Dancers & Companies



Yerba Buena Center • San Francisco • March 12–28, 2010 • Reviewed by Rita Felciano

With Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance), choreographer Brenda Way offered audiences dainty needle pricks, while KT Nelson’s Labor of Love cut to the bone. For ODC’s spring season, the two premieres joined repertory works by the co-artistic directors, most notably, from 2009, Way’s In the Memory of the Forest and Nelson’s Grassland.


Taking her inspiration from a French version of Emily Post’s book on etiquette (which was probably outdated even when published in 1963), Way used a blessedly light touch for Waving, a modestly amusing foray into the world of socially imposed codes of behavior. Even Anne Zivolich’s unruly curls were pulled back into a proper chignon. Composer/singer Pamela Z collaged a lush score of vocalizations and readings from the French manual, including a litany of “should’s” that smartly complemented Way’s intricate choreography.

ODC’s intrepid dancers patiently rearranged themselves and each other into stiff-legged mannequins or alluring photo ops. Waving darkened as the men manipulated the acquiescent women in increasingly self-serving ways until a somnolent Vanessa Thiessen woke up and, at the end of an erotically abusive duet, knocked Jeremy Smith into the wings.

Just when you wondered where Way was going to take these depersonalized male/female encounters, she switched gears. Getting even is fair play, Waving suggested. A robust Yayoi Kambara stripped Aaron Perlstein to his skivvies. Then, armed with reams of paper, scissors, and tape, ODC’s women cut, draped, and glued the most fantastical garments on the men. Elizabeth Farotte adorned Corey Brady with a hoop skirt; Thiessen turned Smith into an angel. The results looked almost as good as those on “Project Runway.”

More emotionally involving was In the Memory of the Forest, a haunting evocation of a generation that faced exile from everything they knew. Based on Way’s memories of her Jewish mother-in-law, the choreography and David and Hi-Jin Hodge’s vernal video—which opened with images of the dancers cavorting in a sun-filled forest—suggested sweet nostalgia without a drop of sentimentality. Performing superbly throughout, Kambara and Smith shyly danced the young lovers, Zivolich and Daniel Santos a lustier version of them.

A physically aggressive take on relationship troubles, Nelson’s hyper-volatile Labor was set to Mozart’s ominous but wistful Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. The sound of the women dropping the men like cement bags set off struggles in which partners tried to get away and also hang on. Zivolich pinned down Smith’s feet and twisted around his legs as he tried to hop away. Quilet Rarang—who danced like a rocket about to explode—crawled away with Brady on top like a blanket about to suffocate her. The earth seemed to shake as these frantic citizens leapt, fell, scooted, rolled, flailed, and were stepped on. Dragging an inert Santos, Farrotte wore a look of merciless triumph. If this was war, Labor worked towards an armistice in respites of side-to-side waltz steps, quiet walks, or a hug freely given. Finally, the dancers shaped themselves into a wedge, at peace for the moment but ready to go.

A more benign volatility reigned in Nelson’s paradise of cohabitation she named Grassland. Egged on by Brazilian composer Marcelo Zarvos’ driving score, the dancers resembled pulsating life forms that mutated in the air, on the ground, and underwater. Though Grassland circled back to its opening allusion of nature’s cyclical awakening, the tip-toeing walks, overhead stretched arms, and upward glances proposed a dynamic verticality, perhaps a longing toward the light that streamed from above.


Carolyn Carlson

Théâtre National de Chaillot and the Louvre Museum

Paris, France

March 10–26, 2010

Reviewed by Karyn Bauer

Throughout March, Carolyn Carlson’s ambitious presentation of four works in two prestigious Parisian venues proved that at 67 she remains a master of her art. This San Francisco native is as iconic to improvisation as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Possessed by an intimate sense of movement, her mystic and physically powerful universe continues to inspire.

Carlson opened the performances at the Théâtre National de Chaillot with  Blue Lady (revisited), her emblematic 1983 solo performed for the first time by a man. When Finland’s Tero Saarinen donned Carlson’s shoes, hat, and dress, winnowing through the stages of a woman’s life, spectators wondered whether he was dancing Blue Lady or performing Carlson’s performance of the work. The confusion was intriguing.

Saarinen’s interpretation was at once unsettling in its similarities and completely new. Where Carlson’s ethereal extensions sparked with femininity, he appeared more grounded, more masculine, like her reflection in a warped mirror. Films of the original performance, projected periodically onto the backdrop, further enhanced this sharing of roles. At the show’s end, to the audience’s heartfelt applause, the two performed together in an unforgettably upbeat and dynamic improvised duo.

In a second program at the Chaillot, Carlson offered a hypnotizing short solo in the theater lobby, prior to the Parisian premiere of eau (water). In program notes, she wrote that she dances not for the eyes, but for the soul. As she weaved through a range of emotions, bringing herself and spectators into a trancelike state, that idea took on its full meaning.

