Heather Desaulniers

Cal Performances presents Available Light
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

San Francisco Ballet – Program 1
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

EmSpace Dance + detour dance
The Ashby Stage, Berkeley

San Francisco Ballet – Frankenstein
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Feb 3rd – When it comes to restaged, returning or revivals of choreographic work, it is common to compare the updates with previous iterations, or even with the original premiere if you were fortunate enough to have seen it. I do it all the time. How was the dancing different? Did the choreography change? How did a new venue or cast inform the piece? But what if, as an exercise, you took comparison off the table and simply immersed yourself in the work, experiencing it with a fresh and unencumbered lens?

Lucinda Childs Dance Company in Available Light Photo Craig T Matthew

Lucinda Childs Dance Company in Available Light
Photo Craig T Matthew

This is how I decided to approach the newly commissioned revival of Available Light, which began its two-performance run at Cal Performances on Friday evening. A collaborative endeavor with choreography by Lucinda Childs, score by John Adams, stage design by Frank O. Gehry and danced by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, Available Light premiered more than thirty years ago (1983), originally a site specific piece for an emerging artspace. But here we are in 2017 and in a traditional proscenium theater. What does this Available Light reveal?

With the house lights up, Gehry’s industrial design greeted the audience – scaffolding, chain link cyclorama, a platform stage raised above the main space. As the lights slowly dimmed and Adams’ electronic score rose (this event is also in honor of the composer’s upcoming seventieth birthday), the fifty-five minute paragon of compositional form and structure was underway. The dancers appeared at the back of the stage, visible through the steely structure. Slowly, eight walked forward and took their positions in the space, while two ascended side staircases to the raised second stage. What followed was a lengthy opening chapter; a stunning interplay on phrase development and points of facing.

The first movement phrase commenced – stylized walks, pivot turns, wide arms in second, piqué arabesques. Different groups cycled through this sequence with staggered starting times and traveling in various directions. After completing their given phrase, those who had just been moving would stand stationary in first position while others took over. This initial phrase repeated while simultaneously developing and evolving. New movements were infused into the existing circuit (sautés, grand battements). Childs’ vocabulary was beautifully specific, but what I found most interesting was how this first choreographic statement was explored completely on the diagonal. No matter what part of the phrase the dancers were performing or if they happened to be in repose, every moment of physicality was tied to and experienced on the diagonal.

And then, Available Light shifted and the dancers faced the audience. With this new ‘en face’ posture, so too a new phrase was introduced. One rich with emboîté turns and small jetés. And again, it grew with repetition, adding ballonés and attitude poses. Available Light’s third major phrase brought these two facings (the diagonal and straight ahead) together with triplets and high relevés in fourth position. A monument of choreographic formalism, this exposition of movement phrases and body facings was pure and masterful. Pure steps, pure pathways, a pure understanding of the axis and lines of the body; nothing was superfluous. It evoked a mesmerizing pattern all over the stage, ever changing, like a kaleidoscope. And the dancers! Such technical clarity, attention to detail and spatial awareness – an extraordinary display of strength and elegance.

In the second, shorter movement, the company entered the space from the downstage right front wing, again walking slowly as Adams’ score suggested natural elements and beings – it made me think of birds and wind. Choreography from chapter one was revisited as a bright light shone from above, scattering shadows across the stage’s surface. Though recurring, the phrases felt different and renewed in this other atmosphere – more buoyant, more voluminous, more suspended, yet still holding fast to their established specificity.

The elevated stage surface provided unique depth and layering to the work, though I have to say that with the lush abundance in the main space, my eye seldom wandered up to that upper floor. And in the second part of Available Light, an eleventh dancer suddenly appeared in the ensemble, which I found a bit curious. I suppose that with development and growth being prevalent in the piece, adding another performer could be related to those themes. But it seemed odd to be so late in the game (well past the two-thirds point); in fact, I found myself wondering if I had missed his presence earlier. Maybe I did.

