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