Becoming an artistic director can be a lot more complicated than it may seem. Dance Magazine spoke with three newly minted leaders, at the beginning and then again at the end of their first seasons as artistic directors of long-running ballet companies.
30 years of Alonzo King's challenge to dancers
Keelan Whitmore in a costume by Robert Rosenwasser, Photo: RJ Muna, courtesy Lines
“If you are vulnerable, honest, and respond like a tuning fork, then we are kin. I surrender, and I see you. It’s quickly obvious who will take their ‘clothes’ off,” Alonzo King answers a UC Irvine student’s question on what he looks for in a dancer. The occasion was a Q&A last fall after a preview showing of a work that King was choreographing for the combined forces of Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. The yet unnamed piece will receive its world premiere on February 1 and 2 at Cal Performances.
For King, whose company celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, telling dancers to take their clothes off—he also talks about “peeling the layers of the onion”—is a way of asking them to strip themselves of what he calls “false identities.” “I want to see you, not your race, gender, technique, or occupation,” he tells them.
In his 30-year career King has made 95 dances for his own group and more than two dozen commissioned ones for other companies, including the Royal Swedish Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, Ballett Frankfurt, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. As an African-American artistic director of a one-choreographer ballet company with a multiracial ensemble, King occupies a singular position in American dance. As a thinker about ballet in terms of a multifaceted, scientific language and dance as something akin to meditative practice, he is unique.
Asked what he has learned during the last three decades, he doesn’t hesitate: “I learned more that things have to proceed from the inside out. I knew that early; and that I was interested in what was behind appearances, not how it looked, but its manner of operation.”
Alonzo King, Photo: RJ Muna, Courtesy Lines
When he was 8 or 10, while accompanying his father (Slater King, a civil rights leader) on a business trip to New York, Alonzo saw his first ballet. “Afterwards,” says King, “he asked me how I had liked it. I was enraptured and told him that the dancer in the front didn’t have it, but another farther back really did. I also told him what didn’t work and how it could be improved. He just looked at me and said that I really was something.”
But did he really know and why did he, even at that age? “Yes,” King affirms. “Inside I did know. I think I did know because I love dancers. I always had that. At the bottom line, I like to see good dancing.”
Now he sees good dancing every day. The 12 members of his troupe are exquisite artists and they often rehearse more than one project at a time.
Caroline Rocher has been a company member since 2007. Fearless yet elegant with a silken authority to her phrasing, she was a “25 to Watch” in 2001. “Alonzo makes you work more with ideas than steps,” says Rocher. “You have to find the intention behind the steps; that was very different for me,” she recalls. Trained in France and at The Ailey School, Rocher performed with both American (Dance Theatre of Harlem) and European companies (Lyon Opera and Bavarian State Ballet). Encountering King’s work at DTH, she was intrigued enough to think about joining LINES one day. “I was 30, and I was looking for a change,” she says. “I wanted to work in a more intimate environment, to have a more one-to-one relationship with a choreographer.”
Though becoming a LINES dancer has been “deeply satisfying,” it has not always been easy. King’s method is to ask the dancers to dig a movement’s impetus out of themselves and then to stretch/pull/yank it to the extreme of where it can go. “I really, really wanted to be there,” Rocher remembers, but “Alonzo’s ideas often are difficult, so you just have to keep trying. Now, I feel more comfortable with his way of working, though I still have a long way to go.”
Pushing dancers towards becoming more themselves, both as artists and as human beings, is one of King’s great gifts to the art. It’s also what Glenn Edgerton, artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, saw in King when, rather serendipitously, he watched him rehearse LINES in 2009. “We were doing a summer intensive [in San Francisco] in the studio next to him, and he invited me in,” Edgerton recalls. “Though I had known his choreography for years, I was enthralled with the way he was working. He inspired the dancers to want to go further, to investigate more deeply the many different levels that movement can take you.” Edgerton wanted his dancers in Chicago to have that same experience even though he knew that their companies were quite different. “His dancers are more elongated and neoclassical while mine are more grounded.”
After King set his 2000 Ailey commission Following the Subtle Current Upstream on Hubbard in 2011, the two men started to talk about a possible collaboration. Edgerton wanted every one of his 18 dancers involved. King, who choreographs chains of small group sequences that flow into each other, had his doubts. He remembers telling Edgerton, “But that’s not who I am.” At the same time, however, he was intrigued by the challenge. “I said to myself, if you have the opportunity to be uncomfortable—which is what I always tell my dancers—take it.”
In September after three weeks of working in California, the two troupes clearly had found a common ground, a common impulse for movement. The result at Irvine, unfinished as it was, showed King as having challenged himself to move larger groups onstage—without losing the complexity of the more intimate choreography that he values so highly.
When choreographing for his own dancers, King has always reached far and wide for his musical choices. His company has performed to jazz (Jason Moran, Pharoah Sanders, Coleman Hawkins), world music (Zakir Hussain, Astor Piazzolla, Mickey Hart, El Hamideen, Russian liturgical chants), and European classical scores, both contemporary and historical. King’s diverse view of ballet is popular in Europe, where he tours annually, most recently last November on a month-long engagement to 11 cities.
