seated at a kitchen table for the majority of the excerpt) as well as a meeting of gesture and language. All of these facets work together to help share a somber narrative, one that is a curiosity about death, and is seeking a connection with those who have passed into another realm of being.

Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, Andrew Ward & Marit Brook-Kothlow in
Nobody Lives Here Now
Photo RJ Muna
And now onto the most multi-faceted work on the program, Nobody Lives Here Now. This dance theater piece had about every theatrical device that one could imagine – videography, text script, props, costume, make-up, lighting design, gesture, mirroring, sets, characters, scenework, purposeful absurdity, humor as well as compositional repetition and exaggeration. Live music, performed by the Thalea String Quartet, scores the entire work and in addition to all of these elements, Nobody Lives Here Now has profound and vital messages - gender fluidity, the prevalence of labels, living fully into the self, and at the end, aging – all explored through narrative abstraction. Nobody Lives Here Now invites its audience into a magical sphere, using the world of illusion, spectacle and grandeur as an artistic allegory for metamorphosis and change. It’s entertaining, engaging (a most enthusiastic standing ovation greeted the cast at its conclusion) and very layered. But like a layer cake, the more layers you add, the chance that the cake might lean increases, and that’s what happened a little here. There was so much going on onstage that the deep, weighty and important narrative fibers got lost a bit, at least for me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Amy Foley's Bellwether Dance Project - SPF10

Bellwether Dance Project examines judgment and disparity in Thighs and Wages
As part of next month’s Summer Performance Festival (SPF10)
Presented by SAFEhouse Arts
Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco – July 6th–16th 

Bellwether Dance Project in Thighs and Wages
Photo Jane Hu
Dramatic directional shifts. Living poses and postures. Vast use of second and fourth positions in plié and in extension; a reflection of chasms and gaps. Technically intricate phrase material that is simultaneously expressive, risky and surprising. Unison, canon and partnering. Diverse physical vocabulary: turned out attitude and fouetté jumps, pedestrian running, parallel assemblés, task-based gestural sequences, contorted runway walks and solar plexuses lifting in a high upper body arch. Compositional repetition acting as both an emphasis and an anesthetic. Picturesque vignettes that speak of camaraderie and shared experience contrasted with challenging tableaux of manipulation, dismissal and control.

All these choreographic states and more await in Bellwether Dance Project’s Thighs and Wages, an ensemble work where contemporary performance and narrative abstraction evolve and converge. Conceived by Bellwether Dance Project’s Artistic Director Amy Foley, Thighs and Wages takes the stage in early July as part of the tenth annual SAFEhouse Arts Summer Performance Festival (SPF). Every summer, SAFEhouse Director Joe Landini welcomes emerging and established choreographic voices alike to the highly anticipated and eclectic dance event, this year held at the Joe Goode Annex. Bellwether Dance Project is thrilled to be part of 2017’s line-up, sharing a program with Linda Bouchard Multimedia Works.

A lifelong dancer, Foley began taking class at the age of five and continued throughout her childhood and teenage years, particularly pulled towards ballet. And like many serious dance students, sometime in high school she started to contemplate what might come out of these years of training, “I thought, wait, I’m not going to be a professional ballerina, but there must be a place in dance where I fit in.” After taking a brief hiatus from the studio, Foley rediscovered movement at Colorado College, and specifically found a connection with modern dance. “Here, I could use my technique, athleticism and grace, though in a different context, a more grounded one – it felt like home,” she recalls. Fast forward a bit and Foley found herself in San Francisco, with the goal of dancing and performing, and eventually discovered Robert Moses’ class. Within a couple of years, she joined Robert Moses’ KIN and remained a company member for a decade. During this season, Foley also taught and freelanced with other San Francisco dance organizations, like Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and Shift Physical Theater.

After her stint at Robert Moses’ KIN, Foley noticed a new artistic and creative pull within, an itch to start making her own work. Though, at the same time, she didn’t want to abandon the dancer/performer part of her being. So once again, it was time for some penetrating questions, “am I a dancer, am I a choreographer, where should my focus lie?” Like most deep inquiries, Foley found that there wasn’t one answer, and that for her, living into both roads felt right. Still continuing to perform (with ODC, and of late with RAWdance, project.b. and KAMBARA+DANCERS), she also began presenting work in a number of different choreographic outlets: ODC’s Pilot Program, LINES Ballet’s summer intensive, RAWdance’s CONCEPT series, PUSHfest, Robert Moses’ KIN’s By Series and the Dance Mission Choreographic Showcase. Over the past sixteen months, this journey in dancemaking has intensified even further, with the official formation of Foley’s company, Bellwether Dance Project, and more recently, as a Lead Artist at SAFEhouse Arts.

While RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) has been a fixture in the San Francisco choreographic climate for ten years, SAFEhouse’s Lead Artist program is a brand new offshoot. “We decided this year to start moving towards an artist co-op model as a way for SAFEhouse to become more sustainable,” explains Landini, “we invited a group of RAW artists to help us run SAFEhouse in the areas of Production, Marketing, Development and Operations; six of this year’s SPF choreographers are Lead Artists.” Of course, built into the Lead Artist program is space to construct and develop new work as well as several performance opportunities. Foley’s Thighs and Wages is one of the resulting dances from her time in this creative, exploratory environment.

