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. 

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.