Caroline Rocher in Scheherazade, Photo: RJ Muna, Courtesy Lines
In terms of design, Robert Rosenwasser (costumes, light) and Axel Morgenthaler (light) have given LINES its distinct look of luminosity and tensile strength. Substantial physical sets, perhaps for financial reasons, have been relatively rare.
But two years ago King took the plunge and commissioned local architect Christopher Haas to create two sets for Triangle of the Squinches. Though monumental in size, the pieces are also portable enough—one is made of rubberized strings, the other of layered cardboard—for a company that tours 14 to 17 weeks per year. Perhaps most noteworthy was King’s decision to have his dancers interact with the two sculptures, suggesting a dynamic relationship between inert material and the human body.
“Where does the idea come from that objects are inanimate?” King asks. “When a primitive holds a talisman, that is real to him. We know from science that everything is just different vibrations. Skyscrapers, igloos, teepees, a hill in a landscape have vibrations. It’s always a pas de deux with the aim to become one. Take a light bulb. It becomes what it is because of the energy that goes into it.”
The light bulb King refers to plays a major role in his most recent creation, Constellation, premiered last fall at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Inspired by Jim Campbell’s “Exploded View,” an installation at SFMOMA, King asked Campbell to design a set—from light bulbs. The dancers performed against and through a curtain of globes and used some as playful accoutrements on their bodies.
Looking forward to rehearsing his dancers in this latest piece and thinking back on the last three decades, King says he is full of gratitude to all the artists he has worked with. He might be thinking about the Baaka Nzamba Lela people from Cameroon (with whom he worked in 2001) or the Shaolin monks from China (with whom he collaborated in 2007). Or he might be thinking of all the extraordinary dancers who have passed through LINES and have been changed by their work together, like Drew Jacoby (now dancing with Nederlands Dans Theater), John Michael Schert (with Trey McIntyre Project), and Prince Credell (with Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève). The stream of new dancers has allowed him, as he says, to keep renewing himself.
Rita Felciano is the critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and also writes for www.danceviewtimes.com.
Dance Mission Theatre, San Francisco, CA
Laney College, Oakland, CA
April 18–29, 2012
Performances reviewed: Apr. 20 & 29
San Francisco’s CubaCaribe Festival, in its eighth year, has become a mini ethnic dance event, celebrating the subcultures of the African Diaspora from Peru to Brazil, Puerto Rico to Cuba. This year’s appropriately named “Poder Popolar” (Popular Power) offered glimpses of dance that might be found in clubs, community halls, town plazas, or rituals. Sometimes the popular origins of these richly varied dances floated on the surface; at other times, original impulses had been distilled into sophisticated theatrical expressions.
The first weekend focused on a potpourri of dance companies and styles; the second week offered choreography by the festival’s artistic director Ramon Ramos Alayo, who had trained in folkloric as well as modern dance in Cuba.
Despite clear differences, these dances overlap in many ways, not so much in the specifics but in the common ground that has nurtured them. The festival showcased work that made generous use of the whole body an favored communal over individual expression.
The sense of women celebrating power and conviviality wafted through the first week’s program with a proto-feminist perfume. Cunamacue’s trio of women, in jaunty straw hats, opened the two-week run with the Afro-Peruvian Zamacuaeca, sometimes a courting dance, here an exuberant celebration of the female pelvis with a kerchiefs tied around the hips to outline its shape. A sextet of Las Que Son’s women delighted the audience in a takeoff on mid-century cabaret dancing, sexily partnering each other and red chairs. Attaching a sequined half-skirt to one leg of a pair of shorts, however, made for odd-looking costumes.
Also going back to gentler times in Cuba was Las Puras Dance Company, whose women performers ranged from highly proficient to very good social dancers. Theirs was a high-spirited MamboCha which, despite its simple linear pattern, called for rhythmic acuity and an ability to twirl silver canes. The Arenas Dance Company’s Ciclo Palo Makuto was a celebratory dance whose relaxed use of space also included sharply individualized solos. Two athletic men periodically were invited for erotic encounters, only to be sent on their way.
The program also offered traces of narratives. The Afro-Brazilian Aguas de Oxalà, inspired by Candomblé practices, had a group of white-clad women with rhythmically flowing torsos clean the ground to welcome and embrace a father figure—a bent-over older man with a younger companion. Among the darkest dances were Grupo Experimental’s Masun, which was followed by the fierce, chaotic fire dance, Petro. In Masun, a sunglasses-wearing Gede, a god of the underworld, awakened ghoulish-looking zombies for an aggressively erotic dance, apparently intended to encourage procreation.
