Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Monday, November 01, 2021

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Monday, October 18, 2021

FACT/SF - "Split"


Charles Slender-White in Split
Photo Robbie Sweeny

screened virtually October 17th, 2021

Last month, CounterPulse invited experimental performance enthusiasts to engage with a plethora of new work during the 2021 CounterPulse Festival. As part of that event, FACT/SF, under the Artistic Direction of Charles Slender-White, debuted Split – a short physical monologue with a unique one-to-one format. One performer sharing the solo with a single audience member that, as shared in the press materials, followed the complex path of identity formation, specifically queer identity. Text (spoken in real-time by the performer) underscored much of the captivating soliloquy, which at my Zoom viewing, was interpreted with aplomb by Slender-White.

Ahead of the live performance, viewers were treated to a brief pre-recorded video that oscillated between two states: the faces of individual FACT/SF company dancers submerged in water and an array of specks floating on a blue screen. I wasn’t sure exactly what the specks were but they looked like the seedhead of a dandelion; once a single entity, now scattered into a hundred pieces. Demeanor of the cast varied greatly throughout, calm stillness giving way to intense screaming. Similar oppositional pulls would unfold over the next fifteen minutes, leading one to consider how the notion of extremes may inform and perhaps, even for some, beget identity.  

The setting was simple: a hallway and two side tables topped with water basins. On this blank canvas, Slender-White would journey through Split’s potent extremes. Swimming motions of the head, arms and legs imbued the opening minutes. Quickly angular, sharp turns took over. A slow forward port de bras morphed into a strong dynamic lunge. Full body slides were juxtaposed against small movements of the rotator cuff and the hip. And stretchy arabesque imagery showed intense dual forces at play – the front arm longing to reach into the forward space, with the back arm unable to ignore the pull from behind. 

Two visuals from Split require special mention. In one instant, Slender-White started a slow, sagittal body curve from standing all the way to the floor. It was miraculous. And as the piece concluded, he plunged his face into one of the water bowls. Structurally, it connected the prelude video with the live performance, but there was a deeper narrative at play. The scene seemed almost baptismal, but not necessarily with a religious context. It felt like a moment of personal rebirth. 

Split continues through October 30th – details at https://counterpulse.org/

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet
edited by Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Jill Nunes Jensen
available from Oxford University Press

Have you accumulated a personal dance library over the years? If so, what’s in it? Dance-inspired novels, memoirs, biographies, photobooks? And probably a fair amount of edited anthologies. Texts and volumes dedicated to a single subject but from a variety of scholarly voices and perspectives. This month, a new publication from the famed Oxford Handbook series might take a place on the shelf – The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet, edited by Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Jill Nunes Jensen, published this year by Oxford University Press.

Being a mammoth handbook of over nine hundred pages, I wasn’t planning to read the entire thing; instead, sampling a number of the articles within, starting of course with the Introduction. Contributed by the two editors, the introduction provides important context on how such a huge subject (contemporary ballet) will be tackled in the pages that follow, as well as a lovely acknowledgment that this is not the only way to approach the topic. The discussion of how contemporary ballet distinguishes itself from classical ballet was particularly noteworthy, and brought to mind similar conversations about modern dance and postmodern dance. And the readability must be praised. So often, academic books are unnecessarily wordy, and the point gets buried in the prose. Here the message was definitely well researched and analytical, but also clear and concise.

Delving into the book, Deborah Kate Norris’ Cathy Marston: Writing Ballets for Literary Dance(r)s caught my eye. Likely because prior to the premiere of Marston’s Snowblind for San Francisco Ballet’s 2018 Unbound Festival, I read the source material in preparation - the novel Ethan Fromme. Near the beginning of the article, Norris outlines a plan to focus on Marston’s literary/narrative journey while concurrently discussing gender disparity in ballet choreography. The chapter lives up to both these promises and more, including special attention to the role of the dramaturg and to the importance of dramaturgy in ballet. 

Jennifer Fisher’s fascinating (and again, highly readable) Gender Progress and Interpretation in Ballet Duets was the next article I was drawn to. Ballet22, a new Bay Area company with a view towards upending gender norms in ballet, pointe work and pas de deux, has recently burst onto the scene. So, Fisher’s work, which addresses that very subject matter, felt of particular interest. Gia Kourlas’ Mark Morris: Clarity, a Dash of Magic, and No Phony Baloney points to the incomparable artistic talent of Mark Morris (transcending genre, form and style), while highlighting his choreographic contributions to ballet. Discussions of music and costume imbue the commentary, which also includes personal remembrances from the dance realm. 

