Thursday, October 31, 2019

Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra - "La Bayadère"

Mariinsky Ballet in La Bayadere
Photo Natasha Razina

Cal Performances presents
Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra
La Bayadère
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
October 30th, 2019

La Bayadère isn’t a ballet you go to for the story, at least I don’t. Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1877, with additional material added mid-20th century, the full-length work is plagued with some tough narratives, especially viewed through a modern lens. On the surface, the ballet follows the complicated triangle of Nikia, Solor and Gamzatti (and a huge cast of characters surrounding them), with all of its passion, entitlement, jealousy and revenge. But look deeper. It’s also impossible to ignore La Bayadère’s gender dynamics, socio-economics and cultural appropriation. Some versions, like the Mariinsky Ballet’s, which just began its Cal Performances’ engagement on Wednesday night, even cross into some challenging terrain with animal props (references that aren’t necessary for communicating the story and should have been re-thought long before now).

I go to La Bayadère to see the dancers - to witness their incredible technique and artistry. And the entire Mariinsky Ballet was phenomenal. In the span of three hours, so many instances of physical wonder unfurled. As Magedaveya, Maxim Izmestiev’s double attitude jumps were out of this world. Over and over again, he leaped extraordinarily high, nearly making contact each time with the back of his head. David Zaleyez’s Dance of the Golden Idol similarly defied gravity with its bravura and ballon. And it was no surprise that each of the three principals shone throughout. Ekaterina Kondaurova’s (Nikia) series of solo arabesque developpés en pointe was completely amazing. And Act II’s pas de deux between Gamzatti (Yekaterina Chebykina) and Solor (Andrei Yermakov) proved layered and nuanced. As they began their choreography, it seemed like they were struggling to connect, to find their timing as a pair. Though as I considered the narrative, it stood out that perhaps this was purposeful - they were never meant to click as a couple.

As wonderful as all of these performances were, La Bayadère belongs to the women of the corps de ballet. From their first appearance in Act I with a group dance delightfully focused on the parallel positions of the body to the extreme technical prowess in the next scene’s scarf variation. From the sheer volume of different Act II divertissements to the iconic Kingdom of the Shades scene, it was these women who stole the show. Precision and specificity was paramount in every moment: unison arabesque hopping turns, an abundance of identical front attitude positions, perfectly timed pirouettes from fifth, entre chat quatres in complete synchronicity and of course the transcendent sequence of arabesques and tendus from upstage to down front in Act III.

La Bayadère is a longer ballet, though the action moved along quite swiftly, including in the beginning moments, which have a lot of gesture and pantomime. Often such sections can tend to drag a bit, but not here. While I did love all the corps’ dances and enchaînements at the celebration of Gamzatti and Solor’s wedding, this middle Act could be trimmed significantly without much, or any, effect on the story. The number of internal applause breaks (those that happen during the scenes as opposed to at the end of an Act or the end of the entire ballet) also can present challenges - there are a lot of them in La Bayadère and each one is fairly lengthy. These internal bows are extremely well deserved, no question. Though, an unintended side effect can be taking the audience out of the story and breaking the flow of the evening. But then again, with such a story, maybe being taken out of it periodically is not a bad thing. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Smuin Contemporary Ballet

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Dance Series 1
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
September 21st, 2019 (matinee)

The San Francisco/Bay Area dance scene unfolds year-round, with each month of the calendar offering exciting performances and awaited annual events. One of these anticipated moments comes every fall with the launch of Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s new season programming - three different mixed repertory bills that tour the Bay Area through June. Last weekend, the first of these played to a packed house at the Lesher Center for the Arts. And while there wasn’t a specific theme outlined for Dance Series 1, one certainly emerged over the course of the show: the deep and enduring connection between dance and iconic, legendary music and musicians.

