- San Francisco Ballet – Romeo & Juliet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
- The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company presents Project CastOff
San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, San Francisco
- The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company presents “An Intimate Evening of Three Choreographers”
San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, San Francisco
- FACT/SF – Relief
co-produced by the Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco
- Robert Moses’ Kin – SILT
Forum at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
- Smuin Ballet – Unlaced
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
- Mid to West Dance Collective – Part & Parcel
presented by Dance Up Close/East Bay, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
May 1. Two young lovers who were not supposed to be together. Warring families. A chain of tragic circumstances. The gripping narrative of Romeo & Juliet has bred much artistic and creative exploration. So many different interpretations have been forged: classic, contemporary, post-modern; play, movie, ballet. And like any prolific story, some versions are better than others.
San Francisco Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet, choreographed in 1994 by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, is not just better. It is one of the best. And currently, my favorite. Tomasson’s composition is all about the details and everything works in tandem. Choreography unlocks the intricacies in Prokofiev’s score; character interactions reveal nuanced and layered relationships. This Romeo & Juliet speaks deeply and opening night was full of equally outstanding performances.
Carlos Quenedit’s fun-loving, carefree Romeo strolled through the village with Benvolio (Hansuke Yamamoto) and Mercutio (Taras Domitro) in the early moments of the ballet. Sarah Van Patten’s Juliet first appeared in Act I’s second scene, looking out a window high above the stage. Her expressive face glowed with joy, wonder and naïveté. Over the next two and half hours, both these characters embark on a journey (catastrophic though it is). Romeo transitions from youthful camaraderie to tortured outcast and Juliet from sweet delight to frantic desperation. With such a vast transition over a short period of time, these first introductions are crucial. As the tumultuous drama unfolds, it’s easy to forget and lose sight of their initial hope and innocence.
Act I’s opening moments also simultaneously expose the profound hatred that exists between the two houses. The sword fight that breaks out in the first scene occurs with very little provocation. The message is clear – whenever the Montagues and Capulets encounter one another, pandemonium erupts like an epidemic.
On their way to crash the Capulet party, Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio dance a fun pas de trois; a brief variation of technical bravado and charismatic acting. Quenedit, Yamamoto and Domitro delivered on both fronts, though the unison was a little shaky. After Romeo and Juliet meet at the ball, they begin a touchingly sweet pas de deux. In it, you see one of the first transitions in their relationship, a move from shyness toward adoration. And then, onto Act I’s finale, the Balcony Scene. Tomasson infuses this famous duet with a wide range of emotion – care, affection, passion and desire informing each movement. Their hands as they clasp together; the vast extensions; the spinning, flying lifts.
Act II of Tomasson’s ballet may be short, yet it contains important plot points and narrative extremes. In it, Romeo and Juliet are joyfully (and secretly) united in marriage by Friar Laurence (Ricardo Bustamante). Very soon after, tragedy befalls the square – Mercutio dies at Tybalt’s hand and Tybalt at Romeo’s.
As Act III begins, Romeo and Juliet must part, Romeo having been expelled from Verona for killing Tybalt. They say farewell through another gorgeous pas de deux that also includes some subtle foreshadowing. In a series of jetés, Juliet is lifted into the air and looks like an angel soaring through space. Unbeknownst to them, this is the last time they will see each other alive. Motifs from this and the balcony pas de deux reappear when Romeo arrives at the crypt in the ballet’s final scene. In his grief, he tries to recreate these moments with a lifeless Juliet.
Van Patten and Quenedit gave divine portrayals in the title roles, but a number of other performances made the night truly magical. Steven Morse’s Paris was memorable, stately and noble. One of the most haunting sequences in the ballet happens after Juliet finally agrees to marry Paris in Act III, Scene III. Perfectly in line with the drama of that instant, both Morse and Van Patten looked like absent ghosts, completely devoid of emotion as they danced together. Later in that same scene, Juliet’s five friends arrive to wake her in the morning, and their pas de cinq was some of the best unison dancing of the evening. As the two harlots, Dores André and Dana Genshaft were cheeky and confident. And Domitro’s Mercutio was fantastic. Domitro is an amazing technician, but his acting in the scene where Mercutio perished was something else.