Eau, for the Roubaix-based Ballet du Nord, which Carlson has directed since 2004, explored five aspects of water: primal, deep, violent, dirty, and pure. While the staging was dark and dramatic, sometimes lacking in clarity, the dancers were precise and intense. They evoked sensations from harmony and pleasure to suffocation and agony. When they shook and convulsed, they were bursting with poetry.

Petrified Movement brought dancers of the Junior Ballet of Paris and Ballet du Nord to the monumental sculpture rooms of the Louvre. A drumming score hummed as the public wandered through the galleries. As if incarnating their thoughts in slow motion, the dancers breathed life into echoing halls, creating an otherwordly conversation. With these performances, Carlson affirmed once again her ongoing love affair with Paris.


Dance Salad

Wortham Center, Cullen Theater

Houston, TX

April 1–3, 2010

Reviewed by Wendy Perron

Dance Salad offered a tantalizing array of mostly European companies that we rarely see in the United States.

The festival reached a poetic peak with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Loin, performed by Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève. In the last of three excerpts, one man dragged two others who were limp but alive. Two more joined, and finally the one in charge—a Mother Courage figure—was hoisted aloft. He ended standing tall with the others nested below like a family that has seen all sides of a war.

Another high point was Christian Spuck’s The Return of Ulysses (adapted for the festival), danced with bite by seven men and one woman from the Royal Ballet of Flanders. Eva Dewaele, as the reluctant Penelope, kept looking offstage right, waiting for Ulysses to come home, while the men tried to seduce her, mount her, tire her out. She emerged a hero—and so did Spuck for his witty and bold choreography.

Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk’s luscious dancing lent Lightfoot/Leon’s Softly As I Leave You a richly melancholy tone. She began thrashing in a box, they found each other, he ended inside the box alone. Along the way you came to admire how they brushed past each other and somehow helped each other become themselves.

Admirable too was Mark Godden’s Miroirs for Mexico’s Compañía Nacional de Danza. In three excerpts, serene symmetrical moves eventually—haiku-like—resolved into surprising asymmetrical images.

The extravagantly tall Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, guesting from Dresden SemperOper Ballet, and lithe Esteban Berlanga of English National Ballet took turns watching each other dance in David Dawson’s Faun(e). Androgynous, sensual, stretching like taffy, they performed what was more like two overlapping solos than a duet.

Leticia Oliveira of Texas Ballet Theater shone in Ben Stevenson’s rhapsodic From the Corner, Pas de Deux, in which she and Carl Coomer circled one another with caresses and swirling lifts. Just the elegant way she turned her head revealed her to be a ballerina of the first order.

Netherlands Dance Theater contributed a stealthy, noirish excerpt of Kylián’s Toss of a Dice that held one’s attention completely. Lesley Telford and Medhi Walerski performed it with quiet intensity.

Companies from Spain, Hungary, France, and Norway presented less than stellar excerpts. Perhaps they would have fared better had they done whole pieces. Taken out of context, excerpts don’t always work. But whatever the shortcomings as seen by this viewer (who was a guest of Dance Salad), the level of dancing never dipped below excellent.

Pictured: Brenda Way's Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance). Photo by Steve diBartolomeo, courtesy ODC

Ashley Wallen's choreography brought The Greatest Showman to life. (Photo by Niko Tavernise, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)

The 2018 Oscar noms are here. Which is fun and all; we'll never not get excited about a night of glitz and glamor and, when we're lucky, pretty great dancing. But we'd be a heck of a lot more excited if the Academy Awards included a Best Choreography category. And really—why don't they?

Last year, La La Land's Oscars domination (FOURTEEN nominations) made the fact that Mandy Moore couldn't be recognized for her fantastic choreo—a huge, indisputable part of the film's success—seem especially cruel. This year, it feels weird not to recognize the dance contributions of Ashley Wallen (The Greatest Showman), Anthony Van Laast (Beauty and the Beast), and Aurélie Dupont (Leap!), to name just a few.

Read the full story at

Photo by Nicol Vizioli, Courtesy 14–18 NOW

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at

Jim Lafferty for Pointe

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Sport science strategies can get you in the right headspace. Photo by Thinkstock

Ideally, a warm-up should be more than just a physical preparation to dance. Because if you want to unlock your full potential, you need to get in the right headspace. "Your mentality is going to dictate which version of you comes out on any given day," says performance psychologist Dr. Jonathan Fader, who serves as director of mental conditioning for the New York Giants football team. These top strategies from the sports world can help you reach the state of mind that will serve you best.

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Dance Theatre of Harlem School students & ballet master Keith Saunders. Photo by Joseph Rodman, courtesy DTH

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Courtesy India Bolds

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Geologic Moments in rehearsal. PC Barry Gans

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