Feb 4th – The curtain rose to reveal a gorgeous impressionistic tableau of blues, greens and oranges. Lauren Strongin ran towards Angelo Greco and with a sky-high staccato lift, Haffner Symphony was off and running.

Moments like this one, of exuberant elation and luminescent artistry, sang from the War Memorial Opera House Sunday as San Francisco Ballet closed the first program of their 2017 season. Aptly titled, “Joy Of Dance,” this first triple bill welcomed Jiří Bubeníček’s new work Fragile Vessels alongside two returning compositions: Justin Peck’s In the Countenance of Kings and Haffner Symphony, by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson.

Set to Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D Major, Tomasson’s Haffner Symphony was a lovely choice to open the program. A four-movement suite for one lead couple, three featured pairs and a corps of six, Haffner Symphony demonstrates the breadth and possibility that neo-classical choreography possesses. While certainly beautiful and elegant, so often neo-classical ballet can look overly placed and perhaps even a little cold at times, but this 1991 composition has an invigorating spirit, while maintaining the technical acuity that the form demands. Freedom soared in the upper torso and arms; gooey pliés seeped into the floor; surprising and inventive batterie sequences abounded. Strongin and Greco led the ballet with confidence and charm both in their duet choreography and in the sections where they each had the chance to shine independently – she, in the lengthy adagio phrases that informed the second movement; he, in the varied turns (arabesques, fouettés and outside pirouettes) that peppered Haffner Symphony’s third chapter. And together, the directional shifts and echappé portion of their final pas de deux dazzled.

Dores André, Wei Wang and Joseph Walsh in Bubenícek's Fragile Vessels. Photo © Erik Tomasson

Dores André, Wei Wang and Joseph Walsh in Bubenícek’s Fragile Vessels
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Designed by his brother Otto Bubeníček, the setting for Jiří Bubeníček’s Fragile Vessels was all about grandeur and scope – flowing material draped from the rafters and oversized sweeping arches intertwined upstage left. And ensconced with Jim French’s lighting, the entire set looked sun-kissed, like it had been ever so lightly blanketed in gold. As Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 arpeggiated, bodies similarly rose and fell, cresting through the space. Arms twisted behind heads, legs swiveled – statuesque poses emerging in every corner. An examination of the strength, subtlety and range of the human experience, this one-act ensemble ballet creates an intimate container where raw emotion is expressed through avant-garde, sculptural choreography. And this was especially apparent in the lengthy middle section – a penetrating trio danced by Dores André, Joseph Walsh and Wei Wang.  

With simmering intensity, the pas de trois began on the floor and then moved to standing through a series of picturesque poses. As they cycled through these unexpected contemporary lifts and shapes, their relationship was in a constant state of flux. Sometimes all three performers moved as a unit, sometimes the formation was two together and one alone and occasionally, André, Walsh and Wang all danced their own distinct choreographic material. By exploring these various aspects within the pas de trois structure, Bubeníček made room for the narrative themes to radiate and resonate. You could see times of belonging and times of isolation, instances of being known and then quickly being forgotten. Near the end of the movement, jealousy and anger even made their way into the story. And in the final image, a collective and collaborative curved pose, it seemed that the three had reached some semblance of harmony and compromise.

With a combination of revisited motifs and new phrase material, Fragile Vessels left its audience with some astonishing imagery in its final chapter. Jennifer Stahl’s miraculous solo centered around the spine, turning in towards it and then outward into space. Wang, Francisco Mungamba and Carlo Di Lanno toggled between canon and unison in a brief, but memorable vignette. And an emotive pas de deux between Stahl and Di Lanno expertly wove through the entire cast like the route of a maze.

Program one closed with a shining star from 2016’s season – Justin Peck’s In the Countenance of Kings, set to a glorious score by Sufjan Stevens. The full cast begins upstage center, carefully arranged in a cluster formation. Slowly, they peel away leaving Mungamba (The Protagonist) lying alone in the center. In a sublime solo, he stands and discovers his surroundings. As one of the dancers who interpreted this role last year, Mungamba was absolutely stellar, but on Sunday, he was on a whole other level, inspired, superb. With a sense of community and togetherness, the corps enters the scene, travelling around as a group, gently framing and energizing a number of featured pas de deuxs.

