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San Francisco & Bay Area Roundup

March 2013

by Heather Desaulniers

  • San Francisco Ballet - Program 3
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Trisha Brown Dance Company, presented by Cal Performance
    Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
  • Labayen Dance/SF
    Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco

March 8th - San Francisco Ballet is a world class company, known for its technical breadth, choreographic risk-taking and creative depth. Their leader, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, is not only a wonderful choreographer in his own right but also a master of repertory selection, choosing works that reflect SFB’s multi-genre fluency – traditional, romantic, neo-classical and contemporary. Program three’s offerings were an ode to this last category; a symphony of contemporary work featuring Ashley Page’s “Guide to Strange Places”, Mark Morris’ “Beaux” and Yuri Possokhov’s world premiere of “The Rite of Spring”.

Program three opened with the triumphant return of one of last year’s hits: Ashley Page’s “Guide to Strange Places”, a hybrid of neo-classical and contemporary ballet set to John Adams’ score of the same name. In this largely abstract work, Page (currently the Artistic Director of the Scottish Ballet) divides a cast of eighteen into four principal couples, two featured couples and a corps of six. There were a few Balanchinian moments, including Page’s use of second position throughout the many pas de deuxs and his commitment to intricate, fast footwork (one prime example being Vitor Luiz’s triple pirouette, temps de cuisse combination). Throughout the non-stop movement, the ideas of exactness, precision, decisiveness and drama held true but the real message of Page’s ballet is evidenced by his exploration of transitory space. “Guide To Strange Places” is to ballet what a literature review is in academic circles; a physical inventory of the entire oeuvre where traditional syntax continuously met with avant-garde modern movement. And the key to bringing these two styles together in one cohesive work lies in their intersection. Perhaps the “Strange Places” that Page is discovering in this dance are in fact the complex transitions; the luxurious crossroads between the old and the new.

Mark Morris is a choreographic favorite at San Francisco Ballet and his “Beaux”, (which enjoyed its world premiere last year) was yet another treat from this wizard of neo-classicism and modern choreography. In this work for nine men, Morris once again crafts the movement and music into a stunning artistic interplay. The imaginative choreographic representation of the score never ceases to amaze and delight the senses, though the real achievement of “Beaux” is in its quiet elegance. With nine men dancing and jumping all over the stage, you might expect a bunch of noise. But this was literally one of the quietest ballets I have ever seen, with the exception of three purposeful stomps that Morris had built into the choreography. And as expected with a Morris creation, there is also just the right dose of whimsy. In this dance, that joie de vivre was enhanced by the rainbow camouflage backdrop and matching unitards, both designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

The final piece of the evening was the much anticipated world premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s “The Rite of Spring”. With it being almost exactly one hundred years since the curtain rose on the first performance of “The Rite of Spring” (Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in April 1913), the War Memorial Opera House was abuzz with excitement, wondering how this historic and tragic ballet would be re-envisioned. Possokhov did not disappoint. His choreography was primal and tangled, full of contorted poses, ample flexed feet and tortured lifts with bent knees and turned-in extensions. The scenic design (by Benjamin Pierce) was ominous, almost Graham-esque. And Dores Andre, as the sacrifice, transcended the moment – with her acting ability, stage presence and technical acumen, her portrayal was heartbreaking and enraging at the same time. You wanted to save her and prevent the pain that she knew was coming.

March 15th - Over the past few months, Berkeley has been home to some significant moments in dance history. First came Anna Halprin’s final restaging of “Parades and Changes” at BAM/PFA and then, Trisha Brown Dance Company’s one-night engagement at Cal Performances. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, this single performance was the final time that the Bay Area will see any new dances from this post-modern pioneer. Brown, one of the more famous graduates of the Judson Dance Theater, has decided to hang up her choreographic hat. The company will live on with a collaborative leadership team (Brown as Founding Artistic Director; Carolyn Lucas and Diane Madden as Associate Artistic Directors) but Brown will not be creating any new pieces. And so with this program – “Les Yeux et l’âme” (2011), “Newark (Niweweorce)” (1987) and “I’m going to toss my arms-if you catch them they’re yours” (2011) - two of her final works were unveiled to the Berkeley audience.

The Bay Area premiere of 2011’s “Les Yeux et l’âme” was by far the highlight of the evening; a thorough examination of merging, intertwining and meshing. A polyphonic symphony for the senses, every element was introduced with its own independent purpose and equal validity: the abstract backdrop, the Baroque-style music and of course, the modern choreography. Then, these ideas and aspects were juxtaposed against each other, which led to a bold, rich and elegant interdependence. The movement was very dance-y (quite different from Brown’s early Judson days); fluid and organic; expansive and stately. With a cast of eight, partnering took on a major role, but the pas de deuxs weren’t about creating pictures, improving balance or facilitating the impossible. Instead, Brown used these duets to see what can organically arise when two bodies are threaded together in space.

