Heather Desaulniers

AHDANCO – Event Horizon
Osher Theater, Berkeley

Randee Paufve and Paufve Dance – Bare Bones
Western Sky Studio, Berkeley

Oakland Ballet Company – Scene & Heard
Odell Johnson Theater, Oakland

May 18th – Even ten years ago, the middle of May signaled a bit of a break in the San Francisco dance season. There would be a few performances here and there but generally things wouldn’t fully ramp up again until October. But in 2018, Bay Area dance is year round and this past weekend was packed with shows – multiple SF events and a compelling East Bay engagement at the Osher Theater in Berkeley, a charming black box space that I had never visited before. There, AHDANCO offered a mixed repertory bill of returning and premiere choreography by Founder and Artistic Director Abigail Hosein – a program that with abstract, conceptual and narratively driven work, showcased the company’s breadth and range.

Aptly titled too short, the evening began with a brief premiere solo danced by Dana Lawton. Extremes abounded. Small movements were coupled with vastness; vibrating arm circles and fast footwork met large flying jumps and sustained body curves. Winsome transitional steps effortlessly linked these extremes together and Lawton’s clarity of shape, position and intention completely hypnotized. The abstract solo was indeed “too short” and left this audience member yearning for more. Perhaps in addition to being a delightful amuse-bouche, the piece also offered a comment on today’s on-demand lifestyle. We could all use a little more scarcity.

Next up was 2015’s ClusterF(lo)ck, an ensemble work for seven women. Again a dance that seemed primarily abstract, though there was a common thread/concept at play: a study of choreographic intonation and articulation. Joints and heels popped like staccato notes in a score, an emphatic arm phrase moved sharply and swiftly from one gesture to another. There was an intense sense of rebound off the floor – chaissés grounding deeply into the surface before arcing upward and outward; triplets that dove down on count one and sprung up to relevé for steps two and three. And ClusterF(lo)ck was filled with sustained, smooth promenades in many different positions and attitudes, including the difficult fouetté from back to front. I think the only challenge with ClusterF(lo)ck is that while some of the cast really embodied and internalized all these movement qualities, others struggled a bit. This meant that the communication of the material was mixed – some incredibly clear moments and some blurrier ones.

Andrew Merrell and Rebecca Gilbert Photo Kelly Patrick Dugan

Andrew Merrell and Rebecca Gilbert
Photo Kelly Patrick Dugan

Rebecca Gilbert and Andrew Merrell in 2015’s Me and You was a highlight of the evening – a duet with a narrative arc, charting different points of a relationship, the highs, the lows and the space in between. The pair entered the space holding hands. With tenderness and warmth, they began the first movements of the dance. Unison phrases reinforced connection; counterbalances showed them working as one to create poses and shapes. They collapsed together, sharing moments of pain and anguish. And then things started to shift. Still together on the stage, a distance started creeping into the scene. While Gilbert watched from the sidelines, Merrell danced an emotional solo, full of open arm gestures and upward facing palms, offering himself and his experience. She was there, but at the same time, not there. As the score shifted to a Bach composition, they once again began dancing together but the mood and atmosphere had been permanently altered. The earlier distance grew and increased, almost to the point of disengagement. Eye contact was avoided and even as they embraced, you could sense a chasm in between. Yet, underscoring this new reality also seemed an ardent desire to rekindle the connection of the past. Desperately, they tried to cling together, wrapping arms and legs around each other. But their attempts were unsuccessful, and as Me and You closed, there was a distinct sadness. It is a poignant piece – touching choreography and a very moving performance by Gilbert and Merrell.

Then we came to the centerpiece of the program, the premiere of Event Horizon. Costumed in white, Merrell stood still as he systematically pulled a black scarf out of his shirt’s left pocket. The material pooled and piled at his feet, but he was not able to clear the scarf completely. As he reached its final length, it remained fused to his pocket. About a year ago at a Dance Up Close/East Bay event, I saw a preview/early iteration of this work, and so this mesmerizing first scene was familiar to me. Back then, the piece felt like a comment on the process of letting go – the purging of grief, sorrow and heartache. That sentiment was present here too, but I also felt like something else was happening. Over the next thirty minutes or so, the rest of the ensemble, dressed all in black, would enter and exit the stage, in various emotive vignettes (duets, quartets, solos, etc.). Sometimes they felt calculating and ominous, dancers swirling their hands as if to conjure a spell. Sometimes the movements seemed sad; sometimes there was even a glimpse of hope. As these configurations continued, I started to wonder if the dancers were representing the scarf and grief itself. That as much as Merrell was trying to rid himself of the grief at the beginning, so too was the grief trying to absent itself from him. Hosein has crafted a work that examines the multi-layered-ness of despair. It was a powerful shift in the narrative lens, one that I hadn’t expected.

