Monday, December 11, 2017

"Girls of the Golden West"

San Francisco Opera presents
Girls of the Golden West
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 10th, 2017

Usually I make only one December visit to the War Memorial Opera House, but his year, I’m making two trips. One, for the familiar yearly classic, San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker. The other, a first for me. This past weekend, I took in the closing performance of San Francisco Opera in Girls of the Golden West, a new full-length, two-act work composed by the much-celebrated John Adams, with libretto/direction by Peter Sellars and choreography by John Heginbotham.   

Girls of the Golden West transports its audience to Northern California’s gold country, to mining camp life in the mid-1800s. And while this opera is seated in that time and era, it is really about the people who lived and experienced everything that the gold rush held, telling their stories of hope, possibility, determination, desperation, infidelity, paranoia and ultimately, savagery. In the opera’s three plus hours, Dame Shirley, Ned Peters, Joe Cannon, Ah Sing, Josefa (and more) take the viewer on a journey where extremes reign - moments where infatuation and heartbreak meet as do wins and losses, and most telling, humanity and inhumanity.

Choreographically, Act I is made up mostly of stage movement, both for the soloists and for the chorus. Though there were a few stylistic, dance-y interludes. A sweet, frontier-inspired, square dance duet for Ned (Davóne Tines) and Dame Shirley (Julia Bullock) unfolded early in the Act. And then, once the narrative made its way to The Empire Bar, a mining encampment saloon and brothel, there were a number of gestural movement phrases for the women corps dancers.

Lorena Feijóo as Lola Montez in
John Adams' Girls of the Golden West
Photo Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera
Act II begins with a ‘show within a show’, a Fourth of July celebration being performed for the miners on a large stage platform, cleverly fashioned as the trunk of an enormous Redwood tree. The corps dancers opened with percussive steps, pinwheel formations and folk-inspired sequences of pas de basque. Then, Lorena Feijóo (former Principal Dancer with San Francisco Ballet) entered the space as Lola Montez and offered Montez’s Spider Dance. Heginbotham’s choreography for this featured solo mixed intrigue with vigor, all steeped in classical ballet structure and pointe technique. Filled with sky-high Russian pas de chat, riveting bourées and an extreme extension in second position, Feijóo communicated each step and phrase with her signature passion and fire. And throughout the dance, she threw her hand outward like she was spinning a web of spider silk. Though sadly, if you were sitting in the orchestra section of the theater, you probably missed much of the footwork because her pointe shoes were partially obstructed by the set.

Girls of the Golden West felt a bit long, but not because it was three hours and fifteen minutes, because there were several scenes that could have been shortened. Yet at the same time, the arc of the three main relationships didn’t feel completely fleshed out. And strangely on Sunday afternoon, the sound was a little curious. A number of times, the soloists were very hard to hear, and it didn’t seem like a piano or pianissimo dynamic marking in the score. It really felt like a sound balance issue.   


Friday, December 01, 2017

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Diablo Ballet

Diablo Ballet
A Swingin’ Holiday and More
Del Valle Theatre, Walnut Creek
November 10th, 2017

An emotive, contemporary duet that charmed with a universal parable. A chamber work replete with neoclassical speed and musicality. A fun-filled, energetic ensemble dance to welcome the coming holiday season. What a well-crafted program to kick off Diablo Ballet’s twenty-fourth year! This was a special evening from many perspectives – the audience was brimming with excitement to see what the long-running East Bay company had in store; artistic excellence was coupled with pure joy; and there was a striking display of choreographic breadth.

The evening opened with No One Does it Like You (2010) by Diablo Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Robert Dekkers, set to music by Department of Eagles. The lights warmed to reveal Jackie McConnell on a stepladder stage right and Michael Wells seated stage left, a painting tarp arranged behind him. Both had paint splatters on their clothes and faces, indicating that we were joining a painting project that was just starting, in process or perhaps, just completed. McConnell began slowly and deliberately climbing up and down the ladder, legs and feet articulating with utmost precision. Wells rose and all of a sudden, the pair took over the space with extreme physicality full of level changes and sweeping lifts. As No One Does it Like You continued, all parts of a relationship were mined through Dekkers’ incomparable choreography: playful, flirtatious sections, passionate embraces, even moments of tentative frustration. The unison phrase material signaled a long-term connection, the kind that is deep, enduring, and exists in another realm entirely. But the most striking aspect of the duet (in addition to McConnell and Wells’ impeccable performance) centered on the simultaneous exploration of the literal and metaphorical. Most major painting projects need a ladder, in order to reach every surface, and most major painting projects benefit from teamwork. And we saw that literalism in this pas de deux. But there was more. As McConnell and Wells traversed up and down the ladder, it felt like we were watching their relationship take steps forward and backward, and seeing the pair experience these ups and downs as a team.   

After a brief pause, Diablo Ballet went back in time as Christian Squires, Amanda Farris, Rosselyn Ramirez and Larissa Kogut took the stage in Valse Fantaisie, choreographed in 1953 by George Balanchine. This quartet is neo-classical ballet in its truest form – a combination of high velocity, precision and forward motion. Staged for Diablo by Marina Eglevsky, Valse Fantaisie eats up space with both intricate footwork and large steps alike: balloné, jeté entrelacé and fouetté. In addition, the ballet’s exquisite detail and attention to the score (by Mikhail Glinka) can be found in subtlety: the tilt of the head or the arms pulsing to the music. Particularly noteworthy was Squires’ pas de poisson phrase and Kogut’s series of relevés.

Diablo Ballet in Kelly's A Swingin' Holiday
Photo Bilha Sperling
After intermission, it was time for a hearty dose of holiday merriment with Sean Kelly’s A Swingin’ Holiday, originally created for Diablo back in 2012. The clever beginning finds three cast members (Jordan Tilton, Squires and Alexander McCleery at this performance) dancing the first selection down the aisles and right in front of the stage. It’s genius. Not only is the audience hearing a familiar holiday tune, they are also amidst the action, immersed in the scene with the ensemble – which also included Farris, McConnell, Ramirez, Felipe Leon and Raymond Tilton. And with Kelly’s choreography, Cynthia Sarmiento’s costumes, Jack Carpenter’s lighting and the Diablo Ballet Swing Orchestra under the direction of Greg Sudmeier, that scene feels like being transported to the ‘Hot Box Club’ from Guys and Dolls.

