Sunday, April 14, 2019

Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Madeline DeVries and Shuaib Elhassan in Pole Star
Photo Manny Crisostomo

Alonzo King LINES Ballet
Spring Season
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
April 12th, 2019

A gift of any Alonzo King LINES Ballet performance is the opportunity to see the company’s stunning dance artists. Even if the individual choreographic works don’t necessarily speak to you, their technical bravura, exceptional eloquence and authentic grace are indisputable. And the dancers were absolutely on fire Friday night as LINES opened its spring season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I can’t stress enough the gift and privilege it was to witness them in motion.

The program itself, a double bill featuring the return of 2016’s Art Songs and the world premiere of Pole Star, also impressed. Both pieces mine the dialogue and exchange between movement and music - a rich line of inquiry that was central to the troupe’s fall offering, which included a nod to Baroque musicality and a collaboration with Kronos Quartet. Six months later, LINES continued that foray into the sound/body connection.

In music, counterpoint is a compositional tool, where motifs, lines or voices are experienced as simultaneously independent and interdependent - independent, in that they certainly can stand on their own, and interdependent, in that they also work together to create a sumptuous aural palette. In Art Songs, Artistic Director/Founder/Choreographer Alonzo King looks to that concurrency, and places movement as a counterpoint to Baroque, Romantic and contemporary composers. Costumed by Robert Rosenwasser in whites, silvers and black velvet, the company contributed an additional artistic line to the recorded instrumental and vocal selections, and in doing so, added a riveting tone of desperation and passion. While there were a few ensemble sequences, the majority of the work was expressed through six chapters of pas de deux (and one trio). And the drama was intense. Relevés were informed by frenetic urgency, as were surprising contractions in the head and upper back. Dancers rapidly slid across the floor and then stamped their feet to the ground, as if trying to extinguish a fire. LINES’ sky-high extensions, super flexion and attitudes in second were abundant, though keeping with Art Songs’ intensity, dancers quickly crumbled after hitting one of those extreme postures. Recorded music can sometimes be tough in dance performance, but here, because the choreography was having an active contrapuntal conversation with J.S. Bach, Robert Schumann, George F. Handel, Henry Purcell and Lisa Lee, the atmosphere felt very alive.     

Babatunji, Michael Montgomery and Shuaib Elhassan
in Pole Star
Photo Manny Crisostomo
But if you were craving live music as a frame for dance, Pole Star, King’s collaboration with famed Vietnamese musician/composer Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, fit the bill - a forty-minute work of intersecting textures, layers and moods. From the orchestra pit, Võ’s hauntingly beautiful zither rose, occasionally interspersed with text and ambient sounds. Billowy smoke poured into the space. Projected on the back cyclorama was a film (by Jamie Lyons) of bright green rolling hills, their color matched by Rosenwasser’s wispy, flowy costumes. Adding to that lush environment was King’s evocative choreography. Pole Star didn’t read as narrative, but it wasn’t abstract either - charged emotions were unmistakable and potent imagery, ever present. As in Art Songs, LINES’ signature choreographic positions were aplenty, though, here they were also infused with unexpected movement practices and traditions. Some sections were clearly inspired by military drills, others by martial arts. Twisted, serpentine torsos abounded, as did vignettes of falling and catching oneself. Grounded, percussive footwork unison spoke of a shared experience while aggressive phrases conjured confrontation. Such a broad collage of tones and qualities! But for me, what was most impactful in Pole Star was the juxtaposition of the body and the projection. Seeing the company against the mountains (and later blades of grass) brought an interesting question of corporeality to the table. The sense of place had become transitory and fluid. At moments, it felt as though the dancers had actually been transported to those natural settings and were dancing amidst them.

LINES spring program definitely tackled movement and music from two distinct vantage points – Art Songs and Pole Star were very different from each other. No question. But having said that, within the body of each piece, there was a strong sense of sameness. From the first light cue to the final blackout of both dances, their energy, quality and dynamics were very similar. Too similar for this viewer. And a side effect of remaining at one energetic level is that the work ends up seeming long. Neither Art Songs nor Pole Star actually were too long, but unfortunately, they felt that way.    

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in
Alvin Ailey's Revelations
Photo Christopher Duggan

Cal Performances presents
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Program A
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
April 9th, 2019

For four days a man had been presumed dead. A miraculous healer arrived to tell his friends and family that this was not the end. It was hard for them to imagine. Yet, his tombstone was removed and there he stood alive.

So many threads run through the Lazarus parable. Themes of faith and hope. Themes of believing in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. Themes of rising from quietus. And themes of porousness – the porousness between life and death, and the porousness of time.

