February 2016

by Heather Desaulniers

  • Exchange/Engage
    SAFEhouse Arts, San Francisco
  • Scratch Dance – Of Stills and Lifes
    The Flight Deck, Oakland
  • James Graham Dance Theatre – Dance Lovers #5
    Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco
  • San Francisco Ballet – Swan Lake
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Dark Porch Theatre – Pas de Quatre
    EXIT Theatre, San Francisco
Exchange/Engage ka·nei·see | collective's Mallory Markham Photo by Rob Best

Exchange/Engage
ka·nei·see | collective’s Mallory Markham
Photo by Rob Best

Feb 11th – Collaboration. Risk-taking. Experimentation. Pushing the envelope. These creative processes fuel new contemporary dance. And they are certainly at the heart of SAFEhouse Arts’ latest Resident Artist Workshop (RAW). Curated by directors Peter Cheng of Peter & Co. and Tanya Chianese of ka·nei·see | collective, the evening featured a five-piece salon of current choreographic compositions and works-in-progress, many of which will be part of upcoming festivals and home seasons. The choreographic points of view impressed and in every instance, the dance artists handily communicated the breadth, range and distinctness of the material.

Excerpts from Cheng’s Transverse Course opened the program; a picturesque and sculptural trio. The dance progressed as a series of short scenes, each separated by a blackout, almost like a set of passing, but related thoughts. For the first of these vignettes, the three women took turns soloing with a tactile movement phrase. Some choreographic throughlines were present in each version, yet none of the solos were the same. Instead Cheng employed choreographic devices to adjust and change the pattern – sequence, repetition, accumulation and stretto – revealing the layers, diversity and possibilities inherent in a single movement phrase. Following this initial statement, the full trio unfolded in a variety of formations including two versus one, duets and unison work. And the unison was good. Unison in contemporary dance is a tricky business, requiring technical accuracy while still celebrating the individualism of the dancers. This delicate balance was reached in Transverse Course. Choreographically, the movement carved through the space at every juncture (demonstrated with careful attention by Angela Bevevino, Sarah Butler and Sophia Larriva): rond de jambes in plié and arabesque developpés alongside simple and elegant hand motions.

Next up was Binki Danz in Bianca Stephanie Mendoza’s The Ground I Stand On. A brief, yet powerful solo danced by Mendoza, The Ground I Stand On was a contiguous physical statement with a phenomenal fusion of styles and genres – street dance, percussive pedestrianism, hip hop and contemporary release technique. LV Dance Collective brought Son Lost In A Moment, a meditative and graceful duet danced by Devon Chen and Kao Vey Saephanh, who also served as the piece’s choreographer. Chen entered with her hands in prayer (an image that would recur) and took her place in a preset circle of flowers. That opening combined with white costuming immediately gave a serenity, tranquility and spiritual feel to the work. This sense was maintained through large movements, big lifts and long extensions. And there was an intriguing and subtle narrative at play – Son Lost In A Moment spoke of solitude and companionship at the same time. Ayana Yonesaka offered her duet OHN, perhaps the most narratively driven (though non-linear) dance of the night. The foreground dancer began with a calm kind of body scan, like something that might be found as part of a mindfulness practice. In stark contrast, the upstage dancer moved towards her in an aggressive, preying crawl. Quickly, the mindfulness evolved into a dominant, strong and assured charge. Yonesaka’s contemporary pas de deux for two women would continue to deliciously toggle back and forth between these two states – purposeful self-awareness and combative self-determination. And in the end, it seemed that the first dancer had devoured the other.

ka·nei·see | collective closed this edition of SAFEhouse’s Resident Artist Workshop with Chianese’s ensemble work, Readymade. Two dancers began facing away from the audience and cycled through a movement phrase, their shadows simultaneously dancing on the exposed brick wall while beautiful string music sang through the space. The dancers eventually turned to face front, growing and developing their sequence before being joined by the full cast. And what a transition that was. Full of forward motion and drive, each dancer entered from behind an upstage left screen and traveled on the diagonal to downstage right, then ran behind the house seats to begin the circuit again and again (with differing choreography). Individuals and small groups would feed in and out of the stream to dance featured sections, and Readymade concluded with a unison gesture sequence to text by Alan Watts. For me, the striking element of this work was the depth of collaboration and how that collaboration challenged assumptions about the relationship between choreography and sound. Readymade wasn’t a neoclassical imagining of how a musical or text score could be translated by movement, nor was the score simply an accompaniment for the dance. The collaboration went far beyond this, to the point that the elements started to become one – the dance and the music, the gestures and the text. The legato runs, the staccato pulses, the pizzicato plucking, the percussive rhythms were in the bodies and the score. Musical arpeggios and articulated limbs were married. No part of the work dominated the other – the achieved cohesiveness was stunning and rare.

