Saturday, November 21, 2020

"The Nutcracker Suite"

Jackie McConnell, Raymond Tilton and Olivia Powell in
Julia Adam's The Nutcracker Suite
Photo: Rosselyn Ramirez

Diablo Ballet
The Nutcracker Suite
Streamed Nov. 13th-15th, 2020

The first Nutcracker experience of any year is special. The music, the characters, the story, the snow – it signals that the holiday season is nearing. This year is understandably different. In the San Francisco/Bay Area (and I imagine most places), in person, theater productions are not a possibility. So, companies are looking to other options to share the classic story ballet with audiences, like broadcasting previous performances. Diablo Ballet, under the Artistic Direction of Lauren Jonas, took a different approach. They opted to create a charming dance film, directed by Walter Yamazaki and Luke H. Sauer, of Julia Adam’s 2019 The Nutcracker Suite.

This fresh take on the festive tale is just delightful, adapting the typical full-length work into a single Act, complete with ample Bay Area flair. Viewers meet the Diablo Family and their daughter Clara, as they check into The Fairmont Hotel for a grand holiday treat. Clara and the Bellhop are instantly smitten with each other (he transforms into the Nutcracker later). And orchestrating all the story’s magical elements is the hotel manager or as the program names him, the concierge. 

Because The Nutcracker Suite is a shorter adaptation of the original, not all the characters nor all the various dance episodes, are present. But there are plenty of favorites to enchant: the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Cavalier, the Snow Queen, the Mouse King and of course, Clara and her Nutcracker. And the dance sequences were simply lovely. A jazzy, retro interlude (the only music used from outside the Tchaikovsky score) found the Diablo family swirling, sweeping and waltzing about the room. As partners shifted and changed, Olivia Powell as Clara and Roberto Vega-Ortiz as the Bellhop found themselves on a romantic whirlwind journey though time and space. Jackie McConnell and Raymond Tilton elegantly embodied the Sugar Plum and Cavalier, tackling the spin-packed partnering with ease and confidence. A spirited match unfurled between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, while the Snow Queen’s choreography had a hearty dose of regality and grandeur. And the pas de deux between Clara and the Nutcracker was all about joy and freedom. Diablo Ballet’s choice to create the film was spot on. It felt like you were watching a live show and participating in that distinct performer/viewer exchange. As we have all been missing that experience this year, The Nutcracker Suite was a gift.

The only section of the work that didn’t totally track for me was the Mirliton, or French, as it’s referred to in some versions. Here it was envisioned as a quartet, and the actual dancing was beautiful from all four women – it was more the concept that was somewhat confusing. For this pas de quatre, two of the dancers were costumed in pastel colors (which tends to be typical for this chapter), and the other two were in contrasting red and black. It seemed like we were seeing two Mirliton dancers and two dancers from the Spanish Chocolate divertissement. Maybe that wasn’t the intention, but that’s how it read. Not only was the latter’s music not part of the scene, the choreography also didn’t reflect any of the steps or style that is often found in the Spanish variation. So it did feel a bit curious why this section of the ballet was designed the way it was. 

Diablo Ballet will be re-airing The Nutcracker Suite from December 21st-23rd, just in time for Christmas!

Friday, November 06, 2020

"Purple Skin"

Kelsey McFalls and Joseph A. Hernandez in
Purple Skin
Photo: Dean Berdusis

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

In 2020, the word ‘pandemic’ has become part of daily vocabulary – on the news, at the grocery store, in everyday interactions. Stephanie Martinez’s Purple Skin reminds viewers that forty years ago, there was another destructive, deadly pandemic, one that was met with widespread ignorance, hatred, blame and stigma - the early days of the HIV/AIDS plague, which decimated the gay community and stole a generation of young men. But in the face of all the fear and intolerance, there were also those who tirelessly helped and comforted the sick and the dying, and this five-minute short, directed by Dean Berdusis and choreographed by Martinez, honors one of those amazing souls, Chicago-based activist Lori Cannon. 