I do think that Event Horizon was a little long, and perhaps some of the internal movement chapters could be edited. About three quarters of the way through, there was a moment that felt like a definite end point, but quite a bit of material was still yet to come.  

May 26th – On Saturday evening, Bay Area dance enthusiasts gathered at Western Sky Studio in Berkeley for the 10th edition of Paufve Dance’s Bare Bones, a long running series that invites dancemakers to share current in-progress percolations. Bare Bones is such a smart and accurate name for the event, deeply woven into every fiber. Bare Bones celebrates work that is still in the making. It honors the process of building an artistic whole, one choreographic bone at a time. It is very much about baring and exposing art to audiences. That vulnerable and brave act of putting work out there, especially when it isn’t in its final state yet. And Bare Bones happens in a bare open studio environment, yes with some lights, but sans any theatrical excess. Following some pre-performance revelry, three movement offerings unfolded in this creative container, from Randee Paufve/Paufve Dance, Nina Haft & Company and TESTMASH.  

Before each piece, the artists generously took the time to give context to what we were about to see, which I find to be extra helpful in the case of works-in-progress. Randee Paufve shared thoughts and background on Where Are You Going, Where Did You Go?, a series of dances intended for four distinct US locations (one north, one south, one east, one west), over the next two years or so. She shared that the different solos all dealt with thresholds, those very personal and those more symbolic. And that in a departure from her recent work, that these solos would have a measure of lone-ness, performed not for an audience, but filmed by Erin Malley. We were fortunate to witness sections from each dance.

Randee Paufve Photo Blaine Covert

Randee Paufve
Photo Blaine Covert

Paufve stood center and began a series of movements that deeply connected the breath and the body. The upper body soared high with the inhalation, and rebounded forward with the exhale. This motif repeated again and again, each recurrence gaining both momentum and intensity. Performer Lili Weckler joined the scene, unwrapping the waistband of Paufve’s costume and singing with hauntingly pure tones. As more and more of the waistband was unraveled, Paufve’s physicality seemed to expand, free from constraint. Smaller motions became larger and the action moved all over the space. Arms rippled in large T shapes out and away from the core, suspending on the inhale and releasing on the exhale. Single foot balances hovered in relevé as the breath went in and returned to the floor as the breath discharged. Nothing looked placed or contrived. Instead, Paufve created movement by riding the wave of her own breath. And with every choreographic idea, she managed to find that elusive ‘in between’ space that separates the inhale and the exhale. Here was the moment of threshold; that transformative place where air is flowing from one portal to another.

Solo #2 was all shifts and changes – in direction, in facing, in dynamics – while solo #4 felt more about actions – mixing, morphing and melting. In this final excerpt, Paufve would create a particular shape, position or gesture. As it dissolved, the next posture was being simultaneously created. It was like watching a human kaleidoscope. And solo #3 was such a standout. Donning bright orange spandex, a sequined choker and a blonde wig that was part The Wrath of Khan, part Labyrinth, Paufve commanded the space with catwalk struts, jazz isolations, exaggerated pony pas de boureés, even some aerobics-inspired moves. It was humorous to be sure, but didn’t feel like farce or a send up. Rather, the dance read more like a nostalgic remembrance, a doorway (or threshold) to the past.

Nina Haft prefaced her company’s excerpted duet, Crows, by talking about nature, about spending time observing natural species and beings, including humans. She also spoke about different phenomena, including the choices we make throughout our journeys to either opt in or opt out. Part of a larger work currently titled Precarious Pod, Crows started in silence. Jennifer Twilley Jerum and Jesse Wiener began cycling through legato full-bodied phrase material, first expressed as floorwork. Immediately, I was pulled to how the dancers were moving their heads. Like birds, there were slight twitches in the head’s angle and attitude, the chin jutting out from the neck. At times, I could even see the eyes jumping from one position to another, like their gaze was being pulled by an outside stimulus. But more than just these subtle motions and adjustments, the head was leading the overall movement. Leading the body as it crawled and rolled forward in space, leading the back and spine as it spiraled. Determining which direction to travel. This brought me back to the idea of the opting in and opting out. Yes Crows’ choreographic use of the head felt very avian, but perhaps Haft was also making a broader comment. Our head/brain is often the primary actor or sole decision maker when it comes to opting in or opting out. What would happen if we adopted a more holistic approach?