All of these strands come together in Lazarus, choreographed in 2018 by Rennie Harris for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The two-act work, which Artistic Director Robert Battle shared in his opening remarks was a first for the company, takes its audience on a journey. A journey through the African American experience, a journey through history and a journey through space and time. Within these larger narratives, Harris also weaves tributes and remembrances to both to Alvin Ailey and to AAADT on the occasion of their sixtieth anniversary. This gripping work saw its Bay Area premiere Tuesday night as the troupe opened its annual weeklong residency at Cal Performances (Lazarus was also co-commissioned by Cal Performances).

Lazarus doesn’t seek to be a literal rendering of the biblical story. Instead, it applies the broader themes to three different eras, and unpacks them through movement and scenework. First Harris takes the viewer back in time, to the horrors of slavery. Potent, disturbing images of forced labor, human cruelty, even lynching, pervade the stage: dancers trudged through the space, heads down, arms drilling toward the ground. Mouths contorted in silent screams; hands shook, desperately praying for justice; torsos wailed in grief. Several phrases saw the cast running full speed away from something terrifying. Yet, amidst all that terror, Harris also injected glimpses of hope. A deep sense of community underscored this entire first scene, as did a recurring physical motif. Dancers would traverse the stage with suspended, slow motion strides coupled with expectant, lifted gazes and longing expressions. These vast lunges weren’t running out of extreme fear, they were all about moving forward, toward something or someone. I couldn’t specifically say what that thing or person was, though the tone undeniably spoke of resilience, of rising like Lazarus.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in
Rennie Harris' Lazarus
Photo Paul Kolnik
The connection to the source material was far from over as Lazarus shifted into its next chapter – the mid-twentieth century. As the first act came to its close, what struck was the porousness of time. Lazarus had indeed morphed to a different era, no question. Plain, rural clothing had been replaced with costume designer Mark Eric’s take on 1960s stylings. And Harris added a more sinewy expression of the upper body to the traditional African percussive footwork. Though much (good and bad) was the same, despite the time lapse. The feeling of community was still unmistakable. But so was the violence and bloodshed. Bodies flung and crumbled all over the space, as if hit by gunfire. After intermission, Act II of Lazarus once again took us to a new place and time. Jeweled-toned tunics, trimmed with gold had a definite 1980s vibe and the high-throttle, pulsing, free choreography added a note of celebration. This felt like heaven, maybe even the heaven that welcomed Mr. Ailey after he passed from this world in 1989. But at the same time, you couldn’t be sure it was heaven. As the lights fell on Lazarus, that line between life and afterlife had been left purposely uncertain.

Lazarus is a powerful performance work that fires on all cylinders – design, music, movement and narrative. And it was brilliantly interpreted by the entire Ailey company. Though the piece’s formal structure did spark a question. The dance clearly has three parts to it, but is divided into two acts. The middle section (tacked onto the end of Act I) felt a little rushed and less developed than the other two segments. I wonder what Lazarus would look like as a three-part ballet, with an expanded middle section and one act dedicated to each separate scene.

And of course, the evening closed with Ailey’s 1960 masterwork Revelations. As with so many, I never tire of seeing this transcendent dance suite. Highlights at this viewing included the unison port de bras and port de corps during I Been ‘Buked and the urgent yearning that Jacqueline Green and Jamar Roberts brought to the spellbinding Fix Me, Jesus pas de deux.

Monday, April 08, 2019

San Francisco Ballet - Program 6

San Francisco Ballet
Program 6 - Space Between
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 6th, 2019

In danceland, many musical scores end up being inexorably linked to particular choreography. When I hear the first notes of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, I anticipate the corps de ballet dressed in light blue for George Balanchine’s Serenade. The whistles and unexpected intervals at the beginning of West Side Story make me crave Jerome Robbins’ signature relevé in second. But I also love it when dancemakers break with convention and posit new, different, unexpected language with such scores. That’s what Justin Peck did with Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, the opener on San Francisco Ballet’s sixth program, Space Between. The 2015 work takes Aaron Copland’s stirring music, originally composed for Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo ballet, and asks what it has to say some eight decades later.

