Heather Desaulniers      

  • SPF6
    ODC Theater, San Francisco

  • RAWdance presents the CONCEPT series: 14
    66 Sanchez Studio, San Francisco

 

August 16th – With five days of modern dance and performance in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, The Garage’s Summer Performance Festival (SPF) is back for its sixth year. Curator Joe Landini has selected eight groups – all previous participants in The Garage’s Resident Artist Workshop program – to take their work to a slightly larger venue, ODC Theater. Each artist or company performed twice during the event and the Friday 7:00pm performance featured a trio of dancemakers: Gretchen Garnett & Dancers, Angela Mazziotta and Aura Fischbeck.

Gretchen Garnett’s world premiere of “Buitenlanders” was by far the highlight of the evening. Her choreography is wonderfully cohesive – a strong technical foundation, conceptual integrity, all injected with egalitarian post-modern influences. Garnett is not afraid to experiment with ideas that are outside-the-box, but understands that for contemporary choreographers, contemporary technique has to play a primary role. “Buitenlanders” opened with a large circle of light center stage and three dancers (Leah Curran, Rachael Elliott and LizAnne Roman) scattered around its perimeter. The trio ran in and out of this circle of light, desperate to make connections with each other. As this first image dissipated, some ‘follow the leader’ style motifs emerged; circling of the upper torso and a stunning side developpé followed by an upper back curve. The theme of connection was imminent as the dancers worked to copy each other and take on another’s movement. One important element to the piece was the role played by the center of the stage. Even in the absence of the circular light pattern, the center held a characteristic of duality. There was clearly a desire to be in that space, but at the same time, there was trepidation and sometimes even fear to go there. “Buitenlanders” was full of these strong narrative comments: the divergence between the individual and the collective and a strange desire to conform yet remain unique at the same time.

The next two pieces on Friday’s 7:00pm program fell into the category of dance theater. Dance theater is super trendy right now, with an abundance of practitioners creating ample work in this specific genre. With so much dance theater out there – some great, some so-so, some not so good – the recipe for success is becoming apparent. In order for dance theater to be successful, it has to reach a sweet spot of not being too absurd but also not too obvious. When a piece goes to either extreme, it just doesn’t work.

Angela Mazziotta is definitely on the right track with her newest dance theater piece, “We lay awake breathing grapes” (world premiere). A wine vat sat upstage right while a hanging vine was suspended downstage left. Soloist Whitney Stevenson, dressed in a red costume with a fur hat and trim, repeats the phrase, “I am a fox”. One at a time, she put grapes in her mouth and after each addition, repeated her line of text. It, of course, became increasingly difficult (and increasingly humorous for the audience), and the narrative thread of frustration crept slowly and fiercely into the dance. Stevenson finished with the grapes and began an interesting and complex choreographic variation. Then, at the end, the movement crescendoed, returning to the original notion of frustration. “We lay awake breathing grapes” was good and effective dance theater; the right amount of the bizarre, solid dancing, inventive choreography and a discernable narrative. The only missing link was during the middle solo dance section where the frustration element got a little bit lost. While it didn’t have to be at the same level throughout the entire work, some added presence in the middle of the piece would have been nice.

Unfortunately, the second dance theater work of the evening was not as successful as the first. Aura Fischbeck’s “Have we all melted yet?” (which premiered in March of this year) seeks to examine issues of cultural tradition and national identity. It did have some brilliant moments: an aggressively funny game of musical chairs, contact improvisation-style lifting phrases and a series of poses where the cast was manipulated and placed into particular positions. Inasmuch as those moments shone, the opening solo was both overly long and far too repetitive and the narrative of the entire work was way too on the nose.

 

Wendy Rein of RAWdance Photo © RJ Muna

Wendy Rein of RAWdance
Photo © RJ Muna

August 17th – The most exciting part of any restaurant menu is the appetizers. Delicious (and often deep-fried) bite-sized items; platters to share; a sampling of the chef’s concoctions. And the appetizers are often as good, sometimes better than, the main course.

