Heather Desaulniers

  • SAFEhouse ARTS presents SPF8
    Jenni Bregman & Dancers in Flocking; Kristin Damrow & Company in Opaque
    ODC Theater, San Francisco
  • Arts & Above – Experience 2.0
    Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
  • SAFEhouse Arts presents SPF8
    LV Dance Collective; ODC Theater, San Francisco
  • Amy Seiwert’s Imagery – SKETCH 5 | Stirred
    ODC Theater, San Francisco
  • Post:Ballet presents Six Pack
    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
Kristin Damrow & Company (pictured: Anna Greenberg, Courtney Parkin) Photo Golden State Photographic

Kristin Damrow & Company
(pictured: Anna Greenberg, Courtney Parkin)
Photo Golden State Photographic

July 8. For four days, ODC’s Mission campus brimmed with emerging choreographic talent as the annual Summer Performance Festival moved in for its eighth year. An exceptional event curated by SAFEhouse Arts founder Joe Landini, SPF8 hosts multiple shows each day and this year featured fifteen different contemporary dance troupes and choreographers. Kicking things off was an opening program of two distinct works, both devoted to the notion of contrast: Jenni Bregman & Dancers in Flocking and Kristin Damrow & Company in Opaque.

Running and leaping from the wings; posing and falling into the space. Flow, movement, freedom and joy read immediately in Jenni Bregman’s Flocking. With these opening images as well as the material that followed, dramatic shifts and changing extremes inform the entire work, a narrative that everyone can certainly relate to. Even the costume design is based on extremes. The company (or flock) seem to group by the color they wear – some in grey, two dancers in a grey/red combination and another couple completely clad in red: a visual statement about the whole and subdivisions within that collective.

The mood also fluctuates from lighthearted opening moments to sections steeped in angst. Choreographic contrasts abound throughout Flocking. From a contemporary pas de deux that is all about flight to grounded walking sequences to a rocking hip hop solo, the entire cast move through Bregman’s varied vocabulary with excitement and skill. While not entirely a light piece, Flocking was fun to watch, and the dancers looked like they were having fun with it too, except for some obvious nerves in the first few minutes.

Contrast also factors heavily into Kristin Damrow’s Opaque, an ensemble work for an all-female cast. Group dynamics and individual dynamics are constantly in play, along with the porousness and fragility that exists between these two states. In addition, vulnerability, determination and ominous strife seep through every scene and movement phrase. Opaque is charged from beginning to end; an intoxicating contemporary dance that hooks you instantly and keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Opaque opens with a soloist bathed in dark, subtle lighting. Shadowy and spooky, the company quickly joins her onstage watching every motion with steely intent. Multiple different dancers engage with her in a collection of highly technical choreographic duets. While each is diverse and unique, they all share a sense of competition, of battle, of the struggle for power. Splayed palms make an appearance in several of these vignettes as dancers push each other away or attempt to keep one another at bay. Damrow builds choreographic sequences that seem to simultaneously cling to the floor and to the air; all communicated with an incredible sense of authority. And in a perfectly constructed cadence, the first dancer once again isolates herself from the group as the lights dim and Opaque comes to its conclusion.

Arts & Above's Experience 2.0 Kate Jordan in Build Photo Lindsey Lucivero

Arts & Above’s Experience 2.0
Kate Jordan in Build
Photo Lindsey Lucivero

July 10. To be a successful creative team, the players must work and evolve together. But it cannot only be about the collective. Each individual must concurrently seek personal expression and growth, in concert with their contribution to the group’s activities. Kate Jordan and Bruno Augusto, who together make up Arts & Above, constructed a program that allowed the audience to glimpse both sides of the artistic process: solo work and partnership. Experience 2.0 begins with a set of performance art solos in which each artist makes their own statement: Augusto in AngolanAmerican and Jordan in Build. Closing the evening, CoHere is a contemporary dance duet where, as the title suggests, two parts of the same whole cling together.

Upon entering the Dance Mission Theater performance space, a video was already playing. Some kind of vehicle was traveling down roadways, pathways and highways and we were watching the route from its perspective. Instantly, the notion of a journey was present, even before AngolanAmerican formally begun.

