Heather Desaulniers.

  • Cal Performances presents Ojai North!
    Mark Morris Dance Group, Hertz Hall, Berkeley

  • LEVYdance – Spring Season at Home
    Heron Street, San Francisco

  • The Thick Rich Ones – “Minced Meat”
    CounterPULSE, San Francisco

  • TEST” – Frameline 37 Film Festival
    Castro Theatre, San Francisco


June 13th – In his lengthy career, Mark Morris has played many different roles – dancer, choreographer, musician, conductor, company director, just to name a few. And this year, Morris can also add another title to his resume. In collaboration with the Ojai Music Festival, Cal Performances presented the third iteration of “Ojai North!”, a four-day performing arts extravaganza, musical direction by Mark Morris. With a diverse offering of dance, music, and film, this extraordinary event also marks the official closing of the 2012-2013 Cal Performances season – a brilliant coda to another fantastic year of artistic excellence.

As part of the “Ojai North!” festival, Mark Morris Dance Group performed a mixed repertory program consisting of 1993’s “Mosaic and United”, followed by Morris’ world premiere of “Spring, Spring, Spring”. Both pieces featured phenomenal live accompaniment: American String Quartet and The Bad Plus, respectively.

“Mosaic and United” teetered on the brink of hearty dissonance and unexpected consonance. And with a twentieth century classical composition by Henry Cowell, unexpected is absolutely the correct word. Rather than the typical V-I authentic cadence, the consonance was instead found in perfectly tuned major seconds and minor sevenths, which Morris then attempted to mirror onstage. Morris’ choreography, and specifically the relationship he creates between the choreography and score, is usually fantastic, but “Mosaic and United” was not very successful. The dance was all over the place, and not in a good way. At times, the cast of five was assembled in sculptural vignettes, like picturesque Greek scenes. Then, the physical vocabulary would abruptly shift to post-modern, evidenced by pedestrian running and a rather dramatic series of angry grand battements. Next, the group moved onto a social step-dancing segment, almost a stomp time-step leitmotif. While the first part of the title certainly suggests a hodge-podge like presence of multiple different entities, where was the ‘united’ portion?

In contrast, “Spring, Spring, Spring” was an artistic triumph. Morris’ choreography was at its best, full of the frenetic energy demanded by the violent, sacrificial “Rite of Spring” story. The men’s role in the ballet was greatly expanded, with a recurring quartet throughout. With this increased presence, the male talent in this company got a chance to really shine. Morris also played with the narrative implications of the story with his oscillating version. Chaîné turns with an off-balanced upper body felt out of control, contrasted with moments of extreme clarity (the plié arabesques en avant and en croix). And Morris definitely made this ceremony about the entire community. As the cast traveled in three lines, interweaving upstage and down, it was clear that this event was happening to all of them, every single member of the group. The experience was a collective one. As the lights fell and “Spring, Spring, Spring” concluded, the audience still had no idea who was the chosen sacrifice.

LEVYdance Photo © David DeSilva

Photo © David DeSilva

June 15th – LEVYdance celebrated their tenth anniversary in true San Francisco style, with an outdoor performance just steps away from their studio on Heron Street in SOMA. Artistic Director Benjamin Levy and the entire LEVYdance family invited their audience and their neighborhood to join them for a collection of choreography from the past decade: “pOrtal” (2002), “if this small space” (2005), “Holding Pattern” (2004), and “That Four Letter Word…” (2004). Multiple vantage points – rooftops of adjoining buildings, the center area created by the stage perimeter – reflected this group’s multi-faceted artistry and vitality. LEVYdance is a contemporary company that takes creative risks, values strong modern dance technique, and successfully marries form and content in composition. Possessing all of these qualities and characteristics is less common than you would think; in fact, it is quite rare. LEVYdance is special, and another ten years of their work would be a gift to the larger modern dance community.

As the title suggests, “pOrtal” was all about being on the edge of something and the importance of falling forward to it. Levy’s choreographic abandon coupled with the dancer’s total commitment birthed an unprecedented level of excitement. There was no hesitation, no fear, no trepidation. A deep sense of the collective was also present; a group effort; a responsibility to and awareness for each other. Scott Marlowe and Paul Vickers’ duet was one of the most elegant movement phrases I have seen in a long time. In particular, the lifts and balances in their pas de deux defied all choreographic and technical expectations. “pOrtal’s” final unison sequence brought together the two primary narratives: living into the unknown while still working toward a greater goal.

