Heather Desaulniers

  • Smuin Ballet – XXTREMES
    Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco

  • Paufve | dance – “Soil”
    Hillside Swedenborgian Community Church, El Cerrito

  • Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and SITI Company – “A Rite”
    Lam Research Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

  • Cal Performances presents Nederlands Dans Theater
    Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

  • Zhukov Dance Theater – Product 06
    Miner Auditorium, SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco


Terez Dean and Christian Squires in "Dear Miss Cline" by Choreographer in Residence Amy Seiwert Photo © David DeSilva

Terez Dean and Christian Squires in “Dear Miss Cline” by Choreographer in Residence Amy Seiwert
Photo © David DeSilva

October 5th – With a two week engagement at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts theater, Smuin Ballet has kicked-off their twentieth anniversary season. The company has never looked better – the familiar faces are as solid as ever and they have been joined by some exciting new company members. “XXTREMES” is all about contemporary ballet, a triple bill featuring Amy Seiwert’s “Dear Miss Cline”, Jiří Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land” and Michael Smuin’s “Carmina Burana”.

 A nostalgic period ballet, “Dear Miss Cline” is choreographer-in-residence Amy Seiwert’s tribute to the music of Patsy Cline. When it premiered two years ago, it became an instant fan favorite, though it wasn’t particularly a favorite of mine. However, this time around, “Dear Miss Cline” was fun, springy and delightful. This goes to show that casting really matters. A few of the original cast members were still present, but the injection of some new blood was vital to the work’s success. It gave “Dear Miss Cline” a buoyant energy and youthful presence that was definitely missing two years back. With every arabesque, attitude or traditional pirouette, Jonathan Dummar completed each turn up in the turning position rather than down on the floor. You often talk of dancers soaring in jumps, but Dummar truly soars in his turns. And though “Dear Miss Cline” is a group piece, new company member Nicole Haskins shone in her slightly more prominent role.

Jiří Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land” is a new work for Smuin Ballet, though it was choreographed in the mid-1970s, two years after the death of choreographer John Cranko. A work dedicated to Cranko, “Return to a Strange Land” takes its cast of six through four separate contemporary ballet movements, each conveying a distinct emotional quality. The first movement was full of motion and swirling, like getting lost in a sea of information. Next came a variation full of abandon, yet marked by an underlying notion of mature restraint. The third duet was about falling, punctuated by quick staccato boureés and last, Kylián created a mirage of living sculpture. Bodies morphed from one state to another; some images subtle (a flick of the wrist) and some dramatic (the extension of the entire body).

Closing the “XXTREMES” program was Michael Smuin’s 1997 masterpiece “Carmina Burana”. “Carmina Burana” has that sense of hypnotic ritual to it – the presence of the crowd and the chosen one. Smuin’s “Carmina Burana” definitely has a strong narrative (more so than many of his lyrical ballet works), but the real triumph with this piece is how Smuin married the complex score with appropriately complex movement. And performance-wise, the men’s trio (Ben Needham-Wood, Aidan DeYoung and Eduardo Permuy) stole the show – their unison was otherworldly.

While “XXTREMES” brought together three diverse choreographic works, there were some problems with structure and repertory choice. First was the program order. Smuin’s “Carmina Burana” is an epic piece, quite long and with a consistent dynamic level. It would have made more sense for it to open the program rather than close it. Second, each ballet featured in “XXTREMES” had a similar compositional form. All three were made up of smaller scenes/vignettes, each with their own defined beginning and ending. On its own, this structure is tricky; small individual snippets can make it difficult to maintain forward momentum and choreographic continuity. It can become too much of a ‘stop and go’ experience, and not enough like a comprehensive work. However, this type of formal structure can also be completely successful. The issue here was not the individual variation style but that every piece on the “XXTREMES” program had this characteristic. When celebrating the breadth of a ballet company, at least one of the repertory choices might have reflected a different formal structure.

