Heather Desaulniers

Dance Up Close/East Bay
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley

San Francisco Ballet – Program 7 – “Made for SF Ballet”
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

San Francisco Ballet – Swan Lake
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Risa Jaroslow & Dancers with Lisa Mezzacappa – Touch Bass
ODC Theater, San Francisco

San Francisco Performances presents Paul Taylor Dance Company
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco

April 9th – Contemporary artistic perspectives, incisive narrative content and innovative choreographic form/structure, all in an informal, intimate setting – this is Dance Up Close/East Bay. Over the weekend, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley hosted another edition of this wonderful series; a shared program by ahdanco, Jamuna Chiarini and ka·nei·see | collective.

ka·nei·see | collective's Linda Phung Photo Rob Best

ka·nei·see | collective’s Linda Phung
Photo Rob Best

Opening the evening was ahdanco’s current work-in-progress, Ink and Feathers, choreographed by Abigail Hosein and danced by Andrew Merrell and Rebecca Gilbert. A long black curtain hung in the center of the otherwise bare environment. Merrell entered the room, stopping downstage left. He stood still, on a diagonal, slowly and methodically pulling a long brown swath of fabric out of his shirt, right from where his heart beat. Still bound and attached to the cloth, he morphed into a movement phrase of large dynamic, living poses; some in deep plié, some on the floor, one standing with his arms outstretched and one with a huge developpé in parallel second. And then, he journeyed upstage and was enveloped by Gilbert from behind the curtain. She emerged, holding a bouquet of balloons. Slinkily, Gilbert cycled through her own solo of sculptural postures and free, circling limbs, carving out and eating up the space. In unpacking her choreographic material, she also let go of each balloon, one by one, allowing them to float to the ceiling. While the two solos happened one after another in sequence, they were keenly connected, and not just because they were in the same choreographic container. Together, they communicated a brilliant duality. Gilbert was releasing her items without hesitation or fear, contrasting beautifully with how Merrell was attempting a separation and was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to say farewell to an essential, inherent connection. In Ink and Feathers, Hosein has crafted a striking work, which considers the complex phenomenon of ‘letting go’ – equally full of uncertainty and constraint, hope and propulsion.

I can see why Jamuna Chiarini chose to title her work The Kitchen Sink. It is such a perfect characterization of the thirty-minute piece. Numerous physical ideas were in play: contact improvisation, familiar task-based movement, pedestrianism, and technique-rich modern release choreography. And there were also common throughlines weaving the dance together. First, a luscious circuitry, or maybe patterning is more accurate, and second, choreographic accumulation and progression. The trio (performed by Chiarini, Megan Dawn and Sara Himmelman) took the space to begin a first circuit. Each dancer sat in a chair near the front of the stage. In their own time, they curved the upper body on the sagittal plane, which took them off the chair and onto the floor. They crawled forward, first on their knees and then with legs extended, and finally to standing and walking. A pattern, to be sure, as well as a concurrent statement of articulation and development. Then The Kitchen Sink diverged into a new and different motif, yet one that still spoke of patterns. Two dancers put on sneakers and started a mirrored walking course, which again, grew and evolved all the way to circular running. Body facings varied and shifted as did intensity, speed and direction. Perspective was center stage in the next circuit. A movement phrase was introduced composed primarily of floorwork, and then was taken off the floor to a new plane, to standing. And throughout all of these unique and mesmerizing choreographic components, the sagittal curve, one of the work’s first movements, was abundantly present. Aside from examining patterns, circuits, choreographic accumulation and different movement styles in The Kitchen Sink, I also felt like Chiarini was posing some profound questions for the viewer to ponder. Where is the body in space? How is it experiencing the space? When more than one body is in the space, what are those bodies saying to each other?

