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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 &
    Russell Maliphant
    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
    for domination.

    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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