Heather Desaulniers

  • San Francisco Ballet – Program 3
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • sjDANCEco – Passion, Intrigue, Drama
    ODC Theater, San Francisco
  • Cal Performances presents Joffrey Ballet
    Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
  • ODC/Dance presents ODC/Dance Downtown
    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
  • Rogelio Lopez & Dancers – Empty Spaces
    Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
Hans van Manen's Variations For Two Couples (dancers: Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit) Photo © Erik Tomasson

Hans van Manen’s Variations For Two Couples
(dancers: Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit)
Photo © Erik Tomasson

March 7. The curtain rose at the War Memorial Opera House to reveal a black backdrop outfitted with a single strand white arc. Two couples costumed in solid-colored unitards entered stage right and began a short set of choreographic etudes. Beautiful, complete and brief, each excerpt was like a short conversation, full of intricate details – a flexed standing foot on the arabesque slides; a supported pirouette where the foot descended from passé to coupé. With this stark, clean and uncluttered statement from Hans van Manen’s Variations for Two Couples (2012), closing night of San Francisco Ballet’s third program (a quadruple bill) was underway.

Up next was Williams Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude (1996), an exciting pas de cinq. As the title suggests, the ballet is all about dizzying precision: constant motion, abrupt directional changes, and dramatic shifts of weight. And the cast delivered one hundred percent on this complex equation. From big en dedans and en dehors turning sequences to subtler meeting of the hands in partnering, everything was right on point. As the only corps member in this particular cast, Julia Rowe deserves special mention. She is full of fresh energy and inspired technique and can handily hold her own amongst the company’s soloists and principals.

San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's Manifesto. Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher’s Manifesto.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Act II brought the only world premiere work of the evening, Manifesto by San Francisco Ballet corps dancer Myles Thatcher. A full cast piece set to Bach, Manifesto is a noteworthy physical essay. While choreographically commenting on dynamics, structure and form, it also reads like a contemporary, twenty-first century court dance.

Thatcher is a choreographer to watch – he has a mindful, delicate approach to space while still harnessing passion, accent and surprise. In Manifesto’s exposition, this rare combination played out in some lovely pas de trois moments between Jennifer Stahl, Sean Orza and Steven Morse. With his authentic joy, integrated stage presence and the technique to back it all up, Morse continues to distinguish himself at SFB. The middle section of the ballet expanded previously introduced material – adjusting it, pushing it beyond its limits and dismantling expectations. Hansuke Yamamoto and Dores André made the most sublime pair during this development chapter; their pas de deux stretching into one long legato phrase. The ensemble returned to the stage for the stunning finale of Manifesto, a picturesque tapestry of shapes, positions and diverse motion.

Program three concluded with The Kingdom of the Shades scene from Act II of La Bayadère, choreographed and staged by Natalia Makarova (after Petipa). With Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in the leading roles, everything was grand, classical and regal. Turning sequences from both (Kochetkova’s piqué posés and Walsh’s fouettés) wowed the audience; some of the best technical dancing of the night. After recovering from a couple of rough patches, the featured Shades variations also delighted. And the women’s corps de ballet outdid themselves with their attention to detail – all twenty-four women were in sync; working together as a team.

March 13. sjDANCEco traveled north for its first ever San Francisco season. And the takeaway from their Passion, Intrigue, Drama program at ODC Theater is that dance theater is itself a diverse genre. There is multi-media/new media dance theater; collaborative interdisciplinary dance theater; absurdly obscure dance theater; and there is dance theater where the movement tells an accessible story of humanity and human interaction. Passion, Intrigue, Drama was a lovely reminder of this last style.

A dive bar from decades past; drinking glasses strewn about; patrons in various stages of dishevelment; tables and chairs in disarray. This is the scene as Maria Basile’s Tango Fatal (2013) begins (scenario by Lorenz Russo). The bartender (played by Daniel Helfgot) immediately comes forward and begins introducing the cast of characters that frequent this particular establishment. Starting the work with this context was not only very entertaining, but also incredibly helpful – we knew who the characters were, a bit of their history and how they were related to each other. Program notes and gestural mime are just not quite the same. By no means were we given a complete biography, but it was a starting point, a place from which the dance could develop. It was a genius move, especially because the torrid, charged character connections are the heart and crux of this piece.

Even though Tango Fatal is a fairly new work, it has a bit of a ‘throw-back’ feel to it, like it had been plucked out of an old Hollywood movie musical. Basile opted to primarily stick with contemporary movement phrases with just a splash of tango and ballroom. The eight-member cast gave their all and, with the exception of a few awkward lift sequences, it was a great start to the night.

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, José Limón’s 1949 masterwork, The Moor’s Pavane tells a story of desire, deception and despair. Four characters – the Moor, his wife, his friend and his friend’s wife – cycle through a set of elegant court dances, while a devastating narrative simultaneously unfolds. And that juxtaposition of regal appearance and evil reality informs the entire ballet.