When Augusto slowly moves onto the stage, a dual presence emerges – he is physically in the space, while his projected shadow becomes part of the video installation. Unfortunately, I was only able to watch the last third of his solo, that once the moving videography had stopped. This type of video causes motion sickness for me, so I could only look at the action onstage for a few seconds at a time before needing to look away. But even in those short viewing spans, the depth of AngolanAmerican still came through. What I saw was a profoundly personal journey. One section finds Augusto constantly changing hats, putting on different ones and in different orders, which felt like a comment on revolving circumstances as well as indicating the non-linear nature of most journeys. And the juxtaposition of the shadow and the real person captivated; revealing our disconnected-ness with reality and perception.

Build is a different kind of journey, yet just as personal. It is about constructing and deconstructing, creating and tearing down; a task, goal and purpose-focused solo. Jordan violently knocks over and rebuilds towers of green milk crates, also using them as platforms for physical activity: walking, running, jumping, crawling, sliding, sitting and balancing. The structures became functional; facilitators of and for movement.

While some frustration was apparent in the piece, generally speaking, the crates didn’t look like obstacles. Instead, they were just objects that were a part of a larger process. The possibilities in Build far outweigh the constraints, and the final structure is an impressively tall tower, requiring attention, diligence, confidence and palpable intensity.

Jordan and Augusto joined forces for the final work of the evening, CoHere, a short, intimate duet, and by far the danciest piece on the Experience 2.0 program. Narratively, CoHere tackles care and dignity, though in a deconstructed manner of speaking; and structurally, it examines unity. To both ends, the choreography finds the pair clinging to one another for support, protection and comfort, in walking motifs and in catching and releasing sequences. But at the same time, there are also moments where the desire to break away and exert one’s own authority is at play. This is particularly apparent in one dynamic repeated phrase when, with increasing speed and force, each dancer continually runs, falls, and rolls away from the other.

Red Egg Photo courtesy LV Dance Collective

Red Egg
Photo courtesy LV Dance Collective

July 12. The final day of SAFEhouse Arts’ SPF8 (Summer Performance Festival) at ODC featured six different contemporary dance programs. In the middle of the day’s schedule sat LV Dance Collective’s Red Egg. Instead of a single full-length piece or a program with a narrative/structural through-line, Co-Artistic Directors Kao Vey Saephanh and Martha L. Zepeda smartly chose to bring a sampling of the company’s work. Five short contemporary compositions that showcased the group’s skill, breadth and charm.

As the lights go up on Zepeda’s Re-Bir-Tick, the five-dancer company lay down center stage in a flower-like formation. The dancers roll. Their limbs swim through space; pulse and connection reading through each supple movement. After quite a while on the floor developing these initial phrases, they stand and the material begins to vary, though still steeped in the pulse/connection theme.

Zepeda’s choreography is undeniably contemporary, yet with a strong balletic foundation, leading to some lovely moments. A beautifully subtle pas de cheval feeds into a fluid series of chaîné turns before the dancers return to their opening positions and the lights dim.

From the costumes, to the undulating movement, to the music, Zepeda’s second dance, Hmmm…, has an unmistakable belly dance feel, although the trio also has its fair share of contemporary dance injections, arabesque and extensions mixing with sinuous arms and upper body.

Saephanh and Zepeda co-choreographed and danced the third work on the program, Ready Set Crack. A nice departure, the duet features robotic and mechanical articulation, along with some impressive contact improv-style lifts and balances.

Fly Ureta, a solo danced by Raquel Del Fiorentino and again dually choreographed by Saephanh and Zepeda, is absolutely gorgeous. Del Fiorentino is an extraordinary performer, particularly skilled at transitions. Every step just melted into the next movement, without compromising clarity or intentionality.

Closing the afternoon was the program’s title piece, Saephanh’s Red Egg. In the Mien culture of Thailand, the presentation of a red egg symbolizes good luck for the year ahead. That shared experience, community and togetherness certainly reads throughout the dance. Costumed in reds and whites, each dancer carefully holds a red egg, communicating through movement its significance and importance. But even with that measured care and attention, Saephanh manages to drives the work forward through outward expression rather than internal focus. At the end, the performers ventured into the audience to give red eggs to the crowd. So the sharing, the community was definitely there. Having said that, it still felt like something was missing; perhaps something more to the narrative that also needed to be explored.

