Heather Desaulniers

  • Dance Up Close/East Bay and Arts & Above present VIEO from the soil
    Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
  • Khala Brannigan
    SAFEhouse Arts, San Francisco
  • Cal Performances presents Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
    Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
  • San Francisco Ballet – Program 1
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • San Francisco Ballet – Program 2
    War Memorial Opera House
Bruno Augusto and Kate Jordan Photo Lindsey Lucifer

Bruno Augusto and Kate Jordan
Photo Lindsey Lucifer

January 15th – Multi-discipline performance art; narrative framework; physical theater; contemporary release technique. Every one of these phrases embodies VIEO from the soil, the newest evening-length work from Kate Jordan and Bruno Augusto who together make up Arts & Above. Presented as part of the phenomenal Dance Up Close/East Bay series, VIEO from the soil follows the striking journey of two (Jordan and Augusto) as they search for connection. And it is a layered journey at that – one of organization and awareness; of learning and change; of specificity in the moment and evolution into the future. They encounter joy, comfort and satisfaction, though Jordan and Augusto are also not afraid to show the darker side that accompanies such an expedition – the anger, the frustration and the fear.

Upon entering the space, the viewer is greeted with a brief prelude, an avant-garde performance installation that would organically flow into the piece itself. This introduction served an important purpose – it framed Jordan and Augusto as two individual beings. It created context, the place where VIEO from the soil would begin. Over the next fifty minutes, their story would certainly evolve and become something different through a collage of ideas, images and sounds. But in this opening, we knew that the narrative was to start with two separate souls.

Jordan, clad in a tin foil shell and seated on a stool, slowly rotated in a circle meticulously morphing from one attitude to another, while Augusto offered an assortment of percussive phrases. As her outer ‘skin’ began peeling away, a new motif emerged and Jordan began dancing with a braided rope as her partner. (these braided ropes would play a significant role in this dance as it continued forward). Again, at this early point, the two were together in the space, occupying and inhabiting the same real estate, yet at the same time, they were very much on their own – unconnected and purposely disengaged.

Having said that, there was a deep corporeal awareness at play. They danced and moved at close proximity. Certain gestural motifs and choreographic nuances were appropriated from one to the other – the pointing, the flexed extended leg with a deep pliè, the diving rolls. So while remaining at a distance, both were clearly curious about and learning from the other.

Around halfway through VIEO from the soil, the two entered into a shared experience as they began their pas de deux, which would continue to the end of the work. At first, tender moments of mutual discovery filled the stage, and the connection grew and crescendoed from there. The braided ropes recurred, though this time, Jordan and Augusto tended to the item together, suggesting new themes of joining, of entwined-ness. Appropriately, VIEO from the soil concluded without a particular cadence. Their new journey together was still in its infancy…

Khala Brannigan Photo Peter Clark

Khala Brannigan
Photo Peter Clark

January 20th – One of the joys of a vibrant, ever-evolving dance community (like the one in the San Francisco/Bay Area) is the constant opportunity to see something new. That may be new premiere works, a new program, series or festival, new performances spaces or new choreographic voices. Wednesday night’s Resident Artist Workshop (RAW) at SAFEhouse Arts was an example of that last case. An evening of contemporary dance performance by a choreographer whose work was brand new to me; someone who has great ingenuity and promise in the areas of design, concept, composition and direction. In the years to come, Khala Brannigan will definitely be a choreographic force to watch.

Brannigan’s Quintessence is a mixed discipline full-length convergence of film, poetry, photography, live music and of course movement and choreography, divided into two quartet suites. In each chapter, Brannigan offers a thoughtful treatment of the quartet structure, with a variety of groupings and formations (solos, duets, trios). And choreographically, she also brings a broad diversity to the table in vocabulary, intention and dynamics.

Following a very cool and compelling prelude, Brannigan herself took the stage to begin part one of Quintessence. She cycled through a fluid and highly technical movement phrase while lit from the front in a ‘shin-buster’ style. This added a gorgeous effect as her silhouette simultaneously danced on the backdrop and the walls. Some lovely moments unfolded – a stunning penchée arabesque, lightning-fast corkscrew turns, molten level changes and eclectic shapes. From there, three more dancers joined the scene. A second solo re-introduced some of the first choreographic motifs, but with a different energy. Intense, yet internal at the same time. A trio spoke of quiet restraint, with careful and mature attention to every detail, like how the hand and fingers delicately wrapped around the head. Later, candles were injected into the scene and arranged as altars in front of the dancers; ritualistic and meditative. And Quintessence’s first part closed with a brief dance film (by Peter Clark).

