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San Francisco & Bay Area Roundup

September 2012

by Heather Desaulniers

• Zaccho Dance Theatre - “Sailing Away”
   San Francisco
• Zhukov Dance Theatre - PRODUCT 05: Coin/c/dance
   Z Space, San Francisco

September 13th - Last week, San Francisco’s Union Square was its usual bustling self; tourists, shoppers and workers all going about their typical routine. Yet, each afternoon between September 13th and 16th Market Street was the site of much more than daily activities, errands or sight-seeing. It became a place where art and life merged and intersected as Zaccho Dance Theatre re-staged their site-specific, mobile dance theater work: 2010’s “Sailing Away”.

Starting at Market & Powell and traveling down to Battery, eight performers brought “San Francisco’s Black Exodus of 1858” to life, depicting a time more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Faced with hostile threats and increasing racial discrimination, African American citizens departed San Francisco in search of peace, unencumbered prosperity and true freedom. In sharing this historic event, choreographer Joanna Haigood has managed to successfully fuse narrative strength and post-modern sensibilities. Not many dancemakers can accomplish this lofty goal and with “Sailing Away”, Haigood has proven herself once again as an artistic tour-de-force.

“Sailing Away” begins with a tableau: eight performers (seven dressed in period costume, one in modern attire) frozen as if they are sitting for a portrait. Then, one by one, they break their position and begin to slowly amble down Market Street. Each cast member had a specific trajectory over the seven blocks: some walked ahead while others stopped in different locations to perform solos, duets or trios before continuing their journey. In addition, there were also moments on the route where the entire group came back together to form picture vignettes.

Despite the different configurations and physical vocabulary in the beginning of the work, a common serenity and awareness was present in everyone’s gait. No one was in any hurry, rather, each dancer grasped every possible opportunity to take in their surroundings. Then, as the group got closer to the end of their path, the movement and demeanor changed. The forward propulsion took on more urgency, characterized by wild spinning lifts and desperate chaîné turns. One man, who carried a ship’s anchor throughout the dance, stopped to reveal a violent, tenacious solo variation. Full of shaking, clenched fists, he seemed to be silently screaming, “why?”. “Sailing Away’s” venture down Market Street was a complex one: deliberate and intentional yet labored and haunted at the same time.

Alongside the costuming and props, Haigood used structural choreographic tools to highlight the narrative theme. A dynamic combination of solos and group sequences facilitated the story from both collective and individual perspectives. This was clearly happening to a group of people, yet within group, it was affecting each individual in very unique and personal ways.

“Sailing Away” also required active participation from its audience. Not only did we follow the eight performers for the length of the piece, but we also chose whether to stop and watch one dance, or to keep going onto what was happening ahead. Your decisions, as a viewer, composed the piece for you: what you saw, what you missed, who you watched and who you ignored. “Sailing Away” is not for the passive watcher; Haigood and Zaccho Dance Theatre have created a choreographic experience that demands a culpable, responsible observer.

September 27th - In the past year or so, much of the modern dance I’ve seen in the San Francisco/Bay Area has had a large narrative component. This is not a good thing or a bad thing; it is simply a common thread that I have witnessed. So, it was a wonderful change of pace to attend a performance where narrative connotations certainly existed but formal considerations were given an esteemed place of prominence. Zhukov Dance Theatre’s fifth home season at San Francisco’s Z Space accomplished this delicate balance with “Coin/c/dance”; a beautiful etude of choreographic experimentation. Here, Artistic Director Yuri Zhukov (in collaboration with his company of seven dancers) examined, deconstructed and applied the ideas of randomness and circumstance to modern dance vocabulary. And through the fascinating one-hour structural study, Zhukov showed how purposeful choice and random occurrence can shape, change and create choreographic dynamics.

The beginning was a collection of full-company cluster sequences that explored every corner of the stage space. Some ‘follow-the-leader’ style phrases emerged where one dancer initiated a movement that some or all of the others would then assume. From the very start, Zhukov’s revelatory dynamic results were evident. As the performers cycled through this initial introduction, differing speeds and styles of articulation took over, and a simple floor roll was suddenly part of a spectrum - varied characteristics and distinct features. In the callisthenic-type motif that followed, a similar dynamism transpired. When the jumpy, buoyant segment was carried out from beginning to end, it had a perky airiness, but when single movements from the phrase were isolated, they took on a slow, almost haunting quality.

In addition, Zhukov experimented with the juxtaposition of stage design and choreographic dynamics. The middle section of “Coin/c/dance” featured two men who oscillated between dancing and manning a rolling shin-buster - as one performed a solo variation, the other moved the light around the space. The effect was stunning. There were times when the placement of the light amplified a single arm swing, making it animalistic, aggressive and sexy. Or, an upper body circular port de bras was transformed from demure to seductive. It was almost as if Zhukov had created and envisioned a pas de trois between three performers – the two male soloists and the mobile light source itself.

I do believe that the final fifteen minutes of “Coin/c/dance” was misplaced. About three-quarters of the way through the piece, a very dramatic scene unfolded – every dancer was onstage, performing vibrant, diverse choreographic sequences, all ending in a sudden blackout. I, and I would guess others in the audience, thought this was the thrilling finale, but surprisingly, there was more to come. This group segment seemed a perfect and logical stopping point; gorgeous, well-timed and so, so strong. In comparison, the material that followed was unfortunately, a bit of a let-down. Perhaps a re-ordering of the dance might be something to consider.

The formal and structural nature of Zhukov Dance Theatre’s “Coin/c/dance” also evoked crucial theatrical and compositional questions. Was the entire piece completely choreographed and planned out? Were there some moments that truly happened by chance or by accident? Were we seeing real-time reactions at play? These questions are incredibly important in the modern dance scene. So much so that I was tempted to go back and see “Coin/c/dance” again, compare the two viewings and determine if they were the same. Kudos to Zhukov Dance Theatre for bringing the choreographic process back to the stages of San Francisco.

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