In the Countenance of Kings has so many noteworthy moments, a few warranting special mention – Strongin and Henry Sidford’s luscious duet; Isabella DeVivo and Mungamba’s sparkling emboîté and sous-sus turns; the athletic, shifting temps leveé sequence; the ensemble’s wave at the front of the stage; and the women’s unison work towards the end of the ballet. What a brilliant return from last year and a remarkable start to 2017!

Feb 12th – It’s been just over a year since I’ve seen EmSpace Dance and detour dance together on a shared program. That night, in December of 2015, each company offered a new world premiere. It was a divine evening of compositional innovation, inspired performances, penetrating thematics and some serious fun. So, to see these two companies together again was certainly an exciting proposition.

And what a performance! For this engagement, the pair teamed up as part of Shotgun Players’ BLAST Theatre Festival, each bringing a revival of recent work: EmSpace Dance’s Monkey Gone to Heaven (redux) and detour dance’s FILAMENTS. Now a shared program certainly does not mean that the pieces must share a common thread. And yet, I was struck by a connective fiber – a compositional form simultaneously experimenting with deconstructed conceptual narratives and scene-based throughlines. Each work was navigating structural styles, deliciously teetering between dance theater and the dance play.

EmSpace Dance in Monkey Gone to Heaven (redux) Photo Pak Han

EmSpace Dance in
Monkey Gone to Heaven (redux)
Photo Pak Han

As they took the space for Monkey Gone to Heaven (redux), conceived and directed by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, the seven performers sat in a line, six of them facing upstage. Using their heads, arms and hands, they cycled through a series of meditative motions, sometimes in unison and sometimes in a wave. The remaining cast member faced the audience, and a monologue unfolded – one about connecting with a gorilla at a zoo. But it wasn’t just about logistics; this was a devotional story, a recounting of a spiritual experience between two beings.

In this first vignette, Monkey Gone to Heaven (redux) introduced a set of bonds: between a community of individuals; between humans and animals; and between the physical realm and the sacred realm. Over the next forty minutes, these themes would play out and be unpacked through a beautifully crafted theatrical collage. Movement, storytelling, song, instrumentals and humor exploring the interconnectedness of human, animal and spiritual spheres.  

Primate and contemporary release language joined together in physical phrase material – arms swung, legs hovered in deep plié, fingers curled, bodies bounced. Stories about famous animals were shared with a subtle religious framing (the storyteller referring to them as ‘patron apes’). Rituals and prayer informed the action on stage. Cast members conversed with the audience. A soliloquy/interview about the loss of a tail was shadowed by a vulnerable and tactile pas de deux. And all of these parts were expertly woven together to speak broadly about connection. Connections that we seek after, participate in, but don’t fully understand. Mysterious connections where there is a belief and fascination in what we cannot see. Connections that happen spontaneously, with no planning or intention. And the space between scientific reality and the human condition of “what if”.

detour dance’s FILAMENTS, directed by Kat Cole and Eric Garcia, actually began during intermission, while the house lights were still up and the audience was milling about. One by one, dancers entered the space and engaged in a stylistic, Fosse-esque jazz phrase. A narrative was being established, even in this entr’acte of sorts. Who was watching? Who was paying attention?

detour dance in FILAMENTS Photo Robbie Sweeny

detour dance in FILAMENTS
Photo Robbie Sweeny

Then, as the blackout ushered the official start to the work, one dancer slowly walked across the stage and approached a light (amber bulbs that had been hung around the perimeter of the stage). Another cast member who had taken a seat in the audience began remarking about the beauty of this theatrical vision – a hilarious exchange ensued. This segued right into another comical scene. Five performers broke the fourth wall, engaging with the audience and repeating an emotive, purposely exaggerated choreographic excerpt, appropriately followed by drawn out bows and gracious thanks.

