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 Mois├ęs 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.     

Friday, January 04, 2019

SFMAF Highlight #3 - Visceral Roots Dance Company

The countdown to San Francisco Movement Arts Festival at Grace Cathedral continues! With three weeks until the winter Stations of the Movement program (for the first time, the festival will also host a summer edition as well on July 19th), we’re concluding our blog series highlighting just a few of the participating choreographers/companies/dance artists. For this final installment, we caught up with Ashley Gayle and Noah James, Co-Artistic Directors of Visceral Roots Dance Company.

Ashley Gayle and Noah James
Photo Lynne Fried
Visceral Roots has a great origin story, one that goes back about six years to when Gayle and James were members of Raissa Simpson’s PUSH Dance Company. In addition to performing with PUSH, Simpson invited the pair to participate in PUSHLab, an incubator designed to foster choreographic creativity. While both had choreographed work before, this opportunity had a measure of newness – they would have six weeks to create a new piece together and it was each of their first time collaborating with another dancemaker. They dug into the process, curious to see what it might reveal and what emerged was Unparalleled. “Unparalleled is an ensemble work for six that confronts how society portrays people of color in the news and media,” Gayle recalls, “after it showed at PUSHFest, the response was really positive and from there, things kind of took off.” Things certainly took off, indeed! A deep collaborative partnership had been birthed and a new company had joined the Bay Area dance landscape. Since that 2016 premiere, Visceral Roots has been busy. Alongside residencies at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center and SAFEhouse Arts, they were chosen for AMP (Artists Mentoring Program) at the Black Choreographers Festival, were part of the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival and performed in the longrunning Works in the Works showcase at Berkeley’s Western Sky Studios. San Francisco Movement Arts Festival producer Jim Tobin had been watching Visceral Roots over these many Bay Area engagements, and last year, extended an invitation to be part of the SFMAF’s Stations of the Movement event.

Visceral Roots Dance Company
Photo Jason Hairston
SFMAF wasn’t new for Gayle, as she had appeared in previous years with LV Dance Collective. But it was new for Visceral Roots, who made their festival debut in 2018, bringing District 6, a work built during their SAFEhouse residency, to the Station of the Glass Doors. “District 6 is about homelessness, specifically youth homelessness,” explains James, “its goal is to bring awareness to this human condition, to educate and to inspire change; really all of Visceral’s work has that foundation and hope, that it can be a catalyst for change.” Choreographically, the group work flows in and out of several genres and styles, which felt like an apt metaphor for the complexity of the homeless community. It mines hip hop, African and contemporary partnering, as well as what Gayle calls a “soulful expression of jazz.” Underscoring the movement is a character-driven narrative that the company created through different compositional prompts. “We were struck and compelled to speak to this issue as young adults,” James shares, “it was personal and raw; some of our company have first-hand experience with homelessness.”  

Ashley Gayle and Noah James
Photo Carmen Crocket
As Visceral Roots prepares for this year’s festival, those themes of ‘personal’ and ‘raw’ are once more front and center in Begin, Laugh Again! A duet, which will be performed by Gayle and James, Begin, Laugh Again! unpacks the concurrency and intersection of two lines of inquiry or “tracks,” as the pair described. For Gayle and James, this dance started percolating last Spring. Gayle had just given birth and James had recently experienced a medical crisis related to sickle cell, and they found themselves yearning for physical renewal. “We wanted a process where we could really have fun; where we could enjoy our bodies again,” Gayle says, “but at the same time, as people of color, there is this other track of racial inequity that you have to deal with every day, that hampers that fun and that joy.” The horrific murder of Nia Wilson last July at MacArthur BART became a huge part of their artistic process, “Nia’s death, in particular, brought so much up,” James laments, “this Bay Area community, which is so much more diverse than other places, suddenly felt less and less like a safer space.” To simultaneously explore these impactful themes, Begin, Laugh Again! utilizes big, expansive physical vocabulary, fusing contemporary and modern partnering with some ballet. Also integral to the work is a poem written by Amber Kimmins. Because Visceral Roots will be at a silent station for this year’s SFMAF, they are currently playing around with a few ways to incorporate the text. No final decision has been made yet; be sure to stop by the Station in Front of the Nativity Chapel and see the powerful final iteration!

As has been the trend for every SFMAF company highlight, we concluded our time together with the following question: why do you keep coming back to perform at this event? Like Lissa Resnick and Claire Calalo, Gayle and James shared several responses. Both agreed that the festival provides a unique opportunity for participants to be performers and viewers – when you’re not on, you get the chance to take in the artistic riches brewing in the community. For James, the space itself has a particular call, “my journey as a professional dancer began in liturgical worship; the cathedral feels like a home space, a spiritual space, yet not strictly a religious space.” And Gayle added her appreciation for the close proximity between the audience and the art, “it’s fun to be on a classic stage, but when the material is so deep, there’s something incredibly satisfying about being in an intimate setting.”        

To learn more about Visceral Roots Dance Company, please visit their website at: