Heather Desaulniers

  • Mills College Dance Alumni Concert: Ebb + Flow
    Lisser Theater, Oakland
  • The Hamburg Ballet: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

  • San Francisco Ballet: Programs 2 (“Tears”, “From Foreign Lands”, “Borderlands”) and 3 (‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ from “La Bayadère”, “Ghosts©”, “Firebird)
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

  • Blind Tiger Society: The Aftermath Affair
    ODC Theater, San Francisco

Megan Niceley in 'Ebb + Flow'.  Photo © Yana Kraeva

Megan Niceley in ‘Ebb + Flow’.
Photo © Yana Kraeva

February 7th – On the first Friday of every February, the Mills College dance community (alumni, friends, family and current students) gather on campus for the annual Dance Alumni Concert. Aptly titled “Ebb + Flow”, this shared performance features a curated collection of work by Mills College Dance Department alums. 2014’s iteration brought six diverse compositions, choreographed by graduates from the past three decades.

First up was Garth Grimball’s “Casa Tomada”, which featured live guitar accompaniment by composer Brian Baumbusch and performance by Grimball and Deanna Bangs. A quiet work of post-modern choreography, contemporary sensibility and narrative framework, “Casa Tomada” had a lovely arc. First, a couple was calmly seated in an open wooden box structure. There was an overwhelming sense of assumed and accepted repetition; a statement of the usual, the constant, the norm. Next, complete and methodical articulation of the hands and feet were added to the picture. The dance continued its crescendo in both intensity and off-balancedness so that by the end, a clear message had emerged. Typicality was no longer enough. Sandra Scheuber’s “Blue” followed, a purposely humorous and melodramatic quartet about sadness and despair. While “Blue” provided a nice variety and contrast to the overall program, tying modern choreography so closely to popular music is tough to do, and the work did seem a little out of place.

Act I concluded with an excerpt from “Six Suites”, a terrific collaborative project, setting six different choreographic intentions to Bach’s music. This portion highlighted three sections – the first, an example of abstract expression; the second, narrative interpretation; the third, creative process. Amy Lewis began with a circular, flowing and vast solo that ate up the stage space. With its constant motion, Lewis was reflecting the equally continuous nature of much Baroque music. Very few internal moments of cadence and repose exist, and so, rest does not come until the very end. Sonsherée Giles’ second variation introduced a delicious narrative foundation. High relevé dancing juxtaposed against abrupt and violent falls spoke to a common desire: trying to keep it together and the reality of not being able to do so. Janet Das took the stage in the third segment of “Six Suites”, providing a glimpse into the creation and extraction of movement phrases. Das did not dance to the music, but rather in concert with it, accumulating interesting sets of movement motifs and physical circuits. Her hinge plié deserved particular commendation. “Six Suites” is successfully examining the marriage between different choreographic styles and Baroque scores.

Act II opened with Megan Nicely’s “Somatic Experiment #1: Scrunch”, an immersive and creepily spooky choreographic wonder. From its vocalization score (provided live by Jim Brashear) to its deconstructed set to its gritty, animalistic syntax, this piece is all dance theater. And though the narrative has an aura of mystery, “Somatic Experiment #1: Scrunch” appeared to be a physical expression of neurosis or insanity. Rebekah Brown’s “Boots” focused on the journey – individual pathways, personal experiences and navigating life, both from a collective and individual perspective. Well-danced and creatively organized, the only surprising element was the ending, which was a little abrupt. For the evening’s finale, Jalila Bell offered the world premiere of “D4L”, which was all about layers, evolution and accumulation. In a work that showcased the best technical performance of the evening, Bell was able to fuse hip hop, jazz, break-dance, modern, and traditional African dance into a unique hybrid. Each genre maintained its individual integrity while also working together to form a cohesive whole.

Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Photo © Holger Badekow

Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
Photo © Holger Badekow

February 12th – Dreams can be strange, confusing and non-linear; starting out one way and then morphing into something else without explanation or warning. And so, a ballet about a dream should be equally odd and curious. In another mid-February engagement at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, the Hamburg Ballet returned with a full-length production encapsulating this universal experience – Artistic Director John Neumeier’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Perfectly timed for Valentine’s week, unexpected love and intertwined relationships take center stage in Neumeier’s 1977 version of Shakespeare’s comedic masterpiece. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” takes its participating characters on an unusual journey, oscillating between the conscious and the sub-conscious and revealing the porousness that exists between the two states of being.

The ballet’s most notable achievement is its dream sequence, which makes up the majority of Act I. Appropriately weird and mystical, the dream successfully blurred the lines between reality and fantasy. Manic motion and constant change were expressed through extremely fast boureés, Russian pas de chats and grand rond de jambes. A sense of ‘the unexpected’ even permeated the partnering, leading to some spectacular visuals (including a mid-air developpé à la second). Add in smoke effects, ambient music and mobile set pieces, and the result was a deliciously unpredictable apparition.

