Heather Desaulniers

FACT/SF and LACDC present PORT
ODC Theater, San Francisco

Dance Theatre of San Francisco – The Fall Program: Season Five
Cowell Theater, San Francisco

Cal Performances presents Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group
Moses(es)
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

September 15th –  Contemporary creators have innovation in their blood, constantly pushing and testing the artistic landscape. Whether through choreographic language, performance sites, collaborative devices, technological elements, narrative content or structural form, they mine for newness over and over again. FACT/SF has long been part of that tradition, committed to growth, new approaches to physicality and transforming the notion of performance. In addition, the company, led by Artistic Director Charles Slender-White, is a pioneer in arts programming, seeking to identify the needs of artists and of the field, and working to develop and create series and residencies that respond. They championed JuMP, Just Make A Piece, encouraging choreographers to do just that, create work without constraints or expectations. And this past weekend saw the debut of another landmark project, a joint venture between FACT/SF and LACDC, LA Contemporary Dance Company, under the Artistic Direction of Genevieve Carson. PORT, or Peer Organized Regional Touring, is a brand new platform, hoping to make touring more of a reality for small/mid-sized dance companies and encourage artistic dialogue between regions. PORT’s inaugural edition features shared quadruple bills in both San Francisco and Los Angeles (at LA Theatre Center) during the month of September.

FACT/SF's Michaela Burns Photo Kegan Marling

FACT/SF’s Michaela Burns
Photo Kegan Marling

All four of the works on the San Francisco program at ODC Theater were premieres, two world premieres from FACT/SF and two San Francisco premieres by LACDC. In the first and third pieces of the evening – an(n)a.07, a solo choreographed and danced by Slender-White, and excerpts from Carson’s Stimulaze – the relationship between music and movement was paramount. As the lights slowly rose on an(n)a.07, J.S. Bach’s complex contrapuntal sound penetrated the space. Slender-White began a short movement motif, which eventually grew and developed, accumulating more and more intricate phrase material. There were moments of charged stillness, coupled with intensely strong technical positions (a deep lunge in fourth position) and living postures, including a phenomenal grand plié, also in fourth. Bach’s fugues and inventions have certain structural elements present – a subject, sometimes referred to as the theme, answers and countersubjects – all of which are woven together to create one large, cohesive compositional statement. In an(n)a.07, a title which aptly includes the name of Bach’s wife, Slender-White was brilliantly demonstrating how present-day live choreographic material can act as one of these structural elements – a relevant, contributing independent/interdependent voice, conversing in real-time with a score composed hundreds of years prior.

Carson’s quartet, Stimulaze, also began with the music of the Baroque master, J.S. Bach, and again, we witnessed an artistic back and forth, though here it was between four dancers performing different strands of movement. In Carson’s theatrical container, the quartet overlapped and intersected, and while each choreographic idea was distinct, all shared an incredible fluidity and legato intention. Very much like the score. Then things shifted. The four dancers began purposely bumping shoulders, pulling and pushing each other backward and forward in space. And the music morphed as well, this time into work by W.A. Mozart, a composer synonymous with 18th century classicism, where music composition was very much about following specific rules, formulas and formats. In this part of Stimulaze, the choreography was acting against that structure. The dancers were playing a game of will, exertion and control (and a humorous one at that), refusing to “stay in their lane”. Stimulaze’s juxtaposition of movement working with the music and then conversely working in opposition to it was extremely satisfying.

The remaining two works, EBBA (LACDC) and Remains (FACT/SF) took the audience on a journey, a descent into the mysterious land of the deconstructed narrative. Neither told a linear story, but both were very clearly steeped in and inspired by the human condition.

LACDC's Drea Sobke and Ashlee Merritt in EBBA Photo Taso Papadakis

LACDC’s Drea Sobke and Ashlee Merritt in EBBA
Photo Taso Papadakis

A pounding, vibrating bass line shook the entire theater as the LACDC dance artists entered one by one from opposites sides of the stage for EBBA. They toggled between stretchy, undulating slow motion positions and quick, traveling, transitional steps. An animalistic-like growl was layered into the score, similarly mirrored in many of the choreographic postures. Forceful dynamic changes and jazz-based phrase material leapt from the stage, the movement creating an atmospheric sense of purposeful uncertainty and insecurity. And there was a very clear extreme being explored – that of the individual and the collective. At the beginning of the piece, it felt like each dancer in the eight-member female ensemble was navigating their surroundings on their own. Inhabiting the same space as others, but not with any kind of kinship. As EBBA progressed, this isolation and lone-ness was replaced by a sense of the group, of the collective. Speaking of the group, the LACDC company dancers had excellent spatial awareness, able to be completely in the moment, fully committed to the movement with no collisions. And they were able to do so without making the ODC stage look crowded. The only challenge in the piece was the score, or more specifically the booming bass pulse in the score. It might have just been the size of the theater, but everything was shaking pretty intensely for almost the entire dance, and it did distract a little from what was happening visually.