Scenework, contemporary choreography, gestures, live music and props continued to converge in FILAMENTS, a study of observation, attention and the desire to be noticed. Through the lens of the theatrical world, its stereotypes and the personalities that inhabit it, Cole and Garcia were making a larger statement about roles, constructed containers, fantasy, reality and how each of those relates to our sense of self.

One segment found the cast moving through a string of postures, almost like they were facing the mirror in a dance class, except we, the viewers had become their mirror. Influenced by the structure and conventions of center work, they posed, compared themselves to others and primped, concurrently poking fun at the conventions of class, while accurately reflecting the real behavior that exists in that environment. Another telling scene found two dancers wearing paper bags over their heads, moving with a realism and vulnerability that felt fueled by the fact that they couldn’t see each other. There was a clear freedom in their anonymity.

As hinted at by the title and initiated in its first minutes, various images of light recurred in FILAMENTS. Performers stared at the lights and cradled them, suggesting a power, an authority. They were absolutely hypnotized by these lights, so much so that they were completely unaware of the dynamic, highly physical solo underway around them. FILAMENTS’ complex diva character, who made numerous appearances, also had a revelatory relationship with light. One of her most stunning moments was a solo mid-way through the piece. As an evasive shinbuster spotlight moved about the stage, she tried to catch it (literally and figuratively), at first dancing with grace and elegance and in the end, desperately clawing at the floor, and at the need to be illuminated.

Feb 22nd – Searching for connection and companionship. Curiosity about “more”. What does it mean to be alive? The porous space between human and spiritual realms. Obsession. Power. Loss. Love. These themes, from Mary Shelley’s brilliant novel “Frankenstein,” are aptly mirrored in Liam Scarlett’s ballet of the same name, currently running through the end of this month at San Francisco Ballet. A co-production with The Royal Ballet, this new full-length narrative work received its world premiere last year in London, and its San Francisco Ballet premiere just last week. A new narrative ballet is an exciting prospect, and in anticipation of seeing it for the first time, I read Shelley’s book, finishing it just the day before the performance.

And I’m very glad I did. Because of that reading, the plot made sense, as did the character relationships and the larger narrative fibers. I didn’t have to search or rush through the synopsis trying to figure out what was going on. The program notes share that Scarlett’s Frankenstein is “inspired” by Shelley’s source material. And that is accurate, to be sure. The ballet holds true to the general arc, but there are differences as well. Some parts are omitted or changed, some characterizations altered and some of the transitions are a little abrupt, but as this is a three-Act ballet and not an entire literary tome, Scarlett handled the adaptation of the story well.

Gorgeous, yet ominous scrim and screen designs casted a foreboding atmosphere (scenes/costumes by John Macfarlane, lights by David Finn and projection by Finn Ross) as the very first notes of Lowell Liebermann’s score sang through the space. Amidst lightning and heavy rains, we first meet Victor, Elizabeth, who had been adopted by the Frankenstein family, and Justine, the housekeeper’s daughter, as children. Quickly the children grow up and the household seems replete with joy. A perfect context for Victor (Joseph Walsh) and Elizabeth (Frances Chung) to share the first of three main pas de deuxs. This first duet is full of hope and light; its youthful abandon shining through sweeping lifts, swirling turns and quick promenades in demi-pointe. Ending with an accepted marriage proposal, all is well and the entire family rejoices, including Caroline, Victor’s very pregnant mother. But darkness underscores the moment. Caroline goes into distress and dies in childbirth. And we see Justine (Sasha De Sola) staring at Caroline’s locket, an item that later will damn her. The fragility of human existence has taken over the Frankenstein family and heartbroken, Victor departs to Ingolstadt University.