Zachary Artice in Rex Wheeler's Take Five
Photo Chris Hardy
Rex Wheeler’s Take Five, an ensemble work for ten set to a suite of Dave Brubeck selections, opened the celebratory afternoon with flair and gusto. Right from the start, jazzy tropes and nuanced poses imbued the entertaining romp: stretchy, elongated legs; grand floor slides; delicate, staccato jumps; and sinuous upper spines. Wheeler subtly incorporated postures inspired by musical instruments – hand motions that mimicked a piano, bodies transforming into upright basses. Like the ongoing pulse of the music, nothing onstage was static or frozen; kinetic energy was everywhere, though at the same time, choreographic busyness was avoided. And Take Five had a quintessential Michael Smuin-feel to it. I think the company founder would have been very proud to see the piece as part of the mainstage repertoire (this expanded iteration is a premiere, while the earlier edition was created for Smuin’s yearly choreographic showcase in 2018).

With its impressive technical unison, the men’s trio danced by João Sampaio, Peter Kurta and Zachary Artice, was definitely a highlight. As was Artice’s later solo, which captured the space with powerful jumps, sharp shapes and technique that was textbook exact without looking sanitized. Though Take Five had many of these special moments, the partnering struggled to combine passion with control and precision. And as with many dances that follow a suite structure, there were too many stops and starts throughout, which took away from Take Five’s overall flow.
Smuin Contemporary Ballet in
James Kudelka's The Man In Black
Photo Chris Hardy
In contrast, flow was strong in James Kudelka’s The Man In Black (2010), an emotionally charged quartet mining the musical canon of Johnny Cash. Performed by Artice, Tessa Barbour, Mengjun Chen and Sampaio, dramatic human themes abounded in this constant stream of consciousness. Right from the start, the idea of unsteadiness read clearly with harsh directional changes, off-centered poses and cantilevered balances. Framed by Cash’s expressive, often haunting vocals, bodies slumped over in moments of fatigue; images of self-harm screamed from the stage; exaggerated, slowed fight scenes emphasized violence; and manipulation took a seat at the table as the dancers took turns arranging and forcing each other’s limbs. So not a light work, to be sure (though some clever line dancing motifs did add a hint of levity from time to time). The Man In Black’s power, potency and unflinching nature, with equally powerful and potent performances, was undeniable, down to the final moments as, one by one, the three men exited the space to leave Barbour onstage staggering and searching for answers. 

Dance Series 1 closed with Michael Smuin’s 1997 interpretation of Carl Orff’s famed Carmina Burana, which I’ve seen a number of times. Check out my previous thoughts and analysis at:

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Summer Book Corner

Summer Book Corner:

Mindfulness For Dancers
by Corinne Haas
published May 2019

A profound message. A needed discussion that is largely absent from the zeitgeist. An interactive experience. A specific connection between two entities. All of these phrases aptly describe Corinne Haas’ new book, Mindfulness For Dancers, a selection that should be a part of every dancer’s personal library. Through approachable, caring and informative prose, Haas takes the common idea of mindfulness and applies it to the dance artist, revealing a deep conversation about the internal self in the midst of the studio, the mirror, the stage and company life. Gem after gem leaps from the pages, including the value of time and the importance of balance (something for which dancers have a unique understanding). It should be required reading in college and pre-professional dance programs.

Haas, a former professional dancer, has created a lovely duality in Mindfulness For Dancers - combining relatable story with individual exercises so that the reader can not only contemplate concepts but also build their own mindfulness resource kit. Each of the book’s four main sections includes Haas’ thoughtful, astute observations about grounding, empowerment, goals and intention, followed by suggestions for investigation and experiment. Each of these chapters - root, core, heart, crown – smartly links the emotional and the physical together (something that feels imperative for dance) and uses language that conjures other movement practices and traditions like Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais ATM and yoga.

Though Mindfulness For Dancers seems geared towards the young professional or pre-professional, anyone who spends time or has spent time in the studio will find its contents beneficial.

Marius Petipa – The Emperor’s Ballet Master
by Nadine Meisner
published 2019 by Oxford University Press

Any ballet fan is well acquainted with a particular program occurrence – a note indicating the evening’s choreographer, followed by “after Marius Petipa” in brackets. That is, of course, because Petipa (either alone or in collaboration with others) is credited with creating so many full-length narrative ballets including La Bayadère, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, just to name a few.

But if you want to take a deep dive into the life of the French-born man who became Russia’s leading dancemaker in the late 1800s, look no further than Nadine Meisner’s new book Marius Petipa – The Emperor’s Ballet Master, currently available from Oxford University Press. With attention to politics and world events, Meisner provides an encyclopedic portrait of this dance icon. Each chapter is incredibly thorough, meticulously researched, yet wholly approachable. And Marius Petipa – The Emperor’s Ballet Master is also delightfully devoid of the constructed affect and belabored prose that plagues so much academic writing.

