Heather Desaulniers

October’s Round-up is divided into two parts with Part I here and Part II to follow soon.

  • Ships and Salsa co-presented by UNA Projects and ODC Theater
    ODC Theater, San Francisco
  • Smuin Ballet – Dance Series One
    Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
  • Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer by Jack Walsh
    Screened at the 2015 San Francisco Dance Film Festival, Brava Theater Center, San Francisco
  • Cal Performances presents Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary
    Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
UNA Projects Photo Jake Saner

UNA Projects
Photo Jake Saner

October 2. A stage washed in light blue. White folding chairs around the perimeter. Water sounds. A soloist, Jayne Paley, begins dancing center stage as Catherine Ellis Kirk and Lauren Kravitz slowly creep into the space.

With these initial images, Ships was underway, a mystical trio by Artistic Director Chuck Wilt and New York-based UNA Projects. Wilt has partnered with ODC Theater to bring two differing programs over a single weekend. This was Program B – a dual bill of twenty-first century contemporary dance.

The term ‘twenty-first century’ is a purposeful one, not just a descriptor that places the work in a certain time period. Ships and UNA Projects’ second work, Salsa, were keenly of this moment. Narrative themes were broad, yet not simplistic. Movement was accessible, though not at all pedestrian. Structure and form were varied and clear, never haphazard. Theatrical tools were incorporated, but the dance and choreography still took the lead.

From the dancers’ gait, their intention and their relationship to space, Ships had an instant mystery and deliberate indeterminance. The dancers were searching, curious about each other and their environment. Issues of control were at play – being controlled versus exerting free will. And the empty chairs provided a spooky underscore; it seemed like they were being watched, but by an invisible something or someone. Ships’ enigmatic atmosphere oozed from Wilt’s choreography – calm walking was suddenly met with wild flailing episodes; flowing arms were interrupted by locked positions; slow steadfastness gave way to whirling allegro. It was as if Kirk, Kravitz and Paley were going in and out of a hypnotic state.

Salsa, an ensemble work for the entire company (the three women plus Wilt and Kyle Filley), emerged directly out of intermission while the house lights were still up. A hotel pool image was projected on the cyclorama and the dancers took various positions as part of this scene, complete with Adirondack chairs, arm floaties and pool toys.

As the lights dimmed, Salsa began with a social dance-inspired duet. But then it quickly evolved into an expression of youthful community, of togetherness. Designed like a mini-suite of dances, Wilt explored the complexity of youth through a series of movement sets – innocent flirtation, free expression, social insecurity, vulnerability, one-upmanship, and pure joy. And towards the end, a slow motion, unison, gestural movement phrase brought the focus to mindful self-awareness in the midst of a community. This was a collective, but it was made up of different individuals and personalities.

Salsa was not too long, not at all. Having said that, there were several moments in the last third that felt cadential, like the conclusion of the piece. And so, the material that followed seemed like a bit of an afterthought. Some of the choreographic intricacies were also a little difficult to see from time to time. Upstage dancers occasionally used their upstage leg or arm while another dancer was standing directly in front of them. Wilt’s choreography and UNA Projects’ movement is compelling; it draws the viewer in, so you definitely want to be able to see it all.

Robert Kretz (center) and Terez Dean (back right) and the Smuin Ballet in Maslow Photo Chris Hardy

Robert Kretz (center) and Terez Dean (back right) and the Smuin Ballet in Maslow
Photo Chris Hardy

October 3. A mixed repertory night with multiple choreographic visions – one might expect such an evening to be varied and diverse. It’s amazing how often that is not the case. Companies can settle into a style, a signature, a manner, and despite differing choreography, things end up looking much the same.

But then there are mixed repertory programs that succeed in celebrating and embodying choreographic breadth and diversity. Those where every moment is a delightful surprise. Smuin Ballet’s Dance Series One is a prime example. A quartet of work ranging from 1981 to present day, every piece brought something new to the table, expertly communicated by the company’s dedicated dance artists. Dance Series One is about creativity, risk and gusto; bravi to the entire creative team.

