Monday, June 04, 2018

Oakland Ballet

Oakland Ballet Company
Samantha Bell in Graham Lustig's
Heartbreak Hotel
Photo John Hefti
Scene & Heard
Odell Johnson Theater, Oakland
June 2nd, 2018

The phrase ‘story ballet’ tends to evoke largess; grand productions where an elaborate plot unfolds over the course of an entire evening. But just as stories come in many forms, so too is the relationship between story and ballet diverse. Of course, there are many examples of the epic two/three-act ballet, but shorter movement essays, poems and novels are just as prolific in the canon. And I often find shorter dances to be more successful in communicating their narrative; the brevity breeding a clarity and succinctness that gets somewhat lost in larger works.

Oakland Ballet Company marked the transition from May to June with Scene & Heard, a selection of work dedicated to the breadth and range of story in ballet. For this program, Artistic Director Graham Lustig charged six choreographers with the task of creating short narrative ballets. The resulting commissions (three from within the OBC family and three from local choreographers) made for a terrific afternoon of choreography, danced by a company that is looking impressively strong.

Kicking things off was Itchy Bot Bot (A Family Portrait), choreographed by Danielle Rowe, SFDanceworks’ new Associate Artistic Director. Here was a work about the space between perception and reality, told through familial dynamics. With arms hanging forward and feet stamping abstractly through her pointe shoes, Ramona Kelley’s daughter character was at first sullen and pouty. In contrast, on the other side of the stage, Emily Kerr and Richard Link beamed from ear to ear, proud parents of their graduate son Landes Dixon. Darwin Black, as the photographer character, wandered throughout the scene, snapping pictures of the happy family (the daughter’s moody quality gradually softening to play the part of the dutiful child). But what lay beneath these frozen images? Itchy Bot Bot (A Family Portrait)’s choreography suggested much was percolating right under the surface. In a series of solos and duets for all five, unexpected positions permeated the space, like piqué turns with the leg out in 2nd position. As did an abundance of flexed feet, abruptly breaking the line of the leg in unanticipated ways. What was illusion? What was façade? When might the pretense shatter? Rowe posited the questions, but cleverly left them unanswered.    

Walk through any art gallery and listen as folks chat about what they ‘see’ in a certain painting. Chances are the opinions and perspectives range significantly. The same is true for dance that mines a specific visual art work – it is apt to generate a multitude of interpretations, including those that differ from the original intent. After reading the notes for Michael Lowe’s Kimono Wednesdays,

“…inspired by the work of French impressionist painter Claude Monet, in particular his 1876 painting title “La Japonaise”. The image depicted in this painting is of his wife Camille donning a blonde wig and red kimono holding a Japanese hand fan emblazoned with the colors of the French flag…”

I had a pretty clear sense of what the ballet was about, but I still had some differing observations. That’s not a criticism at all, it’s the result of dance and visual art conversing together in a creative container.

Samantha Bell and Coral Martin opened Kimono Wednesdays, both holding gilded picture frames. In the program they were listed as ‘agitators disguised as portraits’, but I saw something else. As they extended their arms and legs through the empty squares, they blurred the boundary between art and life. It was like they were entering Monet’s painting and in turn, leading us inside as well to experience its internal themes. Lowe unpacked these themes through three striking pas de deux. Vincent Chavez (presumably as Claude Monet) partnered Sharon Kung as the Japanese Spirit, Kelley as the French Spirit and Kerr as Camille Monet. But to me, the three women read as three distinct aspects of Camille’s persona. Kung contributing playfulness, Kelley adding speed and allure and Kerr, a skillful, mature game of flirtation.   

With arms sculpting the space and the most amazing penchée, Martin invited the audience into the world of Giggling Flame and Roaring Waves, choreographed by Antoine Hunter. A narratively-rich work comprised of four brief episodes, the notes say that the piece “…explores the journey to Deafhood…”. With Giggling Flame and Roaring Waves, Hunter, who is deaf, has crafted a powerful statement that disrupts assumptions with every chapter. But the narrative isn’t the only thing that makes the dance special. The movement itself, a new kind of fusion between ballet and jazz, impressed with its innovation and specificity of position.

The first group sequence brought a number of themes to the table – isolation as dancers were left out of groups; learning as gestures were repeated and honed; even some camaraderie as hands were extended in belonging (that feeling would certainly intensify as the dance went on). A slow, deliberate series of cluster shapes made up Giggling Flame and Roaring Waves’ second segment, the cast working together to create the picturesque landscapes. I was particularly intrigued by how the facing of the clusters changed a little bit each time, like the ensemble was mirroring a clock on the surface of the stage. Perhaps a comment about how a community grows stronger and stronger as they log more time together. Part three brought a short solo movement improv, steps and phrases emerging from text prompts. And the final sequence saw the entire ensemble return to the stage – a community of individuals engaging and celebrating together in full-throttle physicality.

Chavez and Kelley’s La Llorona had a solid start, another work steeped in family dynamics. In this story, spontaneity was juxtaposed against inflexibility, and as the ballet unfolded, questions of rigidity and cost were asked. What relationships and experiences are lost by an inability to bend and adjust? According to the synopsis provided, La Llorona’s story takes a dark and tragic turn in its second half. This is the point where the narrative thread got a little fuzzy onstage - if I hadn’t read the program, I likely wouldn’t have known what was happening. A number of events and dramatic moments need to play out (and they did), it just all happened too fast. I’m usually a huge advocate for editing and shortening works, but I think this is the one ballet on the bill that needed to be a bit longer in order to really capture and communicate the whole story through movement.   