Bellwether Dance Project in Thighs and Wages
Photo Jane Hu
While not a linear story, Thighs and Wages has a powerful narrative and conceptual foundation. “The piece considers and alludes to the ways that women are scrutinized and objectified; how turning someone into an object lessens their humanness,” Foley shares, “and without suggesting any answer or resolution, it challenges the viewer to contemplate the ramifications and outcomes of this objectification – abuse, violence or training women in self-doubt.” A twenty-minute work for five women, Thighs and Wages saw its premiere in November of 2016 at SAFEhouse. “I was really happy with the first showing back in November; it went well, and it also made me realize that I wanted to delve deeper into Thighs and Wages,” adds Foley. With the upcoming July performances in SPF10, she is doing just that, once again is diving into this narrative, contemporary choreography.

Re-visiting any type of project brings with it such great opportunities – the chance to create new material, to edit and adjust existing parts and the occasion to possibly work with new collaborators. All of these hold true for Foley’s next iteration of Thighs and Wages. “I’m expanding the piece and creating some new ideas as well as changing some of the overall structure and phrases,” Foley describes, “and four of the five dancers are new, so it’s exciting to experience their individualism, creativity and different ways of moving in the work.” Dancers in the original cast of Thighs and Wages were Kaitlyn Ebert, Jackie Goneconti Gibbons, Emeline Le Thiec, Jane Selna and Maggie Stack, all of who also performed the work in January as part of the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival. Stack will be returning for SPF10 and will be joined by Marlie Couto, Liza Kroeschell, Courtney Mazeika and Katerina Wong.

As the SPF10 performances near (just a mere two weeks away), Foley is eager to present the next version of Thighs and Wages, this time in a new space and with a new quintet of dance artists. And she is also keen to share the piece with viewers who may be familiar with the work and those who are encountering it for the first time, “I hope the audience feels moved, whether touched, angry, sad or something else altogether; that they feel something is very important to me.”

Bellwether Dance Project in Thighs and Wages - Thurs, July 6th at 8:00pm and Sat, July 8th at 8:00pm.

*this article is sponsored by San Francisco Movement Arts Festival

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Monday, June 12, 2017

ChoreoFest 2017

Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
ChoreoFest 2017
Yerba Buena, San Francisco
June 10th, 2017

Many dancemakers take advantage of the summer months to take their work al fresca, offering site-specific performances in alternative, natural settings or on outdoor stages. This is also true in the Bay Area, though outside performances, even summer ones, can be a bit risky in San Francisco – warmer weather and a cooperative climate are never a guarantee, to be sure. That being said, sometimes the stars align and this past weekend at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival was one of those moments. Gorgeous weather, outstanding choreography, and uplifting dancing was on the menu at ChoreoFest 2017, a three-day performing arts event held in and around Yerba Buena, expertly curated by Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein, co-Artistic Directors of RAWdance. I was fortunate to catch the middle offering on Saturday afternoon, featuring three premiere works and one encore from 2016.

Allegra Bautista in RAWdance's Requiem
Photo Hillary Goidell
Opening the program in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum was RAWdance’s haunting, stunning Requiem, choreographed by Rein, Smith and Katerina Wong. Costumed in navy and wearing black sheer blindfolds, a trio cycled through a slow, meticulous, meditative phrase, with their backs to the audience. A range of small and large movements unfolded - from a single palm rising to the sky to developpés in parallel second to huge grand rond de jambes ending in arabesque. This first statement morphed into a larger ensemble as dancer after dancer walked with purpose and strength into the scene; an openness and calmness surging in every step, almost with a Tai chi like sensibility. Both vulnerability and a deliberate spirit sang through the space as solar plexuses ascended upward. And countertechnique lifts and balances added loft, breath and a community spirit to the work.

While introspectiveness abounded during Requiem, a somber note was also very present, especially as the dancers peered out through the sheer black masks. And the movement contained moments of fracture. Long extensions of the leg would suddenly break at the knee or at the hip and poses would purposefully collapse. But quickly these instances of fracture would morph into something different and choreographically transcend into the expanse. Because I arrived right as the performance was starting, I didn’t read the program notes until after. Only then did I learn that this striking work was titled Requiem, and it was a remembrance for the forty-nine souls violently taken a year ago at Pulse in Orlando. A response, a tribute and also an example of the inherent healing power within dance – if you have a chance to see this work, take it.

The crowd made its way across the street and settled just outside the Yerba Buena Forum space for dawsondancesf’s hold fast to dreams, a new trio from Gregory Dawson. Danced by Erik Debono, Frankie Lee Peterson III and Jacob Williams, the piece started with the three leaning against a sculpture. A series of percussive hand gestures and arm sequences brought the trio away from and back to their starting position, after which they slowly walked down the length of the building until reaching a corner boundary. Some of the first movements recurred in this new place, but this time, growing and developing. Debono, Peterson and Williams hugged the structure, making different points of contact with the driving choreographic phrase material, some partnering, some unison, cluster shapes and even parkour-like leaps. And as the pas de trois continued, a physical essay on perspective and assumptions arose. What happens when a wall becomes the floor? What movement is possible when we flip our expectations? How does choreography read when it is performed against surfaces, rather than being framed or contained by them?

Just outside the Yerba Buena Theater for the Arts was the locale for Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations’ Still Life No. 6, the third premiere on the Saturday afternoon program, choreographed and performed by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg, with live cello accompaniment by Shanna Sordahl. In brightly colored, long-sleeve, high neck unitards, the pair shared an artistic mélange with the viewer, one combining deep creative process and choreographic specificity. Small reflexive movements repeated in the shoulders, fingertips and bouncing knees. Swinging arms reflected accumulation and diminution compositional devices as well as changes in intensity and dynamics. Attention to detail was everywhere in the excerpted work, be it in directional facings, the axis of the body, the use of stillness, and of course in the gestures and movements themselves. Such clarity and definition in every second, like the difference between the palms lying flat on the ground as opposed to resting on the knuckles.