Throughout the suite of dances, Kelly’s movement runs the gamut from jazz drags to parallel passé jumps to barrel rolls to Fosse-inspired hat choreography. Ramirez’ lightning fast petit allegro shone in her Let it Snow solo, filled with quick pas de chats and glissés en cloche, while McConnell and Squires wowed with their acrobatic jive and swing duets. The Nutcracker March (which I believe was newly constructed by Kelly for 2017’s edition of A Swingin’ Holiday) delighted with seamless phrases of classical ballet and jazz, all perfectly marked with a bit of humor, and the March’s balleté sequence, led by Farris, absolutely sparkled.
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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Dorrance Dance

Cal Performances presents
Photo Christopher Duggan
Dorrance Dance
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
Oct 27th, 2017

The lesson from last night’s Dorrance Dance show at Cal Performances? Tap and the concert stage need to meet more often in the Bay Area. It was such a great evening – one of movement, of sound, of energy, of stunning musicianship. And percussive dance fans were not going to miss this opportunity. They packed into Zellerbach Hall to see the phenomenal artists of Dorrance Dance, led by Artistic Director Michelle Dorrance, in a one-night triple bill performance: 2012’s Jungle Blues, 2011’s Three to One and the Bay Area premiere of Myelination, which was co-commissioned by Cal Performances.

A crowd-pleasing romp, Jungle Blues’ slinky, stylized choreography was set amidst a smoke-filled stage. With retro costumes (by Amy Page), it looked like the company could have been dancing the night away in a 1940s bar, hip flasks even making the occasional appearance. Soloists would emerge from the collective with clever, dynamic phrases that married old-school tap steps and present-day rhythmic sensibilities: cramp rolls, wings, grab offs, multi-beat riffs and riffles, toe stands and a series of super fast single backwalks. The sound balance was a little off at first, but by the middle of the piece, had reached a perfect equilibrium.

After a brief pause, Dorrance, Byron Tittle and Matthew “Megawatt” West took the stage for Three to One, a trio infused with a whisper of contemporary dance. At first, the three contained their choreography to a large rectangular pool of light center stage (design by Kathy Kaufmann), in which heel and toe articulation reigned supreme. Swivels, clicks, beats and digs increased in tempo and in intensity, intimating something more, perhaps even a narrative of panic and frenetic energy. And following the dance’s name, Tittle and West exited the space leaving Dorrance alone, her pulsing paddle rolls eventually taking her out of the light and into the darkness.

Concluding the program was Myelination, a full ensemble experience, complete with live musical collaboration. Starting with a trio in front of the curtain, heel and toe directions once more set the scene, but this time, it was street dance that was in conversation with tap throughout the work. And just like Three to One, the composition was true to its title. Movement jumped from one place to another just like saltatory propagation along myelinated fibers. Large unison sequences morphed into smaller groupings and then to solos that were either structured improvisations or completely improvised. The opening and middle unison statements were both visually gorgeous and audibly exciting – a sliding floorwork motif and varied partnering were incorporated as percussive elements, intricate syncopation rang through the space and again, some classic stomp time steps took you back. And the group finale was so powerful with dynamics ranging from pianissimo to sforzando and cannoned patterns, all performed so miraculously by these amazing dancers and musicians.

Though for me, Myelination lost its way in the middle when it turned to a lengthy series of improvisations. Don’t get me wrong, the improv skills were impressive, improv is certainly an integral part of percussive dance traditions and improvising on stage must be acknowledged as a vulnerable and risky act. But as I watched the solos/duets unfolding on stage, I was struck by familiar questions.  How do we understand something so open and free when it is placed into a set performative container? Does the viewership lens change? Is improvisation a process, a result, both or neither?
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Monday, October 23, 2017

Dana Lawton Dances

Dance Up Close/East Bay presents
Dana Lawton & Jerry Lin
Photo Rob Kunkle
Dana Lawton Dances
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
October 22nd, 2017

During the month of October, Dance Up Close/East Bay has been in celebration mode, hosting three weekends of performances in honor of a significant milestone – Dana Lawton Dances’ tenth anniversary. Each weekend’s program from the Bay Area-based troupe (a company-in-residence at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center) was distinct with different repertory and different musical collaborators. While I wasn’t able to catch every weekend, closing night was an experience of layered textural depth, marrying a broad, diverse swath of Dana Lawton’s choreography danced by ten company artists, original music by Jon Lawton and lighting design by Linda Baumgardner. The program was structured and curated like an intimate artistic salon, with a series of solo music offerings and dance/music collaborations unfolding in the studio space. Special moments abounded throughout the evening, but I think what struck most is that this is a group of artists who truly delight in one another.

After a rousing, bluesy introductory song by Jon Lawton, a more ephemeral, cascading musical line took over, and Artistic Director Dana Lawton drifted slowly into the room for Why I Looked. With her entire being, she began exploring the space, articulating and intonating every joint and limb – arms rippling, spine arcing in an extreme backbend. As the short solo concluded, she sank into a chair, and turned toward her collaborator (in life and in art); they exchanged a knowing look and the lights fell.

Jon Lawton’s narratively rich lyrics and complex harmonies echoed in between dances and also scored the next five short works, which the company dancers shared with consummate skill and clarity. Original Sin was a scene of extremes, a quartet (Vera Schwegler, Garth Grimball, John McConnville and Michael Armstrong) that paired feelings of enclosure, suspicion and judgment with contrasting, expansive extensions in second position and in attitude. Subtle direction changes and gentle suspension/release movement was explored in Stars, a playful, slightly sly duet (Robin Nasatir and Jennifer Smith). And a highlight of the night was Mystery Meat, a joyful partnered pas de deux performed by Schwegler and Grimball. With its flying circular lifts and whimsical footwork, Mystery Meat truly ate up space, and Grimball’s unbelievable arabesque line seemed to extend from one end of the studio to the other.