Informational nuggets about Petipa’s personal journey, dancing career, choreographic canon as well as his onstage partnerships and complex offstage family abound everywhere. The throughline of Petipa’s excellence as a character dancer and his choreographic pull toward narrative ballets, replete with gesture and mime, is particularly powerful. As were the discussions surrounding musicality, musicianship and the integral components of the ballet à grand spectacle. And it was fascinating to learn that the dance notation lineage is far broader than Laban and Benesh.

I will say that Marius Petipa – The Emperor’s Ballet Master is not a short read (at least not for me) but if you are curious to learn more about the person, the artist beyond just seeing his name in ballet programs, read Meisner’s book. Maybe even before your annual sojourn to The Nutcracker this coming winter.

Friday, June 21, 2019


Season 4
Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, San Francisco
June 20th, 2019

A uniting theme, be it narrative or structural, is by no means a necessity for a shared evening of choreography. In fact, it can be quite refreshing when a throughline is more or less absent. Then, as opposed to a program of comparisons and contrasts, each piece can be experienced for its unique tone, choreographic tenor and formal characteristics. This is exactly the idea that SFDanceworks, led by Artistic Director James Sofranko and Associate Artistic Director Danielle Rowe, embodied for their fourth home season – a varied quintuple bill of contemporary performance that indeed impressed.

Babatunji Johnson in Brett Conway's The Bedroom
Photo Valentina Reneff-Olson
The program’s three world premieres were strong, especially Brett Conway’s The Bedroom. Amidst deconstructed bedroom furniture (a mattress on the floor, a steel bedframe and a lone chair), a quartet of equally deconstructed, yet keenly visceral, memory unfolded. Memories of relationships, memories of togetherness, memories of past love. A series of penetrating solos and duets brought these remembrances to life; the emotional mosaic filling and piercing the air. Each cast member contributed such an authenticity to Conway’s diverse and captivating syntax: Katerina Eng’s stunning extensions and exquisite articulation; Dennis Adams-Zivolich’s incomparable clarity of space and shape; Laura O’Malley’s gripping, impassioned physicality; and Babatunji Johnson’s incredible dynamic range and varied intonation, from the sharpest of staccato movements to the most fluid legato.

As the lights went up on O’Malley’s Room for Error, charged-ness was evident. J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C Minor, with its pulsing, unending patterns of sixteenth notes, sang through the dimly lit atmosphere. A protagonist, danced by Nicholas Korkos, began to negotiate and navigate his personal journey through space and time; one that included a partner (Katie Lake) and another presence, presumably another aspect of himself (David Calhoun). A state of calm and peace seemed unattainable; off-balancedness and uncertainty his status quo. Shifts and changes in levels and direction spoke of his frantic existence, as did haggard hands and breaks in the line of the arms, legs and spine. Ticking clocks haunted the score, adding to the unrelenting tone. With Room for Error, O’Malley has painted a nuanced portrait of an individual plagued by a tortured constancy.

Andrew Brader and Katie Lake in
Andrea Schermoly's It's Uncle
Photo Valentina Reneff-Olson
With It’s Uncle, Andrea Schermoly astutely captured the essence of unpredictability. As the dance began, it very much felt like a Dance Theater work. An ensemble entered, dressed in black, to scratchy, high-pitched electronic music (the score wasn’t my favorite). They cycled through a hodgepodge of vocabulary and movement – from dance team calisthenics to highly technical choreography to gesture to club moves. It was impossible to anticipate what might happen from one minute to the next. Then Andrew Brader joined the action and things got even more Dance Theater-odd. But true to that compositional style, strangeness is always informed by powerful human themes, which evolved here in the work’s second scene. Brader danced a heartwrenching solo that eventually morphed into a potently vulnerable, raw pas de deux with Lake. Postures were framed by desperate searching, mental anguish, frenetic shaking and pained, dramatic falls to the ground. 