Ramona Kelley, Christopher Dunn and Samantha Bell in
Bat Abbit's The Sound of Snow
Photo John Hefti
I had read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Fromme ahead of Cathy Marston’s Snowblind at San Francisco Ballet last month, so the story was fresh in my mind. Fittingly, Bat Abbit choreographed his The Sound of Snow around the book’s primary love triangle between Ethan (Christopher Dunn), his wife Zeena (Bell) and her cousin Mattie (Kelley). Swirling wind sounds signaled a bleak environment; ragtime music took us back in time. Ethan’s first solo was filled with gesture and disappointment. Dunn reached to touch something he couldn’t grasp; faster and faster, he ran on the spot, unable to move forward. He was stuck – stuck in his relationship, stuck in his circumstances. Zeena’s fragile, ailing body was expressed as Bell clutched her stomach and teetered precariously backwards in space; her anger and resentment (at her situation and at Ethan) through angular, sharp staccato motions. And then newness arrives on the scene, a breath of fresh air, a joyful innocence - Kelley’s Mattie. Mattie and Ethan’s duet was filled with playful, easy energy. For an instant, they touched palms, only to pull away. All possibility and promise, long-stretchy extensions moved outward in space. But events transpire and the relationship between the three is forever altered. Abbit’s The Sound of Snow riveted with its dramatic choreography and a nuanced plasticity between the three characters.  

Lustig’s Heartbreak Hotel closed the Scene & Heard program, a suite of dance vignettes set to Elvis Presley-era music. Within this retro frame, Heartbreak Hotel took a humorous romp into twenty-first century dating culture. There was speed dating, a duet about infatuation and new love, a pas de trois where a past relationship bled into a current one, and a nod to the excessively eager date, who had been paired with someone clearly not interested. It was a super fun finale to the afternoon. But it was missing one important thing. All of Heartbreak Hotel’s couples were male/female. Without changing any of the choreography or staging, it would have been easy to make some of the pairs female/female or male/male. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

"Bare Bones"

Randee Paufve and Paufve Dance present
Randee Paufve
Photo Blaine Covert
Bare Bones
Western Sky Studio, Berkeley
May 26th, 2018

On Saturday evening, Bay Area dance enthusiasts gathered at Western Sky Studio in Berkeley for the 10th edition of Paufve Dance’s Bare Bones, a long running series that invites dancemakers to share current in-progress percolations. Bare Bones is such a smart and accurate name for the event, deeply woven into every fiber. Bare Bones celebrates work that is still in the making. It honors the process of building an artistic whole, one choreographic bone at a time. It is very much about baring and exposing art to audiences. That vulnerable and brave act of putting work out there, especially when it isn’t in its final state yet. And Bare Bones happens in a bare open studio environment, yes with some lights, but sans any theatrical excess. Following some pre-performance revelry, three movement offerings unfolded in this creative container, from Randee Paufve/Paufve Dance, Nina Haft & Company and TESTMASH.  

Before each piece, the artists generously took the time to give context to what we were about to see, which I find to be extra helpful in the case of works-in-progress. Randee Paufve shared thoughts and background on Where Are You Going, Where Did You Go?, a series of dances intended for four distinct US locations (one north, one south, one east, one west), over the next two years or so. She shared that the different solos all dealt with thresholds, those very personal and those more symbolic. And that in a departure from her recent work, that these solos would have a measure of lone-ness, performed not for an audience, but filmed by Erin Malley. We were fortunate to witness sections from each dance.

Paufve stood center and began a series of movements that deeply connected the breath and the body. The upper body soared high with the inhalation, and rebounded forward with the exhale. This motif repeated again and again, each recurrence gaining both momentum and intensity. Performer Lili Weckler joined the scene, unwrapping the waistband of Paufve’s costume and singing with hauntingly pure tones. As more and more of the waistband was unraveled, Paufve’s physicality seemed to expand, free from constraint. Smaller motions became larger and the action moved all over the space. Arms rippled in large T shapes out and away from the core, suspending on the inhale and releasing on the exhale. Single foot balances hovered in relevé as the breath went in and returned to the floor as the breath discharged. Nothing looked placed or contrived. Instead, Paufve created movement by riding the wave of her own breath. And with every choreographic idea, she managed to find that elusive ‘in between’ space that separates the inhale and the exhale. Here was the moment of threshold; that transformative place where air is flowing from one portal to another.

Solo #2 was all shifts and changes - in direction, in facing, in dynamics - while solo #4 felt more about actions - mixing, morphing and melting. In this final excerpt, Paufve would create a particular shape, position or gesture. As it dissolved, the next posture was being simultaneously created. It was like watching a human kaleidoscope. And solo #3 was such a standout. Donning bright orange spandex, a sequined choker and a blonde wig that was part The Wrath of Khan, part Labyrinth, Paufve commanded the space with catwalk struts, jazz isolations, exaggerated pony pas de boureés, even some aerobics-inspired moves. It was humorous to be sure, but didn’t feel like farce or a send up. Rather, the dance read more like a nostalgic remembrance, a doorway (or threshold) to the past.