The last two articles I chose were situated right next to each other in the handbook. One being the last article in Part VI: The More Things Change…, and the other launching the book’s final section, Part VII: In Process. The former, Mindy Aloff’s Justin Peck: Everywhere We Go (2014), A Ballet Epic for Our Time brought another artistic powerhouse to the contemporary ballet dialog: Justin Peck, who currently holds the post of Resident Choreographer and Artistic Advisor at New York City Ballet. Aloff frames her study by focusing on a 2014 collaborative composition with Sufjan Stevens, Everywhere We Go, and closes the article with an essay penned by Peck himself. I’ve never had the opportunity to see Everywhere We Go, and after reading Aloff’s analysis, I hope to get the chance. Emily Coates’ Weaving Apollo: Women’s Authorship and Neoclassical Ballet was the final piece I read, a fascinating discourse on the entrenched gender realities of ballet, investigated through the lens of Apollo, the 1928 creation of George Balanchine.  

If you end up reading the whole book, it will be an impressive feat. Because, as previously mentioned, it’s an enormous tome. And I really think that’s its one flaw, or barrier to accessibility. Even breaking the information into two separate volumes would make it more manageable. But in any event, The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet is going to be a terrific reference addition to any dance library.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Diablo Ballet - "Love Stories"

Jackie McConnell and Raymond Tilton in
Christopher Wheeldon's Carousel (A Dance)
Photo: Rosselyn Ramirez

Diablo Ballet
Love Stories
Streamed online June 20th, available until June 27th

Last week, the SF/Bay Area experienced a bit of a heat wave. It definitely felt like summertime, at least for here. Though if you had the opportunity to check out Diablo Ballet’s final event of the 2020/2021 season, you may have thought it was mid-February. Titled Love Stories, the filmed/streamed program brought together three works that saluted affection, devotion, relationship and gratitude. But really, the bill was a love story to the greater Diablo Ballet community, as the company looks towards next fall/winter and a return to live performances.

The Diablo premiere of Sean Kelly’s Coppélia’s Wedding kicked off the festivities, a seven-movement ballet with classical charm to spare. Each chapter felt very much like a pronouncement of happiness and joy, like one might expect at a wedding celebration. The womens ribbon variation was delightfully ethereal, filled with intricate petit allegro. Jackie McConnell and Felipe Leon’s duet was equally sharp and buoyant and featured a favorite choreographic moment of contrast. Standing beside each other, she glided into a gorgeous 2nd position echappé while he delivered a textbook perfect entrechat trois. In addition, their lovely port de bras boasted some inventive heart-shaped imagery. And Donghoon Lee deserves a special mention – a pure revelation in his solo wedding variations. What a technician and what an artist!

The most intoxicating element of Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance) is the ever-rotating, ever-moving shifts he creates in tone and mood, mirroring the amusement park ride to a tee. Originally created for New York City Ballet in 2002, and premiered by Diablo a few months back, the pas de deux takes inspiration from the 1945 musical Carousel, in music (by Richard Rodgers) and in costume design (by Holly Hines). Though rather than expressing a linear narrative, Wheeldon’s duet is more of a collage of emotion and atmosphere. 
Dramatic passion imbues the first part of the duet, danced with enviable quality by McConnell and Raymond Tilton. Swirling spins and swooping port de bras bring a youthful, carefree hope to the table. Complete and total abandon arrives in soaring, sky-high lifts. And Carousel (A Dance) concludes with a quiet, sweet connection.

If you look up the term ‘frugivory,’ you’ll learn that it refers to the dietary reliance on fruit and fruit products that some species have. Bruno Roque's 2019 ensemble contemporary piece uses Frugivory as its title, and it made its Diablo premiere on the Love Stories program. Fruit certainly played a part throughout the work. Apples, banana and I think mangos rolled across the stage at one point. But the love story that I saw felt like it was about something different. A love story between the beat of the music (by Dead Combo) and the movement in the body. Legs pedaled, fists pulsated, arms swung and feet crawled with metronomic regularity. Being deliberately rhythmic and ultra-precise was the name of the game. Frugivory followed an A-B-A structure, with the first and last sections having a similar dynamic (though not the same phrase material), and the middle portion being the contrast. In the middle part, text was introduced as a new theatrical element in the work, scoring choreography and gesture. While both fun and innovative, it did affect the overall flow, especially of a piece that wasn’t super long. 

