Heather Desaulniers

  • Smuin Ballet – “XXcentric”
    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

  • San Francisco Ballet – Program 8
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

  • Katharine Hawthorne – “The Escapement”
    Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco

  • Oakland Ballet Company – “Oakland-esque”
    Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, Oakland


Smuin Ballet in Caniparoli's "Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino" Photo © Chris Hardy

Smuin Ballet in Caniparoli’s “Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino”
Photo © Chris Hardy

May 2nd – Smuin Ballet kicked off the final chapter of its twentieth anniversary season with their “XXcentric” program. For this Spring Dance Series, world premieres by Val Caniparoli and Amy Seiwert (“Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino” and “But now I must rest”, respectively) shared the stage with an invariable crowd-pleaser, Michael Smuin’s 2001 work, “Dancin’ with Gershwin”.

Val Caniparoli’s “Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino”, which translates to ‘everything but the kitchen sink’, certainly lived up to its title. Over eleven individual sections, the choreography morphed between classical ballet, contemporary movement, humorous theatricality, stylized gestures and pedestrian sequences. While the work certainly spoke of all these different dance types, “Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino” is still at its core, a neo-classical work. But Caniparoli’s is a new, dynamic brand of this choreographic genre; a more modern and current take on neo-classicism. One of neo-classicism’s trademarks is how the choreography emphasizes the score. Vivaldi’s musical compositions were well reflected in the movement, though Caniparoli took things a step beyond the typical stressing of chords and staccatos. Not only were particular musical motifs accented throughout, but there was also a sense of the highs and lows of each musical phrase being interpreted on stage. “Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino” included some lovely, yet subtle details: Jane Rehm’s coupé derriere supported pirouette, and a crossed fifth position in the air where one foot was pointed and the other flexed. In variation seven, Erin Yarbrough and Aidan DeYoung demonstrated how neo-classical pas de deuxs (which are often filled with unusual and difficult partnering sequences) can look effortless. The key is having a sense of the ‘in between’, and to that end, mastering the transitions. Assignment accomplished.

With every new work, choreographer-in-residence Amy Seiwert is exploring ballet’s identity in the twenty-first century, and how it converses with the larger dance world. “But now I must rest” took ballet and exported it into a grounded, passionate, tribal environment. An ensemble work for ten dancers, there was a constant sense of energy radiating out from deep within the body, extending far beyond the fingers and toes. As the cast cycled through this incredibly tactile work, electricity transferred between them, fueling their movements. This continuous energy flow was present in the various featured vignettes, as well as in the piece overall. “But now I must rest” was comprised of a number of different parts, but there was no feeling of start and stop to it. Instead, the ballet was an uninterrupted stream of raw physical consciousness.

Closing the evening was Michael Smuin’s “Dancin’ with Gershwin”, a revue-style celebration of dance. As nine well-known Gershwin selections sang through the theater, different movement styles were highlighted. From flowy classical ballet to chorus girl vaudeville to old-school performance tap to comic follies to lyrical modern, every number was right on point. Guest performer Shannon Hurlburt’s percussive tap solo to ‘The Rhythm Medley’ stole the show with its intricate combination of five-, six- (and even the elusive) seven-beat riffs, double pull-backs and riffles. “Dancin’ with Gershwin” is an essay of sophisticated glamour, cheeky charm and debonair charisma. And the audience loved it.


San Francisco Ballet in "Glass Pieces"           Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in “Glass Pieces” Photo © Erik Tomasson

May 3rd – San Francisco Ballet’s final mixed repertory program danced through the latter half of the twentieth century. The tour began with George Balanchine’s 1957 “Agon”, moved forward to 1966, and his “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”, and ended with Jerome Robbins’ “Glass Pieces” from 1983. A series of work from master choreographers; a perfect ending to a delightful 2014 season.

 “Agon” epitomizes the Balanchine style – deconstructed theatrical elements, Balanchine ballet vocabulary, stage patterns and dance architecture. Though “Agon” is known for the famed central pas de deux, the entire work is filled with moments of brilliance. When translated into Greek, agon means ‘contest’, yet the majority of the ballet is quite playful, even fun. In Part II’s Gailliard, Jennifer Stahl and Grace Shibley perfectly demonstrated the specificity of Balanchine’s technique. As they both extended their legs into a relevé long, they were careful to pay proper attention to every step of the process – first tendu, then attitude (with the knee higher than the foot), and finally, into full extension. In the Bransle Simple, Jaime Garcia Castilla and Hansuke Yamamoto outlined Balanchine’s intricate understanding of timing, through a complicated recurring canon. And then came the pas de deux, danced at this performance by Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan. It is in this duet that the ballet’s title comes through. On the one hand, Tan and Karapetyan are definitely working in concert, cycling as a team through the near-impossible Balanchine partnering. But at the same time, the choreography communicates a sense of control and struggle from both. While certainly slow and meticulous, ‘the contest’ was still very present and palpable.

