Monday, April 17, 2017

San Francisco Ballet - "Swan Lake"

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.
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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.   
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