"Soil" Photo © Pak Han

Photo © Pak Han

October 11th – “Soil”, the newest performance piece from Paufve | dance, is both a treasure and triumph for the modern genre. An hour-long event danced by Randee Paufve, “Soil” brings five solos (some premieres; some past works) by four different choreographers: Kate Weare, Gregg Bielemeier, Della Davidson and Paufve herself.

Set in a gorgeous building high atop a hill, the ‘mobile’ piece inhabits different parts of a single room. The first solo, Paufve’s “Laying Ground” (2008), unfolded in front of large bay windows just as the sun was setting. A moment of closure meeting an instant of beginning, accompanied by an earthy cello score. From there Paufve journeyed to the center of the space for the premiere of Kate Weare’s “Erie Lackawana”. Every movement of this solo variation had a tactile presence – whether small flutters in the hand or lengthy arabesque poses, Paufve seemed to be truly ‘touching’ the space around her, as opposed to creating shapes within that space. It may be somewhat of a buzz word in modern dance today but “Erie Lackawana” had a very real sense of organic-ness.

Solo #3, the premiere of Gregg Bielemeier’s “…it’s kind of a secret but she screams like a girl…” was a stand-out hit. Like all good dance theater, this vignette had comedy, absurdity and a strong technical foundation. It began with a scene of Paufve getting into character, almost like watching her prepare backstage in a dressing room. She put on her costume, did her make-up and donned a short blond wig, transforming into a wonderful combination of the real-life Chloe Sevigny and the fictitious Carmela Soprano. Medium-sized bouncy balls were scattered around the floor, getting kicked and swatted as Paufve cycled through the fun, yet sound choreography. “…it’s kind of a secret but she screams like a girl…” concluded with a hilarious set of personal reflections as Paufve (outside) used a set of window panes as her own personal mirrors.

1991’s “Flying Over Emptiness” (choreography by Della Davidson) took the fourth spot on the program, with a hefty injection of drama and expansive movement. A particularly compelling wing motif suggested the pure essence of breath, further emphasized by the wind soundscore. And as the solo closed, it had descended into a tortured, gnarled web. The final dance of the evening was the premiere of Paufve’s “Endless Mountain”, a piece that exuded primitive strength. Reflecting the vast choreographic spectrum that is Paufve’s work, “Endless Mountain” deliciously toggled between the introspective and the inclusive. The live musical accompaniment didn’t quite have the same breadth, instead remaining in an atonal, avant-garde, improvisational space for the duration.

However wonderful the choreography and the dancing, “Soil” did have one issue that came up a couple of times: a disconnect between the movement and the music. Of course, it is extremely common in contemporary performance for the score and the choreography to be different, sometimes even at odds with each other. But there is divergence and then there is distraction. In the second and fifth solos, the latter was true; at times, the music was actually distracting from what was happening on stage.


"A Rite" Photo © Paul B. Goode

“A Rite”
Photo © Paul B. Goode

October 12th – This year in dance has been all about “The Rite of Spring”. With 2013 being its hundredth anniversary, the ballet’s history has been the topic of conversation. It still seems quite impossible that “The Rite of Spring” premiered one hundred years ago. With its challenging narrative, surprising score and dramatic movement, it could easily have been the brainchild of one of today’s contemporary ballet choreographers, dance theater directors or modern interdisciplinary artists.

What today’s dancemakers have done this year is re-envision, re-create and re-think “The Rite of Spring”. And as a result of their efforts, audiences have been treated to version after version of this tragic ballet in the past ten months. “A Rite”, co-produced and co-performed by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company (Artistic Director Bill T. Jones) and SITI Company (Artistic Director Anne Bogart), was an epic performance adventure. Impeccably crafted and artfully designed, “A Rite” was not only the best re-imagining of “The Rite of Spring” I have seen this year, but perhaps one of the best dance works I have seen in the last five years. With every moment, the entire sold-out audience brimmed with palpable anticipation – we couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. Making the experience even more special is that “A Rite” was part of a month-long celebration at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, marking the thirtieth anniversary of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

Jones, Bogart and the cast have created a true character-study, and that is what  makes “A Rite” a masterpiece. Through dance, theater, text, humor, scenework, music and body percussion, here was a comprehensive character examination (told with equal parts hilarity and seriousness): the history of the original production, the story behind the compositional score, the narrative of the real-life players, the psyche of the onstage personas. “A Rite” is not just choreography, not just performance, not just dance theater; it is the whole package.