Scratch Dance Maya Haines and Emmeline Gonzales-Beban Photo by Harper Addison

Scratch Dance
Maya Haines and Emmeline Gonzales-Beban
Photo by Harper Addison

Feb 13th – Scratch Dance’s inaugural home season, their new premiere work conceived by Artistic Director Erica Pinigis, Of Stills and Lifes, and my first visit to The Flight Deck performance space in Oakland. Saturday night was definitely an evening of firsts.

Of Stills and Lifes struck on two fronts. It was intriguing to witness the result of such a distinct compositional structure. As Pinigis’ program notes explained, “each new duet was created from the same base phrases and generative prompts, then the dancers created telephone game interpretations of the previous duet.” While we didn’t see that game unfold in real time on the stage, the process Scratch Dance had employed was readily apparent – each sequence was very much informed by the others. Also, it was fascinating to consider whether there were real time implications at play. Was there any ‘in the moment’ decision-making happening? If so, how different was each individual performance? Scratch Dance is off to a promising start with this smart and engaging conceptual experiment in form and content.

As the house lights went down, six dancers entered the black box space and separated into pairs to share different but concurrent pas de deux dances. From there, the action oscillated back and forth between brief unison segments and the core of the work, the collection of duets. The flow in and out of these formations was both secure and confident and the duets themselves varied on several levels. Pairings shifted and the choreography ranged from minimalist pedestrianism to contact improv-styled lifts to intricate modern technique. While each pas de deux was unique, postures, poses and steps did recur, revealing the piece’s construction. And in a nice contrast to the earlier duet material, a commanding and powerful solo closed the first act, full of large circular motions, spirals and early modern dance-inspired postures.

Of Stills and Lifes was separated into two halves by a short intermission during which the set was slightly re-ordered. This broke the work’s overall flow and seemed kind of unnecessary. Having said that, choreographically and performance-wise, the second part of the dance was strong. The opening movement phrase was captivating – a solo of graceful port de bras met robust front attitudes and deep pliés in second position. Four additional cast members joined in this meditative circuit, bringing their own interpretation and individualism to the table. It was a beautiful statement of quiet fortitude and calm elegance. A sense of searching and outward focus also pervaded and again, motifs from the opening duets provided cohesiveness and throughlines. With its hip circles, skips, directional shifts and parallel pas de chats, the line dance scene near the end had a delightful folkloric feel to it. And Of Stills and Lifes closed with a unison sequence full of motion, excitement and joy. The entire ensemble was all in, committed and present in every second of the dance, but the technical clarity and communication of the choreography was uneven at times.

Of Stills and Lifes had a number of additional theatrical elements to it – a visual artist working downstage right, a clothesline from which the dancers dropped hanging wooden pegs, buckets of sand, a wooden teeter-totter set piece and a game of shuffle puck. While all were visually interesting and the cast interacted with many of these components, it was difficult to understand their function in the work and they actually pulled focus away from the dance. There was just too much going on at the same time in a small space. Perhaps these collaborative elements were speaking to a larger narrative (whether linear or deconstructed) but if so, the connective fibers were a little unclear.  

Feb 14th – This past weekend, James Graham Dance Theatre celebrated the wonder and strength of human connection with their multi-genre performance cabaret, Dance Lovers. In its fifth year, the program featured an eclectic mix of San Francisco/Bay Area artists in a series of duets that ranged from eccentric to touching to hilarious. With this spectacular evening, director James Graham and the entire cast have reminded us of something important – modern performance can be topical and penetrating but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun and full of laughter.