An ensemble work (Colin McDowell, Leah Hendrix-Smith, Leah Curran, Schwegler, Grimball, Armstrong, Nasatir and Smith), Ashes took a deep dive into tactile articulation. Arms grasped, heads were supported, hands were held, cheeks lovingly caressed, handfuls of imaginary sand were picked up and then allowed to escape slowly through the fingers. Another standout work, Ashes hypnotized with its captivating attention and awareness. Next, the program pivoted to You’re That Wish, a solo danced by McDowell that felt both deeply introspective and outwardly communicative with choreography ranging from large jetés to hand gestures to task-based motions.

Closing Dana Lawton Dances’ tenth anniversary program was Holding Space, the only work on the bill set to recorded music, danced by the entire company. Each performer entered the studio casually, with no rush, surveying their surroundings with curiosity and pleasure. Though quickly, Holding Space’s high-energy phrase material would take over. Quirky head movements met with sharp, specific arm positions; cannoned sequences were cleverly embedded amidst unison partnering. And there was something so appealing about the style. While certainly contemporary in its choreography and movement vocabulary, Holding Space also had an authentic and genuine courtliness to it. This was a statement of community, of sharing reciprocal respect and admiration.
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Monday, October 09, 2017

Smuin - Dance Series 01

Smuin, Contemporary American Ballet
Dance Series 01
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
October 6th, 2017

The first notes of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C echoed through the Palace of Fine Arts Theater – a famous music selection in concert dance, the score for George Balanchine’s timeless Serenade. Though here, this familiar musical opening was ushering in something different, Garrett Ammon’s Serenade for Strings, brought to life by the dance artists of Smuin, in this first program of their twenty-fourth season.

A cast of ten walked forward in a casual, unrushed gait, which quickly erupted into an expansive pas de deux for five pairs. Jubilant and varied movement abounded: flexed feet, thrown lifts, chugging jumps to the side. Morphing from a full ensemble statement into smaller groupings, the choreographic layering continued and accumulated with swiveling heads and emboîté turns; funny, whimsical moments meeting with luscious grace. Nicole Haskins and Jonathan Powell brought an innocent, playful vivaciousness with an early waltz and delighted with exuberant pas de chats and more emboîtés in the accelerando section near the end of the piece. This contrasted beautifully with the forward motion and sense of longing in Tessa Barbour and Robert Kretz’s lengthy duet; full of hope and strength, their stretchy arabesques sculpted the entire space around them. And while Serenade for Strings is not exclusively partnering, Ammon’s ballet is most definitely a dance for couples, steeped with a deep throughline of reciprocal respect.

I actually quite enjoyed seeing a different choreographic perspective paired with this known ballet music, and because Ammon’s Serenade for Strings has been in the Smuin repertory for a couple of years, the physical syntax is very much in their wheelhouse (with the exception of few challenging transitions here and there). Though I am curious about Serenade for Strings’ compositional structure, particularly the long middle portion, which, though beautifully danced, felt like it lagged. The piece follows an allegro-andante/adagio-allegro vivace movement sequence, or fast-slow-fast. Certainly a common format for choreography, and equally common is that the middle section can prove elusive, and that was the case here.  

Erica Felsch and the Smuin company in
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Requiem for a Rose
Photo Keith Sutter
Next up on Dance Series 01 was the much-anticipated Requiem for a Rose, by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, a ballet that penetrates with its contrasts and dynamic arc. The lights rose to reveal Erica Felsch center stage, a scarlet rose held in her mouth. Replete with ferocious, powerful choreography, Felsch’s opening solo married angular motions with wild swings; intensely crossed 5th positions with pulsating isolations. As twelve dancers (a bouquet of roses) entered the space to join her, the visual contrasts were striking. They, in flowing red skirts; she, in a minimal flesh-toned leotard; the other women in the cast with their hair tied back and wearing pointe shoes; she, hair unencumbered and with no shoes at all. From this point, the stage would continually transform into a series of distinct vignettes, each one a dynamic journey of physical fortissimos and mezzo pianos, emphatic accents and sustained fermatas. An emotive first duet by Valerie Harmon and Oliver-Paul Adams stunned with its sweeping, innovative lifts, while the men’s quintet sequence introduced charged turns and directional shifts. A later enchainment by Harmon brought back motifs from Felsch’s first solo, re-imagined and re-envisioned, followed by the sublime intertwined energy of Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Ben Needham-Wood’s serpentine duet. And then, the simple, but powerful conclusion to Requiem for a Rose. Led by Felsch, the cast walked across the stage from right to left. Had they decided that she knew the way and they would follow her? Did they just want to momentarily experience and visit in her reality? Or were they transfixed and hypnotized by her wisdom and acuity?

Closing the Dance Series 01 program was the revue-style ballet set to Frank Sinatra classics, Fly Me to the Moon, created by company founder Michael Smuin. Elegant, sparkling gowns, white gloves and debonair hats filled the stage for this choreographically diverse suite – traditional ballet set off by lyrical flair, contemporary vocabulary infused with jazz and social dance. Fly Me to the Moon is cool, it’s sophisticated and most important, it is fun. Throughout the nine individual scenes, flowy, well-crafted, yet demanding, phrase material unfolded: parallel pirouettes and Russian pas de chats, layouts, drag slides and grapevines, batterie arising out of the most surprising moments. Old-school tap even made an appearance in the first part of Erica Chipp-Adams and Adams’ The Way You Look Tonight – a mélange of pullbacks, paddle turns and double wings. Every lift and motion in Felsch and Powell’s Moonlight Serenade fittingly ascended skyward. And Kretz was the epitome of smooth and specificity with the Fosse-influenced That’s Life solo.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group

Cal Performances presents
Photo Peggy Woolsey

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group
Moses(es)
September 23rd, 2017
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

I think any performing arts writer uses favorite language components to describe what they’re seeing – favorite terms, favorite adjectives, favorite phraseology. I certainly do. Though one word that I rarely use is masterful. But every once in a while, masterful is the most fitting descriptor, and this weekend’s performance of Moses(es) by Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group at Cal Performances was special. It calls for the use of ‘masterful.’

