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San Francisco Bay Area Roundup

September - October 2011 Performances

by Heather Desaulniers

  • Mark Morris Dance Group – “Dido and Aeneas”
    Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
  • Smuin Ballet - Fall Program
    Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA
  • RAWdance at Orson - "a public affair"
    Orson Restaurant Bar & Lounge, San Francisco, CA
  • "Night Falls"
    Written and Co-Directed by Julie Hébert
    Choreographed and Co-Directed by Deborah Slater
    ODC Theater, San Francisco, CA

September 16th - The opening of Cal Performances' new season is a highly anticipated event in the Bay Area as patrons ready themselves for an exciting year of world class artists. Mark Morris Dance Group's "Dido and Aeneas" kicked off the dance portion of this phenomenal theater series. The tragic opera was transformed into an artistic collaboration with dancers and musicians performing each role accompanied by the superb Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, all conducted under the musical and artistic direction of Mark Morris.

The choreography of "Dido and Aeneas" was a perfect embodiment of the Greek style with precise, deliberate sequences that were specific in their positioning and their intent. Everything was perfectly placed and placed for a reason and purpose, nothing blurry or wishy-washy. This allowed the events to be clearly conveyed and harkens back to a time of the very successful codified, position-based modern dance.

The intention of this dance-theater piece was to relate the epic tale of "Dido and Aeneas" through physical language, and Morris fully accomplished this goal: the chosen narrative was clearly transmitted. But his work was and is so much more than a simple gestural representation; he was able to inject the choreography with unique contributions and lessons without compromising the guiding storyline. The choreographic standout was Morris' treatment of the 'small' - how intricate details have the most unexpected meaning. The opening sequence found the cast propelling themselves around the stage with fast parallel boureés, and later in the work a similar small movement (this time, heel twists) was utilized to cover the vast space. Here we saw the transitions from one place to another; the starting and ending point were of course integral, but the in between, the journey is where the magic happened. Domingo Estrada Jr. as Aeneas had a strong, powerful and commanding presence, though the most telling part of his solo occurred as he turned his palms to face up and out. This seemingly insignificant motion said everything - he was opening up his heart and giving his soul away. Morris' ongoing theme of how small changes drastically affect one's existence was brilliant.

Though the majority of the piece was fantastic, some of the characters were a bit confusing. The recurring 'chorus' were a delight to watch: their choreography interesting and dynamic and their performance flawless. And, with this group of dancers, it seemed that Morris was trying to create a system where gender was left out of the equation: the attempts at androgyny obvious. Unfortunately, with a story like "Dido and Aeneas", the gender-bending doesn't and didn't really work; it just looked campy. And while campy can be a valid, interesting and entertaining performance choice, in this case, the 'camp' just wasn't very good. Similarly, Amber Star Merkens' interpretation of Dido was choreographically masterful but relationally unconvincing. She didn't display any spark, desire or chemistry for Estrada's Aeneas, making it difficult to buy into their connection.


September 23rd - The selections for Smuin Ballet's Fall program created a perfect balance of old and new. Opening weekend at The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco brought the company's history to stage with three of Michael Smuin's works spanning thirty plus years: "Tango Palace" (2003), "Stabat Mater" (2002) and "Eternal Idol" (1969). The evening concluded with Amy Seiwert's much anticipated world premiere, "Dear Miss Cline".

"Tango Palace" examined the traditions of dramatic dance through the choreography of three couples. Though all were purposely very different from each other in order to show various aspects of the tango, some common denominators emerged. There was tango as flirtation: two people meet; they tease; they play; they entice; and then, finally they part. In addition, the tango was expressed as a passionate, yet fleeting affair. The music had recurring themes of discord and dissonance, indicating a level of suspension without resolve, perfectly balancing the percolating questions in the subtext of the ballet. Here was curiosity about another without the necessity of definitive answers. Toward the end of "Tango Palace", a shift in mood occurred as the female dancers changed out of their character shoes and donned pointes. Unfortunately, this section of the ballet was a poor conclusion for the tango study that had been unfolding. With the exception of Robin Cornwell and Jonathan Dummar, who were able to successfully combine the tango style with ballet vocabulary, the fun and passion dissipated and the energy completely fell. A little bit of a letdown for a piece that started so strongly.

With this year marking the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, Smuin's response to this dark day was an appropriate choice for the 2011 Fall program. The takeaway from “Stabat Mater” is hope's survival amidst horror and suffering. A ten person dance, Smuin singled out one female role to embody aspirational faith, danced at this performance by Erin Yarbrough-Stewart. While she was flung all over the stage and haphazardly passed from person to person, her strength and resolve remained constant and palpable.