Uncomplicated emotions, intricately choreographed, came by way of a suite of bomba dancing from Puerto Rico’s Aguilera, perhaps a festival favorite. In a delicious rueda to salsa music from Rueda Con Ritmo, two men simultaneously partnered up to three women. Despite its steadily accelerating changes, the dance remained pristine, lacily intricate, and so much fun to watch.
A week later, the Alayo Dance Company ended the festival with the ambitious Oil and Water, inspired by the BP oil spill. Alayo shaped this dramatic (but only partially cogent) piece in terms of strong female Orisha dances combined with weighty, rather old-fashioned modern dance. You absolutely believed that this fierce Yemaya’s powerful shoulders and arms and huge spiraling turns (belonging to Susanna Arenas Pedroso) could churn up whole oceans. Shelly Davis and Alain Soto, as the new man and woman, needed more time to effectively realize the overload of sculptural configurations that the choreography demanded. The excellent live music, particularly from lead singer Yagbe Onilu and a trio of women, also outstripped the quality of Alayo’s overly simplistic visual design.
Photo by Nathan Rappaport, courtesy CubaCaribe. Susana Arenas of Arenas Dance Company.
Joanna Haigood finds inspiration in African American history.
Matthew Wickett and Raissa Simpson in Haigood’s The Monkey and the Devil. Photo by Walter Kitundu, Courtesy Zaccho.
To mark Black History Month, we decided to focus on a choreographer who has been inspired by the history of African Americans: the extraordinary Joanna Haigood. Known for her daring and provocative site-specific works, she has followed her interest in the heritage that she unearthed during some of those projects. Haigood also teaches in the Bay area and directs a youth company in aerial work.
Hunched over with knees to their chins, four male dancers precariously balance themselves on top of a stick house that looks as if a child had drawn it. They align their bodies with the structure’s roof, its color matching that of jumpsuits for the 718 prisoners on California’s death row—the most of any state in the nation. The dancers, members of San Francisco’s Zaccho Dance Theatre, couldn’t be more different from each other. Byb Chanel Bibene incorporates traditions from his native Republic of the Congo into a contemporary style; Fawole is a modern dancer working towards a Ph.D.; Travis Rowland was a competitive gymnast; and Michael Velez teaches a fusion of modern and funk at LINES BFA. But slowly, as the men unfold their torsos and reach for each others’ arms, they develop a common bond.
It’s late November and Zaccho artistic director Joanna Haigood is rehearsing Dying While Black and Brown, a commission by the Equal Justice Society, which is fighting to have the death penalty overturned in California and elsewhere. The piece, which premiered in December in San Francisco, investigates the death penalty’s disproportionate impact on men of color.
Dying is but the latest of Haigood’s explorations into African American history. The process started in the mid-90s in preparation for her magnificent Invisible Wings, the site-specific work that was inspired by Jacob’s Pillow’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad. (A beautiful dancer with a poetic presence, Haigood herself gave a haunting performance in this epic piece.)
Dying just may be the most emotionally disturbing piece Haigood has created yet. “I have to restrict myself,” she says during a break. “The material is so devastating.”
The first rehearsal of Dying didn’t quite turn out as planned. Haigood asked the dancers about their personal experiences with the penal system. One of them had been unjustly arrested and badly treated in jail. Another had an older brother in and out of prison. Then Haigood showed a documentary on the death penalty’s impact—including on those charged with carrying it out. At the end of the presentation, everyone was so emotionally drained that Haigood just offered the dancers tea and sent them home.
Yet a week later the men were fully engaged in giving the distressing material choreographic shape. The process is a collaborative one. “Joanna gives us suggestions and images and we work out the details,” says Rowland. “She refines what we do and makes the final decision.”
Working on Dying is harrowing—and not just emotionally. Rowland finds himself repeatedly going back into his gymnastics training. Balancing precariously on what serves as a parapet, the dancers stretch limbs into the void and pull and yank at each other until the structure’s foundation shakes as though from an earthquake. The men drop from above with their full body weight, hitting the floor like sandbags, only to climb up and fall again and again.
Yet Dying also shines with a weird beauty when the quartet engages in a stately roundelay. They take turns engaging in some kind of communal ritual in this confined space that is both home and cage.
For much of her career, Haigood’s tributes to those who have gone before us—whether they be soldiers, factory laborers, or dockworkers—have involved physical locations. Every one of these works started with trying to get a sense of place, to find residue that clings to walls or the faded footprints from people long dead. Haigood calls the process “creating a window between the present and the past, where memory and imagination meet.” In one form or another, she brings these spaces back to life.
Rowland joined Zaccho in 2008 as part of Sailing Away, in which Haigood examined a little-known historical fact. In the 19th century, Market Street, San Francisco’s main thoroughfare, was home to a burgeoning black middle class. Yet in 1858, because of increasing discrimination, some 800 of them sailed for British Columbia.
