Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Smuin Contemporary Ballet

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Dance Series 1
Cowell Theater, San Francisco
September 25, 2022

Early fall in San Francisco can be unpredictable, climate-wise. One day might be super-hot, and the next, downright wintery. But there are those rare days that are ideal. Warm, sunny and clear, where it seems like the whole city is outside. At least, that’s what it felt like last Sunday afternoon at Fort Mason Center as Smuin Contemporary Ballet closed their first SF weekend of Dance Series 1.

The company looked extremely strong in this program of great range and variety - two revivals alongside a world premiere: Rex Wheeler’s Take Five (2019), Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Requiem for A Rose (2009) and Osnel Delgado’s new work, The Turntable. There was much to delight on the Cowell Theater stage, but it was the concept of each piece that stole the show.

Smuin Contemporary Ballet in Take Five
Photo Chris Hardy
Set to a selection of Dave Brubeck tracks, Take Five celebrates the composer’s oeuvre and his fondness for a 5/4 time signature. It’s fun and entertaining. Has a distinct forward propulsion as well as Wheeler’s clever choreographic nods to the piano, the upright bass and the drums. But the genius of Take Five was how the costuming (by Kaori Higashiyama) was used. While the style of costume remained consistent throughout, Wheeler had the cast (five women, five men) constantly donning a new color, signaling a change in musical mood and atmosphere. Bright neon pink framed the high-octane opening and the finale. The choreography for green was sophisticated, smooth and nuanced. Orange heralded in a more spirited and plucky tone, maybe even a little flirty. Blue met with cool, chill, laid back motions. Red brought allure and purple, a knowing sense of nostalgia. Take Five was a splendid opening for the program, though it did have too many internal stops and starts for my taste. 

Smuin Contemporary Ballet in
Requiem for a Rose
Photo Chris Hardy

Originally created for Philadelphia Ballet in 2007, Ochoa’s Requiem for a Rose is one of those very special pieces. For a lot of reasons. Captivating choreography, a sweepingly romantic score and stunning visuals. The work begins with a sole dancer, Tessa Barbour at Sunday’s performance, costumed in a nude leotard with a rose in her mouth, almost like a rosebud. Her movement is sharp and angular, and she dances to a pulsing heartbeat, indicating a manifestation or a birth. Then, she is joined by twelve dancers wearing flaring red knee-length garments, cycling through fluid, soft phrases, accompanied by Schubert. It was as if we were witnessing the life cycle of a bloom – the opening soloist like the stem that was birthing a dozen petals. All the internal variations with their swirling spins and level changes showed how a flower changes over time. How the bloom might shift to the right or to the left; how it might droop and then revive; how it might close and then open again. Requiem for a Rose was close to perfect, the recorded music just needed to be a little softer.  

Closing Dance Series 1 was the premiere of Delgado’s The Turntable, by far the most contemporary piece in the lot. An ensemble work for sixteen, it was again the concept that drew the viewer in. Or at least this viewer. That concept was the notion of turning itself. In addition to having a small turntable center stage and a lighting design (by Michael Oesch) that appeared to rotate on the stage’s surface, the sheer idea of turning was paramount. Seeing something new, experiencing a different vantage point, continual change, all while being anchored to a single point, like a turntable. Most of the cast really leaned into Delgado’s lush movement, while a few looked as though they were having trouble letting go of a classical ballet esthetic. And again, the recorded music was a little on the loud side.  

Smuin Contemporary Ballet in The Turntable
Photo Chris Hardy

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Miami City Ballet

Cal Performances presents 
Miami City Ballet in Jewels 
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley 
September 23, 2022 

The Miami City Ballet in Diamonds
Photo courtesy of Iziliaev
It’s been a minute since I’ve had the chance to see the entire Jewels (1967) program, as opposed to one of its three sections alone. And I’ve never seen Miami City Ballet dance the piece. So, it was quite a treat to experience both – the complete George Balanchine masterwork performed by the sensational Florida-based company, under the Artistic Direction of Lourdes Lopez. Cal Performances made such a smart choice opening their 2022-2023 season with Jewels. Simply said, it speaks broadly. While each of the three chapters does work in isolation, the full triptych demonstrates the range and possibility within the neo-classical ballet genre. There’s something for everyone: delicate sylph-like variations, plucky sass, bold regality. Miami City Ballet brought their A-game to the iconic composition’s unmistakable tones and layered moods, accompanied handily by the popular Berkeley Symphony. For some, Jewels may have evoked an elegant display case in a deluxe boutique. For others, different ballet traditions expressed through neo-classical choreography. In any event, Jewels captivating essence cannot be denied. And that essence absolutely percolated from the Zellerbach stage on Friday night. 