Devoid of the wings and the cyclorama, a fully lit, deconstructed space greeted the viewer as they entered Zellerbach Hall. A red suitcase was placed amidst ample silver tinsel that had been strewn about the stage. Artistic Director, choreographer and performer Reggie Wilson entered, standing downstage right. He straightened his clothing, smiled at the audience and tossed wrapped candy out to them. In these opening moments, Wilson connected directly with the audience, and so right away, the line between performer and viewer had become porous. One by one, the company came out into the space, introduced themselves, announced what I assumed was their birthplace as well as giving a statement of time, which I again assumed was how long they had been working with Fist and Heel Performance Group. 

As “Go Down, Moses” scored the action, the cast assembled in a wedge formation upstage left, nodding their heads, while Wilson packed all the tinsel in the suitcase and rolled it away. He returned, and with the company, began harmonizing and vocalizing. From that instant, you knew that everyone onstage was a consummate interdisciplinary artist, skilled as movers, vocalists and percussionists.

Moses(es)’ early choreography spoke of familiar motions and strong water imagery, water, of course being integral to much of the biblical Moses story. Performers walked, knelt and rolled in the space; bodies were ceremoniously laid down on the ground, like a baptism. Legs swam in the air and dancers dove into second position, lopping up an entity (presumably water) and then letting it go. Layered on top were recognizable gestures – pointing/following the horizon and cradling a baby.

In preparation for seeing the work on Friday, I had read that questions of leading and following were intrinsic to Moses(es) and that exploration was so, so clear at many points in the seventy-minute composition. Mid-way through, a trio began dancing in unison and as their phrase material continued and accumulated, one would take over leading the group, then another, then another until each member of the trio was experiencing the choreography at their own pace, with no leader whatsoever. A later quintet had some similar qualities. Two dancers introduced a movement phrase; three more joined a number of beats after (in canon) and then eventually the five found their way back together in unison. A call and answer song, which was accompanied by a simultaneous physical pattern, was another example of this overarching query. A cyclical, circular entity with no starting and no ending, and consequently, no leader and no follower.

Framed by a disco ball, each individual brought his or her own unique expressive dance downstage center to a song where the pervasive lyric was that of “follow me.” They played with tempi (sometimes speeding up, sometimes slowing down), choreographic style and genre as well as physical intensity. And a mathematical segment brought patterning and repetition to the table, though it was a bit on the long side and its connection to the whole of the work was a little lost on me.

Near the end of Moses(es), cannoned movement sequences recurred, with the performers staggering the start of various choreographic phrases. The water imagery from the beginning also made another appearance with arms and legs swimming through the space, and the company once more pointing along the horizon. And in a fantastic cadence, Wilson asked the audience to join in with some of the singing and vocalizing right near the end of the work, engaging with the audience and again, breaking the barrier between viewer and performer.     

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Dance Theatre of San Francisco

Dance Theatre of San Francisco
Juliann Witt and Allie Papazian
Photo RJ Muna
The Fall Program – Season Five
September 22nd, 2017
Cowell Theater, San Francisco

If there’s one thing that stays with you after a performance by Dance Theatre of San Francisco, it’s the company’s extraordinary artistic rigor – rigorous choreographic innovation, rigorous communication and interpretation of that choreography, rigorous technique, rigorous phrase material. On Friday evening, the much-lauded DTSF opened its 2017 Fall program, marking five years of contemporary artmaking, under the Artistic Direction of Dexandro D. Montalvo since 2015. With this mixed repertory fall program, DTSF confirms that the buzz in the dance community about their work is spot on. This is a company you need to see.  

The evening began with Montalvo’s Coovy-Two, a world premiere solo danced by Cooper Neely. Positional clarity combined with legato phrases; fluidity and precision concurrently flowed through the space. With locking isolations, open stances in 2nd and 4th positions, jazz influences, martial arts inspired movement, and even a textbook grand plié in 5th, Montalvo’s choreographic vocabulary was the epitome of dynamic. And Neely was absolute perfection – what a strong opening to DTSF’s fall home season.

Next up was the one piece on the program from a guest choreographer, the world premiere of Angela Dice Nguyen’s Lady in Waiting, a quartet for the four women of the company. With gorgeous costumes reminiscent of the classic Isadora Duncan tunic (design by DTSF company dancer Christopher Dunn), clarity of shape, intention and position again reigned supreme, whether in a large pose, an extension, a simple hand gesture, an off-balance promenade or intense bicep shaking. Even as the dancers walked from one place to another, their focus was so striking, not one moment of ambiguity. My sense was that there was a narrative fiber running through Lady in Waiting, with instances of lightness and joy alongside more serious, somber moments. But it was the specificity of the movement and physicality, both in the choreography and in the dancers’ performances, that drew me in. Closing the first half was the only returning piece on the program, Montalvo’s Impulse from 2014. A charging beat framed the luscious quartet for DTSF’s four men. Again the intense choreographic breadth sang from the stage – equal parts serpentine legato sequences and percussive staccato work. And the way that these two states were crafted together was something to behold. It was like a stream of physical consciousness that compelled attention. Your view was fixed on the stage, not wanting to miss a single detail. Each millisecond of the dance was that special.