Rounding out SFDanceworks’ fourth home season were two pieces that, while not world premieres, both had an element of premiere to them: the West Coast premiere of Alejandro Cerrudo’s Cloudless (2013) and the Bay Area premiere of Olivier Wevers’ Silent Scream (2018). I liked both and neither was too long in terms of overall duration. At the same time, each had sections that lagged a bit, which made them seem on the lengthier side.

I found the title of Cerrudo’s work particularly intriguing because I saw the opposite – not a cloudless landscape, but a cloud-filled one. Though the stage was again dimly lit and Ana Lopez and O’Malley were costumed in dark burgundy, the choreography was like clouds shifting, rolling and changing shape in the heavens. Throughout the duet, Lopez and O’Malley formed and reformed an abstract series of sculptural vignettes, postures and silhouettes, almost always in contact with each other and with varying tempi and intensity. Several of these stood out as particularly noteworthy, like when the pair touched foreheads in a deep second position plié or when Lopez barely lifted O’Malley off the ground, allowing her feet to gently tread through the air.

Wevers’ Silent Scream closed the evening, an ensemble work that looks back to the era of silent movies, while simultaneously contemplating what they and their themes may have to say in present day. First, we meet a madcap group of silent movie characters, lit by footlights and shin-busters. Stepping and hopping off balance, turning in their knees and Charleston-ing about the stage, the group looked straight out of the 1920s. But there was more to Silent Scream, more than an exercise in nostalgia. Gender norms and assumptions were challenged with several of the cast. And deep messages were afoot. Messages about being ignored, no matter how loud the objection and messages about how visibility is unequivocally linked with being heard.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019


Oakland Ballet Company
Laney College Theater, Oakland
June 2nd, 2019

Ramona Kelley and Kevyn Butler in
Bat Abbit's Sunday Kind of Love
Photo John Hefti
For the past five years, Oakland Ballet Company has closed its annual season in a wonderfully unique fashion. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Graham Lustig, for its final performance, OBC invites the local/regional dance and choreographic community to join them onstage for a shared program, East Bay DANCES. A wide diversity of genre drives this celebration, and with a whopping fourteen excerpts from ten different movement traditions, 2019’s edition was on point. It is indeed a special event, one that I hope OBC continues to curate and host for years to come.

Act I certainly lived into East Bay DANCES’ broad choreographic intention. From the charming patterns of American folk/square dance to emotionally charged contemporary works to percussive Middle Eastern dance forms to a modern ballet duet that challenged gender dynamics, the sheer variety was undeniable. There was something for every taste. And none of the pieces were overly lengthy, which meant that if something wasn’t your cup of tea, something new would be along in short order.

For me, two works stood out in East Bay DANCES’ first half. OBC brought a few sections from Oaktown Blues, a melding of music and movement that was part of their recent Jazz Vistas program. Sunday Kind of Love, a duet choreographed by Bat Abbit and danced by Sharon Kung and Lawrence Chen, absolutely captivated. The laid back, chill lyrical movement felt an embodiment of the Etta James’ ballad – circling torsos, cartwheeling limbs, sweeping lifts and turns, suspension and release. It was an interlude of pure, unhurried bliss. A contrasting, but equally compelling moment, came earlier in the act with Savage Jazz Dance Company’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, choreographed by Reginald Ray-Savage. Costumed in dark bodices and long black skirts, a collective of six women commanded the stage. Struggling motions abounded, as did angsty dynamics and an ominous use of breath. Hand splayed wide like a coven casting a spell. Impressive technique and artistry leapt from the stage: transitional clarity, strong positions, enviable extensions and extreme control.