San Francisco Ballet in Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes
Photo © Erik Tomasson
And the answer is, a lot. While Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes certainly pays homage to the past with nostalgic western tropes and old-school musical theater motifs, its choreographic syntax is undeniably twenty-first century. Pedestrian motions are seamlessly combined with highly technical phrases, making the work approachable and fresh. In one instant, the ensemble runs full speed across the stage; in another, they execute perfectly timed unison pirouettes. Peck isn’t afraid of stillness and uses it well throughout the ballet. Impactful, frozen postures of waiting and searching abound: palms splayed, long lunges and expectant upward glances. And the sense of camaraderie amongst the cast of fifteen men and one woman is palpable – they looked like they were having so much fun. But it is the sole female role, danced by Sofiane Sylve, that is most intriguing. From the moment Sylve appears through her pas de deux with Carlo Di Lanno to the final blackout, one is struck by incredible self-assurance. She enters partway through Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, and so, is indeed joining an ongoing, in process conversation that the men have been having. But with every step, every glance, it is clear that she feels no need to adjust her reality or fit into some perceived mold. Not only is this embodied in her solo work, but also in the primary duet. Peck imbued this pas de deux with abundant counterbalances – shapes and positions requiring equal force from both dancers - and at several points, it was Sylve who was providing the base of support for the partnering. And no discussion of Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes is complete without some bravura highlights. Hansuke Yamamoto wowed with his series of brisés cabrioles, and Esteban Hernandez’ purposely slowing fouettés were met with uproarious applause.

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett's Die Toteninsel
Photo © Erik Tomasson
As the lights slowly warmed on Liam Scarlett’s new work for SFB, Die Toteninsel, it was clear that Program 6 was nowhere near done exploring the relationship between movement and music. Die Toteninsel impresses on many levels. Narratively, it has a real Rite of Spring vibe to it, minus the sacrifice part. There’s a community; there’s a feeling of ritualistic purpose; and there’s a definite ominous undercurrent. But the ballet’s shining glory is in its mirroring of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music. Both have an air of unpredictability and morph from one space to another in a deliciously porous wave. Rachmaninoff’s compositions are known for having a wonderful quality of surprise and change, really transcending genre. In a single piece, you might hear the virtuosity and rubato of the Romantic era, the tonal ambiguity of the Impressionists, Baroque counterpoint and 20th Century chromaticism. And the genius is that it all works together. The same is true of what Scarlett created with Die Toteninsel. Defying a particular sense of time, the piece looked futuristic, biblical and mythological all at the same time. Its tone was concurrently determined, worshipful, passionate and foreboding. Partnerships were constantly in flux as the cast navigated their relationship to David Finn’s large circular light sculpture (which itself also shifted and pivoted throughout the work). Choreographically, Scarlett mined a range of styles and dynamics - pedestrian walking, classical arabesques, contemporary inverted lifts and serpentine twisting. And while there were plenty of large poses and vast extensions, Scarlett spent ample time with low positions. Low arabesques, low passés and turns in ¼ relevé felt a metaphor for being on a journey. A journey that, like those positions, hadn’t reached its final leg yet. A journey through a tunnel of moods, tones and atmospheres, that, even if you weren’t quite sure what was happening, you wanted to watch.

San Francisco Ballet in Pita's Bjork Ballet
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Space Between closed with one more chapter celebrating the choreography/sound connection: the return of Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet, which debuted last year as part of SFB’s Unbound Festival. A tribute to the musical artist, Björk Ballet takes a very typical compositional form - the dance suite, a larger work comprised of multiple consecutive choreographic chapters, each one usually accompanied by a different musical selection. Pita followed the formula, with nine episodes set to nine songs. But other than that framework, there was nothing typical about Björk Ballet. There were characters, costumes and masks aplenty. We met fire soldiers, a sparkling butterfly, an army of chess pieces, a warrior Queen and a masked fisherman. Visual spectacle was everywhere: mirrored Marley floor, ardent make out sessions, fiber-optic palm trees falling from the ceiling, dancers standing atop a bright red platform, a giant fishing pole. Pita pulled from many movement genres including jazz, figure skating, yoga and acrobatics; I half expected aerial artists to make an appearance at some point. The piece was definitely entertaining. It moved quickly, was visually engaging and thoroughly inventive. Having said that, there were a number of sections that looked bizarre simply for the sake of being bizarre, which doesn’t speak to this particular viewer. And there was a missed opportunity near the end. One of Björk Ballet’s later chapters sees the large cast funneling on and off the stage in a jumping, pulsing staccato flurry. It felt like the conclusion, and because it did, the scenes that followed were a bit of let down.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

"The Sleepwatchers"

Deborah Slater Dance Theater in The Sleepwatchers
Photo Robbie Sweeny

Deborah Slater Dance Theater
The Sleepwatchers
ODC Theater, San Francisco
March 29th, 2019

A search for understanding, for explanation, for relief – these themes and more lie at the heart of Deborah Slater Dance Theater’s The Sleepwatchers, co-directed by Deborah Slater and Jim Cave. Sleepwatchers processes these questions by taking the concept of sleep, or rather sleep disorder, into the Dance Theater sphere. The 2001 work, currently remounted as part of the company’s thirtieth anniversary, is chock-full of Dance Theater elements, expertly woven into a rich artistic tapestry: text, characters, scenework, set, sound, humor and movement. And by simultaneously mining these disciplines, Sleepwatchers makes some penetrating physical, psychological and emotional statements about the mysterious process of sleep.

