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San Francisco & Bay Area Roundup

Winter 2012 Performances - Part II

by Heather Desaulniers

* San Francisco Ballet - Program 3
  War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

* Cal Performances presents Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
 "Story/Time", Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

* San Francisco Ballet - "Romeo & Juliet"
  War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

* RAW at The Garage presents “Wish You Were Here...Dances for loved ones near
 and far and people past, present and future"
  The Garage, San Francisco, CA

* Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Company presents "Darbar"
  Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

* Hope Mohr Dance with guest Dušan Týnek Dance Theatre
   Z Space, San Francisco

* Robert Moses' Kin
  Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

February 22nd - With Program 3, San Francisco Ballet celebrates choreography from the past decade: Helgi Tomasson's "Trio" (2011); Yuri Possokhov's "Francesca da Rimini" (world premiere) and Alexei Ratmansky's "Le Carnaval des Animaux" (2003). Not only does this mixed bill speak to the excitement of today's dancemakers, but also reinforces the technical range and artistic breadth that thrives within this company. The evening began with neoclassical beauty, moved to narrative drama and ended with playful, spirited comedy.

Helgi Tomasson's neo-classical brilliance shines once again in his three-part interpretation of Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence". "Trio" examines three different aspects of neoclassicism: 1st movement - the relationship between choreography and music; 2nd movement - the existence of a narrative; and 3rd and 4th movements - the expressions of athleticism and unison. Regality covered the stage in the first movement as Courtney Elizabeth and Joan Boada led the corps of ten (including some of my personal favorites - Daniel Baker and Dustin Spero) through their paces. The entire section ran from beginning to end with no intermediate stopping points between phrases or sections. Every entrance gave the impression that the movement had been happening off stage and when the dancer or dancers entered from the wings, they were just continuing the choreography that had already been in progress. Such delicate footwork punctuated the music in unexpected ways, from simple waltz steps to the rarely seen entre chat cinq. The 2nd movement was a stark contrast, both in scene, feeling and purpose. Here, we still saw the beautiful neoclassical style, yet it was framed with a narrative quality and a clear love triangle (danced by Dana Genshaft, Ruben Martin Cintas and Anthony Spaulding). Dynamic and technically challenging jumps were on display in the 3rd and 4th movements, with Gennadi Nedvigin and the corps men stealing the show. Helgi Tomasson is a master of neoclassicism. This is apparent in so many of his ballets and is only further reinforced with "Trio". Yet, the takeaway from this piece is much more than that. Neoclassical partnering can look awkward because of the speed, complexity and footwork, but Tomasson's never does. Not only is he an expert in choreographing this genre, he is clearly superb at teaching it to his company.

"Francesca da Rimini" took the audience to a very different place - a dark, lusty and dramatic journey with Francesca (Frances Chung), Paolo (Carlos Quenedit) and Giovanni (Vito Mazzeo). Yuri Possokhov's world premiere re-tells the desperate story from Dante's "The Divine Comedy" with such truth and passion, turmoil oozing from every space and every dancer on-stage. Inasmuch as the strength of desire was captured (including a stunning light effect where part of Francesca and Paolo's pas de deux was enlarged and reflected on the scrim behind them), Possokhov was also able to inject a nuanced attempt at redemption.

Program 3 concluded with Alexei Ratmansky's whimsical "Le Carnaval des Animaux". A funny and clever ode to the animal kingdom, the 2003 composition (also originally set on SF Ballet) shows that this company is very adept at comedy. The entire cast excelled at Ratmansky's interpretation of Saint-Saëns score, though Pascal Molat as the lion and Sarah Van Patten as the elephant were hilarious standouts. And, alongside the humor, a hint of neoclassicism was still present, the choreography matching with and emphasizing the musical traits: specifically the elephant's arabesque sequence and the chorus' lifts during the spattery scalic glissandos.

February 24th - A favorite at Cal Performances, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company returned to bring their new work "Story/Time" to West Coast Audiences. A departure from the typical (if there is such a thing) evening-length composition, "Story/Time" is comprised of seventy 1-minute remembrances, spoken center stage by Jones, while the company's dancers fill the surrounding space with movement and scenework. While both the narration and choreography were enthralling, "Story/Time" really seeks to examine the co-existence of form and content in modern dance. Jones has spent a lengthy and successful career examining the juxtaposition of these two entities and this new work is his dissertation on their present state in his consciousness.