Closing this Dance Up Close/East Bay event was Please Don’t, the newest creative project by choreographer Tanya Chianese and ka·nei·see | collective. An ensemble work for five, Mallory Markham, Madeline Matuska, Amy McMurchie, Rebecca Morris and Emma Salmon, Please Don’t delves into weighty and vital subject matter – sexual aggression towards women and imposed, oppressive gender constructs. Lit dimly, the quintet opened with a slow, protective phrase, in which they seemed to be claiming their own agency. But quickly, a switch flipped (in the movement and in the lights) to fully reveal arresting imagery of violating touch. Expressed through abrupt level changes, staccato isolations, extreme extensions, directional pivots and challenging gestures, an array of trios, duets, unison and quartets continued to expose and provoke. While indeed a heavy work, Chianese also cleverly injected moments of humor, like the Dance Theater-inspired smiling sequences. And moments of hope. The most significant observation for me in Please Don’t was the eye towards sisterhood and shared understanding. There were certainly moments when the cast might have been standing still by themselves, but every time they were moving or dancing, it was always in a group formation, whether two, three, four or all five. No one moved alone and that was a potent part of the message. And not to detract from the serious narrative theme, but the technical acuity of the company must be mentioned. These talented dancers have not only sought after their own individual artistic growth but have clearly spent significant energy and effort into gelling as a team. This isn’t a given, and when it does happen or is happening, it is so clear and so powerful.

April 13th – Mixed repertory dance programs don’t necessarily need a theme. Some of the most striking double bills, triple bills and quadruple bills that I have witnessed actually had no common throughline. That is, other than the fact that the various choreographic works were sharing the same space at the same time.

Having said that, themed programming definitely has virtues and merits, like context, framing and curation. This season, San Francisco Ballet has opted for this approach with respect to its mixed repertory offerings, arranging fifteen one-act ballets into five categories. The result — smart, cohesive programs, in which each individual piece has been afforded the opportunity to speak on its own while simultaneously contributing to a group statement. Program seven “Made for SF Ballet,” the final mixed rep night for 2017, follows in kind. As the title indicates, the commonality between Trio, Ghost in the Machine and Within the Golden Hour© is that they were all uniquely made on and for this company. But that is not their only unifying thread. All three ballets are layered mosaics of fellowship, camaraderie and expansiveness.

Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s Trio (2011) made for a solid start to the evening, a back wall of gilded squares (design by Alexander V. Nichols) framing the ballet from start to finish. Many of my observations from years past held true at this viewing, particularly that the work communicates a number of different neo-classical tenets in its three distinct movements. Choreographic/music consonance were at play in part one with flowing temps leveé, turning waltz sequences and spinning lifts accompanying the lilting score. Vanessa Zahorian, partnered by Jaime Garcia Castilla, employed Tomasson’s collapsing arabesque motif, bending her leg bit by bit, as descending sostenuto arpeggios similarly sang from the orchestra. But this first movement was not only about the relationship between dance and music. By initiating phrases in the wings and then having them travel onto the stage, there was also an expansion of the traditional proscenium container. Of course, this is by no means a new choreographic device, but the effect was particularly elegant and telling in Trio. Employing another aspect of the neo-classical genre, an emotive statement was sandwiched right in the middle of the two abstract chapters. What begins as an innocent, hopeful pas de deux (Lauren Strongin and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira) eventually grows into a more distressed and poignant pas de trois with the addition of the third character (Aaron Robison). And while non-linear in scope, the whole thing has such a significant narrative undertone that it looks like it could have been part of a full-length story ballet. Led by Maria Kochetkova and Angelo Greco, Trio’s final section shows ballet vocabulary infused with additional movement styles, in this case world dance forms and a courtly Renaissance spirit. The sultry, rhythmic sequence features athletic jumps, percussive phrase material, sharp directional pivots and footwork sequences complete with flexes and batterie. Appearing in both the first and last sections, the corps did well with the different choreographic styles, though unison seemed a little elusive on Thursday evening.

