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San Francisco & Bay Area Roundup

January 2013

by Heather Desaulniers

  • Bebe Miller Company - “A History”
    YBCA Forum, San Francisco
  • San Francisco Ballet - Program 1
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

    January 25th - Bebe Miller Company’s newest work, “A History”, began its 2013 tour with a two-night stop at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. An evening-length duet for long-time company members Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones, the piece is a perfect fit for YBCA’s Forum (a multi-use performance space), where experimental art and out-of-the-box thinking reign supreme. “A History” is like an in-person, real-life slide show; a physical catalog/chronology of memories. It is the story of an artistic family, with a specific focus on the individual journey and collective experience of these two dancers - a true celebration of and reflection on time. Miller’s work provides insight into the creative process, revealing collaborative relationships and pointing to the special inter-meshing of artistic sensibilities that comes with creating today’s modern dance and contemporary choreography.

    Throughout the seventy-five minute piece, Miller effectively and successfully explored many different sides to a relationship and the associated emotions. In the first solos, we saw each dancer’s individual identity. Then, as Hauser and Jones shuffled around each other in a second position demi-plié, there was hesitancy toward commitment. Comfort came as they wiped sweat from each other’s brows. Extreme trust as Jones gently lowered Hauser from a lift into a headstand. In the multiple spoken scenes, the two continually finished each other’s sentences, representing a deep knowing, intense understanding and shared intimacy. Not one to shy away from the darker corners of the psyche, Miller also communicated the less positive experiences that every relationship undergoes. In the middle of “A History”, both Jones and Hauser returned to dancing solo sections, indicating distance and separation. As well, one short unison segment was set with the two performers right next to each other, invading personal space. They were purposely cramped, squelched and uncomfortable, noting the awkwardness that can definitely inhabit and develop within any union. In the final pas de deuxs, a recapitulation occurred and we came once again to moments of maturity, reconciliation and tenderness. Here were two people becoming one, still having their individual identity but working together as a team; an unbreakably strong unit. While the slow-dancing scene at the end may not have been the most choreographically deep section, as Hauser and Jones moved in their common trajectory, pure sweetness exuded from the entire space.

    However, no matter how clear the narrative or how dynamic the performances, “A History” did have some structural and compositional issues. Interdisciplinary work is incredibly difficult. Combining elements in the service of the same narrative is anything but straightforward. Cohesiveness, interdependence, give and take, willingness to acknowledge the superfluous and courage to introduce newness must all be present. And, there must be balance. While “A History” gives a unique juxtaposition of dance, video and the spoken word, the balance between the three elements was problematic.

    The piece started like gangbusters, with two amazing solos, first Jones and then Hauser followed. Right out of the gate, we were treated to a healthy portion of Miller’s unique serpentine physical vocabulary. But from that point forward, the live movement took a very obvious backseat to the other theatrical elements. Miller’s choreography was wonderful and Hauser and Jones’ ‘in person’ performance of it unmatched by any of the videos (some of which featured them in filmed dance and choreographic sequences). Admittedly, I must disclose that this observation also partly reflects a personal bias. I am not a fan of dance for film. It comes across as over produced and a little bit fake, especially when the possibility for live performance is right there. The combination of video interjections, textual scenes and phrasal captions kind of took over “A History” and did so at the expense of Miller’s stunning choreography. I’m not saying that the interdisciplinary elements should be eliminated, nor should the stage time of each be measured out like an exact science, but a better balance between the choreography, videography and scenework was and is necessary so that all three can shine.

    January 29th - Whether your first opening night or in the case of San Francisco Ballet, your eightieth, a premiere event is both magical and special. While some writers/critics may wince at such banal wording, when it comes to the precipice of a new season, such descriptors are without a doubt the correct choice. To kick-off the eightieth anniversary, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson has chosen a brilliant mixed repertory program choreographically spanning seventy years: Serge Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc”, Jerome Robbins’ “In The Night” and Wayne McGregor’s highly anticipated world premiere for SFB, “Borderlands”. By selecting and showcasing work choreographed in 1943, 1970 and 2013 respectively, Tomasson and the entire San Francisco Ballet company are paying homage to their history while simultaneously looking ahead to the next eighty years.

    As the curtain rose on Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc”, the entire cast (a total of thirty-seven dancers) was revealed in the form of an elegant life-size painting. After a few frozen moments, most dancers regally and calmly exited the stage leaving behind the first trio: Marie-Claire D’Lyse, Kristina Lind and Jennifer Stahl. Now alone, these three members of the corps de ballet began to dance the first movement of the “Suite”. The beginning trio was all about lightness and delicacy, providing a subtle taste of Bournonville flavor. Then, onto a completely disparate trio that was filled with bravura jumps and high extensions. Sasha DeSola took the third variation, which again worked with petit allegro, yet with a totally different approach. Instead of floating ballon of the first movement, here was precise, staccato, accented footwork. The following pas de cinq provided dramatic dynamics and a delightful brisé sequence across the floor on the diagonal. Sarah Van Patten took the melodramatic ‘cigarette’ vignette, Davit Karapetyan the sensual and gallant ‘mazurka’. Next, the pairing of Yuan Yuan Tan and Vito Mazzeo took the audience on an unforeseen journey: a duet that was eerie in one moment and tender in another - perhaps Lifar’s comment on the unpredictable and complicated nature of romantic love. A stunning visual display, this seventy-year-old ballet’s major accomplishment is its accurate treatment and true representation of the Suite: a choreographic and musical form that is meant to celebrate spectrum, variance and range.

    A study for three couples, Jerome Robbins’ “In The Night” illustrates how passion plays out in different types of relationships. Vanessa Zahorian and Ruben Martin took on youthful excitement; Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets reserved maturity and Lorena Feijoo and Pierre-François Vilanoba uncontrollable fire. In each pas de deux, the choreography reflected the specific ‘demeanor’ of the couple in question, yet, the common narrative thread held true – passion may not always look the same, but it is still passion.

    Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma” was a hit with San Francisco Ballet audiences. So the news that this superstar choreographer was going to create a new work on the San Francisco Ballet was met with quite the anticipatory buzz. Premiering in this opening night performance, “Borderlands” revisits McGregor’s box motif as evident by the large cube-like structure that served as the set. A contemporary work for twelve dancers accompanied by a techno-styled soundscape, the piece definitely contemplates the idea of boundaries. From a very literal perspective, the perimeter of the stage was transformed into the ‘waiting area’; dancers stood frozen and quiet as they awaited the beginning of their individual sequence. The middle space was reserved for the busy action; the constant dancing; the frenetic movement. More conceptually, “Borderlands” challenged all kinds of ballet boundaries and conventions. It was certainly the most avant-garde of the Program 1 offerings, and also the best rehearsed work of the evening, hands down. There were some delicious moments, including Sofiane Sylve’s superhuman contortionist developpé à la second. It was also wonderful to see Maria Kochetkova way out of her comfort zone. She always excels onstage, but here she really embodied McGregor’s movement style with a sublime depth of understanding. Having said that, for me, “Borderlands” was far too much like “Chroma”. The set design, costumes, music and choreography were so reminiscent of McGregor’s 2006 dance, almost making “Borderlands” something of a second installment or subsequent chapter. That might not be a bad thing, but I was definitely hoping for something different.

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