Slater, Cave and their collaborators did a terrific job creating a sense of place. A bed was positioned center stage; movable flats (by Jack Carpenter) doubled as room dividers and as educational white boards. Much of the cast was costumed (by Jeanne Henzel) in pajamas and lingerie, others were dressed as medical professionals. David Allen, Jr.’s score and Teddy Hulsker’s sound design included some well-known sleep-themed tunes layered with mechanical whirs, maybe a sleep apnea machine or a ventilator.

Different personas wandered through Sleepwatchers’ ever-changing scenes, which included medical lectures, sleep studies, nightmares and memories. One woman was trapped between adulthood and youth. Her brother was an integral part of the story, as were a number of Doctors and other characters conjured during sleep. Together, they all went on an investigative journey to discover why sleep was elusive for her. Eventually, they do find the answer, but along the way, encounter a myriad of issues, primarily around control. There is commentary about the need for answers; the obsession with figuring things out; the tendency to protectively reframe circumstances; and the discomfort we often feel with an ‘I don’t know’ posture.

Choreographically, Sleepwatchers had a varied physical language – gesture, contact-improv syntax, capoeira inspirations and of course, modern vocabulary. Dance factors more heavily in the second half, in fact, for the first thirty minutes, I wondered if physical theater was a more apt description for the work than Dance Theater. But again, dance does play a significant part, just later on. Broad extensions of the arms and legs embodied searching. An ensemble sequence found all six cast members lifting and interacting with each other – a metaphor for the intersection of their experiences. And there was a postmodern pillow dance to “Mr. Sandman.”

There is much to love in Sleepwatchers, it’s a winning piece of contemporary performance. But it does face a couple of challenges, or maybe, it’s more accurate to say one two-pronged challenge. Clocking in at more than an hour (with a late start, it’s hard to guess the exact run time), Sleepwatchers is too long. Having said that, it isn’t inherently too long. It’s too long because there’s so much repetition, too much for me. As each character navigates the story, recurring motifs were everywhere – in their interactions with each other, their scenework and their movement phrases. For example, there’s a sleep ogre character threaded into much of the dance: half impy leprechaun, half creepy gremlin. The role was communicated well and the choreography was very fitting. But every time the character was onstage, the same things would play out and play out at length. Repetition is indeed a tenet of Dance Theater, though finding the right balance can be tricky. Too little and there isn’t enough narrative impact; too much and the potency is lost.            

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Spring Book Corner

Spring Book Corner
Young Reader’s Edition                       

Whenever I feature a book corner, the titles usually fall into a few different categories: dance biographies, academic performance study texts or anthologies. For Spring 2019, I’m changing things up a bit, as there are some fantastic new dance-themed children’s books on shelves now.

On Tiptoes – De Puntitas
By C.V. Monterrubio
Illustrated by Gabriela García
Published by BookBank USA

On Tiptoes – De Puntitas is sure to be a popular selection among budding Bay Area balletomanes as it is inspired by the life of San Francisco Ballet Principal dancer Sasha De Sola. With a narrative thread that speaks to the connection between dreams and hard work, the reality of challenges and the perseverance to overcome them, On Tiptoes – De Puntitas casts an ideal narrative arc for any new reader.

A young Sasha is introduced in the book’s first pages, as is her discovery of and dedication to ballet. After countless hours of practice at esteemed schools, her quest for the professional stage finally finds her landing at SFB, only to be sidelined with a very serious injury. Even though this obstacle seems insurmountable, the story ends in triumph thanks to a combination of tenacity, drive and patience.

While On Tiptoes – De Puntitas has a winning narrative in its own right, one of its greatest accomplishment is its commitment to duality. It’s a bilingual title, with both English and Spanish appearing on every page. And one of its hidden features is that it is actually two related stories that meet in the middle. If you start from the front of the book, you learn about Sasha’s journey, but if you flip the hardcover over and begin on the other side, you meet a young man, whose is so taken and motivated by Sasha’s talent and artistry that it fuels his own pursuit of classical ballet. With fantastic illustrations, it’ll make a great addition to your child’s library.

It’s Just a Bunnypalooza
By Brenda Faatz and Peter Trimarco
Illustrated by Peter Trimarco
Published by Notable Kids Publishing

Another great title for spring is It’s Just a Bunnypalooza, the third adventure in the It’s Just So… books, which features a precocious and entertaining protagonist, Lizzy. A story like this one, that combines dance and bunnies, might make a perfect addition to an Easter basket in a few weeks.