Still more depth of genre and style was in store in East Bay DANCES’ second act: Dance Theater, Afro Contemporary, mixed media and the ever-dynamic, audience favorite Ballet Folklórico México Danza with their signature percussive rhythms and super human footwork patterns. Again, two of the offerings in this half felt particularly noteworthy. Marika Brussel brought her ballet duet Singing to the Grass (Meant for You), gorgeously interpreted by Mae Chesney and Nick Wagner. While an evocative, dramatic relationship definitely developed between the pair during the short pas de deux, it was the vocabulary itself that struck. Plenty of movements and steps would be classified as traditional ballet partnering. But Brussel also infused the unexpected into the syntax – lush parallel postures and abundant counterbalances that Chesney and Wagner had to work together to achieve. It felt a much more egalitarian approach to the classic ballet pas de deux. And a surprising moment emerged for me as East Bay DANCES neared its conclusion, Linda Steele II’s improvisation, {vyz}’d. What surprised me was how much I loved the composition, when improv is not usually a winner in my book. But Steele was phenomenal. Framed by a shattered light pattern projected onto the stage’s surface and a score overlaid with music and text, Steele moved from one place to another with certainty and strength. Carving out the space, every position was fueled with fortitude, pliability, precision and above all, connection. {vyz}’d was a long stream of riveting consciousness and Steele’s movement quality captured this viewer from the first second and never let go.   

Monday, June 03, 2019

Eifman Ballet

Last dance show at Cal Performances until next season! I caught Eifman Ballet in The Pygmalion Effect for DanceTabs:

Monday, May 27, 2019

San Francisco Ballet School - Spring Festival

San Francisco Ballet School Students perform in
the school demonstration
Photo © Lindsay Thomas

San Francisco Ballet School
Spring Festival
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
May 24th, 2019

Each year when the curtain comes down on San Francisco Ballet’s final repertory program, a note of bitter sweetness pervades the air. On the one hand, season’s end is a moment to reflect on the range of classical and contemporary work that has graced the stage in the previous months. On the other hand, it means that it will be quite some time before the company returns to the War Memorial Opera House. But SFB enthusiasts can take comfort in the fact that several other Bay Area engagements are part of the company’s annual calendar, like this summer’s Stern Grove Festival appearance and of course, San Francisco Ballet School’s year-end celebration, which ran last week at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This year’s school showcase not only included three new works born out of the Choreographic Fellowship Program, but also distinct programs on each night, transforming the production into a three-day festival. I caught the final performance.   

San Francisco Ballet School Students in
Marc Brew's quicksilver
Photo © Lindsay Thomas
As is customary, Act I began with the phenomenal School Demonstration, choreographed and envisioned by faculty member Karen Gabay. As students in levels 2 through 8 shared their talent with the audience, such joy and charm leapt from the stage. From unassuming chaissé tendu and changement to more complex pas de deux and bravura jumps, precision, clarity, elegance and confidence was unmistakable from this inspiring cohort of dancers. The program then moved on to the first of six repertory works, beautifully interpreted by the senior classes and the school’s Trainees. A contemporary ballet for six, Marc Brew’s quicksilver brought many lovely moments, though I think what this dance did best was mine different choreographic configurations. Cycling through serpentine positions and twisty shapes, both cannoned and in unison, we saw a captivating array of duets, trios, solo work and picturesque clusters.

San Francisco Ballet Students in
MJ Edwards' Constant Search
Photo © Lindsay Thomas
A pair of Jiří Kylián compositions ushered in the program’s second act: Falling Angels for the women and Sarabande for the men. While I can’t say for sure if this was the intention or not, Angels had a fascinating intersection where grounded, percussive vocabulary met an old-school Fosse jazz aesthetic, while Sarabande added emotive dramatics to the stage’s palette with high throttle phrases and extreme positions. Next up was Constant Search by choreographic fellow MJ Edwards, set to a Max Richter score (indeed a favorite composer amongst 21st century dancemakers). An ensemble work for nine, Search’s blue-green costumes, swirly vocabulary and skating/sliding motifs imbued the work, framing it with a distinctly aquatic tone. Closing Act II was Helgi Tomasson’s celebration of Baroque music, Concerto Grosso. A quintet for five men, Grosso takes a deep dive into the Baroque tenet of simultaneous independence and interdependence. Each dancer’s choreographic material can certainly stand on its, yet can also be woven with others to create a more layered physical tapestry. And I particularly enjoyed Grosso’s intricate details, like the batterie mirroring the many mordents and trills in the score.

Tomasson’s Ballet d’Isoline took the final place of the evening – a large cast classical offering, complete with corps work, a grand pas de deux and a lengthy variation sequence, also for five men (with the Kylián piece and both Tomasson works, the senior and trainee men were unquestionably the featured group on this program). As had been the theme of the entire night, the dancing was incredibly clean and assured throughout the extensive vignettes and the principal duet by Sunmin Lee and Anicet Marandel-Broutin. I thoroughly enjoyed all the aspects of this excerpt, and with an enviable maturity in their movement, the lead couple were impressive. Though I thought d’Isoline was a bit of an odd choice as a finale. Again, it was danced beautifully, but the work itself just doesn’t exude a finale ta-da quality.

