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San Francisco Bay Area Roundup

November 2011 Performances

by Heather Desaulniers

  • Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in “Light Moves”
    Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
  • RAW at The Garage, featuring new work by Ronja Ver & Katharine Hawthorne
    The Garage, San Francisco
  • “The Soldier’s Tale – Directed by Muriel Maffre & Tom Ross
    Aurora Theatre, Berkeley
  • Diablo Ballet – 18th Season
    Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
  • Smuin Ballet in “The Christmas Ballet”
    Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
  • Printz Dance Project in “Hover Space”
    Z Space, San Francisco

    November 3rd - "Light Moves", the newest piece by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, premiered early in the month to a packed house at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. A collaborative project, featuring choreography mixed with video, text and an original music score, this evening-length work celebrates the best of today's modern dance scene. During the seventy-minute physical journey, the primary theme was very clear: never-ending, constant motion. Fans of Jenkins' work were treated to many different sides of this brilliant choreographer: her artistic strengths shone and new choreographic interests were revealed.

    As the curtain rose, the company entered in a tight-knit group from stage right already in the midst of a movement sequence. This gave the impression that the piece had started long before the lights went down - the audience may have thought that they were watching it from the beginning, but in fact, they were witnessing something already in progress. Utilization of the wing space was another theme throughout "Light Moves" and a major contribution to the work. So often the wings are relegated to the obvious: entrances and exits. Here, the wings were an extension of the performance and included some stunning choreography. My favorite was a recurring walk where the dancers came out of the wings already engaged in a circular pattern that included upper body curves and sternum lifts.

    Jenkins' approach to interdisciplinary performance was and is a sight to behold. She clearly values collaboration (in a variety of forms), but it is her treatment and direction of these multiple elements that really enchants. The components of "Light Moves" were engineered in such a way that they could peacefully co-exist, without competing for attention or overpowering each other. And, because there wasn't too many things happening all at once, the dance could literally take center stage.

    Choreographically, "Light Moves" combined Jenkins' signature staccato work alongside slow, lush divertissements, providing wonderful and contrasting dynamic change. These latter scenes allowed suspended luxuriation, without the movement passing by so quickly. Particular noteworthy examples were the soft, supported jumps, calm fouettés, Ryan T. Smith's rond de jambe to parallel 2nd and Steffany Ferroni's relevé long in arabesque. Another unique choreographic tool is Jenkins' cluster sequences. She creates a human puzzle where the entire cast is visually and physically compact. The movement and levels are varied and performed full out without looking claustrophobic.

    I saw a preview of this dance last October at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center and was heartened by one significant improvement in this premiere: the women's performative range. At the earlier viewing, the women only had one level of expression: angst-ridden seriousness. At times, they looked so pained that it was distracting from their technical achievements (with the exception of Steffany Ferroni who did not fall victim to this trap). Last night's performance saw a diverse spectrum of expression and emotion from all of the women. The angst was still there but it was appropriately placed and interspersed with equal amounts of joy and playfulness.

    November 9th - The Garage welcomed yet another edition of its notable RAW program (resident artist workshop), with two new dance works: "Faith" by Ronja Ver and "Lumen/Lux" by Katharine Hawthorne. Both pieces embody the spirit of this special place: thinking outside the box, challenging the norms and making creative performance art.

    Ronja Ver has envisioned a three-part piece with "Faith" that expresses a reverse treatment of pain. The first section shows the recovery; the moving forward; the new start, while the second and third scenes deal with past experiences of grief and despair. Performed as solo, Ver exposes herself and these issues with a genuine authenticity.

    The opening moments found Ver walking in a slow diagonal from upstage right to downstage left. Each step forward was perfectly articulated with an exaggerated heel-ball-toe. Here was a definitive and direct journey towards something new as opposed to being away from something old. Once she reached her destination, the choreography shifted and became almost puppet-like, yet again, the common denominator of specificity and control was very present. The skeleton moved one part at a time, which brought forth the message: one small thing can and does create change; a deliberate and direct action can affect positively. The opening segment of "Faith" drives home the power of the self and the possibilities that everyone possesses to make their story better.

    Katharine Hawthorne's "Lumen/Lux" studies the role and addition of light to movement. Hawthorne's combination of light and choreography yielded a fascinating experiment which both changed movement and affected outcomes. A trio for three dancers (Hawthorne, Megan Wright and Alisha Mitchell), "Lumen/Lux" revealed four important results as Hawthorne injected a flashlight bracelet into her modern dance physicality.

    First, the light was able to increase the range of certain movements. A simple circling of the upper body became much bigger as the light worked in concert with the body, mimicking and following the same trajectory. All three dancers had a beautiful serpentine port de corps which was made even more lush with the introduction of light. Dynamic change was the second revelation, where a relatively benign step could take on a radically different quality when illuminated. When lit in a particular way, a sternum lift can go from simple to scary and crawling can be transformed into pained writhing. Third, we saw how the addition of light can work against choreography. This wasn't a bad thing at all - in fact, it was a positive discovery. When a light source is utilized at a specific angle, some of the other physical detail can be camouflaged. It creates a needed uncertainty in the mind of the audience - what did we miss as the light shifted around? In dance and in art, these questions are good. Last, the light in "Lumen/Lux" became an equal contributor to the work. There was an egalitarian quality that made the light like an additional performer or another limb. This was most apparent when one of the dancers was standing still and circling the light bracelet around the space; it was as if another body was running in a circuit.