Following intermission came the final world premiere on the program, Montalvo’s Broke(n), an ensemble work for the entire DTSF company, and one that existed in the beautiful in between spaces, a physical essay of haunting extremes. Very dramatic right from the start, one dancer is lovingly presented with a rose only to have it snatched away by another. Then, the entire cast erupted into a theatrical wonderland, dancing with expanse to “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, their purposely pasted-on smiles masking what was underneath. Then the music shifted from the ‘putting on a happy face’ vibe to one of anguish, and a motif of the hands covering the eyes was introduced, one that would recur throughout Broke(n). Mid-way through the work, one dancer cycled through a lengthy solo while seated on a chair, signaling restrictions and constraints. Slowly, the rest of the performers brought their chairs to join him in a collective expression of camaraderie. Eventually the choreographic statement moved off the chairs and into the main space as the original soloist watched with a distinct sadness. The extremes continued, the hands over the face recurring as well as the notion of collectiveness, this time expressed through group embraces. And at the end of the work, the rose is again taken away from the very first dancer, who subsequently begins to pick up flower petals that had been strewn around the stage. While the whole may have still been elusive, there were parts of the whole that were available and present.  

With such specificity on stage (even the bows after each work were so clear and defined), it was a little surprising that some of the program’s format logistics were a bit off – a very late start and a major lag between the first and second pieces, though no one was changing costumes and there was no alteration to the stage environment. In addition, there was no announcement saying that the curtain was being held or notes in the program to expect a significant pause between works (though important to say that the transition between Lady in Waiting and Impulse was very quick). These observations may seem pedantic and picky, and perhaps they are. And I’m the first to admit that delays are a personal pet peeve of mine. But when presenting concert dance, these details matter. And they matter, not because they take away from any of the choreography or the performances, but because they affect the overall flow of the entire program.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Alyssandra Katherine Dance Project

Alyssandra Katherine Dance Project
AKDP's Kelsey Gerber
Photo Kofi Kumi, Amoa Photography
Brace Forward
ODC Theater, San Francisco
Aug 18th-19th, 2017
(the following review is based on a video of the performance)

Six dancers explored the ODC space, walking with equal parts ease and determination. Each appeared to be on their own individual circuit, though occasionally, would meet. Some of these interactions took the shape of a simple circular pattern while others were more complex – one body leaning forwards or backwards in space, while another took that weight and rebounded it back to standing. The scene felt task-based and the movement, familiar and accessible.

These were the opening moments of Obstruct & Connect, by choreographer Alyssandra Katherine Wu and danced by the Alyssandra Katherine Dance Project (AKDP) this past summer at ODC Theater. A mixed repertory quadruple bill, the program, entitled Brace Forward, joined three works by AKDP with a special offering by guest choreographer Carly Lave.

As Obstruct & Connect continued, the walking pathways gave way to a duet downstage right. While a video projection (by Clare Schweitzer) framed the action, the falling and catching motif repeated, accumulating force, speed and intensity. Then an entirely different duet emerged, still holding the weight of the body as its foundation, but with much fuller, lush choreographic material. This eventually grew into a full ensemble statement of athletic, through-expressed physicality: large extensions and level changes, all informed by a sense of suspension and release. The solos, duets and trios that followed built on this choreographic foundation, adding in unexpected acrobatic walkovers and impressive dives and falls.

The program notes for Obstruct & Connect share with the viewer a question that was at the heart of the piece, “what happens to a contact dance when one or more partners stop the conversation by only giving weight rather than receiving?” This study of weight was very apparent in Obstruct & Connect; a highly successful communication in both the choreographic intention and in the company’s sharing of the work. Having said that, I find it a challenge to understand improvisational practices and formal, structural inquiries around improvisational practices within a performative container. Not particularly in this work, but more in general. I’m not saying that they don’t fit together, not at all. But the relationship and conversation feels very blurry to me. Certainly something to keep thinking about, and Obstruct & Connect provides another opportunity to consider.

Another Time was up next on the Brace Forward program, a narrative-inspired, mixed discipline work that, with its strong creative contrast to Obstruct & Connect, demonstrated Wu’s artistic breadth. A montage of family photos (video again by Schweitzer) unfolded on the back screen. A soloist, Ying-Ting Hsu (Gama), sprang from one pool of light to another around the stage, each instance introducing a distinct physical idea and emotional charge. With blackouts in between, this opening sequence felt just like the photomontage – glimpses of one moment in time. And as the lights rose fully, the choreography similarly whipped around the theater.

Next, the video morphed into images of Hsu dancing amidst natural environments, and she responded to those images, slowly bending her upper body backwards in space until it reached the ground. While Hsu remained in this posture, the text of an oral history conversation took over as Another Time’s score, telling of a deeply personal life journey. Hsu’s legs walked and swam through the air, moving from one attitude to another, as gripping words spoke of unimaginable circumstances. Slow, meditative gestures brought Hsu back to standing, her sweeping legs and swinging arms intimating defense and running. And so striking was the fact that the choreography was not interpreting the text, but instead responding and reacting to it, and as the audience, you began to realize that this kind of real-time dialogue (between movement and sound, between movement and video, between movement and light) is what had been happening all along. Such an astonishing performance by Hsu, not only in terms of narrative depth and technical acumen, but also in stamina…conquering a sixteen-minute solo is quite an accomplishment.

Lave’s Mimesis also brought a narrative slant to the Brace Forward program, though from a more conceptual and deconstructed perspective. Her program notes say this, “Mimesis explores forms of imitation and representation through the politicized site of the female body.” The ten-minute trio, danced by Brianna Torres, Jane Selna and Madison Doyle aptly reflected that intention. The incredibly fluid movements and seamless transitions in the work cannot be ignored, though what spoke most in the choreography was its externality. In line with outside, imposed perceptions, expectations and assumptions, Mimesis’ phrase material came from that same place – external impulses. From the first long arabesque extension that went so far out in space it had no choice but to flex into an attitude to the subtle port de bras to the use of wide second position in plié to the rolling spines, the vocabulary was a reaction to external stimuli. An outside force attacking the solarplexus brought on falls; the performers violently brushed their thigh muscles, ridding themselves of a controlling obstacle or barrier.

