Heather Desaulniers

  • San Francisco Ballet – Program 6 – Space Between
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Cal Performances presents
    Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Program A
    Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
  • Alonzo King LINES Ballet – Spring Season
    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
  • Post:Ballet – Lavender Country
    Z Space, San Francisco

April 6th – In danceland, many musical scores end up being inexorably linked to particular choreography. When I hear the first notes of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, I anticipate the corps de ballet dressed in light blue for George Balanchine’s Serenade. The whistles and unexpected intervals at the beginning of West Side Story make me crave Jerome Robbins’ signature relevé in second. But I also love it when dancemakers break with convention and posit new, different, unexpected language with such scores. That’s what Justin Peck did with Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, the opener on San Francisco Ballet’s sixth program, Space Between. The 2015 work takes Aaron Copland’s stirring music, originally composed for Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo ballet, and asks what it has to say some eight decades later.

San Francisco Ballet in Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes
Photo © Erik Tomasson

And the answer is, a lot. While Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes certainly pays homage to the past with nostalgic western tropes and old-school musical theater motifs, its choreographic syntax is undeniably twenty-first century. Pedestrian motions are seamlessly combined with highly technical phrases, making the work approachable and fresh. In one instant, the ensemble runs full speed across the stage; in another, they execute perfectly timed unison pirouettes. Peck isn’t afraid of stillness and uses it well throughout the ballet. Impactful, frozen postures of waiting and searching abound: palms splayed, long lunges and expectant upward glances. And the sense of camaraderie amongst the cast of fifteen men and one woman is palpable – they looked like they were having so much fun. But it is the sole female role, danced by Sofiane Sylve, that is most intriguing. From the moment Sylve appears through her pas de deux with Carlo Di Lanno to the final blackout, one is struck by incredible self-assurance. She enters partway through Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, and so, is indeed joining an ongoing, in process conversation that the men have been having. But with every step, every glance, it is clear that she feels no need to adjust her reality or fit into some perceived mold. Not only is this embodied in her solo work, but also in the primary duet. Peck imbued this pas de deux with abundant counterbalances – shapes and positions requiring equal force from both dancers – and at several points, it was Sylve who was providing the base of support for the partnering. And no discussion of Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes is complete without some bravura highlights. Hansuke Yamamoto wowed with his series of brisés cabrioles, and Esteban Hernandez’ purposely slowing fouettés were met with uproarious applause.

As the lights slowly warmed on Liam Scarlett’s new work for SFB, Die Toteninsel, it was clear that Program 6 was nowhere near done exploring the relationship between movement and music. Die Toteninsel impresses on many levels. Narratively, it has a real Rite of Spring vibe to it, minus the sacrifice part. There’s a community; there’s a feeling of ritualistic purpose; and there’s a definite ominous undercurrent. But the ballet’s shining glory is in its mirroring of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music. Both have an air of unpredictability and morph from one space to another in a deliciously porous wave. Rachmaninoff’s compositions are known for having a wonderful quality of surprise and change, really transcending genre. In a single piece, you might hear the virtuosity and rubato of the Romantic era, the tonal ambiguity of the Impressionists, Baroque counterpoint and 20th Century chromaticism. And the genius is that it all works together. The same is true of what Scarlett created with Die Toteninsel. Defying a particular sense of time, the piece looked futuristic, biblical and mythological all at the same time. Its tone was concurrently determined, worshipful, passionate and foreboding. Partnerships were constantly in flux as the cast navigated their relationship to David Finn’s large circular light sculpture (which itself also shifted and pivoted throughout the work). Choreographically, Scarlett mined a range of styles and dynamics – pedestrian walking, classical arabesques, contemporary inverted lifts and serpentine twisting. And while there were plenty of large poses and vast extensions, Scarlett spent ample time with low positions. Low arabesques, low passés and turns in ¼ relevé felt a metaphor for being on a journey. A journey that, like those positions, hadn’t reached its final leg yet. A journey through a tunnel of moods, tones and atmospheres, that, even if you weren’t quite sure what was happening, you wanted to watch.