Lilty, yet complex, chords from the orchestra pit set a perfect scene for the delicacy and loftiness of Emeralds, Jewels’ first episode. Emeralds did not disappoint. A gemstone known for its calming and clarifying properties, nothing onstage was ostentatious, flashy or overdone. Every extension, every step, every arm had such intention and joyful subtlety. Bodies (seventeen of them!) glided across the stage like ethereal begins, clad in viridescent hues against a mystical, glimmery green scrim. It was mature. It was sophisticated. And the musicality of the various movement phrases was phenomenal. Wispy port de bras met fluttering bourées. Footwork was crisp for the most part, except during some single-leg jumps, of which there were many. Dancers would leave the floor with a lovely ballon, but the pointed underneath foot seemed elusive for many on Friday. 

The Miami City Ballet in Diamonds
Photo courtesy of Iziliaev

After spending a moment in green’s calm and clarity, Jewels pivots drastically to red’s power and passion with Rubies. This middle portion has an extreme cinematic quality, like it could have been included in an old Hollywood movie or transported to the Broadway stage. Stravinsky’s surprising, unpredictable score frames an equally sly and mysterious atmosphere, Balanchine’s choreography similarly unexpected and beguiling. Direction changes slice through space like a knife. Flexed hands and feet suggest command and intensity. Cannoned timing questions how a movement phrase “should” unfold. Dancers froze in 2nd position plié. Extreme arabesques came out of nowhere. And parallel passés stood their ground, refusing to venture into the land of external rotation. 

Jewels concluded with the sweeping, grand, waltzy bliss that is Diamonds, a stone representing both strength and love. An immense cast of thirty-four dances this final section, a truly impressive feat. From the precise unison to the neo-classical musicality; from the courtly motions to the regal grand pas de deux, Diamonds was quite dazzling. Once again bourées glistened and arabesques expanded; lifts swirled and skimmed in the same instant. Diamonds is fantastical indeed, with many ta-da moments, and a charming use of demi-pointe in pointe shoes. If you love the Act III ballroom scenes from many of the largescale narrative ballets, you will love Diamonds. Even if it is a bit lengthy.

The Miami City Ballet in Diamonds
Photo courtesy of Iziliaev)

Monday, July 18, 2022

SKETCH 12: Dear Diary

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery

Amy Seiwert's Imagery in 
Seiwert's Tides
Photo David DeSilva

SKETCH 12: Dear Diary
The Cowell Theater, San Francisco

July 15th, 2022 – San Francisco ushered in a recent July weekend with true summer Friday vibes at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. It was sunny and (somewhat) warm, food trucks graced the ample parking lot, the community was in full celebration mode, there was even a pup pageant underway. And just a short walk down the pier, an evening of eloquent dance was about to unfold on The Cowell Theater stage. Amy Seiwert’s Imagery opened the 12th edition of their SKETCH program, a choreographic incubator designed to push dancemakers and artists out of their comfort zone – encouraging them to experiment and work in new ways. Each SKETCH is thematically driven and derived, and as Artistic Director Amy Seiwert shared with the audience, this year’s theme was nostalgia. The program boasted three innovative premieres, each by a different choreographer and each danced by the eight Imagery company artists. Ahead of each piece, the choreographers provided a video introduction, both framing their work and inviting the viewer to learn a bit about their process.

First up was Seiwert’s Tides, a contemporary ballet which Seiwert noted, looked back at her choreographic career. From the instant the lights went up, an inextricable link to water was clear, as the title suggests. The opening moments found six dancers, clad in balayage sea-blue singlets (costumes by Susan Roemer), forming and re-forming various sculptural pictures and shapes. Ebbing and flowing as a tide or wave hitting sand. As the remaining two dancers joined the scene and the piece continued, movements became even more aquatic. Hands rippled through space; arms swam. Spins swirled like water being evacuated; traditional ballet fish dives took on new meaning. And just like the ocean, the movement never stopped, entrances and exits happened with such purpose, mirroring the urgency of the musical score. 

