So much fantastic San Francisco/Bay Area dance to attend in the month of January - from Company C Contemporary Ballet’s winter program to the opening of the 2011 San Francisco Ballet season to the three weekends of “Gush” at Brava Theater. And thankfully, there wasn’t just a vast quantity of dance, but exceptional quality as well.
Brava Theater invited patrons to an eclectic modern dance experience with "Gush", a three-week long performance series curated by choreographer Joe Goode. The festival brought together Goode's own troupe with Ledoh and Axis Dance Company. Each weekend featured a new line-up of artists and works, and with program I saw being "29 Effeminate Gestures" (Joe Goode Performance Group) and "ColorMeAmerica" (Ledoh).
Danced by Melecio Estrella, "29 Effeminate Gestures" began with a pseudo-rap/vocalization of the phrase, "he's a good guy" as Estrella emerged from the audience. At first, it seemed that the words were referring to someone else, but as the tempo accelerated and the words became more desperate, it was clear that he was trying to convince himself of his worth. Once on the stage, Estrella introduced the set of effeminate gestures, the positions being presented in isolation, as if the primary and only characteristic of this man. Then the mood changed drastically, and Estrella embarked on a fluid stream of movement where the gestures became part of a larger physical vocabulary. They were still there; still present; and still real, though now expressed as an integrated part of the whole being. In this section, Goode revealed these gestures as part of the internal and personal as opposed to what they say outwardly. Here, there was celebration combined with realization and ownership, which brought a plethora of emotional elements: fear, honesty and relief.
Salt Farm Productions' "ColorMeAmerica" sought to examine many significant issues, with the program notes citing security, survival, power, arrative goal through a contemporary take on Butoh performance, and the addition of multi-media. Unfortunately, the grotesqueness of Butoh, with its angular, staccato, accented physicality and overly dramatic facial expressions didn't actually depict violence, fear or any other of the conceptual elements. The choreography was trying to reflect the themes yet was unable to move beyond imitation to the true communication of content. Even though I didn't feel the connection between what the dancers were doing and what they were trying to say, I do see the value of "ColorMeAmerica". It might not have been for me, but based on the audience reaction, there were definitely people there to whom the work spoke deeply.
Anyone who wants to understand the difference between a hip hop dance team and a hip hop dance company should see Philadelphia-based Rennie Harris Puremovement, part of Stanford Lively Arts 2010-2011 season. Dance teams are great - performance with attention to synchronicity, exciting acrobatic tricks, superb technique and a commitment to perfection. Yet in the face of all this 'amazing-ness', there is an overwhelming sense that something is missing. Enter Rennie Harris Puremovement, which takes hip hop from the somewhat sanitized t
and freedom, among others. Ledoh (Salt Farm's Artistic Director) explored this vast neam experience to an artistically rigorous company experience.
Almost all dance companies struggle with the puzzle of the individual and the collective, agonizing over how to reconcile the importance of both without sacrificing either. Rennie Harris has successfully navigated this issue by realizing and concluding that these two elements (the individual and the collective) need not be contentious nor exclusive. Harris has worked diligently with his dancers to create synchronized movement alongside a sense of individual 'isms', particularly apparent in the upper body, arms and hands. This was definitely a cohesive dance group expressing the choreography as a whole, yet within that, the individual pieces were clear, providing flavor and uniqueness. Puremovement also incorporated several additional dance styles into the hip hop physicality. Hip hop remained the predominant force, yet the injection of different genres revealed that all dance is linked together through the common denominator of movement. There were multiple instances of good old-fashioned lyrical jazz dance, with parallel piqué turns and tendus in 2nd position that sensuously dragged across the floor ("Loving Heaven") as well as some rhythm tap sequences: jump, dig, jump, step; and toe beat, heel beat. Though I didn't actually see any traditional ballet, there was one moment in the first Act where a trio of women dancing center stage drew me to a classical comparison. As they moved with true abandon, I imagined that this is what the cygnets in "Swan Lake" are meant to express: allure, desperation and power. Act II's "P-Funk" was without doubt an ode to Jerome Robbins, the choreographer of "West Side Story". It was both novel and different, but still had some classic Robbinsesque moves: the side kicks with flexed feet, and the mambo base step.
Catherine Galasso transformed San Francisco's Meridian Gallery with her intriguing choreographic comment on perception and reality, "Memorandum of Understanding: Your Butt is Covered". The Meridian Dance Program seeks to bring visual art and dance theater together in a way that highlights their dependence and interdependence while co-existing in the same space. And, what an outstanding choice to add Galasso's narratively-complex work to their diverse repertoire.
"Memorandum of Understanding: Your Butt is Covered" was a mobile piece that unfolded in multiple facets within the gallery. Galasso's treatment of perception and reality was clear from the very beginning as the dancers emerged from within the audience. While this might suggest a blurring of the line between the audience and the performer, instead, the issue was more focused on the relationship between the dancer and the viewer. As the cast moved through the crowd, they made direct eye contact and touched people's arms. Even in the face of avant-garde performance and post-post-modern dance, that closeness felt invasive. Galasso was not really offering answers to this dilemma, but rather demonstrating our perception of the performer's role against the reality of modern day choreography.
The first movement passage was filled with line-dance-like steps; easy footwork all building on the very basic foundation of 'step touch'. Here again, I found my pre-conceptions being confronted as I often attend these performance art evenings expecting the completely obscure and obtuse. I was heartened that Galasso included long sequences that spoke of simplicity, accessibility, clarity and egalitarianism. The reality of her work did not pander to assumptions. Next to the staircase where one of the men performed a lip synced routine to 1950s-style music; he so looked the part of the iconic dreamboat. Though again, the image of perfection was challenged as the lighting design revealed an underlying creepiness and morbidity. Once we were ushered up to the second level of Meridian, the audience was faced with a choice. The dance was divided between two rooms, and it was only possible to be in one of them for the duration of this segment. As a viewer, you were of course seeing what was in front of you, but keenly aware that you were missing something elsewhere. The whole story was not available to you; there were only portions of visibility - a brilliant comment on what we want from narrative dance as opposed to what we may get from it.