With “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”, the audience gets to see a very different side of Balanchine; a much more classical one at that. Separated into four individual sections, the underlying traditional esthetic is maintained, yet each also incorporates its own unique spirit. Led by Lorena Feijoo and Castilla, movement number one is elegantly mature, but not at all restrained. Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz followed with a youthful, joyful variation. Flowy and romantic, the movement was peppered with surprising Balanchinian elements, like Kochetkova’s fouettés, featuring a forward working leg. Dores André and Joan Boada brought regality to chapter three. Boada’s tours en l’air were truly magnificent but the highlight of this vignette was Rebecca Rhodes, one of the three featured corps dancers. Rhodes exudes genuineness in every moment onstage, and has a keen awareness of what is happening around her. “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” closed with Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham leading the corps de ballet through a high-energy cultural folk dance. Sylve and Ingham were powerfully hypnotizing and the stage percolated with life, but this last movement seemed out of place with the rest of the ballet.

Program 8 closed with Robbins’ “Glass Pieces”, a contemporary ballet triptych about community. As the piece began, opposite forces became clear. While the cast walked quickly all around the space, three solo couples emerged. Order was being drawn out of commotion and hubbub; stylized movement out of egalitarian pedestrianism. The contrast continued as Kristina Lind and Tiit Helimets took the stage in ‘Facades’ slow, introspective pas de deux. Lind and Helimets expertly wove through the serious and contemplative variation – their long, lean extensions went on forever; their series of overlaid promenades, immaculate. The entire corps (led by the men) returned in the third movement, reinstating Robbins’ notion of community. Through a variety of stage patterns and unexpected choreographic surprises (the women’s arms in the circular turning sequence), “Glass Pieces” celebrated the collective, and each individual’s contribution to that group.


Katherine Disenhof in "The Escapement"  Photo © Ben Hersh

Katherine Disenhof in “The Escapement”
Photo © Ben Hersh

May 10th – Katharine Hawthorne’s newest dance work, “The Escapement”, premiered at Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco’s Mission District. Hawthorne, an up-and-coming choreographic talent, has a special knack for fusing scientific processes and movement in contemporary performance. “The Escapement” added yet another distinct chapter to this growing body of work; with a fresh subject matter, time. While the subtitle of the piece, ‘a danced history of timekeeping’, suggests a chronological approach to the topic, “The Escapement” is more comprehensive; a work that includes literal and figurative representations of time, as well as an examination of its external and internal qualities.

The fifty-five minute composition began in a bare space – no set, just a taped yellow circle in the center of the room, from which movement would radiate like spokes of a wheel, or more accurately, like a clock. Hawthorne injected the notion of time right from the start with smartly subtle details. When movement is too ‘on the nose’, dance can turn into simplistic gestural mime; it just doesn’t work. “The Escapement” didn’t hit the audience over the head with its foundational concept; its balance was very good. An external example of time was present in a recurring clock motif – while the dancer or dancers rotated on the spot, one arm was outstretched from the shoulder. For an internal and structural characterization of time, Hawthorne created a beautiful canon sequence mid-way through “The Escapement”. The cast stood in a line and cycled through a single movement phrase, each beginning the steps a few beats after the dancer in front of them. Small reflexive movements in the shoulders, legs and arms mimicked time’s smallest elements (seconds) while simultaneously revealing the individual’s own body rhythms. Repetitive solo sequences were layered together as the dancers scattered through the space. These various physical phrases looped concurrently as with the constant yet distinct nature of time. And toward the end of the dance, there was also a genius collection of ‘mechanics’ vignettes – the entire cast (four women and one man) came together like the gears of a watch or clock in scenes of collaborative and accumulated motion.