If Obstruct & Connect was about structural composition queries while Another Time and Mimesis focused on narrative connective tissue, the final piece on the Brace Forward program was all about the movement, pure physicality. Wu’s Glass Ceiling paired pedestrianism, tasks, gestures, athletics, partnering and even martial arts-inspired steps with her penetrating contemporary choreography. Each of the six dancers appeared to take a turn as the constant in the piece, taking the jump rope located upstage and with it, providing a metronome-like measure, almost like a heartbeat. In the main stage space, the ensemble would cycle through the vast variety of movement styles and genres. And Wu mined these styles with additionally attention to different tempi – from the allegro of the first floorwork solo phrase to the slow controlled adagio of the later cluster formations.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

PORT

FACT/SF and LACDC present
PORT
ODC Theater, San Francisco
September 15th, 2017

Contemporary creators have innovation in their blood, constantly pushing and testing the artistic landscape. Whether through choreographic language, performance sites, collaborative devices, technological elements, narrative content or structural form, they mine for newness over and over again. FACT/SF has long been part of that tradition, committed to growth, new approaches to physicality and transforming the notion of performance. In addition, the company, led by Artistic Director Charles Slender-White is a pioneer in arts programming, seeking to identify the needs of artists and of the field, and working to develop and create series and residencies that respond. They championed JuMP, Just Make A Piece, encouraging choreographers to do just that, create work without constraints or expectations. And this past weekend saw the debut of another landmark project, a joint venture between FACT/SF and LACDC, LA Contemporary Dance Company, under the Artistic Direction of Genevieve Carson. PORT, or Peer Organized Regional Touring, is a brand new platform, hoping to make touring more of a reality for small/mid-sized dance companies and encourage artistic dialogue between regions. PORT’s inaugural edition features shared quadruple bills in both San Francisco and Los Angeles (at LA Theatre Center) during the month of September.

FACT/SF's Michaela Burns
Photo Kegan Marling
All four of the works on the San Francisco program at ODC Theater were premieres, two world premieres from FACT/SF and two San Francisco premieres by LACDC. In the first and third pieces of the evening - an(n)a.07, a solo choreographed and danced by Slender-White, and excerpts from Carson’s Stimulaze – the relationship between music and movement was paramount. As the lights slowly rose on an(n)a.07, J.S. Bach’s complex contrapuntal sound penetrated the space. Slender-White began a short movement motif, which eventually grew and developed, accumulating more and more intricate phrase material. There were moments of charged stillness, coupled with intensely strong technical positions (a deep lunge in fourth position) and living postures, including a phenomenal grand plié, also in fourth. Bach’s fugues and inventions have certain structural elements present – a subject, sometimes referred to as the theme, answers and countersubjects – all of which are woven together to create one large, cohesive compositional statement. In an(n)a.07, a title which aptly includes the name of Bach’s wife, Slender-White was brilliantly demonstrating how present-day live choreographic material can act as one of these structural elements - a relevant, contributing independent/interdependent voice, conversing in real-time with a score composed hundreds of years prior. 

Carson’s quartet, Stimulaze, also began with the music of the Baroque master, J.S. Bach, and again, we witnessed an artistic back and forth, though here it was between four dancers performing different strands of movement. In Carson’s theatrical container, the quartet overlapped and intersected, and while each choreographic idea was distinct, all shared an incredible fluidity and legato intention. Very much like the score. Then things shifted. The four dancers began purposely bumping shoulders, pulling and pushing each other backward and forward in space. And the music morphed as well, this time into work by W.A. Mozart, a composer synonymous with 18th century classicism, where music composition was very much about following specific rules, formulas and formats. In this part of Stimulaze, the choreography was acting against that structure. The dancers were playing a game of will, exertion and control (and a humorous one at that), refusing to ‘stay in their lane’. Stimulaze’s juxtaposition of movement working with the music and then conversely working in opposition to it was extremely satisfying.

The remaining two works, EBBA (LACDC) and Remains (FACT/SF) took the audience on a journey, a descent into the mysterious land of the deconstructed narrative. Neither told a linear story, but both were very clearly steeped in and inspired by the human condition.

LACDC's Drea Sobke and Ashlee Merritt in EBBA
Photo Taso Papadakis
A pounding, vibrating bass line shook the entire theater as the LACDC dance artists entered one by one from opposites sides of the stage for EBBA. They toggled between stretchy, undulating slow motion positions and quick, traveling, transitional steps. An animalistic-like growl was layered into the score, similarly mirrored in many of the choreographic postures. Forceful dynamic changes and jazz-based phrase material leapt from the stage, the movement creating an atmospheric sense of purposeful uncertainty and insecurity. And there was a very clear extreme being explored – that of the individual and the collective. At the beginning of the piece, it felt like each dancer in the eight-member female ensemble was navigating their surroundings on their own. Inhabiting the same space as others, but not with any kind of kinship. As EBBA progressed, this isolation and lone-ness was replaced by a sense of the group, of the collective. Speaking of the group, the LACDC company dancers had excellent spatial awareness, able to be completely in the moment, fully committed to the movement with no collisions. And they were able to do so without making the ODC stage look crowded. The only challenge in the piece was the score, or more specifically the booming bass pulse in the score. It might have just been the size of the theater, but everything was shaking pretty intensely for almost the entire dance, and it did distract a little from what was happening visually.

Six FACT/SF company dancers made their way to the stage, each carrying a plastic 3D shell mannequin figure of themselves. Once these shells had been distributed around the space, the ensemble made their way to upstage right to begin Remains’ first movement phrase – a choreographic expression of sweeping arms and legs told along a circuitous path. As they arrived in place, the mood radically changed. Slow contorted motions and screeching vocal sounds unfolded; the theme of anguish ringing clear. Structurally, Remains channeled repetition and accumulation devices, with highly physical motifs overlaying each other. And for a good portion of the work, the cast faced the back of the stage. This facing brought egalitarianism into the picture – the dancers could have been anyone. Mid-way through Remains, the performers squirmed on the floor trying desperately to make it to a seated position on a chair. Once they finally accomplished this task, they violently fell to the floor with percussive and rhythmic full body physicality. And they would try again, make it, and then lose once more; succeeding and falling, succeeding and falling, succeeding and falling. This was interspersed with a clock-like shaking of the head, in a ‘no’ attitude. The shells would come back toward the end of the dance, in a nurturing, protective sequence, complete with LED lights that were breathed into the structures. But for me, it was the chair sequence that felt the essence of Remains. The continual up and down signaling the never-ending, relentless cycle of human emotion and the blindsiding power of grief and angst. 