Jessi Barber and Julie Crothers took the space to introduce TESTMASH, their new dance lab experiment. They described conversations about choreographic editing and their curiosity with this complex part of composition. How could editing be tackled differently? What new parameters might be introduced into the equation? TESTMASH is the result of these questions, a devised system of creative accumulation and imposed time limits. The press materials described it best: “Three choreographers are tasked with creating a quick movement sketch with five randomly assigned dancers. After 30 minutes, the choreographers rotate and have 15 minutes to expand, edit, and mess with whatever they find in the next room. Three rotations later, each choreographer has contributed to, disrupted, and edited every piece…”

I love this idea. It combines elements of Susan Rethorst’s “Wrecking” with even further time restrictions and more choreographic accretion. The afternoon of Bare Bones TESTMASH had engaged in this process, with choreographic input from Crothers, Molly Rose-Williams and Ragbag Performance Collective (Rose Huey, Nina Wu and Courtney Hope). Below are my observations on what emerged.

The first trio was very gestural. Lying on their stomachs with their chins resting in their palms, the dancers moved through a sequence of gestures that focused on the hand/head connection. The trio also had a task-based component where the performers would create a shape or complete a step, and follow it with an emphatic, congratulatory “Yes”. Next was a duet that delved into the relationship between two bodies in space. Using both small movements and large, the pair travelled together in unison. There was consonance and harmony. Gestural games brought competition to the table. And there were also confrontational moments where they pushed each other over and screamed loudly at one another. Last was a quintet that explored different points in space. Gathered in a cluster upstage left, the five surveyed their surroundings, heads and eyes shifting from one focal point to another. They walked forward on the diagonal, again concentrating on specific points in space as they moved through an arabesque series. They even explored different spatial points by sticking out their tongues and moving them through the air. TESTMASH’s final step was joining all three dances, which led to some unexpected and very funny moments. The work was avant-garde, experimental and novel; the movement, familiar, egalitarian and relatable. It certainly conjured both the intent and repertoire of Judson.

I’m jazzed to see more from this collective, though I think I’m more interested in witnessing TESTMASH’s actual experiment. With three incubators happening simultaneously, I don’t know how or if it’s even possible to have an audience present during that creation process. But I would bet there’s some real magic to behold there.  

June 2nd – The phrase “story ballet” tends to evoke largess, grand productions where an elaborate plot unfolds over the course of an entire evening. But just as stories come in many forms, so too is the relationship between story and ballet diverse. Of course, there are many examples of the epic two/three-act ballet, but shorter movement essays, poems and novels are just as prolific in the canon. And I often find shorter dances to be more successful in communicating their narrative; the brevity breeding a clarity and succinctness that gets somewhat lost in larger works.

Oakland Ballet Company marked the transition from May to June with Scene & Heard, a selection of work dedicated to the breadth and range of story in ballet. For this program, Artistic Director Graham Lustig charged six choreographers with the task of creating short narrative ballets. The resulting commissions (three from within the OBC family and three from local choreographers) made for a terrific afternoon of choreography, danced by a company that is looking impressively strong.

Kicking things off was Itchy Bot Bot (A Family Portrait), choreographed by Danielle Rowe, SFDanceworks’ new Associate Artistic Director. Here was a work about the space between perception and reality, told through familial dynamics. With arms hanging forward and feet stamping abstractly through her pointe shoes, Ramona Kelley’s daughter character was at first sullen and pouty. In contrast, on the other side of the stage, Emily Kerr and Richard Link beamed from ear to ear, proud parents of their graduate son Landes Dixon. Darwin Black, as the photographer character, wandered throughout the scene, snapping pictures of the happy family (the daughter’s moody quality gradually softening to play the part of the dutiful child). But what lay beneath these frozen images? Itchy Bot Bot (A Family Portrait)’s choreography suggested much was percolating right under the surface. In a series of solos and duets for all five, unexpected positions permeated the space, like piqué turns with the leg out in second position. As did an abundance of flexed feet, abruptly breaking the line of the leg in unanticipated ways. What was illusion? What was façade? When might the pretense shatter? Rowe posited the questions, but cleverly left them unanswered.    

Walk through any art gallery and listen as folks chat about what they “see” in a certain painting. Chances are the opinions and perspectives range significantly. The same is true for dance that mines a specific visual art work – it is apt to generate a multitude of interpretations, including those that differ from the original intent. After reading the notes for Michael Lowe’s Kimono Wednesdays, — “…inspired by the work of French impressionist painter Claude Monet, in particular his 1876 painting title “La Japonaise.” The image depicted in this painting is of his wife Camille donning a blonde wig and red kimono holding a Japanese hand fan emblazoned with the colors of the French flag…” — I had a pretty clear sense of what the ballet was about, but I still had some differing observations. That’s not a criticism at all, it’s the result of dance and visual art conversing together in a creative container.