Melissa Lewis and Christina Busler kicked off the night with their dance theater offering, I Wanna Be Ur Boyfriend. A comical foray into infatuation, flirting and dating practices, this duet had all the landmarks of the dance theater genre. A healthy dose of absurd wit met with a little angst, a deconstruction of popular dances ensued, and there was a mix of disciplines including spoken word, song, gestural phrases, instrumental work and of course choreography. A multi-generational pas de deux followed with Raphaël Boumaïla and Heather Cooper’s Broken Wing, danced by Boumaïla and Molly Allen. Broken Wing opened with a phenomenal solo by the father character, contemporary dance drama at its best. Limón curves abounded, as did expansive spirals, gorgeous hinges and an open upper torso. With a curiosity toward the space and surroundings, the daughter figure then danced a lovely and sweet solo full of childhood joy and freedom (and some impressive grand jeté leaps). The work concluded with a heartfelt and nostalgic duet that captured motifs from both of the solos.

Hot is by far the best word to describe Vincent Chavez and Michael Galloway’s Sweetheart Merry-Go-Round. This sexy and playful contemporary dance communicated romance, intimacy and affection through sensual partnering and connected unison sequences. It was a duet that just made you smile. Dance Lovers’ first half closed with a performance art piece by Morgan True and Thomas Anthony Owen about gender identity, fluidity, stereotypes and image. To explore these complex themes, True and Owen employed an interesting (and admittedly cheeky) mix of aggressiveness, control and dominance alongside trust and reliance.   

Act II opened with Patrick Barnes and Rowan Turner’s theater-inspired parkour meditation, I Don’t Dance. A comment on winning, losing, participation and camaraderie, I Don’t Dance utilized a smart combination of interactive games – tag, boxing, wrestling and rock-paper-scissors – and text to share its narrative message. Eric Garcia and Wiley Naman Strasser invited the audience to join them in the performance space and form a circle around the perimeter for Chan Chan. They told stories, taught a song and initiated a telephone game that went on while they danced a short duet. Pedestrian gestures coupled with suspension and release, all very authentic and in the moment. Chan Chan was also an intriguing bi-lateral choreographic experiment. Experiencing the space together created a real sense of egalitarianism and inclusion, yet the stories and movement were quite intimate and personal.

Next up, Melissa Hudson Bell and W. Kamau Bell delighted the audience with their priceless duet, Thirteen and Counting. A comedy monologue and an interpretive physical phrase came together to tell their unique story and history. This fed into a brilliant and humorous sequence that they dubbed “thirteen marital gestures,” in which they took cues and direction from their four-year-old, whose vocal instructions had made up the score. It was an adorable and plucky picture of what love looks like. And a piece that includes a sequence of gestures is certainly à propos when the performance is taking place at the Joe Goode Annex. For the evening’s finale, Graham took the stage in a center pool of light. With reaching choreography, he welcomed the entire cast of Dance Lovers #5 to join him. A community, together, expressing themselves through joyful movement erupted in the space – a beautiful ending to a strikingly beautiful program.

San Francisco Ballet Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Helgi Tomasson's "Swan Lake" Photo by Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet
Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in
Helgi Tomasson’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Erik Tomasson

Feb 19th & 20th – I ended my 2009 review of San Francisco Ballet’s new Swan Lake, choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, with the following sentence – “every time this production is mounted, you should be there to see it.” To much delight, Swan Lake has finally returned to the SFB season line-up and I was fortunate to catch the classic story ballet two nights in a row on opening weekend. My closing sentiment remains accurate some seven years later – this Swan Lake is special and not-to-be missed.

Many of my initial observations held true. Tomasson’s inclusion of a brief prologue provides important narrative continuity and plausibility. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design amazed at every turn. And the theatrical acumen of this entire company continues to exceed expectations. The swan corps in Act II impressed in their stellar attention to detail and technique. With an entrance reminiscent of the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ scene from La Bayadère, the lines, poses and extension heights were the picture of precision. The swan cygnet quartet (the same cast both nights) wowed, though at the second performance, one dancer was pushing the tempo a little bit. It was also a little surprising when one of their headpieces fell off on Saturday. These things happen, of course. But no one picked it up. It just laid there mid-stage until the curtain came down, breaking the illusion that had been so beautifully and carefully set up.

Siegfried’s Act I solo is still a bit of a mystery for me. Narratively it makes sense – while contemplating his duty and responsibility, Siegfried embarks on an introspective, meditative dance. Tomasson’s choreography for that section is gorgeous and Tiit Helimets (opening night) and Davit Karapetyan (Saturday) both danced exquisitely. But the issue comes in the transition. The preceding scene is filled with joyful village camaraderie and then suddenly, things shift to total individual solitude. It’s almost feels like a connective link is missing.