Space Between closed with one more chapter celebrating the choreography/sound connection: the return of Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet, which debuted last year as part of SFB’s Unbound Festival. A tribute to the musical artist, Björk Ballet takes a very typical compositional form – the dance suite, a larger work comprised of multiple consecutive choreographic chapters, each one usually accompanied by a different musical selection. Pita followed the formula, with nine episodes set to nine songs. But other than that framework, there was nothing typical about Björk Ballet. There were characters, costumes and masks aplenty. We met fire soldiers, a sparkling butterfly, an army of chess pieces, a warrior Queen and a masked fisherman. Visual spectacle was everywhere: mirrored Marley floor, ardent make out sessions, fiber-optic palm trees falling from the ceiling, dancers standing atop a bright red platform, a giant fishing pole. Pita pulled from many movement genres including jazz, figure skating, yoga and acrobatics; I half expected aerial artists to make an appearance at some point. The piece was definitely entertaining. It moved quickly, was visually engaging and thoroughly inventive. Having said that, there were a number of sections that looked bizarre simply for the sake of being bizarre, which doesn’t speak to this particular viewer. And there was a missed opportunity near the end. One of Björk Ballet’s later chapters sees the large cast funneling on and off the stage in a jumping, pulsing staccato flurry. It felt like the conclusion, and because it did, the scenes that followed were a bit of let down.

April 9th – For four days a man had been presumed dead. A miraculous healer arrived to tell his friends and family that this was not the end. It was hard for them to imagine. Yet, his tombstone was removed and there he stood alive.

So many threads run through the Lazarus parable. Themes of faith and hope. Themes of believing in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. Themes of rising from quietus. And themes of porousness – the porousness between life and death, and the porousness of time.

All of these strands come together in Lazarus, choreographed in 2018 by Rennie Harris for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The two-act work, which Artistic Director Robert Battle shared in his opening remarks was a first for the company, takes its audience on a journey. A journey through the African American experience, a journey through history and a journey through space and time. Within these larger narratives, Harris also weaves tributes and remembrances to both to Alvin Ailey and to AAADT on the occasion of their sixtieth anniversary. This gripping work saw its Bay Area premiere Tuesday night as the troupe opened its annual weeklong residency at Cal Performances (Lazarus was also co-commissioned by Cal Performances).

Lazarus doesn’t seek to be a literal rendering of the biblical story. Instead, it applies the broader themes to three different eras, and unpacks them through movement and scenework. First Harris takes the viewer back in time, to the horrors of slavery. Potent, disturbing images of forced labor, human cruelty, even lynching, pervade the stage: dancers trudged through the space, heads down, arms drilling toward the ground. Mouths contorted in silent screams; hands shook, desperately praying for justice; torsos wailed in grief. Several phrases saw the cast running full speed away from something terrifying. Yet, amidst all that terror, Harris also injected glimpses of hope. A deep sense of community underscored this entire first scene, as did a recurring physical motif. Dancers would traverse the stage with suspended, slow motion strides coupled with expectant, lifted gazes and longing expressions. These vast lunges weren’t running out of extreme fear, they were all about moving forward, toward something or someone. I couldn’t specifically say what that thing or person was, though the tone undeniably spoke of resilience, of rising like Lazarus.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Rennie Harris’ Lazarus
Photo Paul Kolnik

The connection to the source material was far from over as Lazarus shifted into its next chapter – the mid-twentieth century. As the first act came to its close, what struck was the porousness of time. Lazarus had indeed morphed to a different era, no question. Plain, rural clothing had been replaced with costume designer Mark Eric’s take on 1960s stylings. And Harris added a more sinewy expression of the upper body to the traditional African percussive footwork. Though much (good and bad) was the same, despite the time lapse. The feeling of community was still unmistakable. But so was the violence and bloodshed. Bodies flung and crumbled all over the space, as if hit by gunfire. After intermission, Act II of Lazarus once again took us to a new place and time. Jeweled-toned tunics, trimmed with gold had a definite 1980s vibe and the high-throttle, pulsing, free choreography added a note of celebration. This felt like heaven, maybe even the heaven that welcomed Mr. Ailey after he passed from this world in 1989. But at the same time, you couldn’t be sure it was heaven. As the lights fell on Lazarus, that line between life and afterlife had been left purposely uncertain.

