Heather Desaulniers

  • Berkeley Rep – Paradise Square
    Roda Theatre, Berkeley
  • Diablo Ballet – Balanchine & Beyond
    Del Valle Theatre, Walnut Creek
  • ka·nei·see | collective & Cat Call Choir – Nevertheless
    Z Space, San Francisco

January 10th – I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to new musicals these days, many are based on popular film, television or franchises. Not all, but certainly more than there used to be. And this trend just isn’t for me. So when a new musical comes along that has found its source material elsewhere – in history, in music, in the evolution of movement genres, in exploring the human condition – I’m all in.

Jason Oremus, Jacobi Hall and company Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Jason Oremus, Jacobi Hall and company in Paradise Square
Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

If you have a chance to go and see Paradise Square, directed by Moisés Kaufman at Berkeley Rep, take it (the run, which officially opened Thursday night, was recently extended until the end of February). The penetrating story, by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, grabs you from the very beginning and doesn’t let go. The characters entertain in one scene and haunt in another. Combining adaptations of Stephen Foster’s music with original material, Jason Howland and Kirwan’s score, with Nathan Tysen’s lyrics, confronts while it stirs. And the movement! Bill T. Jones’ choreography strikes the perfect balance – innovative, hard-hitting and energetic while still propelling the narrative forward. Because there’s nothing worse in a musical than dance that feels like an unrelated break in action.

As the lights rise on Act I, the audience is immersed in the Five Points neighborhood in 1863 Manhattan, a primarily African American and Irish American community. More specifically, most scenes unfold in and around the Paradise Square saloon, run by Nelly Freeman (a potent performance by Christina Sajous). This gathering spot is a perfect metaphor for this special place. A place where race, culture, gender, money, personal circumstance (or personal demons) dissolve, to be replaced by togetherness, love and empathy. The message of the Paradise Square saloon is that it is for everyone – those seeking shelter, seeking safety, seeking reinvention and seeking a new life. But as the Civil War rages on and the draft is announced, this utopian ecosystem is challenged, and faces permanent upending due to fear.

There was much to love in Paradise Square – so many venerable performances, outstanding designs and of course, the throughline of Foster (portrayed by Jacob Fishel) and his controversial music. Though as one might guess, I had come to see the choreography and the dancing.

Front: Sidney Dupont and A.J. Shively Back: Jacob Fishel, Daren A. Herbert and Madeline Trumble Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Front: Sidney Dupont and A.J. Shively
Back: Jacob Fishel, Daren A. Herbert and Madeline Trumble in Paradise Squa
Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

African and Irish cultural dance forms are introduced into the space right from the start and would remain at the forefront until the final blackout. The two are of course striking from a visual perspective, especially danced by this stellar cast. One considers the distinct center of gravity in each, the groundedness, the ballon and marvels at the high-speed footwork and syncopated percussion. But as this dancing is set within a musical, I was more intrigued in how it informed the narrative. Jones did not disappoint. During “Camptown Races,” Sidney Dupont (as William Henry) and A.J. Shively (as Owen) engaged in a kind of dance conversation, the two traditions being showcased side-by-side. An atmosphere of simultaneous camaraderie and lively one-upmanship pervaded the stage. The steps and performances impressed, but as the scene continued, you realized that something deeper was underfoot. A fugue was materializing, or with it being two lines of inquiry, I suppose invention is more accurate – the two dance genres were remaining wholly independent and yet experimenting with their interdependence at the same time. There was a sense of sharing and an air of pedagogical exchange, each teaching the other about their dance’s history and syntax. What might emerge from this dialogue?

Sometimes the choreography was less about the steps and more about the stage architecture. Near Paradise Square’s beginning, Jones had the entire cast threading and lacing in intricate patterns during “The Five Points,” symbolizing how their lives and existences were similarly woven together. At other times, the movement fueled an emotional dynamic that was happening onstage, like when the rhythmic percussive dances were used in a more aggressive, confrontational manner to emphasize fighting or violence.