“The Escapement” is full of these clever and well-formulated moments. However, the work is still in the early stages of life (it will have another run in the fall at ODC Theater) and some further exploration may prove helpful. First is the lighting. Mobile lights are used throughout the work, operated by the dancers. While the lights seemed to have a significant importance, their connection to and with the choreography was not clear. In addition, “The Escapement” is filled with an over abundance of running sequences, where the cast moves in and out of the main stage space. This broke up the cohesiveness of the work and added unnecessary freneticism. And last was the overall sense and feel of the dance. Saturday evening’s cast was a group of talented artists, very capable of communicating the material and totally committed to their performance; they have bright futures as modern dancers. But they are young. And a youthful cast certainly gives “The Escapement” a particular look. That’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing, but it is an observation that needs to be considered.

Vincent Chavez of Oakland Ballet Company and Rayshawn "Looney" Thomspon of the Turffeinz in Oakland Ballet Company's "Oakland-esque", Photo © David DeSilva

Vincent Chavez of Oakland Ballet Company and Rayshawn “Looney” Thomspon of the Turffeinz in Oakland Ballet Company’s “Oakland-esque”, Photo © David DeSilva

May 17th – The Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts was alive with movement and music as the Oakland Ballet Company presented three performances of  “Oakland-esque”, their spring production. In this two-act program, the cast and audience took a chronological journey beginning in the late 1920s and culminating in the present day. Inspired by these past nine decades, four world premieres by four different choreographers offered stylistic breadth and range of genre. Though at their core, each piece was committed to “Oakland-esque’s” larger narrative: the strength of community spirit.

Opening the evening was the world premiere of Sonya Delwaide’s “Rocky Road”. A contemporary work for the company, along with guest artists Sonsherée Giles and Joel Brown of AXIS Dance Company, “Rocky Road” traveled back in time to the 1920s and 1930s (incidentally, the audience learned at the end of the dance that Rocky Road ice cream was invented in Oakland back in 1929). Narratively, “Rocky Road” featured a varied community leaning into their existing reality. And structurally, Delwaide peppered the work with movement from the chosen era but re-imagined for a contemporary audience. Flexed feet, Charleston partnering and parallel boureés abounded. Act I’s second world premiere was Robert Moses’ “TIP”, a contemporary ballet set to music by Larry Graham and Graham Central Station. Again, community and youth culture took focus but this time, Moses centered the action at a 1960s/1970s beach party. Full of unexpected partnering and surprising choreographic moments, the entire Oakland Ballet ensemble was ‘all in’ for this dance. Though with any Moses piece, the key to effective communication lies in the transitions, which needed further attention here. It is in these quieter, in between moments that the mystery, excitement and drama of the movement can be fully revealed. The company was not quite there yet. And while these first two world premieres were a great start to the celebratory evening of dance, there were sound problems from time to time. The recorded scores in both works had several instances of overly piercing and even grating levels.

Onto Act II, and two more world premieres for the Oakland Ballet Company. First up was Molissa Fenley’s “Redwood Park”, a stream of continuous physicality for a quintet (at this particular performance, four men and one woman). “Redwood Park” moved forward to the 1980s, where experimental hybridization was the trend of the moment in the performing arts. Fenley maneuvered aptly through this difficult style, accomplishing intelligent fusion without losing the individual components’ integrity. With “Redwood Park”, Fenley built a fascinating post-modern ballet, where classical dance and modern met an avant-garde score, composed by Joan Jeanrenaud and performed live by Nava Dunkelman and Anna Wray. The movement and music did not interact like in a typical abstract dance, instead there was a collage of bodies in motion, choreography in space and phrases accompanied by sound. It was both fascinating and spellbinding. And though transitions had been challenging for the company up until this point, the transitions in “Redwood Park” were incredibly clear. Fast-forward to present day and “Turfland”, the highly anticipated premiere by company Artistic Director Graham Lustig that closed the “Oakland-esque” program. Guest dancers from the Turffeinz joined the Oakland Ballet Company in a complete celebration of motion – street dancers partnered ballerinas, classical dancers broke into b-boy sequences, there was even a moonwalk on pointe shoes. Different members of the cast took turns videoing the action, which was then projected on the back scrim in real-time, interspersed with a collection of Oakland-inspired murals. The whole stage percolated with movement, joy and energy; and the vitality was contagious – the audience was completely caught up in it. While community was woven throughout the entire night, Lustig’s “Turfland” was the ultimate expression of community. Yes, there were different dance styles and movement genres onstage together, but the work was much more than that. It was a meeting of artists; a collaborative conversation; and most definitely, a tribute to Oakland.