May 2. Two dancers took their positions upstage right, a third dancer, mid-way left, all costumed in flowing tropical fabrics. Sometimes they danced in unison; sometimes on their own; sometimes in pairs. But whatever the format or sequence, every motion expressed and conjured waves, arcs and circles. Fast and slow, partial and complete, arms swam and hips pivoted. Parallel degagés mapped the curved pathway that the leg creates in the air. And the entire trio was constructed with an interesting fusion of contemporary vocabulary and traditional island dance.
Beneath Wakea by Kelly Del Rosario kicked off the inaugural weekend of Project CastOff, a new artistic endeavor being undertaken by members of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. It is a creative opportunity. A chance for these accomplished dance artists to present their own original choreography, together on a shared program. This first iteration showcased six new works; a diverse collection from the next generation of contemporary choreographers. It was a great night of modern dance and I hope that Project CastOff sees many more editions in the years to come.
Megan Wright’s Did He or Didion was performed by Wright and Robyn Gerbaz. Two paper bags were placed on the stage and Gerbaz began by reading a Joan Didion excerpt aloud. A dance theater work, Did He or Didion examined how the body and persona react to change, perception and expectation, from both internal and external stimuli. Much choreographic material was packed into each movement phrase, and some lovely moments shone through. Wright stood in first position demi-plié, and her feet almost climbed out and adjusted into parallel. Theatrical repetition was also utilized in the piece – a classic dance theater tool that simultaneously provides emphasis and anesthesia.
The evening’s first half closed with Margaret Cromwell’s Clay and Good Intentions, a duet danced by Kelly Del Rosario and Ryan T. Smith. The pair emerged from stage left, walking into the space slowly and methodically. When they arrived in the center, the movement expanded in scope, tempo and intensity. From that point on, the dance toggled back and forth between these two extremes of carefulness and abandon. But the heart of each sequence was focused on precise articulation of the joints, limbs and muscles.
After a brief intermission, the lights came up on Chinchin Hsu’s Sunrises at 3:33. Three dancers filed into the space from the corner of the room, one right after the other. Different temperaments were immediately apparent – one jubilant, one annoyed and one crotchety. At the end of the dance, a suitcase on a rope was pulled across the stage and each dancer put on something from inside the case. First a pair of pants, then shoes, then an overcoat. I wasn’t positive how that part fit into the overall piece, but I was captivated as the scene played out.
Haunting banjo music underscored the next work, C4, by Brendan Barthel. The lyrical music existed in that precarious ‘in between’ space, neither major nor minor, but rather a complex combination of both. Barthel crafted a duet (which he danced with Victor Talledos) along this same theme of porousness; one that was sometimes a very intimate pas de deux and sometimes two very separate independent solos. And yet, C4 moved seamlessly from one state to another, which made for a very layered visual experience. A concurrent sense of solitude and togetherness.
How will you start your dance? How will you end it? And what will transpire in the middle? Project CastOff closed with Ryan T. Smith’s between the beginning and the end, a solo that sought to examine these pertinent questions of composition. Smith’s point of origin was the right arm, stretched out to the side. And the piece ended with the same movement, this time using the left arm. What unfolded between these two points was a varied stream of physical consciousness. Primarily lyrical (though not exclusively), Smith had such clarity and intention as he cycled through his own choreography. It was a mesmerizing whirlwind of movement and yet, came back to this very quiet moment. His left arm extended in the same way his right arm had, and the lights dimmed.
May 8. The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company continued at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance for their second May weekend. Following Project CastOff, this program was a quadruple bill of dance by three different choreographers. It was an evening of closeness; an evening of vulnerability; an evening of remarkable contemporary movement.
