San Francisco International Arts Festival

September 4, 2003

San Francisco International Arts Festival

September 4-21, 2003
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

San Francisco, California

Reviewed by Rita Felciano

The first San Francisco International Arts Festival presented San Francisco Bay Area premieres by companies who draw on traditional expressions to create contemporary work. Although sometimes choreography had to take a back seat to brilliant dancing, Quasar Dance Company from Brazil, Akram Khan from Great Britain, and Salia Ni Seidou from Burkina Faso could not have given a more propitious birth to this young festival.

An undisputed highlight was the darkly luminescent Kaash (If), brought to life by Khan’s quintet of splendidly trained dancers (Eulalia Ayguarde, Khan, Moya Michael, Inn Pang Ooi and Shanell Winlock). Supporting them was a shimmering Mark Rothko-like set by Anish Kapoor, a color-drenched lighting scheme by Aideen Malone and a complexly layered score by Nitin Sawhney, which was partially based on excerpts of John Oswald’s string quartet Spectre.

Though grounded apparently in Hindu mythology and using numeric equivalents to the gods and their attributes, more than anything Kaash communicated order within volatility. With its mostly a terre movement, the one jump more than three inches high struck like a thunderbolt?the work’s precisely calibrated kathak turns, its deep lunges, the crystalline hands, and supersonic arm twirls seemed to explore mathematical permutations of the number five. But this was geometry made manifest in dancers who walked, hurled, and dove into horizontals, verticals, diagonals and staggered lines with absolute abandon and total control.

Choreographically straightforward, the central section was Kaash’s most daring. In silence and against pulsating blackness, Khan stepped close to a dancer whose gaze he repeatedly shielded with his hand. This simple gesture protected her from a slithering Winclock who, like a creature from the inchoate, worked her way slowly across the stage. The scene looked like a standoff?repose and chaos held each other in equilibrium. Time was suspended.

Explosive physicality, its speed, and attacks echoing capoeira and other martial arts? proved to be the Quasar company’s most engaging attribute. Though astoundingly well performed by its dancer athletes (Gica Alioto, LavÌnia Bizzotto, James Nunes, Gleison Vigne, Daniel Calvet, Fernanda Prata and Vanessa Macedo) Lend Me Your Eyes Empresta-me Teus Olhos)’s Lend Me was also too bifurcated to be completely convincing.

Performing to mostly percussive music, before video images and suspended panels of Plexiglas, Lend Me’s dancers went at hair-raising hurls, flips, and drops with the fierceness of survivalists and the discipline of a drill team. The work suggested two opposing ways of living, one in the anonymity of a modern city, the other within a supportive community. Stylized black and white videos of individuals lost in an urban crowd contrasted with a color documentary from a senior settlement. Not surprisingly maybe, the urban athleticism rode on an undercurrent of violence. Dancers lashed out, threw themselves to the floor, curled up in agony. Yet they did so with control, often in unison, imposing strict shapes on what looked like spontaneous outbursts.

Lend Me’s
second half was softer. Henrique Rodovalho choreographed ballroom dance moves, paired these turbulent dancers into couples, had them squabble and joke just like the elders on the video. The physicality of a tension-filled duet became as lyrical as it was daring. A languidly stretchy solo echoed a narrator’s fear of death. The dancer appeared to wilt in front of our eyes.

Salia Ni Seydou’s imagistic Figninto (The Blind Eye) offered a tantalizing vision of African movement within a quasi-narrative context. Figninto described human isolation, hinting at a story of two men whose bodies still talked a common language but who were no longer able to reach one another. Though meandering and using gestures of blindness a little too obviously, these powerfully expressive dancers (Seydou Boro, Ousseni Sako, and Salia Sanou) enacted a haunting tale of broken connections. The choreography layered dramatic gesture, individualized characterization, and theatrical confrontation onto African unisons, polyrhythms, and flowing use of the torso. Boro’s blind man, trying to find his way (lighting by Madjid Hakimi), shaking off his friend, looked most lost in a tiny phrase of voguing. Sanou’s incessant flailings and falls, a man’s visceral rebellion against his fate, was relieved only once, by the touch of a hand. Leaving his desperate friend behind, Sanou found peace submitting himself to the sand?earth and time?raining down on him. Strikingly, Figninto broke the African unity of dance and music. Much of the piece was performed in silence. Caught up within themselves, the dancers could no longer hear the musicians who often seemed to respond to the dancers’ body rhythms, but could no longer generate them.