Heather Desaulniers

  • AMP 2014, co-presented by LEVYdance and ODC Theater
    ODC Theater, San Francisco
  • Fact/SF, JuMP 2014
    ODC Theater, San Francisco
  • DanceFAR
    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
  • Post:Ballet presents “Hi-5”
    Z Space, San Francisco
AMP 2014.  Photo © Ross Marlowe

AMP 2014.
Photo © Ross Marlowe

November 9 at ODC saw the closing performance of LEVYdance’s Fall Home Season, AMP 2014. In this, the Artists Maximizing Potential series’ second round, LEVYdance and Loni Landon Dance Projects collectively brought “Meet Me Normal” to the stage, an evening-length world premiere contemporary dance choreographed by Loni Landon.

A deconstructed narrative work, “Meet Me Normal” was definitely about something, but it did not follow a linear storyline. It asked questions and provided insights; it challenged preconceptions and revealed reality. And it did so around a very accessible and relatable subject matter – the emotions and circumstances that inform human interactions. Throughout the forty-five minute piece, Landon and the cast of six (two LEVYdance company dancers, two performers from Loni Landon Dance Projects and two guest artists) thoroughly examined the entire spectrum of this concept. From the opening duet, issues of control, submission and power were introduced. In a given interaction, does one party attempt to dominate, while the other follows? If so, is that dynamic fixed or in a constant state of flux? Subsequent sequences spoke to detachment. Two women danced a lovely unison variation, and their movements were totally in sync. Yet at the same time, they seemed purposefully unaware of each other, communicating that sometimes we can be engaged in an interaction and not even know it.

The men’s duet in the middle of “Meet Me Normal” was a rich section, where the narrative continuously layered and evolved. It began with Stephen DiBiase and David Maurice facing each other and matching their movements and gestures. An example of listening in an interaction, this message recurred in many of the following vignettes. Then, this quiet, meditative movement morphed into something else. The pair kept trying to hug each other, but were unable to actually make contact. Uncertainty and insecurity had crept into their interaction.

As “Meet Me Normal’s” final third was underway, Landon’s exploration of human interactions was still uncovering new information. Protectiveness and tenderness entered the mix as the women lightly touched each other’s faces and shoulders. Then, as the full cast stood in a line, and the movement rippled in a physical canon wave, imitation was the overarching message. Even the element of surprise was present. As Michaela Burns slowly exited the space, she was scooped up and brought back into the scene. An otherwise complete dissertation on the nature of human interaction, it was a little curious that “Meet Me Normal” was missing playfulness, friendliness or joy.

Landon’s choreographic vocabulary in “Meet Me Normal” had a wonderful sense of initiation. Though the movement style certainly varied, much of it started externally, from the knee, hip, foot or elbow, particularly in Lavinia Vago’s closing solo. It was almost an ode to puppetry and a reminder that interactions are sometimes controlled and guided by outside forces.

Not only was the piece an overwhelming success, but it was also a testament to the breadth of LEVYdance’s AMP program itself. In November of 2012, the first AMP showcased work by two different choreographers in a shared evening – two dances by Artistic Director Benjamin Levy, and two by Sidra Bell (one danced by LEVYdance and the other by Sidra Bell Dance New York). Almost exactly two years later, direct artistic collaboration took focus as two companies (LEVYdance and Loni Landon Dance Projects) created and performed in Landon’s piece together. Successful residency programs are the ones that experiment with different formats and it was heartening to see that LEVYdance’s AMP series is continuing to forwardly seek new and risky experiences.

JuMP 2014. Photo © Kegan Marling

JuMP 2014.
Photo © Kegan Marling

November 14. Choreographic series, programs and residencies are common within the contemporary dance scene. But choreographic programs that are focused on making new work without a ton of other requirements and parameters are actually kind of rare. JuMP 2014, the brainchild of Fact/SF Artistic Director Charles Slender-White and Jeanne Pfeffer, fosters this kind of choreographic nurture, providing the necessary infrastructure and environment for an artist to, as the title states, ‘Just Make a Piece’. In this, JuMP’s inaugural year, Fact/SF presented a shared program of two very different works at ODC Theater – “Stepset Shift” by Charles Slender-White and “Open Source” by Liz Tenuto.

The cast of six entered the stage space for “Stepset Shift” in pointe shoes and purple costumes (designed and constructed by Melissa Castaneda), complete with the unfinished cage of a tutu. This first image immediately (and brilliantly) set the tone for a piece where Slender-White would examine the possibilities within a genre that is still on an evolutionary journey.