Though not specifically related to the Love Stories program, I would be remiss if I didn’t laud the marvelous digital season that Diablo Ballet created. Under the Artistic Direction of Lauren Jonas, the Film Direction of Walter Yamazaki and the entire production staff, they manage to newly film the majority (maybe even all) of their season offerings. There’s nothing wrong with screening archival material. But Diablo Ballet’s 2020/2021 season (along with many other companies) shows that not only can new work be safely created in the studio and previous work restaged, but it was possible, even in this bizarre year, to capture and share that resulting art. 


Monday, February 22, 2021

Diablo Ballet - "Balanchine & Beyond"

Amanda Farris and Raymond Tilton in
Who Cares?
Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust 
Photo Aris Bernales
Diablo Ballet
Balanchine & Beyond
Streamed online Feb 19th-21st, 26th-28th

This past weekend, Diablo Ballet presented a new program as part of their twenty-seventh season, a lovely quadruple mixed bill of contemporary and classical dance. The four works of Balanchine & Beyond really spoke to the power of variety: portions from George Balanchine’s neo-classical Who Cares?; Penny Saunders’ contemporary duet Berceuse; a dramatic world premiere by company artist Michael Wells and Derion Loman; and excerpts from a historic ballet icon, The Sleeping Beauty. It was a charming program that only had one minor hiccup for me.

Created by Balanchine in 1970, Who Cares? is a delightful revue-style ballet, each short chapter set to a different George Gershwin musical selection. Staged for Diablo Ballet by Sandra Jennings, the work pairs sweeping romance with fun flirtation all while highlighting the tenets and characteristics of neo-classical movement. Unexpected step progressions; an innovative take on ballet vocabulary; and most of all, choreographic musicality. Amanda Farris’ jazz slide, pas de chat, entrechat quatre sequence in Stairway to Paradise married perfectly with the music, as did Olivia Powell’s relevé series and shoulder shimmies in Fascinating Rhythm. Farris, Theresa Knudson and Powell’s timing, which subtly toggled between unison and canon, and spacing in a small black box theater, impressed in I’ve Got Rhythm, which eventually grew to a quartet when the trio were joined by Donghoon Lee. The internal bows between each song were the only tricky spot, as they gave way to a bit of a stop-start feel. At the same time, each dance was scored by a different piece, so there had to be some degree of pause. Maybe it just could have been shorter.

Next up was Saunders’ Berceuse, a 2011 pas de deux that I first saw six years back on the DanceFAR benefit program. Danced at this performance by Jackie McConnell and Michael Wells, the contemporary duet is all about breath, suspension and directional intent. And definitely egalitarianism. McConnell begins with a solo phrase, which leads into partnering and unison (again, impressive synchronization) with Wells. Then, midway through the work, Wells takes his turn embodying that same phrase. Berceuse doesn’t feel particularly story-based or like it was relaying any linear narrative, but it does have an emotional charge. There’s an unmistakable tenderness between the couple and yet their hands seem to be continually reaching out for something else.

Then came the hiccup – the premiere of Wells and Loman’s Two One Self. I can’t stress strongly enough that the issue was not the choreography nor the dancing. My complication was that I wasn’t able to watch the piece because it was filmed with a shaky camera effect. Not all the time, but enough that it activated my motion sickness. And of course, that’s just my own personal thing; I’m sure most viewers had no problems whatsoever. 

Excerpts from Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty (1890) closed the Balanchine & Beyond program, staged for Diablo by Joanna Berman. Farris and Lee took on the principal roles of this Act III wedding with elegance and grace, joined by the rest of the company in the coda section. The entire scene was as grandly classical as could be. Pillowy port de bras, subtle epaulement and textbook positions of the body – arabesque, attitude and passé. And Roberto Vega-Ortiz’s fouetté combination was sheer majesty. 

Balanchine & Beyond continues next weekend!   

