Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018

San Francisco Ballet - Program 5


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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
Frankenstein
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:

http://dancetabs.com/2018/02/odc-dance-path-of-miracles-san-francisco/

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. 

Monday, February 05, 2018

San Francisco Ballet - "The Sleeping Beauty"

San Francisco Ballet
The Sleeping Beauty
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
February 3rd, 2018

It was all because of a missed invitation. The entire story of The Sleeping Beauty comes down to that single incident. The Fairy of Darkness wasn’t on the guest list for Princess Aurora’s christening, and boy, was she mad. She curses the baby and sets in motion the events of the full-length story ballet.

This past weekend saw the final performances of San Francisco Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, the first program of their 85th repertory season. Choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson (after Marius Petipa), this jeweled, gilded version, set in 17th and 18th century Russia, debuted back in 1990. But this was the first time I had seen the production.

The curtain rose to reveal a golden proscenium arch and a scrim with cobalt blue curtains painted on it. While fairly simple (at least compared to the rest of the sets, costumes and design), this was one of my favorite theatrical devices. Right before the Prologue and all three Acts began, this blue curtain would become transparent, revealing a frozen scene. Then the scrim would rise and the action would commence. The intermediate curtain transformed the stage into a storybook, a dynamic one that the audience would witness coming to life.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty
Photo © Erik Tomasson
As the Prologue got underway, a mix of mortal and celestial beings started arriving for Aurora’s christening, including the Lilac Fairy (Jennifer Stahl) and her entourage. The fairies danced a number of group sequences brimming with petit allegro (nice addition of Russian pas de chats considering the setting) and batterie. Bourées figured heavily into their choreography, which gave a terrific fluttering sensation to their presence, though they occasionally struggled with unison. All the fairies danced their solos with confidence and artistry, even managing to traverse some finicky directional changes in the choreography. Standout moments included Norika Matsuyama’s spritely enchaînement as the Fairy of Playfulness and Ellen Rose Hummel as the Fairy of Courage. With its strong lines, speed, precision and musicality, Hummel’s solo looked almost neo-classical. As the Fairy of Darkness (Wanting Zhao) arrived, the occasion took a sharp and dark turn. Enraged at being excluded, she curses the baby princess. The Lilac Fairy intervenes, not erasing, but successfully mitigating the Fairy of Darkness’ actions.  

Act I propels sixteen years ahead to another celebration – Aurora’s birthday. At this point, the ballet has already been going for at least forty minutes, but this is Aurora’s first true appearance. As the princess, Frances Chung burst into the space with excitement and joy. And on Saturday afternoon, this Act was hers. In the lengthy, and famously difficult rose adagio, Chung shone - the long sustained balances on pointe, legato transitions, swirling rond versés and the unpartnered arabesque sequence. And of course, the final series of promenades in attitude (with the four suitors); every moment was sublime. Chung’s second variation with the four men was beautifully danced, but after the rose adagio, felt unnecessary. And as the curtain falls on Act I, the prophecy is fulfilled. Aurora pricks her finger on the spindle, and she (along with the entire realm) falls into a deep slumber.  

The next two Acts both contained fine dancing, though structurally and narratively, they could afford to be edited. Most current or recent versions of The Sleeping Beauty (Tomasson’s included) are already cut down significantly from earlier iterations. But that doesn’t mean additional downsizing can’t occur. Act II’s first scene, ‘The Hunt”, is really just a chance to introduce the character of Prince Desiré (Vitor Luiz), which can happen fairly quickly. Then, the Lilac Fairy enters the picture for the second scene, called ‘The Vision’. While this is an important link between the Prince and the overall story, again, it could be shortened. The Prince, Lilac Fairy and Aurora danced a lovely, subtle pas de trois, and the women’s corps, as the nymphs, offered interesting stage patterning and some of the best unison of the afternoon. Their faces, however, were a mystery. I appreciated that the corps didn’t have broad stage smiles, which wouldn’t have fit at all with the scene. But what sentiment were they trying to convey? Much of what I saw looked like indifference, and a few dancers looked downright annoyed. Apart from the Prince wakening Aurora with a kiss, the second Act was a bit of a disconnect for me.

Act III’s ‘The Wedding’ also could be abridged further. There are so many characters (each with their own internal bow) that it seems forever until Aurora and the Prince arrive for the grand pas de deux. Having said that, there were some noteworthy divertissements in the lot. The gold and silver fairies, Miranda Silveira and Kamryn Baldwin respectively, handled their variation with poise; Dores André’s flickering hands (as the diamond fairy) again conjured fluttering wings; and Thamires Chuvas’s White Cat and Alexander Reneff-Olson’s Puss in Boots injected some welcome whimsy. From the first duet through the solos and coda, Natasha Sheehan and Esteban Hernandez’s Bluebird pas de deux was filled with clean lines and specificity, Sheehan’s sense of balance pairing beautifully with Hernandez’s rebounding ballon. Next, Chung and Luiz returned to the stage for their final pas de deux, with its series of fantastic fish dives. Having the two duets right after each other creates a bit of tension. While we know that Aurora and the Prince both should and will close the Act, the Bluebird pas de deux really feels like a finale.     

