Sunday, December 23, 2018

Oakland Ballet Company

Ramona Kelley and Seyong Kim
Photo Dan DIon

Oakland Ballet Company
Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker
Paramount Theatre, Oakland
December 22nd, 2018 (matinee)

Live orchestral accompaniment makes such a difference when it comes to dance performance! The last time I was at the Paramount Theatre for an Oakland Ballet Company program, I commented that at times, the recorded mix was so clippy and loud that it distracted from what was happening on stage. Not so yesterday for the opening of Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker. As has been the tradition in past years, the Oakland Symphony, under the direction of Michael Morgan, and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir joined the troupe for their annual pre-Christmas run of the story ballet. Live music combined with a festive narrative and splendid dancing made for a simply magical afternoon at the theater.

Artistic Director Lustig’s version of The Nutcracker is a classic one, told through the eyes of Marie, the ever-riveting Ramona Kelley, and her Nutcracker Prince, the confident, poised Seyong Kim. But classic should not be confused with standard or stale. To the contrary, this Nutcracker has innovation and creativity to spare. This Christmas Eve party is filled to the brim with energy. Many different characters arrive to celebrate the season, including Marie’s Cousin Vera (Jackie McConnell) and her suitor (Thom Panto). Marie seems completely taken with them both, so what a perfect plotpoint that is they who later transform into the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier. In this adaptation, Uncle Drosselmeyer is a much dancier role, handily portrayed by Vincent Chavez. He is wonderful addition to the fête, which is awash with intricate and interesting choreographic episodes. And with dancers! So, so many dancers! The cast’s spatial awareness was absolutely second to none – I didn’t notice a single collision during the party’s many dances. It’s only too bad that a lot of the choreography was hidden. With the presents arranged in a large pile, front and center, much of the footwork and pointe phrases were obscured from view.

Lustig keeps the battle scene moving along (which suits this viewer just fine), with winning choreography for the Nutcracker. Until he removes his mask, the steps are appropriately stiff and mechanical, framed by flexed feet and angular arms. Then he transforms into a real being and the choreography similarly shifts. Gone are the mechanized steps, having been replaced by swirling lifts, dipping turns and jeté entrelaces. The Nutcracker’s first pas de deux with Marie had such joy and levity, flowing effortlessly into the wintry snow scene swirling with snowmaidens and snowballs.

Jackie McConnell and Thomas Panto
Photo Stephen Texeira
The charm continued as Act II’s divertissements took over the stage – Spanish, Arabian, Chinese Nightingale, Russian and German (often French in other renditions). With its changements en pointe and Russian pas de chats, Nina Pearlman’s nightingale variation was a stand out amongst the group. And though it might have been a little finicky from time to time, I also quite enjoyed the choreography for the German pas de quartre. But the internal bows from all these soloists and small groups - to the audience and then to Marie and the Prince – definitely needed to be sped up. The breaks created a rather halted stop and start feel. That is until the waltz of the flowers got underway and the action picked up again with pulsing, billowy choreography lead by Marie and the Prince. And McConnell and Panto were probably the best Sugar Plum Fairy/Cavalier duo that I’ve ever seen at the Oakland Ballet. He with sky-high extensions and impressive fouettés; she with enviable pointework, serpentine rond versés and impenetrable balances. They were truly a regal pair, ideal monarchs to reign over the land of the sweets.  

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Smuin - "The Christmas Ballet"

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
The Christmas Ballet
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
December 21st, 2018 (matinee)

Celebrating the past and looking towards the future has been a theme at Smuin this year, with the contemporary ballet company marking its twenty-fifth anniversary season. That sentiment certainly rang true in 2018’s edition of The Christmas Ballet, which is just about to finish its annual San Francisco run at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Featuring thirty distinct, festive dance vignettes, the two-part wintry revue paired choreographic favorites from years past with more recent additions as well as two world premieres. As always, the performance moved along at a brisk pace - if a particular dance or piece of music wasn’t your speed, something new would be along in short order.

