Heather Desaulniers

  • San Francisco Ballet – The Sleeping Beauty
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Rogelio López & Dancers – Dicotomia Del Silencio
    Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
  • Deborah Slater Dance Theater – The Sleepwatchers
    ODC Theater, San Francisco

March 10th – In my February 2018 CriticalDance column, I reviewed San Francisco Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty at length. Choreographed by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson (after Marius Petipa), the ballet premiered back in 1990, but last year was my introduction to this particular version. And so I had thoughts aplenty – about the set, staging, choreography and the overall grandeur of this three-act narrative ballet. Beauty has returned as part of SFB’s 2019 repertory slate and just opened over the weekend. Though many of my observations held true from last year, there was still newness to behold in this first matinee performance.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty
Photo © Erik Tomasson

An infant princess. A curse. A prophecy. A long nap. A kiss. A wedding. Simplified and distilled, these are the main plot points of Beauty. Though clocking in at close to three hours, clearly other chapters and episodes factor heavily into the action. During the (extensive) Prologue, we meet a mélange of mortals and fairies, all of whom have come to pay tribute to the new princess, Aurora. And it’s the fairies who are the stars of Beauty’s opening segment. With delicate, graceful and floaty movement tropes, I quite enjoy the choreography for all six main fairies. Though occasionally, things do look a little busy. And with the sheer number of steps and transitions packed into every phrase (something which befalls much of the ballet), many of the sequences feel in constant pursuit of the downbeat in Tchaikovsky’s score. Having said that, several notable moments impressed. Ellen Rose Hummel’s Fairy of Courage variation commanded with its piercing feet, pointed fingers and staccato ball changes on pointe. Jasmine Jimison’s whimsical Fairy of Playfulness solo is one of the briefest dances in the lot, but in that short stay, Jimison, an apprentice with the company, captivated with her presence and technical clarity. I would even go so far as to say that she was the standout star of the afternoon, but more on that later.

Then the ballet has a time lapse and we finally (at least thirty-five minutes in) meet Aurora, danced by Mathilde Froustey. This second half of Act I features a number of stunning technical feats, famous moments (the Rose Adagio) and ends with the onset of the hundred-year slumber after Aurora is pricked by the dreaded spindle.

Act II continued to be both curious and elusive for this viewer, because while some important events transpire, on the whole, it feels extraneous. Yes, it introduces Prince Desiré (Vitor Luiz), connects the Prince and Aurora through a lengthy vision/dream scene and concludes with the kiss that awakens the Princess. But I’m not convinced that this chain of events a) has to take this long or b) couldn’t be folded into Beauty’s other acts, assuming they too had had some editing. The six-year-old who attended the performance with me remarked as follows, “This sure is a long dream.” Indeed.   

While the middle act is not my favorite, I did find Beauty’s third act to be a lot of fun. More fairies appear, as do some special feline guests, all in celebration of Aurora and Desiré’s marriage. Many lovely moments unfolded throughout, but by far, the highlight was Jimison and Esteban Hernandez’s Bluebird pas de deux. They were absolutely sensational. I saw Hernandez as the bluebird last year and it’s no surprise he has been cast again. His theatrical quality, exuberance and jumping prowess are the perfect match for a role replete with complicated batterie, bravado turns and pas de poisson. And Jimison, as the enchanted princess, had it all. Flawless technique, inviting stage presence and artistry to spare. Her face radiated joy in every instant and her movement had balance, intricacy, placement and heart. I wouldn’t be at all surprised she ascends swiftly through the SFB ranks.

March 23rd – Costuming is definitely something that I am pulled to in dance performance, though I don’t often give too much thought to the specific materials involved. But watching Dicotomia Del Silencio, the newest full-length work from Rogelio López & Dancers, I was haunted by the black brocade fabric used for the pants and sleeveless tunics. It was layered, weighty and significant, and as the night went on, would prove to be an ideal mirror for the quintet’s heavy narrative threads.

Silencio was a dance of heady, raw themes, which were unpacked through a mosaic of scenes and vignettes. And at the center of them all was the oft painful and lengthy journey of personal processing. As Andrew Merrell, Alexandria Whaley, Kevin Gaytan, Rebecca Johnson and López moved from chapter to chapter, several penetrating lines of inquiry emerged. How does care, attention and the passage of time affect past experiences? How do we try and help each other through challenging discoveries? With those overtures, are we actually providing comfort or just trying to make ourselves feel better? Are we allowing each other the freedom and time to truly process grief and trauma? When is it the right moment to reach out and when is it time to let go?