Amy Seiwert's Imagery in Back To Photo David DeSilva

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery in Back To
Photo David DeSilva

July 16. Another year of Amy Seiwert’s Imagery’s SKETCH series; another chance to marvel at where contemporary ballet is in 2015. In her introductory remarks, the ever-elegant Seiwert explained that SKETCH was designed to challenge both choreographers and dancers to go outside their comfort zone. To that end, 2015’s program, subtitled Stirred, joined three works: Seiwert’s 2012 piece, Traveling Alone; her new Back To; and Starting Over at the End.

It was Starting Over at the End that was really the centerpiece of SKETCH 5, a collaborative project between Seiwert and ODC Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson. Prior to the its showing, Seiwert and Nelson also spoke about the making of the piece, noting that it is challenging to capture and communicate choreographic process on stage and in real time. But the results speak volumes. Starting Over at the End is narrative revealing and structural edgy; I can only imagine how live and charged the studio incubator must have been during the compositional journey.

An ensemble work, Traveling Alone begins with a soloist (Dana Benton) in a sculpting variation in a corridor of light, her arms darting through and dividing the space while spinning in a series of turns. She is joined by four couples in white, each of which dance a pas de deux – sometimes in unison, sometimes in sets, sometimes on their own.

Traveling Alone is certainly not devoid of emotion, but the piece does appear to be non-narrative, or at least non-linear. Instead, it is structure, formation, vocabulary and organization that are constantly in flux and at play, but brilliantly so. The flow between each different system is seamless, making Traveling Alone a physical stream of consciousness. A personal favorite moment was a pas de trois about a third of the way through. It is a common configuration in both classical and contemporary ballet, but it is also one of the most difficult to choreograph and execute. This delivered on both fronts. The only criticism of the work concerns the women’s’ costumes; new design and ideas are integral to dance today, but these skirts didn’t work.

Nelson and Seiwert’s collaborative endeavor, Starting Over at the End, took the middle spot on the program. A set of different dance pieces that fit together to form a gorgeous and complete puzzle, the individual sections are overlaid like Baroque music (even though the Schubert score represents the space between the Classical and Romantic eras, which was quite a bit later).

Within the rich choreographic material, several moments deserve special mention. The first solo has an elegant grace that is constantly interrupted with surprising and unexpected changes in direction and dynamics. A pas de deux for two men is powerfully electric from the first instant to the last. In one of the final duets, Liang Fu lowered Annali Rose slowly onto the floor. Watching her wrists unfold gently was truly magical. But the standout solo was for and by James Gilmer. He begins stationary in parallel fourth while his arms and upper body have their own chance to shine. Quickly, his whole being engages with vast extensions and expansive positions.

Starting Over at the End also has some strong narrative moments, particularly when a solo happens amidst much other action on the stage. These several instances relayed a palpable, real sense of being surrounded by others, yet still feeling left out, ignored and forgotten about.

Though different choreographically and structurally, Back To has a similar nostalgia as Sophie Maslow’s 1941 masterwork, Dust Bowl Ballads. At its heart, Back To is about community, specifically the actual community created by the dancers. This is apparent right from the start as the company walk out, clustered together. Each of the subsequent dance vignettes is set to Bluegrass music by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – there is a wedding quintet, a passionate, romantic duet full of abandon (again by Rose and Fu), a funeral scene and a dance about salvation. Each is a delight. And I liked how instead of closing with a big ensemble phrase, Back To concludes quietly. As the others leave the stage, Rose sits on a bench that figures throughout the work, which again had us pondering community. There was a feeling of alone-ness, but not sadness. Was that because the community had been so strong and so present that she could sense it and remember it even when she was by herself?

Christian Squires of Post:Ballet in Yours is Mine Photo David DeSilva

Christian Squires of Post:Ballet in Yours is Mine
Photo David DeSilva

July 24. Whatever the term ‘six-pack’ makes you think of, a common theme is present – six individual parts combining to make a whole. For Post:Ballet’s annual summer season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Six Pack is an apt title. While it certainly refers to this being the company’s sixth year of performance, it also points to a collection of six individual items that come together as a whole. And that whole is not only this amazing 2015 summer program, but also something bigger. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Robert Dekkers, Post:Ballet is a contemporary performance powerhouse with limitless potential. Six Pack exudes the company’s uncompromising vision, passionate drive and forward trajectory.

Many six-packs contain six of the same item, but sometimes a variety is in order. With their 2015 Six Pack, Post:Ballet offered an outstanding sampler with classic, lite, spicy, experimental, hybrid and limited edition choreographic flavors.