“Her investigative process is so intelligent and so intense,” Rowland says about working with Haigood. For Sailing she took the dancers to First Street, which had been the edge of the Bay where the emigrants would have embarked. Haigood’s choreography also has a quiet authority that allows Rowland, who is physically very strong, “to more fully use my whole body and develop a character.” In Sailing, which was actually performed on Market Street in authentic Victorian dress, he portrayed a shoe store owner who traveled with his teenage daughter. Keeping what Rowland calls a “meditative” focus while walking down the street amidst camera-toting tourists wasn’t easy. He recalled one tourist taunting him with “Isn’t it a pity what you people have allowed to happen to yourselves.” But he also remembers an African American man gently putting an arm around his shoulder and walking with him for a while.
When the physical site is intact—a street, a warehouse, a gym, or grain silos—Haigood has tangible evidence of past lives. But sometimes not a stone remains. So she recreates the spaces for us. They become physical islands of contemplation surrounded by 21st-century noise.
For Departure and Arrival, commissioned by the 2007 San Francisco International Arts Festival, Haigood looked at the San Francisco International Airport’s segmented roof. It reminded her of ships’ hulls. So she built, with designer Ricardo Rivera, a huge panel with documentary slides recounting the Middle Passage (the ocean crossings that took Africans to the New World to be slaves from the 15th to the 19th centuries) inside the terminal. Next to it on a platform, weary travelers expressed their identity in both African and contemporary choreography while Haigood herself floated in from above. Suspended stick houses—one of them found its way into Dying—suggested dreams for a home in the Diaspora.
In Monkey and the Devil she went head on with racism. Performed in a one-room house designed by Charles Trapolin, cut into two equally unstable halves placed inside YBCA’s Forum, Monkey drew for its gut-wrenching impact on almost balletic formality. Two couples—one white, one black—tried to destroy each other and themselves in mirrored synchronicity.
Though Haigood knows that Monkey was tough viewing for the audience, she pointed out that this type of material was also difficult for the dancers. During rehearsals for Dying, she repeatedly asked the four men whether they needed a breather. They didn’t. But there was no levity during the scheduled breaks. Even Rowland, who admits he likes to joke around, was very quiet.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that her search into the African American struggle would lead her to W. E .B. Du Bois, the early 20th-century thinker who helped lay the foundation for the civil rights movement. Haigood is currently mining his writings for a new piece to be shown this month as a work in progress at ODC Theater. She is drawn to Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness” that forces African Americans to live in two worlds, divided by “the veil of race.” This veil prevents either of the inhabitants in these two universes from seeing each other or themselves clearly.
Du Bois developed the concept in The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. His ideas, Haigood notes, “are by no means out of date. The dilemma of who we are, what our position is in the world, and how we are perceived is really an important thing to explore.” A technical residency at ODC in January allowed her to work with media artist David Szlasa on “immersion technology” to create an environment that helps physicalize the concept of double consciousness. “It’s an enormous task,” she says while smiling ruefully, “and I don’t even know whether it is possible.”
Rita Felciano is the dance critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and a regular contributor to www.danceviewtimes.com.
Inset: Haigood rehearses Michael Velez and Byb Bibene in Dying While Black and Brown. Photo by Raissa Simpson, Courtesy Zaccho; Lomask and Wickett in The Monkey and the Devil (2008). Photo by Joseph Seif, Courtesy Zaccho; Al Pozzo di Sogno, at Oliver Ranch, CA, in which Haigood combined site-specific and aerial work. Photo by Chelsea O’Brien, Courtesy Zaccho; The Monkey and the Devil. Photo by Walter Kitundu, Courtesy Zaccho
Dance Mission Theater
San Francisco, CA
November 11–13, 2011
Performance reviewed: Nov. 12
The Bay Area is a hotbed for mixed media, dance theater, and politically engaged experiments. So choreographer Raissa Punkki’s formal restraint, subdued imagery, and focus on the dancing body feels almost like a new idea. “Pick Cells,” a compilation of five smallish pieces performed as one unit, was Punkki’s first full-evening presentation after moving to San Francisco from Finland in 2005.
Though the program’s sequential logic was not entirely convincing, the individual parts, with one exception, communicated their intent clearly and with considerable conviction. At this point, Punkki excels in finely chiseled miniatures that take an idea and explore its implications: She is particularly skillful at creating suspense through an elastic use of time.
In numbERs, danced by Punkki, the soloist appears buffeted to and fro as if in a wind tunnel. Giving into and fighting that force becomes a struggle on constantly shifting ground. Albert Mathias score of children'a voices, reciting and messing up number sequences, gave the piece its appropriate aural component. Reality is a slyly amusing trio for Jennifer Meek, Sarah Keeney, and the older and smaller Punkki. She insidiously worms her way into the barely existing space between the two women. They challenged the intruder with an ever-tightening circular run.
Pulling time like taffy was at the core of two works. Weightingroom, with a sound score made by the dancers’ rustling paper costumes (by Claire Pasquier), was inspired by a railroad station’s waiting area. Its passengers sit, glare, and fuss until a mini-drama of attraction and rejection explodes between Patric Cushman and Keeney. Waiting develops as a single image. An inchoate mass under a huge, pleated cloth rises and evolves into rocks and other natural forms to end in the image of a shrouded, weeping female. It was the simplest of ideas yet so beautifully measured out that the final moments took your breath away.