The world premiere on program seven, Myles Thatcher’s Ghost in the Machine, was a true ensemble work, the cast of ten coming together to reflect a vulnerable and real human microcosm. And to that end, the ballet was full of extremes. Right as the curtain went up, the juxtaposition of the casual everyday was countered with the stylized — relaxed walking, running and swimming motions paired with highly athletic choreography. With aggression and affection playing equal parts in the thirty-plus minute work, Ghost in the Machine also sought to explore the porous space in choreographic structure, morphing between abstract form and connective conceptual tissue. Dancers menacingly circled as if engaging in a dispute, intimidating and pushing each other away. But the opposite intention was also present with beautiful tender moments of care and support oozing from the stage. Bodies enveloped together, holding on in unconditional love. Thatcher injected yet another extreme into the work, examining isolation versus togetherness. Secluded, searching solos met with cluster formations, the entire cast acting as collective group. Cantilevered postures, which require cooperation, spoke to this as did smaller group variations with entwined hands. But the most potent expression was when one dancer stood alone in the center, and one by one, others joined to embrace her. Then that formation shifted like a kaleidoscope – another dancer was in the center, and the motif repeated, twice more. And hanging above the dancers throughout the dance was another mesmerizing design by Nichols, furthering solidifying Ghost in the Machine’s message of extremes – a large sculpture of steely fibers that were parallel to each other on one side and twisted on the other.

San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour© Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s
Within the Golden Hour©
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour© (2008) closed the evening – an ongoing conversation between bodies on stage, both with each other and with the space itself. Gorgeous choreography and gorgeous dancing. Three gold panels (designed by Martin Pakledinaz) floated to the ceiling as Diego Cruz and Wei Wang opened the scene with sophistication and regality, the movement following the crest of each music phrase. As the rest of the dancers joined, the choreography continued that crescendo and decrescendo, moving effortlessly and seamlessly through a series of vibrant, living pictures, the body often on an unexpected and unpredictable axis. Fourteen dancers worked together to create these images and physical snapshots. And while there were certainly featured moments – Sasha De Sola and Thatcher’s Baroque inspired duet; Cruz and Wang’s second duo of unison and canon; Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham’s melty meditation – Within the Golden Hour©, like Ghost in the Machine, felt like an ensemble work. In fact, unless I missed it, there aren’t any solos (at least in the traditional sense) in the dance, the choreography always seeking an expression of harmony.

April 15th – Opening nights hold such special promise – expectation, anticipation and excitement for what is about to come. But what about closing chapters? What do they bring to the table? Wistfulness, reflection and perhaps even some sadness. In some cases, also an equal sense of celebration and commemoration. San Francisco Ballet’s Saturday evening performance was one such event: the final showing of Swan Lake, and two company retirements, principal dancers Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan. It was a memorable night, to be sure, beginning with a tribute video to these two amazing dance artists, followed by their stirring portrayals of Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried.

Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan in Tomasson's Swan Lake Photo © Erik Tomasson

Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan in
Tomasson’s Swan Lake
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Choreographed by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson in 2009, Act I of the classic narrative begins with a prologue, where the maniacal Von Rothbart (Sean Orza) captures Odette and transforms her into a swan. After that brief contextual introduction, the first ensemble scene unfolds, taking place “outside the palace,” as the program notes explain. Village settings are a staple in story ballets, but for me, they tend to go on a little too long in most cases. The same is true when it comes to Swan Lake, though the choreography in this particular version does help to move things along. The men’s pas de cinq conveyed sharp and precise batterie as well as unmatched, spot on unison. Apart from some squeaky shoes, the featured pas de trois was charming. Koto Ishihara’s vast echappés delighted, as did Lauren Strongin’s sissone/assemblé combination. Esteban Hernandez dazzled with turns that finished with the accent up and jumps that took him soaring into the atmosphere. And of course, there is the introspective solo towards the end of the Act, where Siegfried contemplates his existence, in terms of duty and responsibility.

Act II is all about the swans, and appropriately full of en dedans spins, or as they are affectionately known, lame duck turns. And it was magical. Siegfried encounters Odette for the first time – he is immediately entranced, while she is rightfully fearful (at least initially), her pulsating boureés communicating apprehension. And then, the flurry of corps de ballet swans overtakes the stage. Despite a few spacing issues and some more squeaky shoes, the technique was something to behold, led with aplomb and expertise by Swan Maidens Dores André and Sasha De Sola. Zahorian and Karapetyan’s main pas de deux was sheer artistry. From colossal pencheés to quieter moments, like when she delicately brushed his hand, the duet inspired with luxurious, rich dancing. And the cygnets (Isabella DeVivo, Jahna Frantziskonis, Julia Rowe and Natasha Sheehan) handled their famous variation with confidence, power and exactitude.