Nina Haft prefaced her company’s excerpted duet, Crows, by talking about nature, about spending time observing natural species and beings, including humans. She also spoke about different phenomena, including the choices we make throughout our journeys to either opt in or opt out. Part of a larger work currently titled Precarious Pod, Crows started in silence. Jennifer Twilley Jerum and Jesse Wiener began cycling through legato full-bodied phrase material, first expressed as floorwork. Immediately, I was pulled to how the dancers were moving their heads. Like birds, there were slight twitches in the head’s angle and attitude, the chin jutting out from the neck. At times, I could even see the eyes jumping from one position to another, like their gaze was being pulled by an outside stimulus. But more than just these subtle motions and adjustments, the head was leading the overall movement. Leading the body as it crawled and rolled forward in space, leading the back and spine as it spiraled. Determining which direction to travel. This brought me back to the idea of the opting in and opting out. Yes Crows’ choreographic use of the head felt very avian, but perhaps Haft was also making a broader comment. Our head/brain is often the primary actor or sole decision maker when it comes to opting in or opting out. What would happen if we adopted a more holistic approach?

Jessi Barber and Julie Crothers took the space to introduce TESTMASH, their new dance lab experiment. They described conversations about choreographic editing and their curiosity with this complex part of composition. How could editing be tackled differently? What new parameters might be introduced into the equation? TESTMASH is the result of these questions, a devised system of creative accumulation and imposed time limits. The press materials described it best,

“Three choreographers are tasked with creating a quick movement sketch with five randomly assigned dancers. After 30 minutes, the choreographers rotate and have 15 minutes to expand, edit, and mess with whatever they find in the next room. Three rotations later, each choreographer has contributed to, disrupted, and edited every piece…”

I love this idea. It combines elements of Susan Rethorst’s “Wrecking” with even further time restrictions and more choreographic accretion. The afternoon of Bare Bones TESTMASH had engaged in this process, with choreographic input from Crothers, Molly Rose-Williams and Ragbag Performance Collective (Rose Huey, Nina Wu and Courtney Hope). Below are my observations on what emerged.

The first trio was very gestural. Lying on their stomachs with their chins resting in their palms, the dancers moved through a sequence of gestures that focused on the hand/head connection. The trio also had a task-based component where the performers would create a shape or complete a step, and follow it with an emphatic, congratulatory ‘yes’. Next was a duet that delved into the relationship between two bodies in space. Using both small movements and large, the pair travelled together in unison. There was consonance and harmony. Gestural games brought competition to the table. And there were also confrontational moments where they pushed each other over and screamed loudly at one another. Last was a quintet that explored different points in space. Gathered in a cluster upstage left, the five surveyed their surroundings, heads and eyes shifting from one focal point to another. They walked forward on the diagonal, again concentrating on specific points in space as they moved through an arabesque series. They even explored different spatial points by sticking out their tongues and moving them through the air. TESTMASH’s final step was joining all three dances, which led to some unexpected and very funny moments. The work was avant-garde, experimental and novel; the movement, familiar, egalitarian and relatable. It certainly conjured both the intent and repertoire of Judson.

I’m jazzed to see more from this collective, though I think I’m more interested in witnessing TESTMASH’s actual experiment. With three incubators happening simultaneously, I don’t know how or if it’s even possible to have an audience present during that creation process. But I would bet there’s some real magic to behold there.     

Monday, May 21, 2018


Andrew Merrell and Rebecca Gilbert
Photo Kelly Patrick Dugan

Event Horizon
Osher Theater, Berkeley
May 18th, 2018

Even ten years ago, the middle of May signaled a bit of a break in the San Francisco dance season. There would be a few performances here and there but generally things wouldn’t fully ramp up again until October. But in 2018, Bay Area dance is year round and this past weekend was packed with shows – multiple SF events and a compelling East Bay engagement at the Osher Theater in Berkeley, a charming black box space that I had never visited before. There, AHDANCO offered a mixed repertory bill of returning and premiere choreography by Founder and Artistic Director Abigail Hosein – a program that with abstract, conceptual and narratively driven work, showcased the company’s breadth and range.

Aptly titled too short, the evening began with a brief premiere solo danced by Dana Lawton. Extremes abounded. Small movements were coupled with vastness; vibrating arm circles and fast footwork met large flying jumps and sustained body curves. Winsome transitional steps effortlessly linked these extremes together and Lawton’s clarity of shape, position and intention completely hypnotized. The abstract solo was indeed ‘too short’ and left this audience member yearning for more. Perhaps in addition to being a delightful amuse-bouche, the piece also offered a comment on today’s on-demand lifestyle. We could all use a little more scarcity.

Next up was 2015’s ClusterF(lo)ck, an ensemble work for seven women. Again a dance that seemed primarily abstract, though there was a common thread/concept at play: a study of choreographic intonation and articulation. Joints and heels popped like staccato notes in a score, an emphatic arm phrase moved sharply and swiftly from one gesture to another. There was an intense sense of rebound off the floor – chaissés grounding deeply into the surface before arcing upward and outward; triplets that dove down on count one and sprung up to relevé for steps two and three. And ClusterF(lo)ck was filled with sustained, smooth promenades in many different positions and attitudes, including the difficult fouetté from back to front. I think the only challenge with ClusterF(lo)ck is that while some of the cast really embodied and internalized all these movement qualities, others struggled a bit. This meant that the communication of the material was mixed – some incredibly clear moments and some blurrier ones.