Before the piece began, Jones came out and gave the audience an assignment: to judge how long a minute really is. At a given mark, the stage manager began a stop watch and the crowd was asked to raise their hand when they felt sixty seconds had passed - depending on your perspective and judgment, that time was either super short or very long. With that context established, Jones walked to his desk and began speaking. His seventy short memoirs occurred in random order and ran the gamut of funny, sentimental, whimsical, and sad. Similarly, the choreography was a stream of physicality, a string of steps and sequences, not at all trying to represent or 'act out' the words that Jones was speaking. Jones is such a commanding presence that I found it hard to look anywhere but directly at him, even as the dancers began moving around, amidst and in front of him. For the first third of the dance, I really had to force myself to look at them. That feeling did lessen and as "Story/Time" came to a close, I realized that I was actively engaged with both the movement and the narrative.

The choreography (the abstract form) and the script (the informational content) shared three things in common. First, they contained a phrasal quality: each had highs and lows, climaxes and valleys as the respective material unfolded. Second, both the structure and the narrative related to the notion of observation: Jones' words were an audible recollections of real-life events and his choreography, a visual picture for the audience to take in. Third, both the dance and the language came from a place of intimacy and vulnerability; both shared intensely personal experiences with us. But for the most part, the movement and the message were unrelated. They were certainly living in the same space, though despite this adjacent placement (and two scenes towards the end where the dance did actually mime Jones' words), the two were unattached.

March 6th - "Romeo & Juliet" is familiar. Whether we know it from the text itself, from the Shakespearean stage, from a movie or television screen, from Broadway or from the ballet, we know its tragic story. Sometimes familiarity is good, yet at the same time, it can also lead to stagnation. A solid "Romeo & Juliet" is one that is fresh, challenging and exciting. For me, I can tell such a production when I am on the edge of my seat in the audience, hoping that this time, things work out for the two young lovers. Helgi Tomasson's "Romeo & Juliet" for San Francisco Ballet is one of the greats.

Opening night's cast was remarkable: Pauli Magierek as Lady Capulet, Anita Paciotti as the Nurse, Daniel Deivison as Tybalt, Jaime Garcia Castilla as Benvolio, Gennadi Nedgivin as Mercutio, Garen Scribner as Paris, all led of course by Maria Kochetkova's Juliet and Joan Boada's Romeo. Kochetkova is never less than perfection; she transforms as easily into a teenage girl as she does into a regal queen. Deivison's Tybalt was such a powerful presence. Often Tybalt is played very egotistically, but here, Deivison created a Tybalt whose protective nature was palpable. Even his walk forward during the ballroom scene was overwhelming in its command. Another highlight was Magierek's Lady Capulet; capturing all the dynamic levels of this mysterious woman. In Magierek's stunning portrayal, we were able to witness Lady Capulet's duality: her complete desperate unraveling when amongst death coupled with her total lack of compassion for those who are living.

Neoclassical movement brought an already alive score to a new plane of existence. As Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio wander outside The House of Capulet before the ball, they dance a charming pas de trois. Toward its end, each of them in turn executes a textbook developpé écarté, which corresponded perfectly to three accented chords from the pit. Act I, Scene VI's Balcony pas de deux was a joyful, youthful celebration of love - almost a bit giddy. Tomasson crafted and Kochetkova delivered a breathtaking ronde versé during a huge crescendo in Prokofiev's music. And, the lift where Juliet is suspended on Romeo's back floated and flew on top of an equally buoyant musical phrase.

Tomasson's genius for storytelling lies in his ability to communicate the primary narrative themes in addition to uncovering some deeper and perhaps, more nuanced secondary themes, all through choreography and movement. In the case of "Romeo & Juliet", the dominant messages (love, death, tragedy, misfortune) were all abundantly clear. But as I left the theater, I found myself thinking about the forgiveness side to the story. As Juliet comes to grips with the horror of Tybalt's death, forgiveness had to be part of her journey. And, I also wonder what happens to the characters after the curtain falls. When the Montagues and the Capulets discover their children dead, there will be despair and anger, but in the wake of this horrible tragedy, will they finally begin to forgive each other?

March 9th - The Garage's most recent installment of the resident artist workshop (RAW) showcased new choreography by three talented San Francisco/Bay Area choreographers: Gretchen Garnett, Aura Fischbeck and Leigh Riley. Bringing their work together in a single evening, "Wish You Were Here...Dances for loved ones near and far and people past, present and future", the four compositions on the bill speak to the important artistic work being created in this dynamic space.

