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.

Friday, April 14, 2017

San Francisco Ballet - Program 7

San Francisco Ballet
Program 7 – “Made for SF Ballet”
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 13th, 2017

Mixed repertory dance programs don’t necessarily need a theme. Some of the most striking double bills, triple bills and quadruple bills that I have witnessed actually had no common throughline. That is, other than the fact that the various choreographic works were sharing the same space at the same time.

Having said that, themed programming definitely has virtues and merits, like context, framing and curation. This season, San Francisco Ballet has opted for this approach with respect to its mixed repertory offerings, arranging fifteen one-act ballets into five categories. The result -- smart, cohesive programs, in which each individual piece has been afforded the opportunity to speak on its own while simultaneously contributing to a group statement. Program seven “Made for SF Ballet”, the final mixed rep night for 2017, follows in kind. As the title indicates, the commonality between Trio, Ghost in the Machine and Within the Golden Hour© is that they were all uniquely made on and for this company. But that is not their only unifying thread. All three ballets are layered mosaics of fellowship, camaraderie and expansiveness.

Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s Trio (2011) made for a solid start to the evening, a back wall of gilded squares (design by Alexander V. Nichols) framing the ballet from start to finish. Many of my observations from years past held true at this viewing, particularly that the work communicates a number of different neo-classical tenets in its three distinct movements. Choreographic/music consonance were at play in part one with flowing temps leveé, turning waltz sequences and spinning lifts accompanying the lilting score. Vanessa Zahorian, partnered by Jaime Garcia Castilla, employed Tomasson’s collapsing arabesque motif, bending her leg bit by bit, as descending sostenuto arpeggios similarly sang from the orchestra. But this first movement was not only about the relationship between dance and music. By initiating phrases in the wings and then having them travel onto the stage, there was also an expansion of the traditional proscenium container. Of course, this is by no means a new choreographic device, but the effect was particularly elegant and telling in Trio. Employing another aspect of the neo-classical genre, an emotive statement was sandwiched right in the middle of the two abstract chapters. What begins as an innocent, hopeful pas de deux (Lauren Strongin and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira) eventually grows into a more distressed and poignant pas de trois with the addition of the third character (Aaron Robison). And while non-linear in scope, the whole thing has such a significant narrative undertone that it looks like it could have been part of a full-length story ballet. Led by Maria Kochetkova and Angelo Greco, Trio’s final section shows ballet vocabulary infused with additional movement styles, in this case world dance forms and a courtly Renaissance spirit. The sultry, rhythmic sequence features athletic jumps, percussive phrase material, sharp directional pivots and footwork sequences complete with flexes and batterie. Appearing in both the first and last sections, the corps did well with the different choreographic styles, though unison seemed a little elusive on Thursday evening.

The world premiere on program seven, Myles Thatcher’s Ghost in the Machine was a true ensemble work, the cast of ten coming together to reflect a vulnerable and real human microcosm. And to that end, the ballet was full of extremes. Right as the curtain went up, the juxtaposition of the casual everyday was countered with the stylized - relaxed walking, running and swimming motions being paired with highly athletic choreography. With aggression and affection playing equal parts in the thirty-plus minute work, Ghost in the Machine also sought to explore the porous space in choreographic structure, morphing between abstract form and connective conceptual tissue. Dancers menacingly circled as if engaging in a dispute, intimidating and pushing each other away. But the opposite intention was also present with beautiful tender moments of care and support oozing from the stage. Bodies enveloped together, holding on in unconditional love. Thatcher injected yet another extreme into the work, examining isolation versus togetherness. Secluded, searching solos met with cluster formations, the entire cast acting as collective group. Cantilevered postures, which require cooperation, spoke to this as did smaller group variations with entwined hands. But the most potent expression was when one dancer stood alone in the center, and one by one, others joined to embrace her. Then that formation shifted like a kaleidoscope – another dancer was in the center, and the motif repeated, twice more. And hanging above the dancers throughout the dance was another mesmerizing design by Nichols, furthering solidifying Ghost in the Machine’s message of extremes – a large sculpture of steely fibers that were parallel to each other on one side and twisted on the other.

San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's
Within the Golden Hour©
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour© (2008) closed the evening – an ongoing conversation between bodies on stage, both with each other and with the space itself. Gorgeous choreography and gorgeous dancing. Three gold panels (designed by Martin Pakledinaz) floated to the ceiling as Diego Cruz and Wei Wang opened the scene with sophistication and regality, the movement following the crest of each music phrase. As the rest of the dancers joined, the choreography continued that crescendo and decrescendo, moving effortlessly and seamlessly through a series of vibrant, living pictures, the body often on an unexpected and unpredictable axis. Fourteen dancers worked together to create these images and physical snapshots. And while there were certainly featured moments – Sasha De Sola and Thatcher’s Baroque inspired duet; Cruz and Wang’s second duo of unison and canon; Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham’s melty meditation - Within the Golden Hour©, like Ghost in the Machine, felt like an ensemble work. In fact, unless I missed it, there aren’t any solos (at least in the traditional sense) in the dance, the choreography always seeking an expression of harmony.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Dance Up Close/East Bay

Dance Up Close/East Bay
ka·nei·see | collective's Linda Phung
Photo Rob Best
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
April 9th, 2017

Contemporary artistic perspectives, incisive narrative content and innovative choreographic form/structure, all in an informal, intimate setting – this is Dance Up Close/East Bay. Over the weekend, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley hosted another edition of this wonderful series; a shared program by ahdanco, Jamuna Chiarini and ka·nei·see | collective.

