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San Francisco Bay Area Roundup

Review of April

by Heather Desaulniers

* Sins Invalid – “An Unshamed Claim to Beauty in the Face of Invisibility”
Z Space, San Francisco, CA – April 8, 2011

* Alonzo King LINES Ballet – “Triangle of the Squinches”
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA – April 16, 2011

* ODC Dance Jam – “Making the Road by Walking”
ODC Dance Commons, San Francisco, CA – April 17, 2011

* San Francisco Ballet – Program 6
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA – April 20, 2011

* Company C Contemporary Ballet – Spring Program 2011
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA – April 30, 2011

April 2011 was all about San Francisco, with five spectacular performances taking place in five unique venues around the city. First to Z Space in the Mission District where the 5th Annual Installment of "Sins Invalid" played to a packed house. A comment on inclusion, diversity and visibility, Patricia Berne's interdisciplinary project was comprised of a dozen or so short vignettes. Each meaningful, potent scene took a personal story and immersed it in theatrical elements: text, video, song, and dance. Both the content and the artist performances were fantastic, but from a conceptual perspective, the use of dance in "Sins Invalid" was very confusing.

Each act contained a number of different movement sequences that were all scored by audio texts. While the stories were both powerful and compelling, unfortunately, the dance was not an equal contributor. Instead, its inherent possibilities were stripped away until it became a mere accompaniment; completely subservient to the text. When text underscores dance, there is always a danger that the choreography will morph into a gestural story, and when that happens, the beauty and meaning that can be shown by the physical movement is diminished. This is exactly what happened with "Sins Invalid" - the choreography was a very obvious physical interpretation of the words, teetering close to mime in some instances. It (dance) was given no opportunity to say, offer or contribute to the narrative theme on its own. The movement was not just heavily framed by the text, it was made invisible in favor of this other theatrical element. For a work whose message was that of freedom, strength and visibility, this treatment of dance really struck me as strange.

Next onto Yerba Center for the Arts for Alonzo King LINES Ballet's newest production, "Triangle of the Squinches" featuring an all-star artistic line-up: choreography by Alonzo King, set design by architect Christopher Haas and music by Mickey Hart. "Triangle of the Squinches" definitely celebrated the contributions of these three amazing visions; the individual pieces showcasing how each has mastered their craft. Such an immense talent pool would suggest a work of deep artistic collaboration though, hope and reality do not always add up. The three units (dance, set and music) were striking on their own, but on the whole, the piece lacked cohesiveness.

Act I found the LINES Ballet dancers moving amidst a 'loom-like' set with long white stretchy fibers attached to a frame. The structure was both modular and pliable; sections could be detached and shifted in order to change the dimension and the strings could be pulled and flexed allowing movement and travel through the impermanent wall. The dancers interacted a little with this first set piece but not enough to actually integrate the two entities artistically. Here, the set was less of a theatrical tool and more of a backdrop. The bare stage at the opening of Act II gave the audience a chance to really experience the movement (particularly the extraordinary quality of Courtney Henry's balances). Then, the second set piece emerged - a fence-like form that looked to be made of industrial strength cardboard. Though the dance and design still suffered from some level of disassociation, Act II was markedly better than Act I. The potential for meaning when the two are enmeshed was especially apparent in segment four. As Keelan Whitmore crawled across the front of the fence, King's choreography and Haas' set spoke to issues of fear, safety, and security. And, as dancers reached for him through the structural gaps, one could sense the longing and yearning for that which we can see and touch but cannot have.

Even though I found "Triangle of the Squinches" to have some formal challenges, the audience response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. And, I do agree that the piece was captivating. But, based on my previous experience with King's fantastic work, it didn't quite meet expectation. "Triangle of the Squinches" was good, but with a deeper connection between the artistic components, it could be great.

My third April performance was The ODC Dance Jam, performed by the inspiring young dancers of ODC's youth company. Under the direction of Kimi Okada and KT Nelson, this group is dedicated to preserving the heritage and lineage of modern dance, in addition to pursuing the genre's current trends and innovations. Okada and Nelson are providing a complete and comprehensive dance education, unlike any other program. This was a unique opportunity to see the dancers in training - in process: learning their craft, developing their technique and presenting their work onstage. The ODC Dance Jam offers two important perspectives: the choreography (the making of dance) combined with the teaching and fostering of talent (the making of dancers).

The opening piece, Nelson's "There's So Much to Do (to save the world)" really embodied the discovery and understanding of modern dance technique. It was obvious that the troupe is working very hard to achieve a true second position in both developpé and grand battement. The dancers are learning how to maximize turnout, engage the hip flexor and relax the thigh muscle while working in their own individual second position. They are also spending significant time and energy defining the different paths of grand battement and developpé. This attention to proper placement and technique is going to serve them well as they continue to dance, either recreationally or professionally.

Greg Dawson's "Output 1-2" showed that these kids are also mastering partnering skills. Partnering is always a delicate balance of working independently and interdependently; you must first know your role inside and out, and only then can you work with another dancer as a unified team. Bravo to Okada and Nelson for sharing the essential pas de deux equation: personal responsibility + trust + respect.

The remaining dances were indicative of the choreographic and stylistic variety that exists in the modern dance lexicon. "Mixing Ground", choreographed by Bliss Kohlmyer, juxtaposed angular, staccato actions with flowy circular sequences while Nol Simonse's "Space Walk" added contact improvisation. "The Crowd" harkened back to the post-modern era with the influence of pedestrian movement and everyday gestures. And though I am not a fan of Kim Epifano's "Melt" (I've seen it before and it is still far too 'on the nose' narratively), it does provide an introduction to interdisciplinary performance. These days, dancers are called upon to fill many roles, so a piece that incorporates song, text and movement is an important part of their education.