Katie Faulkner’s Coat of Arms opened the program; a charming and clever duet danced by Faulkner and James Graham. As it began, Graham stood directly behind Faulkner, mirroring and imitating her motions. But this was only the piece’s initial statement. The work quickly developed and evolved, Graham’s interpretations became more his own and the two moved away from their first stage position. While the entire body reacted and participated, Faulkner’s choreography was primarily a study of the arms, as suggested by the title. Some phrases focused on arm positions (particularly the one that was scored by pulsed breathing); some contained body percussion; some were task-oriented; some led to full physical processes. Later in Coat of Arms, another mirroring sequence occurred, except this time, Faulkner and Graham faced each other. Their hands got so close, but they never made contact. This was a moment of realization – even with all the hand and arm choreography, it seemed that they had never touched each other in the entire piece. And as the dance closed, I think that ingenious truth remained.
Choreographer Risa Jaroslow came out into the space to introduce the next work, her solo Thinking Aloud. She told us that she was going to think out loud for five minutes and explained that we wouldn’t hear it but we would see it. A timer was set and the solo began. An abundance of circular motions made me wonder if Jaroslow was relaying a set of persistent thoughts; movements against the exposed brick wall looked like a combination of surrender and frustration; eye contact with and close proximity to the audience gave a sense of sharing. That’s what I saw. I’m sure others saw something completely different and that is what makes a work like this so exciting.
Dancers Lauren Simpson and Ronja Ver took the stage in Jaroslow’s Evolutionary Tales, a mini triptych of self-discovery. The first part communicated the movement journey of fundamental organisms and animals – learning how to move, what movement is possible, what range can be achieved, how much weight can be transferred, how far you can pull off center and how much you can extend into space. In part two, the mood changed drastically as audible animalistic growling suggested aggression. Here, each dancer tried to control and dominate the other, and it was definitely not playful. In the final section, the impulse for control and placing was still present, but this time, not as antagonistic. There still wasn’t too much shared affection, but there was a note of contentment and of giving in, in order to work together.
During a brief pause, the chairs in studio 270 were rearranged so that the audience was seated in a horseshoe around the stage’s perimeter. And then, Margaret Jenkins’ A Gallery of Rooms began, a work-in-progress performed by The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. Six dancers entered the space and scattered themselves around a sparse set: three chairs, a lamp and a side table. From there, a collection of short vignettes emerged. The setting was uncluttered and deconstructed, while the choreography was dramatic, theatrical and even a little nostalgic. I don’t think there was a narrative through-line, but the dancers did seem like characters in a larger story.
And so, A Gallery of Rooms felt a little like watching a play. A great play with many standout scenes. The solo danced by Chinchin Hsu was hypnotizing. She started by gently swaying, then her arms and hands rippled through space, followed by a purposely-unsteady backwards-zigzag circuit. Brendan Barthel, Ryan T. Smith and Megan Wright’s trio had an argumentative, confrontational power combined with intense tactile force. An engaging quartet developed from a set of verbal cues. Numbers said aloud prompted different attitudes, different viewpoints and different gestures. And there was one recurring motif that I was so curious about – a finger snap that was aimed out into space. Was it a signal? Was it a call to attention? Or, was it simply a movement?
May 9. Dance theater walks a precarious tightrope. Its components often fit together in unexpected, strange and odd ways. It can feel elusive, even for folks who are used to seeing it. At the same time, it tends to explore common, relatable themes that speak to a vast audience. It’s most successful when it can do both – stay true to its compositional form and characteristics and allow identifiable messages to shine through.
FACT/SF’s current production, Relief, tackles this tricky task with sensitivity, thought and gumption. Choreographer and Artistic Director Charles Slender-White has constructed a diverse Dance Theater work that also reveals an important message. Lines that divide are blurry, and the blurriest place between two extremes is also the most interesting.