Opening the evening was ahdanco’s current work-in-progress, Ink and Feathers, choreographed by Abigail Hosein and danced by Andrew Merrell and Rebecca Gilbert. A long black curtain hung in the center of the otherwise bare environment. Merrell entered the room, stopping downstage left. He stood still, on a diagonal, slowly and methodically pulling a long brown swath of fabric out of his shirt, right from where his heart beat. Still bound and attached to the cloth, he morphed into a movement phrase of large dynamic, living poses; some in deep plié, some on the floor, one standing with his arms outstretched and one with a huge developpé in parallel second. And then, he journeyed upstage and was enveloped by Gilbert from behind the curtain. She emerged, holding a bouquet of balloons. Slinkily, Gilbert cycled through her own solo of sculptural postures and free, circling limbs, carving out and eating up the space. In unpacking her choreographic material, she also let go of each balloon, one by one, allowing them to float to the ceiling. While the two solos happened one after another in sequence, they were keenly connected, and not just because they were in the same choreographic container. Together, they communicated a brilliant duality. Gilbert was releasing her items without hesitation or fear, contrasting beautifully with how Merrell was attempting a separation and was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to say farewell to an essential, inherent connection. In Ink and Feathers, Hosein has crafted a striking work, which considers the complex phenomenon of ‘letting go’ - equally full of uncertainty and constraint, hope and propulsion.

I can see why Jamuna Chiarini chose to title her work as The Kitchen Sink. It is such a perfect characterization of the thirty-minute piece. Numerous physical ideas were in play: contact improvisation, familiar task-based movement, pedestrianism, and technique-rich modern release choreography. And there were also common throughlines weaving the dance together. First, a luscious circuitry, or maybe patterning is more accurate, and second, choreographic accumulation and progression. The trio (performed by Chiarini, Megan Dawn and Sara Himmelman) took the space to begin a first circuit. Each dancer sat in a chair near the front of the stage. In their own time, they curved the upper body on the sagittal plane, which took them off the chair and onto the floor. They crawled forward, first on their knees and then with legs extended, and finally to standing and walking. A pattern, to be sure, as well as a concurrent statement of articulation and development. Then The Kitchen Sink diverged into a new and different motif, yet one that still spoke of patterns. Two dancers put on sneakers and started a mirrored walking course, which again, grew and evolved all the way to circular running. Body facings varied and shifted as did intensity, speed and direction. Perspective was center stage in the next circuit. A movement phrase was introduced composed primarily of floorwork, and then was taken off the floor to a new plane, to standing. And throughout all of these unique and mesmerizing choreographic components, the sagittal curve, one of the work’s first movements, was abundantly present. Aside from examining patterns, circuits, choreographic accumulation and different movement styles in The Kitchen Sink, I also felt like Chiarini was posing some profound questions for the viewer to ponder. Where is the body in space? How is it experiencing the space? When more than one body is in the space, what are those bodies saying to each other?

Closing this Dance Up Close/East Bay event was Please Don’t, the newest creative project by choreographer Tanya Chianese and ka·nei·see | collective. An ensemble work for five, Mallory Markham, Madeline Matuska, Amy McMurchie, Rebecca Morris and Emma Salmon, Please Don’t delves into weighty and vital subject matter - sexual aggression towards women and imposed, oppressive gender constructs. Lit dimly, the quintet opened with a slow, protective phrase, in which they seemed to be claiming their own agency. But quickly, a switch flipped (in the movement and in the lights) to fully reveal arresting imagery of violating touch. Expressed through abrupt level changes, staccato isolations, extreme extensions, directional pivots and challenging gestures, an array of trios, duets, unison and quartets continued to expose and provoke. While indeed a heavy work, Chianese also cleverly injected moments of humor, like the Dance Theater-inspired smiling sequences. And moments of hope. The most significant observation for me in Please Don’t was the eye towards sisterhood and shared understanding. There were certainly moments when the cast might have been standing still by themselves, but every time they were moving or dancing, it was always in a group formation, whether two, three, four or all five. No one moved alone and that was a potent part of the message. And not to detract from the serious narrative theme, but the technical acuity of the company must be mentioned. These talented dancers have not only sought after their own individual artistic growth but have clearly spent significant energy and effort into gelling as a team. This isn’t a given, and when it does happen or is happening, it is so clear and so powerful.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

"Needles and Opium"

Olivier Normand as Jean Cocteau in Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium
Photo: Tristram Kenton
American Conservatory Theater presents
Needles and Opium
Written and Directed by Robert Lepage
The Geary Theater, San Francisco
April 5th, 2017

Creative genius. Passion. Loss. Dependence. Enmeshed physical and psychological journeys. This is Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium, currently showing at ACT in San Francisco. The ninety-five minute theatrical exposition, which had its official opening night yesterday, is replete with compelling, mesmerizing and provoking scenework, all of which speak volumes to the human condition. While there may not have been much dance, at least not in a traditional sense, movement was a huge part of this work. Movement connected all the scenes – movement by the actors, movement of the lights, movement of images and movement by the set. And if you looked closely, you may have also noticed postmodern choreographic approaches peppered throughout Needles and Opium. 