I was excited again to see that women’s voices were heard during the festivities, as they were last year. Gabay’s School Demonstration opened each of the three programs, and Choreographic Fellows Maya Wheeler and Pemberley Olson premiered their respective works on Thursday evening. At the same time, I was equally challenged to see only three female dancemakers in the mix. Friday’s program, in particular, had seven works, of which only one, the school demo, was choreographed by a woman. More work can be done (and should be done) towards gender parity in ballet programming and choreographic commissions. What a wonderful example that would set for the next generation of professional dancers.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Digital Reviews - Spring 2019

2019’s dance season has been jam packed in its first five months – new premieres, restagings and an abundance of innovative collaborations. With the sheer volume of material, it isn’t always possible to see everything in person, so below are two reviews that were generated from video screening.

Kristin Damrow & Company
ran at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts – January 31st –February 2nd

Hien Huynh and Allegra Bautista
Photo RJ Muna
Back in 2018, Kristin Damrow & Company took a foray into the architectural world with EAMES, a contemporary dance that mined the life and work of Charles and Ray Eames. A year later, they continued their investigation into line and perspective with Impact, a full-length world premiere informed by another architectural movement, Brutalism. I asked a designer friend of mine for some extra insight on the mid-century form known for massive structures, sharp lines and concrete materials, and he shared this, “the word sells it short; Brutalism has extreme elegance through its heaviness and permanence – these aren’t just big, clumsy blocks.” Over the course of an hour, Impact certainly spoke to this range of properties, qualities and tones.

Impact featured a large cast, five featured soloists and a chorus of ten performing a stream of continuous dance vignettes. With straight lines, quiet arms, wide parallel stances and unwavering stares, the choreography for the corps was often my favorite movement happening on stage. Wonderfully interpreted by the cast and thoughtfully crafted by director/choreographer Kristin Damrow, their militaristic precision and severity felt not only inspired by Brutalist architecture, but a physical embodiment of it. But this wasn’t the only position Impact took with respect to Brutalism. Throughout the work, the different scenes were redolent with an array of moods and textures, some very subtle and gentle. In one moment, the gaze led and rotated the body around its axis while in another, the hand adjusted the slant of a dancer’s chin – both provided a nuanced nod to discernment, perspective and smoothness.

Still more moods were to come as Impact continued. Plenty of confrontational material arose in the different chapters. Performers flung each other across the space and threw one another to the ground; arm wrestling motifs abounded. Angular, marked motions in the spine, arms and legs imbued the phrase material as did a retreating motif of backwards salamander-like crawling. And speaking of the physical vocabulary itself, I thought Damrow’s inclusion of old-school mid-century modern technique - Horton laterals, Limón curves and Graham contractions - was both inspired and brilliant. Looking to movement that was part of the same era as Brutalism brought yet another layer of connection to the table.

Watching a recorded work of course affects the viewership lens in several respects. For example, I imagine that the design elements, both scenic and lighting, were quite profound, considering the dance’s source material. It was just harder to get a feel for them on video. I also had a sense that while Impact was by no means story-based, there was some character study and perhaps some narrative threads running through the work. In particular, Anna Greenberg felt like a monarch reigning over the space in several of the scenes. I wonder if further narrative threads would have been apparent in person.

One element that was not at all affected by the video experience was Aaron M. Gold’s original score. Gold’s composition was truly something to behold, an aural investigation of concrete’s voice. Infused with a gravel-y undercurrent, the sounds and music were stark, cold and detached. And while very complex, the score also had a simplicity and cleanness to it that felt evocative of the complex building material. I will say though, that the dynamics of both the movement and the score were fairly similar throughout the piece, which at close to an hour, made Impact feel a bit on the long side.