RAWdance’s CONCEPT series is an appetizer menu for modern dance; a fun, casual and intimate program featuring an assortment of San Francisco contemporary performance. The fourteenth installment invited six companies to perform work at different stages of development – excerpts from larger pieces, complete dances, in-progress musings. The CONCEPT series really affords a unique interplay for every participant: the audience sees a variety of work from numerous groups, the dancers experience a crowd at close proximity, and the choreographers have the opportunity to try out new material or re-stage older pieces. A packed house, cozy performance environment, engaging choreography, yummy snacks, genuine and inviting hosts (RAWdance’s co-Artistic Directors Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein) – an evening of modern dance doesn’t get much better than this.

The CONCEPT series: 14 opened with Stranger Lover Dreamer’s “Wishbone Home” (2013). Everything about this dance was vast and expansive: from the full-length, lush skirts to the large turns in second attitude. Danced and created by the quartet of Rogelio Lopez, Andrew Merrell, Elizebeth Randall and Shaunna Vella, “Wishbone Home” maintained a tribal, ritualistic sense all the way to the concluding image, where all four came together, facing each other in a small circle. The movement was over; the ritual complete. Next, Smith and Rein took the stage in an excerpt from one of their current works-in-progress, “Turing’s Apple”. With the movement and the set (a changeable floor design of red and green apples), this duet speaks to patterns and architecture in space. The mechanical choreography and the integration of the apples revealed a series of questions: how do constraints affect physicality; how do situations differ when change is purposeful or accidental; what circumstances make the most sense in the body? Fog Beast’s excerpt from 2013’s “The Fox and The Donkey” was the second piece in two consecutive days where one of the main characters was a fox. Andrew Ward and Melecio Estrella have constructed a humorous and musical performance piece to introduce a host of different persona – some human, some animal. Though this was only an excerpt, it didn’t seem like they were trying to layer the work with philosophical meaning or represent some larger issue about humanity. Here was a literal manifestation of the characters; it’s refreshing when art is comfortable being exactly what it is.

Nina Haft & Company presented a portion of “To Begin With the Ending Already in Sight” (2013). Accompanied by an intimate, personal, textual soundscape, the quartet (Rebecca Johnson, Edmer Lazaro, Rogelio Lopez and Andrew Merrell) began moving in an abandoned stream of consciousness. While not a linear story, “To Begin With the Ending Already in Sight” was definitely about something, and maybe even a bunch of somethings – trust, strength, vulnerability, interdependence, human sensation. Modern choreography with contact improvisation-style movement, this quartet defines authenticity. Every dancer was completely present in each moment.

RAWdance returned with “Mine”, a second work-in-progress which will have its full premiere this coming December. Two large ropes placed in parallel across the front of the performance space signaled the beginning of the group piece. Dancers entered by standing on these ropes while others pulled them onstage like a conveyor belt (a very cool effect and image). “Mine” still had Smith and Rein’s choreographic ingenuity, creative acumen, and technical proficiency, but in some ways, this work is a departure for them. And a good one. Stylistically, they infused their modern foundation with some delicious jazz and funky street movements: old-school chaissés, sultry hinges and rib, hip and shoulder isolations. The result was a rare combination of sexy and dark, frenetic and controlled all at the same time. The Anata Project’s “659 Days of Ruby and Mr. S” (2011) was the story of a relationship told through choreography. Danced by Ashlie Kirby and Ismael Acosta, the couple was sometimes in sync, sometimes not; sometimes happy, sometimes frustrated; sometimes loving, sometimes angry; sometimes plain, sometimes embellished. Some moments were loud – Kirby’s foot-stomping sequence – and others, beautifully quiet. And as Kirby placed her hands delicately on Acosta’s face, Claudia Anata Hubiak’s duet came to an end.

Post:Ballet closed RAWdance’s fourteenth CONCEPT series with Robert Dekkers’ “Flutter” from 2010. This was the third time I’ve seen this particular trio and at each viewing have been fortunate to see a different cast: all women, all men, and for this performance, a mixed cast (Aidan DeYoung, Jane Hope Rehm and Christian Squires). “Flutter” opens with a serpentine sensuality as a repeated rond de jambe propels each dancer across the floor. Using a host of similarly piquant details, “Flutter” seeks to understand how the music (by Steve Reich) and choreography fit together. Perfectly staccato hands meet scurrying parallel boureés; shoulder rolls feed into jumping fouettés. “Flutter” is a textbook neo-classical dance in every sense of the term; a masterpiece that accents rhythm, emphasizes musical phrasing and moves at lightning fast speeds.