In Lepage’s play, we encounter three primary characters, Robert and Jean Cocteau (both played by Olivier Normand) and Miles Davis (played by Wellesley Robertson III). All three represent different points in history, but Lepage has brilliantly weaved them together. Through Needles and Opium’s various scenes and vignettes, we see their stories intertwined through commonality – common personal experiences, a common city (Paris) and a common arts vocation (though each is engaged in different artistic disciplines). And then there is the common space they inhabit – Needles and Opium’s cube. Designed by Carl Fillion, it is within this cube that the three narratives transpire. A container suspended above the stage; one that is mobile, rotating and transforming the visual landscape. A structure that compartmentalizes and focuses the action of the play while simultaneously highlighting the shifting of time, reality and viewpoint. A member of the ensemble itself, the cube could even be regarded as a dancer within the cast, moving constantly through a series of choreographed phrases.

Apparatus-based movement and choreography played a big role in Needles and Opium, appearing in a number of instances as well as bookending the work. Rigged by a harness, Normand or Robertson would float and swim in space or would walk down the sides of the cube, defying gravity and subverting expectations of perspective and possibility. It was impossible to look at this staging without being reminded of the postmodern icon Trisha Brown, who just passed away last month, and her equipment pieces from the late 1960s/early 1970s. Works where performers, assisted by harnesses and ropes, walked down the sides of buildings and along walls. But there was also stylized movement that was not apparatus-based, like when Robertson descended the walls of the cube towards a bathtub that was on the main stage surface. With anticipation, he turned smoothly and extended limbs into the space, choreographic material that was almost parkour in nature. Last, Needles and Opium featured a postmodern treatment of gesture, egalitarianism and non-conformity. During Normand’s soliloquy about opium and loss, a series of stylized gestures accompanied, emphasized and humanized the text. And in the sequence where Normand (as Cocteau) is posing for LIFE magazine, another collection of gestures and familiar everyday tasks unfolded, things that every member of the audience could understand and relate to. Yet, in true theatrical form (and with the postmodern sensibility in mind), they are taken one step further and are performed by four arms rather than two.   

Monday, March 20, 2017

San Francisco Ballet - "Must See Balanchine"

San Francisco Ballet
Program 4 – “Must See Balanchine”
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
March 18th, 2017

Patrons at Saturday afternoon’s San Francisco Ballet performance were in for far more than the typical mixed repertory bill. In fact, the fourth program of the 2017 season, “Must See Balanchine”, is really a visual dance history seminar, dedicated to the choreography of seminal dancemaker George Balanchine. For a little under two and a half hours, students, fans and enthusiasts could truly immerse themselves in Balanchine’s choreography, seeing the work unfold live, performed by expert practitioners. And with ballets from Stravinsky Violin Concerto to Prodigal Son to Diamonds, this animated lecture more than succeeded at highlighting the choreographer’s extensive range and breadth.

A deconstructed, neo-classical work, 1972’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto opened the program – cast in practice clothes (one of Balanchine’s famed black and white ballets), no set, minimal lighting, nothing cluttering the artistry. Unencumbered, dance and music filled the space with full articulation and abandon, and the cast of twenty embarked on a neo-classical sojourn. First, they sought a conversation with Igor Stravinsky’s cascading score – not dancing choreography set to the music but instead, sparking an active engagement and vulnerable dialogue between the two disciplines. In addition, they communicated the diverse physical combinations that are synonymous with neo-classical choreographic form. A flurry of unexpected steps met traditional ballet vocabulary: long jazz runs and triple pirouettes; temps leveés and turned in piques à terre; flexed feet and huge jetés. And while Stravinsky Violin Concerto certainly speaks to these common neo-classical tenets (the relationship between movement/sound and innovative technical vocabulary), there is nothing common about this ballet. It is put together in a way that only a true master of the neo-classical style can imagine and achieve.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto
Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Notable standouts included the men’s allegro sequence with its striking Russian pas de chats, and the tableaux imagery found in the ballet’s third movement, Aria II. After two featured duets, the ensemble returns to the stage in the Capriccio chapter, a joyful statement of connection and community, personified through stirring percussive phrase material. But the most compelling performance was found in Aria I, danced by Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham. With barely any lifts, Stahl and Ingham offered a true pas de deux, or ‘dance of two’. From Stahl’s promenades in attitude to her series of back bends to the duo’s mime-inspired port de bras, their pairing in this ballet was one for the history books.

And then, a complete turn to Prodigal Son, Balanchine’s adaptation of the ancient, biblical story into a one-act ballet. Originally choreographed for the Ballets Russes almost ninety years ago, this narrative touches on many aspects of the human condition – defiance, rebelliousness, temptation, self-realization, redemption, forgiveness and unconditional love.

Assertions of independence and willful desire mark the beginning of the Prodigal Son’s journey. Portrayed with gusto, fire and heart by Vitor Luiz, the protoganist proclaims his headstrong independence in the ballet’s first scene; his intention to chase a different reality from that which he had been living. This fierce individualism comes through loud and clear, particularly pronounced in the iconic jumps and thrilling multiple turns that comprise the Prodigal’s early variations.
Georges Rouault’s skillful scenery/costumes both elevated the ballet’s mystique and fittingly framed the action (and reminded me of Chagall). That is, with the exception of the servants’ costuming, which looked out of place with the rest of the design.