San Francisco Ballet - Program 2

Program 2 of San Francisco Ballet's 2021 digital season - up on DanceTabs:


Monday, February 01, 2021

"The Healer"

RAWdance in The Healer
Photo Del Medoff

The Healer
January 30th, 2021

Over the past eleven months, the idea of starting a meditation practice has come up on several occasions. To navigate the craziness of this time. To calm the body, mind and nervous system. I’m on board – I think it’s a great idea. Though I have found it a challenge to forge this new pathway. Breaking patterns seems to be an easier road for me than creating new habits. 

But then I realized that a meditation practice is very personal, and so it likely doesn’t look the same for every individual. For some, it might work well to have a certain time set aside where the practice unfolds in the same manner each session. Whereas for others, a meditative practice might include a number of different elements – yoga, guided meditation or immersive art experiences. This past weekend, RAWdance offered audiences the chance to try the latter. To dive into dance as meditation with the premiere of The Healer, streamed virtually, and co-presented by RAWdance and ODC Theater.

Choreographed by RAWdance co-artistic director Katerina Wong and inspired by the life and work of Wong’s aunt Szuson Wong, the thirty-minute quartet mines the process of healing through the lens of ritual, ancient practices and Chinese Medicine traditions. Overlying much of Daniel Berkman’s evocative score is the voice of Wong’s aunt, leading us through The Healer’s journey. A journey performed with such care and awareness by Michaela Cruze, Juliann Witt, Wong and Stacey Yuen. 

The Healer unfolds in a through-composed fashion; the choreography linked and connected from beginning to end without internal stops or starts. And this meditative marriage of somatics and mindfulness included a wide range of choreographic language. Attentive, in the moment tasks graced the work’s first minutes – removing footwear, washing hands, writing remembrances – which segued into a variety of Tai Chi modeled postures and progressions. Body percussion simultaneously released and harnessed energy. Tempo varied. Phrases and motions repeated and accumulated potency. And Wong thoughtfully injected moments of stillness and quiet throughout the material.

While internal, individual reflection was indeed present, the notion of the collective was so strong and palpable. The quartet would cluster together in a huddle or a lift, almost like an atom. These beautiful shapes would be followed by an outward eruption into the space; particles bursting everywhere. Several instances of shared vocalization peppered the work, as did powerful unison sequences that blended small reflexive shoulder contractions with large lateral Horton side tilts. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

"What the Body Holds"

Jenna Marie in What the Body Holds
Photo Matthew McKee
Amy Seiwert’s Imagery
SKETCH Films: Red Thread

Over the past four months, the dance world has been blessed by the tenth iteration of Amy Seiwert’s Imagery’s SKETCH series, a platform that encourages dancemakers to move outside of comfort zones and create new work around a specific question or theme. For SKETCH Films: Red Thread, Artistic Director Amy Seiwert challenged four choreographers (herself included), “to create a dance film following social distance protocols, inspired by those who have been impacted by the recent health, economic, and injustice crises.” Each met the task with care, creativity and depth, tackling issues like industry decimation, racial injustice and the early days of the AIDS pandemic. The first of these films debuted back in October and the final offering premiered last Friday, What the Body Holds, a collaborative project led by Imagery Artistic Fellow Ben Needham-Wood and filmmaker Matthew McKee. 

Inspired by the work of Svetlana Pivchik, an activist who works with domestic violence and trauma survivors, What the Body Holds bravely shares personal traumas and journeys of survival. Links and connections - between the body and trauma, between physicality/emotion/cognition - drive the striking dissertation, as it boldly looks at movement as a healing practice, and mines its power to hear, reclaim and create new pathways within the self. It’s raw. Vulnerable. What the Body Holds is mighty. 

Throughout its fifteen minutes, What the Body Holds repeatedly returns to scenes of soloist Jenna Marie, almost like a choreographic ritornello. And in those returns, one witnesses the notion of a journey. In the first dance chapters, all choreographed by Needham-Wood, Marie’s eyes are often closed, her body, purposefully tense. Clinging to the walls, her torso violently contracts and her limbs fly frantically through the air. Later sequences feel quite different. Certainly still charged, but with a renewed dynamic and intention. Marie moves into the middle of the space, claiming it. Her hands and palms reach outward. She embraces herself. Turns, leaps, and even stillness, are undeniably freeing. Legs and arms continue to extend, though with an openness not present before. All of Needham-Wood’s choreography was breathtaking as was Marie’s performance of each step and phrase. But it was the evolution of tone that most struck – through movement, Needham-Wood had captured the idea of active, in process change.