Online Paradise Square is listed as being two hours and fifteen minutes long. I’m not sure that was the case because we left the theater almost at eleven. Though perhaps with it being opening night, intermission may have gone over, and there was a significantly late start. In any event, even if the show clocks in at two and a half hours, that’s a very reasonable length for a two-act musical. Yet even still, the first act could use some editing, because, save the finale, it lagged quite a bit during its final third. And the dance competition that happens towards the end of Act II, when danger, panic and brutality are rising, felt out of place. I read in the program materials that the plot point of the dance contest was historically accurate and all the dancing in the scene was phenomenal. But in that moment, the theatrical container is so weighty and it felt like the story had been transported to a totally different tonal plane. Although maybe a modicum of escape was the whole point, something that the characters needed in order to face the reality of what was happening to each other and to their beloved Five Points.     

Jackie McConnell and Michael Wells in From Another Time Photo Aris Bernales

Jackie McConnell and Michael Wells in From Another Time
Photo Aris Bernales

February 1st – Diablo Ballet, under the Artistic Direction of Lauren Jonas, is currently marking a major milestone – their silver anniversary. Twenty-five epic years of stellar dance and community engagement, all while building programs that both inspire and challenge audiences. Friday night’s opening of the Balanchine & Beyond program certainly continued this trend. And what a shining, winning program it was! With a classical excerpt from the mid-1800s, an early neo-classical work and a contemporary quintet, the mixed repertory bill showed terrific choreographic range. I thoroughly enjoyed the two historic ballets, though the standout piece of the night for me was From Another Time, created in 2013 by Diablo Ballet alumna Tina Kay Bohnstedt and set to Justin Levitt’s original piano score, which he performed live.

An abstract work for two women and three men, From Another Time invited the viewer into a flowy, ethereal space of blues and grays. Levitt was poised at the piano and from the first notes and the first movements, it was clear that this piece was going to be special. Special in a number of ways. First was the marvelous performance by the entire company. And the marriage of movement and sound – pulsing chords were met with strong extensions, while lyrical melody lines were paired with flowy, partnered spins and breathy arms. But there was something deeper about how the score and the physicality meshed. Together, the two disciplines created an almost cinematic quality, even though the piece didn’t appear to tell a particular story. Sadness and joy emanated from the stage, as did uncertainty and assuredness. There was such a complex mosaic of tones and moods (like that in a good movie); it was just beautiful. From Another Time also used a favorite dance configuration of mine, the pas de cinq. It is so rich, format-wise, and Bohnstedt utilized all the possible iterations. Duets and solos abounded, as did trios and unison work, including a gorgeous unison promenade in arabesque.

From Another Time was sandwiched between two iconic ballets, George Balanchine’s Apollo and sections from Marius Petipa’s Paquita. I think the biggest surprise for me every time I see Apollo is its premiere date. Balanchine choreographed the work almost a hundred years ago (world premiere 1928), and yet, it feels like it could have easily have been crafted this century. Many of the movement phrases, poses and postures are so modern (though the gender roles/relationships are indeed not): bourées on the heels, parallel jumps, that memorable spin from standing into grand plié on pointe. Raymond Tilton impressed in the titular role, as did Jackie McConnell, Rosselyn Ramirez and Amanda Farris as the three muses who visit him. Tilton had total command over the space, every step and position radiating power, strength and precision; even his walking double frappés felt formidable. In their solos, McConnell as Calliope, muse of mime, had such loft and forward motion counterpointing emotive contractions that were sharp, yet pliable. The muse of mime, Polyhymnia’s variation features a series of fast turns and directional changes all while holding the index finger in front of the mouth. Ramirez handily navigated through this difficult phrase with enviable skill and confidence. And Farris as Terpsichore, muse of dance and song, brought intricate pointe work and swiveling hips to the table, as well as whisper soft landings. The jumps themselves were sensational, but the landings, wow, by far the quietest of the entire night. And kudos to Tilton and Farris for handling a tricky moment when the music cut out; true professionalism at its best.