The one misstep in this attractive program occurred in the middle with in 3D. Pascquier had created scintillating costumes, including masks and headdresses, for nine dancers, with the tall Cushman being a kind of leader. The audience was asked to put on 3D glasses, which made no sense, since a live performance is already three-dimensional. Perhaps the performers, processing around the stage, were meant to suggest shamans. But the choreography was so inconsequential and non-descript that they looked more like a group of Halloween revelers who got lost on their way home.
Photos, top to bottom: Patric Cashman and Sarah Keeney; Raisa Punkki. By Rob Kunkle, courtesy Dance Mission Theater.
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall
June 3–12, 2011
Carla Körbes as Giselle and Karel Cruz as Albrecht in PNB's world premiere staging of Giselle. Photo ©Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s renovated Giselle is an intriguing restoration that brings the ballet closer to what 19th- and early 20th-century audiences might have seen. Staged by artistic director Peter Boal, dance historian Doug Fullington, and musicologist/dance historian Marian Smith, the beautifully performed ballet sparkled with details that re-contextualized this story in surprising and satisfying ways.
From the moment the ballet opens with a charming children’s trio acting out the synopsis (Boal’s idea) and closes with Albrecht’s reaching for Bathilde’s welcoming arms, you know that this is not the Giselle we have come to love. The restored mime passages (some of them helpfully illustrated with sketches in the program) enriched the characters and the storytelling. Hilarion (danced by the superb Jerome Tisserand in both of the casts I saw) is deeply in love but also fiercely proud, standing up to Albrecht without giving an inch. Berthe (performed by the fine Melanie Skinner and Chalnessa Eames) expansively tells the legend of the Wilis, though that does not stop Giselle (Kaori Nakamura and Carla Körbes) from rejecting a mother’s warning.
The villagers are restless. The grape pickers, Giselle included, are reluctant to do their jobs. The peasants “chat” and flirt, paying scant attention to the women’s charmingly danced Waltz. The introduction of “rustics” in the second act added Shakespearean notes of comedy, particularly when some of the Wilis tried to ensnare the men. Balancing Taglioni-like ephemerality with revenge-driven power, however, looked a little dubious.
PNB scheduled four leading couples. I saw Nakamura with Lucien Postlewaite on June 10 and Körbes with Karel Cruz the next night. Initially, Nakamura seemed a rather severe village girl but she bloomed under Postlewaite’s elegant and caring attention. Touchingly, her initial shock and anger at the deception turned into a maelstrom of pain that threatened to explode inside her head. I had always wondered why Giselle curtseys to Albrecht if she believes him to be a villager. So Nakamura’s fury when learning the truth seemed somewhat directed at herself; it made dramatic sense.
For his part, when found out, Postlewaite’s Albrecht—elegant with pristine timing of his footwork throughout—didn’t know where to turn so he adjusted his hair. It seemed such a plausible response to bewilderment. In the second act, the doomed lovers—starting with the side-to-side travels—looked as if poured from one mold.
Körbes, a beautifully musical and sensitive Giselle, was less fortunate with Cruz. He appeared a young, overly self-involved dancer, still focused more on his steps than on his partner. Maria Chapman’s Myrtha, interestingly, emphasized a passion for dancing that had survived inside her as much as her commanding responsibilities. Laura Gilbreath danced the other Myrtha—powerfully.
Though traditional in many ways, PNB’s Giselle shifted an essential paradigm. When created in 1841, Europe was in deep political turmoil. Here the tragedy acquired a social component, implied but less prominent in the versions we know. Albrecht can be seen as the rebel who tries to escape the constraints imposed by his station. His counterpart is Tisserand’s firebrand Hilarion, who also recognizes in Albrecht a political enemy. With Albrecht’s return to Bathilde, the old political and social order has been restored. The revolution will have to wait.
Zaccho Dance Theatre
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, CA
April 15–17, 2011
Reviewed by Rita Felciano
Joanna Haigood's The Monkey and the Devil. Photo by Joseph Seif, Courtesy Zaccho.
The Monkey and the Devil, a quartet for two couples, one Caucasian and one African American, is easily Joanna Haigood's most rigorously formal work. It is also devastating in the way it lays bare the festering wounds of racism. Haigood, artistic director of Zaccho, first showed the piece at her company’s studio two years ago. Since then, she has added hold-no-punches text that raises the temperature without diminishing the choreography’s potency.
A collaboration with visual artist Charles Trapolin, Monkey—the title refers to racial slurs—is inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Trapolin built two halves of a house, its interior painted off-white and pale brown. The structures, each supported on a pivot, creaked and groaned in response to the shifts of human bodies inside them. The buildings also could be spun like tops with force applied from the outside. Some of the work’s most dramatic episodes concerned the couples’ desperate attempts to stabilize the ground under their feet. Falling, clinging, shoving, and tumbling, they looked as if caught in an earthquake. The audience freely moved around the periphery, imposing its own perspective on these emblems of long-held animosities.