If you have never been to the ODC Dance Jam, you must add it to your 'to-do' list. After seeing the performance last weekend, I know that I will be reviewing some of these young dancers over the next decade or two as they become members of the professional dance scene.

Helgi Tomasson orchestrated a simply beautiful Program 6 for San Francisco Ballet, with three contrasting, yet complementary pieces: Christopher Wheeldon's “Ghosts©”, Tomasson's “7 for Eight” and the much anticipated SFB premiere of Wayne McGregor's “Chroma”. Mixed repertory nights need a delicate balance: dances that are the perfect length (not too short and not too long), a variety of choreographic styles, and ballets that showcase the strengths of the company. Program 6 demonstrates once again that San Francisco Ballet can truly do it all, and do it fantastically.

I am never sure what Christopher Wheeldon's ballets are supposed to be about (if, in fact, they are meant to be about anything). This was partly true with “Ghosts©”, though I did sense a theme of and comment on romance. Perhaps it was the hair and the costumes that eluded to an earlier time when propriety, chivalry and courtship reigned supreme or maybe it was the elegant, precise choreography. Maria Kochetkova and Courtney Elizabeth gave the two stand-out performances the evening that I attended. They were both able to be appropriately dramatic without letting the drama overtake their technique. Their interpretation of Wheeldon's composition, especially the stunning footwork (intricate sissones and temps de cuisse) shone while these detailed choreographic touches were missed by others who were too wrapped up in the drama.

Having seen many Helgi Tomasson ballets, I can say without doubt that “7 for Eight” is my absolute favorite. His neo-classical treatment of the ballet lexicon provides spectacle, beauty and artistry and his creative partnering (lifts and balances) speaks to the limitless promise of two bodies moving together in space. Sarah Van Patten's turns into arabesque and her developpé in second perfectly punctuated Bach's polyphonic music. Her promenade in the ballet's sixth movement was as quiet and exact as the trilling mordent that accompanied her. “7 For Eight” is a special piece; it defines Tomasson as a choreographic genius.

Delighted gasps filled the War Memorial Opera House as Wayne McGregor's “Chroma” opened to reveal a brightly lit stark white stage (floor and walls). McGregor has composed a work that brings the brilliant combination of future and past to life through dance. The setting was forward- thinking (modern minimalism meets a futuristic video game) while the movements looked back to 1970s/1980s jazz and modern (at times, very sexualized). The choreography was a completely different feel than the design, but the two worked together in harmony. This piece also showed a different side of Yuan Yuan Tan – her first sequence revealed the freedom, flexibility and expression that she has in her torso. So often, the focus is on her feet and extensions; what a treat to see other aspects of her dancing highlighted.

My last stop was the Palace of Fine Arts and Company C Contemporary Ballet's 2011 Spring Program. With two world premieres (Charles Anderson's "Ballet Noir" & Jodie Gates' "Slip-Ring"), Patrick Corbin's "Psychedelic Six-Pack" and Twyla Tharp's "Surfer at the River Styx", Company C has proven yet again that they are a leading contributor to the genre of contemporary ballet.

"Ballet Noir" took us inside the subconscious of a genius. As Robert Dekkers (who played the role of the choreographer) sat attached to a chair, his creation and imagination spun around him. A bizarre, and somewhat unrelated cast of characters filled the stage including three muses - similar to Balanchine's "Apollo", though a much sexier interpretation. "Ballet Noir's" scene was his [Dekkers', as the choreographer] vision, his orchestration, yet he was limited to watching it unfold. His main participation occurred in the very last moment of the piece, when he stood up and was kissed on the cheek by one of the dancers. It was almost a goodbye; as if his mobility caused the dream to disappear. Charles Anderson's new work definitely drew the audience in, though the subtext would benefit from the dance being slightly longer.

Jodie Gates' "Slip-Ring" was a non-narrative juxtaposition of angular and circular sequences. The piece was filled with straight, sharp, staccato choreography, but in order to fulfill those movements, the body had to travel on and in circular pathways. Gates was very successful in illustrating that the pursuit of one course may require you to journey in the completely opposite direction.

The excerpts from Patrick Corbin's "Psychedelic Six-Pack" brought together the tribal, social, spiritual and sacrificial aspects of society while exploring the combination of ballet and modern dance. In the midst of much stage activity, some individual moments particularly stood out. A recurring pose where the dancers stood in parallel fourth position as their palm reached up to the heavens provided simplicity, stillness, groundedness and hope. And, Chantelle Pianetta's combination of jazz inspired lay-outs followed by crisp glissades in fifth position was a beautiful commentary - the traditional meeting the contemporary.

"Surfer at the River Styx" was not a typical Twyla Tharp composition - darker and emotive than her earlier work, its choreography was clearly a departure. "Surfer at the River Styx" wasn't my favorite (the dance is far too long), though I must admit that the content was much clearer than I have come to expect from Tharp’s work. For me, her dances feel frenetic, manic and sometimes hard to follow due to the dense physical material that she opts to include in one piece. With so much going on at once, her choreographic brilliance gets lost in the commotion. Here, the action was much more focused and her treatment of modern technique even seemed to have a little Cunningham flavor.

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