The opening moments were like watching an old Hollywood movie with a complex collage of music, movement and lights. Right from the start, the notion of community was key; the cast moving together in lines and in groups. Sometimes this occurred with unison movement, while in other instances, the collective worked as one (specifically the sequences with chairs and stools). In addition, there were two large choir scenes, where cast members sang multiple different parts. When combined, their individual voices created a very literal and figurative harmony. Jones’ choreographic greatness glimmered throughout. The most notable instance happened during a very short solo – a death-defying double attitude jump collapsed onto the floor, and was followed by a stunning multiple turn in parallel.

Approximately two-thirds into “A Rite”, there was a long divertissement in which three large doorways were introduced. The cast wove in and out of these spaces and spiraled around each other in the main part of the stage. Though the scene was mimicking the polyphony in the score (where independent musical lines mix with other additional voices, creating an equal interdependence), it really seemed like the life-size physical architecture of a clock, and as such, a comment on time.

The character study yielded important findings. More than any other iteration of “The Rite of Spring”, this version really helped the audience understand the complicated inner being of ‘the chosen one’. “A Rite” revealed the depth of this primary character and the combination of heartbreak, sorrow, anxiety, expectancy, and even at times, relief, that is their experience. Also, Jones and Bogart have envisioned a story where death is not the end, but resurrection. As the a cappella group section returned, there was a slow but solid recapitulation – the community was still kicking.


Company members of Nederlands Dans Theater perform "Sehnsucht" Photo © Nederlands Dans Theater

Company members of Nederlands Dans Theater perform “Sehnsucht”
Photo © Nederlands Dans Theater

October 23rd – Cal Performance’s dance season is off to a brilliant start with Nederlands Dans Theater’s two-night, mid-week engagement. These days, contemporary dance can be, and is, a lot of different things: mixed media, post-modern, interdisciplinary, dance theater. Though this variety and innovation is exciting for the genre, contemporary technique and contemporary movement can get a little lost in the overwhelming crowd of theatrical entities and performance tools. Nederlands Dans Theater has found the right balance. They are a true contemporary company – forward-thinking, risk-taking and cutting-edge – but at the same time, actively in pursuit of technical proficiency and clarity. If there ever was a company that defined what contemporary dance should be, it is this one.

Opening the program was 2009’s “Sehnsucht”, co-choreographed by Artistic Advisor Sol León and Artistic Director Paul Lightfoot. Created in Sonata form and accompanied by a phenomenal classical score, the work had a very clear tripartite structure: an exposition, development and recapitulation. Part one introduced a trio of dancers: a soloist, posed slightly right of center, and a duo inside of a large scene box that was suspended and inset in the scrim. Throughout this beginning statement, the scene box continually rotated as the two dancers performed a soulful duet. As the set changed, postures were altered; standing became sitting and then suddenly, morphed into swinging. Questions arose – what plane were they dancing on; what surface was the floor? So, right from the start, it was clear that “Sehnsucht” was expressing and examining two different, but related themes: perception and perspective. And while the piece’s narrative and design challenged ‘what should be’, ‘what is expected’ and ‘what is’, the choreography was equally insightful. Incredible extensions and dramatic off-balance positions were coupled with low attitudes and simple tendus à la second.

As the men’s and women’s ensemble entered from the wings, the development of “Sehnsucht” was underway. Again, the audience was confronted with a new perspective and different perception – the arriving cast (both men and women) was costumed only in black pants. For this lengthy second segment, the stage was full of NDT’s remarkable dancers, flying through the air, eating up the space. Absolute wonder exuded during a recurring group sequence (developpé écarté followed by a side split jèté). The final recapitulation brought us back to the beginning scene and “Sehnsucht” concluded with a fitting cadence: the same contemporary pose that had opened the work.