The Prodigal sets off with his servants and encounters a host of characters: nine rowdy ‘drinking companions’ (as the program calls them) and the tempting Siren, danced by WanTing Zhao. With serpentine turns, flexed palms and an acrobatic crab walk, Zhao exuded vigor and power. Open second positions were everywhere in her solo – sky high developpés and attitude turns. With every step and glance, she entranced the Prodigal, compelling him to join her in a highly sexualized pas de deux. On pointe and with the tall hat that completes the Siren’s costume, Zhao totally dominated the entire scene. For the second weekend in a row (after a brilliant Salome), she once again was a force to behold, capturing the elusive trifecta of technique, artistry and sublime characterization. Following his gluttonous experiences, the Prodigal is left literally and figuratively stripped of everything. Beaten down, broken and destitute, he begins another leg of his journey, and looks for a way back. Back to himself and back to his home. He is greeted by his father (Val Caniparoli), and after a lengthy, painful and dramatic crawl towards him, is accepted with joy and mercy, enveloped in his father’s arms.

For its final offering, Program 4 shifts forward in time, to 1967 and to Diamonds, the final section of Balanchine’s Jewels. Chandeliers and draped bunting encased this elegant dissertation that began with the corps women. Their graceful, billowy vignette brought a collection of balancés, chaissés, and boureés, all expressed through a variety of canon and unison. And the sparkly tableaux overflowed with luxurious épaulement. Vanessa Zahorian and Carlo Di Lanno took on Diamonds’ central pas de deux, approaching each other with stylized walks from opposite corners of the stage. This lengthy duet abounds with stately, regal balances (the subtle, yet powerful promenade in passé) and effortless soaring lifts that carve through the space.

In addition to the twelve corps de ballet couples, four featured pairings are also part of Diamonds’ huge cast. After the grand pas de deux, these four duos, Zahorian and Di Lanno engage in concerto-like exchange with multiple entrances and exits. First there is a lovely pas de quartre by Ludmila Bizalion, Thamires Chuvas, Elizabeth Powell and Ami Yuki, ripe with sprightly ballon and pas de chats. Next Di Lanno layers in giant assemblés and whirling turns. Then, a short, but musically complex variation for Zahorian, including some unpredictable and dynamic en dedans spins. And Diamonds closes with its grand procession and unison codetta, some of the choreography feeling very much like a class reverence. A farewell, yet not forever, only for this moment. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Cal Performances presents
Linda Celeste Sims and Yannick Lebrun
Photo: Andrew Eccles
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
March 14th, 2017

While it isn’t yet officially spring, the over 70° weather in the Bay Area earlier this week might suggest otherwise. Trees and flowers are blooming everywhere, Memorial Glade has been packed with revelers and folks are opting to take their meals al fresco. Another fiber in this fresh scene is happening right now at Zellerbach Hall - Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s yearly weeklong artistic residency at Cal Performances. Springtime on the campus of UC Berkeley would not be complete without a visit from this legendary dance institution, led by Artistic Director Robert Battle. And as with each year’s engagement, the company once again crafted a program that was so well balanced – a combination of past lineage and forward motion, all speaking from an array of choreographic perspectives.

Opening night and Program A began with Mauro Bigonzetti’s Deep, a 2016 work, and the first of three Bay Area premieres on the bill. Deep is choreographed in a suite form, a series of continual vignettes that combine together to create an artistic whole. Whether solo, duet, trio or an ensemble sequence, each compositional piece is distinct, yet they are all fused together by a common throughline, which in this particular case was two-fold. A conceptual (non-linear) narrative of passion and strength rang through each chapter of the work, as did Bigonzetti’s memorable, stylistic choreography, extreme intention and specificity informing every movement. Three women opened the dance, breathing through the space, their arms expanding, almost mirroring the lungs. These meditative motions quickly gave way to full body sculptural poses and positions, including a stunning promenade in parallel attitude to the back. The trio grew to a potent pas de six, and then to include the entire company in some alluring and beautiful ensemble choreographic statements. This group phrase material was gorgeous in its own right while concurrently providing a luscious frame for some featured duets and solos. Jamar Roberts’ mechanized isolations were of particular note, as was Jacquelin Harris’ brave, soaring leap at the end of their pas de deux. While a few of the middle sections did lag a little bit, Deep offered a solid and compelling start to the evening’s performance.

Next up was Johan Inger’s Walking Mad (2001), a highly physical dance theater piece that was all about the unexpected, the unanticipated and changing perspectives. A scene equal parts curious and comic marked the work’s beginning – wearing a long coat and bowler-style hat, Renaldo Maurice walked onto the stage’s apron and signaled the curtain to rise. On the stage, Danica Paulos was picking up clothes that were strewn about the space. Behind them was a long wooden fence. It was this structure (also designed by Inger) that provided the catalyst for surprise.

One might presume that it was a solid entity, but early on in Walking Mad, Inger dispelled that assumption. Doors appeared inviting new characters in and out of the space; parts of the wall decoupled from other sections; even the whole structure was laid down at times to be parallel with the stage. A comment on what is seen and what is not seen; on what we assume and what is reality. In keeping with the dance theater genre, Inger offered a significant dose of humor and purposeful oddity within the dance – at one point, dancers emerged from behind the fence wearing party hats. Their choreography retained Walking Mad’s changeable nature, moving effortlessly from pedestrian gestures to highly technical batterie to parkour-inspired movements. 

