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.

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