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Preview - No Strings Attached Dance Company

Dante Alabastro and Alyse Romano in Edifice: Breaking Walls
Photo: Lissa Resnick
A Busy Fall For No Strings Attached Dance Company

Developed as part of the Resident Artist Workshop (RAW) program at SAFEhouse Arts in 2017, Edifice: Breaking Walls is all about asking questions. From challenging the perimeters of performance spaces to upending the relationship between performer and audience to expanding and deepening collaborative processes, Edifice seeks after new understanding. Textural dimensions abound throughout. Natural materials like wool, fiber, paper, canvas and cloth interact with texturally diverse choreography. Delicate petit allegro – wispy glissades, sissones, pas de chats and beaten jetés – meet task-based, gestural phrases and pedestrian running. Turned out extensions are broken into flexion by the lightest, most subtle impulse. Dancers on pointe and dancers in flat shoes perform side by side. And the partnering sequences toggle between traditional pas de deux and unconventional points of contact, like the top of the head.

As the lights rose on Type None, performed at West Wave Dance Festival 25 last September at Z Space, a young boy sits at a table stage right demonstrating the procedures associated with insulin injections – a tedious, painful, relentless reality of life with diabetes. On the other side, a male dancer turns in repeated fouettés before moving about the stage in an expansive, lush solo full of extensions, spins and batterie. Voices of children affected by the disease ring through the air as solos, duets, trios and full ensemble statements unfold. Early on, the boy rises from his chair, joining in a repeated port de bras sequence. Later he pushes and pulls the dancers out of the way, exerting will and control. At other moments, he sits center stage, silent and still, mesmerized by the movement. Is he watching a representation of the cells within his body? Is he imagining freedom from constraint? Is he picturing himself at different points in his life?     

While two very distinct dance works, Edifice: Breaking Walls and Type None share a number of commonalities. Each performance work is informed by curiosity and discovery, a deep desire to look beyond held assumptions through rigorous creative exploration. Both will have another life this coming fall, at separate events the weekend of October 13th-15th. And they are both conceived and composed by choreographer Lissa Resnick, Artistic Director of No Strings Attached Dance Company.

A serious ballet student from a young age, Resnick spent summers at Joffrey, Sacramento Ballet and San Francisco Ballet and was invited to attend the full-time pre-professional program at SFB, an intense schedule of classes, workshops, rehearsals and performances. While fully committed to this demanding course of study, at the same time, Resnick was aware that the total immersion-ness of pre-professional life was somewhat limiting, at least for her. After being sidelined with an injury, she, like many dance students, began to feel a pull toward other interests, other pathways, particularly to math and science for which she had always had a passion. And so, Resnick shifted gears away from full-time ballet and enrolled in UC Davis, pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree.

While these undergraduate years signaled a break from pointe work, dance was still part of the picture. In fact, Resnick used this time to investigate different forms of movement and physicality, eventually joining Bonnie Simoa Contemporary Dance Company (which was affiliated with UC Davis), under the direction of Bonnie Simoa. This foray into contemporary dance would be a formative period, as it would continue to influence and be present in Resnick’s artistic journey.

Fast-forward a number of years. Following a longer break from dance, Resnick found herself in LA, and noticed a yearning to get back into the dance community. “I was missing dance, but now I felt more of a draw to choreography,” remembers Resnick, “I was fascinated with the notion of looking at the world and making my own work, birthing something.” To that end, she began performing as a guest dance artist for various projects in LA while simultaneously founding No Strings Attached Dance Company, a platform where she could experiment with all kinds of genres, including tapping into her long-term relationship with ballet. “Ballet is part of my origin story, like a native language,” she adds, “but at the same time, I didn’t want to fit into any particular mold; I wanted to be more open and try to get outside of that rigorous training background.” Vocabulary-wise, that meant that creating her own choreographic signature, certainly ballet-based but also pulling from a number of other forms. Structurally, Resnick wanted to examine alternate theatrical containers/spaces and work in a collaborative environment, “I became very interested in looking beyond the proscenium, linking different artforms and site specific work; the concept of bringing art off the walls and off the typical stage.” And so, she sought after performance opportunities out-of-doors and in galleries, attracted to mixed discipline projects with dance, theater, opera and visual art. A few years later, Resnick relocated back to the Bay Area. She continued guesting with companies like Dance Lumiere as well as crafting new work with No Strings Attached. “The dancers inspire me, I fall in love with them again with each project, and I’m continually inspired by other artists, visual creators and musicians,” Resnick shares, “and at another level, I want to unravel mysteries of things we think we understand, particularly when it comes to the complexities of medical science and research.”

Matthew Doolin and Curtis Resnick
in Type None
Photo: Lorelei Voorsanger Ghanizadeh
Type None directly lives into that desire, a work that brings the medical and performing arts communities together. Created in partnership with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), the ensemble piece for eight dancers and one youth actor is a personal one for Resnick. “A couple of years ago, my son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes and Type None is about caring for a child with chronic illness,” she shares, “the JDRF really stepped up and supported me through this process.” A big effort over the past year (it premiered at West Wave in 2016), No Strings Attached will be performing an excerpt from Type None at the upcoming Juvenile Diabetes One Walk, East Bay, being held on Sunday, October 15th in San Ramon.