But there were also new discoveries and delightful surprises in store. Back in 2009, I had commented that Act I’s peasant dances and Act III’s national dances had their issues. Not so in the 2016 version of this Swan Lake. The dance of the aristocrats not only had a more cohesive flow, but the five couples (again, the same cast at both performances) were so joyful. And the men’s batterie sequence was breathtaking. Both pas de trois sections were lovely, though the Friday evening cast (Dores André, Taras Domitro and Sasha De Sola) stood out with the ‘up’ feel to their every movement. Supported pirouettes finished up in passé, rather than down on the floor; developpés continued to extend out into space past the point of the foot. Saturday’s cast (Koto Ishihara, Gennadi Nedvigin and Lauren Strongin) definitely accessed that up-ness, but for them, it happened part way into the variation. Though Nedvigin was absolutely sublime throughout; the height he obtains in every jump truly defying gravity.

Act III still starts off a little slow, but the collection of divertissements has indeed undergone a significant transformation. While the choreography may be more or less the same, there is a freshness and vigor to these dances that feels new. Of the four, the Neapolitan Princess is my personal favorite, and Jahna Frantziskonis and Esteban Hernandez stole the show on Friday. Rebecca Rhodes shone both nights as the Czardas Princess, but had a particular pull on Saturday – simultaneously commanding and authentic.  

It was fascinating to experience different dancers in the title roles back-to-back, each so unique, the result of individual craft and interpretation. Alexander Reneff-Olson (Friday) and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira (Saturday) were spellbinding as Von Rothbart, both towering with manipulation and tyranny. Yuan Yuan Tan took the audience on a brilliant technical journey as Odette/Odile on opening night while Maria Kochetkova’s Saturday interpretation revealed more of the narrative arc, especially when Odette and Siegfried meet in Act II. We saw the entire story – fear, uncertainty, fascination, infatuation and finally, trust – unfold in her approach to the role. Both Tan and Kochetkova excited as the black swan in Act III, though their portrayals were more mischievous vamp than evil seductress. And it is impossible to discuss Saturday night’s performance without special mention of the variations and coda in Act III – Karapetyan’s (Siegfried) solo was otherworldly and Kochetkova’s fouetté series was phenomenal. Almost every other fouetté turn ended with a double pirouette.

At this year’s viewing, I also noticed how important the sissone step is to this ballet and how Tomasson has cleverly injected it into so many different choreographic sequences. The sissone is a jump that originates from a single point of articulation and then on the landing becomes two parts – one foot descends and then the other. One birthing two. What a perfect physical metaphor for the character of Odette/Odile.

Dark Porch Theatre Pas de Quatre Photo by Basil Galloway

Dark Porch Theatre
Pas de Quatre
Photo by Basil Galloway

Feb 26th – Performance history buffs, ballet enthusiasts and theater lovers rejoice – a San Francisco production sits right at the intersection of your Venn diagram. Closing tonight, Pas de Quatre is a brilliant new dance play written and directed by Margery Fairchild. About ballet and those who live it and love it – the directors, the choreographers, the dancers and the patrons – Pas de Quatre specifically delves into the intersection of private and public and the space between the person and the artist. And it does so by traveling back in time and rooting itself in its namesake – the famous one-act Romantic ballet choreographed by Jules Perrot that premiered in 1845 London.

To start, some discussion on the original ballet. A testament both to the balletic style of the time and to the greatest of its practitioners, with Pas de Quatre, a great feat was achieved. Four of the biggest names in ballet (Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito and Lucille Grahn) danced as an ensemble in a choreographic composition. With historical source documents to reference as well as ample writing on the subject, some inferences can be made about Pas de Quatre. Because of the well-known picturesque tableau, we have a sense of the opening moments. Current choreographic endeavors inspired by the ballet, like Robert Joffrey’s Pas des Déesses (1954), give insight into its character – a dance of elegance, grace and aplomb with delicate port de bras, exquisite extensions and floaty ballon. Zoë Anderson, in her fabulous new book “The Ballet Lover’s Companion” delves beyond the specific steps and construction in her analysis. She explains that the ballet (which she references as Le Pas de Quatre) walked a fine line, requiring a healthy dose of egalitarianism, with no one lead or star, yet also needing to highlight and celebrate the individualism of the four dancers. Certainly not an easy task to accomplish. And many scholars concur that for Perrot, Pas de Quatre was not only a challenging choreographic venture but also an exercise in refereeing four strong personalities and at times, erratic, difficult egos.

