- San Francisco Ballet – Coppélia
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
- YBCA presents Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
- Cal Performances presents Mark Morris Dance Group
L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
- San Francisco Ballet – Program 5
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
- ODC/Dance presents Dance Downtown
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
- Stephen Pelton Dance Theatre – Lauda Adrianna
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
- Cal Performances presents Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
March 8th – For the second full-length narrative of San Francisco Ballet’s 2016 season, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson chose George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova’s Coppélia, first performed by New York City Ballet in 1974 and entering SFB’s repertory in 2011. A lovely contrast to the intense drama of last month’s Swan Lake (and what awaits in Onegin later this spring), Coppélia is charming, funny and whimsical. At least on the surface. Look beneath and you will see that while light-hearted, the ballet is not at all one-dimensional. There is mischief. There is mystery. There is manipulation. And each of these varied narrative fibers is needed in order for the story to reach its joyful conclusion.
Four main characters collide in this fanciful tale of love, flirtation, wandering eyes and mistaken identity – young couple Swanilda (Frances Chung) and Franz (Vitor Luiz), the curious old villager Dr. Coppelius (Pascal Molat) and Coppélia, a life-size doll built by Coppelius, whose existence hovers between reality and make believe. In Swanilda’s introductory solo, she is trying to connect with Coppélia, whom she does not yet know is only a doll. A delightful invitation to friendship, this dance is filled with sweet boureés and delicate cabrioles. But to her dismay, Coppélia does not engage with her. As Franz enters the scene and begins his first pantomime sequence, the viewer quickly learns that he is keeping his romantic options open; smitten with Swanilda but also enchanted with Coppélia. And he is unaware that Swanilda has hidden and witnessed his flirtatious ways. As we follow the rollercoaster of Franz and Swanilda’s relationship, a number of gorgeous group sequences unfold. A predictor of love, the slow, lithe ‘wheat dance’ impressed with its elasticity. Variations by Swanilda’s eight friends were positively effervescent. Luiz soared through Franz’s solo (which has some finicky direction changes and demi-second transitions) with his gravity-defying leaps. And Chung demonstrated through the entire Act that she is the utmost technician, an incomparable artist and a master of character portrayal. Her series of brisés, jeté entralace and Russian pas de chat sang through the space.
Act II is where the magic happens, literally and figuratively, as Swanilda and her friends venture into Dr. Coppelius’ home, having found the key in the street. They uncover the secrets and truths that lie within, including the fact that Coppélia is indeed, a doll. Coppelius returns home and chases them out, except for Swanilda who has hidden. Then Franz arrives on the scene, in the hopes of glimpsing Coppélia. In the moment, Coppelius has the idea that he can transfer Franz’s life spirit to Coppélia and make her real. To that end, he begins plying Franz with wine. Molat and Luiz’s mime was so detailed, exact and precise that even if you were unfamiliar with the synopsis, it was completely clear what was going on. Coppelius is often touted as the mysterious orchestrator of events in this ballet, but as Act II continues, it is clear that Swanilda is in fact, the one in control. By disguising herself as Coppélia and tricking him into thinking that his plan has worked, she is able to save Franz. And here we see the strong and smart Swanilda – the capable and clever, the innovative and ingenious. In outwitting Coppelius, she emerges as the ballet’s triumphant champion. Once he wakes, Franz and Swanilda are reunited and they quickly exit Coppelius’ home, leaving him alone. This scene was brilliantly played by all involved, though the convincing of Coppelius that his doll was real went on longer than necessary. He had bought into Swanilda’s ruse, one hundred percent. It could have been much shorter.
If Act I and Act II were all about the narrative, Act III was certainly all about the dancing. And in true ‘Act III style’, a collection of divertissements are offered, followed by a grand pas de deux by the lead couple. Students from the San Francisco Ballet School played an exciting role in these vignettes, creating a ‘living’ frame for each of the dances. They are to be commended for their outstanding presence and technical ability! Lauren Strongin led the ‘Waltz of the Golden Hours’ with a flawless sequence of intricate pointe work. Sasha De Sola’s incredible suspension was perfect for the ‘Dawn’ variation, appropriately rising in concert with that time of day. Sofiane Sylve’s reflective take on ‘Prayer’ extended outward and upward, ending with a beautiful relevé long into penchée arabesque. The ‘Jesterettes’ danced wonderfully but there was a tendency from some to pull focus, which broke the cohesiveness of the quartet. And the ‘Discord and War’ section baffles. It was handily performed by the entire cast, but choreographically, seems like it has been dropped into the ballet with little context or relation.