Rebecca Gilbert and Andrew Merrell in 2015’s Me and You was a highlight of the evening – a duet with a narrative arc, charting different points of a relationship, the highs, the lows and the space in between. The pair entered the stage holding hands. With tenderness and warmth, they began the first movements of the dance. Unison phrases reinforced connection; counterbalances showed them working as one to create poses and shapes. They collapsed together, sharing moments of pain and anguish. And then things started to shift. Still together on the stage, a distance started creeping into the scene. While Gilbert watched from the sidelines, Merrell danced an emotional solo, full of open arm gestures and upward facing palms, offering himself and his experience. She was there, but at the same time, not there. As the score shifted to a Bach composition, they once again began dancing together but the mood and atmosphere had been permanently altered. The earlier distance grew and increased, almost to the point of disengagement. Eye contact was avoided and even as they embraced, you could sense a chasm in between. Yet, underscoring this new reality also seemed an ardent desire to rekindle the connection of the past. Desperately, they tried to cling together, wrapping arms and legs around each other. But their attempts were unsuccessful, and as Me and You closed, there was a distinct sadness. It is a poignant piece - touching choreography and a very moving performance by Gilbert and Merrell.

Then we came to the centerpiece of the program, the premiere of Event Horizon. Costumed in white, Merrell stood still as he systematically pulled a black scarf out of his shirt’s left pocket. The material pooled and piled at his feet, but he was not able to clear the scarf completely. As he reached its final length, it remained fused to his pocket. About a year ago at a Dance Up Close/East Bay event, I saw a preview/early iteration of this work, and so this mesmerizing first scene was familiar to me. Back then, the piece felt like a comment on the process of letting go – the purging of grief, sorrow and heartache. That sentiment was present here too, but I also felt like something else was happening. Over the next thirty minutes or so, the rest of the ensemble, dressed all in black, would enter and exit the stage, in various emotive vignettes (duets, quartets, solos, etc.). Sometimes they felt calculating and ominous, dancers swirling their hands as if to conjure a spell. Sometimes the movements seemed sad; sometimes there was even a glimpse of hope. As these configurations continued, I started to wonder if the dancers were representing the scarf and grief itself. That as much as Merrell was trying to rid himself of the grief at the beginning, so too was the grief trying to absent itself from him in the rest of the dance. Hosein has crafted a work that examines the multi-layered-ness of despair. It was a powerful shift in the narrative lens, one that I hadn’t expected.

I do think that Event Horizon was a little long, and perhaps some of the internal movement chapters could be edited. About three quarters of the way through, there was a moment that felt like a definite end point, but quite a bit of material was still yet to come.  

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Spring Book Corner

Spring Book Corner

Leadership in the Performing Arts
by Tobie S. Stein
published 2016
available now from Allworth Press

Tobie Stein’s Leadership in the Performing Arts introduces its central thesis question in the very first sentence of the Preface – “what does it mean to be a performing arts leader?” But it does not seek to answer only that question. In its extensive ten-chapter study, Leadership in the Performing Arts challenges its reader to consider expectations and assumptions around the term ‘leadership.’ The book is structured like a research paper/lab experiment, which might seem slightly dry, but it isn’t at all. In fact, the introduction, discussion, case study, conclusion format in each chapter makes for a very clear, straightforward, easy to read approach on the complex topic. Through an exchange with leaders from eleven major arts organizations (including Mark Morris Dance Group, New York City Ballet and Stage Directors and Choreographers), Stein introduces an array of concepts around leadership like management, vision, prioritization, differentiation, mentorship (of having one and of being one), facilitating dialogue, diversity and connection with the audience. And underscoring her examination of all these concepts is the importance of having your pulse centered on what is happening in the now, as opposed to what your organization has always done.

I definitely enjoyed how Stein parsed out the idea of leadership, specifically framed for the performing arts. Having said that, it’s important to note that the chosen institutions are huge and well established. While that’s a completely valid approach, I think it would have provided some nice contrast space to also add some small to mid-size organizations to the mix. What might they have contributed to the conversation? How is their experience distinct? What challenges do they face?

And while not at all a criticism of Stein’s investigation, I also wonder how the book would have been different if written even a couple of years later, considering the recent controversies and high-level resignations in the performing arts, even in an organization that is part of Leadership in the Performing Arts’ eleven examples. For instance, chapter 8 is titled “Leading Accountability and Measuring Success” and is primarily focused on finances and budgets. I imagine that chapter, and others, might have different content in 2018.

The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment
edited by Mark Franko
published 2017
available now from Oxford University Press

I love dance reference texts - whether a history of a specific movement form, a collection of critical writings or a chronology of a particular choreographer’s work. Yes, the information is likely available online, but for me, there is something so satisfying about looking up that information in an actual written volume. Old school, sure, but it provides a connection that just isn’t the same with online reference material.

In 2017, Oxford University Press published The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment, a new addition to the dance reference oeuvre. Edited by Mark Franko, the lengthy tome (600 pages, nine sections, thirty-one individual articles) brings together diverse academic discourse and opinion on topic of reenactment in dance. Re-staging, re-visioning, re-mounting, revival, reconstruction are common words in the dance ecosystem – used to describe a current presentation of choreographic work from the past, whether far in the past, or not so far. But reenactment, I feel, is less commonly used to describe this process. So it was fascinating to read a number of perspectives that center around this particular term, especially commentary that was not purely logistic (not offering a ‘how to’ guide for reenactment), but instead exploring the additional layers of context around the act of choreographic remembrance.