    The only criticism that I had of "Lumen/Lux" was that for anyone who suffers with even the slightest hint of motion sickness (like I do), they might feel a little headachy by the end of the evening. Even though there was no strobe present, the amount of 'moving light' was enough to make me a tiny bit queasy.

    November 17th - "The Soldier's Tale" follows one man's post-war experience as he attempts to deal with change, define his existence, confront evil temptation and discover contentment. While he journeys through these various seasons, he encounters the devil, played by Joan Mankin, who complicates his decision-making processes at every turn. In Aurora Theatre's version, the soldier appears in the form of a three-foot tall puppet, physically expressed by puppeteer Muriel Maffre and vocally by L. Peter Callender. Generally, I am not a fan of puppetry used as a theatrical tool in performance, but in "The Soldier's Tale", it was a rousing success.

    At times, Maffre and the soldier puppet were a single entity, almost in a pas de deux, the two becoming one to articulate gestures and create shapes in space. The emotions and the movement emerged from a single impulse and then radiated outward. In an early scene, the soldier learns that his true love has moved on with her life while he was away. In despair, the puppet cradled his broken heart as Maffre gently picked him up off the ground. The pure power of that quiet moment was met by the audience's overwhelmed silence - you could literally hear a pin drop in the room. The integration, while astoundingly good, was only one part of their magical duet - the puppetry in "The Soldier's Tale" was really a multi-level endeavor. Yes, Maffre and the puppet were one character, but in addition, you could also see that they became extensions of each other, engaging in a two-way conversation. The fact that Maffre is a dancer clearly made a huge impact on the quality and clarity of the puppetry; she understands the human body, its physical expressiveness and its ability to transmit a narrative.

    From a purely visually perspective, the soldier puppet was equally humanistic and anonymous. Combining the excellence of the puppetry with the puppet's design, the soldier really became human throughout the course of the show. At the same time, the generality of the puppet's features created a level of anonymity. This creature had an anyone/everyone quality, making the work very easy to relate to.

    Toward the end of the piece, Maffre morphs into the daughter of the King, a woman who becomes the object of the soldier's affection and love. In a solo that she dances after her character recovers from an illness, the audience finally experiences the full splendor of Maffre's statuesque frame. Up until that point, she spent the majority of her stage time stooped over manipulating the puppet. Now she was free to extend, to jump, to rise and that freedom was very present in the mid-length divertissement (which Maffre also choreographed). While it was thrilling to see this amazing dancer moving with such beautiful abandon, the variation was a little busy. The Aurora Theatre space is fantastic, but small, and thus, any choreography needs to pay attention to that constraint. In a restricted space, expansive movement and constant motion can come across feeling a little claustrophobic.

    November 18th - Diablo Ballet celebrated its 18th season at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek with a three piece program that spoke to the company's breadth of skill and vision. A meeting of classical ballet and contemporary sensibility, Dominic Walsh's duet "Le Spectre de la Rose" opened the evening, danced by Rosselyn Ramirez and Domenico Luciano. A recent addition to the Diablo Ballet repertory, Walsh has retained the traditional choreographic feel of Michel Fokine's 1911 work, highlighting the technical beauty of the ballet lexicon. Luciano's performance as the rose was triumphant - the dramatic flexibility of his feet and the buoyancy in his ballon astounding. But Walsh did update the ballet by injecting a newness and nuanced spin into the story. The pas de deux between the rose and the girl had a more mysterious and edgier quality than many other versions. Here, we saw a slightly devilish side to the usual chivalrous male character. There was a level of manipulation and imposed control to the point that the girl eventually took on some of the rose's movements. Walsh was alluding to the darker side of relationships and perhaps commenting on our tendency to keep these negative interactions hidden away.

    Next was the world premiere of Val Caniparoli's new ballet, which offered an intense and beautiful study of suspension and release. A chamber piece for Mayo Sugano, Derek Sakakura, Hiromi Yamazaki and Robert Dekkers, "Tears From Above" follows the pathway of the limbs as they travel out from the core, reach their point of suspension and grow into a continuous shape. This melty tension was then contrasted with an equal and dramatic treatment of weighted release: weight in the body, weight in the air and the harnessing of those forces into choreographed movement. This suspension/release theme remained consistent throughout the different moods and tempi of Elena Kats-Chernin's music. The opening and middle sections had a sinuous, pulling quality followed by a very grounded allegro movement. "Tears From Above" was a gorgeous musing on oppositional physical forces, but more than anything, it demonstrated that Caniparoli's choreography is an all-in exercise - with his work, there is no half-way.