As Still Life No. 6 reached its last third, Simpson and Stulberg moved away from the central performing square and towards an adjacent wall for a handstand series. Next the duo weaved through the audience, themselves sharing a text excerpt and then inviting audience members to continue with the text while they returned to their original performance space. In the program, there is a note that the work “…draws various elements found in Doris Salcedo’s installation piece Plegaria Muda.” Part of SFMOMA’s collection, this particular piece is a grouping of bench structures with sprouting greenery, arranged throughout a room. You walk through it, deciding how much time to linger in one spot, which benches to view and in what order. And so, there is an opportunity to be immersed within Salcedo’s installation. I felt like a similar immersive experience was evolving in this final section of the dance. And one recurring physical motif throughout Still Life No. 6 had me mesmerized. At several points, Simpson and Stulberg nodded and shook their head, looking to the surface of the ground, and almost charting a path or a line. I wondered, did this represent the greenery growth in Salcedo’s work? Or was it the path that you take when viewing Plegaria Muda? Perhaps it was something entirely different. I’m certainly looking forward to considering these questions again.

For the last piece, we transitioned to the middle of the garden space for The Movemessenger(s) in 2016’s Hummingbird, choreography by Angela Dice Nguyen. A rumbling electronic score with voice text sang through the open air. Into the space, dancers Hien Huynh, Cooper Neely and Linda Phung offered contemporary physical movement, heavily inspired by martial arts vocabulary: giant jumps and dives, sliding on the grass and powerful, deep pliés. With a winning combination of highly athletic choreography and a profoundly tender approach, Hummingbird felt narrative to me. Not linear, but conceptually driven. The notion of a hummingbird was present throughout, with literal motifs, like fluttering, pulsating and vibrating alongside more abstracted flight imagery and partnering. A lovely coupling of groundedness and suspension spanned the dance, which finished with dramatic Limón swings, interspersed with parallel jumps. And while completely coincidental, the low-flying birds that made multiple passes over the performance space during Hummingbird definitely added to the experience.

Friday, June 09, 2017

"Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora"

Book Review

Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora
by Joanna Dee Das
published by Oxford University Press
released June 2017

Imagine sitting with a group of pre-professional dance students, and asking for a show of hands of who had heard Katherine Dunham’s name before. I think most hands would go up, indicating a familiarity with or recognition of Dunham. But ‘to what extent’ is the more interesting question. Had they studied Dunham technique or do they just know of her name? Had they read biographies of Dunham or just heard her mentioned in an introductory undergraduate or conservatory dance history seminar? Had they written a paper on this important figure or read one paragraph in a textbook? Had they had the opportunity to actually see some of her choreography, whether on film or in a reconstruction? While this scene is certainly hypothetical, chances are, unless these young students had encountered a Dunham scholar, expert or enthusiast at some point in their training, their exposure to her has likely been limited. Brief discussions that cannot even begin to cover Dunham’s broad and rich story, her process and choreography or her personal and professional missions. But a much fuller picture is attainable by looking to writings like Joanna Dee Das’ new book, Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora.

Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora takes the reader on a captivating journey, chronicling with expert and thorough detail the life and work of African American dance legend Katherine Dunham. An artist; an activist; a pioneering spirit; an advocate for racial and social justice; an explorer that thirsted for knowledge and understanding – Dee Das successfully and eloquently introduces a multi-faceted woman to her audience. A woman of incomparable talent, who was unafraid of challenge and provocation. A woman who sought to transcend expectations and assumptions in performance, in the studio and in everyday exchanges. And, a woman who was indeed complex and complicated.

In eight chapters (plus an epilogue), Dee Das touches on the varied aspects that combined into Dunham’s larger narrative: the intersection of art and activism throughout her life; the artistic desire of creation and construction; multiple research expeditions fueled by a deep longing to fully live into the African Diaspora, including a vital, lifelong connection with Haiti; scholarly pursuit of fields like anthropology and ethnography; as well as an extensive repertory review of Dunham’s vast choreographic archives. Informational gems, told through Dee Das’ compelling prose, leap from the book’s pages. Chapter two’s mention of Dunham’s thoughts on the solar plexus as an integral point of articulation in the body, her experience in Hollywood in 1940s, her links with other dance icons and the breakdown of her Rites de Passage piece.

Mid-way through Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora, Dee Das charts the establishment of the Katherine Dunham School of Dance, later changing its name to the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre, and its decade of broad, holistic (a word which Dee Das specifically uses in the epilogue to describe Dunham) curriculum. The Dunham Company’s international tours are outlined as are an array of responses and reactions to her choreography and work from friends, colleagues, company dancers and critics. Accounts of financial challenges and charged institutional/bureaucratic obstacles abound, all scored by Dunham’s tenacious, unyielding drive. Particularly poignant is the final chapter in the book relaying Dunham’s time in East St. Louis, Illinois. Here, the reader encounters how Dunham helped to transform a racially, socially, economically fractured population through community activism, political engagement and youth arts initiatives. Yet, the message that is so plainly and vulnerably revealed on these pages is that one of the most powerful transformations from the relationships forged and the infrastructure built in that place was within Dunham herself. And while fifty years in the past, this chapter significantly speaks to the present day.    