The curtain rose to reveal three couples in spotlights amidst a smoke-filled stage, Ma Cong’s French Twist. It felt like the opening credits to a mystery, perfect for an October ballet. Quickly the dance progressed into stylized movement – the kind that transcends the categories of ‘classical’ or ‘contemporary’. Specificity and articulation reigned in the arms, feet, legs, hands, head and torso, like petit allegro was happening in the entire body. Or sometimes, even a hint of puppetry or marionette-styled vocabulary crept in. While French Twist had different sections, there was a continuous feeling to it, devoid of stops and starts. With one exception (the men’s costuming), it was a great start to the night.

Next up was Michael Smuin’s Bouquet, a beautifully graceful yet technically challenging two-part composition. The dance begins with a quartet for one woman and three men (at this performance, Erin Yarbrough-Powell, Mengjun Chen, Dustin James and Jonathan Powell) and it has some truly enchanting moments. A favorite is when Yarbrough-Powell was suspended high in the air with her leg in a low arabesque. Some of the unison turns did prove tricky, and while this particular chapter has an elegant classical feel, it does look a little dated. Danced by Susan Roemer and Robert Moore, Bouquet’s pas de deux didn’t look one bit dated; in fact, it stood out. Not just in this ballet, but in the entire night. Touching and romantic, passionate and surprising, Roemer’s metatarsals barely grazed the floor in a series of scooting arabesque lifts. With devotion, Moore tenderly grasped Roemer’s foot and ankle while she extended in penchée. They looked amazing together.

Choreographed by company dancer Ben Needham-Wood, Maslow was one of the two new works on the program. A ballet for a lead pair and a quintet, Maslow contemplated perception and reality through the eyes of a title character, danced and interpreted by Robert Kretz. Little knowledge of the individual who inspired Maslow made the story (if there was a narrative through line) a little difficult to discern. Having said that, Needham-Wood’s scene and setting was very clear – this was the mind of a great thinker, someone fascinated with imagination and the human psyche. The best part of Maslow was the choreography itself, a combination of ballet and contemporary jazz, all underscored with a rare fluidity, almost a liquidness. And in the primary role, Kretz was absolutely astounding.

Choreographer-in-Residence Amy Seiwert closed Dance Series One with her new ballet, Broken Open, the only piece on the program to feature the entire company. This six-part composition pushed boundaries as only Seiwert can do, asking what ballet is, what it looks like, what vocabulary it entails and what it can be. As suggested by the title, Broken Open, ‘broke open’ perceptions and expectations from start to finish. Grand pliés in parallel sixth position, flexed feet in promenades, demi-pointe work in pointe shoes and an abundance of second position (in lifts, in turns and in poses). With a pattern of psychedelic paint splatters, Sandra Woodall’s costumes evoked an earlier time, perhaps the 1970s/early 1980s. I really liked the costumes, though their retro style mixed with the forward intention in the choreography was a little puzzling.

Yvonne Rainer in the 'Bach' section of Terrain (1963), at the Judson Memorial Church, New York Photo Al Giese

Yvonne Rainer in the ‘Bach’ section of Terrain (1963),
at the Judson Memorial Church, New York
Photo Al Giese

October 15. I remember the first time I saw Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A. It was postmodern week of an undergraduate dance history class. The reading had included basic survey information on Judson Dance Theater – who the main participants were, when it occurred, where the performances took place and what the collective had produced. The week’s lecture touched on much of that same material and then the old movie reel version of Trio A was screened and discussed. While most of my classmates were in awe after viewing this piece of choreography, I was confused and didn’t understand it at all. Why did they love it so much? Were they just reacting to the fact we had been told it was a seminal piece of postmodern dance? Or had I missed something, something really important?