Rogelio Lopez & Dancers in Dichotomia del Silencio Photo Ryan Kwok

Rogelio Lopez & Dancers in Dicotomia Del Silencio
Photo Ryan Kwok

Aptly, the idea of embrace factored heavily into Silencio’s choreography. Traditional hugs abounded as did more abstract musings on the motif. Dancers would wrap around each other’s legs and gently cradle another’s head in the palm of their hand. In contrast, there were several solo statements counterpointing this sense of togetherness. Dancers backed away from the group; legs swam through the air, like they were treading water; López unhurriedly traversed the outside perimeter of the Shawl-Anderson studio space. The message: sometimes trudging through emotions and events is benefitted by the presence of others, and sometimes it isn’t. Much of Silencio’s phrase material was slow, methodical and ritualized, which matched well with its focus on processing and healing. But there was also plenty of intense, high-throttle movement: energetic rebounding, precarious cantilevered balances, bodies collapsing onto the floor. In these instants, pain, desperation, anger and disbelief washed over the room.

An integral trope in Silencio was the use of hand-held LED lights, which illuminated each dance episode, primarily from above. This lighting design (also by López) had a very powerful and intriguing dual effect. On one hand, it intimately emphasized all of emotional work that was playing out on stage. At the same time, because the handheld lights were utilized throughout the hour-long work, they had an anesthetizing quality as well, which fit like a hidden narrative fiber. Navigating extreme seasons and remembering unimaginable circumstances often requires a little anesthetic. Framing Silencio was a score composed and performed by David Franklin. Chimes, gongs, guitar, piano, even keys affixed to a long, wooden board contributed musical melodies and sound effects. While the music felt like a good fit for the piece, I did wonder if maybe the overall volume could have been adjusted. At times, the music was too loud for the studio venue and ended up pulling focus from what was happening onstage.  

March 29th – A search for understanding, for explanation, for relief – these themes and more lie at the heart of Deborah Slater Dance Theater’s The Sleepwatchers, co-directed by Deborah Slater and Jim Cave. Sleepwatchers processes these questions by taking the concept of sleep, or rather sleep disorder, into the Dance Theater sphere. The 2001 work, currently remounted as part of the company’s thirtieth anniversary, is chock-full of Dance Theater elements, expertly woven into a rich artistic tapestry: text, characters, scenework, set, sound, humor and movement. And by simultaneously mining these disciplines, Sleepwatchers makes some penetrating physical, psychological and emotional statements about the mysterious process of sleep.

Deborah Slater Dance Theater in The Sleepwatchers Photo Robbie Sweeny

Deborah Slater Dance Theater in The Sleepwatchers
Photo Robbie Sweeny

Slater, Cave and their collaborators did a terrific job creating a sense of place. A bed was positioned center stage; movable flats (by Jack Carpenter) doubled as room dividers and as educational whiteboards. Much of the cast was costumed (by Jeanne Henzel) in pajamas and lingerie, others were dressed as medical professionals. David Allen, Jr.’s score and Teddy Hulsker’s sound design included some well-known sleep-themed tunes layered with mechanical whirs, maybe a sleep apnea machine or a ventilator.

Different personas wandered through Sleepwatchers’ ever-changing scenes, which included medical lectures, sleep studies, nightmares and memories. One woman was trapped between adulthood and youth. Her brother was an integral part of the story, as were a number of Doctors and other characters conjured during sleep. Together, they all went on an investigative journey to discover why sleep was elusive for her. Eventually, they do find the answer, but along the way, encounter a myriad of issues, primarily around control. There is commentary about the need for answers; the obsession with figuring things out; the tendency to protectively reframe circumstances; and the discomfort we often feel with an “I don’t know” posture.

Choreographically, Sleepwatchers has a varied physical language – gesture, contact-improv syntax, capoeira inspirations and of course, modern vocabulary. Dance factors more heavily in the second half. In fact, for the first thirty minutes, I wondered if physical theater was a more apt description for the work than Dance Theater. But again, dance does play a significant part, just later on. Broad extensions of the arms and legs embodied searching. An ensemble sequence found all six cast members lifting and interacting with each other – a metaphor for the intersection of their experiences. And there was a postmodern pillow dance to “Mr. Sandman.”

There is much to love in Sleepwatchers, it’s a winning piece of contemporary performance. But it does face a couple of challenges, or maybe, it’s more accurate to say one two-pronged challenge. Clocking in at more than an hour (with a late start, it’s hard to guess the exact run time), Sleepwatchers is too long. Having said that, it isn’t inherently too long. It’s too long because there’s so much repetition, too much for me. As each character navigates the story, recurring motifs were everywhere – in their interactions with each other, their scenework and their movement phrases. For example, there’s a sleep ogre character threaded into much of the dance: half impy leprechaun, half creepy gremlin. The role was communicated well and the choreography was very fitting. But every time the character was onstage, the same things would play out and play out at length. Repetition is indeed a tenet of Dance Theater, though finding the right balance can be tricky. Too little and there isn’t enough narrative impact; too much and the potency is lost.