Then, all of a sudden, the mood again abruptly shifted – the whimsy was gone and the wall folded into a triangular shape, encapsulating Harris within a new scope. First alone, she experienced the space’s constraint, and then shared that truth with three men from the cast. And in yet another transfer of atmosphere and character, next, the ensemble donned wardrobe inspired from the beginning of the work. In hats and coats modeled after Maurice’s first costume, they danced a glorious and energizing unison sequence.

A lengthy duet by Paulos and Maurice closed the piece. While emotionally charged and impeccably danced, it felt like Walking Mad should have concluded with the previous unison sequence. Though, with a piece that was clearly subverting expectations throughout and successfully doing so, it occurred to me that perhaps this was the very point. I had anticipated one thing and something very different had transpired!

Battle’s Ella (2008) followed, a delightful, rompy five-minute duet, set to music by Ella Fitzgerald, and danced on Tuesday by Harris and Megan Jakel. Such a fun addition to opening night’s program, Harris and Jakel cycled through Battle’s sprightly mix of jazz, soft shoe tap, contemporary dance and acrobatics, even occasionally lip syncing along with Fitzgerald’s improvisational scat singing. And not only was the technique superb in this brief offering, both dancers looked like they were having so much fun. Keeping with tradition and custom, Program A (as will Program C) closed with Ailey’s 1960 masterwork Revelations. From its first iconic image – the cast center stage, their eyes agaze at the heavens – to the thrilling movements from “Fix Me, Jesus” – the promenade in écarté, the supported dips/falls and the rare pencheé to the front – to the pleadings and cupped hands in “I Wanna Be Ready”, Revelations continues to truly thrill at every viewing.

Monday, March 13, 2017

San Francisco Ballet - "Contemporary Voices"

San Francisco Ballet
Program 5 – Contemporary Voices
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
March 11th, 2017

Pioneering design, provocative narratives, penetrating choreography – this creative triangle is everywhere in San Francisco Ballet’s Contemporary Voices, the fifth program of the 2017 repertory season. Perhaps one of the best curated triple bills in recent SFB history, Contemporary Voices joins the return of Choreographer-In-Residence Yuri Possokhov’s 2008 work, Fusion and an encore of last year’s Fearful Symmetries by Liam Scarlett with the premiere of Arthur Pita’s Salome.

Lorena Feijoo and Hansuke Yamamoto in
Possokhov's Fusion
Photo © Erik Tomasson
As its title suggests, Possokhov’s Fusion invites its viewers to experience a bond, a connection, a true layering of realities. And through its physically demanding choreography, thoughtful thematic thread, and perhaps even a little whimsy, Fusion more than delivers on that invitation. The ballet opens with a quartet of men in flowing white (costume design by Sandra Woodall), which as the program notes reveal, draw inspiration from Whirling Dervishes. In this first choreographic statement, these four cycle through a meditative movement practice – isolating torsos, soaring jumps, arms swirling through the space. Four women then enter the scene from upstage, accompanied by four more men, all eight clothed in contrasting, contemporary costuming. Pas de deuxs evolve between these newer cast members, replete with punctuated movements, shifting directions and innovative counterbalances. Throughout the piece, the first male quartet and the second male quartet seem to tag each other in and out of the action, connecting through a shared physical vocabulary of angular elbows, jazz shoulders, complex accents and percussive footwork. It is through these common choreographic fibers that the two distinct worlds are able to meet, converse and dialogue in this single theatrical container. Running in parallel with this connection was an equally deep sense of forward motion - going somewhere different, embarking on a new path. A suspended running and leaping motif reflected this intention, particularly pronounced in Fusion’s central duet, danced at this performance by Sarah Van Patten and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira. And in the final moments of the piece, the idea of convergence echoed with telling intensity, yet quiet restraint. Each of the men from the two quartets paired with their counterpart, pressing against each other in the upper torso, or perhaps more accurately, meeting at the heart.

Scarlett’s Fearful Symmetries returned for its second engagement at the War Memorial Opera stage, delivering yet another hearty helping of pulsating physicality. Again, the juxtaposition of primitive and futuristic was evident from the very start, as soloist Jennifer Stahl began a series of preying, crawling motions, framed by David Finn’s neon light mosaic. Joined quickly by an ensemble of dancers emerging from the upstage darkness, Fearful Symmetries was off, going non-stop until the curtain went down after the final pas de deux. Esteban Hernandez delivered a phenomenal solo early in the ballet; strong, charismatic and mischievous all at the same time. Primal power continued with the men’s unison sequence, as did the haunting excitement when the cast slowly walked forward repeating a stylistic passé pattern. Joseph Walsh and Lauren Strongin’s lengthy duet mid-way through Fearful Symmetries exuded passion, desire and of course, gorgeous technique. And the final duet (WanTing Zhao and Hansuke Yamamoto) offered a complete contrast in scope and feel – ethereal and graceful; calm and tranquil.

The entire ballet featured an exhilarating attack of all Scarlett’s phrase material, though the intensity was definitely different this time around. 2017’s showing (at least this particular matinee performance) brought a more measured crescendo, certainly intense, but growing, building and layering as the piece continued.

