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San Francisco Bay Area Roundup
Review of February and March
by Heather Desaulniers
February & March 2011
- Smuin Ballet – Winter Program
February 4, 2011 – Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, CA
- “Eonnagata” – Conceived and Performed by Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage &
February 10, 2011 – Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
- “Fable and Faith” – Robert Moses’ Kin
February 19, 2011 – Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
- “Swan Lake” – Ballet San Jose
February 26, 2011 – San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, San Jose, CA
- “Dance Downtown: A Force at 40” – ODC/Dance
March 12, 2011 – Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
After months of waiting, Spring has finally arrived in Northern California. And though
we may not be done with the rain quite yet, flowers are blooming and trees are emerging
from their wintry slumber. With transition all around us, now is the ideal time to look
back at the amazing dance that transformed the stages of the Bay Area over the past two
Smuin Ballet's 2011 winter program was a brilliantly orchestrated mixed repertoire
night, with three excellent examples of non-narrative ballet founded on concept.
The first piece, "Brahms-Haydn Variations" was maybe the closest thing to neo-
classical abstraction that I have seen for a while; yet, at the same time, the music did
provide the conceptual basis for the choreography. Smuin's inventory of ballet was
complete, including the use of 2nd position in plié, on pointe and in the air, which,
with the exception of Balanchine, is rarely found in staged choreography. The duo
of Jean Michelle Sayeg and Ben Behrends deserves special acknowledgement for the
outstandingly buoyant lifts in the finale. Theirs was truly a combined effort; working
together as a team.
Trey McIntyre's "Oh, Inverted World" also celebrated the ballet syllabus, but turned
everything that could be expected from that tradition upside down. Although no one
except McIntyre himself can really be sure of what he was trying to say with this work,
it seemed that his conceptual basis was the idea of athleticism and dance. Here were the
athletic possibilities; a complete study of physicality. So many choreographers today
attempt to examine the depths of human movement by taking dancing out of the equation
and deconstructing movement to a mere skeleton of its former self. But McIntyre
shows that subtracting and taking away is not the only method with which to explore
the complexity of choreography - "Oh, Inverted World" was rich unexpected dance to
dynamic unexpected music.
Smuin's "Bluegrass/Slyde" rounded out the evening with a fun foundation of line
dancing, jazz, social dance, tap and musical theater. The set was a collection of
scaffolding and three rotating poles that were abundantly utilized throughout the eight-
section dance. There were moments where the poles assisted in creating some interesting
images (when the men jumped high onto them and spun effortlessly in a standing parallel
position) but for the most part, these few instances were not enough to make the set worth
it. The tap section was inventive, though the paddle, roll, shuffle sequence not in sync,
but again the use of the poles for extra percussion was unnecessary.
Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage and Russell Maliphant's “Eonnagata” is a stunning
physical and visual journey exploring the land of extremes. Presented by Cal
Performances at Zellerbach Hall, the piece settles on the 'in between' space where
opposing forces pull. Here is an examination of the undefinable and a navigation through
the unknown. “Eonnagata” does not provide answers to the paradox of the ambiguous,
rather, it calls for recognition, acceptance and celebration of uncertainty.
“Eonnagata” retells the life of eighteenth century French aristocrat Chevalier d'Éon. Appropriately, Guillem, Lepage and Maliphant chose an individual whose existence was filled with indeterminateness, with the specific manifestation being his gender. The historic account unfolded over the 1 hour, 40 minute piece and though very entertaining (sometimes dramatic, sometimes comical, sometimes tragic), it was really just fodder
for Guillem, Lepage and Maliphant's artistic thesis; a chronology to underscore their exploration of personal duality.
A few moments really spoke to this avoidance of description and definition. One of the first scenes found Guillem, Lepage and Maliphant dressed in matching androgynous costumes, working with three tables (one for each of them). While polyphonic music played in the background, the choreography had them sliding across the surfaces and intermixing in and with each other's space. This was a statement of impermanence; a
lack of commitment to one spatial location or state of being. Towards the end of the work, these tables reappeared, now with a mirrored top, again encapsulating the idea of individual complexity. Guillem and Maliphant stood on opposite sides of one table, imitating each other's movements while one of them was also reflected in the mirror. The sum of these multiple facets created a deep, rich and intricate character.
While the conceptual narrative was clever and compelling, the real success
of “Eonnagata” lies in its interdisciplinary approach. Guillem, Lepage and Maliphant
used numerous theatrical elements though only one entity truly defined the piece. Dance
was their constant and everything else (text, lighting, video projection, masks, costuming,
sets, stage combat and scene work) informed the movement. This made “Eonnagata”
structurally sound - dance theater at its best.
Robert Moses’ new evening length production at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
brought two works ("The Cinderella Principle (2010) and the premiere of "Fable &
Faith") that combined storytelling, music and dance. Although the idea was intriguing; unfortunately, the movement did not live up to expectation. ”The Cinderella Principle"
examined the notion of family in today's society and more specifically, how we create
that emotional human structure in our lives. To that end, Moses explored multiple
situations (adoption, surrogacy, IVF, pregnancy) and the spectrum of emotions
(uncertainty, desperation, expectedness, belonging, joy) that occur in pursuit of family.
