Heather Desaulniers

  • Nederlands Dans Theater 2 presented by City Dance
    Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, San Francisco
  • YBCA presents ConVerge: Destroy//
    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
  • Nancy Karp + Dancers
    ODC Studio B Theater, San Francisco
  • San Francisco Ballet – Program 4
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
NDT 2 in 'Sara'.  Photo © Rahi Rezvani©

NDT 2 in ‘Sara’.
Photo © Rahi Rezvani©

February 16. With undeniable mystique, creative presence and choreographic risk-taking, each performance of Nederlands Dans Theater draws its audience in. Monday night at the Palace of Fine Arts was no exception as City Dance presented Nederlands Dans Theater 2 in a one-night engagement.

The diverse and varied program included four short contemporary dances created over the past twelve years: Johan Inger’s “I New Then”, “Sara” by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, and two works by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, “Shutters Shut” and “Subject to Change”. The company dancers were at their technical and artistic best; the choreography was breathtaking and challenging; the house was packed. It was a great night of contemporary dance performance in San Francisco.

The evening opened with the longest of the four works, Inger’s “I New Then” from 2012. Clocking in at just under thirty minutes, it manages to span the dance genre spectrum, utilizing narrative expressionism, abstract contemporary movement, old-school unison jazz, and the requisite absurdity of dance theater.

From a pure movement perspective, “I New Then” is fast-paced, engaging and very entertaining. Inger’s choreography is clever and dynamic. No question. But the choreographic phrase material and the overall structure of the work feels disconnected. There is a lot happening on stage, perhaps a little too much. The ongoing narrative (while deconstructed rather than linear) gets lost in the constant stylistic shifts. And the two vocalization sections are precarious. Vocalization is common in dance theater, often used as an emphasizing or sometimes even an anesthetizing theatrical tool. In “I New Then”, it feels extraneous and not woven into the larger sense of the work.

León and Lightfoot’s “Shutters Shut” (2003) is a delightful dance interlude. A duet mixing stylized mime with contemporary choreography, it is both gorgeous and compelling. In just four minutes, León and Lightfoot make a rather broad and successful statement on specificity, with distinct movement, gestural precision and facial enunciation.

Amid a smoky atmosphere, a waved, cycled lighting design sets the stage for Eyal and Behar’s mystical, otherworldly “Sara” (2013). The brilliance in this dance is how it managed to appear futuristic and substratal at the same time. Coordinating movements (right arm and right leg) are favored over typical opposition (right arm and left leg), giving the work a primitive, animalistic tone. Then, it moves seamlessly into the ultramodern age. A group of dancers upstage right march and shuffle in place while a center stage soloist lip-syncs to the score in an exaggerated fashion. Very avant-garde.

NDT 2 definitely saved the best for last with 2003’s “Subject to Change” by León and Lightfoot. Aside from some more unnecessary vocalizations, it was pure joy from start to finish. The dance begins with stoic formality as four men ceremoniously maneuver a large rolled carpet (later revealed to be red in color) upstage. Alexander Anderson stepped across the carpet and into a technically stunning variation, where sky-high extensions spoke of artistry, not acrobatics. All of the dancing was just beautiful – the expansive and big phrases as well as the intricate and subtle sequences. My favorite moment was of a quiet nature, where Katarina van den Wouwer slowly walked up Anderson’s leg, her feet articulating like a cat’s paw. Throughout the dance, the red carpet is shifted, adjusted, folded and spun. Sometimes the alterations can be anticipated; sometimes not. Circumstances and situations are in a constant state of flux; it is a well-chosen title. And as the two soloists navigate these changes, we see a host of genuine reactions – surprise, struggle and steadfastness.

Nadia Oka of Nancy Karp + Dancers in 'time and the weather'.  Photo © Tony Nguyen

Nadia Oka of Nancy Karp + Dancers in ‘time and the weather’.
Photo © Tony Nguyen

February 19. A long line of dancers dressed in black faced the windows toward Yerba Buena Gardens. Carving out their own speed, distance and intensity, each walked forward and back on an individual pathway. Then, one by one, they peeled off into a movement phrase. They spiraled to the floor; they balanced in airplane arabesques. Motifs and steps were common amongst the group, but the interpretation and expression was all their own.