Dark Porch Theatre’s Pas de Quatre presents these complicated characters as performers, as dancers, but most important, as human beings. Four women who had embarked upon and experienced distinct personal journeys; journeys that had informed who they were on and off the stage. With expert craftsmanship, Fairchild fills in various pieces of the story through a collection of interdependent text and dance scenes, all which reveal the chasm between reality and illusion. As each character (Perrot included) is unpacked over the sixty-minute duration, one truth is abundantly clear – dualism is rampant everywhere in the narrative of Pas de Quatre.

The piece opens with Taglioni, Grahn, Grisi and Cerrito in a single line facing the audience. They take turns introducing themselves and immediately begin to confront the audience about their perceptions and preconceived assumptions. Different facial expressions communicate the four personalities, and as each spoke, her right arm moved from bras bas to a high 5th. So right from the start, we were seeing two forces at play. Four women stood in the same position and attitude, performing the same movement, yet the words they spoke told of how different they really were. And to finish the introductory phase of Pas de Quatre, the viewer meets Perrot (Eric Kerr), through a humorous drunken soliloquy that told of his own sojourn from dancer to ballet master and choreographer.

A delicious smorgasbord of vignettes unfolded as we learned more and more about each of the players. There were instances of infighting and gossip, bickering and innuendo. Biographical scenes grew out of a traditional ballet class – the ballerinas taking a break from their enshrined physical routine to tell a chapter of their own story. Yet another example of Fairchild’s commitment to dual forces: individualism in the face of defined structure.

Mid-way through the play, Perrot interviews Grahn (Kirsten Dwyer) and then Grisi (Katharine Otis), hoping they will unveil some juicy details. Just phenomenal scenes in both construction and in performance. And they delivered still another level of dualism, that of private and public. Intimate events were being shared, yet in the context of a very open assembly. Next, Taglioni (Christy Crowley) and Grahn donned glasses to offer a wonderful dance history lecture, complete with an examination of the female form in ballet, the evolution of women’s roles and the debut of the pointe shoe.

Taglioni’s own course is told through a set of striking images. Scenes of tortured practice morphing into mastery. As Fanny Cerrito, Courtney Russell gave the most impressive monologue of the evening. While pointing out the discrepancies in viewership and expectation, she performed continual sauté jumps in first position (peppered with a few other steps here and there). Not only did the technique impress, but the monologue itself had an incredibly dramatic arc, moving from quiet restraint towards anger and resentment.

Fairchild continued to engage and surprise the audience as Pas de Quatre came to its conclusion. There was an unexpected shift between these competitors; a genuine sense of sweetness, camaraderie and affection that had not been present before. And in a stroke of genius, Pas de Quatre closed with the tableau that usually marks the beginning of the ballet. Instead of going on to dance, the four ballerinas sank into a pile of tulle on the ground and the piece’s dualistic nature was reinforced once again. A moment of pure balletic beauty that dissolved as quickly as it was created – penetrating and memorable yet impermanent and fleeting.

Dark Porch Theatre’s production of Fairchild’s Pas de Quatre may have its final performance tonight, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this show returns for an encore run. That’s because it’s that good. It’s entertaining and structurally, a terrific dance play. As a genre, the ‘dance play’ is still a fairly new phenomenon. It isn’t dance theater, it isn’t physical theater, it is something different. A new type of collaboration between theatrical elements and movement. While this space is still emerging, Pas de Quatre certainly proves that Fairchild is already one of its most talented specialists.

Looking ahead: As we move into the Spring Season, here’s a handful of the amazing performances on their way to the San Francisco/Bay Area in March…

San Francisco Ballet, Coppelia, War Memorial Opera House (March 8-13)
https://www.sfballet.org/

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (March 10-13)
http://ybca.org/

Mark Morris Dance Group, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Cal Performances (March 11-13)
http://calperformances.org/

San Francisco Ballet, Program 5, War Memorial Opera House (March 16-20)
https://www.sfballet.org/

ODC/Dance Downtown, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (March 17-27)
http://www.odcdance.org/