Part of Post:Ballet’s first summer season at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater, 2010’s Flutter was the classic selection in that it has both survived and thrived over time. And it still has a rare hypnotic power, leading its audience on a captivating journey from the first moment to the final leg circle.

A trio set to two very different musical parts (a dynamic clapping score by Steve Reich, performed by The Living Earth Show; and the Sarabande from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2, played by Abigail Shiman), Flutter examines the interplay between movement and sound like no other. Having never seen the exact same cast twice, each viewing provides the opportunity to learn and experience the constructive depth in a new way. 2015’s iteration ushered in new costumes by Christian Squires, who also danced in the piece, and if I’m not mistaken, a slightly different opening scene. But Dekkers’ choreography is still the work’s driving force – the intricacies in hands, fingers, torso and legs along with the purity of piqués in attitude. Performance after performance, Flutter maintains its choreographic integrity while never compromising freshness and vitality.

For those who might want something a little lighter, Pitch Pause Please may be the dance for you, although this particular lite flavor is neither less-than nor lacking anything. The world premiere work is one of grace and flow that allows the audience to enjoy the sheer beauty of artists collaborating, soloist Jessica Collado’s reacting through movement and facial expression to the sounds created by percussionist Andrew Meyerson.

While I’m sure that Pitch Pause Please has a set choreographic framework, it truly looks like the pair collaborate in the moment; the moving body and Samuel Adams’ original score becoming one. Ringing chimes are met with ringing extensions of the limbs, and staccato notes with prancing feet.

2014’s Yours is Mine was definitely the spicy choice of the evening. Footlights, bare stage and an overhanging light grid set the scene for this aggressive, avant-garde, no apologies quartet. Jeremy Bannon-Neches, Aidan DeYoung and Squires played their game of domination, crawling, circling each other like primitive creatures, or at least with primitive instincts. Who would take control? When Cora Cliburn enters the space, the mood shifts. Jealousy, fighting and competition still read in the men’s movement and demeanor, but they are completely transfixed, and maybe even hypnotized by her.

Experimental flavors are ones being ‘tried out’ to see if they resonate or not. Reason does not know is one such exploratory taste tests. A duet that Dekkers made for the Kansas City Ballet in February of this year, Reason does not know has a purposeful instability, literally and figuratively. The relationship between Cliburn and Ricardo Zayas is difficult to characterize. On the one hand, there is smoothness, an ease between them, mostly present in the beautiful lifts; but there is also a detachment and struggle for balance, particularly in a relevé walking motif. This is one experimental flavor profile that I’m still thinking about, but I would like to try it again.

ourevolution (2014) was the hybrid flavor in the Six Pack. Much about this piece touches: the tech animation, the costumes and scenic design, the choreography, and the narrative undercurrent. In ourevolution, Dekkers has written a physical essay, documenting concurrent states of being and simultaneous contrasts. This is why the work is so relatable. Five dancers spend the first part of the work in a walking sequence. Are they going somewhere or nowhere? Are they walking to meet or to avoid? The sense of distance and closeness, affection and disengagement is so potent. The piece crescendos with various solos, duets and group phrases over its twenty-plus minutes, and ends with a hopeful note of affection. Squires lays his head on DeYoung’s shoulder in a moment of pure tenderness and ourevolution closes with a final choreographic cluster – support, care and awareness.

Limited Edition screams specialness and scarcity, and those are the elements that make up Do Be: Family, the second world premiere on the Six Pack program. To be part of a full-length evening next fall (the result of a year-long collaboration with The Living Earth Show), it is a narratively driven dance theater work exploring the chaos and complexity of group dynamics and systems.

Whether enthusiastic or forced, participation in those systems is at the heart of the piece. Exaggerated faces and expressive gestures (I think I even saw dancers checking imaginary watches) run throughout; their repetition providing in equal parts emphasis and anesthetic, stabilization and destabilization. Many of the poses, especially in a featured duet by Squires and Vanessa Thiessen, are steeped in manipulation, both dancers meticulously moving and placing each other into specific attitudes and positions. The score contains a number of well-known folk songs that are continually interrupted with altered rhythms and adjusted meters. This creates a creepiness that totally fits with the scene unfolding onstage.

There are many contemporary artists for whom collaboration drives process. But there are actually very few who seek collaboration as a force for change, for creative growth, for departure from the norm. Robert Dekkers is one of the few, and with Do Be: Family, it shows.