The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment is quite long, so I decided to read the introduction (by Franko) and then choose three other articles from the book’s index to get a sense of the book’s scope and breadth. Richard Move’s Martha @...The 1963 Interview: Sonic Bodies, Seizures, and Spells, a chapter from Part I of the book, “Phenomenology of the Archive”, contributed a number of different thoughts around archival material and reenactment: the idea of being in conversation with archival material, viewing it as a living collaborator, how that living material informs the reenactment of an artistic force, and how, through conversing with the archive, the boundary between past and present can shift and change, and become steeped in porousness. From Part IV “Investigative Reenactment: Transmission as Heuristic Device”, Yvonne Hardt’s Pedagogic In(ter)ventions – On the Potential of (Re)enacting Yvonne Rainer’s Continuous Project/Altered Daily in a Dance Education Context examines how reenactment is affected by movement improvisation, something that by nature is not a set entity. This article was of particular interest to me because improvisation as performance (whether reenacted or not) is something that I struggle with. While outlining the challenges and complexities of reenacting improvisation, Hardt injects case study into her discourse, giving a relatable, experiential lens to her line of inquiry. Christina Thurner’s Time Layers, Time Leaps, Time Loss – Methodologies of Dance Historiography (the final article in Part VIII “Epistemologies of Inter-Temporality”) also takes a deep dive into the porous space between history and present-day, positing time and events as a broad collage rather than a linear experience. While maintaining dance as a focus, Thurner also looks to additional fields of study for further insight and understanding. She speaks to a mélange of questions that arise in the connection of ‘then’ and ‘now’, like observation versus analysis or established knowledge versus opinion. And in the final two paragraphs brings the theoretical dialogue back to the book’s core subject: dance reenactment.      

There was one throughline in the articles that didn’t quite add up for me (though I only read four sections, so there’s a good chance this is parsed out more in other parts of the book). I get the academic impetus to distill, discern and distinguish terminology, especially in qualitative disciplines. The desire to show that words accepted as synonyms actually may mean very different things; in this case, reenactment being singled out as distinctive from reconstruction and restaging. However, sometimes that drive for singularity reveals that the examined words are indeed not that different from each other. Maybe they are synonyms after all, and that doesn’t make the discussions any less rigorous.   

SF Ballet - Unbound Festival Program C

The third program of SF Ballet's Unbound Festival, for DanceTabs:

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018

San Francisco Ballet - Program 5

San Francisco Ballet
Program 5
Robbins: Ballet & Broadway
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
March 23rd, 2018

It is common at San Francisco Ballet to see Jerome Robbins choreography on the season slate. But this year is special. The prolific choreographer was born one hundred years ago, and ballet companies everywhere are commemorating the occasion. SFB opted to pay homage with an entire Robbins evening – a rare quadruple bill of work created between 1944 and 1979. Much of the Robbins’ material that SFB regularly performs has that quintessential Robbins youth culture and community spirit. This collection was indeed different. While there was one youthful piece and one that literally screamed community, it was the gender dynamics in the program that really spoke.

Individual perseverance and inner strength were at the heart of 1979’s Opus 19/The Dreamer, a work for two principals and a corps of twelve. As the lights rose, Wei Wang cast his gaze towards the stage’s surface. In preparation for his first movement, he sank into a deep demi-plié in fifth position. From there, he took off, executing sumptuous parallel turns and punctuating the space with flexed hands, the choreography initiating from the core and spine. Mathilde Froustey joined the scene in a circuit of long strides, each one slicing through the air with abandon and purpose. The stage glistened with power and fortitude as technically demanding promenades peppered the choreography. And there was a particularly telling pas de deux. Froustey and Wang spent one section mirroring each other’s movement, he, in his enviable demi-plié, she on pointe. They were totally connected throughout the duet, but didn’t actually touch. Again a moment where the strength and resolve of each individual was undeniable.

Set against an ombré blue background, Opus 19/The Dreamer felt emotive to be sure, but was it narrative? I can’t decide. But what did read very clearly was the influence of the modern masters in the choreography – Graham, Limón, de Mille. In fact, structurally, the ballet looks like a tribute to the movement of those artists. Graham’s torso contractions and spirals, Limón’s arched arms and upper body curves; flexed feet poses that looked as though they could have been plucked from Oklahoma’s dream ballet. A fantastic start to the night.

The Cage (1951) was definitely about a community. A pulsating web of twelve female spidery creatures, a newly birthed addition (Maria Kochetkova as The Novice), all led by their queen (Sofiane Sylve). Two men who wander into the scene don’t fare well. Lonnie Weeks meets a quick, violent demise whereas Steven Morse has a different journey. He and Kotchekova enjoy a pas de deux that is actually quite trusting and tender, including a phenomenal seated lift where she appears to fly. But in the end, the pack descends and his fate is sealed.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' The Cage
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Much discourse has been proffered over the years about The Cage’s narrative arc, and that dialogue is both important and necessary – commentary that ranges from pack mentality to aggression to self-determination to female power. But on Friday evening, I was more convicted by the SFB artists’ performance of the material. The women’s corps had such mesmerizing feet, articulating through each joint, exactly like a spider might (they were also able to translate that precision to the arms and spine). Sylve commanded the group in several unison sections, their timing appropriately delayed from her potent lead. Kochetkova nailed her characters’ transitory ‘learning’ space. After her birth, she learns how to navigate the space, learns how to walk, and learns where the axis of her body is, all while learning her power and strength. It happens quickly (after all, the piece is only fifteen minutes in length), but that necessary transition is acutely present. And the several instances where the cast opened their mouths in a silent roar were unequivocal statements.