Choreographically, Haigood suggested the ritual and violence of a boxing arena, with a bell periodically calling for a breather. There would be no winners; sparring partners remained on equal footing. Each kick, each glare, each raised fist and body smashed against a wall was the mirror image of the neighbor’s across a tiny alley. The women raised their fists identically; shouted the same “I am a woman” at each other. Both huddled in their corners, shaking with rage and sputtering racial insults as if to stoke their anger. They also submitted simultaneously to being measured for the slave market, and they put their shoulders against the neighbor’s house to send it into a whirling hurricane. The men in the meantime looked on, climbed the walls and wearily circulated around the “enemy.”
Halfway through the one-hour work, Haigood reversed gears, and the men re-enacted the women’s roles, starting with the mantra “I am a man.” They vented their fury in a fistfight and a long diatribe about the failures of the other race. It was interesting to observe that the primarily Caucasian audience stood closer to the African American man, listening to him more attentively. Did they feel they needed to hear what he had to say? Or would it have been too uncomfortable to listen to, perhaps, hidden prejudices inside themselves?
Punctuating the pristinely coordinated physical confrontations, during which the dancers at times often looked programmed, were periods of stasis, of blank stares and a fatigue grounded in hopelessness. For these people—the excellent Sean Grimm, Jodi Lomask, Raissa Simpson, and Matthew Wickett—there was no exit; they were condemned to the hell of the Other.
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When Pina Bausch died on June 30, 2009, it was a shock to the whole dance world. Learning of her demise when on tour in Wroclaw, Poland, the dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch unanimously decided to perform that night. “We all knew that’s what Pina would have wanted,” said Janet Panetta, Tanztheater Wuppertal’s ballet master. “When we started the evening, we were pretty sure nobody knew because we could hear people laugh and talk. Then, probably during the intermission, they found out. At the end, the company took one bow, and the audience stayed and applauded for half an hour. It has been that way everywhere we went.” Panetta remembered “how lost, really lost” everyone had felt at first. But a few months later, the dancers were doing well, in part she thinks, because the transition has been so smooth.
Dominique Mercy, who has been with the company since its beginning in 1973, had been one of Bausch’s closest confidantes. With the dancers’ assent, Mercy and Robert Sturm, artistic assistant and rehearsal director since 2000, assumed artistic leadership on an interim basis. In October 2009, they officially became co-artistic directors with a contract through 2013. In August 2009, Bausch’s son, Salomon Bausch, created a foundation that is in charge of the choreographer’s work. An archive is in the planning stages.
Tanztheater owes much of its current health to the extraordinary commitment of the 31 dancers. Because the choreography is highly individualized, they may have a heightened personal investment in the roles they’ve helped to create. According to Panetta, the dancers have continued to dedicate their lives to Bausch’s work even after her death.
New Orleans–born Julie Anne Stanzak was with the Dutch National Ballet when she saw Bausch’s troupe perform more than 25 years ago. “The work struck me right in my heart. I knew that this was what I was looking for,” she said on the phone from Wuppertal. Without a moment’s doubt, she changed “pointe shoes for the dirt of Sacre.”
“With Pina,” she observed, “there was a flow that you wanted to be in because she had a vision, a poetry about her. Year after year one found oneself in a process where one was growing and could see the value of the work.”
With some of the pieces commissioned in host cities like Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Lisbon, Istanbul, it meant developing material from impressions gathered in those cities. With pieces created in Wuppertal, such as the 2006 Vollmond (Full Moon), to be performed at BAM Sept. 29–Oct. 9, the process was more intimate, perhaps, Stanzak mused, also more focused. “Vollmond is fantastic, with the water, which brings a new element to the space, and it can fly in the air. You think it's like diamonds or stars. When you see the big rock you think, did they bring it all the way from Australia?"
While she has no favorites, Vollmond occupies a special place in Stanzak’s life. “Believe me,” she laughed. “Pina knew how to use us in every stage that we went through.” Vollmond raises questions about love, and Stanzak was about to be married.
Bausch had already planned most of the touring up until 2012. In the next year the company will be performing in France, Brazil, England, Italy, Spain, and Taiwan. And the company is committed to 30 performances a year in its hometown, Wuppertal.
The repertory appears to be in good hands. Because of their love for her, the dancers were very dependent on Pina’s opinion,” Panetta said. “They do listen to Dominique, but they are also a little more independent.”
In 2008 when she received the Dance Magazine Award, Bausch concluded her acceptance speech by saying, “I feel welcomed every time I come to New York.” This time, it is her spirit, her legacy, her dancers that will be welcomed. —Rita Felciano
Zhukov Dance Theatre
September 16–18, 2010
San Francisco, CA
Reviewed by Rita Felciano
Photo by Sandy Lee, Courtesy ZDT. Bordenave, Devaney, and de Souza in Zhukov's Shared and Divided.