Ian Buchana and Mattia Pallozzi in
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Photo Chris Hardy
If you’re a fan of traditional ballet vocabulary and sweeping scores, Act I’s ‘Classical Christmas’ is a great fit. The cast is costumed in sparkling, bright white; the staged is adorned with large billowy fabric swaths; and the subtle lighting sets a demure mood. Several works stood out amongst this first group of fifteen. Terez Dean Orr and Robert Kretz in company founder Michael Smuin’s Hodie Christus Natus Est were the epitome of elegance and grandeur. One cannot ignore the abundance of lovely lines and steps, but what sets this pas de deux apart are its unexpected moments. Supported jumps had surprising landings, finishing en pointe but with the leg in plié; lifts would spin backwards with the shoulders being the only point of connection between the two. Longtime Smuin Choreographer-in-Residence and now the Artistic Director of Sacramento Ballet, Amy Seiwert’s Caroling, Caroling, Bright, Bright tackled the complex pas de cinq configuration, and in doing so, revealed its compositional potential and promise. Premiering this year was former company artist Rex Wheeler’s God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, a duet danced by Mengjun Chen and Ben Needham-Wood at this matinee. While the choreography itself was a bit busy for my taste, the pairing of Chen and Needham-Wood must be acknowledged. They can do it all – turns, jumps, batterie, balances – and in such precise unison.

Delightful Celtic influences also found their way into The Christmas Ballet’s classical offerings. An ensemble dance choreographed by current company dancer Nicole Haskins, Fantasia included a hearty dose of delicate petit allegro – cabrioles abounded as did Italian changements. Fueled by a waltz clog rhythmic base, Smuin’s The Gloucestershire Wassail contributed its own Celtic flair, coupling fast footwork with a quiet upper body. I loved the choreography in each, but in addition, both dances brought a tone of community, playfulness and fun to an act that tends to be more reflective and earnest in quality and atmosphere.  

Valerie Harmon and Peter Kurta in
Meet Me in the City on Christmas
Photo Chris Hardy
Speaking of fun, Act II’s ‘Cool Christmas’ was filled with it – musical theater style vignettes, vivacious characters, an impish Christmas tree, even surfers avoiding a shark. The packed house (on a Friday afternoon no less) was enthralled and entertained by the festive mosaic, as was I, though I was more pulled to the dancier episodes and less to the novelty ones. Another work by Haskins, J-I-N-G-L-E Bells had some impressive rhythmic depth. I can’t be sure if this particular rendition of the famed Christmas song was actually composed in different meters, though the choreography certainly reflected a change in pulse, making it both riveting and buoyant. With a winning collection of stomp time steps and cramp rolls turns, Shannon Hurlburt’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer introduced yet another rhythmical element to the program. It’s a super tap duet (danced by Maggie Carey and Valerie Harmon), though there was a tendency to try and fit too many steps into a single phrase. But it was the sophisticated, chic, lyrical pas de deux that were the stars of the second half. Lauren Pschirrer and Needham-Wood, in the world premiere of company dancer Erica Felsch’s Meet Me in the City on Christmas, were the tops. With starry lights and a park bench framing the glorious, grand movements, the scene could have easily been part of an old Hollywood movie musical, and Pschirrer and Needham-Wood looked absolutely stunning together. Harmon and Peter Kurta were equally sublime in Seiwert’s River. Every time I see this dance, that amazing straight-legged fifth position spinning lift takes my breath away.     

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

San Francisco Movement Arts Festival - for change dance collective

The San Francisco Movement Arts Festival is a mere six weeks away, arriving at Grace Cathedral with its Stations of the Movement program on Friday, January 25th. As it approaches, we are continuing our blog series highlighting just a few of the many SFMAF choreographers/companies/dance artists. This month, we caught up with Claire Calalo, Artistic Director of for change dance collective.

Pictured: for change dance collective
Photo: Douglas Calalo Berry of DVB Photo
Founded by Calalo, Jessica de Leon and Lauren Baines, for change has been a part of the Bay Area dance ecology for close to a decade. Back in 2010, Calalo, de Leon and Baines found themselves craving a different kind of creative/artistic outlet. They knew that they wanted to work together to create performance with a social justice lens. But to do that, to shed light on issues like inequality and entrenched systems, the traditional dance company format felt like a mismatch. “Hierarchical, authoritarian pedagogy didn’t fit with the subject matter we wanted to explore,” Calalo explains, “we wanted a highly collaborative environment where all present have shared and equal ownership over the work, where everyone is invited to contribute choreography and movement.” To that end, they formed for change dance collective with the goal of living into this process of “democratic dancemaking.” And the pursuit has been a fruitful success; the collective has been quite busy since those early days. They have presented three home seasons over eight years, the most recent entitled At Night, We Go Inside To Sleep this past October at Dance Mission Theater. In addition to these full-length evening endeavors, for change has also dipped their toe into the thriving Bay Area dance festival circuit with several different appearances including, of course, at the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival.