In the darkness, a new quartet filled the space and a pounding tom drumbeat pulsed through the air, announcing the next half of Brannigan’s Quintessence. The breadth and diversity that Brannigan had established continued in this second choreographic statement – quirky physicality morphed into free-flowing turns and then to staccato extensions. But the biggest change in this part of the dance was the partnering. While there were a few brief partnering phrases in the first half, here partnering took on a much larger role. And it was varied partnering at that. Some tender and supported; some controlling and imposed. The final unison sequence saw a primal aggressiveness give way to empowerment as each dancer emerged from a circular formation to solo.

Brannigan has assembled a phenomenal group of collaborators for Quintessence. The dancers were particularly impressive in their technique, presence and commitment. They did have a few challenges with the space itself, though. SAFEhouse is an amazing performance venue, but it isn’t huge. And occasionally, navigating the space and maintaining spatial awareness with each other proved a little difficult.  

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan "in Rice" Photo courtesy of Cal Performances

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
“in Rice”
Photo courtesy of Cal Performances

January 22nd – A male dancer, stately and focused, walked across the back of the stage carrying a long flexible wooden pole, , while live video projection commenced on the cyclorama. One by one, a group of women joined the scene and a percussive stamping phrase developed. In parallel, they rose to relevé, then fell heavily into plié, accompanied by audible breathing. This pulsing sequence would repeat again and again, becoming ever more determined and resolute. A stylized contemporary dance phrase emerged out of this initial statement, one with windmilling arms, flexed attitude extensions and circular patterning – all choreographic motifs that would recur in the next hour.

These were the first moments of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s Rice, an evening-length ensemble work choreographed by their founder and Artistic Director Lin Hwai-min. Presented by Cal Performances, Rice, in its continuous eight segments, tells of intersection and connection – where human experience, community and culture meet the natural environment through agriculture and sustainability.

While the opening of Rice was absolutely gripping, the first third of the piece took a while to get going, at least for me. The choreography, movement and staging were varied to be sure, but the dynamic level stayed very much the same for quite a long time, lacking in highs and lows. However, as the dance reached its mid-point, dynamics changed drastically and the stage erupted with different energies and intentions. A couple entwined in a sensual, yearning and passionate duet, framed by a video of rustling green flora (the gorgeous backdrop projections changed throughout the work to provide narrative dimension and context). Later, a woman costumed in a reddish-brown dress took the audience’s breath away in her tortured, contorted solo, full of pain and despair. The men’s group dance towards the end of Rice was also something to behold. Carrying those long wooden poles (which factored heavily throughout the work), their powerful vignette oscillated from a grand and contained procession to a wild and stormy battle. Rice’s final chapter closed as the women of the company plodded heavily around the stage in lamentation, contemplating the sometimes-harsh realities of nature.

What struck me most about Rice was its form and composition. The piece contained incredibly advanced, innovative, specific, technical (and beautiful) contemporary choreography, informed by a strong narrative undertone, all tenets of modern dance. But post-modernism was equally at play – pedestrian walking, running and directional shifts; tasks of rolling items across the stage and carrying harvesting implements; a blurring of the space between life and art in the narrative. It was a multi-genre work. And the two genres were not turned into some kind of hybrid. One did not dominate the other. The complexities and nuances of both were celebrated and woven together seamlessly to create depth, layering and accessibility. With Rice, Lin Hwai-min has accomplished a complicated structural feat; a vibrant and successful statement of tandem modernism and post-modernism in twenty-first century dance performance.  

Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang in Yuri Possokhov's "Magrittomania" Photo Erik Tomasson

Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang
in Yuri Possokhov’s “Magrittomania” Photo Erik Tomasson

January 24th – The artists of the San Francisco Ballet brought the War Memorial Opera House to life on Sunday with the opening performance of the 2016 repertory year. What a fantastic start to the season! With three compositions about as different from each other as one could imagine, the afternoon was all about the breadth and scope that is twenty-first century ballet.