Incredibly well-researched and fully cited, Dee Das manages to avoid some of the pitfalls that can plague academic tomes – hers is a very readable, accessible volume (it still surprises me how many academic books are not, seeing as how they should be trying to educate and share information) and has a winning convergence of biography and analysis. Because of her comprehensive approach, the book is well suited to study within a number of disciplines – dance/performance studies, to be sure, but also gender studies, history, sociology, cultural anthropology, as just a few examples. And reaching a broader audience matters, even when it comes to academic writing.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Smuin - Dance Series 02

Smuin
Dance Series 02
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
May 20th, 2017

World premieres, contemporary ballet vocabulary, abstract choreography, historical references. All were present in Smuin’s Dance Series 02, the concluding program of the company’s twenty-third year. A triple bill of Nicole Haskins’ The Poetry of Being, Amy Seiwert’s Broken Open and Trey McIntyre’s Be Here Now, Dance Series 02 is currently in the middle of its San Francisco engagement at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts - running through next weekend - and from there, will head to Carmel for this season’s last performances.

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence score sang through the air as the curtain revealed Nicole Haskins’ premiere work The Poetry of Being. Eight dancers were costumed in blue, the women’s skirts having a lovely inner layer of contrasting teal, and a lead couple, Erica Felsch and Robert Kretz, in taupe. The visuals were not at all ostentatious, allowing Haskins’ vivacious choreography to eat up the space, unencumbered. Joyousness, buoyancy and forward motion pervaded the abstract work, with recurring upper body lifts and sliding circuits in open fourth position. And while The Poetry of Being seemed to be mostly about this movement in this place, there was a pull outward, with the cast gathering at the front of the stage multiple times and gazing out on the horizon.

The piece seemed to settle into its groove more in the second half, with the phrase material relaxing a bit, allowing room to luxuriate in the transitional spaces. Felsch and Kretz’s central pas de deux was a delight; a courtly duet abounding with intertwined arms and swiveling spins. With the stage bathed in a blue hue, there’s was a gorgeous, elegant skate through space and time. Following that main pas de deux, the cast returned to the stage, now dressed in neutral shades. And then the entire ensemble joined forces for a unison expression of reverénce.

The Poetry of Being was a solid start to Dance Series 02, with just one curious element - the costume changes during the ballet. Felsch and Kretz appeared for a short time at the beginning in the taupe and then returned in the same blue as the rest of the cast. Then, they switched back to the taupe for the ballet’s main pas de deux. The cast joined them, in similar neutrals, and then Felsch and Kretz changed back to the blue again for the final tableau. With the mood of the ballet staying more or less in the same dynamic range, the costume changes were a bit puzzling.  

Another abstract work took the second place on the bill, the return of Choreographer-In-Residence Amy Seiwert’s Broken Open (2015). A good contrast to the other works on the Dance Series 02 program, Broken Open is communicated through suite form, and right from the start offers an eclectic approach to ballet vocabulary. Straight clock-like arms, flexed feet and parallel pliés in sixth position meet with strong turned out arabesques and classic pirouettes. As hinted at by the title, open postures unfold everywhere, particularly an abundance of second position in lifts, in plié, in jumps, in spins and in écarté extension. Two years after the premiere, some sections of Broken Open still seem elusive for the company, though there were certainly standout performances on Saturday afternoon. Lauren Pschirrer’s opening solo was all about defined specificity. And the men’s pas de trois (Mengjun Chen, Ben Needham-Wood and Jonathan Powell) brought an athletic, position-rich variation to the table. And then, in the final section of Broken Open, Rex Wheeler led the ensemble in a cluster formation – whimsical, light and refreshing. I think it would be interesting to view the work with different costumes.

Jonathan Powell in Trey McIntyre's Be Here Now
Photo Keith Sutter
The flagship of the Dance Series 02 program, Trey McIntyre’s new ballet Be Here Now is an homage to 1967’s Summer of Love, the iconic San Francisco event now fifty years in the past. An ensemble dance complete with an arresting video introduction, nostalgic soundtrack, crazy drug trip, giant ice cream cone backdrop and fracturing puppets, Be Here Now spoke of youth culture, community and being in the moment. Twelve dancers walked forward in slow motion, and then erupted into a physical concert; a collection of varying vignettes set to music from decades past. The emotionally charged choreographic sequences that followed expressed everything from frustration to protest, love to acceptance. The entire ensemble was all in from beginning to end, and their enthusiasm for the work was palpable. Erica Chipp, Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Needham-Wood particularly soared in their featured solos.

And there was something about the conversation between slow motion and fast movement in Be Here Now. These two states of being played against each other throughout the work, maybe a comment on the complex human condition people found themselves in at that time (and might still now). Feelings of being super present in an intentional space while surrounding forces seem out of control. The lengthy drug trip mid-point added escapism to the mix, a sense of risk-taking and unabashedly hurdling into the unknown.

A number of different props and theatrical elements made an appearance in Be Here Now, specifically in the middle of the dance, and it distracted a little from the choreography and the company’s performances. Both were so powerful and compelling and could stand on their own without the extras. But at the same time, the audience loved it, so perhaps a matter of preference. In the final third of the piece, Be Here Now did get back to its earlier community aesthetic and emotion-filled dance, which made for a strong ending.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

"Dearest Home"

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion
Matthew Baker and Connie Shiau in Dearest Home
Photo courtesy of Time Barden
Dearest Home
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, San Francisco
May 16th, 2017

Building a new work requires a choreographer to wear so many different hats. Securing funding, crafting movement, rehearsing, championing the interdisciplinary collaborations, even booking, publicity and photography might be part of the picture. And then there is a whole other entity to consider, the audience. Is the dance going to have a traditional viewer/artist relationship or does the work speak to a unique kind of audience engagement? Maybe one where the viewer has a more participatory role in the artistic process.

Kyle Abraham’s Dearest Home, which saw its premiere last night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, took an innovative and bold approach to audience engagement. As the crowd entered the space, every person was given their own headset, and in the introductory remarks, Abraham shared that the dance was designed to be experienced either in silence or with Jerome Begin’s original score streamed through the headphones. The choice was ours. I chose the latter.