Amy Seiwert's Imagery in
Adorlee's Liminal Space
Photo David DeSilva
In her video prelude, choreographer Natasha Adorlee explained the deeply personal remembrance at the heart of Liminal Space – the loss of her father when she was a child. Tones, atmosphere and mood purposely varied throughout, as Adorlee illustrated the journey of grief as well as looking at how the passage of time affects loss. The contemporary ensemble work unfolded in a series of connected scenes, though they didn’t necessarily feel chronological. Some had tones of comfort and embrace, while others spoke of grace and levity. Scenes happened in unison as well as flowing in multiple different timings. There were images of sadness and searching, forgetting and the ephemeral. Moments of somber spirituality had a decisively religious tone. Angular, robotic motions countered fluid, stretchy sequences. Vocalizations and text came into the mix as did percussive footwork phrases. The work was filled with so many different layers, textures and qualities. From one minute to the next, you didn’t know what was going to happen or how you might feel. An apt reflection of grief to be sure.  

Amy Seiwert's Imagery in
Peugh's Kink
Photo David DeSilva

Joshua L. Peugh’s Kink took the closing spot on the SKETCH program, and it was certainly my favorite piece on the bill. It was fun. It was energetic. It was vibrant. It had both narrative and formal considerations. And it ended with some country line dancing that had me dancing in my seat. During his intro, Peugh outlined how thinking about nostalgia led him two different places: the exploration of country music through a queer lens and the re-visiting of traditional ballet syntax. Narratively, Kink was a triumph. From the opening social dance sequence, where pairings shifted and changed, to the many male pas de deux - duets that were simultaneously romantic, sensual and full of joy. But Kink’s formal/structural accomplishments were equally impressive. Textbook petit allegro phrases would converse with more contemporary movements. Batterie and grand pliés in 5th met with off-center postures and parallel shapes. Seeing Kink’s dialogue of classical and current brought Twyla Tharp’s 1973 masterwork Deuce Coupe to mind.

I have long been a fan of the Imagery SKETCH series and its philosophy – creating a safe space for artists to investigate, observe and traverse new artistic pathways. The resulting choreography is always interesting and Dear Diary was no exception. But as the program went on Friday night, a question of viewership arose. The video intros told the viewer what the coming dance was about and what the intention was. Some audience members may love that; but it’s not for me. It felt a little like starting a novel, skipping hundreds of pages and then jumping to the end to see how things turned out. And I can’t help but wonder if I would have viewed the works in the same way without that information.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Deborah Slater Dance Theater

Pictured: Sarah Lisette Chiesa
Video still: Jacob Marks
Deborah Slater Dance Theater
In the Presence of Absence
Livestreamed April 8, 2022

Absence and presence. In my mind, complete opposite states of being. Though after Deborah Slater Dance Theater’s (DSDT) recent showing, I might reconsider that stance. Perhaps the relationship between the two is more complex, richer, maybe even wonderfully murky. 

Last weekend, DSDT invited audiences back to their theater/studio space in San Francisco to witness an early works-in-progress edition of In the Presence of Absence, a collaboration between Artistic Director Deborah Slater and performer Tammy Johnson. Derived from interviews undertaken about these past two pandemic years, as well as company members’ personal journeys, the set of solos (and one group work) embodies the vast range of experiences that this unprecedented time has birthed. How folks have felt absence, how they have felt presence and how the two may have unexpectedly intersected. Original text and spoken word from Youth Speaks added a powerful layer of voicing to the various movement episodes.

The evening’s early solos, in which the dancers performed both movement and the text, were imbued with themes of reaching, pivoting, shifting and changing directions. Certainly fitting narratives for this time! The movement/word connection still needs to coalesce (not surprising for a work-in-progress), and it will be fascinating to see how those theatrical devices gel and morph over time. Movement-wise, the phrase material had an undeniable 90s quality: lots of backward somersaults, static attitude holds, Graham airplane turns and a slight improv-like esthetic. Later solos featured a recorded text, so the movement felt much freer and more open, except for one piece that was very hard to see because of the incredibly dark lighting. 