Years later and after much study, I know that I had missed something. On that day, I had a general sense of ‘the who, when, where and what’ that was Judson Dance Theater. But I did not have any of ‘the how’ nor ‘the why’. And I needed some of that context to both understand the work and appreciate its contribution.

It would have been amazing if a film like Jack Walsh’s Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer, recently screened as part of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival’s 2015 line-up, had been part of that first conversation. While it is not meant as a comprehensive history of Judson Dance Theater or postmodern dance, Feelings Are Facts provides that necessary and first-hand context to understand the postmodern period in dance history (specifically some of ‘the how’ and ‘the why’). And it does so by following the trajectory of one particular artist: Yvonne Rainer. A chronology of Rainer’s journey, the documentary combines archival documents, video footage and personal interviews. All this comes together to give a deeper insight into a creative mind and spirit; one that helped change the face of artistic form, structure, content and composition.

The timeline of the film is somewhat unconventional and non-linear, though with it being about Rainer, perhaps that is how it should be. It jumps around from era to era, and from Rainer’s professional experience to her personal life.

Walsh begins Feelings Are Facts with early footage of Rainer dancing her 1966 work, Trio A. Interspersed in these first few minutes are responses to the work from a number of dancers, choreographers, practitioners and scholars. Folks like Rainer, Steve Paxton and Wendy Perron (among others) speak about what Trio A was, what it meant and what it did for the field. After that initial introduction, Walsh heads back in time to when Rainer moved New York to become a dancer. He takes us through Rainer’s discovery of the New York arts scene to her experimentation with different dance techniques to the composition class that birthed Judson to the heyday of the Judson Dance Theater.

Walsh goes on to reference a number of amazing choreographic excerpts (some, recent reconstructions) from that rich time of dancemaking: Three Satie Spoons, Chair/Pillow, Three Seascapes. Onto the late 1960s/early 1970s and the Grand Union project. I’d only ever seen still photographs of Grand Union, so it was really something to see live video from that time. Next, Walsh tracks Rainer’s transition into film and cinema, and in the middle of Feelings Are Facts, goes back to the very beginning – Rainer’s childhood and adolescence. Then we timehop again to when Rainer returned to dance, choreography and performance. And in a lovely cadence, Feelings Are Facts concludes with a recent example of Rainer in Trio A.

Because it doesn’t follow each decade in chronological order, Feelings Are Facts feels a little like a collage, pieces of interdependent material overlaid and superimposed into a larger structure. Walsh has made a great film – educational and accessible while engaging and entertaining. And with each year’s collection of short and feature-length films (like Feelings Are Facts), the San Francisco Dance Film Festival is continuing to forge a legacy of curating excellence.

Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula, and Eva Trapp-Coppula in Preludes and Fugues Photo Ruven Afanador

Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula, and Eva Trapp-Coppula in the costumes for Preludes and Fugues
Photo Ruven Afanador

October 18. Much has been written in anticipation of Twyla Tharp’s 50th Anniversary Tour – diverse, thoughtful and engaging commentary on this dancemaker’s iconoclast status and incomparable contribution to dance and choreography. Now this eagerly anticipated tour is underway. And over the weekend, Tharp and her company visited Cal Performances. Rather than revisiting themes from the already published discussion, it seems right to turn the attention to the dances that are part of this exclusive program.

The afternoon kicked off with the first of two preparatory fanfares, original music by John Zorn. Trumpets sounded and two men simultaneously burst out of the wings in flight. Here was a grand announcement; a true call to witness the splendor of bodies in motion. And there was just the right amount of sass as the brief segment closed.

I wrote more notes during the Bay Area premiere of Tharp’s Preludes and Fugues than I have in a very long time, simply because each of the many vignettes had such a distinct and compelling flavor. It is a choreographic tour de force, clever and unexpected, but also a truly beautiful marriage of Tharp’s physicality and Bach’s music (from the Well-Tempered Clavier).