With these opening moments, another chapter of Leyya Tawil’s Destroy// was underway; this time, set in the lobby of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. A multi-year, multi-location dance project envisioned and facilitated by Tawil (Artistic Director of Dance Elixir), Destroy// is a structural trifecta: part pre-planned performance (the created choreography), part dance installation (amongst the gallery space at YBCA) and part artistic happening (where folks may ‘happen’ upon an actively unfolding choreographic experiment in the course of their day).

While each Destroy// event is unique, Tawil’s concept follows a specific framework and parameters. A dance is created in a particular space in a short timeframe, followed by a performance where the work is deconstructed or ‘destroyed’. Tawil is really onto something with her Destroy// series. Having set work broken down and re-thought pairs the choreographic process with dance improvisation in a way that feels complete, authentic and intriguing.

Individualism and individual interpretation reigned supreme as the dancers (including Tawil) navigated through several choreographic phrases. You would see a particular movement, like flinging of the arms or reaching upwards from a knelt position or circling of the head. Then each dancer would embody, translate and take on that movement. This could and did involve things like acceleration, repetition, slowing down, and inversion. As an audience member, I would also be fascinated to see what the original source material looked like prior to the performance. The individual interpretation and evolution of the various movement phrases read strongly and clearly. But I think sharing the initial starting point would have even deepened the experience, at least for me.

If there was one thing that took away from this very important work, it was the disconnection between the music and the dance. The score was conflictually dissonant and intensely atonal with a super abstract rhythmical meter. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if you also add too high a volume and too shrill a mix, it ends up feeling aggressive and combative. It took focus from what was happening on stage. Instead of two disciplines working cohesively in an art piece, one overpowered the other. Though with each Destroy// event being different, this may not always be the case. With every new undertaking, I would guess that the relationship between the music and dance would also shift and re-set.

February 20. The San Francisco/Bay Area dance community is fortunate to have choreographer and dance maker Nancy Karp back in its midst, and to be able to join in the marking of a significant milestone. Over the third weekend in February, her company, Nancy Karp + Dancers, celebrated its thirty-fifth birthday with a mixed repertory, triple-bill evening at ODC Commons’ Studio Theater.

The program was both a testament to three and a half decades of artistic achievement and a celebration of Karp’s distinct brand of contemporary dance. Technically based movement phrases abounded with shifts of weight, varied dynamics, specific positions, directional changes and diverse levels. Because of the deep technical foundation, this style reads with a clarity that is getting rarer and rarer these days. And Karp’s work is constructed in such a way that the choreography can radiate, unencumbered. So you leave the performance solely thinking about the movement – how it looked, how it was formed, what it evoked and what it said.

An ensemble piece for five women (and the first of two world premieres), the program opened with “time and the weather”, a meditation on flow, elasticity and fluidity. Beginning with a duet, two dancers face away from the audience and start a movement study of the arms. Positions were exact and yet still had a sense of expanse. Eventually, this sequence grows, requiring a full body response with traveling, lunges, and suspensions. Even in these high-energy phrases, nothing seemed abrupt; instead, there was an overwhelming sense of calm and measured-ness. I don’t think “time and the weather” was working within any particular narrative, though it was impossible to ignore that the dance felt like an earth-bound practice – calming, soothing and introspective.

Up next was “a-motion-upo-motio-n”, Karp’s second world premiere. A duet danced by Diane McKallip and Randee Paufve, it was again filled with alive, yet clear positions. Circling arms and deep lunges met scooting temps levés and pulsing extensions. Just like “time and the weather”, “a-motion-upo-motio-n” didn’t appear to be working within any kind of narrative (whether linear, deconstructed or conceptual), it was really all about the choreography. That expression of movement was captivating, though it’s important to note that the two world premieres seemed very alike. Yes, there was different music, different costumes, different setting and a different format (duet and group), but visually the two dances were quite similar. They almost looked like two separate chapters from one larger work.