Six FACT/SF company dancers made their way to the stage, each carrying a plastic 3D shell mannequin figure of themselves. Once these shells had been distributed around the space, the ensemble made their way to upstage right to begin Remains’ first movement phrase – a choreographic expression of sweeping arms and legs told along a circuitous path. As they arrived in place, the mood radically changed. Slow contorted motions and screeching vocal sounds unfolded; the theme of anguish ringing clear. Structurally, Remains channeled repetition and accumulation devices, with highly physical motifs overlaying each other. And for a good portion of the work, the cast faced the back of the stage. This facing brought egalitarianism into the picture – the dancers could have been anyone. Mid-way through Remains, the performers squirmed on the floor trying desperately to make it to a seated position on a chair. Once they finally accomplished this task, they violently fell to the floor with percussive and rhythmic full body physicality. And they would try again, make it, and then lose once more; succeeding and falling, succeeding and falling, succeeding and falling. This was interspersed with a clock-like shaking of the head, in a ‘no’ attitude. The shells would come back toward the end of the dance, in a nurturing, protective sequence, complete with LED lights breathed into the structures. But for me, it was the chair sequence that felt the essence of Remains. The continual up and down signaling the never-ending, relentless cycle of human emotion and the blindsiding power of grief and angst.  

September 22nd – If there’s one thing that stays with you after a performance by Dance Theatre of San Francisco, it’s the company’s extraordinary artistic rigor – rigorous choreographic innovation, rigorous communication and interpretation of that choreography, rigorous technique, rigorous phrase material. On Friday evening, the much-lauded DTSF opened its 2017 Fall program, marking five years of contemporary artmaking, under the Artistic Direction of Dexandro D. Montalvo since 2015. With this mixed repertory fall program, DTSF confirms that the buzz in the dance community about their work is spot on. This is a company you need to see.  

The evening began with Montalvo’s Coovy-Two, a world premiere solo danced by Cooper Neely. Positional clarity combined with legato phrases; fluidity and precision concurrently flowed through the space. With locking isolations, open stances in 2nd and 4th positions, jazz influences, martial arts inspired movement, and even a textbook grand plié in 5th, Montalvo’s choreographic vocabulary was the epitome of dynamic. And Neely was absolute perfection – what a strong opening to DTSF’s fall home season.

Juliann Witt in Angela Dice Nguyen's Lady in Waiting Photo Nick Korkos

Juliann Witt in Angela Dice Nguyen’s Lady in Waiting
Photo Nick Korkos

Next up was the one piece on the program from a guest choreographer, the world premiere of Angela Dice Nguyen’s Lady in Waiting, a quartet for the four women of the company. With gorgeous costumes reminiscent of the classic Isadora Duncan tunic (design by DTSF company dancer Christopher Dunn), clarity of shape, intention and position again reigned supreme, whether in a large pose, an extension, a simple hand gesture, an off-balance promenade or intense bicep shaking. Even as the dancers walked from one place to another, their focus was so striking, not one moment of ambiguity. My sense was that there was a narrative fiber running through Lady in Waiting, with instances of lightness and joy alongside more serious, somber moments. But it was the specificity of the movement and physicality, both in the choreography and in the dancers’ performances, that drew me in. Closing the first half was the only returning piece on the program, Montalvo’s Impulse from 2014. A charging beat framed the luscious quartet for DTSF’s four men. Again the intense choreographic breadth sang from the stage – equal parts serpentine legato sequences and percussive staccato work. And the way that these two states were crafted together was something to behold. It was like a stream of physical consciousness that compelled attention. Your view was fixed on the stage, not wanting to miss a single detail. Each millisecond of the dance was that special.