Many dance companies have The Moor’s Pavane in their repertory and much has been written about the piece since its premiere more than sixty years ago. So what sets one rendition apart from the others? The most successful iterations pay equal attention to each of the four characters. As the piece opens, the first image is of all four standing connected in a small circle center stage. It is clear from the start that their journey is intertwined and interrelated, with each having an equal role to play as it unfolds. sjDANCEco’s award-winning reconstruction (by Gary Masters and Raphaël Boumaïla, who also danced the Moor) is all about exploring these characters individually and as a collective group. This version is the real deal. The entire cast should be credited for communicating the storyline with their committed movement and extensive dramatic range, though a few of the big extensions did prove challenging balance-wise.

The Joffrey Ballet. Derrick Agnoletti and Aaron Rogers in Ekman's Episode 31

The Joffrey Ballet.
Derrick Agnoletti and Aaron Rogers in Ekman’s Episode 31,
Photo © Cheryl Mann

March 15.The Joffrey Ballet has a signature look, or maybe it’s more accurate to say a signature style. Fusion ballet. Fused genres sometimes get a bad rap because the term implies that two styles are simply being mashed together. But ever since Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe in 1973, The Joffrey has proven time and again that fusion ballet works. It is a distinct mix of traditional, classical elegance and edgy, contemporary surprise. And The company’s recent engagement at Cal Performances confirmed that they do fusion ballet better than anyone.

Val Caniparoli’s Incantations is full of geometric curves – from the costumes and spiral hanging lights (both designed by Sandra Woodall) to the abundance of upper body curves in the choreography. When Aaron Smyth was on stage, it was impossible to take your eyes off him, especially in the middle section of the ballet. His jump sequence had height, ballon and technical accuracy, but the landings! Not only did his heels fully meet the ground after every jump, the landings were silent. No sound whatsoever.

Caniparoli’s choreography was spot on throughout Incantations, including a lovely pas de trois three quarters of the way through. There was just one puzzling moment. Toward the end of the piece, an African dance motif popped up in one of the men’s solos. The movement itself wasn’t puzzling, but the fact that it was only used twice and introduced so late in the game made it seem out of place.

Up next, Stanton Welch’s Son of Chamber Symphony is a three-part work that the Joffrey originally premiered back in 2012. The first movement is by far the best of the bunch – the music, lighting design and choreography conjuring a life-size chess game; the queen present along with five pawns. Each dancer gets a chance to solo, showing what they can do as individuals, and through duets and group sequences, what they can accomplish as a collective.

Unfortunately, the second and third movements lost this whimsy, and the forward momentum of the work stalled. Jeraldine Mendoza and Miguel Angel Blanco danced the second movement’s lengthy duet. Mendoza and Blanco both have significant technical and artistic acumen, but visually, they made a rather curious pair. And though Travis Halsey’s costume design shows some out-of-the-box thinking, the armpit cutouts on the men’s wardrobe are an odd choice and not very flattering.

After a brief pause, Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili took the stage in the stunning pas de deux from Yuri Possokhov’s Bells – a meditation of dynamic highs and lows, choreographic simplicity and complexity, sweet moments alongside dramatic interactions.

The Joffrey Ballet’s Cal Performances program closed with creative gusto as the company took the stage in Alexander Ekman’s Episode 31. A solo dancer (dapperly attired in a suit) turns on a lamp downstage left, and begins to walk in slow motion across the front of the stage. The curtain periodically rises and falls revealing the rest of the cast looking part punk youth culture part futuristic restaurant staff (Luke Simcock’s costumes being a wild combination of black and white).

Ekman’s choreography is equally diverse with ballet, tap, modern and calisthenics. And so was the mood and energy – a meditative section would morph into pandemonium; hysteria would halt to become stillness. As the first dancer continues his slow motion route around the edge of the stage, the curtain remains open revealing the fullness of the party scene; a community of folks working together, enjoying each other and celebrating life. As the suit finishes walking the perimeter, he turns off the lamp and Episode 31 is over. Why was he there? What was his function? Was he just an observer? Did he want to be part of the action? Was he trying to box in those who are unconventional? None of these questions were answered, and that is why Episode 31 is truly a great dance.

The Invention of Wings (pictured: Corey Brady and Natasha Adorlee Johnson Photo ODC - RJ Muna

The Invention of Wings
(pictured: Corey Brady and Natasha Adorlee Johnson)
Photo ODC – RJ Muna

March 22. ODC/Dance marked its 44th home season with the annual yearly program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, ODC/Dance Downtown. Weekend one welcomed the return of last year’s boulders and bones, choreography by Brenda Way and KT Nelson, while the second weekend brought a set of world premieres – Nelson’s Dead Reckoning and another Way/Nelson collaborative project, The Invention of Wings.

The curtain rises on Dead Reckoning to immediately erupting action, like the start of a race. Dancers turn, jump and dive around the stage in a swirl of movement, resembling fireworks. Legs kick outward and arms push through space; Nelson’s choreographic vocabulary an unexpected combination of punchy and sculptural.