In its third season, Zhukov Dance Theatre’s “Product 03” took to the stage with excellent performances of two contrasting premieres. The sharply focused and pure dance Shared and Divided was right on the mark; the loosely structured and conceptually problematic Cinematic, however, missed its target. Both works benefited from a fine group of performers, all of them with strong ballet training: Darren Devaney, Josh Haines, Allie Papazian, Sergio Junior Benvindo de Souza, Katja Bjorner, and Christopher Bordenave.
Considering that Yuri Zhukov’s was essentially a pick-up group—four of the six dancers were new, the others in their second year with the company—Zhukov managed to mold them into a cohesive ensemble, one that acknowledged each dancer’s individuality.
In 1989 Kirov Ballet soloist Zhukov was the first Russian dancer to officially emigrate in order to join San Francisco Ballet, where he danced for six years. A refined and elegant formalist, he joined the Royal Birmingham Ballet for a time and returned to San Francisco in 2003 to join the faculty of City Ballet School.
For the formally precise Shared, the dancers, recalling a tablao, sat on boxes around the stage’s perimeter. Devaney stepped into the center for an extended solo which laid out Zhukov’s premise: choreography in which extreme fluidity is checked by control. Together and alone the dancers picked up and varied motifs—drop-to-the-ground pliés, runs that turned into slides, curling arms in which energy flowed out the fingertips. Shared suggested a vibrantly pulsating sense of being. Yet for all the turbulence and apparent spontaneity, you could feel the shaping hand in every gesture. Bjorner’s adagio evolved into a contentious pas de deux with Bordenave. He later tried unsuccessfully to tame the volatile, petite Papazian. She looked liked the spirit of dance.
For Cinematic, Zhukov switched gears. Television has never seemed particularly dangerous territory. Here it was. Choosing a dance theater format, heavy on text though also rich with lively choreography, Zhukov pastiched together bits and pieces from sitcoms, soap operas, reality shows, dance competitions, high drama and crime stories. (There were no emergency rooms in sight.) The meandering chain of scenes redefined the word episodic. Cinematic’s climax was a hilariously choreographed shoot-out that went on forever. It had grown out of a spurned lover’s dreaming of shooting a rival.
The choreography probably could have been sharper but Zhukov’s challenge was to portray banality without being sucked into its mindlessness. He is not the first to fail at this conundrum. Cinematic needed a good dose of either wit or charm, preferably both.
Zhukov also designed the costumes and Cinematic’s superb white-on-black projections. He is clearly a multi-talented artist.
When they bought an old hardware store in an industrial section of San Francisco’s Mission district in 1979, the nomads from Ohio didn’t think that they would end up with 36,000 square feet and 20 million dollars’ worth of debt-free real estate. They acquired the space because they were tired of creating studio environments only to be evicted. So ODC/Dance, then still known as the Oberlin Dance Collective and later, as ODC/SF, became one of the first American modern dance companies to buy a home. Thirty years later, shrouded in black veils, the remnants of the theater, small studios, and office space await a September 30 resurrection, to be celebrated with a gala and the premiere of ODC founder Brenda Way’s new piece.
The new ODC Theater now completes ODC’s two-campus facility (ODC Dance Commons opened in 2005). It includes three studios, staff offices, an expanded visual arts gallery, a media lab, space for additional programs, and—realizing a long-time dream of Way’s—an all-day, full-service café.
By pushing the new construction up instead of out, architects Mark Cavagnero Associates were able to build 13,000 square feet on land that ODC already owned. “We might have ‘fixed’ the old place,” Way explained, “but we wanted to stay current and allow a new generation of artists to realize their vision.” Still, the decision to “do it right” meant raising another nine million dollars, including money for a modest endowment.
On a hard-hat tour last June, theater director Rob Bailis clearly looked forward to having artists working in the reconfigured facility. “The old space had an 11-foot ceiling,” he said. By adding another story, “dancers now actually can do lifts.” The theater also has state-of-the-art sound and lighting, including a tech booth that can be reached by stairs instead of a ladder. Still, much looks familiar. The skylights, which make matinees so pleasant, return, as do the 170-seat (now steeply raked) capacity. Also incorporated into the design is the old 1940s-style curved entrance. The new façade, however, sports a decidedly 21st-century look: a three-story “green wall,” made up of living vegetation.
While the renovated space allows ODC Theater to undertake new projects (such as a media lab and dance archive), Bailis plans to expand and strengthen its original mission: to present local and touring groups, award residency and mentorship programs, and offer self-producing opportunities. Bailis points out that it always has had an identity separate from the dance company (ODC/Dance does not perform its home season there). In addition to presenting Bay Area dance, ODC Theater has hosted the debuts of national artists such as Ronald K. Brown, Nora Chipaumire, Eiko & Koma, and Bill T. Jones. The venue is also a member of the SCUBA touring network that pairs companies in SF, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia to form national tours.