“Stepset Shift” was informed by the movements that happen in the opening center work of any ballet class: tendus, port de bras, temps lié. These fundamental steps establish the positions of the body and the shifting of weight, and are a necessary foundation for the more complicated exercises that follow. In the work, Slender-White took these steps in a different direction and utilized them as a point of discovery. His épaulement progressed into off-center upper body motions; classical bourreés simultaneously co-existed with contemporary combinations. “Stepset Shift” was not a condemnation of classical dance, nor was it critical. Instead, Slender-White was using the oeuvre in a wonderfully experimental light, and in doing so, uncovering new physical possibilities.

Following intermission, Liz Tenuto’s “Open Source”, proved a contemporary performance mosaic of delightfully weird extremes, ranging from calm to total hysteria. In it, the Fact/SF company dancers became a rag-tag band of purposefully neurotic characters. Opening with a robotic unison sequence reminiscent of old-school aerobics, it looked like a group of modern-day hipsters had found their way back in time to the 1980s. Polar extremes were rooted within this first choreographic sequence as moments of high energy fed into complete relaxation. This theme continued throughout – a particularly clever iteration was when Parker Murphy was dancing to his own soundtrack, while the five women ignored him and broodingly sat eating at a table. And after some additional hyper vignettes, “Open Source” closed with the ensemble huddled together in a very affectionate, tender and intimate moment. While the conceptual framework of extremes was very apparent in Tenuto’s piece, there was also a larger narrative at play. But at a single viewing, making a connection with that overarching idea/story was a challenge.

November 18. Every year, San Francisco has its fair share of amazing dance concerts – from stunning classical performances to outstanding contemporary programs. Yet, even in 2014, these two genres still remain pretty separate. But then there are the special evenings that bring traditional and modern dance companies together on a single stage, once again reminding San Francisco audiences of the great artistic breadth that exists in this region.

DanceFAR (pictured Margaret Karl and Garen Scribner). Photo © Sandy Lee

DanceFAR (pictured Margaret Karl and Garen Scribner).
Photo © Sandy Lee

DanceFAR, Dance For A Reason, provides one such opportunity with its annual gala event, this year held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. But more than just being a phenomenal sampling of what the San Francisco professional dance scene has to offer, Dance For A Reason is all about giving back. The show’s artistic contributions are donated, with the program’s proceeds benefitting The Cancer Prevention Institute of California and the UCSF Melanoma Center. In just three short years, DanceFAR co-founders Margaret Karl, Garen Scribner and James Sofranko have created something very special to support a cause that affects so many.

Act I opened with Smuin Ballet in an excerpt from Garrett Ammon’s “Serenade For Strings”. What began as quiet, flowing movement quickly exploded into a wave of physicality – both innocent and exciting at the same time. Ballet San Jose’s Lahna Vanderbush and Kendall Teague followed in an excerpt from “Minus 16” by Ohad Naharin, a hauntingly stark duet. Post:Ballet brought Robert Dekkers’ “Yours Is Mine”, an intensely physical quartet with underscores of confrontation, aggression, competition and seduction. Special guests Ana Lopez and Garrett Patrick Anderson from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago communicated the idiosyncrasies of a relationship in an excerpt from “Deep Down Dos”. Alejandro Cerrudo’s choreography was full of hope, looking beyond the present moment. And the duet was beautifully bookended with the same intertwined posture at the beginning and the conclusion. Kate Weare’s “Drop Down” for ODC/Dance is one of the most charged pas de deuxs I have ever seen. And even though I know that there is a dramatic fall about two thirds of the way through, it still shocks me each and every each time. Act I closed with San Francisco Ballet in Hans Van Manen’s “Solo”. This trio (danced by Hansuke Yamamoto, Joseph Walsh and Pascal Molat) is full of unexpected turns and sculptural balances. But the most compelling part of “Solo” is that, as the title suggests, it speaks to and reveals individual personalities. Incidentally, Walsh’s sequence of piqué turns ending in arabesque was one of the best combinations of the entire night.

Tap artist Joe Orrach quite literally kicked off the second Act with two lightning-fast percussive dance solos. Orrach was a great addition to the line-up; the unaccompanied a cappella segments in his performance being of particular note. Up next was SFDanceworks in Penny Saunders “Berceuse”, danced by Pablo Piantino and Saunders herself. “Berceuse” is a gorgeous duet full of shifting circumstances – directional, weight, centeredness and the choreography itself has a rare quality of being both accessible yet incredibly complex. Maurya Kerr’s tinypistol offered an excerpt from “Wantful”, a tense contest of intention and exertion of will. Guest artists Danielle Rowe and Brett Conway from Nederlands Dans Theater I danced Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot’s “Softly, As I Leave You”. I am still thinking about their performance and definitely hope to see this piece again. Its mixture of trapped desperation and unencumbered abandon was certainly a highlight of DanceFAR 2014. Last but certainly not least, Alonzo King LINES Ballet took the stage in an excerpt of King’s “Rasa”, complete with live musical accompaniment. The company dancers shone brightly in this physical tour de force, where different styles and movement genres were astutely woven into a masterful movement hybrid.

