Saturday, December 28, 2019

"The Christmas Ballet"

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
The Christmas Ballet
Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
December 23rd, 2019 (matinee)

This season has been all about revisiting some of the longtime holiday dance traditions that the Northern Californian region has to offer. And there are plenty – the lineage here for festive choreographic programming is significant. My final stop was at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to take in Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s twenty-fifth edition of The Christmas Ballet, a revue style program that pairs numerous dance forms and genres with jolly musical selections. Divided into two halves of short dance musings, Classical Christmas and Cool Christmas, much enchantment and joy awaits with every new number, many of which were choreographed by the company’s founder Michael Smuin. A great holiday dance sampler, indeed!

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
in Amy London's Still, Still, Still
Photo Chris Hardy
Because I’ve seen this production several times (though each year is slightly different), what follows are simply some highlights – performances and choreography that stood out as particularly noteworthy in 2019’s iteration. With its delicate balances and luxurious turns, Smuin’s Zither Carol was again part of the line-up and Maggie Carey was sublime in the treasured pointe solo – her attitude poses floated timelessly in space. Sleigh Ride, a quartet choreographed by Amy Seiwert, had some of the best unison of the day, and managed to walk that fine line of being technically demanding without looking too busy or fussy. A new addition to the mix this year, Amy London’s Still, Still, Still impressed with its lyrical elegance, grand lifts and clever incorporation of gesture. This dance for six is surely already in the running for next season’s The Christmas Ballet. Other returning favorites included Smuin’s hypnotically meditative Veni, Veni Emmanuel, interpreted by the women in the company. The walking patterns, the stage architecture, the port de bras – everything is so pure and unencumbered, and the result, powerful. Whimsical Celtic footwork and social dance patterns imbued the charming The Gloucestershire Wassail. And closing the Classical Christmas scene was Nicole Haskins’ jubilant ensemble piece Joy To The World. Grand majesty soared from the stage in every moment of this finale, especially during Ian Buchanan’s incredible multi-pirouette sequence. 

Ben Needham-Wood in
Val Caniparoli's Jingle Bells Mambo
Photo David Allen
The Christmas Ballet’s second half, Cool Christmas, is chock full of fun, novelty and humor. And while I think that some of the vignettes might be a bit dated and perhaps ready for retirement, the audience’s uproarious laughter is certainly indicative of their immense enjoyment throughout. One of the more technical dances in the act, Mengjun Chen was impeccable in Smuin’s Drummer Boy – his enviable ballon informing every beat, jump and leap. Jingle Bells was a popular musical option. Haskins’ J-I-N-G-L-E Bells featured a cute reference to Swan Lake’s famous cygnet variation and Val Caniparoli’s Jingle Bells Mambo (another stellar example of unison by Buchanan, Ben Needham-Wood and Max van der Sterre) brought the rarely seen Italian changement to the stage. But by far what I look most forward to in this act is the percussive dance. Some years it appears more prominently than in others, and this year it had a strong presence. There was the waltz clog in Droopy Little Christmas Tree, Tessa Barbour’s rhythm tap solo (with terrific toe stands) in Bells of Dublin and a new, endearing tap duet, created by Barbour to It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas. Danced by Carey and Cassidy Isaacson, its old-school tap vocabulary of back walks, time steps, essences and riffs was both winsome and nostalgic.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Oakland Ballet Company

Oakland Ballet Company
Graham Lustig’s “The Nutcracker”
Paramount Theatre, Oakland
December 21st, 2019 (matinee)

Bay Area audiences were treated to another delightful Nutcracker over the weekend as Oakland Ballet Company (OBC) brought its version, choreographed by Artistic Director Graham Lustig, to the historic Paramount Theatre. Like its neighbor across the bridge, San Francisco Ballet, this Nutcracker has deep history: OBC has been presenting the holiday tale for close to fifty years. It’s also a fairly traditional dance adaptation of Marie’s magical Christmas adventure. But what differentiates this Nutcracker and makes it so special is that it is filled with wonderfully subtle moments of connection. Choreographic gems and plot points that cleverly (and enviably) link one moment to another.

Samantha Bell and Sharon Kung
Photo John Hefti
The first of these connections happens at the very beginning of the ballet, during the famous party scene at the Stahlbaum family home on Christmas Eve. Amidst the festive whirlwind, which features elegant, sweeping pointe work for the adults, is the character of Cousin Vera (Jackie McConnell) and her suitor, The Cadet (Thomas Panto). Not present in every party scene, the inclusion of this pairing offers two points of linkage. First, it provides a hint of foreshadowing as Vera and her beau will transform into the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier in Act II. Second, it creates a direct thread to Marie, embodied by the ebullient Paunika Jones. As Vera dances her solo and partnered steps, Marie mirrors the same sequences diligently in the background, excitedly imagining her future self dancing the same variations. Fast-forward to a little later in the Act, where Lustig injected a compelling pas de deux for the Nutcracker (Skylar Burson) and Uncle Drosselmeyer (Vincent Chavez), establishing another integral connection between two important roles in the ballet, one that is rarely mined at all. That spirit of continuity continued as we moved to the snow scene. In this Nutcracker, Marie and her Prince are not bystanders in the wintry forest; instead they participate fully along with a cast of Snowmaidens and Snowballs. It makes far more sense story-wise as well as adding much choreographic beauty and variation to the tableau. Having said that, the Snowmaidens’ pointe shoes were too loud on Saturday afternoon, which unfortunately, did distract and detract from their performance. In addition, unison seemed to be a challenge. Super high extensions are impressive, no question, but achieving them can also compromise togetherness and cohesiveness of the entire group. In situations like Nutcracker’s snow (and its waltz of the flowers), that also has to be a consideration.