Though the oldest ballet on the bill, "Eternal Idol" was by far the best dancing and outstanding choreography of the night: Robin Cornwell and Jonathan Dummar truly were sculpture brought to life. A circular understanding of this visual artform was omnipresent. In the movement, we saw it in the rond de jambe (both à terre and en l'air), the port de bras and the ronde versé. And, in the narrative, Smuin shared how the life of a romance or a relationship is cyclical in nature. This pas de deux was an invitation to witness an intimate connection between two, a story of their bond and a glimpse into its ups and downs.

Nostalgia was the name of the game with Amy Seiwert's premiere work, "Dear Miss Cline". An ode to an earlier era, with cleverly accurate costumes and hair design, the piece was a musing on the notion of a society. The community aspect was very well communicated through the vignette-style choreography (short dances set to ten Patsy Cline recordings) both in the interaction of the couples and in the general camaraderie of the entire cast. While "Dear Miss Cline" was definitely an audience favorite, the lack of dynamic change was problematic. Much of the music existed at a moderate-to-low intensity level and the dance was similarly unchanged. The choreography was inventive and interesting, but the creative movement wasn't enough to overcome the flat dynamics. The absence of highs and lows makes for a ballet that reads as 'more of the same'.


October 19th - The modern dance world has always been a little ahead of its time, leading the charge with outside-the-box thinking. Today's choreographers continue that pioneering artistic spirit with an influx of site-specific, alternative event performances. Though an exciting trend, it is always a risk - some pieces thrive in multiple different environments while others simply do not do well outside of the proscenium arch. At Orson Restaurant Bar & Lounge, San Francisco dance lovers enjoyed site-specific experimental work done brilliantly; adapted to its chosen setting without losing any physicality. RAWdance's premiere of "a public affair" in SOMA was visionary dance at its best.

Choreographed and performed by the dynamic Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith, "a public affair" emerged organically in Orson's dining room. The two began their ballet as patrons sitting down to eat at the center table. Even with some space constraints, this was an 'all-in' choreographic experience, with extensions and long attitudes that went on forever. The pas de deux also included dramatic overhead lifts, the dancers not at all hampered by dinner patrons who were watching from inches away. Moments of eating were interspersed throughout the ten minutes, which kept the piece linked to and rooted in its locale. Rein and Smith were not trying to forget or ignore that this performance was in a restaurant, in fact, as the dance progressed, one couldn't help but notice that "a public affair" was really a dinner conversation brought to life through movement.

Near the beginning, Rein and Smith took turns covering each other's faces with the dinner napkins - obviously interrupting and cutting each other off. What followed was a stunning combination of argumentative staccato sequences juxtaposed with quiet movements, mimicking the disagreements and silences that occur in any dialogue. Next, tender moments brought visions of love, affection and support: the standing lift, the leaning arabesque and the supported sobresaut. "a public affair" was definitely a partnered pas de deux, though there were also instances where Rein and Smith ventured out on their own; still spatially relating to each other but clearly separate. This reflected those parts of a conversation where one appears to be listening but in actuality, is lost in private thoughts. The piece concluded with the dancers returning to their original starting position, further reiterating that every physical expression we had just seen was an embodiment of how they had spoke to each other over a meal. Take any opportunity to see RAWdance - they have well-crafted, unique choreography, an excellent sense of humor and technically superior dancers.

October 21st - Dance theater combines story and movement together in a theatrical expression. Dance used in this field exists on a spectrum, ranging from codified modern and ballet vocabulary all the way to very minimal physicality. While a very broad genre, all dance theater shares two requirements: integration and necessity. First, the story and movement must make sense and work together. And second, each entity must make unique contributions and have its own reason for being. This delicate balance is incredibly difficult to accomplish. "Night Falls", the new work by Julie Hébert and Deborah Slater, captured the first goal - the movement and the narrative were definitely a cohesive unit used in combination to express the text. The choreography was a gestural interpretation of the words, serving an emphatic purpose. However, with respect to necessity, "Night Falls" missed the boat. The miming actions worked as emphasis and were well-integrated into the piece, but they lacked their own distinctive purpose. Unfortunately, the choreography came off as a mere accompaniment.

"Night Falls" was a merging of memory, fantasy and self as a woman (Peregrine, played by Joan Schirle) deals with the reality of her sixtieth birthday. As told through the intersection of her different-aged selves, we come to understand her fears: of getting older; of being vulnerable; of being humiliated; of being alone. By referring to her various life experiences, the younger and older versions expose Peregrine's inability to be wrong, to follow through, and to ask for help. "Night Falls" is a true coming of age story with significant depth and relatability.

As stated, the choreography served the text by creating an obvious physical embodiment of the spoken word. For example, when the actors told of rain or stars, the hands went overhead and fingers moved in a typing motion. As the story called for expressions of defiance, feet were stomped, arms thrown and fingers pointed. Scattered discombobulation was indicated with frenetic shaking. While very clear, the movement just wasn't needed to propel things forward. In fact, I found the use of gestures to be distracting at times. Hébert and Slater's story is great and the acting, phenomenal - "Night Falls" can stand on its own. Less really does say more.

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