This intermission was more than just a break, instead, it was an ‘audience choice’ situation. You could certainly go out into the lobby; however, if you opted to stay in the theater, the longer, twenty-five minute intermission was an old-school, post-modern ‘happening’. Three dancers took turns slowly moving across the stage; methodically, carefully and at a snail’s pace. And while this Butoh-inspired pedestrian circuit was in progress, the curtain had been slightly raised, so you could also the crew transforming the stage for the second work.

As the lights went down, 2010’s “Schmetterling” (another piece of León/Lightfoot co-choreography) occupied the space. “Schmetterling” is a delightful and at times, very humorous, series of primarily solos, duets, and trios set to music by The Magnetic Fields and Max Richter. Another strong and clear narrative, the dance spoke to individuals and individualism but “Schmetterling” was not quite as compelling as “Sehnsucht”. Too much extra ‘stuff’ was present. The trench coat/dress/beret costumes were a little distracting, and there was a ton of ‘dance theater’ style facial expressions and vocalizations. Each of the variations in the piece was beautifully performed and creatively crafted and because of that, these extraneous elements weren’t necessary. The dance and the choreography was abundantly strong; it didn’t need ‘more’.


Doug Baum in Yuri Zhukov’s “Enlight” Photo © Sandy Lee

Doug Baum in Yuri Zhukov’s “Enlight”
Photo © Sandy Lee

October 29th – Zhukov Dance Theater’s sixth home season was all about newness. The two-night, mid-week run saw the world premiere of two works – “Enlight” by Yuri Zhukov and “Spider on a Mirror” by Idan Sharabi – in a relatively new (and super cool) venue, the SFJAZZ Center. Once again, Zhukov has proven that he is an artistic force to be reckoned with. Product 06 certainly gives the audience what it has come to expect from this great contemporary company: a stellar cast, an exciting program and dynamic choreography. But in addition, this year’s presentation has an underlying pulse of change; a sense of morphing; a looking beyond the status quo. And, this newness is unfolding in a fantastic way.

“Enlight”, Zhukov’s newest choreographic endeavor, confronts its viewer with a challenge: explore the notion of visibility. A soloist opens the work dancing in and around a square of light placed center stage. Following this first variation, nine similar squares of light appear all over the floor and the entire company proceeds to interact with them. Sometimes the entire body was visible; sometimes only a finger or toe; sometimes a full arm or leg. During the contrasting middle section, the entire stage was lit, but at a low percentage. While this lengthy segment brought a change in lighting, it also revealed a shift in the choreography as longer, stretchier, elastic physicality moved to the forefront. The addition of a strobe effect added an element of time to the exploration of light. And, the final scene incorporated a large white sheet to layer yet another aspect to the question of ‘what we see’. Throughout “Enlight”, Zhukov’s attention to level was captivating; lying, sitting, kneeling, standing and elevated postures holding an intrinsic place in his choreographic vocabulary. While the idea of visibility definitely has narrative implications, “Enlight” was more of a structural assay. The choreography and movement spoke equally to what is seen and what is not seen, and how that reality is in constant evolution.

Individual idiosyncrasies and personality characteristics took center stage in Idan Sharabi’s “Spider on a Mirror”. The beginning moments find the entire cast scattered around the space making small body adjustments and minor alterations to their stance. An unobtrusive shoulder lift here; a quiet foot pivot there. These small shifts quickly exploded into full-out variations. Though still initiated by those first motions, this time the choreography permitted a more complete and abandon expression. “Spider on a Mirror” continued in this clever fashion, toggling between the unremarkable and the voluminous. And with that back and forth also came the difference between observation and celebration. The small movements were simply a noticing of each person’s distinctiveness and the expansion of those motions was a tribute to that individualism.

Both of the pieces featured in Zhukov Dance Theater’s Project 06 were steeped in strong contemporary technique, yet, both also seemed to be slightly influenced by the genre of dance theater itself. Constructing dance theater is a complicated business, and there is often a temptation to either a) add too much theatrical syntax or b) add something new far too late in the piece. When either instance occurs, the flow of the work can be compromised and the latter did happen a little in both dances.