for change dance collective is one of SFMAF’s veteran companies having participated in all three past Stations of the Movement, and being slated for 2019’s edition as well. In the first year, they brought work that had been a part of a recent program; in 2017, an excerpt of a piece that had been created for SAFEhouse Arts’ West Wave Dance Festival; and last year, gave audiences a preview glimpse into what was percolating for the collective’s upcoming home season. Being different works, each had their own payoffs and surprises; challenges and lessons, but they did share something in common. All provided the opportunity to take a deep dive into the site-specific process. “Adapting the work to the space and responding to the environment in a site specific way, the excerpts inevitably change,” Calalo describes, “they become less like an excerpt from a larger idea and more like a dedicated, new experience.” for change has also been fortunate to be able to dig into this site-specific philosophy throughout the cathedral. Every year, they have been part of a different station – the Station Behind the Main Altar, Station in Front of the Nativity Chapel and Grace Chapel.

Pictured: for change dance collective
Photo: Douglas Calalo Berry of DVB Photo
The trend continues this year as the group will be part of yet another station, the Station by the Glass Doors, directly to the left of the cathedral’s central pulpit. Certainly a dramatic backdrop to frame for change’s dramatic 2019 offering. They will be revisiting a section from their recent home season at Dance Mission, the result of their years-long collaboration with Teatro Catalina, a non-profit organization that provides arts education in rural Nicaragua. “Our collaborative project with Teatro has been all about taking stories of survival and resilience and translating them into a theatrical container,” relays Calalo. October’s home season featured a series of multi-layered vignettes, and for SFMAF, they will be bringing one of these penetrating stories, a narrative that centers on motherhood, endurance, instinct and perseverance. Primarily a solo (though other performers will join the scene from time to time) danced by for change collective member and mother of three Ruth Perez, the choreography mines gesture and modern genre physical vocabulary, with lots of floorwork and release technique influences. And like most of for change’s work, spoken text is incorporated, which in this case, was recorded by the woman who inspired the piece, Dona Catalina. But with the Station by the Glass Doors being one of spaces without recorded sound, for change is playing around with the idea of having someone come in and speak the accompanying monologue. Be sure to come by on January 25th and check out the final iteration devised for SFMAF.

Finally, we came to the question being posed to all the SFMAF artists we are talking to ahead of this year’s festival: why do you keep coming back year after year to perform at this event? Like Lissa Resnick of No Strings Attached Dance Company, Calalo had a number of thoughts. First, she credited producer James Tobin’s advocacy for local dance, “we’ve known Jim for a long time through the dance community; he’s always been such a strong supporter of dance, but equally of dancers, dancemakers and dance artists.” Second she extolled SFMAF’s distinct qualities. “I can’t think of another festival that is like SFMAF, it is so unique,” she says, “it gives the audience this great opportunity to see a lot of work at the same time and also challenges them to make decisions.” And lastly she spoke of how SFMAF facilitates new connections for each participating artist. “Not only do we get to see what other people are doing, but we also get to grow our audience and show our work to more people,” Calalo adds, “our goal at for change is to convey the human experience through storytelling and movement; we want to connect with people, create material that folks can relate to and maybe even acquaint them with a new perspective.” 

To learn more about for change dance collective, please visit:

Saturday, December 08, 2018

"Custodians of Beauty"

Cal Performances presents
Emma Judkins
Photo Liz Lynch
Pavel Zuštiak and Palissimo Company
Custodians of Beauty 
Zellerbach Playhouse, Berkeley
December 7th, 2018

In any Cal Performances’ dance season, there is much to luxuriate in. New chapters in decades old artistic collaborations; a wide swath of choreographic genres and styles; and a curiosity for newness. One of the ways the longtime arts presenter embodies this final quality is in their programming design. Most years, Cal Performances includes one or two (sometimes more) companies who have never performed in the Bay Area, exposing regional audiences to a fresh creative voice and perspective. This past weekend brought one of these debuts - Pavel Zuštiak and Palissimo Company in 2015’s Custodians of Beauty. An eighty-five minute conceptual collage directed and choreographed by Zuštiak and performed by the incomparable trio of Viktor De La Fuente, Emma Judkins and Justin Morrison, Custodians was both cool and thoughtful.

