AXIS Dance Company
Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, Oakland
Company C Contemporary Ballet
ODC Theater, San Francisco
San Francisco Ballet – Program 7
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 12th – AXIS Dance Company’s 2014 home season at Oakland’s Malonga Theater was an event to remember. Not only were there two amazing works from Guest Artistic Director Marc Brew and a dance film by Alex Ketley, but also on the program was a re-staged version of Yvonne Rainer’s preeminent post-modern work, “Trio A”.
Seeing any version of “Trio A” live and in person is a gift. Such an integral part of the 1960s postmodern movement, this work still holds such value and necessity for the contemporary dance community, even close to fifty years after its premiere. “Trio A” is devoted to movement, physicality and choreographic tools. And because of its highly structural and formal concerns, the audience becomes privy to a rarely seen phenomenon. One where artistic creation, artistic process and an entire stream of artistic consciousness unfolds, free of constraints, narrative and assumptions. Under the guidance of répétiteur/stager Linda K. Johnson, AXIS Dance Company leapt into this monumental project, bringing the world premiere of their version, entitled “Trio A Pressured #X”. The integrity of the original project was intact – the single task-oriented movement phrase, the lack of eye contact with the audience, dancers beginning the sequence at different times and at different facings. For AXIS, “Trio A Pressured #X” featured four cast members (as opposed to the typical three), and two of the dancers were in wheelchairs. Rainer’s phrase was deeply understood and well-translated by all four, and Johnson did a superb job of staging the work, keeping its true intention yet being open to and exploring the possibilities that came with four uniquely different bodies.
Alex Ketley’s dance film, “The Gift (of Impermanence)” was a visual poem, a tribute to the work of this extraordinary contemporary dance company. Through a revue collection of snippets, excerpts and remembrances, dancers met, interacted with each other through movement and then parted. “The Gift (of Impermanence)” was not a historic chronology of AXIS Dance Company’s past twenty-seven years. Rather, through beautiful and touching dance imagery, Ketley was claiming AXIS Dance Company’s present artistic moment. Marc Brew’s 2008 work, “Remember When”, also began with a film/video segment. A black and white mall scene bustled on the backdrop; its focus, the escalator. Images of Brew dancing in his wheelchair overlaid with the mechanism of the cycling staircase. The film continued and combined with Brew, who was now downstage left. Specific, placed and accented movements spoke of mechanical processes, but with a lush, expansive undertone.
Following intermission, Brew premiered his newest work, “Divide”. Another quartet, this conceptual dance hinted at the space between perception and reality. The lighting design (by Allen Willner) was key to creating and maintaining this theme. Lines and squares of light appeared for a time on the stage, and at one point or another, all four dancers dealt with their real but imaginary existence. When the light was present, it created a true line or space of demarcation. Sonsherée Giles’ first solo traversed a balance beam of light – fondu arabesques, turns, pivots, shifts of weight – all never leaving that illuminated line. Later groups of dancers traveled in and out of light squares that appeared, disappeared and reappeared around the perimeter of the stage. Thinking along the title of the piece, were these divides actual or projected? Mid-way through “Divide”, Brew created a gorgeous pas de deux that had one of the most stunning dance poses ever: Joel Brown extended his upper body sagittally to the ground and placed his right palm on the stage; Giles stood on the left wheel of his wheelchair and extended her leg in a classic modern dance tilt. This long second position was breathtaking.
April 25th – Company C Contemporary Ballet opened its spring season at ODC Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. A mixed repertory evening, the program expressed and captured the chamber company’s dynamic twelve year history. “Aposiopesis” (2002) and “Partly Cloudy Suite” (2005) were joined by three 2014 works – “What’s Behind Door #3” (which had its first performance earlier this year) and two world premieres, “New Country” and “Rise”. Aptly subtitled ‘Adjusting the Lens’, the five pieces on this program led the viewer on a journey through the genres, techniques and styles that makes up today’s contemporary ballet scene.
Charles Moulton’s “New Country” (world premiere) opened the program with high energy and enthusiastic vigor. Choreographic fusion filled the stage – ballet meeting up with a unique brand of country dancing. The resulting hybrid style conjured the culture of the Appalachian mountains, and with it brought a narrative of tradition and community through the stories of the people. Next up was an excerpt from Charles Anderson’s ode to abstraction, “Aposiopesis”. In the third and fourth movements of this ballet, a circular theme was pre-dominant in both the larger stage patterning and the individual choreographic sequences. Upper body port de bras and renversés revealed the circle’s expansive arches and broad curves. Edilsa Armendariz and Isaiah Sumler were absolutely sublime as the lead couple; when they were onstage, you couldn’t take your eyes off them. Their pas de deux personified total abandon and complete trust. And as Sumler lifted Armendariz behind his back in a repeated attitude motif, “Aposiopesis’” circular focus reached new heights. Closing Act I was Anderson’s “What’s Behind Door #3”, a completely contrasting, concept-based ballet. Having been respectively preceded by a deconstructed narrative and an abstract work, “What’s Behind Door #3” brought mechanics to the table. The piece was an exploration of how doors function and a translation of that mechanism into contemporary ballet and modern physicality.