On the Friday before (October 13th) at Coffee Shop in Lafayette, No Strings Attached will be making another appearance in the East Bay, dancing Edifice: Uncovered as part of the inaugural Art Moves Project. Resnick is wearing multiple hats for this event, both as a co-founder of the organization and as a commissioned artist. “Art Moves looks at bringing more progressive movement and dance into the community, engaging with and reaching out to the audience,” Resnick explains, “it’s a public art initiative that will have multiple locations in Lafayette, right in the hub of the downtown walking areas.” After receiving an initial grant from the Lafayette Community Foundation, Art Moves Project commissioned their first creative endeavor, Edifice: Uncovered, a collaboration between Resnick and visual performance artist Marcia Barrow Taylor. For this next chapter in the Edifice story, Resnick is contemplating the question of “what lies beneath the surface; what’s inside.” In addition, the piece is taking Resnick outside of her comfort zone. Though informed by the primary question above, Edifice: Uncovered delves more into the abstract side of dancemaking, in terms of form, structure and composition, and away from traditional storytelling. With No Strings Attached’s strong commitment to mining the unknown, it is no surprise that Resnick is venturing into this new terrain with Edifice: Uncovered.

After this very busy October, No Strings Attached will be gearing up for an equally packed late Fall/early Winter. Resnick has been invited to create something new for the next edition of Works in the Works, to be held this November at Western Sky Studio on 8th Street in West Berkeley. Then, they are thrilled to once again be participating in the annual San Francisco Movement Arts Festival at Grace Cathedral in January of 2018. The repertory selection for the festival is still in process, though Resnick is considering re-envisioning a duet based on Hindu love poems, “the first iteration of the duet was developed back in 2012 and since then, it has been excerpted a number of times,” notes Resnick, “it has infusions of classical Indian dance vocabulary and its main theme is temptation.”

For more information, please visit http://lissaresnick.com/

*this article is coordinated by San Francisco Movement Arts Festival 

Monday, July 24, 2017

SKETCH 7 - "Wandering"

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery presents
SKETCH 7 – Wandering
Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
July 22nd, 2017

The seasons evocatively converged over the weekend as Amy Seiwert’s Imagery presented SKETCH 7 – Wandering at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. It was a beautiful warm summer weekend, especially by SF standards, but on stage, it was all winter, Franz Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle to be exact. Twenty-four separate songs with poetry by Wilhelm Müller, the score shares the story of a protagonist on a ‘winter’s journey’ (Winterreise translated), trekking through a natural environment, encountering a myriad of forces and searching for contentment. This was the source material that fueled Amy Seiwert’s new ballet for the seventh edition of Imagery’s SKETCH series.

SKETCH is designed to challenge choreographic patterns and processes. True to form, Artistic Director Seiwert posed a mammoth puzzle for 2017’s edition, something that was new for her – choreograph a full-length, narrative dance. Wandering is the result of that experiment. A two-act ballet where piano, voice, text and choreography unfold together in a parable about humanity’s quest for happiness.

As the company waited in the dark, only dim lanterns peppering the space, James Gilmer walked slowly onstage from one of the right wings. He placed a record on the record player and gently lifted the needle. Having completed this task, he walked towards the other seven dancers and instantly, Wandering was off.

Right from the start, a number of thematic and theatrical elements emerged that would inform Wandering until its final blackout. First was a long red coat. This coat was integral to the work, because it signaled who was embodying the protagonist role at any given moment. All eight of the Imagery artists would don this piece of clothing throughout the performance, each of them having a chance to experience the central character. And sometimes, taking on that responsibility was welcome, sometimes it was reluctant, sometimes it was even indignant and forced. Next was a palpable and conflictual pull both towards the group and against the group. Seiwert created a glowing choreographic container that examined both extremes – a real conversation between lone-ness and togetherness; seclusion and community. An atmosphere of sorrow and isolation leapt from the stage but at the same time, the dancers seemed pulled towards each other like magnets. Last was a specific choreographic point of articulation: the head. Hands would lead the chin, heads would lean on each other, palms would encircle the skull, and eyes would stare potently, looking for answers. This treatment of the head particularly stood out, not just because of its cerebral quality, but because when you walk, surprisingly, it is the head that moves first, not your feet. And with Wandering being about a journey, an emphasis on the head, and leading of the head, spoke volumes.

Shania Rasmussen, Gabriel Gaffney-Smith, Ben Needham-Wood,
Jackie Nash and Alysia Chang
Photo: Chris Hardy
But there were even more noteworthy elements in Wandering that deserve mention. Seiwert’s extraordinary treatment of ballet vocabulary surprises, delights and continues to astonish at every turn. It’s not just injecting a flexed foot here and there or experiencing a step on demi-pointe instead of full pointe. Seiwert mines further, delving into what a flexed foot can do as a transitional movement in lifts and promenades, or how a reaching extension suddenly broken by flexion makes a narrative statement. Pencil turns on pointe also entered the vernacular, as did arms exploring through the space and lifts breathtakingly ascending from the floor. Every Imagery dance artist excelled in both technique and artistry. And such silent jumping! Especially impressive was the Act II pas de deux by Jackie Nash and Ben Needham-Wood, which was technically a pas de trois, with Needham-Wood managing to effortlessly hold one of the lanterns for the duration of the duet.

Susan Roemer’s costuming was another example of true inspiration. Of course there was the red coat/protagonist connection, but that was only one part. Act I’s short unitards oozed winter with their snow-white base and tree branch motifs curving around the torso. And then in Act II, the unitard colors switched, perhaps indicating that the journey had moved into night. Near the end of Act I, it started gently ‘snowing’ onstage, and the effect was quite something (light and scenic design by Brian Jones) – it really felt cold in the theater. And just like with Roemer’s costumes, in Act II, the fallen snow turned black, again likely alluding to darkness, or perhaps a darker portion of the protagonist’s journey.

Soon, Imagery’s Wandering heads to New York for the Joyce Theater Ballet Festival (the piece was supported by the Joyce Theater Foundation). While I won’t get a chance to see that performance, I do wonder what the dance will be like on a different stage. The Cowell Theater is an intimate space, to be sure, and while it didn’t ever look crowded (even when all eight dancers were onstage), it would be fascinating to view it in a different venue.
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