Joseph Walsh in Scarlett's Frankenstein. Photo © Erik Tomasson

Joseph Walsh in Scarlett’s Frankenstein
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Clocking in at just under one hour, there was still much more action to behold in Act I of Frankenstein. We travel with Victor to Ingolstadt, encounter his classmates, one of whom becomes a friend and a pivotal character in the story, Henry Clerval (Angelo Greco). While becoming acquainted with their new educational environment, the group is both witness and participant in a purposeful creepy ensemble dance in the anatomy lecture/operating theatre, complete with specimen jars and cadaver limbs. While gruesome, there is also a hidden choreographic gem in this segment of the ballet. Together, the students dance a mostly unison variation, which Scarlett infused with an appropriately academic approach, really the textbook version of his chosen steps. And the unison vocabulary in the phrase also spoke to the students’ common pursuit and camaraderie. We follow them into a rowdy and tempestuous tavern, which doesn’t distract Victor for a second – he is so enthralled with his studies. In the Act’s final scene, Victor is back in the anatomy theatre, where he creates The Creature. In a dynamic and lengthy solo, Walsh was able to track Victor’s complicated human journey. From outward movements – turns ending in arabesque, soaring battements and circular ronds de jambe – he demonstrated how Victor was searching for something. Perhaps knowledge, control or solace from the tragedy of his mother’s death – maybe even a little of all three. And then there is a dramatic shift. Once he succeeds in bringing The Creature into being, he is suddenly at odds with and in dismay over what he has done. Walsh was phenomenal in these closing moments, though I wonder if one of the many group scenes could have been edited or even sacrificed to allow more time for this potent transformation.

After a brief Prologue, Act II opened with a sweet and playful scene between Justine and Victor’s younger brother William (Max Behrman-Rosenberg). As William’s birthday celebration is about to unfold, Victor is suspicious, distracted and cautious. Cue his betrothed Elizabeth to try and bring him back to the moment. With swirling motifs and cantilevered turns from their first duet, she tries to remind him of an earlier time in this, their second pas de deux. And her efforts seem to be successful, at least for the most part, though Victor is periodically drawn back to his despondent thoughts. Then, The Creature (Vitor Luiz) arrives at the family’s estate. Alone onstage in front of the Frankenstein home, his first solo is broad and vast in scope. There is both a longing for connection and acceptance as well as an anger at being isolated and alone. Luiz danced beautifully, and the crowd erupted in cheers at the end of his solo. Though, for me, the choreography was a little curious; The Creature aspect of the character got lost in the overly stylistic steps. Death and destruction marks the end of Act II, with The Creature killing William, and after the locket from the beginning is found in her possession, Justine is accused and put to death.

Act III of Frankenstein begins in a very typical story ballet fashion, with a ballroom scene, in this case the wedding banquet for Victor and Elizabeth. Glittery adorned couples cascaded through the space with pas de basques, balancés en tournant and waltzy lifts. All this grandeur was led by Henry, a truly effervescent and charming portrayal by Greco. As the ball continues, The Creature appears for short phrases, dancing with the guests and then like a ghost, disappearing into the crowd. This game of cat-and-mouse thoroughly tortures Victor, and you could see and feel from Walsh’s superior acting that Victor was struggling with reality and the caverns of his imagination. Was he really seeing The Creature?

In the last vignettes of Scarlett’s Frankenstein, a number of stunning pas de deuxs evolve. The first between Victor and Elizabeth, on this, the occasion of their wedding. A maturity of movement was evident now between the two, having traversed a significant number of years and life-changing events together. The dance was peppered with visions of those who Victor believed had perished because of his actions and choices, and so, it was also palpable during the duet that for Victor, complete happiness would always elude him. The Creature dances a diabolical and frightening duet with Elizabeth, which ends in tragedy; after which we see The Creature staring at his hands with disgust in the same way that Victor did at the close of Act I. And the last duet finds The Creature and Victor battling with a physicality of frenzy, mania and compulsion. How does the clash between these two entities ultimately end? Is it the same as Shelley’s book? Or a different twist? You’ll have to go and see San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett’s Frankenstein to find out.