Gretchen Garnett & Dancers' "Activities for Tight Spaces" was definitely the standout piece of the evening. Choreographed by Garnett and danced by Leah Curran, Jackie Goneconti and LizAnne Roman, the work explores boundaries, comfort, safety and freedom. The audience was seated in a square around the perimeter of the stage, which both brought us in as part of the performance and deliberately limited the available area for movement. Choreography happened right up against the viewer and was not reduced or curtailed due to the lack of space; every step being performed full out with complete intention, extension and abandon. Struggle was a purposeful part of the narrative, apparent as the dancers squirmed within their tube-top style tunics. They pulled at the material, trying to escape its constriction and encasement, but to no end. In their movement and their costuming, they were looking for a way out and a method to expand their reality. Most notably, this was demonstrated by a recurring motif - the turning of a doorknob.

"Corpo-Reality", created and performed by Aura Fischbeck, examined the meeting between paradigm and the individual. Broken into three parts, the opening sequence dealt with the paradigm of corporeality. For this first study, Fischbeck created a sound score in which she defined corporeality and its associations. 'Corporeality' has become the buzz word of the moment in modern dance (especially in academic circles), so it was fantastic to finally see someone taking the time to unpack it, deconstruct it and break it down. The choreography that accompanied the text happened in a constant stream of motion, almost an unbiased review of her body's history and story. Next came a cultural paradigm statement. While a very well-known film was projected on the back scrim, Fischbeck inserted herself into its paradigm. As the movie actors participated in what looked like a traditional German folkdance, she too performed the same movements (she had previously noted that she is of German descent). Her shadow became part of the film's landscape, providing a very cool effect. "Corpo-Reality's" final scene was the only part that seemed out of place. Gone was her strong comment on paradigm and physicality and instead, there was a string of unrelated material. These last moments were such a surprise because the rest of the work was so cohesive.

March 16th - Having seen a fair amount of kathak dance over the past few years, I have come to understand some of its choreographic and performative qualities: fast pirouettes, facial gestures, eye expression and of course, the percussive foot patterns. But "Darbar" was my first foray into the genre of Indian Dance Drama, where the technical aspects of kathak are combined with a full-length narrative story.

"Darbar" takes its audience to the North Indian royal courts, at a time just prior to British rule. We encounter a civilization both steeped in indulgence and distracted by opulence; the King, played by Charlotte Moraga, is so engrossed in luxury that he is unaware of the plot to overthrow him (which is realized in the final scene).

Choreographed by Pandit Chitresh Das, narrated by Antara Bhardwaj, and performed by a talented company and community of dancers, "Darbar" was a delightful journey to an era of long ago. The style of storytelling in Indian Dance Drama is unique; the gestures purposely melodramatic and the narration's words pantomimed on stage. This allows for a clarity of message and speaks to the strong link between the narrative content and the structural choreography.

"Darbar's" musicians were virtuosic; utterly astounding. However, the sound balance between the dancers and the music was not great. The music, though completely fantastic, was far too loud, so much so that the sounds of the dancer's footbells got lost. The venue may have also contributed to this audio unevenness. Though the visual splendor of the Asian Art Museum's ballroom was perfect for the work, I wonder if the foot percussion was dissipating in the echo-y hall.

March 24th - Hope Mohr Dance began its fifth anniversary season at Z Space just prior to its first tour ever to the Pacific Northwest (March 29th & 30th in Seattle; April 1st in Portland). In anticipation of and in preparation for this monumental event, the spring program included the premiere of "Reluctant Light" and 2011's "Plainsong".

Dualism is an imperative concept in today's contemporary choreography and both "Reluctant Light" and "Plainsong" revealed a study of opposing forces. "Reluctant Light" is a highly textured work, a layering of ideas; in both its narrative content and its structural form. The opening scene found a group of different sized box-like structures strewn across the performance space. These skeletal shapes had no sides or tops, just the external 'bones', affording them both boundaried and boundary-less characteristics at the same time. On one hand, the dancers walked through, rolled through and stood inside of these set pieces, challenging their assumed barriers. While at other moments, they respected the imaginary surfaces - rond de jambing legs over the top of a box, drawing arms around the nonexistent sides. With "Reluctant Light", Mohr has succeeded in blurring the lines between perception (encasement) and reality (freedom). Mohr's choreographic style also speaks to unexpected combinations; she employs contact improvisation supports, suspension and release and I even saw some turned out pirouettes and a playful pas de chat.