Alyssandra Katherine Dance Project
ran at ODC Theater – April 11th-13th

In the spring, Alyssandra Katherine Dance Project unveiled their newest world premiere at ODC Theater, Unraveled, an epic quintet that casts an unflinching, raw lens on addiction. Its wide scope tackles the topical narrative from scientific, medical and personal points of view. It dives deeply into addiction to substances, to people, to behaviors, to achievement, to controlling one’s environment. And it vulnerably brings light to that painful reality of being caught in a destructive pattern, wanting things to change and feeling powerless to break out of the cycle.

Jan-Matthew Sevilla
Photo Kofi Kumi
Conceived and created by Artistic Director Alyssandra Wu, Unraveled utilizes many disciplines in sharing its message - video, text, objects, audio soundscore, music, song (the piece is bookended by an absolutely stunning solo rendition of The Beatles iconic Blackbird) and of course movement. Though I wouldn’t categorize the work as strictly mixed discipline or even Dance Theater. Instead Unraveled reads almost like a dance play, and a great one at that. Choreographic and movement vignettes are layered with and interspersed by theatrical scenework. Text-based chapters are infused with gesture. A narrator, or as she called herself in the work, ‘a guide’, leads the audience through the journey. And throughout, powerful, potent and completely relatable arcs leap from the stage.

Choreographically, Wu delivered a wonderfully broad swath of material – from body percussion to gestural phrases to technically-lush syntax. High throttle physical sections saw the ensemble spinning frenetically and desperately changing levels. Dancers unapologetically pushed each other to the ground and punched their fists into the air. Yet, these tortured motions were also counterpointed with moments of empathy and compassion – duets where support and care were paramount; hands gently offering assistance; unison motions reflecting a shared, common understanding. Another impressive element woven throughout Unraveled was the appearance of ropes, cords and tethers. A direct connection to the title of the dance, these various objects had a profound narrative effect. Whether mooring two dancers together, hanging from the light grid or being strewn about the stage, the sense of being ensnared and caught by an outside force was undeniable.

Because of the interplay between dance episodes and text-based scenes, Unraveled had great variety in dynamics, intensity and atmosphere. So, even though it was close to an hour and fifteen minutes, it didn’t feel overly long. Having said that, the structure was a bit curious. At around the fifty-minute mark (when then was still a good twenty-five minutes to go), there was a very clear break point. A particularly poignant scene had just concluded and the lights went down. When they came back up, the cast had changed costumes, the stage space had transformed, the lighting pattern was altered and there was a much more optimistic/hopeful tone to the work. From this point on, Unraveled mined recovery from addiction. While this last third didn’t feel like a different dance, it definitely felt like a separate part of the overall artistic idea. Perhaps experimenting with an intermission between the two sections, even though the first one is quite a bit longer than the second, would be an interesting exercise.     


A documentary by Jacqui Morris and David Morris
Screening May 24th-26th
Roxie Theater, San Francisco

Be sure to make time this coming weekend to visit San Francisco’s Roxie Theater for Nureyev, a captivating film by Jacqui Morris and David Morris that takes a deep dive into the life and career of Rudolph Nureyev. Like any good documentary (and this one is that for sure), Nureyev combines cultural history lessons, personal journeys and remembrances into a rich, lush tapestry. Ample time is devoted to the legendary dancer’s family life, his training, defection in Paris, his relationship with Erik Bruhn, his iconic dance partnership with Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet and finally, his tragic death from AIDS. With an elegant and curious lens, J. Morris and D. Morris have created a marvelous tribute fitting of this phenomenal artistic soul.

Early video clips, televised interview footage, audio commentary (from a wide range of friends, colleagues and collaborators) along with performance videos are aplenty in the film’s hour and forty minutes, though there is yet another artistic element to Nureyev that makes it stand out. The work is peppered with different dance scenes specifically choreographed for the project by Russell Maliphant – episodes and vignettes that are narratively and emotionally informed by particular plotpoints in the documentary. In these dramatized, choreographic moments, the viewer meets Nureyev’s mother and sisters and his first dance teacher. His social group in the 1960s is depicted, as is his tortured decision to stay in Paris or return to Russia. It’s like watching a story ballet (though the movement falls within contemporary/modern/Dance Theater genres) in creative conversation and exchange with a documentary. Nureyev’s archival material and meticulous research is indeed impressive, but it is this additional artistic layer that makes the film unlike other projects. It allows the audience to connect to the material on another level, which seems more than apt for a dancer/choreographer/director whose talent and drive were surely on another level.   