Solid grey unitards, primary-colored moving scrims and deliberate, mechanical choreography combined together for Brown’s “Newark (Niweweorce)”. This 1987 composition required intense focus, utmost concentration and incredible spatial awareness, especially from the two male soloists. Through much of the dance, they were engaged in a long unison sequence, despite the fact that they could rarely see each other and did not have many sound cues to rely upon. It was really quite a feat that these two dancers managed to stay completely in sync under such difficult circumstances and with Brown’s challenging choreography (my favorite movement being the side tilt that led into an airplane turn). But overshadowing the whole piece was an annoying soundscore of varying alarm blasts; some short, some long. I think it’s fair to say that if “Les Yeux et l’âme was a symphony for the senses, “Newark (Niweweorce)” was definitely an assault on them, or at least the auditory ones.

Closing the program was the West Coast premiere of Brown’s “I’m going to toss my arms-if you catch them they’re yours” from 2011. The opening visual was really gorgeous – a bare-bones stage, no wings, a collection of large whirling fans upstage left, and the fully assembled cast dressed in billowy white. Immediately, the dancers began their first choreographic sequence amidst these fans: a slow, careful meditative practice, that had an almost angelic quality (which I’m sure was informed by the flowing white costumes). As the piece progressed, the dancers moved away from the fans and began to shed their outer layer, proceeding through the choreography in various forms of undress. And by the end, the women were in simple leotards and the men, boxer briefs. Was “I’m going to toss my arms-if you catch them they’re yours” about breaking free from constraint? Exposing vulnerability? Was Brown commenting on being stripped down and completely deconstructed? Or perhaps it was none of those ideas and was just a lengthy abstract work. Weeks later, I’m still a little unsure.

Change is inevitable; time marches on and the artistic landscape evolves. Trisha Brown Dance Company understands this truth and is committed to valuing both the past and the future. In the years to come, there will be new dances by different choreographers but Brown’s legacy and work will always be a part of the canvas.

March 16th - Labayen Dance/SF is known for diverse modern dance programs and their recent engagement at Dance Mission was no exception. Led by Artistic Director Enrico Labayen, the performance I saw featured eight works by five different choreographers, spanning a broad range of modern dance styles and genres. There was aerial dance, pointe work, dance theater, contemporary ballet, and much more. This eighteenth anniversary season was a testament to the dedication, commitment, and talent of this unique San Francisco dance company.

Act I hit the ground running with the world premiere of Labayen’s “Tears”. A contemporary work that combined several different theatrical aspects, the dance had an ‘otherworldly’ meditative feel, creating a liturgical aura and indicating the porous boundaries of existence. Sandrine Cassini, who danced the lead role, aptly captured this narrative with her seamless pointe work – she moved so effortlessly from flat to demi-pointe to full extension. “Nourishment”, a delightful pas de deux by choreographer Laura Bernasconi for her herself and Ismael Acosta, was seductively humorous. The exemplary and creative partnering had some amazing feats, including one balance where the tiny Bernasconi balanced Acosta’s full body on her feet, which, by the way, have a demi-pointe to die for. Victor Talledos created a dramatic solo for dancer Leda Pennell - “Desde lo Mas Profundo del Corazon Hasta el Limite de la Razon”. Performed along the diagonal, from upstage right to downstage left, complete abandon was the name of the game. While the intent/goal was very clear, unfortunately, the wild movement didn’t read terribly well. Sandrine Cassini’s “Treize”, a duet for herself and Victor Talledos, contained elements of both contemporary and neo-classical ballet, very Kylián-esque. Cassini paid special attention to how the music and the movement fit together (a typical neo-classical convention), and thus marked the highs and lows of the Chopin and Radiohead recordings with appropriately matched choreography. Daiane Lopes da Silva’s “Chrysalis” closed the first half of this dynamic evening. A foray into dance theater, the farcical piece began with a lengthy prelude – the story of a woman and her toy dog. Dance theater is a tough genre and is about much more than absurdity and randomness. An underlying cohesiveness must pull all the elements together and though it certainly had its share of funny moments, “Chrysalis” was missing this imperative component.

Labayen’s “Awit Ng Pag-Ibig (Love Songs)” opened the second Act with an immediate comment on extremes - a violent beginning was underscored by beautiful music; a complicated personal story included moments of inner joy. Talledos’ “Desolation” was another work that teetered ‘on the edge’ of something explosive. And in true Labayen Dance/SF form, the eighteenth anniversary program concluded with a “Rite of Spring” as only Enrico Labayen could have envisioned, placing the historic ballet in the context of a baseball game. This was a genius move. If you think about the story, it does seem to be a game where some win and others really, really lose. And with this new approach to the narrative, issues of training, prep and how well you play the game become part of the experience.

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