Zuštiak included some commentary in the program, which concluded with a two-part question, “where do we find beauty today and does it need our defense?” While I’m not sure that I saw the latter line of inquiry, I was struck by how the former sentiment rang clearly throughout the work. Whether an extended movement vignette or a short creative snapshot, scene after scene oozed simplicity and purity. Physicality was unhurried and smooth; arm gestures, uncomplicated and natural; directional shifts, clear and precise. Small motions were celebrated and mined, like the movement of the head or the gaze of the eye. A giant smoke cloud was cast into the audience and simply allowed to dissipate; a vocal offering (which incidentally was performed with incredible musical prowess) hung hauntingly in the air. Every artistic idea in Custodians was distilled to its very essence; no pretense, no extraneous stuff. I found this particularly impressive seeing as how the piece employed so many different disciplines – sound, text, visual art, effects, choreography, video, song. But in Custodians, movement was movement; song was song, text was text. Not a hint of spectacle or ostentatious-ness cluttered Zuštiak’s varied artistic explorations.

While a paragon of clarity and distillation, Custodians did have some challenges. For those of us who suffer from any kind of motion sickness, the first moments of the work, with its bouncy, shaky videography, certainly triggered it. For the most part, I found the score to be compelling, though it occasionally ventured into uncomfortable territory – high-pitched soundscapes and atmospheric tremolo that left the ears ringing. While that kind of discomfort can certainly be purposeful, in this case, it distracted from what was happening on stage.

And at close to an hour and a half, Custodians was far too long, especially because some of the chapters felt like they could have been edited. For example, one lengthy section found De La Fuente, Judkins and Morrison moving methodically through a series of cluster sculptures. The transitions were slow and small, close to Butoh in their tempi. I was into it; the shapes and living figures they were creating were really something to behold. But as it continued and continued and continued, the idea lost its early potency. For me, the pull and magnetism of the first few postures had disappeared. The same was true for a later sequence of patterned aerobic running, bouncing and hopping. Again, interesting and dynamic, but just too long. Finally, there was a moment when the lights went up and the three performers ventured into the house. Each invited an audience member up on stage for a brief standing pause, after which they returned to their seats. I’m all for exposing the porous boundary between the performer and the viewer, but this didn’t feel like it served the piece at all. In fact, it brought unnecessary clutter to an otherwise uncluttered theatrical container.    

Thursday, November 15, 2018

SFMAF - Company/Choreographer Highlight #1

In just two months, the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival (SFMAF) returns with its annual Stations of the Movement program at Grace Cathedral. For one night only, this glorious, historic space is transformed into a gallery of choreographic treasures, movement and dance unfolding in and around various parts of the sanctuary. 2019 marks the fourth year of this one-of-a-kind program, which celebrates the depth, breadth and scope within the Bay Area’s local dance landscape.

Photo Jane Hu
Ahead of the event on Friday, January 25th, I will be highlighting one participating choreographer/dance company each month. For November, I caught up with Lissa Resnick, Founder and Artistic Director of East Bay-based No Strings Attached Dance Company.

As with all festival participants, the relationship between No Strings Attached and SFMAF started with SFMAF producer James (Jim) Tobin. “We were performing on a program called Dance on Center produced by Kathryn Roszak at the Osher Theater in Berkeley,” remembers Resnick, “it was dedicated to women choreographers and Jim was there; after that performance, he asked if we would like to be part of the festival.” Resnick and No Strings Attached decided to go for it, and accepted Tobin’s invitation for the first Stations of the Movement concept at Grace Cathedral, slated for January of 2016. Since then, No Strings has returned to SFMAF each year and will be also featured in the upcoming 2019 edition.

