San Francisco Performances presents Wayne McGregor|Random Dance
Lam Research Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
Robert Moses’ Kin – “Rise”
Lam Research Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
San Francisco Ballet – “Giselle”
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Cal Performances presents Martha Graham Dance Company
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
January 17th – When it comes to describing dance, the terms ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’ tend to be used somewhat synonymously; many dance critics and historians (including this particular writer) treat them as equivalent terms. And most of the time, it works fine to use these two words interchangeably. It’s not bad practice or lack of understanding, just a current convention in the literature. That is, until you witness a company like Wayne McGregor|Random Dance – an ensemble that is absolutely contemporary. They embody many different performing arts genres – modern, ballet, dance theater, interdisciplinary, mixed media, hybrid – but at the same time, are able to transcend the typical understanding of each type. Seeing Wayne McGregor|Random Dance in performance qualifies and clarifies the term ‘contemporary’ in relation to today’s dance and choreography.
2010’s “FAR”, presented by San Francisco Performances, is a work that epitomizes the wonderful otherness of this contemporary dance troupe. The curtain rose to reveal four dancers standing with lit torches, a featured couple and a multi-media white background – a hypnotic beginning to a piece that illustrated both the depth and nuance of McGregor’s choreography. Over its sixty minutes, “FAR” toggled between vast physical extremes and moments of intimate introspection. And it worked. Full body rolls and an overabundance of splits (resulting from developpé and grand battement) spoke of the former, while slight (though defined) movements of the wrist and in the solar plexus declared a quieter, meditative state. Perhaps the best example of this choreographic duality was the section that showcased the five men of the company. What began as a sumptuous duet eventually and seamlessly evolved into a full group sequence. A truly inspired variation, super-passé, cabriole and the reverence bow reflected equal parts physical intensity and quietness of spirit. In addition, McGregor’s treatment of the pas de trois (one of the most difficult choreographic challenges) was another highlight in “FAR”. His inventive and intricate groupings created stunning visual configurations and internally complex canon structures.
“FAR” was a complete sensory experience, definitely visual and sometimes auditory as well. Technology interplayed with movement in the form of a mobile white backdrop, adding illumination as well as numerous juxtapositions of shadow and light. It was certainly ‘cool’ but also really knitted the choreography, score and narrative together. When it comes to collaborative theatrical elements, McGregor usually hits just the right mix. If too many additional things are injected, the dance can get lost and the balance of the piece is compromised. The music, choreography, visual effects, set design and lighting in “FAR” worked well toward a comprehensive whole. Although, it was a little strange that some minor vocalization and body percussion was thrown in at the three-quarter point. It seemed superfluous, like an afterthought.
The dancers in Wayne McGregor|Random Dance are extraordinarily talented, communicating McGregor’s complex choreographic ideas with artistic sensitivity and technical acumen. Having said that, there was some unevenness amongst the women. About a third of the way into “FAR”, the women were featured in a brief quintet. With all of them on stage at the same time, it was clear that a couple of the dancers lacked freedom in their neck and shoulders. It almost looked like a physical disconnect or block, which in the end, did not allow a full realization of the movement.
January 24th – Mid-way through the month, Robert Moses’ Kin’s nineteenth home season opened in downtown San Francisco at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Lam Research Theater. A triple bill evening, the exciting program paired two new pieces, “Profligate Iniquities” and “The Slow Rise of a Rigid Man” with last year’s full length work, “NEVABAWARLDAPECE”. Along with dynamic choreography and brilliant dancing, this performance showed that the company ranks at Robert Moses’ Kin are in a wonderful state of evolution and change. The ensemble has grown significantly in the past two years and the newer company members have really lived into Moses’ signature movement style. They look right at home alongside the group’s veteran dancers.
Opening the program was the premiere of “Profligate Iniquities”, an intoxicating dissertation on the importance of the ‘in between’. From the music to the choreography to the narrative ideas, everything hovered in delicious ambiguity. The Sephardic score was neither major nor minor, the physicality neither controlled nor abandoned and the narrative impulses neither magnetic nor indifferent. A collection of smaller sequences (which all worked together to form a cohesive whole), “Profligate Iniquities” was broken into four duets, one quartet, two group variations and one trio. Each revealed a duality in Moses’ physical syntax – quick staccato impulses along with legato parallel extensions. Though at the same time, something different was being birthed in the choreography. While lifts and scooting steps were abundant, “Profligate Iniquities” was incredibly grounded with very few solo jumps. The partnering was equally creative, though from time to time, it did lead to some awkward angles.
Following a very brief pause, Moses himself took the stage in the second world premiere of the night, “The Slow Rise of a Rigid Man”. Though short in duration, the solo spoke volumes. Here was the choreographic source; the stylistic genesis, live and in person. His movement isn’t learned, it is true, pure, almost genetic. With each phrase of “The Slow Rise of a Rigid Man”, Moses was talking to the audience – no words, only movement.
Act II’s “NEVABAWARLDAPECE” began in an unencumbered stage space; no wings, no cyclorama. The performers appeared, costumed in practice clothes, and one by one journeyed to the center, introducing themselves to the audience and each other with a short variation. The third solo, albeit brief, was some of the best dancing of the night, with a phenomenal turn/promenade in a long second attitude. From its very onset, “NEVABAWARLDAPECE” was working in a unique intersection of the modern and post-modern genres: choreography that had been deconstructed to its very fundamental essence yet with a strong and essential narrative backbone. This is an important crossroads in today’s contemporary performance scene. Can movement have absolute merit in its own right while still being combined with a strong sense of imagery, content and the narrative? “NEVABAWARLDAPECE” proves that it can. Though a triumph in that regard, this dance did have a couple of issues. While the intricacies and detail in Moses’ choreography are fantastic, the company had difficulty maintaining a sense of togetherness in the unison work. The group foot percussion segments were particularly spotty from a precision standpoint. And clocking in at sixty-five minutes, “NEVABAWARLDAPECE” was far too long.