Dead Reckoning reads as an A-B-A structure, with a fast, slow, fast section breakdown. Throughout each of these chapters, the motion is continuous; every instant feeding seamlessly into the next. By avoiding stops and starts, Nelson connects the dance’s sub-sections and keeps the forward motion going. While that connectedness and continuity is a great achievement, the middle section (the slow one) has its challenges. The movement intention definitely carried through and there were some beautiful solos (particularly by Jeremy Smith, Josie G. Sadan and Katherine Wells) but the functionality and purpose of this lengthy meditation is unclear. In the last movement, we are treated to a pas de deux, danced here by Natasha Adorlee Johnson and Joseph Hernandez, one of ODC’s most exciting pairings. Their dance was brief, but these two dancers are simply electric when they are on stage together.

Design-wise, lime green ‘snow’ (concept by ODC company dancer Yayoi Kambara) is utilized during the whole dance – falling from the rafters and from the hands of the dancers. By the end of Dead Reckoning, the stage was bathed in this snow, reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Carnations.

Way and Nelson’s The Invention of Wings starts with a prelude of sorts. With the house lights still up and the audience filing in from intermission, a long ream of white paper is rolled out on the stage from upstage to downstage. On one end, dancers write on it, and at the other they rip pieces off, crumpling them into balls and placing them into a wire birdcage. Right from the start, there was a feeling of impermanence; something being created and them immediately being erased.

The Invention of Wings is strong, rich and diverse from a design perspective. With light/scenic design by Matthew Antaky and visuals by Ian Winters and RJ Muna, something new and theatrical constantly arises. Blood red fabric panels, men in black skirts are wheeled around the stage, numbers are painted on backs, there’s a torn and fragmented video screen, giant falling ribbons, figures clad in large white paper, and a dancer rising out of the pit with a giant, flowing skirt. Even a leaf blower makes an appearance. Events and scenes constantly shift and evolve, which again speaks of the initially established impermanence as well as the notion of the unexpected.

Sometimes The Invention of Wings felt like a religious ritual; sometimes, a boy-band performance. Sometimes there was amplified vocalization and counting; sometimes a comment on corporeal presence. Putting all these ideas into the same piece can totally work; collage and layering can be very powerful in performance. But at the same time, with an abundance of different elements, it can be difficult for a dance to find its true identity. This core essence did prove elusive for The Invention of Wings.

Empty Spaces (pictured Erin Kohout). Photo © Rogelio Lopez

Empty Spaces (pictured Erin Kohout).
Photo © Rogelio Lopez

March 27. The Dance Up Close/East Bay performance series has a long history of showcasing work from this region’s best emerging choreographic talent. And Rogelio Lopez & DancersEmpty Spaces, is no exception. For this, his first full-length evening of contemporary dance, Lopez went all in, presenting four simultaneous physical meditations in a single program.

The sold-out audience was divided up and assigned one of four separate rooms. In each of these spaces, a distinct modern dance installation unfolded. Performers entered one studio, engaged in Lopez’s choreography for that space, then exited and moved onto another space to participate in an entirely different variation. An abundance of comings and goings made for a very organic and fluid atmosphere and a perfect portrait of the impermanence that fuels human interaction.

Walking into Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, the mood was haunting. Not haunted, but haunting. A dark space; luminaries perched in the lobby; a background score of rushing wind. As Empty Spaces began, two women communicated a complex duet, equal parts intimate and bleak. Lit by handheld flashlights, the pas de deux was full of instances where they were forcing each other’s movements. And it was purposefully emotionless, almost stoic – clearly together in the space, but also very detached from each other. This distance was palpable even when they embraced. What a poetic environment Lopez had created – the pair was as close as could be and completely far apart at the same time. As other dancers joined the scene, contact improvisation style lifts made their way into the physical vocabulary. Even though that type of partnering calls for camaraderie, support and awareness, these sequences still felt confrontational. But mid-way through Empty Spaces, there was a turning point, during a women’s trio. The haunting nature of the piece still percolated but a tenderness also started to appear; a softer connection. This carried through to the end of the forty-five minute work, where embraces began to take on a newfound affection. And the final group sequence fed off this duality. What began as a unison set of swinging and circular motifs quickly fragmented into various duets and trios like a turning kaleidoscope.

Two through lines were present in Lopez’s Empty Spaces. Choreographically, no matter what step, what style or what dynamic, the movement always extended beyond. Beyond the fingers, beyond the toes, beyond the top of the head, beyond the solar plexus. The choreography was not about the endgame or making a specific shape, rather, it was a journey of continual energy and a pathway of growth. Narratively, Lopez revealed that the notion of something being ‘haunting’ exists on a spectrum. The term does not have a single point of definition, and while it often feels negative, it isn’t always that. Instead, it is a complicated and fluctuating idea with a wider interpretation. Haunting experiences can absolutely be foreboding, hopeless and traumatic. But others may be more of a mystical and unforgettable nature. And Empty Spaces demonstrated that on occasion, some may even contain a little ounce of grace.

Looking Ahead: Coming in April to the San Francisco/Bay Area…

San Francisco Ballet, Program 6, War Memorial Opera House (April 8-19)
San Francisco Ballet, Program 7, War Memorial Opera House (April 10-21)

San Francisco Performances presents Paul Taylor Dance Company, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (April 15-19)

Cal Performances presents Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Zellerbach Hall (April 21-26)

Liss Fain Dance, Z Space (April 9-12)