The audience was arranged around the perimeter of the stage space with four entrances at each corner. To open the work, Abraham.In.Motion’s company artists entered from these various corners, each with a different dynamic. Slow and methodical met with nonchalant pedestrianism; stylized precision with abandoned frenzy. But no matter the intention, the clarity of the movement was overwhelmingly satisfying, be it a glance, a sustained relevé long in second position or a twisted sculptural pose.  

Over the next hour, an array of storylines were layered together in the space, told through solos, duets and trios. Many, though not all, of these distinct narratives unfolded on the diagonal (especially in the first half of Dearest Home), sending a powerful message. A straight pathway on which complex ideas would develop; the juxtaposition and collision of the two was striking.

Duets would morph in and out of unison suggesting a shared understanding that was constantly fracturing and healing, over and over again. One solo, featuring a lush super passé, felt caught in old patterns; attempting to move forward but still stuck in what was. Tender embraces spoke of comfort, though they too sometimes shifted to the other extreme, revealing trembling and fear. Another solo, lit by shin busters, seemed tortured and pulled in two disparate directions – panicked staccato movements falling into sustained living postures. And a lengthy duet for two women was packed with motifs that conjured images of swimming, including a moment where the two looked like they were shaking water off their limbs. Perhaps a metaphor for shaking off a particular situation, or the past in general.

Clothing served as an important throughline in Dearest Home, with the ensemble buttoning and unbuttoning, tucking and untucking shirts and carefully folding clothes that they had taken off. Fixing and organizing, as well as saying farewell to their outer shell, sang through these various gestures and tasks.

Another throughline in Dearest Home was that it felt through-danced. While there were clearly different stories at play, different sections and different lines of thought, the continual flow of the work meant that there was not even an inkling of the stops and starts that could have crept in. Speaking of the dancing, the movement quality in Abraham’s choreography was something to behold as was the dance artists’ profound communication of the phrase material. Such wonderful attention to the specificity of the foot, whether in passé, in coupé, or just in transition from one step to another. And I was also struck by their phenomenal sense of timing. For me, listening through the headphones, the score and the movement were so connected; it was easy to forget that the cast wasn’t hearing a thing.

At sixty-five minutes, Dearest Home, did seem too long. Though, the fact that opening night got off to a very delayed start (between twenty and twenty-five minutes late) may have been a contributing factor to that feeling.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"A Streetcar Named Desire"

Cal Performances presents
Scottish Ballet in A Streetcar Named Desire
Photo Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet
A Streetcar Named Desire
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
May 10th, 2017

A single amber-hued light bulb hung in the middle of the stage. Up center was a backdrop of an old Southern estate. A steel, deconstructed frame forged an inner proscenium arch. Eve Mutso as Blanche DuBois embarked on a solo, contained within a small square of light. A prelude of sorts, the variation ebbed and flowed with sinewy movements and a recurring motif - as Mutso’s hand approached the light, it trembled and shook.

And so began the West Coast premiere of Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire, the final dance offering of Cal Performances’ current season. And what a production to end with! Directed by Nancy Meckler, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, score by Peter Salem, design by Niki Turner and lighting by Tim Mitchell, the Scottish Ballet has proffered a new container in which to experience Tennessee Williams’ 1947 literary masterpiece. A tale of volatile relationships, charged dynamics, reality versus pretense, aggression and emotional fracturing.  

In Act I of the ballet, the viewer gets to experience the early parts of Blanche’s story, the events that are referred in other versions but rarely seen. Of course, with no text scenes during the ballet, it makes absolute sense that this would be the starting point as opposed Blanche’s arrival in New Orleans. It is the back-story, providing necessary context for understanding what happens later. In these early segments, we meet a different Blanche, one with a lightness and joy. This is apparent in her early pas de deux with Alan (Victor Zarallo), whom she marries. A lovely, courtly waltz follows their wedding, and motifs from it return again and again during the ballet, serving as reminders of a happier time and state of being.

Blanche’s bliss is certainly short-lived and the wedding waltz takes a turn when the groom is enticed by another man (Constant Vigier). This leads to a stunning pas de deux for the two men, with tender embraces and sharp jumps in second position. Blanche discovers them and the duet becomes a trio, injected with the wedding motifs. A time of loss follows – her rejection of Alan, his violent death, and that of her family, told through a striking set of family photo vignettes. Finally there is the collapse, literal and figurative, of her familial home, Belle Reve, into a pile of rubble.

A grid of bare lights descend and the pre-story travels briefly to New Orleans, for Stella (Sophie Laplane) and Stanley’s (Christopher Harrison) first meeting. Different arrangements of these lights would recur throughout the ballet, speaking to the theme of illumination – the revealing of the various circumstances and situations. Before Blanche arrives in New Orleans, we see her at the Flamingo Hotel and her pas de deuxs with different men at this establishment. Again, some motifs from the wedding waltz are present, Blanche trying to distance herself from her current reality. She is then shunned by her hometown, choreographically expressed through a wall of dancers cycling through militaristic, robotic isolations. She arrives in New Orleans.

There is still more action to come in Act I, yet it doesn’t feel long at all. A Streetcar Named Desire is a very dance-filled narrative ballet, not plagued with long stretches of gestural acting. The choreography keeps things moving, and moving at a wonderful pace.