Following intermission came the final world premiere on the program, Montalvo’s Broke(n), an ensemble work for the entire DTSF company, and one that existed in the beautiful in between spaces, a physical essay of haunting extremes. Very dramatic right from the start, one dancer is lovingly presented with a rose only to have it snatched away by another. Then, the entire cast erupted into a theatrical wonderland, dancing with expanse to “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, their purposely pasted-on smiles masking what was underneath. Then the music shifted from the “putting on a happy face” vibe to one of anguish, and a motif of the hands covering the eyes was introduced, one that would recur throughout Broke(n). Mid-way through the work, one dancer cycled through a lengthy solo while seated on a chair, signaling restrictions and constraints. Slowly, the rest of the performers brought their chairs to join him in a collective expression of camaraderie. Eventually the choreographic statement moved off the chairs and into the main space as the original soloist watched with a distinct sadness. The extremes continued, the hands over the face recurring as well as the notion of collectiveness, this time expressed through group embraces. And at the end of the work, the rose is again taken away from the very first dancer, who subsequently begins to pick up flower petals that had been strewn around the stage. While the whole may have still been elusive, there were parts of the whole that were available and present.  

With such specificity on stage (even the bows after each work were so clear and defined), it was a little surprising that some of the program’s format logistics were a bit off – a very late start and a major lag between the first and second pieces, though no one was changing costumes and there was no alteration to the stage environment. In addition, there was no announcement saying that the curtain was being held or notes in the program to expect a significant pause between works (important to say that the transition between Lady in Waiting and Impulse was very quick). These observations may seem pedantic and picky, and perhaps they are. And I’m the first to admit that delays are a personal pet peeve of mine. But when presenting concert dance, these details matter. And they matter, not because they take away from any of the choreography or the performances, but because they affect the overall flow of the entire program.

September 23rd – I think any performing arts writer uses favorite language components to describe what they’re seeing – favorite terms, favorite adjectives, favorite phraseology. I certainly do. Though one word that I rarely use is “masterful.” But every once in a while, “masterful” is the most fitting descriptor, and this weekend’s performance of Moses(es) by Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group at Cal Performances was special. It calls for the use of “masterful.”

Devoid of the wings and the cyclorama, a fully lit, deconstructed space greeted the viewer as they entered Zellerbach Hall. A red suitcase was placed amidst ample silver tinsel that had been strewn about the stage. Artistic Director, choreographer and performer Reggie Wilson entered, standing downstage right. He straightened his clothing, smiled at the audience and tossed wrapped candy out to them. In these opening moments, Wilson connected directly with the audience, and so right away, the line between performer and viewer had become porous. One by one, the company came out into the space, introduced themselves, announced what I assumed was their birthplace as well as giving a statement of time, which I again assumed was how long they had been working with Fist and Heel Performance Group.

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group in Moses(es) Photo Peggy Woolsey

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group in Moses(es)
Photo Peggy Woolsey

As “Go Down, Moses” scored the action, the cast assembled in a wedge formation upstage left, nodding their heads, while Wilson packed all the tinsel in the suitcase and rolled it away. He returned, and with the company, began harmonizing and vocalizing. From that instant, you knew that everyone onstage was a consummate interdisciplinary artist, skilled as movers, vocalists and percussionists.

Moses(es)’ early choreography spoke of familiar motions and strong water imagery, water, of course, being integral to much of the biblical Moses story. Performers walked, knelt and rolled in the space; bodies were ceremoniously laid down on the ground, like a baptism. Legs swam in the air and dancers dove into second position, lopping up an entity (presumably water) and then letting it go. Layered on top were recognizable gestures – pointing/following the horizon and cradling a baby.

In preparation for seeing the work on Friday, I had read that questions of leading and following were intrinsic to Moses(es) and that exploration was so, so clear at many points in the seventy-minute composition. Mid-way through, a trio began dancing in unison and as their phrase material continued and accumulated, one would take over leading the group, then another, then another until each member of the trio was experiencing the choreography at their own pace, with no leader whatsoever. A later quintet had some similar qualities. Two dancers introduced a movement phrase; three more joined a number of beats after (in canon) and then eventually the five found their way back together in unison. A call and answer song, which was accompanied by a simultaneous physical pattern, was another example of this overarching query. A cyclical, circular entity with no starting and no ending, and consequently, no leader and no follower.

Framed by a disco ball, each individual brought his or her own unique expressive dance downstage center to a song where the pervasive lyric was that of “follow me.” They played with tempos (sometimes speeding up, sometimes slowing down), choreographic style and genre as well as physical intensity. And a mathematical segment brought patterning and repetition to the table, though it was a bit on the long side and its connection to the whole of the work was a little lost on me.

Near the end of Moses(es), cannoned movement sequences recurred, with the performers staggering the start of various choreographic phrases. The water imagery from the beginning also made another appearance with arms and legs swimming through the space, and the company once more pointing along the horizon. And in a fantastic cadence, Wilson asked the audience to join in with some of the singing and vocalizing right near the end of the work, engaging with the audience and again, breaking the barrier between viewer and performer.