Heather Desaulniers

  • Margaret Jenkins Dance Company,
    presented by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

  • San Francisco Ballet – “Shostakovich Trilogy”
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

  • San Francisco Ballet – Program 6
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

  • Hope Mohr Dance
    ODC Theater, San Francisco

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in "Times Bones" Photo © Margo Moritz

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in “Times Bones”
Photo © Margo Moritz

April 3rd – 2013-2014 has been a celebratory season in Bay Area dance with many companies marking important and historic milestones. Margaret Jenkins Dance Company is one of them; commemorating forty years of contemporary choreography and performance. That kind of artistic longevity demands serious and significant recognition. The festivities began with a weekend of performances at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts – the West Coast premiere of 2013’s “Times Bones” and the world premiere of “The Gate of Winds”, a collaboration between Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and Kolben Dance Company.

Structurally, Jenkins’ “Times Bones” is made up of two components: a prelude (which took place in the YBCA Forum space) and the body of the work (which unfolded in the main theater). So to some extent, “Times Bones” was a mobile dance, with the dancers and audience moving from one location to another during the performance. The prelude section was absolutely gorgeous. As the company gathered at one point of a cross-like floor structure, Jenkins sat at the other end, speaking through the company’s history. An audio archive of the past four decades was shared – lists of pieces, participants, collaborators. And the dancers accompanied the text with snippets and excerpts of the referenced work. Jenkins’ remembrance did not occur in chronological or linear order; rather it was an interdependent cluster of time and events. “Times Bones’” opening sequence was an ode to the life work of this Bay Area modern dance pioneer; a visual encyclopedia; a physical autobiography. Ever changing, ever evolving, ever authentic.

As compelling as the prelude was, the main portion of “Times Bones” had some issues. Mobile performance can definitely work, but in this case, moving the entire audience from one space to another broke the cohesiveness of the piece. And it was very difficult to re-connect with the performance in the second space. The remainder of “Times Bones” was a lengthy stream of consciousness, primarily introspective, controlled and almost meditative in its nature. For the most part, the dynamics stayed the same, though from time to time, the choreography varied and crescendoed (including an interesting pseudo-jazz, hip hop phrase). Jenkins’ signature group architecture made for some beautiful cluster designs and the dancers really gave the entire work their all. But at a total of more than ninety minutes, this dance was just too long.

Collaboration in live performance brings with it a host of challenges and opportunities. And making a dance with two different companies (in this case, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and Kolben Dance Company) is particularly unique. Keeping the special-ness of each group is important, yet there is a necessity to move forward together – to learn, grow and stretch boundaries. “The Gate of Winds”, a new collaboration choreographed and directed by Margaret Jenkins and Amir Kolben, got everything right. “The Gate of Winds” is a choreographic dissertation on motion. Whether pedestrian or stylized; unison or solo; allegro or lento; loud or quiet; aggressive or graceful, every type of motion was thoroughly tested and explored. Movement was almost constant onstage, in fact, there were very few instances of stillness in the forty-minute work. A percussive sequence mid-way through the dance deserves a special mention; a collection of phrases where feet, hands, vocals and breath took on a dual purpose: as a living score and the choreography at the same time. And “The Gate of Winds” perpetual motion continued right up until the end. The curtain was slowly lowered, while both companies continued the contemporary choreography, full-out and with abandon.


San Francisco Ballet in Piano Concerto #1 from Ratmansky's "Shostakovich Trilogy" Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Piano Concerto #1 from Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy”
Photo © Erik Tomasson

April 8th – San Francisco Ballet’s 2014 season has passed its half-way point and the final four productions will unfold in the next two months. And though not all of the programs have yet to hit the War Memorial Opera House stage, it is safe to say that Program 5, Alexei Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy” is one of the best this year. A San Francisco Ballet and West Coast premiere, co-produced by American Ballet Theatre, this abstract masterpiece captures its audience from beginning to end. In each of the three acts, a particular aspect of Dmitri Shostakovich’s compositions is explored through choreography. And, the work carries a great truth – Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy” is one of the great marriages between movement and music.