As narration by Cannon haunts the air, Purple Skin, which presumably references Kaposi’s Sarcoma, begins as a solo for Joseph A. Hernandez on a beach. Tactile meets despair as veins are systematically traced and skin is investigated for any sign of abnormality. As the scene shifts from outdoors to indoors, one is struck by the sense of isolation and loneness. Hernandez mournfully stares out a window and his palms push the space away in hopes of an open door. Then, he trudges through sand, desperately trying to put one foot in front of the other, until eventually dropping to one knee, unable to persist. Scoring Martinez’s potent choreography was a pulsing, somber composition by Kishi Bashi and Emily Hope Price. The music’s constant propulsion, never reaching a cadence point, felt particularly affecting, and added an extra layer and texture to the narrative frame. 

Kelsey McFalls enters the space and Purple Skin grows into an emotional duet between her and Hernandez. The pair lay hands lovingly on each other, offering a genuine, authentic embrace, when so many were afraid of touch. Partnering sequences are infused with a mutual give and take, each of the dancers needing the other in order to create shapes, keep balance and extend limbs. And the unfailing support was so alive in the choreography. As the film neared its conclusion, Hernandez had more moments of contracting and crumbling to the earth. But he never completely reached the ground; McFalls was there to catch him.

The final film in the SKETCH Films: Red Thread series will debut in early 2021. 

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 developpés; 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 passé, 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.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

RAWdance - the CONCEPT series: digital edition

As we neared the middle of the month, RAWdance pulled up a chair at the dance film shorts table with the latest iteration of their CONCEPT series. A favorite San Francisco modern dance sampler, the longrunning CONCEPT platform (this is number twenty-eight) invites a wide array of contemporary choreographic voices to share work at any point in their artmaking process. In recent years, the event has unfolded in The Green Room at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center and every time I’ve attended, I’ve been struck by how CONCEPT always seeks to celebrate innovative physicality and risk-taking performance.

Like the entire dance field, RAWdance has had to pivot over these last months and the CONCEPT series has as well. August 14th saw the launch of CONCEPT’s first digital edition with a live-streamed program of seven short films ranging from thinky to quirky, abstractly formal to narratively nuanced.

Megan Lowe in (UN)CAGED
Over 175 people tuned in to watch the virtual happening, hosted by RAWdance’s winsome artistic team: Wendy Rein, Ryan T. Smith and Katerina Wong. And there wasn’t a technological hitch in sight. Kicking things off was the debut of Eric Garcia’s (of detour dance) Up On High – a vast and expansive film rooted in meditative ritual, duality and ancestry. Megan Lowe/ Megan Lowe Dances brought (UN)CAGED and challenged the audience to consider boundaries, obstacles and how an empty space has a memory. Responding to the abandon Old LA Zoo, Lowe explored the enclosures at length – inside and out, swinging on the metal grates – and though (UN)CAGED was a solo, it felt like she was also conversing with the souls/presences who had previously inhabited that place.  

Post-modernism certainly played a role into the next pair of premiere films: Box World by Jocelyn Reyes/Reyes Dance and Marissa Brown/Lone King Projects’ Self-Portrait. Amidst a tower of cardboard packing boxes, Reyes explored how the human form might engage with everyday items. And while her thoughts were simultaneously captioned at the bottom of the screen, Brown took us on a non-linear personal journey; the movements of the palms and hands, an intoxicating focus.

Stacy Yuen in Wong's Clipped
A standout piece of the evening, the premiere of Wong’s Clipped featured a trio dancing in a picturesque outdoor setting, socially distanced from each other and wearing masks, in fact, layers of masks. But the specialness in Clipped was that it didn’t look restricted at all. Its tone was spacious and the choreography followed suit with wide arms, large circles and open upper bodies.

From beginning to end, RAWdance’s CONCEPT series: digital edition was a rousing success and two final premiere dance shorts wrapped up the stellar program. A spiritual, almost liturgical sojourn, Frankie Lee III/FLEE’s JOURNEYS W/ GOD combined natural environments with flowing movement phrases. Sinuous and liquid, each step melted effortlessly into the next, conveying an unending stream of consciousness. The final screening of the night, Smith and Rein’s Picnic, reminded me so much of Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 Powers of Ten. At least at the very beginning as Smith and Rein relaxed in an idyllic scene. From there, Picnic takes off, evoking a layered, textured conversation between the two. Pairing food and movement together in a familiar container, emotional extremes abounded – from frustration to satiation, sober to comic, conflict to peace.  

Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein in Picnic

Thursday, August 13, 2020

"Dance of Dreams"

A second memorable
Joseph Walsh in Millepied's Dance of Dreams
©San Francisco Ballet
dance film short this month:

On August 13th, San Francisco Ballet released their new choreographic-cinematic collaboration, Dance of Dreams, directed by Benjamin Millepied. Unfolding in four picturesque outdoor San Francisco sites, Dance of Dreams has a truly epic, almost romantic tone, as if you were watching an escapist moment from a classic Hollywood stunner. 

Scored by Bernard Herrmann’s sweeping Scène D’Amour featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Millepied’s six-minute film takes a solo-duet-solo-duet form (the duets were performed by dancers who have been weathering s-i-p together), each section choreographed by a different dancemaker. Joseph Walsh glides through a liquid sequence by Justin Peck, followed by a luxurious pas de deux for Ellen Rose Hummel and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira by Dwight Rhoden. Frances Chung floats and suspends through a solo by Janie Taylor with Christopher Wheeldon offering the final energetic chapter for Madison Keesler and Benjamin Freemantle.

Ellen Rose Hummel and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in
Millepied's Dance of Dreams
©San Francisco Ballet
Though each choreographic voice was and is wholly distinct, a number of striking threads link Dance of Dream’s four episodes together. Yes, the San Francisco connection of course. But so much more. First is the common mood and atmosphere. Each vignette shared the same sense of isolation, though it was not despondent in any regard. Instead, each cast member imbued their choreography with a heartening wistfulness. Openness was palpable as was potential. Second was the abundance of arcs and roundedness. Classical and contemporary vocabulary dove deeply into circular movement – port de bras, whirling lifts, spins in succession, undulating torsos, jumping turns in the air, patterns and circuits. Walsh’s attitude turn was a stand out moment, the step rotating backwards as if a clock was rewinding to an earlier time. And the spin at the end of Hummel and Deivison-Oliveira’s duet was absolutely breathtaking. Facing each other, Hummel wrapped her arms around Deivison-Oliveira’s neck as her legs flew out behind her. All while rolling fog and sweeping wind flooded the scene.

And there was an instant at the end of each solo that felt profound. Walsh and Chung took a moment in stillness to gaze longingly at the vista before them. They looked as though they were considering ‘what might be next’ or ‘what could be’ with expressions of hope and want. Dance of Dreams would then pivot into one of the duets. It was as if those duets were the soloist’s dreams. A moment to engage with another soul. To clasp hands and create movement together. Such a beautiful and uplifting message.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

"Ground Effect"

John Speed Orr and Terez Dean Orr in
Ground Effect

Possibility. Freedom. Joy. We all could use more of these three themes right now. And one place to find them reflected is in the San Francisco short dance film scene. This month saw the premiere of a fantastic new film that reminds the viewer what is possible, what is freeing and what is joyful.

On August 4th, Terez Dean Orr, John Speed Orr and Elliott Bastien Morin released their third film created with camera phones and virtual platforms during shelter-in-place (read my May CriticalDance interview with the trio While the earlier two pieces center around their home and neighborhood, Ground Effect finds T. Dean Orr and J. Speed Orr (current Smuin Contemporary Ballet artist and former company member respectively) traversing the highway and dancing in picturesque outdoor environments. The three and a half minute journey affords viewers the opportunity to see where these two individuals, introduced in previous films Shelter in Pace and Recipe for Disaster, are as we near 150 days of isolation. It is open and hopeful – conceptually and choreographically.

Terez Dean Orr and John Speed Orr in
Ground Effect
Ground Effect
’s visual landscape conveys such an evocative, genuine tone through its many layers and textures. Loose earth and the winding roadway; flower arrangements and lilting grass; the wind weaving through the dancers’ hair – every element combines to produce an atmosphere of freshness and newness. Egalitarianism is also undeniable throughout. Driving in a car and curiously peering out the window, nodding off in the backseat, pulling over to the side to check out the view – these are states we can all relate to. Black and white footage makes Ground Effect clean and cool, as does its amazing angles and shots. I am so curious as to how they captured the stunning, shadowy aerial views.   

