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San Francisco Bay Area Roundup

Review of May and June

by Heather Desaulniers

* Diablo Ballet – “Inside the Dancer’s Studio”
Shadelands Arts Center, Walnut Creek, CA

* Opiyo Okach & Gaara Project – “Body Evidence” (work in progress)
YBCA Forum, San Francisco, CA

* The Royal Danish Ballet – Presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

* American Conservatory Theater – “Tales of the City”
San Francisco, CA

* Mary Carbonara Dances – “What Does It Feel Like to Kill Someone?”
KUNST-STOFF Arts, San Francisco, CA

San Francisco/Bay Area dance performances in May and June 2011 were about as different and varied as could be. May 7th - First stop was the Shadelands Arts Center in Walnut Creek for Diablo Ballet’s “Inside the Dancer’s Studio”. Like many companies, Diablo Ballet has cleverly elected to include Q&A sessions and shorter programs in their season in addition to the expected big theater performances. This "Inside the Dancer's Studio" series allows increased access to quality ballet: incredible talent, varied repertory and high production value all in a close-knit, intimate setting. This outside-the-box thinking is what builds lifelong support for the arts and makes Diablo Ballet a true arts innovator.

The six offerings on this delightful spring program showcased the significant breadth of the Diablo Ballet artists. The lights went up on the first excerpt to reveal Mayo Sugano and Jekyns Pelaez in George Balanchine's "Apollo". Their pas de deux was astonishing and Sugano's batterie truly gave Stravinsky's music new life. The second piece, "Shadow" was choreographed by company member David Fonnegra and danced by the exquisite Tetyana Martyanova (who resembles a young Merrill Ashley). Fonnegra's contemporary treatment of the arms was particularly captivating. The shoulders were a focus of his, as well as the scapula, where the arms initiate in the back. This led to some unique arm positions, none of which could be considered typically ballet. Fonnegra also experimented with levels, have Martyanova move very quickly from standing to rolling. Occasionally these transitions were a little awkward and maybe a tad abrupt.

Sally Streets' "Encores" was the highlight of the afternoon. In it, we were treated to amazing lifts in the first pas de deux and delightful flirtation in the second. Edward Stegge's double pirouettes were absolute perfection and with the audience being so close, mistakes and slips cannot be hidden. I was also heartened by his emboite turns. Even though this ballet step is a favorite of choreographers, it is not often performed very well. With Stegge, I think I finally saw emboite the way it was meant to be danced. "My Way", by Tina Kay Bohnstedt, was a choreographic celebration of groundedness. With the exception of a couple of jumps, this piece, danced beautifully by David Fonnegra and Rory Hohenstein, was anchored to the floor. Bohnstedt was able to illustrate that spectacle does not only exist in the air, it is also present in contact with the ground.

May 20th - Next came the “Encounter: Engaging the Social Context” program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Forum. This series encourages the intersection of emerging artists, their work and the arts community and last month, they welcomed Kenyan choreographer Opiyo Okach and his current work-in-progress, "Body Evidence". Though steeped in significant and important narrative meaning, the brilliant A-B-A structure of the work grasped the focus.

"Body Evidence" was divided into three sections. The first was dancing only; the second, dance and the addition of two props (a mask and a flag); and the third, dance alongside multi-media. This crescendo of theatrical tools worked extremely well. By limiting the first segment to choreography, Okach established the importance of the movement. Then, in each subsequent section, he added something to the dance, not replacing it, but embellishing and expanding on the physicality. These were carefully crafted and successful performative building blocks because they were explored through the strong foundation of dance.

Dynamically, the three vignettes followed a very clear A-B-A format. The beginning and ending employed smooth, legato, serpentine movements, sandwiched around a staccato, abrupt, urgent middle portion. The choreographic syntax also followed this A-B-A pattern. The movement ideas from the opening returned in the end, and the in between space was filled with contrasting units of action: galloping, skipping, trenching and grapevining through the performance space.