Frances Chung and Angelo Greco in
Robbins' Other Dances
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Time-wise, the pause between The Cage and Other Dances was brief, but the artistic space between the two is cavernous. 1976’s Other Dances is a youthful, playful pas de deux infused with a distinctly folk quality, danced at this performance by Frances Chung and Angelo Greco. Swirling lifts and turns, forward reaching port de bras, and confident suspension/falls all feed into the work’s ebullient tone, while the character sections, with the palm of the hand placed behind the head, the cabrioles to the side contribute the fun. Greco and Chung were a delight – he with incomparable turns that always ended with the accent up, she, buoyant in every balancé and rond versé. Other Dances also has a fantastic egalitarianism. Throughout the ballet, the pair take turns in the spotlight, almost like they are playing a fun game of ‘pass the baton’ during the many solo variations. Theirs was an energetic interpretation of Chopin’s score, though it was strange that they made little to no connection with the pianist onstage with them.

San Francisco Ballet’s Robbins evening closed with the oldest ballet on the bill, 1944’s Fancy Free, where we meet three sailors exploring New York City. Fancy Free tends to be a crowd favorite, maybe because of the retro costumes, scenery and Leonard Bernstein’s score. But I actually find the narrative message to be very disturbing – unrelenting pursuit of the opposite sex, bullying, women being flung around the circle and being pulled into dancing when they clearly aren’t interested. And the disturbing part is not just seeing that behavior; it’s that the ballet seems to almost celebrate and then dismiss it as no big deal. There are a few moments where the dynamic between the women and the men seems genuine and consensual, but these glimpses are brief to be sure. This was in no way anything to do with the cast. It’s just impossible to experience Fancy Free without a 2018 lens, and for this reviewer, with that lens, the ballet is not just dated, it’s inappropriate.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Stranger Lover Dreamer

Elizebeth Randall Rains, Andrew Merrell & Shaunna Vella
Photo Matthew Kertesz

Stranger Lover Dreamer
3, 4, 5, 6, 1
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
March 17th, 2018

I’ve seen Stranger Lover Dreamer, the choreographic collective of Andrew Merrell, Elizebeth Randall Rains and Shaunna Vella, twice before. Once, as part of an ever popular San Francisco dance salon and once, presenting their own evening-length, mobile, site-specific work at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. This past weekend, the dancemaking trio returned with another theatrical experience, this time, a shared quintuple bill of marvelous contemporary performance. The first and last pieces were co-choreographed, while the middle three gave the audience a chance to experience each individual artistic voice.

Opening the evening was #3 Modern Dance Things, which couldn’t have had a better title. The work mined the breadth of the contemporary genre, from its pure physical syntax to choreographic devices to the conventions and norms of the studio, both those that exist for safety as well as those that actually propagate harm. With the entire company onstage (I didn’t count, but looked to be around twenty), Merrell, Rains and Vella began working through a single movement phrase. Rather than being pulled to exact replication, they experienced it in their distinct bodies, and on their own time. Quickly they took the phrase into the space, all the dancers joining in the dialogue. Adding more steps, they played with accumulation; the movement growing in scope. They played with time – experimenting with unison as well as staggering the choreography with a canon/wave effect. The result was a broad physical opera - bodies punctuating the stage in glorious energy; jumps and buoyant arms flying through the space with abandon. As striking as that was, #3 Modern Dance Things riveted most in its nods to class. You could see the dancers toggling between turn out and parallel, stretching, warming up, trying to feel and sense what their body needed in order to be prepared and ready for the tasks ahead. There were sequences plucked straight out of the studio – spotting practice, a grand battement series front, side and back. Anyone who has ever taken contemporary or jazz dance would immediately recognize that exercise. And there was a brief but powerful statement on gender - how that even contemporary dance, with its forward thinking, inclusive spirit, still has a long history of embedded gender binary within the studio space.

Rains stood in a circle with seven dancers for the beginning of her #4 Remembering, Becoming. Together the group cycled through a tactile body percussion phrase, and as that concluded, the circle unfolded leaving Rains in front of the ensemble. She started a new set of arm, head and upper body motions – a gestural essay with ideas of swimming, sleeping and pointing. A few at a time, the cast would appropriate her movements. Eventually Rains exited the space, and the dancers continued with these initial cues, expanding them into full body choreography. They were not necessarily trying to accomplish the same gesture but instead, take Rains’ information and adjust it to their own reality – keeping what was helpful and discarding what didn’t speak to them. I had read that #4 Remembering Becoming had a strong connection to the idea of being a parent, more specifically, to being a mother. But I think that the incisiveness of the work is that there was an egalitarianism to its notion of sharing experiences, sharing wisdom as well as sharing frustration, hopes and fears. Those who aren’t parents (like myself), could certainly connect with these themes of passing down, of lineage, of community.

For a long time, I tried to discern the intent of any Dance Theater piece that I saw. But with the genre’s combination of movement, deconstructed non-linear narrative, repetition, multiple disciplines, purposeful absurdity and sometimes dark humor, more often than not, I left the theater totally confused. But then I shifted my strategy. Instead of attempting to figure out what the piece was about, instead I decided to simply notice what themes resonated with me. Maybe they lined up with the composition’s intent, maybe not, and I think that’s just fine. Merrell’s #5 Kiss Me While I Sleep was all Dance Theater. Performed by Sarah Chenoweth, Tara McArthur, Danny Nguyen and Mechelle Tunstall, the work deliciously oscillated realms. From a hot pink bedroom furniture scene where ‘how people share space’ was microscopically and hilariously distilled to full velocity choreographic segments to gender-bending enchainements to a range of props (bubble guns, lollipops, squirt bottles), #5 Kiss Me While I Sleep was a theatrical feast to be sure. And it ended with Rosemary Clooney’s cabaret scene from the one of my all-time favorite movies, the 1954 classic White Christmas. Through a hot-pink frame, Tunstall lip-synced “Love – You Didn’t Do Right By Me”, while Chenoweth, McArthur and Nguyen recreated mid-century modern choreography from the film, complete with its angular arms and geometric shapes. So what was my takeaway from this creative wonderland? One strong narrative throughline for me was Merrell’s exploration around perception and reality, not just their oft-oppositional nature, but also the porous space between the two.