Program 1 opened with Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight, a stunning piece of choreography from 2004 and one of my personal favorites. Mathilde Froustey and Tiit Helimets stood center stage in a square pool of light for the ballet’s expositional movement. As Bach’s Baroque score sang through the air, their pas de deux was an equivalent picture of constant motion. Arabesques extended past the pointed foot, supported turns folded into inventive port de bras. Vanessa Zahorian and Gennadi Nedvigin continued that uninterrupted physical flow well into the second movement, though with a more forward whimsical feel. Zahorian’s series of diagonal posés providing a perfect example of this essence and quality. A charming, courtly trio followed with gorgeous and breezy multiple pirouettes by Taras Domitro, which then led into a more contemplative duet by Nedvigin and Lonnie Weeks. While the music in this fourth movement is weighty and minor, Tomasson’s choreography contrasted with a lightness and buoyancy. Domitro returned to the stage in a fifth movement solo, accompanied by the harpsichord. This was a pristine moment of specificity, clarity and exactness – the music and the movement together as one. As 7 For Eight reached its final sections, Froustey and Helimets reappeared with a development on their previous choreography. They ventured away from the center spot they had occupied at the beginning of the dance, and cycled through soaring jeté lifts, spinning dips and graceful falls. And while there is a joyous finale for the entire cast after this particular duet, it feels like the ballet should end with their final embrace.

After the first intermission, the curtain rose and a video projection descended down the scrim – men in bowler hats falling to the earth just like the rain sounds in the accompanying score. The scrim disappeared to reveal a similarly costumed soloist (Davit Karapetyan) who shared an emotive, passionate movement phrase. Karapetyan was then joined by a group of men and women who had balloons in front of their faces. Quickly those circles of enclosed air flew away into the ether.

This was the beginning of Magrittomania, Yuri Possokhov’s 2000 homage to artist René Magritte and the tenets of surrealism. An ensemble work for a lead couple, featured trio and a chorus of eight, Magrittomania is an immersive design experience – carefully stylized and at times, almost retro and nostalgic. In keeping with the attention to surrealist details and influences, the cast of curious characters flowed in and out of unpredictable architecture. And the atmosphere was filled with the peculiar – giant green apples, sheer face coverings, familiar classical melodies injected with bizarre sound effects. The only missing link was the costuming for the women. While the dress certainly fit with the overall vision of the piece, it didn’t read particularly well from the stage. The standout performance in Magrittomania was given by the trio of Max Cauthorn, Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang, all members of the corps de ballet. I wonder if San Francisco Ballet has ever considered adding another soloist tier to its company structure (second soloists or demi-soloists) because there are a number of dancers in the corps (including these three) who would be candidates for such a promotion.

Program 1 closed with the North American premiere of William Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016, an updated iteration of a 1999 work originally made for the Paris Opéra Ballet. While I didn’t survey those around me, I think it’s fair to say that this particular piece received the most mixed reviews of the day. Some seemed to absolutely love it, while for others, it was clearly not their cup of tea. I fell somewhere in between. Structurally, Pas/Parts 2016 offered a contiguous collection of segments, in a variety of forms, set against a stark white-boxed stage. Many of the sequences were filled with strange and avant-garde choreography, like post-modernism and contemporary ballet had married in some kind of dream-like state. Others looked like they had old-school jazz dance influences, which had then been juxtaposed against traditional batterie. There were visually striking moments – when the women raised a single arm to fifth, while staring intently into space. Carlo Di Lanno and Sofiane Sylve’s duet in the first third of the work was unexpected, yet intoxicating at the same time. And the final group sequences for the men and the women were choreographically intriguing, some parts danced in unison, some offset in canon. Having said that, the piece lagged in the middle, the soundscore was a little distracting at times and overall, it was just too long. But I was definitely drawn in by many of the dancers’ performances – individuality and charisma were abundant on the stage. Jennifer Stahl was the picture of precision. Joseph Walsh’s ability to transform himself from one physical state to another in the matter of seconds was astonishing. And James Sofranko was a force in this work, the freedom and flexibility in his upper torso truly remarkable.   

Lorena Feijoo and Luke Ingham in Liam Scarlett's "Fearful Symmetries" Photo Erik Tomasson

Lorena Feijoo and Luke Ingham
in Liam Scarlett’s “Fearful Symmetries”
Photo Erik Tomasson

January 27th – Just three days after San Francisco Ballet officially started their 2016 repertory season, they celebrated another opening, that of Program 2. The glorious combination of George Balanchine’s Rubies, Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes and the world premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Fearful Symmetries made for a visual dream that celebrated the pure essence of bodies in motion.