Photo Jane Hu
Resnick was drawn to the site-specific opportunity that being part of the festival provided. “I love the challenge of site-specific work, whether it’s creating a new piece or re-working something from the past; when you re-work a dance for a new space, you learn new things about the piece,” she shares, “but there can also be friction or uncertainty as to whether the piece will read in a different space or not.” Over the years, Resnick has experienced both scenarios. For their first SFMAF offering, the company brought an excerpt from Unforced Rhythms, a small group piece that had been created years prior in LA. No Strings Attached performed this work in Grace Cathedral’s Chapel of the Nativity, a smaller space to the side of the main pulpit, and the intimacy of that space and the intimacy of the dance really meshed well. The next year, the company excerpted another larger work, Type None, a mixed discipline composition that speaks to the convergence of science, medicine and the arts. While the piece had translated well on a larger stage – it had premiered at Z Space as part of the West Wave Dance Festival in 2016 – Resnick found it to be somewhat less successful in this particular venue. “We were in the Chapel of the Nativity again, which is a silent station,” she relays, “but the narrative of Type None really relied on sound/text, so it didn’t really work, but again, that was a moment of learning, good learning gleaned from the site-specific process.” Resnick had yet another instance of site-specific learning last year when No Strings Attached moved to the labyrinth station, located right as you enter the cathedral. Here they presented an iteration of Edifice, a work that has been a big part of the company’s repertory journey over the last two years. An aptly titled work to unfold in this grand structure, Resnick reworked the ensemble piece (for six) for a theatrical round. And while doing so, she found that the multiple visual perspectives and angles spoke deeply to and revealed another layer of a dance that seeks to ask what lies beneath. 

Just as SFMAF is evolving and changing (this year, the festival will have both a winter chapter and a summer one in July), so too is No Strings Attached. For the first time, they will be presenting work created by a guest choreographer, Thea Patterson. While Patterson may have the title of guest choreographer, she is no stranger to the company, “Thea has been dancing with No Strings for a long time and is also the company manager; she wears a lot of different hats and I’m really excited to see her take on this one as well,” Resnick explains. At present, Patterson is composing a contemporary ballet solo (to be danced by Alyse Romano) for premiere at the labyrinth station at 2019’s SFMAF. The solo, which is yet to-be-titled, features an original score by LA-based composer Silas Hite, and will mine some Zen-like philosophical questions about the human condition.  

As Resnick and I concluded our time together, I asked one last question which I’m planning to pose to all of the SFMAF artists that I speak to over the next two months. Why do you keep coming back year after year to perform at this event? Resnick offered a two-part response. First, she spoke of the sense of community that SFMAF embodies, “you can get this at other festivals, but with the sheer number of participants and the diversity of genre, the feeling of coming together is so strong.” Second, she commended the festival itself – its organization, its clear communication; its level of production support. “I feel very supported by Jim Tobin,” she says, “even with so many people in the mix, he makes sure that every individual feels like they are being personally taken care of - he remains heart-connected to what he’s doing as a producer.”

To learn more about the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival, visit and to learn more about Lissa Resnick and No Strings Attached Dance Company, visit

Monday, November 12, 2018

Aura Fischbeck Dance

Check out my thoughts on Aura Fischbeck Dance's newest premiere, DUSK, created for the company's tenth anniversary home season:

Monday, November 05, 2018

Oakland Ballet Company

Oakland Ballet Company
Luna Mexicana – Día De Los Muertos
Paramount Theatre, Oakland
November 3rd, 2018

Downtown Oakland was abuzz Saturday afternoon as patrons flocked to the Paramount Theatre for Oakland Ballet’s program honoring the Day of the Dead. Entire families, including the youngest members, filled the aisles; the crowd was peppered with stunning Calaveras faces. Excitement and anticipation for the third year of OBC’s Luna Mexicana – Día De Los Muertos was palpable. What transpired over the next two hours certainly met those expectations – the dance and movement were truly delightful. I wish I could say the same about the recorded music. Not that it was recorded as opposed to live, but that the mix seemed off the entire show. The treble highs were piercing, loud and clippy, making the music uncomfortable to listen to. And that’s coming from someone who isn’t particularly sensitive to sound. It pulled focus from what was happening on stage, which was a bit of a shame.

2018’s program brought an eclectic mix of four pieces, including a world premiere collaboration, and of course the return of 2016’s Luna Mexicana, the title work choreographed by Oakland Ballet’s Artistic Director Graham Lustig. Two guest companies were also featured on the bill, and it was they who kicked off the afternoon with a pair of extraordinary percussive performances. Using ritual, text and movement, Aztec dance ensemble Nahui Ehekatl and Co. provided the perfect introduction into the space – like a call or invitation to each audience member to quiet their minds and be in the moment. Goblets of smoke were offered up to the heavens; drums, reed flute and ankle bells provided the score; vibrant traditional Aztec feathered headdresses filled the stage. And because this was the one dance that didn’t have recorded music, there was nothing to distract from the grounded, pulsing physicality.