Onto Act II and Patrick Corbin’s “Partly Cloudy Suite”, an ensemble work for five women and one man. Chairs bordered the perimeter of the stage; an air and sense of casual-ness permeating the space. Dancers would take turns moving to the center and cycling through an assortment of variations, while the others sat calmly and watched the technique. It was a little like observing a dance class. Perhaps it was this casual nature or the lack of dynamics, but “Partly Cloudy Suite” seemed a little stale, and it was also very curious to have only one of the women wearing flat ballet shoes. Last on the docket for Company C’s spring program was the world premiere of Maurice Causey’s “Rise”. The ballet began with a sense of the expected and the predictable and quickly morphed into a gorgeous expression of the surprising and unforeseen. Conventional contemporary ballet suffused the opening moments, almost like Causey was setting a base-line. One that he would challenge and dissolve over the next thirty minutes. Quickly and with intensity, the movement ventured into off-center balances, parallel legs, atypical positions and men in pointe shoes. The score similarly shifted to include changing meters and complex time signatures. “Rise” was an essay of these delicious deviations. An otherwise flawless example of modern choreography, the lighting in the early segments was tough. Over and over again, a spotlight appeared on the stage floor and then floated upward to the backdrop. While the intention behind this particular effect certainly made sense for the piece, in reality, it distracted from what was actually happening on stage.
April 30th – With the final two programs now running concurrently, San Francisco Ballet’s 2014 season will soon be a memory (May 11th to be exact). For the penultimate mixed repertory program, SFB has paired Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s “The Fifth Season” (2006) and Serge Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc” (1943) with the world premiere of Liam Scarlett’s “Hummingbird”.
Opening the evening was Helgi Tomasson’s stunning “The Fifth Season”. A suite of dances, “The Fifth Season” brought gorgeous performances by the entire ensemble and creative neo-classical choreography. Tomasson aptly captured the style and character of each individual variation: waltz, romance, tango, and largo. But he didn’t stop there; “The Fifth Season” reaches deeper and grasps the essence of physicality. Being adept in translating style and character into movement is a necessary skill for choreographers, but not all possess the ability to simultaneously reveal the underlying spirit of the music and score. Tomasson made it happen in “The Fifth Season”. Neo-classical ballet vocabulary punctuated the score throughout – Mathilde Froustey’s series of developpé grand battements; Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz’s staccato arms; Froustey and Sarah Van Patten’s travelling rond de jambes en l’air. The largo section (danced by Van Patten and Tiit Helimets) was by far the highlight of the entire ballet. Highly emotive, it was both expansive and delicate at the same time. The two were so in sync that their connection was like breathing; an automatic, fundamental function that is still, incredibly complex. In one of the quietest moments, Van Patten and Helimets wrapped their arms around each other; you could have heard a pin drop in the War Memorial Opera House.
SFB premiered Serge Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc” early last year and I know I’m not the only one who is thrilled that it made an encore appearance this season. A picturesque work of classicism, everything in Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc” is sculptural. While the choreography is very specific in its placement, ample stylistic variety abounds – romantic vignettes give way to flirty, cheeky dances and culminate in a regally grand finale. “Suite en Blanc” is elegance and grace personified, and there is nothing stuffy about it. Jaime Garcia Castilla and Vitor Luiz shone in the pas de trois. From the unison in their changement/pirouette sequence to their beated cabrioles, every moment had the ‘wow factor’. The four men from the pas de cinq (Max Cauthorn, Esteban Hernandez, Francisco Mungamba and Wei Wang) also knocked their batterie out of the park, particularly the lengthy brisé pattern. And if ever there was a ballet that highlighted the architectural element of classical dance, it is Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc”.
Program 7 concluded with the world premiere of “Hummingbird”, choreographed by The Royal Ballet’s current Artist-in-Residence, Liam Scarlett. This new full-length work for nine couples (three principals, two featured, and a chorus of four) was a concept-ballet, all about action and emotion. Neither abstract nor story-based, verbs took center stage as “Hummingbird” explored and revealed divergent responses to various actions – being open, being hesitant, being willing and being defiant. Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin took the lead in the first chapter, and their theme was sliding. Scarlett created partnering that was purposefully off-center and off balance, with an intention that oscillated from deliberate to (cleverly appearing) accidental. The middle section of “Hummingbird” belonged to the pairing of Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. With an abundance of plié, melting was their subject matter. Not disintegrating, but morphing from one state to another. In their lengthy and emotional pas de deux, we saw complete transformation at play: soft, graceful movements into quick turns, tender affection into absence; high energy into quiet walking. Dores André and Joan Boada served as the third couple in a flying, soaring duet. Not necessarily from a literal perspective (they weren’t jumping all the time), but more metaphorically. There was a consistently buoyant joy no matter what choreography they were performing. Overall, Scarlett’s movement vocabulary is fresh and innovative and his re-visioning of the traditional pas de deux relationship, a delight. And these gifts are reflected well in “Hummingbird”. But the ballet did come up against some obstacles and challenges. From time to time, the duets looked awkward, and the presence of the third couple seemed like an afterthought. And though Tan and Ingham gave remarkable performances, their section of the ballet went on far too long.