Heather Desaulniers

  • dancescreen 2013, IMZ with San Francisco Dance Film Festival
    Delancey Screening Room, San Francisco

  • “1776”, Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards, Book by Peter Stone
    presented by American Conservatory Theater
    The Geary Theater, San Francisco

  • “Hush” presented by Z Space and Joe Goode Performance Group
    Z Space, San Francisco

dancescreen 2013 Photo © Sandy Lee

dancescreen 2013
Photo © Sandy Lee

September 14th – Just twenty years ago, dance film was relatively new and somewhat poorly defined. But over the past two decades, the genre has really come into its own – changing, developing and expanding. This year’s dancescreen 2013 is a testament to this evolution – five days, seventy films, three venues. Two of the short film screenings gave a perfect sampling of what dance film has to offer in 2013; a mix of ingenuity, breadth and freshness.

A fifty minute film from the UK, directors Siobhan Davies and David Hinton took Robert Walser’s short story The Walk from page to screen in 2012’s “All This Can Happen”. The piece follows a single protagonist throughout his day, as he walks through his environment and makes observations about the activities and movements around him. “All This Can Happen” is a mosaic of what he sees, what he experiences and what he witnesses – workers, athletes, children, cars, nature, infrastructure. From games to pedestrian movements to daily tasks to habitual exercises, the film reveals itself as a study of motion. And while these everyday activities can seem mundane and unremarkable, the message from “All This Can Happen” is that motion is everywhere. Some of it may be elegant, some clumsy, but it is all around us, all the time. And perhaps most important, the film  compels the viewer to ask themselves important questions. Was the screening a valuable artistic experience? Yes. Was it beautifully constructed? Yes. Was it an important academic contribution about motion? Yes. But was it dance? Not for me. And so, was it a dance film? Not for me. Good art should provoke such thoughts allowing every viewer to reach their own conclusions.

San Francisco Dance Film Festival’s Executive Director Greta Schoenberg was right on point when she dubbed Saturday’s 6:30pm screening of short films as “eclectic”. Some were like commercial videos; others were emotionally touching; still others were artsy and avant-garde. Whatever your personal taste, Screendance IV: Saturday Night Fever had something for you. Twelve films from seven different countries filled this fourth short film session, each ranging from one to seven minutes in length. From that collection, four of the films stood out from the group, two of which were student entries. Boris Seewald’s “Momentum”, a 2012 student film from Germany, demonstrated that dance films can be hilariously entertaining. As the main actor/dancer told a story of how eating tortilla chips at a school dance turned into movement, the audience burst into knowing laughter. It was so refreshing to see a dance film that wasn’t filled with drama and angst. Radeck Moenert and Karabin Maszynowy’s “Baltic Dance Theatre At PGE Arena Gdansk” took dance to an unexpected space. The 2011 Polish film showed a dance company rehearsal on a sports field that was right in the midst of a major construction project. And, it made perfect sense – a structure was being created alongside choreography that was also in progress. Another student film, “Skizm” (2012) from Hungary, tracked the physical form and worked with accumulation. In a mere four minutes, Marcell Andristyak overlaid and superimposed images of the same dancer, and by doing so, created a living kaleidoscope. The final film that deserves particular mention is Quinn Wharton’s “Mechanism” (2013, USA). It was both stunningly crafted and narratively captivating, but what made “Mechanism” the best short film in this group was the movement itself. dancescreen 2013 was a festival highlighting the best of international dance film and the dancing and choreography in “Mechanism” were absolutely brilliant.


"1776" Photo © Juan Davila, Courtesy of Asolo Repertory Theater

Photo © Juan Davila, Courtesy of Asolo Repertory Theater

September 20th – American Conservatory Theater has kicked off its 2013-2014 season with a hands-down winner, “1776”. A combination of superb direction (by Frank Galati), inspired choreography (by Peter Amster), impeccable musical direction (by Michael Rice) and an especially talented cast makes this show a must-see. Within its character- and event-driven narrative, “1776” is able to carefully balance the pithy, clever and the humorous alongside an undercurrent of deep integrity, burning passion and true humanity. From the first group musical number where approximately twenty male voices blended in multi-part harmony to the moment the final scrim fell, “1776” was theatrical perfection. There is only one downside – “1776” only has two more weeks left at The Geary Theater in San Francisco.