Equally elegant from a choreographic standpoint, Ground Effect’s physical syntax is all about forward motion and freeing energy. Running lunge steps abound while swirling partnered spins pepper the phrases. Elastic arabesques meet outstretched arms and expansive solarplexus. And some motions and sequences have an inventive avian-inspiration, like the two dancers could float and fly away like graceful, soaring birds. Such buoyancy and levity are indeed a necessity for 2020.

Check out Ground Effect at

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Summer Book Corner - Selection #1

Stripped Down: How Burlesque Led Me Home
by Anna Brooke
published by The Unapologetic Voice House

I have to admit that my exposure to Burlesque thus far has been limited. A few movies, both classic and contemporary. A choreographic piece here and there that takes its inspiration from the dynamic artform. But really, that’s it. After reading Anna Brooke’s new book, Stripped Down: How Burlesque Led Me Home available from The Unapologetic Voice House, I hope to change that. Not only does Stripped Down relay a beautiful journey of discovery, expression, freedom and healing, but it inspires the reader to want to find that for themselves.

My favorite thing about Stripped Down is how it continuously upended my assumptions. Going in, I thought that the book was going to be an autobiographical account of a particular moment in Brooke’s life. One filled with disappointing and heartbreaking circumstances and how those difficult events eventually led her to find Burlesque. That thread was definitely present, especially in the introduction. And then, it was followed by a first chapter that provided important historical context about Burlesque and outlined its lineage, including nods to its ancestors. It talked about community kinship and how Burlesque is inherently tied to feminism and activism. I was gearing up for a certain path, but I should remember that good stories and good storytelling is never linear.

Stripped Down’s middle chapters take a decidedly and deeply philosophical turn, helping the reader understand that Brooke’s journey was far more than a singular set of circumstances, nor a specific period of time. It was fueled by the world around her throughout her entire life - ecosystems of divisiveness and unjust hierarchies; issues of gender, corporeal expectation and perfectionism. This was a journey of layers, textures and scope and Brooke communicated it in vulnerable, raw prose. And while I occasionally felt that the material could be a tad repetitive from time to time, this middle section also had an impressive outward energy and conversational approach. Its mild prescriptive tone (not at all heavy-handed) challenged the reader to consider, contemplate and examine their own inner self. That duality of Brooke’s internal personal story and the external audience engagement was special, making it a unique contribution to the memoir field.

Burlesque was certainly referenced in these middle chapters, though it factors more heavily in the discussion as one reaches the last portion of the book. Brooke shares its empowering, healing and revolutionary nature while at the same time acknowledging that it doesn’t speak to everyone. That balance was well done. And as we come to the very end of Stripped Down, I think the primary message (though informed by many other facets and themes) is one of self-acceptance. A message that needs to be heard.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Spring Book Corner - Selection #3

Spring Book Corner

Selection #3
Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances
by Paul A. Scolieri
published by Oxford University Press

Historical dance accounts and biographies always leave me with a question - how would this journey (whether of a person or an entity) be different in the present day? Would the famed Judson collective have been possible with 2020’s financial realities? What if Balanchine had arrived in the States in this century rather than in the last?

I definitely had this same feeling as I read Paul A. Scolieri’s magnificent new book, Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances, published by Oxford University Press. Impeccably researched, incredibly detailed and super approachable, Scolieri’s addition to the existing scholarship on Ted Shawn (1891-1972) is real and thorough. It attempts (and succeeds) to fully share the dance icon’s personal and professional story, one that Scolieri notes had long been purposely self-edited. He explains during the introduction, “…what made it difficult for Shawn to tell his story was that he was homosexual…he remained closeted in most of his autobiographical narratives…” (p. 2). When referencing One Thousand and One Night Stands, Shawn’s 1960 autobiography, Scolieri adds the following, “He [Shawn] felt that the book was compromised by his inability, or at least unwillingness, to be completely truthful about his homosexuality.” (p. 11) And so, with Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances Scolieri aims to recount Shawn’s life and work without that editing. And it surely had me wondering, how would the Father of American Dance’s story been different if it had unfolded in the current social/cultural/artistic climate?

Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances’ first chapter chronicles a myriad of topics from Shawn’s early family life, sadly marked by the tragic deaths of his mother and older brother, to his theological undergraduate studies as well as his initial forays into theatrical performance, choreography and dance on film. Then Scolieri moves onto Shawn’s artistic partnership with and unconventional marriage to Ruth St. Denis, which underscores the middle section of the book. Different aspects of the complex, oft storied, history unfold on every page - their prolific choreographic canon, the creation of the Denishawn School and brand, abundant performances, tours both near and far and critical responses to their work. Christian Science factors significantly in these middle chapters, as does Shawn’s pursuit of available academic and scientific research on sexuality. And as the reader approaches the last third of the book, the dissolution of Denishawn becomes part of the narrative, as well as the transformation of a Massachusetts farm into the iconic Jacob’s Pillow and the creation of a new company, Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers.

Factual details aside, what captivates most about Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances is the layered, textured conversation that weaves throughout, one of masculinity, sexuality, struggle, financial uncertainty, artistic creation and legacy. And full disclosure, it is a rather lengthy conversation. At 443 pages (plus notes and index), Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances is not a short book, and though there are sub-sections within each, its chapters are long too. But it’s very readable. Just be prepared for a slightly longer voyage.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Spring Book Corner - Selection #2

Spring Book Corner:

Selection #2
Futures of Dance Studies
edited by Susan Manning, Janice Ross and Rebecca Schneider
available now from The University of Wisconsin Press

I wonder if this is true for others, but when I encounter a large dance text - the kind with a multitude of articles by different writers - I admit that I rarely read the whole thing. Rather, I focus on the introduction, and then randomly select a few articles to get a general sense of opinions, arguments and observations that the book posits.

I employed this same approach with Futures of Dance Studies, a new volume edited by Susan Manning, Janice Ross and Rebecca Schneider and published by The University of Wisconsin Press - a book whose subject matter interests me greatly. While I applaud the scholarly work coming out of graduate dance programs and faculty research projects, much of the academic material I encounter borders on unapproachable. Articles with heavy, impenetrable titles. Book after book that could have a wider appeal, but instead, feel stylistically bound to dense, overly lengthy prose. I can’t help but feel that this fosters an unnecessary distance between the academy environment and the performative community.

Having said that, I was heartened by the three articles that I chose from Futures of Dance Studies. Each one was an interesting, provocative, academic study, no question. But the trio was very readable at the same time. And balanced. Qualitative research, especially that which only references one or two case studies, can so often be plagued by issues of selection bias and a lack of contrast space, issues which these articles were able to avoid. Speaking of selection bias, my own that is, I did steer clear of articles with stiffly intellectualized titles, of which there were several. You know the kind I mean. The ones where the (hopefully profound) thesis is so buried in fancy wording that it gets mostly, or sometimes entirely, lost.

Without a doubt, today’s global health crisis was on my mind when deciding upon Laura Karreman’s Breathing Matters: Breath as Dance Knowledge. Contemplating how breath relates not only to dance performance but also to the field of dance studies, the article is clear and compelling. Karreman begins by providing theoretical background/framework - citing a diverse group of artists, creators, philosophers and technicians. Next, she takes on a host of ideas relating to the breath. She explores the mind-body connection of breath and cognition, breath’s inherent egalitarianism, the link between breath and control and how the experience of breathing can be shared in the performance arena. Karreman goes on to discuss how many mid-twentieth century modern dance techniques were uniquely rooted in the breath, offers a case study of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s My Breathing Is My Dancing (2015) and spends ample time discussing new technology being used in performance and dance practice to measure breath.

I chose Daniel Callahan’s Accent, Choreomusicality, and Identity in Rodeo and ‘Rode,o for a number of reasons. First, the source material was definitely of interest: Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo (1942) and Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes (2015). Second, while very distinct ballets (created in different centuries), both are set to the same Aaron Copland score, making them ideal candidates for a comparative study. And last, both works are part of San Francisco Ballet’s repertory library, so I’ve been fortunate to see each onstage.