In It’s Just a Bunnypalooza, we find Lizzy preparing for her school’s upcoming talent show, and who does she turn to for guidance? Her host of animal friends (the sweet bond between her character and the animals is indeed a narrative highlight). Eventually, with the help of a litter of bunnies, she finds her choreographic stride, only to be picked on and dismissed by her classmates. But the bunnies will not surrender, they band together to remind Lizzy how much she loves dance and movement.

It’s Just a Bunnypalooza is clearly a charming tale where friendship, learning and artistic practice intersect. But where the book really shines (at least from a movement vocabulary perspective) is in its commitment to diversity of genre and style. Yes, the bunnies delve into ballet and tap, but they also take a foray into break dancing, social dances, ballroom and world dance forms. And at the end of the book, there is a two-page glossary of dance terms to explore. This epilogue not only defines the different dances, but talks about where they originate. It’s Just a Bunnypalooza is a great way for kids to discover more about dance as well as witness the enduring connection we have with animals.

Monday, March 25, 2019

"Dicotomia Del Silencio"

Photo Ryan Kwok

Rogelio López & Dancers
Dicotomia Del Silencio
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
March 23rd, 2019

Costuming is definitely something that I am pulled to in dance performance, though I don’t often give too much thought to the specific materials involved. But watching Dicotomia Del Silencio, the newest full-length work from Rogelio López & Dancers, I was haunted by the black brocade fabric used for the pants and sleeveless tunics. It was layered, weighty and significant, and as the night went on, would prove to be an ideal mirror for the quintet’s heavy narrative threads.

Silencio was a dance of heady, raw themes, which were unpacked through a mosaic of scenes and vignettes. And at the center of them all was the oft painful and lengthy journey of personal processing. As Andrew Merrell, Alexandria Whaley, Kevin Gaytan, Rebecca Johnson and López moved from chapter to chapter, several penetrating lines of inquiry emerged. How does care, attention and the passage of time affect past experiences? How do we try and help each other through challenging discoveries? With those overtures, are we actually providing comfort or just trying to make ourselves feel better? Are we allowing each other the freedom and time to truly process grief and trauma? When is it the right moment to reach out and when is it time to let go?

Aptly, the idea of embrace factored heavily into Silencio’s choreography. Traditional hugs abounded as did more abstract musings on the motif. Dancers would wrap around each other’s legs and gently cradle another’s head in the palm of their hand. In contrast, there were several solo statements counterpointing this sense of togetherness. Dancers backed away from the group; legs swam through the air, like they were treading water; López unhurriedly traversed the outside perimeter of the Shawl-Anderson studio space. The message: sometimes trudging through emotions and events is benefitted by the presence of others, and sometimes it isn’t. Much of Silencio’s phrase material was slow, methodical and ritualized, which matched well with its focus on processing and healing. But there was also plenty of intense, high-throttle movement: energetic rebounding, precarious cantilevered balances, bodies collapsing onto the floor. In these instants, pain, desperation, anger and disbelief washed over the room.

Photo Ryan Kwok
An integral trope in Silencio was the use of hand-held LED lights, which illuminated each dance episode, primarily from above. This lighting design (also by López) had a very powerful and intriguing dual effect. On one hand, it intimately emphasized all of emotional work that was playing out on stage. At the same time, because the handheld lights were utilized throughout the hour-long work, they had an anesthetizing quality as well, which fit like a hidden narrative fiber. Navigating extreme seasons and remembering unimaginable circumstances often requires a little anesthetic. Framing Silencio was a score composed and performed by David Franklin. Chimes, gongs, guitar, piano, even keys affixed to a long, wooden board contributed musical melodies and sound effects. While the music felt like a good fit for the piece, I did wonder if maybe the overall volume could have been adjusted. At times, the music was too loud for the studio venue and ended up pulling focus from what was happening onstage.  

Mark Foehringer Dance Project

Mark Foehringer Dance Project|SF's recent program of world premieres:

Monday, March 11, 2019

"The Sleeping Beauty"

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty
Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet
The Sleeping Beauty
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
March 10th, 2019

In my February 2018 CriticalDance column, I reviewed San Francisco Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty at length. Choreographed by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson (after Marius Petipa), the ballet premiered back in 1990, but last year was my introduction to this particular version. And so I had thoughts aplenty – about the set, staging, choreography and the overall grandeur of this three-act narrative ballet. Beauty has returned as part of SFB’s 2019 repertory slate and just opened over the weekend. Though many of my observations held true from last year, there was still newness to behold in this first matinee performance.