January 28th – The wait is over; San Francisco Ballet’s 2014 season is underway. Over the next four months, audiences will flock to the city to see this company’s profound technical skills and impeccable artistic talent in both classical and contemporary repertoire. Program one returns Helgi Tomasson’s incomparable production of “Giselle” to the War Memorial Opera House stage. Originally premiering in 1999, his “Giselle” is a haunting, hypnotic tour where love, pain, tragedy and destiny intersect over the course of two plus hours.
Sarah Van Patten is always a delight to watch, but she particularly excels as Giselle. Her balletés and penchée arabesques, sublime; batterie, delicate yet specific; and her circular series of piqué turns was quiet and calm, yet dynamic at the same time. Van Patten is the quintessential Giselle, adeptly capturing the character’s changing experience – naïveté, infatuation, betrayal and Act II’s selfless heroism. Because I’ve seen Van Patten dance the ballet’s title role before, let us turn to some of the other main characters and featured roles.
San Francisco Ballet soloist Luke Ingham was just a wonderful Albrecht. His first entrance was appropriately regal, with an equal dose of humility. His attention to both sides of Albrecht meant that he looked right at home in the Count’s two dissimilar situations: as part of the Royal court and as a participant in the village merriment. From a technical perspective, Ingham is all about the jumps – his height and rebound are really quite something. Because he manages to get his feet flat to the floor in plié between every step (whether petit or grand allegro), every variation had immense power. Act II’s final batterie sequence goes on for ever and each jump was as high and as precise as the previous one.
Onto the peasant pas de cinq. A pas de cinq is very difficult to do well because the fifth person in the dance can easily look out of place. But Tomasson’s choreography has enough motion, variety and flow to keep that from happening. In fact, this particular quintet (Sasha De Sola, Isabella DeVivo, Julia Rowe, Daniel Deivison and Hansuke Yamamoto) had some of the best technical dancing of the night. Yamamoto’s opening tours en l’air were phenomenal and that excellence continued throughout his solo (including a stunning diagonal batterie sequence). Yamamoto has just a terrific combination of precision and phrasing. Deivison’s variation was show stopping with giant sissones and textbook beated jetés. And what a finale; the pas de cinq concluded with an amazing circuit of unison emboîte turns.
San Francisco Ballet’s casting of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is always spot on but Sofiane Sylve may be the perfect Myrtha. Entering the space with floating boureés, Sylve readily established her ‘otherworldliness’ and then immediately revealed Myrtha’s unrelenting nature. Commanding and immutable, her scooting arabesques were straight and direct, never once wavering in intention.
January 31st – As January came to an end and February began, Cal Performances was all about iconic modern dance. For two nights, the Martha Graham Dance Company took the Zellerbach stage in a program of Graham’s most celebrated works: “Appalachian Spring”, “Cave of the Heart” and “Maple Leaf Rag”. Of course, Graham technique is the common denominator that ran through the entire evening, providing the formal structure and foundation of each work. But content-wise, the three pieces are very different: one deconstructed narrative, one dramatic story and one abstract composition.
“Appalachian Spring” tells a classic tale of hopeful anticipation. And even though it premiered almost seventy years ago, the universal message and vast physicality keep it relevant today. Right from the start, this dance shepherds its characters towards the future and what lies ahead. As each of the eight cast members enter from stage left, slow, methodical walks propel them forward onto their front leg. These reaching motions continue throughout the thirty minute work: in the husbandman’s travelling sautés, the followers’ parallel sissones and the bride’s arabesque airplane turns. There was also a deep feeling of community amongst the characters; a sense of joy and comfort that they were looking to the horizon together. The most serious moment in “Appalachian Spring” is the preacher’s variation two-thirds of the way in. But even in that dramatic sequence, a glimmer of reassurance shines through. Difficulties, sorrow and pain will come, but in those moments, no one is alone.
As much as “Appalachian Spring” is hopeful, 1946’s “Cave of the Heart” is dark. Based on the story of Medea, “Cave of the Heart” explores the cycle of jealousy. An angsty dance for four, the piece follows Medea as she experiences early inklings of jealousy and then as those initial emotions build into uncontrollable rage. The Graham contraction is a perfect vehicle for such a narrative. It starts with a deep internal impulse, which then radiates outward and grows to overtake the entire body. “Cave of the Heart” shows how quickly jealousy can turn into insanity, consuming the entire human spirit, and taking over like a multiplying virus.
The last piece on the program was also the final piece that Martha Graham completed, 1990’s “Maple Leaf Rag”. A humorous romp for one featured couple and an ensemble chorus, “Maple Leaf Rag” is quite literally Graham technique set to music. All the highly stylized aspects of Graham were present: cupped hands, prances, upper body curves, the tilt in second position. I even saw a Graham fall on one. But the movement was not at all stuck in the past; in fact, the dance shows how her syllabus was able to maintain its physical integrity yet also how it evolved over time. If neo-classical modern dance ever existed, “Maple Leaf Rag” is it. Though the term is more commonly reserved for a style of classical ballet, “Maple Leaf Rag” has all the characteristics of neo-classical choreography: speed and precision, a re-thinking of traditional movement and an emphasis on how the choreography punctuates the score.