But that disconnect was easily forgotten as Chung and Luiz took the stage in the grand pas de deux, titled ‘Peace’. Regality and elegance abounded in their partnering, their solo work and the final coda. It was an amazing conclusion to a truly glorious night of uplifting classical ballet.
March 10th – If you frequent contemporary performance, you have likely come across the following terms: interdisciplinary, mixed/new media, physical theater, immersive installation and multi genre. While all are unique, there is a commonality amongst them – the molding of different elements together in a single production. As one might expect, some of these endeavors are more successful than others.
When collaborative elements do work together in service of and in concert with a larger conceptual goal, the results can be amazing. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s 2015 work Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, running this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is collaboration done right. The piece offers a vulnerable, revelatory evening of storytelling. And the entire work is informed by direct source material – interviews between Artistic Director Bill T. Jones and Dora Amelan. Over eighty-five minutes, remembrances of Amelan’s journey during a vicious historical period (World War II) are shared – a narrative of tough struggles, harsh realities and a deep battle for justice.
Analogy/Dora: Tramontane is driven by these conversations between Jones and Amelan. A few are mixed into the sound score, which also included fantastic live music by Nick Hallett and Emily Manzo, but most are communicated by the cast members. The ensemble takes turns in the roles of Jones and Amelan, re-telling the multitude of stories that was their original dialogue. Alongside these life chapters, dance, tableaux, song and design unfold concurrently. And it works. Not seeking to be a direct physical interpretation of the text, the music, movement and set speak to what is underneath the words – the nuanced feelings, thoughts, beliefs and emotions.
I had read somewhere that Analogy/Dora: Tramontane was made up of twenty-five different parts. Rather than twenty-five closed scenes or vignettes, each story flowed directly into the next. And if there is any criticism of the work, it would be that without some slight breaks or cadence points, Analogy/Dora: Tramontane feels long. But that one observation certainly doesn’t take away from its achievements. First, and as previously mentioned, this project is constructed in such a way that the many disciplines are in sync. Second, Analogy/Dora: Tramontane has such an interesting sense of time. With the stories being shared from World War II, as a viewer, you are of course aware of the historical context. Yet, there was an equally overwhelming feeling of the present moment.
March 11th – Think of a prolific contemporary choreographer. You can probably name a number of their works and maybe even recall when you first saw some of them. But amongst your favorites, perhaps there is one that is special. A composition that you most clearly associate with that particular dance artist.
After doing some reading in preparation for a show at Cal Performances, it seems that when many fans, scholars and academics consider the canon of Mark Morris’ work, 1988’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is that standout piece. Thoughts, opinion, commentary and analysis alike all extolling the brilliance of its architecture, the purity of its form and the beauty of its movement.
Indeed. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is beautiful choreography and lovely dancing set to gorgeous music. The full-length, two-hour feat is a visual and aural exposition; bringing together Morris’ physical vocabulary with Handel’s oratorio, performed at this engagement by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale (under the impeccable musical direction of Nicholas McGegan) with four marvelous featured soloists. Morris’ marriage of music and movement is by far L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato’s greatest achievement.
Choreographically, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato runs the gamut from gestural phrases to picturesque imagery to humor and whimsy. It varies compositionally with canon, unison and the twenty-six member ensemble organized into every formation imaginable. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato opened with buoyant, joyful attitude posés and jumps, very Duncan-esque in style. Jubilant leaps continued, leading into a comical sequence of trenches for the men and the women. Halfway through Act I, a sprightly, cheeky and impish male solo delighted with parallel passés, buzzing bourées and butterfly-like arms, while other cast members peeked in at the action from the wings – very Nijinsky meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Morris’ use of the wing space was a highlight overall, though this device is fairly common in his work and certainly not unique to L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Living sculpture came on the scene in a sequenced lift phrase, where partners were gradually taken out of the picture at each repetition. And comedy returned in the horse and carriage vignette.
Act II began with slow restraint, utilizing a number of motifs from the first half of the dance, yet re-imagined and reordered. But those dynamics picked up quickly with a colorful and exultant full ensemble statement. A number of slightly odd variations were up next. Couples cycled through awkward tuck lifts, somersaults and planks that weren’t particularly pleasing to the eye. And the men’s dance that followed had an overly campy start. Having said that, the women’s circle dance was glorious with its reaching limbs, attitude posés (from the dance’s opening moments), curved arms and long, low extensions. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato concluded with a flowy sequence of running, leaping and skipping, the dancers moving like waves through the space, and into their final formation of concentric circles.