Diablo Ballet’s Balanchine & Beyond program closed with the oldest work on the bill, Paquita. From the first solo entrances to the ensemble finale, musicality and elegance reigned supreme. Jillian Transon and Jacopo Jannelli’s grand pas de deux had such calm and assured partnering, particularly in the supported turns. The variations that followed were imbued with ample batterie, multiple pirouettes and grand allegro, all of which were approached with that same refinement and finesse. Paquita provided a graceful cadence to the night, though I do wonder if it might have been better suited to a different spot on the program. While it does conclude with a full cast finale, it really reads more as an opener than a final act.   

March 8th – I couldn’t think of a more ideal occasion than International Women’s Day to attend Nevertheless, a collaboration between ka·nei·see | collective and Cat Call Choir, that casts a wide, unflinching lens on gender-based harassment and abuse. Conceived by dancemaker Tanya Chianese and vocal director Heather Arnett, the work opened to much acclaim last year at CounterPulse and has just returned for an encore run at Z Space. Though I missed Nevertheless’ world premiere, I did see an in-process iteration a couple years back at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center. At that moment, I recall being moved not only by its candid honesty, but by its breadth. Yes, there was an abundance of shocking(ly accurate) imagery but there was also a deep sense of kinship and sisterhood. A feeling of shared reality, shared experience and shared power. These potent themes abounded in the full, sixty-five minute piece, as did Chianese and Arnett’s impressive Dance Theater acumen.

Madeline Matsuka in Nevertheless Photo Robbie Sweeny

Madeline Matsuka in Nevertheless
Photo Robbie Sweeny

In vignette after vignette, Chianese, Arnett and the twenty-three member-cast unpacked Nevertheless’ narrative threads. Full throttle choreographic sequences saw the cast being pulled/dragged across the space against their will and being shoved downward toward the ground. Multiple scenes found the ensemble dealing with touch and attention that was both uninvited and without consent. Performers backed away from dangerous altercations in one moment and over-apologized in others when they clearly had nothing to apologize for. But as mentioned above, there were also ample reflections of strength and mutual support. Grounded, low positions – deep pliés in second and broad lunges – felt powerful and mighty; while unison phrases spoke to a collective understanding. And the music. Not only was the Cat Call Choir vocally impressive, but the use of familiar children’s, camp and holiday songs in the score was absolutely brilliant (the melodies remained the same but the lyrics had been changed to include harassing language and body shaming commentary). So often we hear things like, “it was an innocent comment,” or “he didn’t mean anything by it.” To intersect that kind of ugly language with music that has an air of innocence felt particularly poetic.  

Not to downplay or detract from Nevertheless’ urgently topical message, but its structural achievements also must be part of the discussion. Because as a work of Dance Theater, Nevertheless is not just good, it’s stunning. The work has just the right level of abstraction – go too far abstracting a concept and the impact gets lost. One could point to many examples throughout, though one that particularly stuck with me was a duet where facial muscles were slowly and deliberately manipulated into large, forced smiles. There was also plenty of purposeful absurdity and humor, which is a huge Dance Theater trope. Like the stylized self-defense class that felt plucked from an 80s aerobic VHS tape. Nevertheless had repetition, which can both emphasize and anesthetize in the same moment. And with song, movement, text and scenework, it utilized multiple theatrical disciplines. But most important, Nevertheless doesn’t wrap things up in a tidy bow, which for me, is the primary tenet of Dance Theater. The work ends with a soloist alone on the stage, having just experienced a barrage of unwanted and unwelcome touch from the rest of the cast. She stares blankly ahead and doesn’t move a muscle. With this final image, Chianese and Arnett are candidly exposing the dark side of humanity and challenging the audience to sit with it, without resolution. I think it’s safe to say that many Dance Theater ancestors were looking down on Z Space last night, inspired by where the form is headed and who is taking it there.