Company C Contemporary Ballet's Winter Program 2011 was a stunning, multi-faceted visual journey through the history of form and content in dance, told through four pieces choreographed in the past fifteen years. We began in the land of the deconstructed narrative, where no linear story exists, and concepts, notions or ideas take center stage. Daniel Ezralow's “Pulse” had the dancers sliding in and out of the performance space in a wide second position, not just as a recurring motif, but overwhelmingly present throughout the entire work. Here Ezralow was demonstrating impermanence and lack of commitment – how today we leave a situation as quickly as we enter into it, and the difficulty we face in fully giving of ourselves; instead choosing to stay very much on the surface. James Sewell's “Appalachia Waltz” was an ode to several different styles, including Graham, Balanchine, Mark Morris, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. This amalgamation really makes sense because the Appalachian region itself was and is a rich cultural compound. The costumes brought visions of Graham with the leotard-style, long-sleeved, full-length dresses; the poses evoked Balanchine's three muses (“Apollo”); the canon sequences brought Morris into the mixture; and the floorwork spoke of Arpino and Joffrey.
“Indoor Fireworks”, by Charles Anderson and Benjamin G. Bowman, opened with a 1960s scene; the entire cast channeling youth, joy, exuberance and society, and the piece definitely channeling Twyla Tharp's “Deuce Coupe” (although I would argue that “Indoor Fireworks” is maybe better than “Deuce Coupe”). Its purpose was not to fuse ballet and modern dance vocabulary together under the common force of youthful vitality; rather, it showed the passion, desperation and explosiveness (hence the title) of this generation. Of the nine sections, “Poisoned Rose” and “Baby Plays Around” particularly stood out. The former, a duet between Edilsa Armendariz and Robert Dekkers was a sexy, smooth stream of consciousness from beginning to end; seamless transitions with no stops or pauses. And Dekkers solo - “Baby Plays Around” - reminded us that a simplistic position can be so powerful. At several points, he stood on a high relevé in fourth - solid yet searching at the same time.
More than any other classical story ballet, the success of "Giselle" rests on the shoulders of the ballerina cast as the tragic heroine. The Sunday afternoon that I saw it, Sarah Van Patten played the title role and because she was Giselle, San Francisco Ballet's "Giselle" was fantastic. Van Patten's first variation was stunning - her balletés delightfully springy; her long arabesque light and airy yet full and gooey at the same time. Some of her subsequent petit allegro sections needed more plié and heels that closed completely to the floor because when her heels are released, Van Patten has super relevé power. It is those split seconds of repose that are exciting - when the weight is distributed on the whole foot in between each quick, intricate movement. Van Patten plays the village maiden with a perfect level of navieté and anticipation. But, I must admit, I was skeptical whether she would be able to pull off the 'mad scene'. I was wrong. She gave levels to that scene that I had never witnessed before: a delusional remembrance of innocence, a quiet descent toward psychosis, a maniacal laugh, panic and paranoia. Tomasson's movement passages for Act II revealed two sides of this complex character. When Giselle was dancing amongst the Wilis without Albrecht, there was a very academic interpretation of the movement, almost lacking any feeling. This is a complement not a criticism - there was a perfection of physicality, yet an emptiness of expression. As Albrecht became part of the action, Van Patten's upper body immediately opened up with communicative freedom. And the lifting of her leg in relevé long as she first saw him was the perfect representation of expansive searching.
Of course, there were other notable moments in San Francisco Ballet's "Giselle". Daniel Baker was probably the best Hilarion I have ever seen, and Frances Chung was appropriately stoic and calculating as Myrtha. The corps women had a wonderful performance; they have begun to gel as a group, a definite improvement over last month's "Nutcracker". Tiit Helimets, as Albrecht, was the superior technician of the group, though his acting was not as convincing as it could have been.
ODC is filling San Francisco's Mission District with decadent dance performance in this, the inaugural season of their new theater and campus space. Most recently, Kelly Kemp & Company / Number 9 graced the stage with "7 ways to hide your self from the rest of the world". Well-developed structural modern choreography paired with an investigative narrative generating probing questions about how personal history informs current action.
One dancer began the piece by reciting a list of situations that happen in life; every sentence starting with the word 'when'. The intoxicating part of the piece was not the introduction of these 'when' statements but instead the treatment of the 'then'. Rather than responding with 'then I' or 'then this happened', the 'then' was expressed choreographically. In the forty minutes that followed this first verbal segment, Kemp demonstrated that the reaction to specific instances can be so different: ambiguous, defined, slow, contentious or peaceful. A long passage from the middle of "7 ways to hide your self from the rest of the world" really captured Kemp's narrative purpose. A male soloist began onstage with three women and performed very freeing choreography, almost as if he was metaphorically purging these 'when' events from his consciousness and being. Eventually the entire cast joined him, dancing in circular, expansive and uninhibited patterns. The whole scene was one of hopeful and successful cleansing; almost an exorcism of persistent demons. However, Kemp did show that moving on is not always possible for everyone. The recapitulation of the 'when' stories at the end of the work symbolized that sometimes what has happened in our lives still rages on in the head, heart and the soul no matter how hard we try or have tried to work past it.
February offerings will include: Smuin Ballet at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, Cal Performances presentation of Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage and Russell Maliphant in “Eonnagata”, Robert Moses at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, “A mix tape for Ophelia” at The Garage and lastly, Ballet San Jose’s production of “Swan Lake”.