Rubies is abstract in the sense that it doesn’t have a storyline, but to say it is about nothing is not true at all. Clear emotive sensibilities inform much of the physicality and architecture. In a triangular formation, thirteen of the fifteen-member cast stand facing the audience, holding hands in a V above their heads. From this first tableau, it is clear that Rubies explores connection; the entwining of music and movement. But this is not in a general sense, rather Rubies is about the convergence of this music (by Igor Stravinsky) and this choreography (by Balanchine). The most popular movement from the 1967 ballet Jewels, Rubies runs the gamut choreographically and in that inventiveness, feels ahead of its time. Sultry hip isolations give way to sprightly mimed jump rope; joyful, hopping chaîné turns merge with flexed hands and birdlike arms. And of course, the famous pas de cinq. One man holds onto each of the limbs of the main ballerina (Sofiane Sylve, at this performance). Together, the five cycle through complicated partnering, yet the woman remains in complete control, almost dominating and willing their every move. The bow that occurs after the central pas de deux always strikes me as strange. It is certainly deserved, but nothing like that happens anywhere else in the ballet; it really does break the overarching momentum. And while the entire cast performed the varied and complex choreography with verve and aplomb, some of the large staging patterns lost their sharpness and specificity on Wednesday night.

Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes (1988) took the middle slot of the evening, a change in programming due to a schedule conflict. But clearly, this piece is no substitution…what an amazing dance; what an amazing performance by the ensemble! A grand piano was positioned upstage center and pianist Natal’ya Feygina was alone for the first few moments as she introduced Virgil Thomson’s score. Very ‘twentieth-century classical’ in flavor and style, atonal cluster chords met with complex meters. In a matching off-kilter lift, one couple traveled across the floor. Then, the lights rose and the whole cast streamed on and off the stage (Morris used the wings to the piece’s advantage) costumed like angels in flowing white. Otherworldly and ethereal, each dancer painted a picture of elation. A lovely and heartening experience of ballet vocabulary unfolded over the next thirty minutes. Smooth balancés, parallel pirouettes, emboîté turns, balletés – all breathy, airy and elegant. The ‘ballet class’ segment mid-way through continued that commemorative feel: relevés in passé, sissiones, echappés and grand pliés in fifth position. The men’s tango sequence was a standout phrase with its dramatic double pirouettes leading into a flatfoot promenade and then a double rond de jambe en l’air. And the end of the dance was so delicate and beautiful, yet a little sad, as the cast slowly exited the stage. With Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Morris communicated the community and camaraderie of artists and their joy for their art. This was also reflected in his egalitarian approach – Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes is truly an ensemble piece with no specific leads or defined chorus.

Liam Scarlett’s previous work for San Francisco Ballet, Hummingbird, had a marked effect – the audience loved it and the critical response was quite something. I liked it too, though my thoughts and reactions were more mixed (less at the second viewing than the first). Not so with Scarlett’s new world premiere, Fearful Symmetries. This is a ballet of genius.

Right from the start, the viewer was confronted with a juxtaposition of ancient and modern. A modular, lined light board illuminated the back of the deconstructed stage (design by David Finn), while a soloist (Sylve) crawled forward, primitively. From out of the darkness, the cast entered like a hunting herd from upstage left, and they would continue to disappear and reappear out of that pitch black throughout the dance. Hungry choreography permeated the space – stalking, commanding and demanding. In the middle of Fearful Symmetries, the dancers walked forward as group with both power and menace. Sitting in the audience, you were afraid and excited at the same time. Lorena Feijoo and Luke Ingham danced the ballet’s central duet, a lengthy and impressive statement that ranged from volatile and combative to erotic and tactile. And then, right near the end, Scarlett introduced a couple (Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan) who had never been seen before. And they were the exact opposite of everything that had been offered thus far. Cool and graceful, dressed in light colors, their presence served as a narrative antithesis.   

Looking ahead: Celebrate the month of love and romance with these upcoming February performances…

Diablo Ballet, Lesher Center for the Arts (Feb 5-6)

James Graham Dance Theatre, Dance Lovers, Joe Goode Annex (Feb 12-14)

Silicon Valley Ballet, San Jose Center for the Performing Arts (Feb 19-21)

San Francisco Ballet, Swan Lake, War Memorial Opera House (Feb 19-28)

Cal Performances presents Chitresh Das Dance Company, Zellerbach Hall (Feb 27-28)