An infant princess. A curse. A prophecy. A long nap. A kiss. A wedding. Simplified and distilled, these are the main plotpoints of Beauty. Though clocking in at close to three hours, clearly other chapters and episodes factor heavily into the action. During the (extensive) Prologue, we meet a mélange of mortals and fairies, all of whom have come to pay tribute to the new princess, Aurora. And it’s the fairies who are the stars of Beauty’s opening segment. With delicate, graceful and floaty movement tropes, I quite enjoy the choreography for all six main fairies. Though occasionally, things do look a little busy. With the sheer number of steps and transitions packed into every phrase (something which befalls much of the ballet), many of the sequences feel in constant pursuit of the downbeat in Tchaikovsky’s score. Having said that, several notable moments impressed. Ellen Rose Hummel’s Fairy of Courage variation commanded with its piercing feet, pointed fingers and staccato ball changes on pointe. Jasmine Jimison’s whimsical Fairy of Playfulness solo is one of the briefest dances in the lot, but in that short stay, Jimison, an apprentice with the company, captivated with her presence and technical clarity. I would even go so far as to say that she was the standout star of the afternoon, but more on that later.

Then the ballet has a time lapse and we finally (at least thirty-five minutes in) meet Aurora, danced by Mathilde Froustey. This second half of Act I features a number of stunning technical feats, famous moments (the Rose Adagio) and ends with the onset of the hundred-year slumber after Aurora is pricked by the dreaded spindle. 

Act II continued to be both curious and elusive for this viewer, because while some important events transpire, on the whole, it feels extraneous. Yes it introduces Prince Desiré (Vitor Luiz), connects the Prince and Aurora through a lengthy vision/dream scene and concludes with the kiss that wakens the Princess. But I’m not convinced that this chain of events a) has to take this long or b) couldn’t be folded into Beauty’s other acts, assuming they too had had some editing. The six-year-old who attended the performance with me remarked as follows, “this sure is a long dream.” Indeed.   

While the middle act is not my favorite, I did find Beauty’s third act to be a lot of fun. More fairies appear, as do some special feline guests, all in celebration of Aurora and Desiré’s marriage. Many lovely moments unfolded throughout, but by far, the highlight was Jimison and Esteban Hernandez’s Bluebird pas de deux. They were absolutely sensational. I saw Hernandez as the bluebird last year and it’s no surprise he has been cast again. His theatrical quality, exuberance and jumping prowess are the perfect match for a role replete with complicated batterie, bravado turns and pas de poisson. And Jimison, as the enchanted princess, had it all. Flawless technique, inviting stage presence and artistry to spare. Her face radiated joy in every instant and her movement had balance, intricacy, placement and heart. I wouldn’t be at all surprised she ascends swiftly through the SFB ranks.

Saturday, March 09, 2019


ka·nei·see | collective & Cat Call Choir
Madeline Matsuka in Nevertheless
Photo Robbie Sweeny
Z Space, San Francisco
March 8, 2019

I couldn’t think of a more ideal occasion than International Women’s Day to attend Nevertheless, a collaboration between ka·nei·see | collective and Cat Call Choir, that casts a wide, unflinching lens on gender-based harassment and abuse. Conceived by dancemaker Tanya Chianese and vocal director Heather Arnett, the work opened to much acclaim last year at CounterPulse and has just returned for an encore run at Z Space. Though I missed Nevertheless’ world premiere, I did see an in-process iteration a couple years back at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center. At that moment, I recall being moved not only by its candid honesty, but by its breadth. Yes, there was an abundance of shocking(ly accurate) imagery but there was also a deep sense of kinship and sisterhood. A feeling of shared reality, shared experience and shared power. These potent themes abounded in the full, sixty-five minute piece, as did Chianese and Arnett’s impressive Dance Theater acumen.

In vignette after vignette, Chianese, Arnett and the twenty-three member-cast unpacked Nevertheless’ narrative threads. Full throttle choreographic sequences saw the cast being pulled/dragged across the space against their will and being shoved downward toward the ground. Multiple scenes found the ensemble dealing with touch and attention that was both uninvited and without consent. Performers backed away from dangerous altercations in one moment and over-apologized in others when they clearly had nothing to apologize for. But as mentioned above, there were also ample reflections of strength and mutual support. Grounded, low positions – deep pliés in second and broad lunges – felt powerful and mighty; while unison phrases spoke to a collective understanding. And the music. Not only was the Cat Call Choir vocally impressive, but the use of familiar children’s, camp and holiday songs in the score was absolutely brilliant (the melodies remained the same but the lyrics had been changed to include harassing language and body shaming commentary). So often we hear things like, “it was an innocent comment,” or “he didn’t mean anything by it.” To intersect that kind of ugly language with music that has an air of innocence felt particularly poetic.  