“if this small space”, choreography by Levy and Rachael Lincoln, aptly characterized the notion of containment. Created in sonatina form, the solo piece had a three-part feel to it, with an exposition, development and recapitulation. Tasked with a purposeful space constraint, Marlowe (who also serves as the company’s Artistic Associate) began with a shivering motif; his whole body shaking and shuddering. The movement was tense and frenetic, yet somehow didn’t seem stressful – certainly a tough state to attain, yet also very representative of the small reflexive motions that happen constantly in our bodies. Next, Marlowe moved onto some more serpentine, flowy sequences, though still keeping within his prescribed space on the stage. Then, in the final moments of the work, he came to a place of calm stillness: a beautiful cadence for a stunning piece.

Of the four dances on the program, “Holding Pattern” was my least favorite. Though it had some interesting lifts and sequences (both of which looked like they may have originated from contact improvisation exercises), it seemed very similar to “pOrtal”. And while it was both visually compelling and well-danced, I kept waiting for it to differentiate itself a little bit more.

The entire company returned to the stage to close the tenth anniversary program with 2004’s “That Four Letter Word…”. At first I thought that this was the typical ‘relationship’ dance, of which most companies have two or three in their active repertory. But as I continued to watch the four performers (Marlowe, Vickers, Yu Kondo Reigen and Sarah Dionne Woods) cycle through Levy’s choreography, I realized that this wasn’t just about relationships, it was a brilliant essay on affection. Neither sentimental, farcical, angsty nor derivative, “That Four Letter Word…” was real, honest truth. Even as some humorous dance theater influences popped in (balloon props and a dramatic tango), the authenticity of the message was still the driving force. Concluding with the most fantastic quartet, the piece spoke to the essence of LEVYdance – an intensely talented group of artists with deep respect for their work and for each other.

Katherine McGinity, Ashley Trottier and Jochelle Pereña in "The Thick Rich Ones" Photo © Weidong Yang

Katherine McGinity, Ashley Trottier and Jochelle Pereña in “Minced Meat”
Photo © Weidong Yang

June 28th – Like any art practice, contemporary and modern dance has gone through and continues to embrace different trends – structural works void of story (“dance for dance’s sake”), genre fusion, site-specific collaborations, technological injections of ‘new media’ and one of the most popular, dance theater. And while trends, or the notion of ‘being trendy’, may come across as negative to some, it doesn’t have to be that way. Trends can also lead to clearer discernment. Being surrounded by a particular choreographic style actually makes it easier to tell what’s good and what’s not. The Thick Rich Ones’ “Minced Meat” definitely falls into the good, if not great, category. With this production, Artistic Directors and co-choreographers Jochelle Pereña and Ashley Trottier have reminded the viewer (and the dance community at large) that when dance theater works, it really works. “Minced Meat” is filled with the expected dance theater characteristics: bizarre absurdity, deranged humor, repetition and artistic collage. But most important, the seventy-five minute piece has a deep and purposeful egalitarianism, which, in the face of the odd and the campy, makes it relatable, comforting and familiar.

As the audience entered the CounterPULSE theater, they were welcomed to a party full of craziness, comedy, shocking displays and intimate interactions. The stage and costume design suggested late 1960s/early 1970s, almost like a scene plucked from Sondheim and Furth’s “Company”. The cast mingled with the patrons, introducing themselves and chatting while serving champagne and hotdogs. And so, from the very beginning, the porous line between the audience and the performer had been replaced with a more egalitarian notion of engagement and participation (of course at differing levels). As the lights dimmed and the dance ‘officially’ began, the established egalitarianism continued. New party guests arrived and we were introduced to a kooky cast of characters. Though each personality was completely over the top, the group represented the wide spectrum of individuals you might encounter at any typical gathering: the fun social butterfly, the quiet loner, the pretentious snob, and the over-imbibed. Similarly, if you broke down the narrative themes (which had all been made highly theatrical in true dance theater fashion) to their essence and core, what emerged were relevant, applicable issues that anyone can connect with: fickleness, jealousy, envy, need. Pereña and Trottier had woven the thread of relatability through the prelude, the setting, and really every seam of “Minced Meat”. A conceptual triumph, the audience was not only imagining themselves at this party, they were truly present. This is how you make successful dance theater.