Monday, May 13, 2019

San Francisco Ballet - "Shostakovich Trilogy"

San Francisco Ballet
Shostakovich Trilogy
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
May 11, 2019 (matinee)

Like most major ballet companies, San Francisco Ballet’s annual season combines several full-length narrative ballets alongside mixed repertory evenings. And I’m someone who is pulled to both types of offerings. While I tend to favor the triple bills because of their variety and breadth, I’m wholeheartedly a fan of the multi-act story ballets too, though admittedly some more than others. But every once in while a program comes along that seems to straddle both formats, weaving a strong narrative thread throughout, while presenting three distinct and unique choreographic frames. Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, which had its SFB premiere in 2014, is one of these rare birds. The final program of 2019’s repertory season, Ratmansky’s Trilogy narratively mines the life and work of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, while its three contrasting parts, each set to a different Shostakovich masterwork, offer deep choreographic scope.

Jennifer Stahl and Aaron Robison in
Ratmansky's Symphony #9
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Trilogy makes no attempt to tell a linear story, but its narrative threads and tones are undeniable. Spiritedness lightness imbues the beginning of Part I Symphony #9. While the plucky, staccato, almost musical theater-inspired score soared from the orchestra pit, under the brilliant direction of Ming Luke, Ratmansky played with polka steps, technically demanding hops en pointe and moments of pure camaraderie that found the principals weaving through and dancing with the corps. And then the mood takes an abrupt turn. As Mathilde Froustey and Luke Ingham entered the space, a wave of uncertainty and wariness flooded the visual and aural palette. Together, they peered over their shoulders in anticipation of something ominous. Their duet was filled with movements on low demi-pointe rather than full toe, which felt an apt metaphor for a journey that that was just beyond their reach. Catapulting through these divergent scenes was Lonnie Weeks, whose jumps and turns were some of the best of the entire day.

San Francisco Ballet in
Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Part II Chamber Symphony, is the most storied of the group, though again I wouldn’t necessarily call it sequential. Costumed in a black suit with an open jacket, Joseph Walsh takes on the Shostakovich role, with a trio of principal women (Jahna Frantziskonis, Elizabeth Powell and Sasha De Sola) portraying three of his loves. Moments of affection and joy are peppered throughout, though for the most part, the ballet swirls from melancholic to urgent to tortured. Peace, calm and rest seem to elude Walsh’s character, a state that is mirrored on George Tsypin’s backdrop by a fractured collage of faces and profiles. Legs fly in every direction; arms search in a whirling stream for something unattainable. As one would expect, there are several pas de deux between the main players, but it was Walsh and Powell’s incredible connection that made the audience gasp. Every suspended hold, abrupt fall and swimming spin radiated a poignant longing and yearning.  

San Francisco Ballet in
Ratmansky's Piano Concerto #1
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Piano Concerto #1, Part III has a boldness to it. Red, geometric shapes hang from the rafters; Keso Dekker’s costumes have the corps in two-toned unitards (grey on the front and red on the reverse) and the principal women in striking, shimmering scarlet leotards. Much of Ratmansky’s movement vocabulary in this chapter explored off-center steps and postures combined with malleable and strong positions alike. One of the two featured couples, Isabella Devivo and Wei Wang commanded the stage with their precise footwork and whimsical additions, like the flexed frappés that traveled upward from Wang’s ankle to above the knee.

One special element of Trilogy is the abundant corps work in each movement, though one could argue more so in the first and third. The lush, rich vocabulary seems designed for the senior corps dancers - those with seven, eight, maybe even nine plus years experience in the corps de ballet. While SFB definitely has these exceptional artists in its roster, there’s only a handful, and sadly, seems like less and less every season. The few senior corps who danced on Saturday afternoon were absolutely fantastic. A ballet like Ratmansky’s Trilogy certainly requires advanced technical skill, which they have to spare. Though, its need for movement maturity, attention to transitional space and general spatial awareness is perhaps even more important. And I do think, when it comes to these qualities, time makes a huge difference. If you were in the audience this past weekend, that marked difference was indeed noticeable.