The rondo form was also very present and smartly embedded within section number one. As Okach cycled through dance born from his center core (the limbs responded only because of the initiation in the spine and torso), there were several 'home' or 'returned to' poses: a squat, a version of the downward facing dog, and an arm raised limply in the air. Here was a physical concerto; solos combined with ritornellos, providing an extra helping of structural cohesiveness. Opiyo Okach is a choreographer to watch - he is able to produce deeply narrative modern dance, clearly communicated by his considerable structural acumen.

June 1st - Then, for something completely different, onto the much anticipated 2011 tour of The Royal Danish Ballet. For any dance history scholar, a chance to see The Royal Danish Ballet in person is something special. This company and the Bournonville legacy dominate the historical ballet literature with their significant contributions. Ballet, as we know it today, exists in part because of Bournonville. There are steps that he created; teaching techniques that he developed; and an esthetic that he carefully and diligently fostered still present in today's classical and contemporary repertoire. We all owe a great deal to this artistic master. And, the Bay Area was fortunate and blessed to see his beloved company, The Royal Danish Ballet, as presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall.

Lightness of movement coupled with darkness of theme was the major takeaway from Program A (Flemming Flindt's "The Lesson" & August Bournonville's "La Sylphide"). The Royal Danish Ballet's floating, airy quality was apparent in all aspects of the dancing and as a viewer, one could clearly see that this is the company's physical history; the lightness of movement is part of them, deeply embedded in their souls. Gudrun Bojesen's interpretation of La Sylphide perfectly transmitted the famous Bournonville petit allegro, allowing the quick, intricate steps to literally sing from the stage. Her silent boureés, exquisite entre chat trois and sissone crescendo were the expression of otherworldly. Another standout performance was Louise Østergaard as Effy. In her first solo (particularly the glissade sequence), she was able to translate Bournonville's light, airy ballon despite dancing in heeled character shoes. This sophisticated choreography was so much more interesting than the typical thirty-two fouettés and grand jumps.

While the beauty of Bournonville movement showed in both "La Sylphide" and "The Lesson", the narrative themes of each spoke of bleak foreboding. During a very educational and compelling talk-back, one of The Royal Danish Ballet's dancers reflected on the different guesses as to what "La Sylphide" attempts to teach. As he told us, some argue that the piece reveals the trepidation one can feel before marriage; still others suggest that it is a man versus nature ballet. I can definitely see those analyses in the piece, though other thoughts came to mind as well. James' story as explored through Bournonville's gorgeous choreography is also an observation of dream versus obligation, and a very sad statement on how some fail to articulate what they want out of life.

"The Lesson" follows a three-part narrative structure: the early interactions of the three characters (the ballet master, the student and the pianist); the catalytic event (the introduction of the pointe shoes), which leads into a final demonic and violent descent. The opening, 'lighter' scenes were almost a farcical caricature of the ballet world: the eccentric teacher, the doe-eyed student and the stoic accompanist. Then came the moment of transition, where the evil intentions of this classroom came to light - personified by the introduction of pointe shoes. Up until that moment, the student had been taking her class in soft ballet flats. As she donned the new satin slippers, the comedic exercise turned into a creepy, threatening, lecherous pas de deux. The ballet master's control and domination was so total and it resulted in the student's tragic demise. "The Lesson" ended as it had began with the pianist organizing the room, and as the ballet finished, it was clear that she was actually 're-organizing' the space - clearing it of the horror that had just occurred and preparing it for the next encounter. Flindt's piece is the epitome of dance theater - he showed us the dark side of humanity and left us to experience and sit with what we had seen. No explanation; no justice; no reason.

June 8th – With any musical, each aspect of the production must serve the story: the text, the vocals, the set design and the choreography. The dance portions must provide situational context, character insight and most, importantly, propel the narrative forward. If dance accomplishes these goals, it can count itself as an active and valuable contributor in the musical genre. Larry Keigwin's choreography in ACT's "Tales of the City" definitely fulfilled these promises. While the movement was neither difficult nor transformative, it succeeded in doing its job: serving the story by placing the action in a specific place at a identifiable time as well as revealing the relationships between and truths about the characters. The movement was clever, accessible (both to the audience and for the cast), and applicable.