Translating Shakespeare’s comedic tale into a non-textual format is not easy to do. The complex scenarios, the varied characters, the interwoven lives; all three presented a big challenge. By the end of Act I, things were starting to become clear, but even with a general understanding of the plot, it was a little hard to keep track of what was going on. Having said that, with a storyline like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, some uncertainty may have been the right call.

The length of the production was problematic. About three-quarters of the way through each of the two acts, there was a very clear and palpable stopping point. The audience reaction in those moments spoke volumes; they thought each half was over and their presumption seemed right. But in both cases, the action continued for quite a while longer, and because definite cadences had already occurred, it felt extraneous. In particular, Act I clocked in at around eighty minutes.

Though the style and choreography of this “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” may not be to everyone’s artistic taste, the dancing itself was phenomenal. The leads were great: tremendous technique, believable acting and artistic sensitivity. However, the real stand out group was the men’s and women’s corps de ballet. Neumeier’s creation charges its chorus with both traditional (in the first scene and at the wedding) and contemporary ballet vocabulary (during the dream). Each corps dancer met that call with authentic intention, mature confidence and technical acumen. They were a delight to watch.

San Francisco Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky's 'From Foreign Lands'.  Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘From Foreign Lands’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

February 21st – San Francisco Ballet’s second program of the 2014 season joined three contrasting works – the premiere of Val Caniparoli’s “Tears” alongside two of last season’s favorites, Alexei Ratmansky’s “From Foreign Lands” and Wayne McGregor’s “Borderlands”. Another testament to the repertory breadth and artistic diversity of this company, program two was the perfect triple bill.

While the title of Val Caniparoli’s newest work for San Francisco Ballet may imply sorrow and despair, “Tears” is actually about healing. A dance for three couples and a chorus of four men, this contemporary ballet reveals that the cleansing of the soul is an active process requiring constant and forward motion. As the main featured couple, Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz gave a passionate yet solid performance. Certainly a difficult artistic intersection to maneuver, they approached each moment with full authentic emotion, while still maintaining textbook technical integrity. Next, Sasha De Sola and Tiit Helimets took the stage with a partnering variation that spoke of abandon and vulnerability. This duet said that there is no half way; each lift and balance required complete commitment, utter surrender and ultimate trust. Well-suited partners, De Sola and Helimets were a strong casting choice; I hope to see more of their partnership in the future. The male quartet (Gaetano Amico, Sean Orza, Benjamin Stewart and Myles Thatcher) provided the fluid foundation for Caniparoli’s “Tears”. Unobtrusive, yet crucial, their choreography was peppered with suspension and release, serpentine vocabulary, and tours en l’air that melted into the floor. Daniel Deivison and Ellen Rose Hummel served as “Tears’” third couple. The established passion and abandon of the other two pairings was still alive, but it was different, and in a good way. Deivison and Hummel embodied a reserved and gentle knowing, almost as if they shared a private secret. Caniparoli’s “Tears” is a beautiful ballet suite; a set of constant moving pieces that did not stop until the curtain came down. And two truths reigned supreme: being in the moment and the expression of process.

Adding a different flavor was Alexei Ratmansky’s “From Foreign Lands”; a quietly sweet and delicately tender ensemble composition. A dance on the theme of fours, full cast variations bookended multiple different quartet groupings: two pairs, one man and three women; one woman and three men; and four couples. Ratmansky’s choreography in each of the movements was delightful – the Italian quartet, playful, fun and highly energetic; the Spanish sequence, dramatic and humorous. Though at this performance, some of the unison was problematic from time to time in a few of the sections. Simone Messmer gave a standout performance in the German dance. Messmer sparkled onstage, literally lighting up the space. At the same time, she maintained an aware and authentic presence with everyone around her. The resulting picture was truly luminous. An audience can discern a manufactured version from a case like this one, where it was absolutely real. “From Foreign Lands” is a lovely light-hearted ballet; no fanfare, yet still dynamic and compelling.

The evening’s final ballet contributed yet a third stylistic genre, Wayne McGregor’s contemporary assay, “Borderlands”. When I saw this piece last year, the formal and structural concerns took focus, so, this time, I opted to take a content approach, looking at it through the lens of abstract imagery, general concept and deconstructed narrative. “Borderlands” does not tell a linear story at all, but there are a number of interesting narrative ideas present. A sense of having to endure uncertainty and adapt to different circumstances definitely underscores the entire work. As well, the juxtaposition of individual physicality against a vastness of space and scope is another ongoing narrative theme. Though she did not take center stage until the two-thirds point, Dores André stole the show. With her unique combination of extreme flexibility, innate strength and spatial instincts, she was meant to dance McGregor’s choreography. And though seldom used, the unison in “Borderlands” was really quite something; so much so that it deserves a special accolade.