Four divertissements open Act III – princesses from different nations, all potential mates for Siegfried. In a percussive, stylistic variation that spans tempi from lento to vivace in the space of a few moments, Elizabeth Powell particularly charmed as the Czardas Princess. As did Frantziskonis and Diego Cruz in the sprightly, petit allegro Neapolitan duet. Zahorian was deliciously intoxicating and hypnotizing in the black swan pas de deux, and I have always loved how in this Swan Lake, a subtle pas de trois emerges between Odile, Siegfried and Von Rothbart. So appropriate, because this is really true to what is happening narratively in the story – an interwoven dance between these three characters. Zahorian and Karapetyan gave virtuosic performances in the extremely difficult and complex grand pas de deux and coda: perfect tours en l’air, turns that morphed effortlessly from passé to attitude, and of course, the fouettés!

Swan Lake closes with Siegfried’s quest for forgiveness and redemption, which then leads to his and Odette’s final choice. In the end, they are together, but in another realm. And that is what this entire performance was from start to finish – transcendent. As soon as Zahorian and Karapetyan took the stage for their bows, the entire War Memorial Opera House leapt to their feat in a lengthy and deserved ovation, a time of gratitude and well wishes for two incomparable, otherworldly artistic souls.

April 27th – Nine souls met in an interactive investigation last night at ODC Theater. In one of the most honest and pure performance collaborations I have seen so far this season, choreographer Risa Jaroslow and composer Lisa Mezzacappa birthed a rich, living environment for dancers Brendan Barthel, Tara McArthur, Lauren Simpson, musicians Mezzacappa, Eric Perney, Matt Small and three upright basses. The nine explored this democratic container of movement and sound, engaging with lush artistry and talking to each other in real-time. And what a dialogue it was!

Lauren Simpson, Lisa Mezzacappa & Tara McArthur in Touch Bass Photo Margo Moritz

Lauren Simpson, Lisa Mezzacappa & Tara McArthur in
Touch Bass
Photo Margo Moritz

Sometimes the conversation was serious and deliberate, sometimes playful and witty, but always thoughtful and thought provoking. As Touch Bass opened, there was a moment of introduction, or perhaps re-introduction, between the players. In silence, the dancers and musicians began gently passing and carefully encountering the three basses. As this phrase progressed, Barthel, McArthur and Simpson started to mirror the movements of the instrument – swaying back and forth and swiveling their upper bodies. Then, the piece was off and running. A juxtaposition of textural variance was present throughout as was an innovative response to dynamics. At one point, Mezzacappa, Perney and Small were using their bows to vibrate the strings very quickly, while in contrast, Simpson, lying on the ground, slowly and methodically articulated through her arm and hand. In other moments, the instrumentation and choreography almost matched – wavy bowing meeting with similar sweeping motions, undulating spines, circling hips and wide, bird-like winged arms. I even saw some phenomenal repeated body isolations that Fosse dancers spend their whole career chasing. Crescendos in the score and crescendos in the movement seemed to fuel and energize each other. And there was a fascinating recurring physical motif. One leg and hip would turn out and turn in, all while in demi-plié. Was this inspired by the action of bowing itself or by how the arm moves during that task? Was it a representation of a particular sound, or maybe an ode to the plucking of a single string? Perhaps it was none of the above and just a movement in space. Whatever the answer, it was mesmerizing.

The most compelling parts of the sixty-minute work were when both the dancers and the musicians physically interacted with the basses, like they did at the beginning. The excitement in those moments was palpable, like as they touched this overwhelming musical vessel, they were winning a prize. At the mid-way point, dancers and musicians together explored the neck and fingerboard of the bass, bowed the instruments, and laid the bass down on top of their bodies.

Occasionally the sight lines proved to be a little challenging, with some of the instrumentation and choreography hidden from view. And there was a lengthy musical interlude where the dancers held scorebooks in front of each the musicians. It was amazing to see the musicians’ incomparable talent, to experience the stunning score and to witness what the bass can do, though the interactive thread that had been so well established between the entire ensemble was lost a bit for me during that particular section.

