Friday, October 16, 2020


James Gilmer in WeAIghT
Photo: Andrew Cashin

Amy Seiwert's Imagery
SKETCH Films: Red Thread
October 1st-December 31st

Friday, October 16th brought the debut of the second film in Amy Seiwert’s Imagery’s current SKETCH series, WeAIghT. For the 'tin' edition of this experimental platform, Artistic Director Amy Seiwert posed the following to four choreographic artists: “to create a dance film following social distance protocols, inspired by those who have been impacted by the recent health, economic, and injustice crises.” WeAIghT is Director/Choreographer Jennifer Archibald’s response. A five-minute world premiere collaboration with filmmaker Andrew Cashin set to “And I Ask You,” by Philip Hamilton, WeAIghT seeks to, “examine the emotional impact of the Black Lives Matter movement during the recent protests in New York City,” as noted in the press materials. And the emotional depth of the film is undeniable - such potent, raw and pure intensity commanding every single second. 

The solo, brilliantly danced and interpreted by James Gilmer, toggled between two frames – a seemingly empty apartment space and a sizeable chalkboard of powerful, often haunting, heartbreaking phrases. That sense of extremes, established early on, would continue to inform every aspect of the work. As Gilmer traversed the space, the juxtaposition between openness and constraint was palpable. Expansive spaces were met with equally expansive choreography: full splits; huge developpĂ©s; stretchy extensions in all limbs. In those moments of vastness, the yearning and anguish read so clearly, yet a sense of possibility felt present too. In contrast, numerous scenes found Gilmer stuck against or within the constraints of the structure; his ability to reach the fullest expression of movement purposely obstructed by his environment. Whether in doorway jams, or in small corners of the room, Gilmer strikingly communicated frustration at being trapped.

Archibald’s choreography and Gilmer’s performance riveted at every turn. A palm splayed against the chalkboard in disbelief; then it gripped the face with urgency and despair. A crawling sequence was filled with deep struggle but at the same time, an incredible persistence and resistance. And then there were the instances of simplicity. Pedestrian walks, still glances, a fixed gaze out the window. But make no mistake, there was nothing simple about them, their presence spoke volumes. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

"Sunday With Smuin"

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Sunday With Smuin
John’s Grill, San Francisco
October 11th, 2020

Terez Dean Orr and John Speed Orr in
Sunday with Smuin
Photo: Chris Hardy

Seven months ago, I would never have thought that heading into San Francisco for a live dance performance would be such a novel experience. Well, it is, something 2020 has made both rare and special. March 6th - The Joffrey Ballet at Cal Performances in Berkeley – was the last show I saw in person. Since that time, dance companies have innovated and experimented with various online projects as shelter-in-place has continued: sharing archival footage, streaming new works and festivals from home, branching out into dance films. But there’s nothing quite like live performance, and this past Sunday, Smuin Contemporary Ballet, led by Artistic Director Celia Fushille, brought a classy program to dance fans on a gorgeous sun-soaked SF afternoon outside of John’s Grill.

Known as an old-school steak and seafood house (est.1908), John’s Grill went outside the box with this endeavor, and it was a genius move. Their team constructed a performance surface in the middle of Ellis Street to allow for such happenings as this one. Outdoor dining guests (again with tables appropriately distanced) could enjoy a first-rate culinary experience while simultaneously taking in first-rate art. It was ballet dinner theater. Such an inventive collaboration between two beloved San Francisco institutions.

Smuin has been back in the studio this fall, heedfully diligent of all social distancing and safety protocols. And as Fushille shared at the event, one of those procedures has been to have the company rehearse in small “pods” to limit contact with others. It was the pod of Brandon Alexander, Cassidy Isaacson, Terez Dean Orr and John Speed Orr who commanded the stage outside of John’s Grill in Sunday’s mixed program of repertory excerpts. They changed costumes at lightning speed during the thirty-plus minute program, donned masks the entire time, and entertained the excited crowd with a mix of contemporary and classical dance.