The first musical number, "Nobody's City", was full of typical 1970s fare, situating the story in a specific era and location. The disco choreography was so fun to watch and in his night-club inspired dance sequences, Keigwin individualized the steps to communicate the characters' personalities: the fun-loving Connie (Julie Reiber) committed fully, while newcomer Mary Ann (Betsy Wolfe) struggled to let go. "Tales of the City's" most ingenious choreography was actually the least 'dancey'. In the advertising office scenes, Keigwin was able to capture the hustle and bustle of this particular environment using a combination of marching, deliberate walking, directional changes and levels. "Bolero", the tango number, was a perfect choreographic match for the seductive romp between Mary Ann and Beauchamp Day (Andrew Samonsky). The tango itself is a dance of seduction and through this piece we saw their relationship move from casual flirting to the next level.

Any new musical will go through several editing iterations and I imagine "Tales of the City" has already been pared down quite a bit. Even with knowing that, there were still too many featured characters. The audience needs to get involved with and care about the individuals in the story and with the introduction of so many new characters throughout the entire play (we met two new people well into Act II and a whole host of personas near the end of Act I), it was hard to feel drawn into each person's journey. It was too crowded, both literally and figuratively.

June 10th – Every once in a while, you encounter a dance piece that transforms the artistic field, adding value to and changing its genre. There is a sense that you have borne witness to something extraordinary and that dance is not the same and will not be the same because of the work's existence. Twyla Tharp's "Deuce Coupe" fused ballet and modern together; Bill T. Jones' "Still/Here" created on-going dialogue between artists and critics; and now, we have Mary Carbonara's "What Does It Feel Like to Kill Someone?" which streamlines dance theater to its core and essence. Carbonara's incredible narrative journey represents what modern dance theater should be - no frills; no gimmicks; no peripheral elements, just pure choreographic brilliance. This world premiere reveals that when deeply meaningful movement is combined with talented, committed performers, dance theater is forever changed.

"What Does It Feel Like to Kill Someone?" began without any fanfare or lighting cues; it simply emerged organically in the room. This first scene found the dancers creating an obituary wall, writing names with chalk on the studio's exposed brick. Here was an incredibly present and intentional showing of comfort and remembrance; they all watched intently and supported each other with the laying on of hands. Then, the air shifted and all five performers entered the space for the first diagonal sequence, which illustrated a significant crescendo both in terms of speed and intensity. This introduction spiraled into choreographic abandon, with urgent, angry and violent movements. You could see the desperation and fear on their faces and in their bodies. Lifts took on a pulling, pushing and grabbing feel, and arms morphed into weapons (evident in the jerky, staccato treatment of the hands and fingers). A particular sequence oozed with angst and suffering as one of the men undertook a slow, flexed grand rond de jambe followed by an urgent single-legged fouetté; it was like his pain was being transmitted into the universe from his limbs. The narrative was cleverly being told in reverse order. The chalkboard opening actually felt like the end of the story (the remembrance of death) while the rest of the piece revealed the circumstances that lead to that place of mourning.

The dance theater aspect of this piece was very apparent: a focus on inhumanity with no resolution. Carbonara unpacked the idea of inflicted human trauma and left it for the audience to experience. Dancers were being overpowered and controlled by each other - continually thrown against the wall and pushed to the floor in a purposeful effort to break their spirit. And, the viewer was forced to confront their own complacency when bad things happen. The wall shadows that were created in the studio reminded us that we often look at difficult situations through a filter and as the final female solo began, one quiet movement screamed for recognition in the performance space. As her hand delved into her chest, she simultaneously contracted and curved her upper body over a parallel passé leg. The message of this pose was so plain - human suffering should destroy us, break our hearts and rock us to our very core; if it doesn't, then we aren't paying attention.

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