Monday, May 27, 2019

San Francisco Ballet School - Spring Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 24, 2019

Digital Reviews - Spring 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, May 13, 2019

San Francisco Ballet - "Shostakovich Trilogy"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorrance Dance

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