The bowling alley scene has a very West Side Story feel, colorful and engaging, yet simultaneously speaking of darker undertones – violence, instability and quick escalation. Stella and Blanche have some telling moments, both Laplane and Mutso perfectly embodying these complicated women through their dancing and their theatrical interpretations. Mutso’s portrayal of Blanche’s deteriorating mental state was appropriately chilling, especially when she begins to see her dead husband. And the Act closes with Stanley’s vicious attack on Stella, his subsequent solo and then their explosive duet. Though well danced, this particular pas de deux was too long, perhaps the one spot in the ballet that could be edited down.

Act II is a whirlwind, to be sure. It opens with a group ensemble statement; a set of couples mirroring the extremes of Stella and Stanley’s instability. Then the ballet pivots to a brief courtship between Blanche and Mitch (Luke Schaufuss), including a clever imagining of a movie theater date. Time shifts in the second half as well, because the next time we see Stella, she is far along in her pregnancy. And while the score percolates with gossiping voices, Blanche is confronted by everyone, including Mitch, with the narrative themes from the beginning of the ballet. Blanche’s downward spiral continues and she retreats into the past. Amidst all the chaos and impending danger, there is actually a very touching, yet brief, exchange in this part of the ballet, one between Blanche’s present self and her younger self. A moment of caring, of comfort and of unconditionality. But that too, soon ends. Stanley savagely rapes her and, days later; she is led away by a doctor, presumably to an institution.

And then the ending. Brilliant. Blanche begins to see her dead husband again and while trying to engage with him, she ends up in that square of light from the beginning, reaches her hand up towards the bulb, and it trembles. With that powerful image bookending A Streetcar Named Desire, the space between beginnings and endings became deliciously porous. Perhaps the beginning and the ending of the ballet were actually the same moment, and what transpired in the middle was a remembrance…

Friday, May 05, 2017

"Cinderella"

San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Cinderella©
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Cinderella©
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
May 4th, 2017

And just like that, San Francisco Ballet’s 2017 repertory season has reached its last leg. A varied and compelling selection of programs have graced the War Memorial Opera stage this year, and the trend continues with the return of Christopher Wheeldon’s whimsical flight, Cinderella©. Just like when the ballet had its US premiere at SFB in 2013, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson opted to make it the final offering, a perfectly harmonized cadence to conclude a glorious season.

Wheeldon’s Cinderella© is a fairy-tale ballet for the ages, told through a Prologue and three Acts. The Prologue and Act I are all about the narrative, which means that the cast must have both the acting and dancing chops to successfully communicate and interpret the story. Thursday night’s ensemble certainly delivered, aptly conveying a wide range of human emotion - drama, humor, loss, jealousy and hope. In the prologue, we meet the title characters as children, (danced by students from the San Francisco Ballet School). Quickly the cast ages, and we experience the next chapter of their individual journeys – Cinderella’s father remarries; Prince Guillaume is called to responsibility and duty. Fast forward to Cinderella’s home, where her Stepsisters’ vanity and nastiness as well as her Stepmother’s cruelty reign supreme, especially when Cinderella invites a stranger inside to escape the cold, everyone unaware that this person is actually the Prince in disguise. His friend Benjamin, masquerading as the Prince, arrives on the scene and invites the family to the Royal Ball, Cinderella’s Stepsisters and Stepmother doing everything in their power to impress him. Four Fates, who are tasked with watching over Cinderella, frame all of this early storytelling. More than anything else in the ballet (including I think, the central tree structure), it is they who embody the important role of Cinderella’s supernatural guardian.

Moments of lovely dancing were peppered throughout. Sarah Van Patten was a luminous and breathtaking Cinderella, enrapturing the audience with technique and theatricality from her very first solo at her mother’s gravesite. Replete with beautifully intricate choreography, buoyant jumps in sixth position transitioned effortlessly into long and longing extensions. Such subtle inflections in Van Patten’s movements and demeanor informed her performance from beginning to end, and gave the titular character a dynamic layeredness. Sasha De Sola and Ellen Rose Hummel as Stepsisters Edwina and Clementine were hilarious in their constant attempts to woo the Prince. And every time, the four Fates were in the mix, one couldn’t help but notice that their choreography was some of the most physically intense – a combination of driving ballet steps, athleticism and martial-arts influences.

At the end of Act I, Cinderella is suddenly transported to a mystical forest, where she encounters representatives from each season along with a host of unusual characters. The seasons dance individual divertissements: a sparkling Spring of petit allegro and batterie, a sweeping Summer of deep pliés and gooey port de bras and a delicate winter of wispy ballonés and whirling piqué turns. But the standout here was by far the Autumn variation, led by Angelo Greco – a dramatic expressive quintet fueled by directional shifts, blazing extensions and multiple pirouettes. And of course, the image of Cinderella in her carriage on the way to the ball at the end of the Act is a moment of pure enchantment.

If Act I is mostly about the narrative, Act II (the ballroom scene) is indeed all about the dancing. From the guests’ grand waltz to the wave that reveals Cinderella’s entrance to the numerous pas de deuxs, Wheeldon’s eclectic mix of classical ballet, contemporary vocabulary, wit and physical theater was a thing of brilliance. Just like how neo-classical dance can reveal nuances in the score, so does Wheeldon’s choreography similarly elevate this classic narrative tale. Cinderella and Prince Guillaume’s (Tiit Helimets) first pas de deux was appropriately gentle and restrained, with both lower extensions and lower lifts. This expanded over the course of the duet to include full and lush movements, a reflection of their growing relationship. Myles Thatcher’s Benjamin was so much fun to watch and his dance with Hummel (a sweet secondary romance plotline in the ballet) was a sheer delight, full of graceful temps de cuisse. Alone in the space after the guests from the ball are ushered outside to look at the stars, Van Patten and Helimets soared through their second pas de deux, each stunning lift surprising with an unconventional, unexpected approach. But perhaps the most significant achievement in this Act is that Wheeldon keeps it moving. Like village scenes, the ballroom setting is fairly typical in story ballets, and they can lag. Not in this Cinderella©. Aside from the corps de ballet having occasional spatial challenges and resulting collisions, it was picture perfect.

Wheeldon’s ballet closes with a short Act III – a clever chair sequence, Cinderella’s quintet with the Fates as she recalls the prior evening’s events, the reunion between her and the Prince, their wedding and finally, happily ever after.
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Monday, May 01, 2017

Paul Taylor Dance Company

San Francisco Performances presents
Paul Taylor Dance Company in Esplanade
Photo Paul B. Goode
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
April 30th, 2017

Sunday afternoon at YBCA Theater saw the final dance of San Francisco Performances’ 2016-2017 season. This honor was held by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, a frequent returnee to and favorite of the longtime Bay Area presenter. Program C was a throwback to Taylor’s choreography from decades past with a triple bill of Danbury Mix (1988), Ab Ovo Usque Ad Mala (1986) and Esplanade (1975).

I really enjoy the classic American modern dance style, and with the exception of a few companies, you don’t see it that much anymore. There’s a purity and unfetteredness to the form that is still both creative and relevant today. Flexed hands, sculptural pictures and Graham temps leveé; emotionally charged themes - all so clear and defined. Choreographically, Program C’s opener, Danbury Mix, was very reflective of this genre’s clarity, though the piece’s narrative was less so. The cast, costumed in black, began in a cluster upstage left. Quickly a Miss Liberty character (beautifully danced by Laura Halzack) emerged through the group. Ominous and foreboding music framed the scene, the group moving along the diagonal and then to the center of the space. Over the work’s twenty-four minutes, you could tell that there was a strong narrative at play – maybe not a linear story, but certainly the dance was about something or reflecting something. The question was what? Mostly, I saw an examination of extremes, that between chaos and control. Carefully controlled attitudes and arabesques, stylized walking and relevé fouettés in parallel countered with frenetic pulsating and animalistic crawling. Purposeful onstage panic would abruptly give way to a sudden calm and tranquility. And then the energy would transform again, into jubilant, patriotic-inspired phrase material; sometimes things got even a little campy. It just seemed like there was more going on than just a statement on chaos and control in Danbury Mix’s narrative, but it didn’t read as clearly as did the choreographic form.

Speaking of camp, Ab Ovo Usque Ad Mala brought a hearty dose to the stage – a hilarious ensemble work for twelve, six women and six men. Short white columns were arranged in the space. In mini white tunics, unitards with tufted hair, gold leaf headband crowns and fake beards, the men looked like satirical living statues as they posed dramatically around the stage. The women, in Isadora-inspired white tunics underwent a similar journey in this light, comical fare. Exaggerated and melodramatic movements shone, like the grand promenade and the acrobatic parallel sissones in plié. Tap, Charleston and tango vocabulary even made an appearance toward the end of the piece. A brilliant offering that was part sketch comedy, part physical theater and all modern dance, Ab Ovo Usque Ad Mala was a delight and the audience absolutely loved it.

And then, it was time for the piece I had come specifically to see, the sole reason why I had chosen this program of the three mixed repertory bills that the company had brought this year to San Francisco Performances. A masterwork. An iconic dance. Esplanade. Accumulation is the star of the first chapter of this thirty-minute work. It opens with simple, everyday walking, and then moves to include directional shifts, grapevines and running. Straight lines pivot to become diagonal; speed and dynamics range from calm to full throttle. Single file similarly morphs into weaving and circular formations. All the while, an innocent, unpretentious joy of movement encompasses the stage. Esplanade’s second section holds a more serious tonal quality with the focus being on the gaze, the perspective and the line of view. The addition of the ninth cast member for only this segment is again curious, but perhaps it’s one of those striking puzzles better left unsolved. Ebullience returns in the final part of the dance – spinning, leaping, jumping, rolling, sliding and boureéing backwards in parallel as fast as humanly possible.  

Friday, April 28, 2017

"Touch Bass"

Risa Jaroslow & Dancers with Lisa Mezzacappa
Touch Bass
ODC Theater, San Francisco
April 27th, 2017

Nine souls met in an interactive investigation last night at ODC Theater. In one of the most honest and pure performance collaborations I have seen so far this season, choreographer Risa Jaroslow and composer Lisa Mezzacappa birthed a rich, living environment for dancers Brendan Barthel, Tara McArthur, Lauren Simpson, musicians Mezzacappa, Eric Perney, Matt Small and three upright basses. The nine explored this democratic container of movement and sound, engaging with lush artistry and talking to each other in real-time. And what a dialogue it was!

Sometime the conversation was serious and deliberate, sometimes playful and witty, but always thoughtful and thought provoking. As Touch Bass opened, there was a moment of introduction, or perhaps re-introduction, between the players. In silence, the dancers and musicians began gently passing and carefully encountering the three basses. As this phrase progressed, Barthel, McArthur and Simpson started to mirror the movements of the instrument – swaying back and forth and swiveling their upper bodies. Then, the piece was off and running. A juxtaposition of textural variance was present throughout as was an innovative response to dynamics. At one point, Mezzacappa, Perney and Small were using their bows to vibrate the strings very quickly, while in contrast, Simpson, lying on the ground, slowly and methodically articulated through her arm and hand. In other moments, the instrumentation and choreography almost matched – wavy bowing meeting with similar sweeping motions, undulating spines, circling hips and wide, bird-like winged arms. I even saw some phenomenal repeated body isolations that Fosse dancers spend their whole career chasing. Crescendos in the score and crescendos in the movement seemed to fuel and energize each other. And there was a fascinating recurring physical motif. One leg and hip would turn out and turn in, all while in demi-plié. Was this inspired by the action of bowing itself or by how the arm moves during that task? Was it a representation of a particular sound, or maybe an ode to the plucking of a single string? Perhaps it was none of the above and just a movement in space. Whatever the answer, it was mesmerizing.

