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West Wave Dance Festival

Uni-Form: Ballet

by K. Olive McKeon

July 26, 2007 -- Project Artaud Theater, San Francisco, CA

San Francisco’s Westwave Dance Festival made the executive decision this year to group dances according to genre. If intending to create continuity and accord within a program, the first evening in this Uni-Form series reflected the approach’s inadequacy, as the five pieces grouped under the genre of ballet ground against one another in tone and style. The evening can also be viewed as a testament to the disintegration of genre as a mechanism to classify dance. What falls under the label of contemporary ballet in San Francisco is such a wide variety of work that the term does little to distinguish what is inside or outside the genre. Further, there is an ambiguity of criteria in determining a dance’s genre: the training of the dancers, the movement vocabulary, or the history and context of a performance. In an art form that endlessly borrows and fuses elements from different sources, genres quickly become obsolete: a new paradigm for dance, and Westwave’s programming strategy, is imminent.

Opening the evening was a solo by Viktor Kabaniaev titled “Fragments of…” for dancer Irene Liu. The solo had three sections set off by changes in the sound score. The first section featured Liu slowly squirming and winding her hands around her face to what sounded like the bubbling and sloshing of swamp water. With the lights changing to a thick red, the second section used fuzzy, transmitter noises and sirens while Liu swung her body into sharp extensions and leaps. She mimed pounding on a door to a banging sound in the score. The last section brought the lights to blue and Liu into slow floor work. The piece concluded with Liu slowly walking upstage as the lights faded. The piece made little attempt to save itself from melodrama. The mood of Liu’s dancing sat closely to the mood of the sound such that they predicted each other: Liu looked anguished as sirens thundered around her. The world of the piece maintained an internal coherence and agreement that lacked dynamics.

The following piece, “Beneath Your Sheltering Hand,” Christian Burns’ collaboration with video artist Anthony Discenza, moved sharply away from the predictability of Kabaniaev. The opening image – Burns’ awkward contortions of ballet steps in front of tropical island photos in super saturated color with a computer voice explaining why someone should buy a host of vaguely identified commodities – was delightful in its strangeness, its lack of predictability, its connection of disparate elements. The ambiguity and openness of the relation between the Burns’ deconstructed ballet, video of luxury homes, and the advertising slogans spoken by a computer challenged any quick reading of the work. During most of the piece, Burns appeared to be following improvisational instructions independently of the other elements. But at one point, he gestured towards the video as if showing off the luxury kitchen to potential buyers. The piece had a way of changing its own logic and reconfiguring its internal relationships.

Burns’ piece played with self-reflexivity of the performance event. Canned laughter cut in and out making the audience hyper-aware of its laughter minutes before. The audio incorporated and almost satirized the sound of the performance itself. At one point, the video cut to a screen of the word “LOADING” emphasizing the mechanics of the medium itself. The piece ended with Burns adhering to a formal improvisational device while the computer voice described residential weight loss programs. This moment self-referenced dance as a practice. The dancer’s body is constructed to be thin, fit, and beautiful, and the inclusion of text on weight loss on the dance stage had the effect of questioning the dance performance itself. The piece could almost be read as a satire on consumption, luxury, and advertising, pointing to how the language and imagery of advertising is more sensual than that between lovers. Yet the movement vocabulary was too specific, awkward, and arresting to fit easily with that reading. Burns and Discenza successfully created chaos and an ambiguity that opens further questions and discussion.

In a sharp and almost comical contrast, Martt Lawrence’s “Rogue” followed with a traditional modern dance approach. Seven dancers clad in tie-dyed red and orange flowing dresses and loose pants swept across the stage making frequent use of light curvy arm gestures. One dancer had the role of the presumed rogue dancing solo sections in front of the group and was subject to a number of group lifts. Coming on the heels of the previous dance, Lawrence’s piece lacked a sophistication and self-awareness that Christian Burns had elicited by disrupting and shattering so many compositional conventions.

Music composer Les Stuck took phrase material from choreographer Alex Ketley to fashion the next piece, “Digression,” using a group of fearless dancers from the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. The piece had the air of formal experiment as Stuck toyed with the elements of dance, music, and video. Ketley’s movement took  ballet vocabulary to the extreme, twisting the lines and complicating traditional phrasing. The movement required risk taking on the dancers’ part that bordered on danger, such as in the repetition of knocking one’s standing leg out from under a pirouette. The music used a palette of dissonant tones and computer noises with a similar sensibility of risk and experimentation. For the video component, Stuck used a series of rectangles in muted hues bringing them in and out of focus as well as overlapping and stacking the shapes on top of each other. In front of the video projection, Stuck arranged the dance phrases in space playing with their density, timing, and distortion. The piece appeared as a result of a risky experiment with shapes and sounds in distinction to the honed and carefully chosen set of events of Martt Lawrence’s piece before it. 

Concluding the evening was Mark Foehringer’s “In Fugue,” set to live music by Jack Perla and Sam Bass. The piece began with seven dancers standing at the edge of the stage checking out the audience. The costuming instruction must have been “dress in black and look cool,” as the dancers wore black leather pants, denim mini skirts, and unbuttoned shirts. What followed was a series of short solos, duets, and group sections that were hard to map into an overarching sequence. The dancers moved through the ballet vocabulary with a coy attitude, yet characters and relationships did not unfold. The choreography quoted familiar steps and had little except for the opening image to challenge its predictability. The piece had a similar consequence to that of Kabaniaev’s solo that opened the evening: the obsolete coherence flattened any dynamics to the work.

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