2011's "Plainsong", was a rare and wonderful opportunity to see Mohr herself in a solo performance. This piece also had a visually captivating set: a volleyball net-like structure created by red wool, all at different points of existence - some frayed single strands, some woven into patterns, some partially completed knitting. Two steel poles completed the set and the same red wool was attached to them during the work, creating a square-like capsule. Again, the modern duality was present in "Plainsong" with a sense of deliberate purpose juxtaposed against a frustration in task. The movement style had a strength of attack and a delightful edge, almost as if Mohr had perched the choreography precariously on a fence. The audience remained in a constant state of the unknown - will the dance spiral into a frenetic craze or will it resolve into an observed calm?

As part of Mohr's Bridge Project, the company has also shared their San Francisco spring performances with a featured guest choreographer/guest dance company over the past few years. This unique program holds a two-part vision - first, a deep commitment to the support of emerging dancemakers and second, the introduction of their work to Bay Area audiences. This year gave us New York's Dušan Týnek Dance Theatre.

Dušan Týnek Dance Theatre's "Base Pairs" and "Transparent Walls", both from 2010, rounded out the evening as the guest company offerings. Týnek's extensive Cunningham training definitely informs and inspires his choreography, yet he has also developed a very independent and individual method of movement. His is a very technical and accessible type of modern dance with long limbs, lines and extensions. "Base Pairs" was scored to recorded text and a live ticking metronome; a theme of rhythmical accuracy. Though there was a strong focus on creating shapes in space, it was by no means stop-and-go movement - clearly not about static positions. In fact, what I saw was a constant rebounding from place to place. "Transparent Walls" had Týnek's signature esthetic (love the saggital tilts) though this work also incorporated more dynamic range; shifting from stillness to slow adagio sequences all the way to brisk, feisty allegros. Roderick Murray's lighting design was incredibly cool. By hanging an old-fashioned 'footlight' strip high upstage, the back wall was completely erased. The dancers emerged from the darkness, moving forward, already in the midst of their choreography. "Transparent Walls" had absolutely no borders and no containment.

March 30th - Robert Moses' Kin’s spring performance series was an evening celebrating the past, present and future of this outstanding Bay Area company. A breathtaking chronology, the program featured three pieces from the past ten years - "The Soft Sweet Smell of Firm Warm Things" (2001); "Biography" (2003); "Speaking Ill of the Dead" (2006) - alongside the world premiere of "Helen", and excerpts from the upcoming "Scrubbing the Dog". Each of the five dance works demonstrate Moses' distinctive movement style and his rare, refreshing take on the relationship between content and structure in modern dance. His conceptual basis is always there, always present, yet never too obvious, which is good. The message is housed deep within the technical elements of the dance; the two doing more than co-existing in the same space, instead becoming completely entrenched in each other.

Of the five works on the bill, three were stand-outs for me. First, "The Soft Sweet Smell of Firm Warm Things" revealed the genius of Moses' staccato specificity. Each movement had an incredible clarity of intention, purpose and execution, with an obvious start, trajectory and ending point; no floppy positions or ambiguity in space. This brought a renewed metrical quality where even the spotting head in the pirouettes took on part of the rhythmic phrase. "The Soft Sweet Smell of Firm Warm Things" also played with elements of accumulation and individuality. The dance opened to find four women engaged in the same movement sequence, and then organically, they each began to accumulate different material and build on the original phrase. Although there were elements of a canon, it wasn't really a true 'round'; rather, here were different building blocks born from the same initial idea - almost like a tailoring of the choreography to technical strengths, personality and narrative cohesiveness.

The excerpt from "Scrubbing the Dog", danced by Brendan Barthel and Crystaldawn Bell, gave an egalitarian message of searching, kindness and generosity. Paul Carbonara's folksy musical composition paired perfectly with Moses' pas de deux; a relatable, accessible feeling of community percolating from the stage. I am so excited to see this full-length work when it premieres in the company's summer season this coming June.

2003's "Biography" tackles race and cultural existence in the arts with challenging choreography and captivating light design, accompanied by a fitting soundscore (a 1961 talk with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Emile Capouya and Alfred Kazni). The dance unfolded within various boxes of light around the stage (designed by Matthew Antaky). These 'shapes' created both real and imaginary boundaries - "Biography" examined these set parameters, how they came into being and what happens when someone dares to step outside them.

Overall, the evening was a resounding triumph though there is a need for some of the dancers to spend a little more time on their spatial awareness and technical unity. I'm not saying that company members need to dance exactly the same, in fact, there is nothing more boring than a group of dancers who look like cookie-cutter versions of each other. Having said that, there is a big difference between dancing a solo and being part of a group variation. Sometimes standing out too much is not a good thing. I'm all for dancing full-out every moment you are on stage, yet, you must couple that abandon and passion with a larger sense of the group so that you don't look like you are soloing when you aren't supposed to be.

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