Two compelling ballets, to be sure. But all of the buzz on Saturday afternoon was centered around the premiere on the Contemporary Voices program, Pita’s Salome. A stretch limo drove onto a smoky stage. Four men dressed in black suits got out and surveyed the landscape. Once they were satisfied with the surroundings, the main characters emerged from the car – Herod (Ricardo Bustamante), Herodias (Katita Waldo) and last, Salome (WanTing Zhao). A birthday is being marked – a cake is presented to Salome, brightly colored confetti is shot from canons, and she is also given a drink. After consuming it, Salome seems transfixed and transformed, morphing into some other state of being. She solos amidst the confetti-strewn stage, the visuals conjuring Pina Bausch’s dance theater masterpiece, Carnations. A group of male prisoners is brought to her and she dances with them, always retaining her control, orchestrating their every move. Salome was a force and Zhao’s interpretation of the title character was beautifully eerie.

San Francisco Ballet in Pita's Salome
Photo © Erik Tomasson
But the real orchestrator in this scene is Herodias, who up until this point in the ballet had been seated downstage right with Herod, watching with a steely and wicked gaze. She arises and walks around the group of men, selecting a victim for sacrifice. Waldo portrayed this character with amazing precision and depth, thoroughly frightening in every instant. It is John the Baptist (danced by Luke Ingham) who she dooms, and he proceeds to dance one last solo. Long extensions in arabesque, mammoth pas de chevals and desperate leaps fill the space. You wonder - is he is trying to convince Salome to spare him or is he resigned to his fate and offering one last expression of freedom? Salome joins him in a striking pas de deux, clinging to him, wanting him to stay. Unfortunately for the couple, Pita keeps true to the ancient story. John meets a grisly, gruesome end and Salome proceeds with a dance of mourning. While there were some truly ghastly moments as the ballet concluded, Zhao had captivated and mesmerized the entire opera house. Everyone was totally silent, on the edge of their seats, completely hypnotized by her brilliant performance.

Friday, March 03, 2017

"With Ballet in My Soul"

Book Review
With Ballet in My Soul – Adventures of a Globetrotting Impresario
by Eva Maze
published by Moonstone Press LLC
release date – Spring 2017

Dance memoirs come in an array of packages and from a host of different perspectives – dancers, choreographers, company directors, even fans and enthusiasts. Eva Maze’s With Ballet in My Soul – Adventures of a Globetrotting Impresario, published by Moonstone Press, adds another viewpoint to this oeuvre, that of presenter, producer or as the sub-title of the book denotes, ‘impresario’. Part history, part personal journal, part memory scrapbook (it contains a stunning collection of photos and memorabilia images), With Ballet in My Soul chronicles Maze’s lifelong relationship with dance and the performing arts. A delightful and charming literary sojourn, the book also relays a potent message. It is certainly an inspiring narrative about artistic passion and unrelenting commitment, but in addition, makes a strong statement about female empowerment. As a young woman, Maze sought after a career that had been predominantly male. And she did so in a time very different than today.

Maze begins her story by taking the reader to her early years in Romania and shares how from a very young age, she adored ballet. Sadly, a battle with a childhood disease kept her from pursuing a career as a professional dancer. But this isn’t a tale of broken or crushed aspirations, instead, Maze introduces the reader to a multi-layered dream. Not one single pathway, but more like a tree, with many different branches that she would traverse over her lifetime. She details her family’s move to the States, her marriage, and how as a young adult, she returned to the studio, and began an intense study of ballet. Her husband’s profession required a number of international relocations, and in each of these new homes (London, New Delhi, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Berlin), Maze continued her artistic pursuits as well as immersing herself in new dance forms and techniques. In New Delhi, a number of noteworthy personal and professional developments unfolded. There, she tackled dance analysis and criticism on the radio, and as a result of a very ordinary, everyday conversation, started her work as an arts presenter. Frankfurt was the family’s (Maze and her husband now had two children) next stop, where Maze tried her hand at television and experienced the ups and downs of further presenting. She also formally established her own production company, branching out to include work across a range of performing disciplines, all during the time of the Berlin Wall.

The second half of With Ballet in My Soul outlines a series of life-changing events and professional milestones, many of which occurred amidst some shocking history. First is Maze’s overseeing and production of the “International Folklore Festival” to coincide with the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. While the festival was an artistic success to be sure, those games saw unfathomable terror and tragedy with a deadly hostage taking and standoff. In stark contrast, Maze spends the next section of With Ballet in My Soul inviting the audience into her private, family life as the Mazes recuperate, rest and relax during vacations, and subsequently find a ‘home away from home’ in Corfu, Greece. They would spend many peaceful summers there, though that tranquility too would see political upheaval as they witnessed a military coup and dictatorship from the late 1960s and into the 70s. Back to Germany and continued expansion of Maze’s producing activities over the next two decades. She facilitated numerous dance, theater and music engagements, including The Finnish National Ballet, Ballet Rambert, The José Limón Dance Company, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and American Ballet Theatre, just to name a few. And the final two chapters of the book follow a time of transition and retirement, first in Paris and currently, in Sarasota, Florida as Maze moved into the role of artistic civilian.

A lovely read, With Ballet in My Soul tells the story of a creative spirit who has always and continues today to seek after the culture, beauty and innovation that is cultivated and celebrated in the performing arts community.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

San Francisco Ballet - "Frankenstein"

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
February 22nd, 2017

Searching for connection and companionship. Curiosity about ‘more’. What does it mean to be alive? The porous space between human and spiritual realms. Obsession. Power. Loss. Love. These themes, from Mary Shelley’s brilliant novel “Frankenstein”, are aptly mirrored in Liam Scarlett’s ballet of the same name, currently running through the end of this month at San Francisco Ballet. A co-production with The Royal Ballet, this new full-length narrative work received its world premiere last year in London, and its San Francisco Ballet premiere just last week. A new narrative ballet is an exciting prospect, and in anticipation of seeing it for the first time, I read Shelley’s book, finishing it just the day before the performance.