Relief partitioned the Joe Goode Annex into two sections: the gathering area and the performance space. Streamers of large square paper sheets hanging from ceiling to floor. As the audience mingled and chatted, the dance started, behind this porous ‘wall’. FACT/SF’s company of six dancers was partly obscured, partly visible. Immediately, the notion of division,
and the blurriness in division, was established.
One of the streamer panels was folded up and we were invited into the main space. Once everyone was seated, a new movement phrase began. From their chairs, the dancers dropped onto the floor with intensity and speed, whipping their bodies back and forth, over and over again. Here, Relief was exposing the state between calm and collapse. A balancing section examined obedience and rebellion and fed directly into a delicious old-school jazz dance sequence. The dancers traveled through the space with pas de boureés, parallel pirouettes, piqué turns and fouettés. Pasted-on smiles produced a creepy runway feeling, and a simultaneous expression of reality and pretense.
The mood shifted and the company filed into one line. With their heads down, they shuffled around the perimeter of the stage, very close to the audience. Visible and invisible in the same instant. When this shuffling motif recurred later in the work, it was cadenced by a confrontation segment. Performers went right up to various audience members, looking them directly in the eye while they continued through a series of gestures. This moment challenged the idea of and the relationship between participant and viewer – the original post-modernists would be proud.
The company was on stage and dancing full-out for Relief’s entire seventy-minutes (with only a few brief periods of rest). It was quite a feat. And the technique demonstrated by all six was very, very strong. This was particularly apparent in the last third of the piece during a set of beautifully flowing movement phrases. This collection was constructed as a cycle – dancers would join, complete the circuit, sit down and another would take their place. A sense of fluidity and continuous motion took over, yet there was still reference to division. The choreography was performed in unison, so the group was working collectively. But the majority of the phrase occurred in the corners, in the periphery, which equally spoke of individualism. This section was my favorite of the evening, though with its multiple cycles, it did go on a little long. And as Relief closed, the opening running phrase returned. Except this time, we were in the space with the dancers, and could experience it in its entirety and fullness. No division was present.
May 14. Dregs, grounds, deposit, sediment. These are just some of the many synonyms for the term silt. The material that is left over; the substance that remains. Robert Moses has chosen this penetrating concept for his latest contemporary dance. With its reflective nature and investigative questions, SILT is a marvelous beginning to Robert Moses’ Kin’s twentieth anniversary season.
As we entered the YBCA Forum space, we were greeted by the company dancers and guided through a set of center stage mobiles, strings of beads hanging from each. This was a curious feeling; light and mystical but also with an awareness that you were walking through something heavy, something significant. After everyone had traveled this airy yet viscose path, the world premiere of SILT began. The company of fourteen took their opening positions at the back of the room and initiated a set of pulsating, repetitive movements. At first, they traveled forward together but then broke out into the periphery. This dynamic of scattering and re-arranging into new configurations would inform the entire evening. Just like sediment; just like silt.
SILT was spatially immersive, in every way imaginable. We (the audience) were encouraged to move about the space as the dance developed, interacting with the performers and with those around us. Of late, I’ve attended a number of performances that engaged this ‘mobile viewer’ model. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Here it not only worked, it flourished.
The YBCA Forum was built for this style of dance installation; everyone was all in, completely behind the concept. This audience ownership, if you will, meant that you decided what scenes to watch, how long to watch them, where to move next. And in turn, noticed what would catch your eye, what would keep your attention and what would draw you in. At the same time, there were scenes that were completely obscured from your view, no matter where you moved. So as an audience member, you also had to contend with the idea of not always getting what you wanted. With us all co-habitating and co-existing in a shared space, the dancer’s deportment also varied, from inviting and soothing all the way to confrontational.
Bodies dispersed unpredictably, all over the space. Dancing bodies; watching bodies. SILT was up close and personal and had an exciting undercurrent of unpredictability. We didn’t know where the dancers would go next, and they also didn’t know when we would move or where we would sit or stand. With circumstances in constant flux, a true ‘in-the-moment’ contemporary dance performance evolved. So of course, everyone’s SILT experience was different. From the various vignettes I witnessed, here are a few highlights.