Charm was the order of the day as Act II’s series of dances unfolded. While there was some occasional choreographic busyness, the stage was awash with sparkle and enthusiasm. In Lustig’s Nutcracker, the Chinese divertissement is a nightingale, a refreshing approach to a difficult and controversial moment in the ballet. And as that nightingale, Sharon Kung was an absolute wonder – her consecutive pirouettes from fifth were quite something. Instead of the lengthy French variation, Lustig substitutes a courtly Baroque-inspired German quartet, which, as interpreted by Karina Eimon, Adele Hall, Brandon Perez and Yanis Eric Pikieris, had gorgeous intricacy and striking epaulement to spare. Again, Marie and the Nutcracker collaborated with the corps in this Act as well, resulting in a lovely Waltz of the Flowers. And McConnell and Panto were terrific in the grand pas de deux. Not only did they command the space technically, they kept things moving along at a great pace. The Nutcracker’s last major duet can tend to lag, but not in their more than capable hands.

Monday, December 16, 2019

San Francisco Ballet - "Nutcracker"

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 14th, 2019 (matinee)

It always seems impossible that an entire year has passed and yet, here we are. December has arrived and in the classical ballet community, that means Nutcracker. A narrative that follows Clara’s journey (or Marie depending on the version) through a snowy forest to a land of sweets with her Nutcracker Prince, a holiday gift from her Uncle that comes to life. If you happen to be in Northern California during Nutcracker, an extra layer of lineage and significance comes with the festive two–act ballet. On Christmas Eve, seventy-five years ago, it was San Francisco Ballet who first debuted the full-length tale to audiences on this continent. Three quarters of a century later, SFB’s Nutcracker continues to delight and astound.

Choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, SFB’s current version similarly looks back, transporting the viewer to San Francisco in the early decades of the twentieth century as the well-to-do Stahlbaums celebrate the holidays with their family and friends. Historic details and lavish opulence imbue the elegant soirée, made even more magical by the arrival of Uncle Drosselmeyer, impeccably portrayed by Val Caniparoli. The adults responsibly imbibe while the children delight in illusions and full-size dancing dolls. Always a stunner, the ballerina doll variation has both novelty and technical bravado to spare. The soloists who have embodied the part over the years have certainly impressed with their theatricality and single-footed pointe work, but I think after Saturday’s matinee, it’s fair to say that this might be Julia Rowe’s role. She was absolutely transcendent, tackling the relevé sequences with gusto while remaining totally in character throughout.

Luke Ingham and Mathilde Froustey in
Tomasson's Nutcracker
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Night falls, the guests depart, the house and its remaining inhabitants change state and the mystery goes on. After the battle scene with the mice and their King, the Nutcracker’s jubilance at his victory and transformation was undeniable. Luke Ingham soared through the air during his solo, the perfect combination of human and otherworldly being. And then we were onto my favorite Nutcracker scene: the snow. First and foremost, I often comment on the sheer amount of snow, truly believing that there is a little more added each year. I can’t say for sure whether that’s true, but at this performance, there were drifts galore and piling masses accumulating on stage. It was a bona fide blizzard! Unfortunately, the scene itself was a little underwhelming. As the Queen and King of the Snow, Elizabeth Powell and Lonnie Weeks started things off strong with the necessary regality and command. Save a couple of tricky moments, they kept things going well. But the snowflakes, the corps, seemed to be struggling as a group on Saturday. Timing, unison and placement weren’t always on their side, and so, what is typically a beautiful moment in the ballet looked rather chaotic. Though, at the same time, storms are too. Perhaps the approach to this scene is changing?

Kamryn Baldwin in Tomasson's Nutcracker
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Onto Act II, with its collection of divertissements, which excited at every turn. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Dores André led the charge with refinement and grace, joined later by the enchanting pairing of Sarah Van Patten (as the grown up Clara) and Ingham in the grand pas de deux. Two of the dances stood out for their incredibly attention to precision and clarity: the Spanish pas de cinq’s (Megan Amanda Ehrlich, Miranda Silveira, Davide Occhipinti, Jacob Seltzer and Myles Thatcher) spacing and unison was enviable, as was the French trio’s (Kimberly Marie Olivier, Maggie Weirich and Ami Yuki), who have to contend with the added challenge of twirling lengthy satin ribbons while performing. Things went a little better for the corps during the Waltz of the Flowers, though again in sync port de bras sequences seemed somewhat elusive.  

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.