The most compelling parts of the sixty-minute work were when both the dancers and the musicians physically interacted with the basses, like they did at the beginning. The excitement in those moments was palpable, like as they touched this overwhelming musical vessel, they were winning a prize. At the mid-way point, dancers and musicians together explored the neck and fingerboard of the bass, bowed the instruments, and laid the bass down on top of their bodies.

Occasionally the sight lines proved to be a little challenging, with some of the instrumentation and choreography hidden from view. And there was a lengthy musical interlude where the dancers held scorebooks in front of each the musicians. It was amazing to see the musicians’ incomparable talent, to experience the stunning score and to witness what the bass can do, though the interactive thread that had been so well established between the entire ensemble was lost a bit for me during that particular section.


Lauren Simpson, Lisa Mezzacappa & Tara McArthur in
Touch Bass
Photo Margo Moritz
As Touch Bass reached its last third, a strong quartet developed between Mezzacappa, McArthur, Simpson and a single bass – one with a sultry, smoky undertone. A quintet by Barthel, Perney, Small and two basses followed, which made a striking comment on space and spacing. It started with a wide perspective, and bit by bit, closed in. Perney and Small moved from the sides of the stage toward the center, while Barthel, who was stationed in the middle, cycled through a series of movements that were vast at first and then similarly moved inward, centering around his core. One of the final group statements brought a percussive energy to the space, where specificity reigned supreme – a set of defined rhythms, movements, directions and gestures. And Touch Bass’ ending felt reflective and calm, like a prayer or a class réverence, in which the cast took the space and time to thank one another and bid each other farewell.

Monday, April 17, 2017

San Francisco Ballet - "Swan Lake"

San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Swan Lake
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 15th, 2017

Opening nights hold such special promise – expectation, anticipation and excitement for what is about to come. But what about closing chapters? What do they bring to the table? Wistfulness, reflection and perhaps even some sadness. In some cases, also an equal sense of celebration and commemoration. San Francisco Ballet’s Saturday evening performance was one such event: the final showing of Swan Lake, and two company retirements, principal dancers Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan. It was a memorable night, to be sure, beginning with a tribute video to these two amazing dance artists, followed by their stirring portrayals of Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried.

Choreographed by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson in 2009, Act I of the classic narrative begins with a prologue, where the maniacal Von Rothbart (Sean Orza) captures Odette and transforms her into a swan. After that brief contextual introduction, the first ensemble scene unfolds, taking place ‘outside the palace’, as the program notes explain. Village settings are a staple in story ballets, but for me, they tend to go on a little too long in most cases. The same is true when it comes to Swan Lake, though the choreography in this particular version does help to move things along. The men’s pas de cinq conveyed sharp and precise batterie as well as unmatched, spot on unison. Apart from some squeaky shoes, the featured pas de trois was charming. Koto Ishihara’s vast echappés delighted, as did Lauren Strongin’s sissone/assemblé combination. Esteban Hernandez dazzled with turns that finished with the accent up and jumps that took him soaring into the atmosphere. And of course, there is the introspective solo towards the end of the Act, where Siegfried contemplates his existence, in terms of duty and responsibility.

Act II is all about the swans, and appropriately full of en dedans spins, or as they are affectionately known, lame duck turns. And it was magical. Siegfried encounters Odette for the first time – he is immediately entranced, while she is rightfully fearful (at least initially), her pulsating boureés communicating apprehension. And then, the flurry of corps de ballet swans overtakes the stage. Despite a few spacing issues and some more squeaky shoes, the technique was something to behold, led with aplomb and expertise by Swan Maidens Dores André and Sasha De Sola. Zahorian and Karapetyan’s main pas de deux was sheer artistry. From colossal pencheés to quieter moments, like when she delicately brushed his hand, the duet inspired with luxurious, rich dancing. And the cygnets (Isabella DeVivo, Jahna Frantziskonis, Julia Rowe and Natasha Sheehan) handled their famous variation with confidence, power and exactitude. 

Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan in
Tomasson's Swan Lake
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Four divertissements open Act III – princesses from different nations, all potential mates for Siegfried. In a percussive, stylistic variation that spans tempi from lento to vivace in the space of a few moments, Elizabeth Powell particularly charmed as the Czardas Princess. As did Frantziskonis and Diego Cruz in the sprightly, petit allegro Neapolitan duet. Zahorian was deliciously intoxicating and hypnotizing in the black swan pas de deux, and I have always loved how in this Swan Lake, a subtle pas de trois emerges between Odile, Siegfried and Von Rothbart. So appropriate, because this is really true to what is happening narratively in the story – an interwoven dance between these three characters. Zahorian and Karapetyan gave virtuosic performances in the extremely difficult and complex grand pas de deux and coda: perfect tours en l’air, turns that morphed effortlessly from passé to attitude, and of course, the fouettés!

Swan Lake closes with Siegfried’s quest for forgiveness and redemption, which then leads to his and Odette’s final choice. In the end, they are together, but in another realm. And that is what this entire performance was from start to finish – transcendent. As soon as Zahorian and Karapetyan took the stage for their bows, the entire War Memorial Opera House leapt to their feat in a lengthy and deserved ovation, a time of gratitude and well wishes for two incomparable, otherworldly artistic souls.
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