Tuesday, June 04, 2019

East Bay DANCES


Oakland Ballet Company
East Bay DANCES
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:

https://dancetabs.com/2019/06/eifman-ballet-the-pygmalion-effect-san-francisco/

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
Impact
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
Unraveled
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.     

"Nureyev"


Nureyev
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.    

Dorrance Dance

Live on DanceTabs, my thoughts on SF Performances' final dance offering of the 2018-2019 season:

https://dancetabs.com/2019/05/dorrance-dance-etm-double-down-san-francisco/

Monday, April 29, 2019

Post:Ballet - "Lavender Country"

Post:Ballet in Lavender Country
Photo Natalia Perez

Post:Ballet
Lavender Country
Z Space, San Francisco
April 27th, 2019

One of the (many) things to love about Z Space, an industrial, warehouse performance venue in San Francisco, is its chameleon nature. With a huge stage, mobile seating, high ceilings and cavernous grandeur, it can transform into any number of theatrical containers. In fact, every time I’m there to see a dance show, I have no idea what may await as I enter the house and turn the corner.

This past Saturday, what I saw when I walked in was a captivating cabaret setting. Bar tables and chairs were scattered about and a piano was situated up right. Sparkling bulbs adorned the surfaces, disco balls hung from the light grid and a black curtain hid an internal stage. Six cast members unassumingly sauntered into the space, greeting one another with knowing nods and fond embraces. The back curtain began to part revealing a six-piece band in full country western finery, led by Patrick Haggerty. Bright footlights spelled out “Lavender Country,” the title of Haggerty’s 1973 release, known as the first gay country music recording. The scene was clear – a show, a concert was imminent.

And what a show it was - the remounting of Post:Ballet and Haggerty’s 2017 collaboration, Lavender Country, a full-length ballet named for its musical inspiration. With direction by Robert Dekkers, choreography by Vanessa Thiessen, music by Haggerty, costume design by Christian Squires and lighting/set by David Robertson, Lavender Country checked all the boxes. Over eighty minutes, Haggerty and the ensemble journeyed through the album’s original tracks, music and movement meeting in a rich dialogue. The piece’s return to the stage was such a marvelous addition to Post:Ballet’s current milestone season, which toasts a decade of artistic innovation and choreographic mastery.  

Haggerty’s powerful messages of LGBTQ history and experience were captured through catchy country melodies, toe-tapping rhythms and evocative storytelling. Themes of intimacy, familial relationships, LGBTQ lineage and community sang and sailed through the air, ranging in tenor from horrific to humorous, tender to triumphant, political to poignant. Thiessen, Post:Ballet’s resident choreographer, skillfully expressed these narrative threads through a series of movement episodes set in front of the recessed stage. Full throttle fervor was ample. Falls and dives blasted at high speed; contractions were attacked with frenetic force; partnering was desperate and urgent, sometimes conveying obvious frustration, sometimes deep, enduring connection. But neither the score nor the dance remained solely in that charged quality, which would have given a sense of sameness to the work. Instead, tones of hope and promise were equally present: the torso had a freedom and lightness, long lines of reaching arms and extended legs spoke of possibility. And in keeping with the musical style and genre, social/contradance motifs were plentiful, as were square dance inspirations and a hearty helping of stomping footwork.

Lavender Country was a terrific event, filled with contagious energy, caring humanity and great country music. One could speak to many standout elements, though for this viewer, there were two of particular note – one structural, one choreographic. Movement-wise, the embodiment of the musical selections impressed. The six dance artists were not simply executing steps to the various tunes or “acting out” the lyrics, but instead conversing with Haggerty’s compositions and responding to their spirit. And from a formal perspective, Lavender Country blurred the line between performer and viewer with an unexpected layer. Every audience member was a guest at the cabaret, taking in the heady mix of visuals and sound. In addition, every cast member was a patron too. All six had several instances throughout the ballet where they watched their colleagues dance, listened to Haggerty’s penetrating words and could spend time contemplating their own experience. It was a show within a show, where the cast was afforded time and space to behold as well as respond. In a final nod to egalitarian participation, the show closed with the album’s title track, and the audience was invited to join the company onstage. In those few minutes, the space between viewer and performer was completed demolished and Z Space morphed from cabaret into a full-blown dance party – the ebullient scene vibrated with pure joy.     


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.