One of the most significant things about In the Presence of Absence is that it was truly a hybrid performance, with shows happening live and in person on both Friday and Saturday, and a livestream option available of opening night. Friday’s online offering happened in real time, as opposed to a taped version after the fact. And it went off without a hitch. The tech was without flaw, it wasn’t at all shaky, never cut out and the volume was right on point. This was a real triumph for DSDT. While many companies have been able to accomplish this hybrid format since March of 2020, it’s of note that others have not managed to pivot and shift in this way, including larger companies and presenters who have more resources and greater technical capabilities. 

Having said that, the night was far too late in starting. By the time the introductory remarks were completed, it was nearing twenty-five minutes from the appointed start time. Not an entirely uncommon occurrence, but a real pet peeve for many, including me. 

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Smuin Contemporary Ballet

Smuin Contemporary Ballet 
Dance Series 1: Love, Smuin 
Streaming online March 10th-March 31st 

Smuin Contemporary Ballet recently completed its winter Bay Area tour, visiting venues in Walnut Creek, San Francisco, Carmel and Mountain View. But fear not if you missed them in person. Smuin has joined with other local companies to make performances available and accessible to online viewers. Dance Series 1: Love, Smuin fully delivered on Artistic Director Celia Fushille’s promise of range, both in style and music. And while it shouldn’t be, it is still noteworthy in the ballet ecology to see an entire mixed repertory bill comprised of female choreographic voices. 

Mengjun Chen & Ian Buchanan in 
Amy Seiwert's Been Through Diamonds
Photo Chris Hardy

Everything in Amy Seiwert’s Been Through Diamonds, a sweeping 2008 work set to a gorgeous Mozart score, was in constant motion through classical ballet vocabulary, contemporary phrases, and four changeable couples. During the first moments, the audience is introduced to three of the four pairs, all displaying a sense of hope, lightness and possibility. Then quickly, the partnerships begin to shift and mix, alongside a plethora of tonal layers. Newness. Surprise. Flirtation. Enchantment. Two questions began to emerge: ‘what might this next relationship be’ and ‘what might be learned about and from each other’. Midway through Diamonds, we meet the fourth couple, who also interacts with the rest of the cast. With a more andante musical tempo at this point, the movement felt sophisticated, gallant and graceful, yet still imbued with Seiwert’s choreographic dazzle. The canon timing she injected into unison segments suggested a shared emotion, experienced at different times, and in different spaces. The musicality was enviable – a leg fully extended in a beautiful position would suddenly bend into attitude, as the music simultaneously accented a chord or note. And while there was a fair share of serious or somber moments, the company seemed to be having so much fun. 

Brandon Alexander & Tessa Barbour in
Gina Patterson's You Are Here
Photo Chris Hardy

Gina Patterson’s You Are Here (originally choreographed for Cincinnati Ballet in 2013) brought an even more contemporary note to the evening. An ensemble piece for four women and six men, the landscape was charged from beginning to end, which fit with the music perfectly. While also of today, Ludovico Einaudi’s score conjured an undeniable Baroque quality – accumulation, constant flow and almost a quiet sadness. Patterson’s choreography followed suit to a tee. Running through space and gazing at the horizon communicated searching and longing. Small, scooping hand gestures and urgent embraces percolated with care and attention. The male pas de deux was fantastic, and when Patterson’s choreography called for it, the unison patterns were so precise and clear. Some different costumes, and a slightly brighter stage would have made the work a home run. 

Yuri Rogers, Maggie Carey & Mengjun Chen in 
Amy Seiwert's Dear Miss Cline
Photo Chris Hardy

I enjoyed Seiwert’s Dear Miss Cline when it premiered back in 2011, though I have to admit it wasn’t my absolute favorite. Set to a selection of recordings by Patsy Cline, the dynamics felt a little static and the number of internal stops and starts broke the flow of the overall composition. When I saw it two years later, I had changed my tune. The stop/start thing was (and still is) present, but a different cast had brought a vitality and energy that revealed so much more dynamic range. Such was true at this viewing as well. Dear Miss Cline transported us to a land of joy. Abounding with lilty social dance, smooth footwork, even some square dance influences, the large group work (14!) sparkled. A youthful, exuberant community oozed from every inch of the stage, whether the dancers were engaged in stylized, everyday tasks or complex partnering. No matter the chapter – charged, cheerful or cheeky - the cast’s acting was on point, especially the Tra le la le la Triangle pas de trois, danced by Maggie Carey, Mengjun Chen and Yuri Rogers. The humorous moments of purposeful uncertainty were delightful.