    Rounding out the program was Septime Webre's 1995 composition, "Fluctuating Hemlines". Set to a percussion score, the entire ballet is an exciting staccato attack of the space with a two-fold concept. First is a very clear comment on the notion of appearance and reality. The men begin in dapper suits and the women in dresses and wigs; however, this initial costuming is short-lived (the women do put their wigs back on from time to time). The rest of the work finds the cast having shed their armor in favor of plain, yet revealing white tank-tops and shorts. This is a shedding of pretense, of fakeness, and of expectation and so, a fluctuation between the real and the imaginary. Second, and perhaps more literally, the technique itself fluctuated between various styles and genres. Though the women remained on pointe for the duration of the work, there were instances of classical ballet, modern dance and even some good old-fashioned jazz. "Fluctuating Hemlines" contains some of Webre's signature moves (his uniquely athletic jump sequences), but this fifteen-year-old piece is a little riskier - in a good way - than some of his current work.

    November 25th - Want a perfect way to kick off the holiday season? Check out Smuin Ballet's 2011 edition of their famed "Christmas Ballet". With this joyous collection of dance, one can feel the shift into festive merriment. Broken into two acts, dubbed 'The Classical Christmas' and 'The Cool Christmas', this production is a perfect ten.

    Thirty-three short numbers fill the stage over the course of two hours, each with their own flavor and feeling. In the first act, the genres ranged from the lyrical interweaving of Celia Fushille's "Resonet in Laudibus" to the Celtic footwork of Michael Smuin's "The Gloucestershire Wassail" to the classical ballet of Amy Seiwert's "Sleigh Ride". In the many different vignettes and scenes, particular moments of technical bliss stood out including John Speed Orr's stunning tour jeté in the overture, Susan Roemer's port de corps in pencheé during "Sleep Well" and Darren Anderson's flawless partnering skills. "For Unto Us a Child is Born" introduced the best quartet I have seen in a long time (Robin Cornwall/Darren Anderson, Susan Roemer/Jonathan Dummar). Although a very short sequence in the overall piece, these four dancers have a kind of intuition that cannot be taught.

    Act II brought a fun variety of choreographic stylings all set to contemporary holiday music. Fifties nostalgia was found in "Winter Weather", Broadway jazz in "Santa Baby", and Appalachian clogging in "Droopy Little Christmas Tree". A somewhat surprising and delightful discovery made during the second half of the program is that Smuin Ballet is home to some of the better tap dancers in the SF/Bay Area: Erica Chipp, Mallory Welsh and Shannon Hurlburt. Because rhythm tap is the trend for percussive dance these days, it is easy to forget that the more performative expressions of tap are equally (and perhaps even more) compelling. Robert Sund's new piece for this year's "Christmas Ballet" was a lovely addition. His musing on "Oh, Holy Night" (a pas de trois for Jonathan Mangosing, John Speed Orr and Jonathan Powell) not only had the best synchronicity of the evening but also was a tender, delicate and emotional dance for three men that still looked very masculine.

    November 30th – November 2011 came to an end as Printz Dance Project's newest endeavor, "Hover Space", burst onto the modern dance scene at Theater Artaud's Z Space. Choreographed and conceived by Artistic Director Stacey Printz, this piece takes the idea of traditional performance space and raises it to a new height with the incorporation of a suspended dance stage. With a talented cast, unique concept and inventive movement, "Hover Space" is a slam dunk.

    Narratively there were a two interdependent themes running through the work. First was the notion of relationships. The opening vignettes introduced us to three different couples, whose interaction and connection would be examined over the course of the seventy-minute dance. Second was expansion. With the addition of a second stage, these relationships could be experienced and understood as the sum of multiple different levels. Pas de deuxs unfolded both horizontally and vertically, bringing a richer dimension to the story of each couple and revealing several truths. As the pairs struggled to associate with each other when on the ground and on the suspended stage, Printz exposed that relationships can be equally unsure whether they are built on stable roots or rocky foundations. As the upper stage tilted, yet another relationship angle was explored. As the duos climbed up to the top and slid down and away from each other, the balance of coupledom was clear - love can be precarious and easily lost or it can be strong and secure if you make the effort to catch each other.

    Printz's movement vocabulary in itself is a very interesting fusion of styles: modern, hip hop and contemporary jazz. Hip hop and jazz are not easy genres to incorporate into rigorous artistic work; they often come across looking too commercial or similar to dance competition choreography. Printz is able to combine the three by focusing on the technical challenges of modern dance, the lyrical expression of jazz and the staccato attack of hip hop. The jumping and rolling sequence towards the end of "Hover Space" was a physical explosion. Its full-out abandon brought to mind the early work of LaLaLa Human Steps.

    From a conceptual perspective, the 'hovering' second stage was brilliant and super cool. In the first group scene, this suspended stage rose and the dancers dangled from the bottom in a serpentine cluster - the effect was really quite something. Design additions like this one run the risk of being gimmicky, but because Printz paid careful attention to enmeshing all aspects of the work, everything on the stage fit together perfectly.

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