And I’m very glad I did. Because of that reading, the plot made sense, as did the character relationships and the larger narrative fibers. I didn’t have to search or rush through the synopsis trying to figure out what was going on. The program notes share that Scarlett’s Frankenstein is “inspired” by Shelley’s source material. And that is accurate, to be sure. The ballet holds true to the general arc, but there are differences as well. Some parts are omitted or changed, some characterizations altered and some of the transitions are a little abrupt, but as this is a three-Act ballet and not an entire literary tome, Scarlett handled the adaptation of the story well.

Gorgeous, yet ominous scrim and screen designs casted a foreboding atmosphere (scenes/costumes by John Macfarlane, lights by David Finn and projection by Finn Ross) as the very first notes of Lowell Liebermann’s score sang through the space. Amidst lightning and heavy rains, we first meet Victor, Elizabeth, who had been adopted by the Frankenstein family, and Justine, the housekeeper’s daughter, as children. Quickly the children grow up and the household seems replete with joy. A perfect context for Victor (Joseph Walsh) and Elizabeth (Frances Chung) to share the first of three main pas de deuxs. This first duet is full of hope and light; its youthful abandon shining through sweeping lifts, swirling turns and quick promenades in demi-pointe. Ending with an accepted marriage proposal, all is well and the entire family rejoices, including Caroline, Victor's very pregnant mother. But darkness underscores the moment. Caroline goes into distress and dies in childbirth. And we see Justine (Sasha De Sola) staring at Caroline’s locket, an item that later will damn her. The fragility of human existence has taken over the Frankenstein family and heartbroken, Victor departs to Ingolstadt University.

Clocking in at just under one hour, there was still much more action to behold in Act I of Frankenstein. We travel with Victor to Ingolstadt, encounter his classmates, one of whom becomes a friend and a pivotal character in the story, Henry Clerval (Angelo Greco). While becoming acquainted with their new educational environment, the group is both witness and participant in a purposeful creepy ensemble dance in the anatomy lecture/operating theatre, complete with specimen jars and cadaver limbs. While gruesome, there is also a hidden
Joseph Walsh in Scarlett's Frankenstein
Photo © Erik Tomasson
choreographic gem in this segment of the ballet. Together, the students dance a mostly unison variation, which Scarlett infused with an appropriately academic approach, really the textbook version of his chosen steps. And the unison vocabulary in the phrase also spoke to the students’ common pursuit and camaraderie. We follow them into a rowdy and tempestuous tavern, which doesn’t distract Victor for a second – he is so enthralled with his studies. In the Act’s final scene, Victor is back in the anatomy theatre, where he creates The Creature. In a dynamic and lengthy solo, Walsh was able to track Victor’s complicated human journey. From outward movements – turns ending in arabesque, soaring battements and circular rond de jambs - he demonstrated how Victor was searching for something. Perhaps knowledge, control or solace from the tragedy of his mother’s death – maybe even a little of all three. And then there is a dramatic shift. Once he succeeds in bringing The Creature into being, he is suddenly at odds with and in dismay over what he has done. Walsh was phenomenal in these closing moments, though I wonder if one of the many group scenes could have been edited or even sacrificed to allow more time for this potent transformation.

After a brief Prologue, Act II opened with a sweet and playful scene between Justine and Victor’s younger brother William (Max Behrman-Rosenberg). As William’s birthday celebration is about to unfold, Victor is suspicious, distracted and cautious. Cue his betrothed Elizabeth to try and bring him back to the moment. With swirling motifs and cantilevered turns from their first duet, she tries to remind him of an earlier time in this, their second pas de deux. And her efforts seem to be successful, at least for the most part, though Victor is periodically drawn back to his despondent thoughts. Then, The Creature (Vitor Luiz) arrives at the family’s estate. Alone onstage in front of the Frankenstein home, his first solo is broad and vast in scope. There is both a longing for connection and acceptance as well as an anger of being isolated and alone. Luiz danced beautifully, and the crowd erupted in cheers at the end of his solo. Though, for me, the choreography was a little curious; The Creature aspect of the character getting lost in the overly stylistic steps. Death and destruction marks the end of Act II, with The Creature killing William, and after the locket from the beginning is found in her possession, Justine is accused and put to death.

Act III of Frankenstein begins in a very typical story ballet fashion, with a ballroom scene, in this case the wedding banquet for Victor and Elizabeth. Glittery adorned couples cascaded through the space with pas de basques, balancés en tournant and waltzy lifts. All this grandeur was led by Henry, a truly effervescent and charming portrayal by Greco. As the ball continues, The Creature appears for short phrases, dancing with the guests and then like a ghost, disappearing into the crowd. This game of cat-and-mouse thoroughly tortures Victor, and you could see and feel from Walsh’s superior acting that Victor was struggling with reality and the caverns of his imagination. Was he really seeing The Creature?