San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov's 'Firebird'. Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov’s ‘Firebird’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

February 25th – Not all triple bills have a unifying theme. And at first glance, the third program of San Francisco Ballet’s 2014 season looks like one such evening: ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ from “La Bayadère”, Act II, “Ghosts©” and “Firebird”. But there is a common denominator running through these works. For this mixed repertory program, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson has chosen three ballets that each highlight a style of storytelling: classical narrative, abstract narrative and mythical narrative.

Though the full-length “La Bayadère” is not my favorite ballet, ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ scene from Act II is really something else – visually transcendent and technically complex. And this particularly staging by legendary ballerina Natalia Makarova (after Marius Petipa) is inspired. The women’s corps de ballet are front and center as they travel down the famous ramp with a well-known series of plié arabesques and tendus devant. Not only do the dancers have to contend with the technical difficulty of the steps but also, they must be cognizant of their spacing, which was well done. High extensions gain serious praise in today’s ballet world; most of the time, it seems like the higher the leg, the better. And many of the San Francisco Ballet corps’ women have sky-high arabesques and developpés in écarté. But in ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ scene, these high extensions are actually problematic. This is one of those moments where uniformity is required, and it was missing. The corps struggled with their cohesiveness; the dancers with the higher extensions really needed to adjust. In contrast, the soloists danced their respective variations exquisitely (though I’m not a fan of winding-up before pirouettes). The stately, regal pas de deux for Nikiya and Solor (danced by Maria Kochetkova and guest artist Denis Matvienko) was the perfect combination of passionate emotion and technical acuity. Incredibly steady partnering (absolutely no wobbles or shaking hands) met palpable passion with an equal dose of magnetism and playfulness.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Ghosts©” is a mysterious oscillation between the old and the new. An ensemble work with featured pairings and trios, the ballet blends nostalgic costuming, postmodern sculpture and an atonal score with contemporary choreography. As one might expect from the title, “Ghosts©” contains a variety of floating, whirling and drifting movement sequences. And there is a definite sense of purposeful ‘off-balanced-ness’ as the dance and dancers wander through time.

A character-driven, mythical story, Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird” is an expression of universal extremes – night vs. day; good vs. evil; real vs. imaginary; love vs. loneliness; sacrifice vs. gain. And because “Firebird” is such a character-driven ballet, it was the interpretations of the primary roles that really ‘made’ the performance. Sarah Van Patten’s Firebird had a wealth of complexity and artistic depth. She could be commanding yet shy, powerful yet delicate, otherworldly yet human all in the same moment. With a similar intricacy, Sasha De Sola and Tiit Helimets as the Prince and Princess combined love’s innocence, youth’s carefreeness, and naïveté’s hopefulness. And Pascal Molat completed the story with his phenomenal version of the wicked Kaschei.

Blind Tiger Society. Photo © Roel Q Seeber

Blind Tiger Society.
Photo © Roel Q Seeber

February 28th – The last day of February at ODC was a scene of something special as Blind Tiger Society opened “The Aftermath Affair”, choreography and artistic direction by Bianca Cabrera. An hour-long ensemble work for sixteen female dancers, “The Aftermath Affair” is what twenty-first century modern dance should aspire to. A conceptually narrative, contemporary dance piece, “The Aftermath Affair” posits a co-existing community, where surrounding situations, environment and circumstances are in a constant state of flux. And in that community, each member desperately clings to the authenticity of their inner self, all while being an active participant in the larger group. Cabrera has created a hypnotic, visceral and spellbinding conversation where the individual and the collective can meet.

While each performer maintained a sense of their personal integrity, choreographic catalysts were introduced. And so, choices were required. A gorgeous combination of large and small physicality, the opening duet was all about reaction. From small reflexive movements to larger vast motions, everything was a reaction to outside stimuli. As the piece went on, more external forces were introduced and the choices continued. Sometimes they were slight adjustments – vibrating shoulders were one recurring example. Others were much more encompassing, as demonstrated by the numerous contact improvisation-style duets.

Cabrera’s choreographic syntax produced some truly beautiful sequences. Parallel boureés traveled backwards at lightning-fast speeds. Pirouettes fed directly into grand rond de jambes in plié. In several instances, all sixteen dancers mellifluously flew through the space, each executing a different variation. Here was a dynamic and diverse group of technically proficient performers, who had also been incredibly well-rehearsed. And in the final scene, the entire ensemble took the stage in a reiteration of “The Aftermath Affair’s” theme: moving as individuals, but in the context of the whole.

Obviously, strength was key to the entire work, but it didn’t just show up in the narrative or in the choreography, it is was present in everything – strength of intention; strength of process; strength of performance. And the choreography had the chance to shine because there was just the right amount of collaboration. So many dance productions go overboard when it comes to collaborative partners, which makes for a very frenetic end product. “The Aftermath Affair” left all that hoopla aside. A non-linear narrative expressed through solid modern technique was joined by costuming, lighting design and an original score by Ben Juodvalkis, who is quickly becoming the go-to composer for Bay Area contemporary dance companies.