Heather Desaulniers

  • The Anata Project
    Z Space, San Francisco
  • Company C Contemporary Ballet in Arcane: A Tale of All Hallows’ Eve
    Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco
  • JuMP 2015, co-presented by FACT/SF and ODC Theater
    ODC Theater, San Francisco
The Anata Project. Photo Summer Wilson

The Anata Project.
Photo Summer Wilson

October 24. Z Space was a cozy, intimate haven on Saturday night. Chairs and couches were arranged all over the main floor, right up against the stage. An area rug marked the center aisle. A perfectly chosen playlist hung in the air. You couldn’t help feeling welcome, at home and relaxed as you walked into the environment. You could disconnect from the outside bustle and be in the room, present in the moment.

That moment was all about The Anata Project’s fifth home season. Comprised of two world premiere works by Founder Claudia Anata Hubiak, the evening paired a short dance film, By My Side, with an ensemble contemporary dance composition, HomeBody. The common thread woven throughout the program was the study and expression of group dynamics.

By My Side introduced a couple, danced by Ashlie Kirby and Victor Talledos, in a household setting. On and in front of a black couch, they cycled through an inventive duet full of familiar gestures and playful interactions – tapping each other on the shoulder, embracing, laughing and joyfully dancing all around the room. They were at ease, comfortable and fully known. The hook of By My Side is that you do not realize in its five minutes that Hubiak is portraying a much longer passage of time. Near the end, a pregnancy becomes clear and in the final scene, a baby enters the picture as two become three.

Then came the main event, HomeBody, an evening length premiere dance. A cluster of performers arranged themselves up left, while a soloist crawled onto the stage, eventually making her way toward the pile of bodies. As the score began pulsating, the group slowly untangled, rolling away from each other, yet still attempting to make contact with their hands. They reached for members of the group and tried to take on each other’s motions. Visually, it felt basal, almost cellular in nature. Scattering and coming together; venturing out and returning back.

HomeBody’s next major section kept this group dynamic going, but added an element of freedom and individualism to the mix. Lively and exciting movement phrases unfolded all over the stage; dancers forming and re-forming in duets, trios and as a full cast. Groupings were on display, and in HomeBody, Hubiak used these different formations as both a structural tool and a narrative one. Group dynamics change and evolve, which leads not only to interesting dance architecture, but an array of conceptual truths, ranging from camaraderie all the way to exclusion.

Exclusion definitely read in the next scene as another soloist took center stage and her whole body began shaking. Everyone else distanced themselves, standing far from her and silently staring. She was the odd one out; the one who’s reality was different than the others. While she wasn’t being purposely excluded, she wasn’t included either. And the silent stares around her spoke volumes about disengagement and grief. A more aggressive section followed, about two thirds of the way through the piece, one where the dancers were experimenting with issues of dominance and control. While it wasn’t at all violent, the intention behind the pushing motifs and flinging lifts definitely felt more pointed. In a beautiful counter, a touching, poignant sequence of support and encouragement emerged – hands gently assisting other dancers as they rolled; an abundance of counterbalanced poses where both parties’ cooperation was required to make the task possible.

And then, a surprise chapter. The company left, all but one lone dancer – the same soloist who had crawled onto the stage at the beginning. Hers was a hauntingly glorious variation, both in choreography and in performance. Themes of remembrance penetrated the movement: reaching out into space and trying to encircle those who were no longer there. One by one, the dancers re-entered the scene and joined her in revisiting the early ideas in HomeBody, scattering and adhering. And in a lovely egalitarian moment, the ensemble ventured into the audience and sat on a couch, together as a group and together with those who had come to share in this moment.

Company C Contemporary Ballet in Arcane A Tale of All Hallows’ Eve Photo Jorge Alejandro Gomez

Company C Contemporary Ballet in Arcane A Tale of All Hallows’ Eve
Photo Jorge Alejandro Gomez

October 25. In the year and a half (to the day) since I’ve seen Company C Contemporary Ballet it has gone through a major overhaul, a shift in its production model being perhaps the biggest change. Instead of a typical fall and spring season, the company opted to move to a more project-driven system. For the first of these projects, Artistic Director Charles Anderson went all in with Arcane: A Tale of All Hallows’ Eve which premiered at Fort Mason.

Arcane is a brand new one-act narrative ballet, a Halloween story by Ben Bowman and Anderson. It is an ensemble work, complete with principal dancers, a corps and a children’s cast. An original score by Mike Krisukas is played by a live orchestra, conducted by Mary Chun; the stage is filled with phenomenal design elements – costumes by Laura Hazlett, lights and scenery by Patrick Toebe. And a narrator, John Hale, frames the action throughout.

The ballet follows the Halloween night sojourn of its title character, Arcane, a celestial being danced at this performance by Phyllis Affrunti. Using ballet and text, a collection of short scenes relays her travel – those she meets, the scenes she encounters, the events she creates through her spellbinding forces. She is joined by an astrologer. We are told that he is Arcane’s human proxy, though that part of the story gets a little lost, and so the astrologer comes across as more of a traveling companion.

Arcane was a little slow getting going, but by the third vignette, the cast had hit their stride. As Arcane and the astrologer, Affrunti and Taurean Perez did very well, especially navigating their complicated, sometimes busy, choreography. But the most impressive group of dancers was the corps, who in a single hour had to embody so many different characters (stars, pumpkins, ghouls, skeletons), each with unique choreography and complex costumes. In fact, my favorite variation was the orphan trio of Alice Cao, Alysia Chang and Colleen Soltys. Technically, sharp relevés and échappés met expansive turns and waltz steps. And the three were spot on in their character portrayal.