The text, written and performed by Anne Galjour, painted a very realistic picture of this
complicated entity (the family), but the movement struggled to embody this narrative
foundation. There was plenty of dance in the piece, but not much of it spoke to the
concept with one important choreographic exception. A recurring walking motif found
the dancers moving very deliberately, lifting their foot in the back as they took each
step, almost a slowed down interpretation of how a horse moves. This sequence was
prominent through much of "The Cinderella Principle" and the constant propulsion was
evident - moving on; moving forward; moving towards happiness.
The same observations hold true for the premiere of "Fable & Faith" - the movement was
interesting, the dancing solid, the collaborators great, yet again, the connection between
the story and the choreography was not there. "Fable & Faith" incorporated several
children's tales into one epic adventure read by Galjour- definitely narrative. Strangely,
the movement seemed almost abstract and not purposely so. It wasn't as if Moses was
trying to make an artistic comment by juxtaposing abstraction against the narrative.
Costumes, props, text and music (delightfully performed by the San Francisco Boys
Chorus) just aren't enough and weren't enough. In a narrative dance performance, the
story has to live and breathe in the choreography; otherwise the work just doesn't add up.
“Swan Lake” has certainly had a lot of attention over the past few months. While it has played out on the big screen and in the dance discourse, some companies are offering
even further analytic opportunities by featuring the classic ballet as part of their 2011 season. Ballet San Jose's version, choreographed by Artistic Director Dennis Nahat, provides a unique take on the traditional story with an expanded treatment of Baron Von Rothbart and a much-needed inventory of ballet's technical oeuvre. With his attention to detail, Nahat's “Swan Lake” could be aptly retitled, “Swan Lake: The Return of Artistic Intricacy”.
Nahat's interpretation of Von Rothbart is brilliant. With Rothbart being the evil
manipulator of this story's individuals, situations and events, it makes complete sense
that he should be very present throughout the entire ballet (and in many productions his
appearances are fairly minimal). In the prologue, we meet Von Rothbart for the first
time as he captures four maidens and transforms them to swans. Though it would have
been more effective for Odette to be one of those four women, these opening moments
paint a villainous portrait. As the ballet continues, Von Rothbart's purpose becomes the
interruption and halting of Odette and Siegfried's emerging relationship. To that end,
Nahat has created several pas de trois for Odette, Siegfried and Von Rothbart (danced
by Jeremy Kovitch) to represent Rothbart's interference. These trios definitely speak
of his vicious intentions, though they also embody the struggles of all three characters:
Odette's struggle for freedom, Siegfried's struggle for love and Von Rothbart's struggle
San Jose Ballet's corps is very good, one of the most mature groups (not necessarily
in age, but certainly in artistic rigor) that I have seen in a long time - they really work
together as a team. This is not a company who has their corps de ballet stand around
framing the action; they are active participants. We first encounter them as the courtiers
in Act I performing some very inventive choreography. Nahat is not afraid to use demi-
pointe for the women as its own position, allowing discoveries and opportunities for steps
and sequences that so many other choreographers miss. I must admit that at times, the
corps looked a little cramped in the stage space, but because of their impressive aggregate
sensibilities, they made the best of it. Act II's swan chorus was a beautiful display of
delicate choreography - prancey front attitudes alongside wispy pas de chats.
The significant milestone of forty years deserves celebration and ODC did it up right
with a three weekend, three program engagement at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts'
Novellus Theater in downtown San Francisco. The opening bill brought together two
world premieres ("Speaking Volumes: Architecture of Light II" and "I Look Vacantly at
the Pacific...Though Regret") with 1999's "Investigating Grace".
Much dance performance centers around the notion of forms in space, and Brenda
Way's "Speaking Volumes: Architecture of Light II" examined this concept very literally,
with a stunning gallery of moving shapes. The piece began with a soloist and a narrative
voice; the narrator providing choreographic instruction and the dancer interpreting the
words through movement. This opening was so compelling, almost like notation was
being brought to life in performance. And, right from this unique beginning, Way's focus
on geometrical shapes was very clear. As the piece continued, the idea of form was fully
explored by soloists and groups, with lighting and set design and through choreographic
alteration - differing articulations (staccato and smooth); range of dynamics; and changes
in speed (augmentation and diminution). Unfortunately, about three quarters of the way
through "Speaking Volumes: Architecture of Light II", the dance took a wrong turn,
with an attempt at Pina Bausch-style dance-theater humor. This section came of out of
nowhere and had nothing to do with the rest of the piece. It was gimmicky and just didn't
fit. The work had been so choreographically sound up until that point, making these last
portions even more disappointing.
I'm certainly not against humorous dances because Kimi Okada's "I Look Vacantly at
the Pacific...Though Regret" was delightfully fantastic. Her stunning characterization
of differing language, customs and conventions gave a refreshing, funny and child-like
interpretation of cultural misunderstanding. "Investigating Grace", also choreographed
by Artistic Director Brenda Way, combined ballet, modern, jazz, gestural and pedestrian
movements in a study of elegance. Every lush sequence spoke to the expansive
and graceful possibilities that exist in the human body. The greatest achievement
of "Investigating Grace" was that Way was able to show this polish and refinement
in moments of stillness, when rolling on the ground and even in the most frenetic
The repertory choices for this fortieth anniversary celebration were a little surprising.
Of the seven pieces that were performed during the month of March, three were world
premieres, two were choreographed over the last five years and the last two were from
the 1990s. What about the company's earlier period? It would have been both interesting
and appropriate to see a more varied selection of works, truly reflecting ODC's four-
decade history. Aside from that, this evening was a testament to the accomplishments of
this amazing group of artists.
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