As Touch Bass reached its last third, a strong quartet developed between Mezzacappa, McArthur, Simpson and a single bass – one with a sultry, smoky undertone. A quintet by Barthel, Perney, Small and two basses followed, which made a striking comment on space and spacing. It started with a wide perspective, and bit by bit, closed in. Perney and Small moved from the sides of the stage toward the center, while Barthel, who was stationed in the middle, cycled through a series of movements that were vast at first and then similarly moved inward, centering around his core. One of the final group statements brought a percussive energy to the space, where specificity reigned supreme – a set of defined rhythms, movements, directions and gestures. And Touch Bass’ ending felt reflective and calm, like a prayer or a class réverence, in which the cast took the space and time to bid each other farewell.

April 30th – Sunday afternoon at YBCA Theater saw the final dance of San Francisco Performances’ 2016-2017 season. This honor was held by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, a frequent returnee to and favorite of the longtime Bay Area presenter. Program C was a throwback to Taylor’s choreography from decades past with a triple bill of Danbury Mix (1988), Ab Ovo Usque Ad Mala (1986) and Esplanade (1975).

I really enjoy the classic American modern dance style, and with the exception of a few companies, you don’t see it that much anymore. There’s a purity and unfetteredness to the form that is still both creative and relevant today. Flexed hands, sculptural pictures and Graham temps leveé; emotionally charged themes — all so clear and defined. Choreographically, Program C’s opener, Danbury Mix, was very reflective of this genre’s clarity, though the piece’s narrative was less so. The cast, costumed in black, began in a cluster upstage left. Quickly a Miss Liberty character (beautifully danced by Laura Halzack) emerged through the group. Ominous and foreboding music framed the scene, the group moving along the diagonal and then to the center of the space. Over the work’s twenty-four minutes, you could tell that there was a strong narrative at play – maybe not a linear story, but certainly the dance was about something or reflecting something. The question was what? Mostly, I saw an examination of extremes,  between chaos and control. Carefully controlled attitudes and arabesques, stylized walking and relevé fouettés in parallel countered with frenetic pulsating and animalistic crawling. Purposeful onstage panic would abruptly give way to a sudden calm and tranquility. And then the energy would transform again, into jubilant, patriotic-inspired phrase material; sometimes things got even a little campy. It just seemed like there was more going on than merely a statement on chaos and control in Danbury Mix’s narrative, but it didn’t read as clearly as the choreographic form.

Speaking of camp, Ab Ovo Usque Ad Mala brought a hearty dose to the stage – a hilarious ensemble work for twelve, six women and six men. Short white columns were arranged in the space. In mini white tunics, unitards with tufted hair, gold leaf headband crowns and fake beards, the men looked like satirical living statues as they posed dramatically around the stage. The women, in Isadora-inspired white tunics underwent a similar journey in this light, comical fare. Exaggerated and melodramatic movements shone, like the grand promenade and the acrobatic parallel sissones in plié. Tap, Charleston and tango vocabulary even made an appearance toward the end of the piece. A brilliant offering that was part sketch comedy, part physical theater and all modern dance, Ab Ovo Usque Ad Mala was a delight and the audience absolutely loved it.

Paul Taylor Dance Company in Esplanade Photo Paul B. Goode

Paul Taylor Dance Company in Esplanade
Photo Paul B. Goode

And then, it was time for the piece I had come specifically to see, the sole reason why I had chosen this program of the three mixed repertory bills that the company had brought this year to San Francisco Performances. A masterwork. An iconic dance. Esplanade. Accumulation is the star of the first chapter of this thirty-minute work. It opens with simple, everyday walking, and then moves to include directional shifts, grapevines and running. Straight lines pivot to become diagonal; speed and dynamics range from calm to full throttle. Single file similarly morphs into weaving and circular formations. All the while, an innocent, unpretentious joy of movement encompasses the stage. Esplanade’s second section holds a more serious tonal quality with the focus being on the gaze, the perspective and the line of view. The addition of the ninth cast member for only this segment is again curious, but perhaps it’s one of those striking puzzles better left unsolved. Ebullience returns in the final part of the dance – spinning, leaping, jumping, rolling, sliding and boureéing backwards in parallel as fast as humanly possible.