Not to downplay or detract from Nevertheless’ urgently topical message, but its structural achievements also must be part of the discussion. Because as a work of Dance Theater, Nevertheless is not just good, it’s stunning. The work has just the right level of abstraction - go too far abstracting a concept and the impact gets lost. One could point to many examples throughout, though one that particularly stuck with me was a duet where facial muscles were slowly and deliberately manipulated into large, forced smiles. There were also plenty of purposeful absurdity and humor, which is a huge Dance Theater trope. Like the stylized self-defense class that felt plucked from an 80s aerobic VHS tape. Nevertheless had repetition, which can both emphasize and anesthetize in the same moment. And with song, movement, text and scenework, it utilized multiple theatrical disciplines. But most important, Nevertheless doesn’t wrap things up in a tidy bow, which for me, is the primary tenet of Dance Theater. The work ends with a soloist alone on the stage, having just experienced a barrage of unwanted and unwelcome touch from the rest of the cast. She stares blankly ahead and doesn’t move a muscle. With this final image, Chianese and Arnett are candidly exposing the dark side of humanity and challenging the audience to sit with it, without resolution. I think it’s safe to say that many Dance Theater ancestors were looking down on Z Space last night, inspired by where the form is headed and who is taking it there.  

Monday, February 04, 2019

Diablo Ballet

Diablo Ballet
Balanchine & Beyond
Del Valle Theatre, Walnut Creek
February 1, 2019

Diablo Ballet, under the Artistic Direction of Lauren Jonas, is currently marking a major milestone – their silver anniversary. Twenty-five epic years of stellar dance and community engagement, all while building programs that both inspire and challenge audiences. Friday night’s opening of the Balanchine & Beyond program certainly continued this trend. And what a shining, winning program it was! With a classical excerpt from the mid-1800s, an early neo-classical work and a contemporary quintet, the mixed repertory bill showed terrific choreographic range. I thoroughly enjoyed the two historic ballets, though the standout piece of the night for me was From Another Time, created in 2013 by Diablo Ballet alumna Tina Kay Bohnstedt and set to Justin Levitt’s original piano score, which he performed live.

Jackie McConnell and Michael Wells in
From Another Time
Photo Aris Bernales
An abstract work for two women and three men, From Another Time invited the viewer into a flowy, ethereal space of blues and grays. Levitt was poised at the piano and from the first notes and the first movements, it was clear that this piece was going to be special. Special in a number of ways. First was the marvelous performance by the entire company. And the marriage of movement and sound - pulsing chords were met with strong extensions, while lyrical melody lines were paired with flowy, partnered spins and breathy arms. But there was something deeper about how the score and the physicality meshed. Together, the two disciplines created an almost cinematic quality, even though the piece didn’t appear to tell a particular story. Sadness and joy emanated from the stage, as did uncertainty and assuredness. There was such a complex mosaic of tones and moods (like that in a good movie); it was just beautiful. From Another Time also used a favorite dance configuration of mine, the pas de cinq. It is so rich, format-wise, and Bohnstedt utilized all the possible iterations. Duets and solos abounded, as did trios and unison work, including a gorgeous unison promenade in arabesque.

Raymond Tilton in Apollo
Choreography by George Balanchine,
©The George Balanchine Trust
Photo Aris Bernales
From Another Time was sandwiched between two iconic ballets, George Balanchine’s Apollo and sections from Marius Petipa’s Paquita. I think the biggest surprise for me every time I see Apollo is its premiere date. Balanchine choreographed the work almost a hundred years ago (world premiere 1928), and yet, it feels like it could have easily have been crafted this century. Many of the movement phrases, poses and postures are so modern (though the gender roles/relationships are indeed not): bourées on the heels, parallel jumps, that memorable spin from standing into grand plié on pointe. Raymond Tilton impressed in the titular role, as did Jackie McConnell, Rosselyn Ramirez and Amanda Farris as the three muses who visit him. Tilton had total command over the space, every step and position radiating power, strength and precision; even his walking double frappés felt formidable. In their solos, McConnell as Calliope, muse of mime, had such loft and forward motion counterpointing emotive contractions that were sharp, yet pliable. The muse of mime, Polyhymnia’s variation features a series of fast turns and directional changes all while holding the index finger in front of the mouth. Ramirez handily navigated through this difficult phrase with enviable skill and confidence. And Amanda Farris as Terpsichore, muse of dance and song, brought intricate pointe work and swiveling hips to the table, as well as whisper soft landings. The jumps themselves were sensational, but the landings, wow, by far the quietest of the entire night. And kudos to Tilton and Farris for handling a tricky moment when the music cut out; true professionalism at its best.

Diablo Ballet’s Balanchine & Beyond program closed with the oldest work on the bill, Paquita. From the first solo entrances to the ensemble finale, musicality and elegance reigned supreme. Jillian Transon and Jacopo Jannelli’s grand pas de deux had such calm and assured partnering, particularly in the supported turns. The variations that followed were imbued with ample batterie, multiple pirouettes and grand allegro, all of which were approached with that same refinement and finesse. Paquita provided a graceful cadence to the night, though I do wonder if it might have been better suited to a different spot on the program. While it does conclude with a full cast finale, it really reads more as an opener than a final act.   