World premiere choreography by Isaacson took the opening half, starting with Underwaterfall. The solo, performed by Alexander, was dually informed by staccato and sinuous dynamics alike. Tactile gestures peppered the phrases – a palm pressing against the head, hands tracing the legs. And a frozen running posture impeccably captured the feeling that so many have been living since March. With slinky slides, popped hips, whimsical head movements and figure skating-inspired lifts, Chemistry, for Dean Orr and Speed Orr, oozed retro elegance and grandeur. Yet at the same time, Isaacson simultaneously injected fun contemporary twists into the choreography like planks, flexed feet and parallel positioning. A final quartet, titled Chapter 2, saw abundant floorwork growing and accumulating alongside a similarly crescendo-ing score. The whole scene was quite dreamy, finishing with a stunning final standing lift.

Cassidy Isaacson in
Sunday With Smuin
Photo: Chris Hardy

After a brief pause, during which Manhattans and Martinis were swiftly replenished, fitting choreography by company founder Michael Smuin unfolded in the space. The repertory choices couldn’t have been a more perfect match for the restaurant’s classic vibe - nostalgic glamour radiating from the stage in every excerpt. A sweepingly romantic piece for Dean Orr and Speed Orr was undeniably hopeful while an expansive solo, danced by Isaacson, had an almost haunting quality. Sinatra-y dazzle took over in another solo, this time for Speed Orr, where athletic feats were paired with pure ballet technique and moments of pedestrianism: enviable turning combos, huge jumps and impressive fedora hat tricks. 

Understated grace and refined poise was the name of the game as Alexander and Isaacson took the space in a pas de deux informed by ballroom dance’s rich canon. And the Orrs returned to the stage to close the splendid afternoon with a bold and lively mambo. Marked with arabesque and parallel passĂ©, the exhilarating number had fancy footwork and shoulder shimmies to spare. 

Thursday, October 01, 2020

"Crack the Dark"

Weston Krukow in Crack the Dark

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery
SKETCH Films: Red Thread
October 1st-December 31st 

One of my favorite parts of the San Francisco summer dance season is getting the chance to see what the artists of Amy Seiwert’s Imagery have been up to. For the past decade, they have brought their unique SKETCH series to the Bay Area each summer – a creative incubator that presents dancemakers with a set choreographic challenge, encouraging them to embrace risk and move out of their comfort zone. 

Summer 2020 is now a memory, and one that didn’t include a SKETCH event. But the series wasn’t gone; instead, like the entire performing arts community, it was regrouping. And as we ushered in the final three months of this unprecedented year, Imagery was ready to reveal to audiences what had been percolating. For this monumental tenth edition, Artistic Director Amy Seiwert has posited the following invitation to four creators: “to create a dance film following social distance protocols, inspired by those who have been impacted by the recent health, economic, and injustice crises.” Starting October 1st, one of the films premieres every two weeks, and they will be available to viewers until the end of 2020.

First up was the debut of John Haptas, Kristine Samuelson and Amy Seiwert’s Crack the Dark, a seven-minute documentary/dance film featuring choreography by Seiwert and solo performance by Weston Krukow. As the film opens, we are introduced to Patrick Mulvaney, chef and owner of Mulvaney’s Building and Loan restaurant in Sacramento, which was forced to temporarily close due to COVID. In these first few minutes, the viewer learns how Mulvaney looked beyond that loss and sought action. He harnessed both his culinary gifts and his commitment to mental health advocacy, sharing his passions and serving others. Resilience. Persistence. A desire to help. Crack the Dark is Seiwert’s response to that plucky spirit, a spirit that one can see mirrored in the performing arts. As the film concludes, Krukow poignantly performs Seiwert’s choreography for Mulvaney in an otherwise empty theater. 

Weston Krukow in Crack the Dark

Lit onstage by the theater ghost light, Krukow begins a varied physical journey. Tactile gestures combined throughout with the notion of expanse. Open palms run along the torso, down the forearms and gently brush the temple. Simultaneously, sinuous arabesque lines, long lunges and avant-garde balances carve out the space. And slides abound, inviting a tone of forward motion and the idea of falling into somewhere new. The presence of the ghost light (a single bulb in the center of the stage, lit when the theater is dark) felt particularly moving. Opinions vary greatly on the significance of the ghost light - from tradition to logistics to folklore. Here it felt equally layered. It was a beacon of safety. It was a guide back to an entity that has been largely uninhabited for most of this year. And it was recognizing all the souls that would have graced the space over the past six months and still won’t be able to over the next few. As intimated by the film’s title, when the darkness has finally been broken, a light has been left on, ready and waiting to welcome you back.