Callahan’s is a wonderful article, rich with analysis. Observations about gender norms and sexuality pepper the riveting discussion, as do thoughts about narrative themes and choreographic abstraction. I particularly enjoyed his commentary of how works that are dubbed ‘abstract’ are still imbued with ample tone, mood, atmosphere and influence. But the most intriguing was when Callahan took a deep dive into how de Mille and Peck approached Copland’s evocative score, specifically their treatment of the Corral Nocturne’s 5/4 time signature. What kind of tension emerges when there are five beats in every measure? Or perhaps that final fifth beat allows for space, breath and vulnerability? For readers who are dance and music fans, Accent, Choreomusicality, and Identity in Rodeo and ‘Rode,o is a fascinating read.

With respect to the final Futures of Dance Studies article I’ll discuss, think about a dance performance you recently saw. Then, consider the individuals who brought that artistic idea to fruition: the choreographer, collaborating dancers, designers, composer, répetiteur, dramaturg. Though really, that is only a partial list. In her article, Who Makes a Dance? Studying Infrastructure through a Dance Lens, Sarah Wilbur reminds the reader of the realities of artistic creation. That all work is truly birthed by a complex and varied ecosystem that is a dance company, a dance entity or a dance organization. Certainly by those in the studio, but equally by a myriad of others. By the grant specialist, the programming directors, the operations manager, the rehearsal accompanists, the box office staff, those who coordinate summer programs and many more. While some of these individuals may seem far away from the performance arena, Wilbur shows, through her important and penetrating study, that they are keenly involved in the process of dancemaking.

Who Makes a Dance? Studying Infrastructure through a Dance Lens pairs theory with an in-depth case study of Washington DC’s Dance Place, a dance non-profit founded more than forty years ago by Carla Perlo and Steve Bloom. Wilbur chronicles Dance Place’s financial journey, including its relationship with various funders, grants and foundations; Dance Place’s search for adequate, affordable physical space; its engagement with the community; the stories of continuity that have marked its past four decades as well as a nod to the next chapter. And in Who Makes a Dance? Studying Infrastructure through a Dance Lens, Wilbur does not shy away from the more challenging aspects of her exploration. She asked tough questions throughout, acknowledged that much more research should be directed towards the topic of dance infrastructure and invited her colleagues to join this needed conversation.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Spring Book Corner - Selection #1

Spring Book Corner

Selection #1
Ballet Class: An American History
by Melissa R. Klapper
published by Oxford University Press
available March 2020

Ask any school-aged child about their current extra-curricular classes or the camps they attend over summer vacation - the sheer volume and variety is certain to astound. Ceramics, coding, debate, organic gardening, disc golf, cello. The seemingly endless list of possibilities grows every day. And yet, some of the traditional favorites always seem to remain popular amongst the group. Like soccer, piano and ballet. It is to this last option, the recreational pursuit of classical dance, that Melissa R. Klapper looks in her new book, Ballet Class: An American History, available this month from Oxford University Press.

Ballet Class is a thoroughly delightful and informative read - a well-rounded study that looks at ballet class through several different lenses. For dance history buffs, significant attention is paid to the early days of ballet class and the events that drove its rise and popularity. From the establishment of the big schools like Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and the School of American Ballet to the historic touring artists who introduced ballet to a wide audience in the States to the different ballet traditions and forms that were brought into regional and local studios from other parts of the globe. I particularly enjoyed Klapper’s comment on page sixty-five that, “No given technique was necessarily superior.” I wholeheartedly agree, but wonder if today’s teachers (and those from decades past) would concede or insist that their syllabus is the best!

Twelve impeccably researched chapters (plus extras), Klapper’s investigation does not shy away from the tough issues and heavy realities of ballet class. She tackles its lack of racial diversity, gender stereotypes and imbalances, implications of visibility, sexuality, the socio-economic realities of participation and the tension between it and modern dance. She delves into individual personhood, suggesting the different internal truths that might linger in the psyche after time spent at the barre. Both positive and negative. Certainly it is a space that can spur concentration and discipline, encourage artistic expression and nurture joy of movement but sadly, at the same time, can simultaneously give rise to body dysmorphia and condone infantilizing interactions.