Monday, January 28, 2019

Friday, January 11, 2019

"Paradise Square"

Front: Sidney Dupont and A.J. Shively
Back: Jacob Fishel, Daren A. Herbert and Madeline Trumble
Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Berkeley Rep
Paradise Square
Roda Theatre, Berkeley
January 10th, 2019

I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to new musicals these days, many are based on popular film, television or franchises. Not all, but certainly more than there used to be. And this trend just isn’t for me. So when a new musical comes along that has found its source material elsewhere - in history, in music, in the evolution of movement genres, in exploring the human condition - I’m all in.

If you have a chance to go and see Paradise Square, directed by Moisés Kaufman at Berkeley Rep, take it (the run, which officially opened Thursday night, was recently extended until the end of February). The penetrating story, by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, grabs you from the very beginning and doesn’t let go. The characters entertain in one scene and haunt in another. Combining adaptations of Stephen Foster’s music with original material, Jason Howland and Kirwan’s score, with Nathan Tysen’s lyrics, confronts while it stirs. And the movement! Bill T. Jones’ choreography strikes the perfect balance – innovative, hard-hitting and energetic while still propelling the narrative forward. Because there’s nothing worse in a musical than dance that feels like an unrelated break in action.

As the lights rise on Act I, the audience is immersed in the Five Points neighborhood in 1863 Manhattan, a primarily African American and Irish American community. More specifically, most scenes unfold in and around the Paradise Square saloon, run by Nelly Freeman (a potent performance by Christina Sajous). This gathering spot is a perfect metaphor for this special place. A place where race, culture, gender, money, personal circumstance (or personal demons) dissolve, to be replaced by togetherness, love and empathy. The message of the Paradise Square saloon is that it is for everyone – those seeking shelter, seeking safety, seeking reinvention and seeking a new life. But as the Civil War rages on and the draft is announced, this utopian ecosystem is challenged, and faces permanent upending due to fear.

There was much to love in Paradise Square – so many venerable performances, outstanding designs and of course, the throughline of Foster (portrayed by Jacob Fishel) and his controversial music. Though as one might guess, I had come to see the choreography and the dancing.

Jason Oremus, Jacobi Hall and company
Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre 
African and Irish cultural dance forms are introduced into the space right from the start and would remain at the forefront until the final blackout. The two are of course striking from a visual perspective, especially danced by this stellar cast. One considers the distinct center of gravity in each, the groundedness, the ballon and marvels at the high-speed footwork and syncopated percussion. But as this dancing is set within a musical, I was more intrigued in how it informed the narrative. Jones did not disappoint. During “Camptown Races,” Sidney Dupont (as William Henry) and A.J. Shively (as Owen) engaged in a kind of dance conversation, the two traditions being showcased side-by-side. An atmosphere of simultaneous camaraderie and lively one-upmanship pervaded the stage. The steps and performances impressed, but as the scene continued, you realized that something deeper was underfoot. A fugue was materializing, or with it being two lines of inquiry, I suppose invention is more accurate - the two dance genres were remaining wholly independent and yet experimenting with their interdependence at the same time. There was a sense of sharing and an air of pedagogical exchange, each teaching the other about their dance’s history and syntax. What might emerge from this dialogue?

Sometimes the choreography was less about the steps and more about the stage architecture. Near Paradise Square’s beginning, Jones had the entire cast threading and lacing in intricate patterns during “The Five Points”, symbolizing how their lives and existences were similarly woven together. At other times, the movement fueled an emotional dynamic that was happening onstage, like when the rhythmic percussive dances were used in a more aggressive, confrontational manner to emphasize fighting or violence.

Online Paradise Square is listed as being two hours and fifteen minutes long. I’m not sure that was the case because we left the theater almost at eleven. Though perhaps with it being opening night, intermission may have gone over, and there was a significantly late start. In any event, even if the show clocks in at two and a half hours, that’s a very reasonable length for a two-act musical. Yet even still, the first act could use some editing, because, save the finale, it lagged quite a bit during its final third. And the dance competition that happens towards the end of Act II, when danger, panic and brutality are rising, felt out of place. I read in the program materials that the plot point of the dance contest was historically accurate and all the dancing in the scene was phenomenal. But in that moment, the theatrical container is so weighty and it felt like the story had been transported to a totally different tonal plane. Although maybe a modicum of escape was the whole point, something that the characters needed in order to face the reality of what was happening to each other and to their beloved Five Points.