The sound mix notwithstanding, Ballet Folklórico México Danza was absolutely ebullient in Nuevo Leon. I don’t know whether the dance had any story or narrative component, but what I absolutely know is that the choreography by Martín Romero and the dancing from twenty-two company members was out of this world. Joyous in mood and tone; technically flawless in footwork, turns and extensions; dynamically intricate in stage patterning and partnering. And unlike some other percussive cultural dance traditions, the upper body was such a big part of the choreography, which made for a richer, deeper movement expression.

Samantha Bell and Landes Dixon
Photo John Hefti
Lustig’s Luna Mexicana transports the viewer to a realm where its protagonist Luna (Jazmine Quezada, at this performance) has the opportunity to encounter and engage with those in her life who have passed on. Sometimes she danced with them, sometimes she simply watched. But in both cases, there was a distinctly uplifted atmosphere, with equal parts celebration, happiness and nostalgia. Costumed by Lustig and Christopher Dunn in skeleton unitards, these spirits entered and exited the space in a variety of distinct vignettes. Standouts were Frankie Lee Peterson III’s deer solo with its phenomenal double stag leaps along with the subtle yet striking bride and groom pas de deux, handily interpreted by Samantha Bell and Landes Dixon. This duet was imbued with incredibly detailed partnering, but what was most interesting was Lustig’s use of flexion - flexed feet, bent arms and legs. While choreographically intriguing on its
Frankie Lee Peterson III
Photo John Hefti
own, the flexion also felt right in line with the skeletal frame of the characters. As the ballet reached its conclusion, Quezada laid sleeping in front of the candle and skull-adorned altar that had been upstage center throughout. Had Luna Mexicana been a dream or some other mysterious happening? The lights faded to black and the curtain fell. No definite answer had been provided, instead, a gorgeous ambiguity hung in the air.

Oakland Ballet and Ballet Folklórico México Danza’s highly anticipated premiere collaboration, Viva La Vida, closed the program with a tribute to an iconic visual artist. “Inspired by the life and times of Frida Kahlo,” as the program noted, the large ensemble work (dancers from both companies, with choreography/direction by Lustig and additional choreography by Romero) certainly took a deep, and successful, dive into both personal and artistic stories. As a video collage of Kahlo’s paintings cycled on the scrim, different scenes would play out like living tableaux, most underscored by passion, urgency and volatility. For me, the most powerful chapter was subtitled “Portrait of a Marriage.” A 1931 painting of Frida and her husband Diego was projected at the back. Onstage, the image had been recreated - Nina Pearlman as Frida, Alberto Anguiano as Diego - a large metal frame surrounding them. One by one, Bell, Sharon Kung and Constanza Murphy appeared on the scene tempting Anguiano. He stepped out of the frame to dance a series of pas de deux with each of them – a fitting metaphor for stepping outside of marriage and relationship. While Viva La Vida was not too long over all, some of the internal vignettes could use a bit of editing. Dynamically and choreographically, a few were kind of flat, doing the same thing over and over again with no build. I also think a number of the scenes were somewhat obscure, unless you were a Kahlo enthusiast. I very much like her work and know some things about her life, yet, there were several moments that went right over my head. And I bet I wasn’t alone. Having said that, after seeing Viva La Vida, I was motivated to do some research. I wanted to learn more; I wanted to answer questions that had arisen during the performance. My curiosity had been piqued and that’s indeed a measure of good art. 

Viva La Vida
Photo Alan Briskin

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Monday, September 24, 2018

Monday, September 17, 2018

Twisted Oak Dance Theater

Amelia Bonvento and Korea Venters
Photo Robbie Sweeny

Twisted Oak Dance Theater
Constants & Variables: Second Homes
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
September 14th, 2018

Over the years, I’ve seen many site-specific dance performances at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center; a plethora of choreography, movement and narrative set amidst the sizable Victorian house bordering Berkeley and Oakland. Witnessing dance unfold in all the nooks and crannies of this East Bay artistic beacon (which marks its sixtieth anniversary this year) is always a special treat, though of course, some projects resonate more than others. Friday night’s performance of Twisted Oak Dance Theater’s Constants & Variables: Second Homes, directed by Colin Epstein, was one that stands out. Certainly for the technically grounded contemporary dance, but mostly for its celebration of the Shawl-Anderson institution and all that happens within its walls. A place that, as the piece’s title points to, has been a home for this region’s dance community, for dancers young and not-so young, for those just starting out and for those who have been called to a professional career.