Next up was Vella’s #6 Living Swans, an ensemble dance for six. A tree placed upstage right immediate gave a natural/holistic vibe to the space. Simple arm movements and complex full body phrases filled the room, the dancers engaging with each other from beginning to end. And I use that word engage purposely. As one dancer would complete a step, they would gently tag another individual, like they were passing the physicality amongst the group. But as the work continued, it was clear that the tagging wasn’t a way of saying ‘take over my movement’ but a way of asking ‘how would you interpret this idea?’ #6 Living Swans was a comment on process, the continuation of process and how one individual’s process might affect and contribute to another’s journey.   

3, 4, 5, 6, 1 closed with #1 Wishbone Home, The Remix (2014), a quartet by Rogelio Lopez, Merrell, Rains and Vella. An earlier version of this piece is what I had seen back in the summer of 2013 at RAWdance’s fourteenth CONCEPT Series. I took a look back at my thoughts, and at that time, had noted a sense of ritual and vastness. But I didn’t mention any humor or comedy, which is definitely what transpired on Saturday night. Pairing full Baroque silken skirts with vintage concert T-shirts, the four treated the audience to a campy send up on all things courtly and edgy. It was a joy to witness contemporary performance residing in a place of fun and farce, something that feels pretty rare these days.

Monday, March 12, 2018

San Francisco Ballet - "Frankenstein"

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett's Frankenstein
Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
March 11th, 2018

The day had begun with a search for more light, the clocks having sprung ahead as everyone slept. At the War Memorial Opera House, however, the mood was still mysterious, eerie and dark, as the scrim rose on the closing performance of Frankenstein at San Francisco Ballet. Choreographed by Liam Scarlett (a co-production between SFB and The Royal Ballet), the three-act ballet follows the narrative of Mary Shelley’s 1818 literary masterpiece, as opposed to the more sensationalized versions oft seen in popular culture. SFB introduced the work to audiences last year and opted (I’m sure in part to its enthusiastic reception) to bring it back as part of their 85th repertory season. 

Frankenstein posits many questions, though perhaps none more penetrating than ‘where does our humanness reside?’ Is it in our cerebral functions, in emotions, anatomy, corporeality? Or is it in the need for community and kinship? Maybe somewhere else entirely? Just like in Shelley’s novel, the ballet doesn’t provide answers, only a container where the viewer can consider and contemplate these huge puzzles.

Last year I saw principal dancers in the five main roles, but 2018’s final performance was all about the soloist tier – Max Cauthorn as Victor Frankenstein, Lauren Strongin as Elizabeth, Wei Wang as The Creature, Jahna Frantziskonis as Justine and Esteban Hernandez as Henry. While there were some glitches here and there, the soloists all had a stellar afternoon, navigating any tricky moments with impeccable grace.

At this viewing, I decided to take a wider narrative lens than I did at the SFB premiere in 2017, and in doing so, noticed that much of the action in Frankenstein is driven by the ballet’s duets. In fact, there’s a distinct celebration-tragedy arc that relates to many, though not all, of the pas de deuxs.

It starts with Victor and Elizabeth’s Act I duet, wherein they profess their love for one other. At first, the pairing is shy and careful. But as their mutual affection becomes clear, the variation appropriately transitions into free, joyful motions - swirling spins that glide across the floor; buoyant jumps as they are literally swept off their feet by each other. As the pas de deux comes to a close, Victor proposes and Elizabeth accepts. The pending union sets off a party in the household, but during the festivities, Victor’s pregnant mother Caroline (Jennifer Stahl), crumples to the ground. The baby survives, but she does not make it. Victor and Elizabeth’s pas de deux had sparked a celebration, which ultimately had brought tragedy. And it is this first tragedy that seems the catalyst for Victor creating The Creature - a way for him to exert control over the ultimate uncontrollable, life.

Act II gives another example of the pas de deux arc, this time, a duet between The Creature and William (Max Behrman-Rosenberg), Victor’s younger brother. On the occasion of his birthday, William is playing a game of ‘cat and mouse’ with his guests. Blindfolded, he is trying to capture as many of them as he can, but they all run and hide. He is left alone on stage with The Creature, and they continue having fun playing the game. The Creature seems overjoyed to be accepted and included. But once his blindfold is removed, William is terrified to come face to face with The Creature. William is killed, and tragedy has once again struck the Frankenstein family. And on a significant date – Caroline had died the day William was born, and William had died years later on his birthday.         

Victor and Elizabeth’s wedding pas de deux in Act III is also filled with complex thematics. Broad movements and sustained promenades definitely speak to the elegance and maturity of long-term commitment. Yet, Victor is clearly distracted and even detached at times, haunted by the events of the past decade. He is also wary and on guard at the celebratory event, having seen The Creature merging in and out of the ballroom. And as has been seen in each act, the end of the pas de deux ushers in disaster, horror and further loss. 