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Winter Book Corner #1

Making Ballet American – Modernism Before and Beyond Balanchine
by Andrea Harris
released by Oxford University Press, 2017

Today, ballet is such a prevalent force in the American performing arts scene. So much so that it’s easy to forget that American ballet is actually a recent phenomenon, at least relatively speaking. Compared to ballet’s long history in other cultures, American ballet is still in its infancy, or perhaps adolescence is more accurate - not really woven into the cultural fabric until the early part of the twentieth century. An abundance of dance scholarship has been proffered about those ‘beginning’ years, much of it, of course, centering on George Balanchine.

Andrea Harris’ Making Ballet American – Modernism Before and Beyond Balanchine, a new release from Oxford University Press and part of the Oxford Studies in Dance Theory, shares a more detailed and highly nuanced perspective on this topic. Yes it covers the early-mid 1900s, yes it is about Balanchine, and yes, it is about the artists/endeavors/efforts that influenced American ballet. But the book is more than that. Making Ballet American extends both pre- and post- the early-mid 1990s to provide a fuller picture. It has a broad cast of characters, and takes a deep dive into the impactful contributions of Lincoln Kirstein and Edwin Denby along with Eugene Loring, Agnes de Mille and John Martin. It seeks to mine terms like ‘modernism’ and ‘neoclassicism’ by placing them within a wider swath, one that is simultaneously political, historical, interdisciplinary, cultural, geographic, sociological and economic. It has a compelling format that Harris calls “chapters and interchapters”, where her inquiry, concepts and commentary are further investigated through tangible case studies of three ballets: Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Western Symphony. And Harris’ prose should be a model for others – hers is writing that is clearly academic in tone but at the same time, accessible to a larger audience.

The case studies, in particular, I found to be full of hidden gems. How traveling directions in Loring’s Billy the Kid (1938) were more narratively-driven than structural or how the gestural choreography in the ballet was intended as a literal reflection of certain tasks and motions. Or Harris’ discussion of de Mille’s Rodeo (1942) and how in its earlier iterations, it was more of a conceptual work that had a deep sense of place. And I loved the detailed notation breakdown of Western Symphony’s (choreographed by Balanchine in 1954) four movements.

My only thought – considering the book’s year of publication, perhaps a different title, or different wording?

Big Deal – Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical
by Kevin Winkler
published by Oxford University Press
to be released in March 2018

Another wonderfully accessible and cleverly conceived read is Kevin Winkler’s upcoming Big Deal – Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical, new this Spring from Oxford University Press as part of their Broadway Legacies Series. Big Deal is a terrific blend of narrative and meticulous research, but doesn’t read like a traditional biography. Winkler is able to combine his consummate skills as a storyteller with his direct personal connection to the material. The result is a thoroughly entertaining sojourn into the life and work of an industry legend, one whose choreography has been on small stages and in vast theaters; on television and on the big screen. And one whose ‘jazz hands’ are now a colloquial term.

Winkler spends the beginning chapters of Big Deal sharing the early days of Fosse’s career: first forays into performance, individuals he met and worked with during this time and his exposure to an array of choreographic genres, which in turn, would shape his own evolving choreographic style. Some influences were expected, like Burlesque, Vaudeville and tap, while others were a fantastic surprise, like Indian and Balinese traditional dance and early modern forms. After reading Big Deal, I immediately checked out the 1972 movie version of Cabaret, mining the choreography for Kathak eye movements, Limón upper-body curves and the elongated lines of old school percussive dance.

Another thread Winkler weaves through Big Deal is Fosse’s relationship with women - personally, professionally and of course, the oft circumstance when it was both. Winkler relays Fosse’s several marriages and long-term partnerships as well as the relationships he pursued and maintained outside of his marriages. He talks about their deep creative connections, in rehearsal, in performance and in the choreographic process itself. But when speaking about Mary Ann Niles, Joan McCracken, Gwen Verdon, Ann Reinking (and others), Winkler reveals something more nuanced. At every point in Fosse’s career, women were instrumental in its forward propulsion - providing opportunities, campaigning for him to be involved in projects, quite literally and quite often, making the next ‘thing’ happen. Without these powerhouse women, it seems that the story would have been very different.

Big Deal covers much ground in its eleven chapters and brief epilogue: Fosse’s peers and his relationship to them, his penchant for the ‘show within a show’ format and lengthy ballets within his various productions as well as his commitment to deepening the dialogue about how dance alone can continue a theatrical narrative. Winkler gives equal attention to Fosse’s more famous shows and to his less familiar works, and provides a very astute glimpse into the complex and fraught system of choreographic and artistic copyright during the mid-late 1900s.
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