Constants & Variables: Second Homes’ pilgrimage through Shawl-Anderson began on the first floor with its two studios and large welcoming lobby area. Through a myriad of duets, trios and groups sequence, the cast of eight would fully explore the space, highlighting its familiar aspects as well as its hidden delights. In the first few chapters of the dance, the structural and architectural details of the house came alive, almost like pas de deux partners for the company. Walls provided counterweight, banisters were balanced on, windowsills transformed into resting surfaces, railings on the outside front entryway acted as acrobatic apparatus. The excavation of the entire edifice meant not only were we seeing dance in surprising places and on unexpected planes, but also that the bodies and the space were truly in conversation with each other. This dialogue continued as half of the group embarked on a movement discovery around the lobby’s couch. If you were like me and found this particular chapter to be a little on the long side, all you had to do was look up. Above the scene, a stunning counterpoint was underway as the other cast members investigated the staircase. They helped one another navigate a dual journey, one aboil with porousness and purposeful uncertainty. Which way should they go? Up or down, to the right or to the left? Eventually they committed to the next level, leading the audience toward the upper studios.  

With a delicious combination of winsome and eerie elements, a film tribute to the space’s six-decade legacy awaited us upstairs. In the winsome camp was a choreographic foot fantasia that spoke to the range of movement styles studied within the walls. It ended with the dancers donning different types of footwear: a ballet slipper, a sock and an old-school wedged tap shoe. That final option made me a little wistful – might percussive dance be part of the current curriculum sometime soon? On the eerie side of the coin, the film was filled with ghostly apparitions. Hands crawled through the cubbyholes of the dressing room; bodies appeared and then slowly faded away. Were they spirits from the past? Or the present? Maybe a bit of both. As we moved to the second upstairs studio, we encountered four dancers standing ready to begin their physical practice. Yet another sequence of highly technical and compelling choreography followed. Moments from class were abstracted beautifully - barre warm-ups, center exercises, even primping in front of the mirror. The only minor challenge was with intention. It was hard to discern whether the movement was meant to be in unison or if it was to be performed with each dancers’ own individual, internal timing. Either would work, it just wasn’t clear.

The mobile logistics in Constants & Variables: Second Homes were handled well. Moving a large audience through some rather small spaces is its own choreographic achievement and save for a small group of us that got a little waylaid in the upstairs studio, it was impressively accomplished. I will say that without a program, my observations about the dancing and the performances couldn’t be anything but general. Twisted Oak had opted not to print programs for the event and instead have the dancers quickly introduce themselves at the end of the performance (the cast is also featured online, but a number of the photos don’t show their faces very well). I completely understand the environmental reasoning behind this choice, but maybe there could have been an alternative. Perhaps a ‘who’s who’ board as we entered?  

Monday, July 16, 2018

"Still Standing" - Joe Goode Performance Group

Joe Goode Performance Group
Still Standing
Haas-Lilienthal House, San Francisco
July 14th, 2018 (5:30pm showing)

I love site-specific dance performance. There is something so powerful about seeing movement and choreography unfold in a non-theater, non-traditional space. But loving the site-specific format isn’t the same as loving every site-specific composition. Some aren’t my cup of tea, some are fine and some are phenomenal. What separates the good from the great is intention. Great site-specific works do more than transfer projects to a surprising arena. Great site-specific works are created with the venue, and its particular architecture and story, in mind. Still Standing, the newest site-specific offering from Joe Goode Performance Group, is one of these ‘greats.’