The point of entry into the work was one of delightful familiarity. Tharp opened Preludes and Fugues with a subtle duet to Prelude 1 in C Major. With this well-known Baroque selection, Tharp smartly offered a scene of social dancing. Visually and audibly, this was an initial statement of egalitarianism. Then the gears shifted dramatically as Prelude 2 in C Minor sung through the air. Traditional ballet vocabulary ruled the stage until the presto portion of the piece, when whimsy took a turn in the spotlight. These first moments of Preludes and Fugues were about as different as you could imagine – and the rest of the dance held to that same surprise and excitement.

In many of the subsequent sections, elements of fugal structure were very apparent in the choreography and staging – representations of the subject, countersubject and answer along with fugal devices like sequence, augmentation, diminution, inversion and retrograde. Dancers entered and exited the canvas with all types and styles of movement: jerky contractions; flowy waltz steps; tilted, flexed promenades in second position; battement en cloche; boxing gestures. Dynamics ranged from speedy to lush to mechanized. And from time to time, there was a sense that things were emotionally charged. It was a luxurious mélange of textures and an interdependent choreographic immersion.

The trio formation seemed to be a favorite structure throughout Preludes and Fugues. Mid-way through, three women of the company danced an amazing unison trio – petit allegro mixed with Celtic influences and pivot turn directional shifts. It was some of the best technique of the entire program. Tharp’s expression of Fugue 11 in F Major was spellbinding. This particular key has some edge to it. Even though it is of a major quality, there’s some faint darkness lurking underneath. Tharp set a duet of quiet restraint that adeptly highlighted these dim shadows. Some of Bach’s minor key compositions end with a Picardy third, where the mediant note is raised a half a tone to create a major chord. This happened a number of times in the dance, but in one particular instance, the soloist shuddered right as that major chord struck. It was an extraordinary moment. And the piece closed with a restatement of the first prelude, though the choreography was different. The entire company joined together for a circle dance, and a few of the main movement themes recurred. But what was most striking about this last vignette was the stage patterning. The company looked like stars forming and reforming in gorgeous constellations.

If you have a chance to see Tharp’s Preludes and Fugues, you must take it. Words and descriptions are fine, but they cannot do this dance justice. It really is a masterwork by a master artist.

The Second Fanfare was completely different. A red glowing scrim was the centerpiece, which the company appeared both in front of and behind. Through this brief prologue, an eccentric group of characters was introduced, like the opening credits of a large production.

Yowzie was that larger work and it spanned a number of decades and eras. The music was early American jazz; the scenic backdrop had a 1980s graphic style to it; and the costumes crossed the hippie/bohemian generations with circus stylings and even a little of today’s hipster culture. The choreography was quite varied, but overall, Yowzie felt hard-hitting and show stopping. And it was packed with humor that veered toward the campy and farcical.

As much as I loved Preludes and Fugues, I found Yowzie to be a bit of a mixed bag. Both dances were full of rich artistic material, though in Yowzie, the visuals got a little overwhelming. Just too much happening all at once. The characterizations were also a little hit or miss. For the most part, the company did a great job of bringing their zany characters to life. But there were a few that looked a little confused. Now maybe they were just playing a character that exists in that state of uncertainty. Totally fine. But if that was the case, it didn’t read particularly well or clearly from the stage.

Having said that, Yowzie had moments of real brilliance and sheer joy, which is why for me, it was a mixed bag. The male Burlesque duet (John Selya and Ron Todorowski) was phenomenal. Complete with mimed make-up applications, some warm-up burpees, and spot-on dancing, what a wonderful scene! Matthew Dibble’s featured solo brought together sexy old-school jazz with some well-placed hip-hop and acrobatics. Savannah Lowery and Kaitlyn Gilliland’s turning series was lavish and impressive, especially with the large black hats they were wearing. And when the entire cast returned to the stage in the final segment, there was a choreographic party like no other.

Part II of October’s Round-up will follow soon.