Lazarus is a powerful work that fires on all cylinders – design, music, movement and narrative. And it was brilliantly interpreted by the entire Ailey company. Though the piece’s formal structure did spark a question. The dance clearly has three parts to it, but is divided into two acts. The middle section (tacked onto the end of Act I) felt a little rushed and less developed than the other two segments. I wonder what Lazarus would look like as a three-part ballet, with an expanded middle section and one act dedicated to each separate scene.

And of course, the evening closed with Ailey’s 1960 masterwork Revelations. As with so many, I never tire of seeing this transcendent dance suite. Highlights at this viewing included the unison port de bras and port de corps during I Been ‘Buked and the urgent yearning that Jacqueline Green and Jamar Roberts brought to the spellbinding Fix Me, Jesus pas de deux.

April 12th – A gift of any Alonzo King LINES Ballet performance is the opportunity to see the company’s stunning dance artists. Even if the individual choreographic works don’t necessarily speak to you, their technical bravura, exceptional eloquence and authentic grace are indisputable. And the dancers were absolutely on fire Friday night as LINES opened its spring season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I can’t stress enough the gift and privilege it was to witness them in motion.

The program itself, a double bill featuring the return of 2016’s Art Songs and the world premiere of Pole Star, also impressed. Both pieces mine the dialogue and exchange between movement and music – a rich line of inquiry that was central to the troupe’s fall offering, which included a nod to Baroque musicality and a collaboration with Kronos Quartet. Six months later, LINES continued that foray into the sound/body connection.

In music, counterpoint is a compositional tool, where motifs, lines or voices are experienced as simultaneously independent and interdependent – independent, in that they certainly can stand on their own, and interdependent, in that they also work together to create a sumptuous aural palette. In Art Songs, Artistic Director/Founder/Choreographer Alonzo King looks to that concurrency, and places movement as a counterpoint to Baroque, Romantic and contemporary composers. Costumed by Robert Rosenwasser in whites, silvers and black velvet, the company contributed an additional artistic line to the recorded instrumental and vocal selections, and in doing so, added a riveting tone of desperation and passion. While there were a few ensemble sequences, the majority of the work was expressed through six chapters of pas de deux (and one trio). And the drama was intense. Relevés were informed by frenetic urgency, as were surprising contractions in the head and upper back. Dancers rapidly slid across the floor and then stamped their feet to the ground, as if trying to extinguish a fire. LINES’ sky-high extensions, super flexion and attitudes in second were abundant, though keeping with Art Songs’ intensity, dancers quickly crumbled after hitting one of those extreme postures. Recorded music can sometimes be tough in dance performance, but here, because the choreography was having an active contrapuntal conversation with J.S. Bach, Robert Schumann, George F. Handel, Henry Purcell and Lisa Lee, the atmosphere felt very alive.     

Madeline DeVries and Shuaib Elhassan in Pole Star
Photo Manny Crisostomo

But if you were craving live music as a frame for dance, Pole Star, King’s collaboration with famed Vietnamese musician/composer Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, fit the bill – a forty-minute work of intersecting textures, layers and moods. From the orchestra pit, Võ’s hauntingly beautiful zither rose, occasionally interspersed with text and ambient sounds. Billowy smoke poured into the space. Projected on the back cyclorama was a film (by Jamie Lyons) of bright green rolling hills, their color matched by Rosenwasser’s wispy, flowy costumes. Adding to that lush environment was King’s evocative choreography. Pole Star didn’t read as narrative, but it wasn’t abstract either – charged emotions were unmistakable and potent imagery, ever present. As in Art Songs, LINES’ signature choreographic positions were aplenty, though, here they were also infused with unexpected movement practices and traditions. Some sections were clearly inspired by military drills, others by martial arts. Twisted, serpentine torsos abounded, as did vignettes of falling and catching oneself. Grounded, percussive footwork unison spoke of a shared experience while aggressive phrases conjured confrontation. Such a broad collage of tones and qualities! But for me, what was most impactful in Pole Star was the juxtaposition of the body and the projection. Seeing the company against the mountains (and later blades of grass) brought an interesting question of corporeality to the table. The sense of place had become transitory and fluid. At moments, it felt as though the dancers had actually been transported to those natural settings and were dancing amidst them.