In the last vignettes of Scarlett’s Frankenstein, a number of stunning pas de deuxs evolve. The first between Victor and Elizabeth, on this, the occasion of their wedding. A maturity of movement was evident now between the two, having traversed a significant number of years and life-changing events together. The dance was peppered with visions of those who Victor believed had perished because of his actions and choices, and so, it was also palpable during the duet that for Victor, complete happiness would always elude him. The Creature dances a diabolical and frightening duet with Elizabeth, which ends in tragedy; after which we see The Creature staring at his hands with disgust in the same way that Victor did at the close of Act I. And the last duet finds The Creature and Victor battling with a physicality of frenzy, mania and compulsion. How does the clash between these two entities ultimately end? Is it the same as Shelley’s book? Or a different twist? You’ll have to go and see San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett’s Frankenstein to find out.


Monday, February 13, 2017

EmSpace Dance + detour dance

EmSpace Dance + detour dance
The Ashby Stage, Berkeley
February 12th, 2017

It’s been just over a year since I’ve seen EmSpace Dance and detour dance together on a shared program. That night, in December of 2015, each company offered a new world premiere. It was a divine evening of compositional innovation, inspired performances, penetrating thematics and some serious fun. So, to see these two companies together again was certainly an exciting proposition.

And what a performance! For this engagement, the pair teamed up as part of Shotgun Players’ BLAST Theatre Festival, each bringing a revival of recent work: EmSpace Dance’s Monkey Gone to Heaven (redux) and detour dance’s FILAMENTS. Now a shared program certainly does not mean that the pieces must share a common thread. And yet, I was struck by a connective fiber – a compositional form simultaneously experimenting with deconstructed conceptual narratives and scene-based throughlines. Each work was navigating structural styles, deliciously teetering between dance theater and the dance play.

EmSpace Dance in
Monkey Gone to Heaven (redux)
Photo: Pak Han
As they took the space for Monkey Gone to Heaven (redux), conceived and directed by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, the seven performers sat in a line, six of them facing upstage. Using their heads, arms and hands, they cycled through a series of meditative motions, sometimes in unison and sometimes in a wave. The remaining cast member faced the audience, and a monologue unfolded – one about connecting with a gorilla at a zoo. But it wasn’t just about logistics; this was a devotional story, a recounting of a spiritual experience between two beings.

In this first vignette, Monkey Gone to Heaven (redux) introduced a set of bonds: between a community of individuals; between humans and animals; and between the physical realm and the sacred realm. Over the next forty minutes, these themes would play out and be unpacked through a beautifully crafted theatrical collage. Movement, storytelling, song, instrumentals and humor exploring the interconnectedness of human, animal and spiritual spheres.  

Primate and contemporary release language joined together in physical phrase material - arms swung, legs hovered in deep plié, fingers curled, bodies bounced. Stories about famous animals were shared with a subtle religious framing (the storyteller referring to them as ‘patron apes’). Rituals and prayer informed the action on stage. Cast members conversed with the audience. A soliloquy/interview about the loss of a tail was shadowed by a vulnerable and tactile pas de deux. And all of these parts were expertly woven together to speak broadly about connection. Connections that we seek after, participate in, but don’t fully understand. Mysterious connections where there is a belief and fascination in what we cannot see. Connections that happen spontaneously, with no planning or intention. And the space between scientific reality and the human condition of ‘what if’.

detour dance’s FILAMENTS, directed by Kat Cole and Eric Garcia, actually began during intermission, while the house lights were still up and the audience was milling about. One by one, dancers entered the space and engaged in a stylistic, Fosse-esque jazz phrase. A narrative was being established, even in this entr’acte of sorts. Who was watching? Who was paying attention?

detour dance in FILAMENTS
Photo: Robbie Sweeny
Then, as the blackout ushered the official start to the work, one dancer slowly walked across the stage and approached a light (amber bulbs that had been hung around the perimeter of the stage). Another cast member who had taken a seat in the audience began remarking about the beauty of this theatrical vision – a hilarious exchange ensued. This segued right into another comical scene. Five performers broke the fourth wall, engaging with the audience and repeating an emotive, purposely exaggerated choreographic excerpt, appropriately followed by drawn out bows and gracious thanks.

Scenework, contemporary choreography, gestures, live music and props continued to converge in FILAMENTS, a study of observation, attention and the desire to be noticed. Through the lens of the theatrical world, its stereotypes and the personalities that inhabit it, Cole and Garcia were making a larger statement about roles, constructed containers, fantasy, reality and how each of those relates to our sense of self.

One segment found the cast moving through a string of postures, almost like they were facing the mirror in a dance class, except we, the viewers had become their mirror. Influenced by the structure and conventions of center work, they posed, compared themselves to others and primped, concurrently poking fun at the conventions of class, while accurately reflecting the real behavior that exists in that environment. Another telling scene found two dancers wearing paper bags over their heads, moving with a realism and vulnerability that felt fueled by the fact that they couldn’t see each other. There was a clear freedom in their anonymity.

As hinted at by the title and initiated in its first minutes, various images of light recurred in FILAMENTS. Performers stared at the lights and cradled them, suggesting a power, an authority. They were absolutely hypnotized by these lights, so much so that they completely unaware of the dynamic, highly physical solo underway around them. FILAMENTS’ complex diva character, who made numerous appearances, also had a revelatory relationship with light. One of her most stunning moments was a solo mid-way through the piece. As an evasive shinbuster spotlight moved about the stage, she tried to catch it (literally and figuratively), at first dancing with grace and elegance and in the end, desperately clawing at the floor, and at the need to be illuminated.