A number of other standout moments deserve particular mention. As Arcane’s journey occurred over a single night, different clock motifs were crucial to the ballet’s storyline. Anderson’s take on time was incredibly innovative and clever. The light show duet halfway through absolutely thrilled the audience. It was cool and different, but went on a little too long. At the beginning of the Halloween ball scene, there was a lively dance for the entire group – quirky movement side by side with traditional ballet. Though in instances like this one when the whole cast was present, the Cowell Theater stage appeared a bit small. It looked like they didn’t quite have enough room for some of the extensions and traveling steps.

Company C Contemporary Ballet’s Arcane: A Tale of All Hallows’ Eve is entertaining, fun and very fitting for the end of October. Though there are a few darker moments (like the dead bride dance), overall, it is a family-friendly way to access contemporary ballet this Halloween season.

FACTSF Photo Kegan Marling

Photo Kegan Marling

October 30. The score was made up of ambient street sounds, happening in real-time only two blocks away. Four dancers stood in a line, facing upstage while a fifth approached them from downstage left. Her movements started like a wave, washing over the floor, then as she got closer, morphed into tiny, staccato impulses in the hands, arms, back and head.

These were the opening moments of Still Life No. 3, by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg, and FACT/SF’s 2015 JuMP program. This is the second consecutive year for the commissioning residency, designed to allow dancemakers the opportunity to, as the title conveys, ‘just make a piece’. I love this sentiment; I love the supportive environment it proffers; and I love that a San Francisco contemporary company is fostering this kind of outlet for the choreographic community. This year’s edition joined two new works on a shared program, Simpson and Stulberg’s Still Life No. 3 and spread t h i n, by FACT/SF Founder and Artistic Director Charles Slender-White, both danced by company artists.

As Still Life No. 3 continued, the soloist joined the line of four dancers and the entire group began moving slowly in unison – pivoting, shifting, taking single steps front and back, heads curving forward and then lifting to the ceiling. Here was an early statement of individuals working together; acting, reacting and sculpting shapes as a whole entity. Then the line fractured and different patterns emerged. Through mechanized walking and held positions, dancers went out on their own, or formed smaller internal groups. After an impressive and slow grand plié in first position, the quintet came back together in a sequence that took its lead from the opening solo – waves plus isolations. And these isolations themselves had an interesting quality and intention, almost with marionette or robotic characteristics. In Still Life No. 3, Simpson and Stulberg are looking at what movement is, how it appears, and how it can be altered. The dance is a complete movement dissertation, at times minimalist and pedestrian, at others, complex and stylized.

FACT/SF spent the majority of Still Life No. 3 facing away from the audience. They had on matching dark blazers, but were wearing them backwards. At first, I wasn’t wild about the costumes, but as the dance progressed, I came to realize that not only were they a fitting design, but a genius move on Simpson and Stulberg’s part (who together, also did the costumes). Visually, the choreography and the movement claimed the spotlight – the viewer could completely focus on what the body was doing, and not be distracted by anything else. And the movement/physicality was the point of this dance. The costume design showed inventive and outside the box thinking, and truly served the work well.

Slender-White’s spread t h i n emerged directly out of intermission; house lights still up, stage glowing, the dancers dressed in all black. In stark contrast to the previous work, the five stood facing the audience and for a long time, were still and just stared. Then together, they moved forward, reciting a phrase in whispered tone while their arms, heads and upper bodies accented certain words. A lengthy circular running segment followed, neither panicked nor frenetic, but certainly charged. It was as if the dancers were communicating a simultaneously polar experience. On the one hand, they knew where to go, but at the same time, seemed a little lost. The narrative of uncertainty read loud and clear. The running was peppered by violent and dramatic collapses, the point of articulation being in the torso. And during the running/collapse motif, five small black boxes with attached balloons were brought out and placed on the stage.

The introduction of the black boxes ushered in spread t h i n’s second major chapter, a floor sequence steeped in body percussion. Dancers came in and out of this movement phrase – sometimes doing the whole series from beginning to end, sometimes in a partial expression, or even changing the choreographic order. And again, there was a narrative struggle being played out; one that posed a question. Should we conform to the collective or branch away on our own?

The black boxes were an intriguing element to the work. After wiggling around them in a protective cradle, the quintet tentatively left them behind. Walking in a yoga-style downward facing dog position, the balloons were now balanced on their backs and the boxes were in the past. What were these boxes? Safety? A place of serenity? Some event from long ago? Maybe none of these; maybe all. As a theatrical tool, they were curious and compelling. I definitely wanted to know more about them and I still want to know.

Otherworldly, mystical and celestial describe the final part of Slender-White’s spread t h i n. The stage went dark, revealing lights on the balloons. The company revisited the first text and movement phrase; after which the balloons floated up and the dancers were lit from above in circular pools of light. In this stunning scene, their bodies moved through space, and time seemed to slow down, at least for a brief instant.

Looking ahead:

November continues a busy and diverse fall dance season in the San Francisco/Bay Area…

Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (Nov 6-15). https://www.linesballet.org/

DanceFAR, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (Nov 10). http://www.dancefar.org/

Diablo Ballet, Lesher Center for the Arts (Nov 13-14). http://diabloballet.org/

Akram Khan Company, presented by San Francisco Performances, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (Nov 20-21) http://www.performances.org/

ODC/Dance, The Velveteen Rabbit, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (Nov 27-Dec 13) http://www.odcdance.org/