Pereña and Trottier’s choreographic acumen and the company’s technical abilities shone in two separate quartets, one for the women and one for the men. Both had creative choreography that was steeped in narrative strength. The four women danced a variation utilizing Graham-inspired pleadings; innocent and tortured at the same time. At one moment, the methodical, meditative series spoke to a soothing calm, yet the sudden deep contraction also had a jarring, violent quality. An empty table became a canvas of individual and collective discovery in the men’s quartet. Their movement reflected and revealed a complex self-awareness alongside a sense of camaraderie; alone and together, they were searching for something. Satisfaction? Enough? Happiness? Maybe all of the above.



June 29th – “TEST”, a new film by Chris Mason Johnson, takes its audience back in time to San Francisco, 1985. Stylistically, it was a time of Walkmans and answering machines. A time of boom boxes and back-combed bangs. Choreographically, it was a time when narrative and structural modern dance were reconciling after years of separation. It was also a time when the AIDS health crisis was in its early years. A time when there were so many questions about the disease and not enough information and answers. It was a time of fear, doubt, anger and confusion. “TEST” follows this theme of uncertainty. Writer, director, and producer Chris Mason Johnson, choreographer Sidra Bell, composer Ceiri Torjussen along with the entire artistic and production team have created a film that brings this important message to the big screen in a fresh, exciting and artistically meaningful way.

“TEST” is told through the eyes of Frankie, a gay modern dancer who is part of a small contemporary company in San Francisco. Much of the film centers around his modern dance community, with multiple scenes taking place in the rehearsal studio, backstage at the theater, and the fictional company in performance. Most of the other characters in the film are part of Frankie’s dance troupe; the people he interacts with day in and day out. And through his personal and professional experiences, the audience comes to realize that dance is not only Frankie’s occupation, it is his passion and his outlet.

At the beginning of the film, Frankie (brilliantly portrayed by Scott Marlowe) is experiencing intermittent bouts of dizziness and blurry vision. While his condition helps to establish the relationship between him and his doctor (which recurs later in the movie), the vertigo is really a metaphor for Frankie’s uncertainty. Everywhere he looks and everywhere he is, there are things and circumstances that he cannot control. As he deals with chaos in his apartment, his home is uncertain; as an understudy in the dance company, his career is uncertain; and as a gay man in the mid-1980s, his health and future are also uncertain.

Sidra Bell’s choreography, which is featured in the fictional company’s rehearsal and performance sequences, also speaks to “TEST’s” theme of inherent uncertainty. By creating dynamic and edgy contemporary movement that also had glimmers of classical ballet, Bell’s work moved between genres, not easily categorized. In addition, the narrative and conceptual foundation was constantly changing. A sense of doom was illustrated by gnarled hands, staccato contractions and motifs where the eyes and mouth were covered. Then there would be an immediate shift into free flowing attitude turns, stretchy extensions and passé pirouettes. Each physical phrase toggled between fear and hope with no resolution. It was totally uncertain which emotion was going to dominate or whether there would even be a winner at all.

Perhaps the most powerful scene in Johnson’s film was also one of the shortest and quietest. Prior to one of the performances, the camera panned in on the company in the midst of their onstage warm-up. Dancers wearing headphones  stood at the barre, cycling through their routine preparation exercises. Here were individuals in their own world; their own space, yet at the same time, absolutely melded together as a group; as a company. With this brief vignette, Johnson made a striking comment about uncertainty – while it is personal and unique, it can also deeply affect an entire community.

Near the end of the film, Frankie decides to take an HIV test (which was still relatively new in 1985) and the results drastically alter his existence. His uncertainty is still there, but he seems able to live into it or live with it rather than being afraid of it. We see Frankie making the most simple, and sometimes humorous changes to his environment (unraveling a phone chord and turning the rodent in his apartment into a pet) to more fundamental choices – letting loose and allowing himself to have some fun. But Johnson was very purposeful and clear that the uncertainty in Frankie’s life had not disappeared; instead, it had evolved and become something different.

Casting dance films can be tricky. Do you choose actors who can kind of dance? Dancers who are acceptable actors? Do you opt for a body double for the main dancing scenes? The cast of “TEST” had it all – phenomenal professional dancers who were equally talented actors. Marlowe gave a truly unforgettable performance, constantly injecting layers and nuance to a character who was onscreen for the entire movie. Matthew Risch’s Todd had an unexpected depth, a strange yet vulnerable combination of boorishness and kindness. And then there were those who stole their respective scenes sometimes with only a few lines: Myles Thatcher as Sam, Rory Hohenstein as Tommy, Katherine Wells as Molly and Madison Keesler as Jennifer. Chris Mason Johnson’s “TEST” is a necessary addition for any video library, a must-have for those who love dance movies, stories of San Francisco and intimate, honest films that glimpse into the human soul.