The thirty-fifth anniversary performance closed with 2001’s “il Mercato”, a full cast work for two men and four women. While still holding true to Karp’s choreographic style, “il Mercato” is slightly more whimsical than the previous two dances. Subtle physicality (quick head turns, flexed hands, percussive stamps) is combined with the big and the lush (long arabesques in plié). Mid-way through, a pair of contact improvisation duets appear, providing yet another dimension, a new and different flavor. And Katie Kruger had some standout solo moments, including a gorgeous grand rond de jambe and a soaring attitude turn.

Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in Robbins' 'Dances at a Gathering'.  Photo © Erik Tomasson

Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in Robbins’ ‘Dances at a Gathering’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

February 28. The double bill format is a rarity at San Francisco Ballet, with most mixed repertory evenings (at least over the past five years) featuring three separate dances. But fewer works does not mean less breadth or diversity. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and his creative team crafted a fabulous fourth program that reflected both classical and contemporary ballet: Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” (1969) and Liam Scarlett’s “Hummingbird” (2014). And San Francisco Ballet is a company of dance artists who are not only well versed in each tradition, but as this program demonstrates, they excel at both.

“Dances at a Gathering” was and is a masterwork of elegance, exuberance and grace. Set entirely to Frédéric Chopin’s music (played by the brilliant Roy Bogas on piano), this lengthy one-act ballet suite is a true collaboration between 20th century neoclassical movement and 19th century Romantic music.

While there are many tenets and conventions associated with the Romantic era in music, one of the most fascinating is the player’s interpretation of the score. Individuality was of utmost importance; personality and virtuosity celebrated and encouraged. Robbins took these themes and in his ballet, infusing the traditional vocabulary with unexpected; instances of sheer delight and surprise.

Amongst the collection of solos, duets, trios, and full cast sequences, standout moments included Vanessa Zahorian’s chaîné turns on demi-pointe, Maria Kochetkova’s side split that folded into a double passé, Davit Karapetyan’s double tours en l’air that landed in a grand plié, Mathilde Froustey and Vitor Luiz’s series of grand jetés that traveled backwards and the jump combination that toggled back and forth between sissones and soubresauts.

Even the structure of “Dances at a Gathering” is atypical. Rather than beginning with an ensemble variation, it begins with a captivating solo danced by Joseph Walsh. And though the ending does feature the entire cast of ten, it is a quiet scene of community. A serene finale of walking through space together, moving through a shared port de bras, bowing and curtseying in reverence, bidding each other farewell.

Scarlett’s “Hummingbird” made quite a splash when it premiered last April at San Francisco Ballet, so it was no surprise that the contemporary piece was back for a return engagement this season. Saturday night’s cast was almost the exact group that I saw last year, and thus, many of my initial thoughts were the same. Rather than repeat that discussion, it seemed more useful to turn toward things I hadn’t previously mentioned.

First, the visuals. John Macfarlane’s scenic and costume design is quite stunning. A large black and white painted sheet scrim hangs from the theater rafters and meets a floor ramp. This scrim moves and transforms the space throughout the ballet, almost appearing as if it is rolling. The ramp converts the upstage space into an entrance and exit option, and when Scarlett uses it, it looks like figures are appearing out of nowhere. All the costumes are simple, in muted grays, blues, steels, charcoals and whites, which fits the piece perfectly. With “Hummingbird’s” constant sculptural motion, having busy costumes would take away from what was happening on stage.

Choreographically, last year I commented that on occasion, some of the partnering looked a little awkward. It was definitely different this time around. Without compromising the passion and power of Scarlett’s dance, the transitions were better and as such, the positions looked clearer. And I noticed an important moment that I had completely missed before: Yuan Yuan Tan quickly boureéd backwards across the front of the stage, flat-footed. An instance of fluttering, perfect for a ballet with the title “Hummingbird”.

Looking ahead: Some not-to-be-missed March performances in the San Francisco/Bay Area…

RAWdance, the CONCEPT series: 17, Joe Goode Annex (March 7-8)

ODC/Dance Downtown, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (March 12-22)

sjDANCEco, ODC Theater (March 13-14)

Joffrey Ballet, Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall (March 14-15)

San Francisco Ballet, “Don Quixote”, War Memorial Opera House (March 20-29)