Damara Ganley in Still Standing
Photo Melissa Lewis
Running until August 5th, Still Standing unfolds in Haas-Lilienthal House, a Victorian mansion that has stood proudly in San Francisco’s Pac Heights neighborhood for over one hundred and twenty-five years. Still Standing fills every nook and cranny, every tight corridor and every roomy expanse of this ornate structure with live art. Before the expedition began, we were treated to a delightful introduction from Artistic Director Joe Goode. He talked about how this house was constructed for immigrants. He talked about taking risks, the bravery of starting over and how San Francisco embodies this spirit. And he talked about two threads – reinvention and repair – and how they would underscore and inform what we were about to witness. Then, after a folksy choral offering by the entire cast, the voyage began. The audience was separated. Each sub-group was then guided on a distinct route through the house. New characters emerged at every turn, as did a heady Dance Theater brew of physicality, song and text.

While I adore site-specific work, I do struggle with Dance Theater as a genre. Its themes and concepts are often so far abstracted that they seem to disappear altogether. And with them goes the cohesiveness of the piece in question. Not so with Still Standing. It was a strong Dance Theater work with a solid conceptual throughline. As Goode had outlined, reinvention and repair would be woven into every fiber of Still Standing. And indeed, they were. Yes the concepts were abstracted, but not to the extent that they evaporated into the ether. In the various sections that I saw, the narrative was both steadfast and penetrating. Reinvention and repair of gender, of age, of familial relationships, and of the body were fully explored and mined.

Damara Ganley, Marit Brook-Kothlow & James Graham
Photo Melissa Lewis
Many of the chapters in our group’s trajectory took the form of embodied monologues and conversations – storytelling infused with gesture. There was ‘Lola’s’ triumph over gender binary. An aunt and her nephew conversed about structure, expectations and aging. And another woman contemplated the desire to be nice juxtaposed against the satisfaction of saying what one really thinks. While I enjoyed all of these episodes, I was most excited at the prospect of full choreographic statements, especially considering the dance prowess of many in Still Standing’s cast. We would encounter three (other audience groups would of course have a different experience) before Still Standing came to its conclusion. Each was well worth the wait, especially the first one, which transpired on an outside staircase. A solo by Molly Katzman, which eventually grew into a tactile, sexy duet with Cookie Harrist, fully satiated my choreographic craving. Smooth, 1970s-inspired music framed the scene. The movements unfurled with a similar laid-back flow – body rolls, undulating hips, deep rebound and suspension. The duet almost happened in slow motion, the two dancers savoring each step and movement. And in thinking about Still Standing’s overall theme, this pas de deux felt like a reclaiming of eroticism and sexuality.

A later ensemble sequence of stretched arms, extended legs and pulsing torsos was set within one of the house’s smaller rooms. What struck here was that even in a small space, the movement never once looked constrained or marked. Then, in the final moments of the work, eight dancers unpacked another group phrase in the same space where Still Standing had first begun. Sharp directional shifts imbued this choreography; purposeful changes in levels, patterns and dynamics; strong cantilevered partnering; direct, confrontational eye contact with the audience. Everything looked definite and precise, no measure of ambiguity in sight. Perhaps Still Standing’s reinvention and repair had awakened new or revived old confidence.   

Music tends to play a significant role in any JGPG production, and it did here as well – songs, instrumentals, sound and vocalizations. In past works, I’ve noted that much of the music, particularly JGPG’s vocals sound very similar; similar harmonies, similar dynamics, similar speed. But in Still Standing (original score by Ben Juodvalkis as well as selections by Tassiana Willis, Lila Blue and Shawna Virago), the music was so wonderfully broad and varied. There was musical theater, rock, pop, and emo. There were canoned offerings, layered soundscapes and diverse SATB harmony. There was a fantastic solo for Marit Brook-Kothlow that conveyed the cleansing, repairing and reinventing power of the flame. And you cannot omit the cast from any discussion about Still Standing’s music. They are all formidable musicians. Not dancers who can sing a bit or actors who might know a few tunes on an instrument. Their musical acumen is no joke.

Only one part of Still Standing didn’t work for me – the gilded masks that the audience were required to wear throughout the piece. They felt a little gimmicky, and a gimmick that Still Standing didn’t really need. Having said that, I can see some connections between the masks and the narratives in the piece. I suppose the masks provided a degree of anonymity and egalitarianism – repair and reinvention is for anyone and everyone. Sure. And I guess that repair and reinvention could be thought of as taking off metaphorical masks. But these themes were communicated clearly through the theatrical devices in the work. No extra layer, or in this case eye mask, required.

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.