Set to Shostakovich’s ‘Symphony #9’, Part I was all about atonality. ‘Symphony #9’ exists in that ‘in between’ tonal space; sometimes it sounds major, sometimes minor, sometimes modal, sometimes none of the above. Ratmansky choreographed in a similar fashion, transcending typical notions of genre and style. He created an amazing array of movement that was equally atonal in nature; a mirroring of ‘Symphony #9’s’ glorious ambiguity. Parallel legs spoke of contemporary technique; Russian pas de chats of traditional ballet vocabulary. Neo-classicism also played a role as the entire cast executed difficult sequences at high speeds and with great boldness. In addition, musical motifs were marked by cleverly matched physicality (the drumming arms); another trademark of the neo-classical era. Variety also occurred in the dynamic feel of the multiple scenes. Pascal Molat’s opening variation (with the corps men) had a humorous quality; while Luke Ingham’s solo towards the end of the work (which also featured a phenomenal double arabesque turn) was dark and mysterious.

Next up was Ratmansky’s interpretation of Shostakovich’s ‘Chamber Symphony’ – an ode to the drama, uncertainty and complexity of chromaticism. The music is not solely chromatic, but the chromatic scale is heavily utilized throughout the symphony. As it ascends, this half step scale brings with it a sense of anticipation and then, an equal wildness and desperation occurring in its descending form. It carries with it the unmistakable dissonance of the elusive minor second interval and a hope for resolution. Ratmansky beautifully transferred this musical tenet into this second movement of “Shostakovich Trilogy”. Jaime Garcia Castilla’s main solo had all the abandon of the descending chromatic scale as did Mathilde Froustey’s divine spinning turn in attitude that went from standing all the way to the floor. And the corps de ballet’s entrance mid-way through the piece was filled with excitement and forward motion, just like the ascending chromatic scale.

Shostakovich’s ‘Piano Concerto #1’ served as the final section of the ballet; a physical expression of musical details and intricacies. Ratmansky brought the score to life by injecting similar choreographic subtleties: the slight movement of the head, a downward glance, Sofiane Sylve’s lightning fast batterie sur le cou de pied, Joan Boada’s flexed frappés. The corps worked together to create picturesque living sculptures and though there was an unexpected collision on stage, ‘Piano Concerto #1’ also featured a brilliant set of side by side pas de deuxs. Danced by Sylve, Tiit Helimets, Frances Chung and Boada, the unison was impeccable. The success of Part III was not just the mere presence of these choreographic details, but how Ratmansky wove them together into something truly grand and magnificent.


April 9th – San Francisco Ballet’s current mixed repertory evening, Program 6, brings together work by three of today’s great ballet choreographers. Mark Morris’ “Maelstrom”, Helgi Tomasson’s “Caprice” and Yuri Possokhov’s “The Rite of Spring” share this exciting triple bill – yet another testament to the artistic breadth and scope of both the San Francisco Ballet creative team and the company dancers.

Right from the opening sequence, constant motion was the name of the game with Morris’ “Maelstrom”. Morris has a gift for combining music and movement, specifically in his ability to punctuate staccato and accented moments in the score. This thoughtful physical emphasis was sprinkled throughout the neo-classical work: hands in a ‘stop’ position, sparkly temps de cuisse, quick directional shifts and a recurring tilt in second position. A ballet for seven couples, last night’s cast featured some of my favorites from the women’s corps de ballet. A long-time corps dancer, Shannon Rugani is always a joy to watch; solid, skilled and completely in the moment. Ellen Rose Hummel’s unique combination of authenticity and artistic depth is simply endearing. And Julia Rowe is a sublime dancer (well-paired with soloist James Sofranko), one likely to ascend quickly through the ranks. Morris choreographed “Maelstrom” in 1994, and considering the age of many classical repertory ballets, twenty years is not that long ago. But, this particular work looks a little dated; still lovely, but dated.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Tomasson's "Caprice", Photo © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Tomasson’s “Caprice”, Photo © Erik Tomasson

Program 6’s second offering was the world premiere of Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s “Caprice”. A shining work of neo-classical brilliance, “Caprice” had all the hallmarks of this popular ballet genre: close relationship between movement and music, classical vocabulary re-imagined with a contemporary eye, modern design elements, and speed. Framing the entire five movement work was a mobile set (by Alexander V. Nichols, with lighting design by Christopher Dennis). As each new chapter began, columns of light shifted into new and different configurations. The pas de quatre in the second movement was filled with delicate, yet mature partnering – melty and sinuous at the same time. Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham stole the show with their highly lyrical pas de deux – the pair soared and floated through Tomasson’s gorgeous choreography. Tan and Ingham were truly ethereal and angelic. The finale brought speed to the table, with a petit allegro variation for the male corps – complex batterie along with unison double and triple pirouettes.