A dramatization of historic events, the story unfolds during a crucial two-month period in mid-1776. The audience witnesses as Independence is debated in Congress, the Declaration of Independence is drafted, and finally, the document is agreed upon and signed. As one might expect, dance does not figure too heavily in the two hour, thirty minute production – a tap extravaganza in the middle of a political chronology could be a bit much. But throughout “1776”, when movement was called for, Peter Amster’s choreographic choices could not have been better. All of the dances were very personalized – reflecting both the idiosyncrasies of each character, as well as the interactions between them.

Act I’s “The Lees of Old Virginia” joined resolute marching steps with forward moving step-ball-changes and whimsical pas de basques. “But Mr. Adams-” had a similar duality. What began as a very proper, courtly dance with carefully placed step-touches ended with a hilarious kick line. “He Plays the Violin”, Martha Jefferson’s (played by Andrea Prestinario) pas de trois with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin (portrayed by John Hickok and Andrew Boyer, respectively) was delightfully fun. Amster proved with this particular dance that he could choreograph a complete partnered waltz sequence (which the performers also danced full-out) with very little space.

Though Act II had less choreography than “1776’s” first half, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” was by far a noteworthy moment. Jeff Parker as John Dickinson led the rest of the conservative characters through a staid, resolute and stalwart suite of Baroque period dances. Dances from this era, such as the Gavotte and the Minuet, had set choreography – never straying, never surprising. You could count on them to stay the course and stay the same, which was also the message that these characters were attempting to convey in that moment in time.


Damara Vita Ganley (shadow), Felipe Barrueto-Cabello and Melecio Estrella Photo © RJ Muna

Damara Vita Ganley (shadow), Felipe Barrueto-Cabello and Melecio Estrella
Photo © RJ Muna

September 28th – Every time I see Joe Goode Performance Group, I am struck by how it transcends current notions of choreographic genre. While the work could be described as dance theater, mixed media, performance art, and/or interdisciplinary, those categories also aren’t quite sufficient. Maybe Joe Goode Performance Group is part of a new genre, something we don’t have a name for yet. One thing is for sure, any piece from Joe Goode and his company certainly has plenty of artistic sustenance. “Hush”, their newest work, is no exception. A narratively-driven, movement-filled, collaboratively-minded event, “Hush” is all about humanity’s in between spaces.

“Hush’s” primary message is the porous space between the individual and the group. Throughout the seventy-minute production, we see many of its characters work through emotionally-charged, deeply private and in one case, horrifically traumatic personal experiences. Yet, their journey also occurs within a greater, collective context, involving the people around them. An early set of pas de deuxs established this point in the opening moments. Three couples cycled through contact-improvisation style duets, while constantly changing partners. Each pairing looked familiar, comfortable and purposeful, reflected in the egalitarian movement – each dancer was part of the other’s existence, and as such, was woven into every personal story. Arising from this, and in multiple other scenes, was a complicated mix of comfort and intrusion. On the one hand, it was reassuring for the characters to not be alone, yet at the same time, there was an invasion into their reality.

Sound, a major collaborator in “Hush”, was also an in between entity. The music, composed by Ben Juodvalkis, is neither major nor minor. Instead it shifts back and forth between the two and typically settles in a more modal place. Performed by Juodvalkis, along with multiple members of the cast (whose musical acumen is really quite astounding), the score hovers with surprising harmonies, unexpected cadences and rare resolutions. The sound effects, by Sudhu Tewari, also played a dual part in “Hush”. And, aside from their significant artistic role, it must be noted that the sound effects were incredibly cool, super inventive and extremely funny at times. Of course, the sound effects amplified what was occurring naturally and what was being mimed on stage. From walking to pouring drinks to closing doors, they brought “Hush” to a new dimension, almost like an audio 3-D. But in addition, they contributed in a very real way to the narrative. In an otherwise quiet, yet violent pas de quartre, it was the sound effects that demonstrated the notion of brokenness to the audience. With the soundscore’s crashing waves and loud commotion, one could sense a body and psyche being attacked.

While an otherwise flawless piece, the closing moments of “Hush” were a little confusing. Toward the end of the work, Felipe Barrueto-Cabello and Melecio Estrella danced a captivating pas de deux. Perhaps the best choreography (and I would go so far to say the best performances) of the evening, this vignette felt like a conclusion. Not the end of the story, but a quieter, more restful place of repose. However, “Hush” wasn’t quite over yet. Instead, what followed was a lengthy song and dance sequence for the main cast, where the lyrics were spoken in syncopated rhythm. Even in light of this grand finale, “Hush” really did seem to end with that aforementioned duet. Perhaps this last group segment is more of a coda – an extra ending; a reaffirmation of the message.