L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato was an elegant expression of movement and music, performed flawlessly and phenomenally by the entire company on Friday night, no question. Though for me, the dance was neither revelatory nor surprising nor a standout. And it seems a little dated, at least for my taste. But that doesn’t erase what was a pleasurable, enjoyable evening of dance performance, one that didn’t make demands on the viewer.
March 16th – Both pieces on San Francisco Ballet’s fifth program are reappearances from last season: Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and Yuri Possokhov’s Swimmer. Last year, the two ballets were featured separately, but their 2016 pairing is truly inspired. Seeing the 1969 work and the 2015 work (respectively) in the same evening reveals an unpredictable and unexpected narrative consonance. A throughline of community, yet set in different containers and offered by distinct voices.
While the entire ensemble is hardly ever onstage at the same time in Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, the one-act, sixty-five minute ballet feels like a continuous conversation between ten individuals. Solos feed into duets, duets into trios, trios into vignettes and back again, an ongoing, ever changing dialogue where the participants share unique points of view. It is an uninterrupted flow of beautiful choreography and movement. But it’s more than that too. It surprises you. It encourages you to consider many avenues: form, structure and how the movement is interacting with the Chopin score (played by the glorious pianist Roy Bogas). As such, Robbins’ is inviting the audience into something more than just viewership, he is inviting them to join this particular conversation.
Joseph Walsh opened the ballet with Robbins’ complex and flowing waltz solo. It was absolute perfection and established an undeniable truth. Walsh gave the standout performance in this dance – his technique was impeccable, his presence captivating and every time he was onstage, he was joyful! Davit Karapetyan’s double tours also impressed, as did the flirty pas de trois by Walsh/Sasha De Sola/Yuan Yuan Tan and the set of comical theatrical tableaux. Moments of simple elegance (slow chaîné turns, single arm port de bras and running prances) met with complex footwork patterns and intricate petit allegro. Karapetyan and Walsh’s duet had a great sense of both competition and camaraderie and a later series of thrown lifts, each more advanced than the previous, absolutely awed. The entire cast performed superbly throughout, though a few of the couples did have some challenges with the transitional steps.
About halfway through the lengthy ballet, the tenth cast member (Lorena Feijoo) makes her first appearance in an interesting structural and narrative turn. Again another example of how Dances at a Gathering has the capacity to surprise. Even at this late point, Robbins’ wanted to bring another player to the table, someone brand new to offer their input. And the last scene is the ultimate statement of community. The ten dancers acknowledge each other’s contributions, say thank you and move onto their next conversation.
From its onset, Possokhov’s Swimmer is an immersive visual stunner. Placed into the mid-twentieth century by a collaborative combination of lights, videography, sets and costumes, the first few scenes paint an unforgettable picture. We meet the title character (danced opening night with style and strength by Taras Domitro) who is stuck in a repetitive routine and looking for something more. His story moves quickly; the dance constantly pushing forward as he searches for this ‘better’. The allure of celebrity and glamour tempt him. As does the carefree lifestyle of youthful community at a pool party. This pool party is fun to watch but it is also a pivotal moment in the dance, for two reasons. Here we realize that while this man may crave a new personal existence, he may also be seeking a new community to be a part of. And in addition, the scene sets up the frame for the next leg of his exploration, his ‘swim’.
Possokhov has crafted this swim as a collection of solos and duets, varied in technique and in meaning. In Domitro’s first solo, you can clearly see the internal struggle between staying grounded in reality and surrendering to the possible. Then Maria Kochetkova and Tiit Helimets arrive on the scene in a sexy pas de deux of longing and desire. Feijoo and Vitor Luiz offer a bittersweet duet that oscillates between holding onto the familiar and accepting change, followed by Domitro and Tan (as a genie/mermaid being) in a game of seduction. It’s the narrative arc of these solos and duets that is interesting to consider. Are they real individuals that Domitro is meeting on his journey? Are they figments of his imagination? Are they the embodiment of his hopes and regrets? The answer isn’t totally clear and that ambiguity plays perfectly in the piece.
The men’s ensemble sequence, led at this performance by Wei Wang, Gennadi Nedvigin and Pascal Molat, is something to behold – dramatic, technical and powerful; huge jumps, diving rolls and pulsing batterie. With subtle inspirations from martial arts, together as a community, the men stir and whirl the entire stage into a frenzied fervor. And after all that movement and presence, Domitro is left alone, suspended mid-air, swimming in projected water, in a place that is in between. He is not in his old world, but has yet to reach his new destination.