A recurring swimming motif appeared in several of the solos, duets and group sequences. This rippling movement was delicate but also had a weight to it, bringing back the sense of our initial entrance through the hanging bead structures. These panels figured prominently in the work, and some of my favorite moments were when dancers stood amongst and amidst the beads, waiting. Suspension literally and figuratively hung in the air, and I was transfixed watching the living statues abiding within the beads.
A long line of dancers traveled towards a staircase with a series of step, plié, back attitude. They exited the main floor, climbed the stairs and proceeded to dance above us, against the grid-like ceiling squares. The movements spoke of desperation but the statement was delightfully ambiguous – were they trying to connect, or trying to retreat? As spotlights appeared all over the floor, the company continued to engage with the audience, handing out cell phones and speakers as they approached each pool of light. A swirling, movement phrase unfolded (at least where I was standing) full of off-center pirouettes and fanning arms and legs. Near the end of SILT, most, though not all, of the dancers receded to the side wall for a moment of repose, which then fed into a collection of individual solos– grounded, funky phrase material abounding all over the room. The repetitive body pulses returned to signal that the end of the piece was near. And then, the brilliant seventy-five minute exposition closed – the dancers gathered the hanging beads, shook them and then released their grasp, almost like the end of a ritual.
May 16. Smuin Ballet just completed the first leg of a Bay Area tour. To close their twenty-first anniversary season, the company presented Unlaced, a hearty quadruple bill. Featuring a recent returning favorite by Helen Pickett, two classic Michael Smuin pas de deuxs and a new work by Adam Hougland, the program once again distinguishes this dynamic company as a necessary destination for lovers of both classical and contemporary dance.
The curtain rose on Helen Pickett’s Petal (originally choreographed in 2008 and performed by Santa Fe Ballet) to reveal a striking, bright yellow stage. This exciting opening statement immediately awakens the senses. Pickett’s choreography calls for a parallel vibrancy with its constant shifts; demanding seamless pivots between modern and traditional technique. As the light design (originally by Todd Elmer, adapted by Michael Oesch) turned a pinky-orange, Erin Yarbrough and Jonathan Powell danced a knowing duet of steadfastness and clarity. Nicole Haskins and Weston Krukow swept the audience away with their pas de deux, particularly Krukow’s turns in second attitude and Haskins’ brave, blind jump into his arms. While the ballet was full of these and other noteworthy moments, this particular performance did feel a little contained. When Smuin premiered Petal two years ago, there was an on-the-edge excitement and palpable intensity that was missing this time.
Part two of Unlaced brought two contrasting pas de deux by Michael Smuin, the balcony scene from his Romeo and Juliet and an excerpt from Hearts Suite, both of which had their Smuin Ballet premiere in 1994.
Romeo and Juliet, danced by Yarbrough and Powell, was an absolute delight. Smuin injected this famous scene with a subtleness that made you remember an important aspect of the story. Yes, the two main characters are desperately in love, but their experience is brand new, having just met one another. Such a complex narrative calls for both sides – the careful delicacy of newness combined with grand abandon of passion. The choreography delivered, one hundred per cent. And Yarbrough and Powell were absolutely incandescent.
The pas de deux from Hearts Suite was Smuin’s take on a very unique love story; one from a different time, a different place. In this character-driven, narrative duet, Garance, danced exquisitely by Susan Roemer, is trapped in challenging life circumstances and is caught off-guard by the love and affection of Baptiste (another fantastic portrayal by Ben Needham-Wood). Unfulfilled expectations, unexpected love and an atypical match; the excerpt leaves you wondering how the story will unfold.