Ballet Class is an academic book to be sure, but has a very approachable style. The prose isn’t full of seven-syllable words, something commonly found in similar studies. And Klapper’s writing is very conversational – throughout Ballet Class, you feel like you are having an in person dialog with her. The only thing missing for me was a bit more attention to the general structure as well as thorough descriptions of the exercises that make up a typical ballet class. Yes, there is an early chapter (entitled Ballet Class 101) that has some of this information, but seeing as how the entire book is dedicated to ballet class, a more detailed illustration seems like it would be an appropriate, and helpful, addition.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Monday, January 27, 2020

San Francisco Ballet - "Cinderella"

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Sat, January 25th (matinee)

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in
Wheeldon's Cinderella©
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Do you ever watch a story ballet and ponder whether the expected outcome will actually transpire? Might Romeo and Juliet finally live happily ever after this time? Will Siegfried discover that Odile is part of Von Rothbart’s diabolical plot before it’s too late? Perhaps Aurora can avoid Carabosse’s spindle? When I am filled with such questions, I know I’m witnessing a great story ballet. Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella is one of those greats. Every time I see it, including at this viewing, I’m on the edge of my seat wondering if Cinderella and Prince Guillaume will find their way to each other. A co-production between San Francisco Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet, the work features amazing design, stunning effects, riveting storytelling and above all, gripping choreography. When Cinderella debuted at SFB in 2013, it became an instant hit, and will surely be part of the repertory for decades to come.

There is much to love in Wheeldon’s Cinderella. Starting with the prologue, which is inspired. In the first few scenes, the viewer meets all the main characters years in the past. You see Cinderella and her father lose her mother and grieve that loss. You see Prince Guillaume and his friend Benjamin’s youthful mischief morph into expected duty and responsibility. While short, these early scenes provide such brilliant context and help one understand what drives the main characters. Cinderella quickly fast-forwards, the children grow up (through theatrical magic) and the ballet’s plot really gets going. As Cinderella, Frances Chung gave a genuine and vulnerable performance from start to finish, but a standout solo was at her mother’s gravesite. Running the gamut from sorrowful port de bras to playful sissones, the variation was a clearly her way of conversing with her mother. Her way of sharing her life, and all its ups and downs, with someone who isn’t physically in the same realm any longer. Soon after, her father (Tiit Helimets) arrives with her new family: stepmother Hortensia and stepsisters Edwina and Clementine. Portrayed by Sarah Van Patten, Elizabeth Powell and Ellen Rose Hummel respectively, each turned in a winning interpretation, equal parts evil, sly and at times, hilarious. More superlative performances came from Esteban Hernandez as Benjamin (his leaping acumen always astounds me), and Joseph Walsh as Prince Guillaume, who was the epitome of gallantry in every movement and gesture. And of course the enchanted forest! Absent are any friendly mice helping Cinderella ready for the ball, instead Wheeldon created a magical tapestry of characters and spirits to lead the transformation.

Act II brings us to said event, and what a lavish affair it is! The corps de ballet was as vibrant as their gorgeous gemstone costumes, designed by Julian Crouch. And so many unexpected delights imbued the choreography – the use of parallel in Cinderella’s solo and the quiet, still passé balances that countered the Prince’s bravura jumps. The shorter Act III is all about Guillaume’s journey to find the foot that fits the shoe left at the ball. It includes another clever prologue, where various members of the kingdom try-on the item, their empty chairs eventually rising to the ceiling in a huge suspended arc, almost like a mini proscenium arch further framing the action. Eventually, Cinderella and Guillaume find each other and marry, symbolized by a beautiful design moment where the chandeliers from the ball descend through a giant tree, the tree that had been planted years before at her mother’s grave.        

As wonderful as the performance was, unfortunately the experience of being at the theater was anything but. I rarely comment on this kind of thing, but this time, it’s necessary. Patrons, fans, subscribers, please, please, please remember that if you’re at a weekend matinee where the ballet is based on a children’s fairy tale, children will be in the audience. This was Cinderella after all. And in a month or so, SFB is slated to revive George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, another full-length narrative that is being billed “for all ages.” Be kind. Be gracious. Be welcoming. It doesn’t cost you anything. Foster artistic curiosity. Don’t thwart it because you somehow feel inconvenienced.