Samantha Bell and Coral Martin opened Kimono Wednesdays, both holding gilded picture frames. In the program they were listed as “agitators disguised as portraits”, but I saw something else. As they extended their arms and legs through the empty squares, they blurred the boundary between art and life. It was like they were entering Monet’s painting and in turn, leading us inside as well to experience its internal themes. Lowe unpacked these themes through three striking pas de deux. Vincent Chavez (presumably as Claude Monet) partnered Sharon Kung as the Japanese Spirit, Kelley as the French Spirit and Kerr as Camille Monet. But to me, the three women read as three distinct aspects of Camille’s persona. Kung contributing playfulness, Kelley adding speed and allure and Kerr, a skillful, mature game of flirtation.   

With arms sculpting the space and the most amazing penchée, Martin invited the audience into the world of Giggling Flame and Roaring Waves, choreographed by Antoine Hunter. A narratively-rich work comprised of four brief episodes, the notes say that the piece “…explores the journey to Deafhood….” With Giggling Flame and Roaring Waves, Hunter, who is deaf, has crafted a powerful statement that disrupts assumptions with every chapter. But the narrative isn’t the only thing that makes the dance special. The movement itself, a new kind of fusion between ballet and jazz, impressed with its innovation and specificity of position.

The first group sequence brought a number of themes to the table – isolation as dancers were left out of groups; learning as gestures were repeated and honed; even some camaraderie as hands were extended in belonging (that feeling would certainly intensify as the dance went on). A slow, deliberate series of cluster shapes made up Giggling Flame and Roaring Waves’ second segment, the cast working together to create the picturesque landscapes. I was particularly intrigued by how the facing of the clusters changed a little bit each time, like the ensemble was mirroring a clock on the surface of the stage. Perhaps a comment about how a community grows stronger and stronger as they log more time together. Part three, one of the only sections not scored by music, brought a short solo movement improv, steps and phrases emerging from text prompts. And the final sequence saw the entire ensemble return to the stage – a community of individuals engaging and celebrating together in full-throttle physicality.

Chavez and Kelley’s La Llorona had a solid start, another work steeped in family dynamics. In this story, spontaneity was juxtaposed against inflexibility, and as the ballet unfolded, questions of rigidity and cost were asked. What relationships and experiences are lost by an inability to bend and adjust? According to the synopsis provided, La Llorona’s story takes a dark and tragic turn in its second half (after her husband leaves, a woman flies into a rage, drowns their two children and then kills herself). This is the point where the narrative thread got a little fuzzy onstage – if I hadn’t read the program, I likely wouldn’t have known what was happening. A number of events and dramatic moments need to play out (and they did), it just all happened too fast. I’m usually a huge advocate for editing and shortening works, but I think this is the one ballet on the bill that needed to be a bit longer in order to really capture and communicate the whole story through movement.   

Ramona Kelley, Christopher Dunn and Samantha Bell in Bat Abbit's The Sound of Snow Photo John Hefti

Ramona Kelley, Christopher Dunn and Samantha Bell in
Bat Abbit’s The Sound of Snow
Photo John Hefti

I had read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Fromme ahead of Cathy Marston’s Snowblind at San Francisco Ballet last month, so the story was fresh in my mind. Fittingly, Bat Abbit choreographed his The Sound of Snow around the book’s primary love triangle between Ethan (Christopher Dunn), his wife Zeena (Bell) and her cousin Mattie (Kelley). Swirling wind sounds signaled a bleak environment; ragtime music took us back in time. Ethan’s first solo was filled with gesture and disappointment. Dunn reached to touch something he couldn’t grasp; faster and faster, he ran on the spot, unable to move forward. He was stuck – stuck in his relationship, stuck in his circumstances. Zeena’s fragile, ailing body was expressed as Bell clutched her stomach and teetered precariously backwards in space; her anger and resentment (at her situation and at Ethan) through angular, sharp staccato motions. And then newness arrives on the scene, a breath of fresh air, a joyful innocence – Kelley’s Mattie. Mattie and Ethan’s duet was filled with playful, easy energy. For an instant, they touched palms, only to pull away. All possibility and promise, long-stretchy extensions moved outward in space. But events transpire and the relationship between the three is forever altered. Abbit’s The Sound of Snow riveted with its dramatic choreography and a nuanced plasticity between the three characters.  

Samantha Bell in Graham Lustig's Heartbreak Hotel Photo John Hefti

Samantha Bell in Graham Lustig’s Heartbreak Hotel
Photo John Hefti

Lustig’s Heartbreak Hotel closed the Scene & Heard program, a suite of dance vignettes set to Elvis Presley-era music. Within this retro frame, Heartbreak Hotel took a humorous romp into twenty-first century dating culture. There was speed dating, a duet about infatuation and new love, a pas de trois where a past relationship bled into a current one, and a nod to the excessively eager date, who had been paired with someone clearly not interested. It was a super fun finale to the afternoon. But it was missing one important thing. All of Heartbreak Hotel’s couples were male/female. Without changing any of the choreography or staging, it would have been easy to make some of the pairs female/female or male/male.