Unlaced closed with Adam Hougland’s newest composition, Ask Me, an ensemble dance for five women and five men. The lights went up, and club culture took over. The company looked like a diverse set of 1980s characters, with a little helping of 1990s grunge and just a pinch of modern day hipster. A sense of community and camaraderie was immediately established in the first unison group sequence, and carried through to the end of the ballet. A collection of smaller scenes (solos, duets, quintets) followed that initial statement, all with the undercurrent of celebration, of togetherness.
Hougland’s Ask Me was part rock video, part edgy artistic installation that ended with a lovely, introspective solo, danced by Robert Kretz. The work was cool and edgy, but the ending was so abrupt. I can’t help wondering if at some point, there was something more, something after that final solo that ended up getting cut at the last minute.
May 17. I have been so impressed by every performance that has been part of the Dance Up Close/East Bay series at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center over the past ten months. Each engagement has been unique and different but the through vision is unmistakable – to support emerging choreographic voices, and bring new contemporary work to audiences in an intimate and personal setting.
Mid to West Dance Collective is the latest chapter of this distinguished tome. Their new program, Part & Parcel is a great compilation of contemporary dance – well constructed, diverse and thought-provoking material – and Mid to West Dance Collective is a gracious and talented group of choreographers that is definitely going places fast.
A metal lab table with five small specimen jars was set downstage left, and as each dancer entered the space, that table was their destination. After everyone engaged in a few moments of investigating the vials, Rebecca Chun climbed onto the structure. From her movements, it seemed that someone or a ‘group of someones’ was looking at her, examining her as the performers had just examined the jars. So began Mo Miner’s Specimen – a piece about inquiry, observation and scrutiny. The lab table was then relocated to the back of the room and the cast of five began
moving all over the space. Hand binoculars were fashioned around the eyes, suggesting the watching of others. But Specimen was a much more comprehensive approach to the concept of watching. How are one’s actions and movements informed by the presence of another’s gaze? How does intensity change? Demeanor? Attitude? And for those doing the watching, how are they altered and affected? Sometimes the dancers began imitating the movement phrases; sometimes they disengaged entirely; sometimes they intentionally tried to manipulate what was occurring in front of them, imposing their own will on others. As Specimen came to its conclusion, the vials reappeared, and the lights dimmed as each dancer sat holding one vial in their hand. They looked intently at the jarred material, as if it was the answer to a burning question.
To begin Sarah JG Chenoweth’s Architecture Oriented Otherwise, dancers Kevin Lopez and Jordan Stout carried in planks of wood and four mismatched table legs. Immediately, they started organizing. Organizing is an important distinction here, because they weren’t necessarily building anything, at least not in the conventional sense. It was more placing, setting and rearranging, both in terms of these design elements and in Chenoweth’s choreography. Arms were lifted in the air and then dropped, legs folded into sit-up positions, wrists pivoted. Careful purpose and purposeful attention underscored everything; a constant cycle of ordering and re-ordering. But there was still a hearty dose of experimentation and some well-placed humor. Table legs doubled as ski poles; planks as dance partners. Appropriately, the planks and table legs were credited in the program as the ‘ensemble’ for Architecture Oriented Otherwise – the Judsonites would definitely approve.
Dressed in black, a quartet of women took the stage in the final segment of Part & Parcel, Rebecca Chun’s character-driven work, You v the Powers that Be. The four dancers began in unison, but Miner quickly separated herself from the other three, breaking out on her own. Together, the stoic trio continued accompanying the choreography with repeated singing and whispered phrases, ‘simmer down’ and ‘get in line’, respectively. The trio continued to confront Miner with a combination of pasted on smiles and intensely serious glares, trying to persuade and in some ways, bully her. After a set of solos, duets and trios, their attempts drew some success as Miner rejoined them, albeit with hesitancy and trepidation. In the last section of You v the Powers that Be, Miner intends to separate from the group again. They try and stop her, and pull her back as her annoyance and frustration grows. Until she is finally standing alone while the others dance on the perimeter. Had they given up? Had she won? Or had they moved onto someone else?