Of course, there were many other noteworthy moments in addition to these three duets. Like in any narrative ballet, there were several full cast episodes filled with winning choreography and performances – the Frankenstein household staff, the students in the University operating theater and the tavern sequence. The opening of Act III (the ballroom waltz) was the only outlier. The men looked solid in their movement phrases, but the women appeared to be struggling, specifically with the port de bras on Sunday afternoon. It actually looked a little messy, which is something I rarely say with respect to SFB.

Strongin was marvelous throughout the whole of Frankenstein, but in her final dance with Wang as The Creature, she transcended to a whole other plane. The terror was not just in her face, she embodied it with every cell of her being. Palms splayed, arms flailed, legs flew into the air in fear, silent screams pierced the space. It was chilling. Scarlett’s choreography for The Creature still reads a little too stylized, lyrical and balletic, though Wang’s interpretation felt successful. He injected an abandoned, contemporary quality to the arms and legs, which matched better with the character. It didn’t feel so much like you were watching The Creature act one way and then dance in a completely different fashion. And Cauthorn’s Victor was so narratively deep – searching for connection, tormented by reality, in love with Elizabeth, plagued by loss and desperate for solace. Cauthorn is proving to be as phenomenal an actor as he is a dancer.  

Monday, February 12, 2018

ODC - "Path of Miracles"

My review of last Friday's performance at Grace Cathedral  - ODC/Dance in KT Nelson's Path of Miracles, posted on DanceTabs:

Nancy Karp + Dancers

Nancy Karp + Dancers
On Beauty
David Brower Center, Berkeley
February 10th, 2018

As the 6:00pm Saturday showing of Nancy Karp + Dancers’ On Beauty concluded, an audience member asked Karp whether a particular element of the performance had been on purpose. Karp answered quickly, “everything in this piece is intentional.”

Intentionality was certainly evident in the new work, held this past weekend at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. The current exhibit in the Center’s lobby, titled “Douglas R. Tompkins – On Beauty”, pays tribute to conservationist Douglas R. Tompkins with a collection of vast photographs by Antonio Vizcaíno. Stunning images of national parks in Argentina and Chile graced the walls, lands that Tompkins had long been dedicated to preserving and protecting. It was amongst these pictures and the Center’s own structural elements that Karp’s On Beauty would unfold, a thirty-minute quintet performed by the incomparable cast of Sonsherée Giles, Sebastian Grubb, Amy Lewis, Megan Lowe and Charles Slender-White, set to a score by longtime collaborator Charles Amirkhanian.

Pictured: Megan Lowe and Sonsherée Giles
Photo John Hefti 
On Beauty began above us, in the Center’s square atrium. We looked up and saw the ensemble taking turns sliding, turning, rebounding and suspending off the railing. Bodies and arms rippled delicately, carving out the space. Waves of sound permeated the room; low enough in tone that it made you wonder whether this was indeed water or the subtle roar of an animal. These opening moments revealed one of the strongest intentional themes running through the work. That of scarcity. Only parts of the dance were visible, and everyone in the audience had their own unique lens, depending on where they were standing in the space. Considering the Center’s celebration of conservation and this particular conservationist, On Beauty’s comment on scarcity (which would continue throughout the work) was particularly poignant.

Then the dancers moved to a corridor on the Center’s main level. With a spectacular, vibrant photo in the distance, they, costumed by Giles in the same bold colors as the photograph (again another intentional connection), began to explore the air around them. Hands carefully and mindfully washed and swept the space; the spine, core and legs eventually joined in the movement; and the phrase accumulated and changed levels. But everything grew from those first hand motions, cleaning and protecting the landscape.

Pictured: Sonsherée Giles
Photo John Hefti 
We walked down that same corridor into another slightly larger room, the concrete pillars and floor suddenly making a more visible impression. In this next group sequence, the sweeping arms and legs recurred from the previous vignette, while new material was also added in. Standing on one spot, the dancers swayed gently, as blades of glass in the wind. Pathways were investigated through the circuit of the limbs, chaîné turns in plié, and leg extensions enveloped into passé. The dancers clustered against the stone pillars of the building, altering the visual perspective and transforming the pillars’ surfaces. Though standing vertical, the movement encouraged you to consider them as the base, the floor. All of the choreography was so calm and legato, whether a simple hand gesture or a dynamic lift, and much of it (the swaying like blades of grass) evoked the natural processes, elements and wonders depicted in the nearby images.

On Beauty led us into another small corridor, keeping its eye on the building’s structural details. Here as well, the walls were not simply framing the action; they were active players in the scene – as supports, as counterbalances – Karp engaging the surrounding environment in the overall experience. Again, the thread of scarcity ran through. There was dance happening on a nearby staircase, but depending on where you were, you might not have seen it (I didn’t). Once you arrived at each performance ‘station’, moving around wasn’t really an option. At least not on Saturday night with the size of the audience coupled with the small space. But again, perhaps that was purposeful!

The cast re-assembled for On Beauty’s final chapter, a section about looking outward and being in community. Arms peeled up from body, eyes looked beyond the fingers. Shinbusters (whose piercing beams had unfortunately been tough to avoid throughout the performance) projected shadows on the walls, making it feel like many more souls were present. There was an awareness of sharing the space, certainly with other individuals, but also perhaps with other beings and other lifeforms. A desire to be cognizant of co-existence.