LINES spring program definitely tackled movement and music from two distinct vantage points – Art Songs and Pole Star were very different from each other. No question. But having said that, within the body of each piece, there was a strong sense of sameness. From the first light cue to the final blackout of both dances, their energy, quality and dynamics were very similar. Too similar for this viewer. And a side effect of remaining at one energetic level is that the work ends up seeming long. Neither Art Songs nor Pole Star actually were too long, but unfortunately, they felt that way.    

April 27th – One of the (many) things to love about Z Space, an industrial, warehouse performance venue in San Francisco, is its chameleon nature. With a huge stage, mobile seating, high ceilings and cavernous grandeur, it can transform into any number of theatrical containers. In fact, every time I’m there to see a dance show, I have no idea what may await as I enter the house and turn the corner.

This past Saturday, what I saw when I walked in was a captivating cabaret setting. Bar tables and chairs were scattered about and a piano was situated up right. Sparkling bulbs adorned the surfaces, disco balls hung from the light grid and a black curtain hid an internal stage. Six cast members unassumingly sauntered into the space, greeting one another with knowing nods and fond embraces. The back curtain began to part revealing a six-piece band in full country western finery, led by Patrick Haggerty. Bright footlights spelled out “Lavender Country,” the title of Haggerty’s 1973 release, known as the first gay country music recording. The scene was clear – a show, a concert was imminent.

Post:Ballet in Lavender Country
Photo Natalia Perez

And what a show it was – the remounting of Post:Ballet and Haggerty’s 2017 collaboration, Lavender Country, a full-length ballet named for its musical inspiration. With direction by Robert Dekkers, choreography by Vanessa Thiessen, music by Haggerty, costume design by Christian Squires and lighting/set by David Robertson, Lavender Country checked all the boxes. Over eighty minutes, Haggerty and the ensemble journeyed through the album’s original tracks, music and movement meeting in a rich dialogue. The piece’s return to the stage was such a marvelous addition to Post:Ballet’s current milestone season, which toasts a decade of artistic innovation and choreographic mastery.  

Haggerty’s powerful messages of LGBTQ history and experience were captured through catchy country melodies, toe-tapping rhythms and evocative storytelling. Themes of intimacy, familial relationships, LGBTQ lineage and community sang and sailed through the air, ranging in tenor from horrific to humorous, tender to triumphant, political to poignant. Thiessen, Post:Ballet’s resident choreographer, skillfully expressed these narrative threads through a series of movement episodes set in front of the recessed stage. Full throttle fervor was ample. Falls and dives blasted at high speed; contractions were attacked with frenetic force; partnering was desperate and urgent, sometimes conveying obvious frustration, sometimes deep, enduring connection. But neither the score nor the dance remained solely in that charged quality, which would have given a sense of sameness to the work. Instead, tones of hope and promise were equally present: the torso had a freedom and lightness, long lines of reaching arms and extended legs spoke of possibility. And in keeping with the musical style and genre, social/contradance motifs were plentiful, as were square dance inspirations and a hearty helping of stomping footwork.

Lavender Country was a terrific event, filled with contagious energy, caring humanity and great country music. One could speak to many standout elements, though for this viewer, there were two of particular note – one structural, one choreographic. Movement-wise, the embodiment of the musical selections impressed. The six dance artists were not simply executing steps to the various tunes or “acting out” the lyrics, but instead conversing with Haggerty’s compositions and responding to their spirit. And from a formal perspective, Lavender Country blurred the line between performer and viewer with an unexpected layer. Every audience member was a guest at the cabaret, taking in the heady mix of visuals and sound. In addition, every cast member was a patron too. All six had several instances throughout the ballet where they watched their colleagues dance, listened to Haggerty’s penetrating words and could spend time contemplating their own experience. It was a show within a show, where the cast was afforded time and space to behold as well as respond. In a final nod to egalitarian participation, the show closed with the album’s title track, and the audience was invited to join the company onstage. In those few minutes, the space between viewer and performer was completed demolished and Z Space morphed from cabaret into a full-blown dance party – the ebullient scene vibrated with pure joy.