Thursday, March 03, 2022

Diablo Ballet

Diablo Ballet

Pictured: Raymond Tilton and Jackie McConnell
Photo: Rosselyn Ramirez

Cinderella’s Wedding

Performed live at The Lesher Center for the Arts - February 11th-12th, 2022
Streamed online – February 18th-27th, 2022

As the time came to bid February adieu, Diablo Ballet had a special invitation for virtual audiences. For a little over a week, they made their most recent program, Cinderella’s Wedding, which ran at The Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek over Valentine’s Day weekend, available for online viewing. It was such a wonderful opportunity both for viewers not in the area, or for those who may still feel a little more comfortable at home than in the theater. 

Diablo Ballet, under the Artistic Direction of Lauren Jonas, is known for crafting well-rounded programs, with something for every taste. Cinderella’s Wedding was no exception. The quadruple bill was filled with contemporary ballet, classical ballet, historic works and new debuts. It was classy and charming – a real treat to enjoy in person or at home.

An ideal welcome into the performance arena, George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux took the opening spot on the program. What an elegant duet to transcendent music, danced beautifully by Olivia Powell and Walker Martin. The classic 1960 choreography is simply a joy to watch, a love letter to movement - light and lofty, sophisticated, precise yet delicate. Never overly busy, but always captivating. Powell and Martin handily delivered both the partnering and the individual variations. The fish dives, daring; Martin’s triple tours en l’air, textbook perfection; and the final lift, phenomenal. 

Up next was the first world premiere on the bill, Wayfaring Pilgrim, choreographed by current Diablo dancer Michael Wells, set to a blues suite. While the contemporary ballet ensemble work did not feel like a linear narrative, it was surely charged. Moments where the group clustered together and then fractured apart felt a comment on community, and the loss of it. Solo sequences indicated a lone-ness, an isolation, even when surrounded by others. Wells cleverly injected the choreography with stylized pedestrianism, giving Pilgrim an approachable, relatable tone. The drama and emotion were well communicated by the entire cast, though the unison was a bit iffy from time to time.  

Wells was back with Amanda Farris for an excerpt from Val Caniparoli’s Book of Alleged Dances (1998), scored by John Adams. The chosen chapter, a duet titled She’s So Fine, provided another lens on contemporary ballet but this time, peppered with disco tropes. Slides and step touches abounded with appropriately matched arm gestures – rolling hands, motions led by the thumbs. It was a celebration of the fun of that time. But the genius of Caniparoli’s work is that She’s So Fine is not a ‘disco’ duet nor does the music particularly suggest it. Instead, disco form makes an appearance every once in a while, almost like the pas de deux is seasoned with that esthetic. 

The final world premiere, and centerpiece of the program, was Julia Adam’s Cinderella’s Wedding – a lovely, graceful interpretation of the last part of the Cinderella narrative. As the work begins, the audience is transported to the thick of the action. The Prince (Raymond Tilton) and his friend’s (Felipe Leon) search for the foot that fits the shoe left behind at the ball. Feet that hope to be a match appear from behind the scrim, until Cinderella (Jackie McConnell) is found. And from there, the story unfolds with a celebratory reception, fairies from every season, and a happily ever after for the happy couple. Stand out performances included Powell as the stepmother as well as Wells and Martin as Cinderella’s stepbrothers. In fact, the pas de trois for the three of them was a significant part of the overall piece. The ensemble waltz sequence was sweeping and grand. And amongst the fairies, Julia Meister’s spring was sprightly and staccato, while Jordan Tilton’s summer was oh so dreamy. Joyful, buoyant and flirtatious certainly describes the main couple, with the final pas de deux filled with giant lifts taking up space. An excited, elated tone pervaded the entire stage from beginning to end, albeit a stage that was a little crowded.