After a phenomenal premiere last season, Yuri Possokhov’s “The Rite of Spring” returned to the War Memorial Opera House stage in the evening’s final performance. Possokhov’s version of this hundred-year-old ballet is extraordinary in every sense of the word. The story of community anguish hangs in the air throughout the entire forty minutes. And Possokhov wove this narrative through every aspect of the ballet – choreography, design, costumes, hair. Stravinsky’s music underscored a palpable sense of precarious circumstance and terror, like a spell was being cast on the group. Dores André gave another standout performance as the sacrifice. Caught and trapped in the mania around her, her movements spoke of imposed positioning and intense manipulation. In an interesting twist, Possokhov’s “The Rite of Spring” actually concludes with a glimmer of hope. In the final scene, there is a brief blackout. Then the lights come back up to find André’s character gone. Whether she had been saved or not, there is a sense of relief; her ordeal is finally over.


Hope Mohr Dance in "Route 20" Photo © Margo Moritz

Hope Mohr Dance in “Route 20”
Photo © Margo Moritz

April 11th – Hope Mohr Dance marked their seventh San Francisco home season with a collection of premiere works. In association with ODC Theater, Mohr and her company presented a trio of new contemporary pieces, “Route 20”, “ridetherhythm” and a major collaborative endeavor, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”.

The first half of the program was all about the intersection of science and the performing arts. “Route 20”, a shorter piece danced by Jeremy Bannon-Neches, James Graham and Tegan Schwab, spoke of natural processes. A melting ice sculpture hung just left of center dripping into a metal pan – processing live and in real-time. Mohr’s choreography followed that theme with a deep technical foundation, yet envisioned with her creative eye. The dancing was strong and clear; the narrative, angst-ridden almost to the point of desperation. All the pieces were there. Yet even still, something was missing in “Route 20”; something in the internal connective fibers of the dance.

“ridetherhythm” gave insight into the mind of the scientific genius. With lab coats, a whiteboard and repetitive spoken equations, the scientific process again took center stage. “ridetherhythm” was much more of a dance theater composition with ample text, song, scenework, and some, though not many, choreographic phrases. In any dance theater work, absurdity is a necessary component and “ridetherhythm” stepped up, from time to time resembling a manic psychotic episode.

For Act II, the musicians (Michael Coleman, Henry Hung, Tommy Folen, Gerald Patrick Korte) and the Hope Mohr company dancers took the stage for “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”. All the collaborating artists began warming up during the intermission, and the piece organically (and beautifully) evolved from the preparation phase directly into performance. The casual atmosphere remained for the majority of the work – the house lights up and performers scattered around the perimeter of the ODC Theater space. In the program notes, Mohr included a quote from Steve Paxton about intervals in music. And that is definitely what emerged from the stage. At the very basic definitional level, a musical interval is the distance between two notes. But that is only part of the story when it comes to musical intervals – the quality of each measurement (major, minor, perfect, augmented and diminished) providing the more interesting nuance. Mohr injected and worked these various conditions into “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”. The tritone (augmented 4th/diminished 5th) was reflected in the falling sequence. An inability to stay upright certainly spoke to this interval’s edgy, dissonant sound. The bright, cheery nature of the major intervals shone in the temps leveé in arabesque. And of course, nothing could represent the perfect intervals more than a classic turned out passé retiré. A truly collaborative event, the dancers and musicians played out a number of improvisational and chance games for the audience as part of the piece. That type of ‘in the moment’ experience is certainly exciting for the performers; adjusting to and being present amongst unexpected, changeable circumstances. But is it really that engaging for the audience? In my opinion, no. And while it is true that art shouldn’t be created solely to appease or please its audience, their engagement with the work definitely matters.