March 24th – ODC/Dance celebrates an astounding milestone this year – their 45th Anniversary season! And the repertory for their annual Dance Downtown at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts speaks to this company’s deep legacy, thriving present and robust future. Week two of Dance Downtown opened last night with a double bill – the world premiere of Kate Weare’s Giant (co-commissioned by White Bird and ODC) and an encore of 2015’s Dead Reckoning by KT Nelson.
Weare’s Giant opened with a striking visual image – two dancers (Jeremy Smith and Josie G. Sadan) silhouetted in a doorway upstage center. As the top of the doorway expanded, slowly edging into the rafters, and the lights came up, they walked forward into the space with stoic faces and long strides. The rest of the cast joined, each costumed in flowing gray with geometric accents (designed by Mary Domenico) – very sci-fi/fantasy in nature and quality. An assortment of patterns, groupings and formations burst from the stage, all informed by Weare’s eclectic choreography. A futuristic first statement, it looked a little like a scene from Tron, the original not the remake.
The group dissipated and a number of varied vignettes followed. And varied is a key word here. Differing in style, intention, dynamics and scored uniquely, these solos, duets and ensemble scenes each brought new information. One variation was filled with small reflexive movements and pulsing articulations, another like gears of a machine with repetitive, measured, careful motions. The men’s quartet soared with its shifting mid-air lifts and the women shared an aggressive ritualistic dance.
All of the choreography was engaging, the design drew the viewer in and the dancing was strong (it was also incredibly exciting to see a number of new faces in the company). Yet, as much as I enjoyed these aspects of the piece, Giant didn’t particularly resonate with me. Its conceptual and structural throughline was difficult to find. Without that connective tissue, the dance felt compartmentalized, and many of the segments, unrelated.
Some of the observations that I made at last year’s premiere of Nelson’s Dead Reckoning held true at this performance. In its exposition, Dead Reckoning breaks forth with contagious energy – bodies in flight, traversing every inch of the stage space, running circuits and changing levels. As the work moves to its final section, that pulse resurges. And the visuals stun with pure beauty – the cast and stage immersed in lime green ‘snow’ (concept by Yayoi Kambara) that has been falling throughout the dance.
It was the middle section in Dead Reckoning that felt very different. While I was a little puzzled last year by this portion of the piece, at this second viewing, its function actually spoke quite clearly. The opening segment is all about bodies in motion at a high intensity level. In the middle section, these same bodies communicate different styles of motion and introduce new levels of intensity – Smith’s slow, stretchy solo; Sadan’s spinning, spiraled musing; the sculptural poses of the women’s trio; the weighty lifts; the rhythmic, methodical footwork pattern across the stage. And these different ideas are brilliantly layered like a collage – independent yet interdependent at the same time. The middle chapter of Nelson’s Dead Reckoning provokes the viewer to consider physicality from a wide lens yet in the context of a cohesive container. How many different ways can bodies move through space? How do distinct tempi co-exist in a single work? Which dynamic is each individual viewer drawn to, and why?
March 25th – Upstage center, a large flower structure, resembling a stained-glass window, was suspended. Two columns framed it and two benches were placed on either side of the stage. Slowly, one by one, the dancers greeted the space with measured motions, like the start of a meditative daily practice.
So began Stephen Pelton Dance Theatre’s Lauda Adrianna, created and conceived by Stephen Pelton and set to Gavin Bryars’ brilliant envisioning of 14th century religious music. A number of years in the making, this gorgeous forty-five minute quintet was a work that was very evocative. In Lauda Adrianna, Pelton has crafted a breathtaking, powerful and moving piece of contemporary dance. By far one of the best works offered this season.
Lauda Adrianna felt prayerful and spiritual. It felt like a sacred experience in a sacred place. And it was its attentive treatment of ‘the sacred’ that gripped the viewer from beginning to end. Lauda Adrianna not only opened and expanded the notion of ‘the sacred space’, but also celebrated the vastness of that concept. A sacred space can be a place for comfort; for introspection; for expressing emotion. A place to embrace and live in the uncertain – where there are questions but no definite answers, where mystery, hope and curiosity converge. It can simultaneously be a place for solitude and somewhere to be in community.
The two benches served as places of rest, repose and reflection, when the dancers were not occupying the middle stage space. In that center rectangle, moments of physical prayer and vulnerable contemplation unfurled. Spines contracted and torsos pleaded with heartache and frustration, pain and suffering. The solar plexus reached to the sky for guidance. Parallel and turned out extensions stretched away from the body communicating a soul torn in different directions. Rolling triplets and soothing rocks from one foot to the other spoke of calm and ease. And repetitive upper body curves, spirals in fourth position and outstretched arms brought a sense of peace and hope.