Post:Ballet in 'Do Be Tassel' Photo © Tricia Cronin

Post:Ballet in ‘Do Be Tassel’
Photo © Tricia Cronin

November 20. Post:Ballet’s “Hi-5” program is all about newness. New dance, new casting, new accompaniment, new collaboration and most notably, the company’s first ever evening-length fall concert. In just five short years, Artistic Director Robert Dekkers, the performing artists, and the entire Post:Ballet family have built an arts institution that was so needed in today’s contemporary landscape – one that holds onto technical excellence while being unafraid of risk. The results have turned each Post:Ballet production into an anticipated event, and have endeared the company to dance aficionados and newcomers alike.

For this debut fall engagement, Dekkers arranged the “Hi-5” program from the oldest work (his first for Post:Ballet) to the new world premiere. 2010’s “Flutter” is one of my favorite pieces; not just from this troupe’s repertory, but overall. I never tire of it and each viewing has the power to surprise. Opening night’s performance was no exception with Jeremy Bannon-Neches, Christian Squires and Vanessa Thiessen taking on the dynamic trio (of this group, I’d only seen Squires dance “Flutter” before). And, for the first time ever, the accompaniment was performed live by The Living Earth Show. “Flutter” is such a contemporary work, yet at the same time, its structural design and construction speak from history. The three dancers are in constant motion, moving both independently and interdependently, like a three-part invention. Within the unison and canoned sequences, unexpected and gorgeous deceptive cadences abound. And if you look closely, you will see some genius fugal patterns in Dekkers’ choreography including instances of augmentation, diminution and inversion.

Up next was 2011’s “Sixes and Seven”, a delicate, specific solo full of intricacies. Again having seen this piece before, I was struck by how new casting has the capacity to change a work, not only providing an opportunity to see company artists in different roles, but also revealing new aspects of choreography. Tetyana Martyanova brought a fresh articulation and intonation to “Sixes and Seven”. As she approached each step, whether large or small, her attack was strong, yet elegant.

The physically stark “Yours is Mine” is not brand new – Dekkers choreographed it this summer for Atlanta Ballet and it was also featured in DanceFAR’s benefit gala. But for much of the San Francisco audience, “Yours is Mine” was a new experience. It begins with a competitive, animalistic trio (Bannon-Neches, Squires and Aidan DeYoung) who, when faced with a change in their environment, react combatively to that altered circumstance. Acrobatics and martial arts inform the choreography and blend seamlessly with the contemporary (and even some traditional) physical vocab. Just over half way through, Raychel Diane Weiner enters the picture and at once, everything changes, drastically and dramatically. Her hypnotic energy places the men into a trance-like state; like she was casting a spell on them with her presence and with her movement.

Closing the “Hi-5” program was the world premiere of “Do Be: Tassel”, the first installment of a yearlong collaboration between Post:Ballet and The Living Earth Show. This piece is theatrical, unexpected and incredibly post-modern. One of the primary tenets driving the post-modern genre (in dance, at least) is how the line between life and art is porous and blurry. “Do Be: Tassel” aptly captures this sentiment. The stage is transformed into a living/dining room scene and the cast begins the piece posed amongst that set. A movement phrase of different postures evolves, which is communicated in several forms – sometimes the cast is in unison; sometimes dancers only do half of the sequence before moving on; or occasionally someone joins in part-way through. And while dancing, the ensemble is also in the process of taking off their costumes, and so, “Do Be: Tassel” unfolds in various states of dress and undress. Towards the end, the cast furiously throws clothing out of suitcases and chooses new items to wear. This disorganized moment is both delicious and poignant because process is messy. The space between life and art is not neat and tidy; it isn’t tied up in a perfect package. “Do Be: Tassel” breaks facades, digs beneath the surface and is committed to sparking a conversation about this reality.

Looking ahead: Here are some of my favorite holiday performances coming this December…

San Francisco Ballet, “Nutcracker”, War Memorial Opera House, (Dec 12-29)
https://www.sfballet.org/

Smuin Ballet, “The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!”, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, (Dec 18-27)
http://smuinballet.org/

Mark Foehringer’s “Nutcracker Sweets”, Cowell Theater, (Dec 13-21)
http://nutcrackersweets.org/

ODC/Dance, “The Velveteen Rabbit”, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, (Nov 28-Dec 14)
http://www.odcdance.org/

Oakland Ballet, Graham Lustig’s “The Nutcracker”, Paramount Theatre, (Dec 20-21)
http://oaklandballet.org/wp/