Pelton’s concept was communicated with stunning beauty by all five dancers in the company – Arletta Anderson, Chad Dawson, Freya Jeffs, Peiling Kao and Nol Simonse. Each cycled through the choreography with incredible malleability, almost making the movement liquid in nature. And yet, the intention and actualization of the vocabulary was precise, clear and exact. Achieving this combination in performance is rare and special. These two words definitely ran through the evening. They describe the choreography, the music, the design, the concept, the dancing. Everything about Stephen Pelton Dance Theatre’s Lauda Adrianna is rare and special.
March 29th – On Tuesday night, a bicoastal artistic bond started yet another chapter – the annual Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater residency at Cal Performances. Three different programs will grace the Zellerbach stage over the next five days, bringing a host of West Coast premieres and returning favorites. A quadruple bill, Program A featured two of these premieres, Ronald K. Brown’s Open Door and Artistic Director Robert Battle’s Awakening, alongside Judith Jamison’s A Case of You (2004) and of course Ailey’s Revelations (1960).
Brown’s Open Door began as a soloist swept onto the stage from the wings – arms pushing through the air, legs swirling in attitude turns. A second soloist followed appropriating some of these first motifs, yet developing them further as well as adding new ideas. From there, a variety of solos, duets, quintets and full cast statements emerged – pulsating hips, extended arms and percussive, rhythmic footwork. A sexy and exciting ensemble dance, Open Door invites bodies to take and sculpt the space around them in a joyful expression of physicality. But there’s something else happening too, an important structural component that not only challenges expectations but also reveals a conceptual fiber. Open Door has a cast of ten, five women and five men. The ensemble definitely interacted with each other throughout the piece – an enjoyment and acknowledgement of each other read clearly. But there was no partnering, no lifts, hardly any touching, only a few assisted turns towards the end. Everyone told his or her own story. It was striking and beautiful to see these ten narratives of strength and character unfold simultaneously. With Open Door, Brown painted a picture where togetherness and individualism could coincide.
Both of the West Coast premieres opened with entrances from the downstage right wing. Though as the lights came up on Battle’s Awakening, it was obvious that this piece was going to be completely different than the previous one. Dancers costumed in white scrubs ran in, panicked and frenetic. As they moved through repetitive circuits and shaking motions, the cast looked frightened and suspicious, the repetition induced by their fear and speaking of a broken, yet continual cycle. While some contrast existed in this chilling environment (hands reached out in hope, a wave of turns calmed, the bodies rested for brief periods), for the most part, Awakening was deliberately sterile, stark and shaken. John Mackey’s score was peppered with fortissimo accents that punctuated the action on stage. At times, this music was hard to listen to, as was some of the choreography to watch – the visuals and the sound jarring, uncomfortable and unsettling. But that was the point. It was purposeful, and Awakening was successful in its endeavor. Battle brilliantly left Awakening on this foreboding note, unresolved and still spinning.
Next up was the most breathtaking, albeit short, dance of the evening – Jamison’s A Case of You. Performed by Jacqueline Green and Jamar Roberts, this was an emotive duet about a relationship. Not a flirtation, not an infatuation, but a deep connection of knowing and being known. Suspension and release abounded as did pure wonder. Green jumped and encircled Roberts’ waist with her legs; she leaped toward him and landed with both feet on his thighs; and their final pose was a miraculous embrace. These moments seemed to come out of nowhere with no preparation, no fanfare. And in that, we discover the fuel for A Case of You – the link between intimacy and surprise. How enduring commitments still have the capacity to awe. How it is truly amazing to even find that rich level of connection in the first place.
The magnificent program closed with Ailey’s incomparable masterwork, Revelations – a three-part series of dances set to spirituals. There is much to love in this piece: the picturesque tableaux, the energetic performances and the unison in the finale. “Fix Me, Jesus” remains a favorite chapter (danced by Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims), with its transcendent promenade in écarté, supported dip and sustained lay-out. Matthew Rushing’s solo in “I Wanna Be Ready” was all pull and stretch with rolling pleadings and a grand rond de jambe from arabesque to parallel 2nd. And the athleticism of the men’s trio in “Sinner Man” (Michael Jackson, Jr., Sean Aaron Carmon and Michael Francis McBride) continues to intoxicate.