For Bailis, ODC Theater was always intended to serve dance as a presenter of experimental work. “The theater,” he says, “is a house of risk.” The rewards belong to a new generation of artists who will create at ODC.
Rendering of the new ODC Theater building. Photo Courtesy ODC.
San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival
June 5–27, 2010
Palace of Fine Arts
San Francisco, CA
By Rita Felciano
Rita Ortiz in Mexican Bicentennial Tribute. Photo by RJ Muna, Courtesy EDF.
Now in its 32nd year, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is always the same and always new. While focused on indigenous dance from around the globe, its scope also includes re-interpretations of traditional forms. So when, as was the case this year, the 37 companies offered 26 “world premieres,” that term has to be understood as being elastic. “New” in world dance can mean anything from rearranging traditional steps to reconceptualizing existing material.
The highly anticipated and oddly titled Mexican Bicentennial Tribute, however, was a world premiere in the conventional sense. A commission by World Dance West on the occasion of Mexico’s bicentennial and the centennial of its revolution, the work brought together dancers from the Bay Area’s six most prominent folklórico companies. The intent was to honor Mexican women in their roles as soldaderas, or heroines of the Revolution. Unfortunately, Bicentennial (which I saw on June 12) was an opportunity missed.
To highlight key events, choreographer Zenón Barrón, artistic director of Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco, telescoped history into four scenes. But the sketch of the confrontation between President Porfirio Díaz and Pancho Villa, and the one that resulted in Zapata’s death looked dramatically flat. Despite the use of well chosen period corridos (Mexcian folk ballads), the choreography approached the clichéd.
While the opening bourgeois ballroom waltzes were elegantly presented, the “people” breaking them up looked as if they had stumbled onto them by accident. With one exception, most of Bicentennial’s choreography—and its performance—was too bland to suggest the tension and struggles that the storylines implied. Wearing ammunition belts and carrying “rifles” is not enough.
“Las Soldaderas” showed what Bicentennial could have been. Barrón took the mirroring practices often used in Folklórico, expanded them multi-directionally and added—very uncommon in the genre—rotations from sitting and crouching positions. “Soldaderas” seemed driven by a turbulently turning wheel, deriving its momentum from the determination and anxiety of these citizen soldiers.
During the remainder of this year’s second EDF weekend, two soloists offered rare jewels. In Honryung Korean dancer Hearan Chung, in flowing layers of chiffon and a peaked hat, re-enacted a windswept ritual in which a shaman helps a child transition out of this world. The long trajectories of swiftly skipping and sliding footwork and the dancer’s calm upper body, including exquisite fan and hand bell work, effectively suggested struggle and ultimate release.
With Uzum ussul, accompanied by the excellent Abbos Kosimov on an Uzbek frame drum, Tara Catherine Pandeya showed a flirtatious Uyghur grape-picking dance. With her billowing tresses and delicately running and hopping feet, she almost seemed to alight. More than anything she looked like a frisky bird.
Also performing were the Haitian group Rara Tou Limen, LIKHA-Pilipino Folk Ensemble, Eszterlánc Hungarian Folk Ensemble, Halau O Keikiali'i from Hawaii, and, a newcomer to this yearly gathering, Mona Sampath Dance Company. Bollywood is now officially part of Bay Area world dance.
In Alonzo King’s Dust and Light, Ashley Jackson falls backwards gracefully into David Harvey’s arms. He gently raises her into a turn that finishes in a serenely stretched arabesque. For a moment, Jackson is the iconic ballerina. Then she lands on her back behind Harvey, lending an arm and angled leg to support him in a backbend. A few days later, rehearsing King’s Signs and Wonders, Jackson, sinking into a deep plié on pointe, allows every ounce of energy to drip out of her body. She looks like a rag doll.
Those contradictory impulses—classically striking, completely contemporary—have shaped Jackson’s dancing since she joined Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet in San Francisco four years ago. “In my life, I like to be in control,” the 22-year-old with the Modigliani face says. “In this company you have to learn to give and accept support.”
With beautifully tapered legs and flowing arms, Jackson is the youngest of LINES’ formidable women. Yet the spirited clarity of her classical training and the calm assurance she brings to even the fastest-paced and most complex of King’s combinations have made her stand out, though at 5' 7" she is also one of the company’s more petite women. The choreographer noticed Jackson’s ability when he saw her audition. “I saw right away how technically well-trained she was,” he recalls. “I also saw her willpower and her belief that she could do anything. Ashley has honesty and humility and can lose herself in her art.”
Jackson, a native of High Point, North Carolina, began gymnastics when she was 3. She went on to dance classes at Dancers Headquarters, a local studio, until she was 10, when she switched to Susan’s Dance Unlimited in nearby Kernersville and became enthralled with ballet. “I loved the movements that the older students were doing whenever I walked by the studio,” she remembers. “But my teachers also encouraged me because ballet is the base from which you can branch out.” Owner Susan H. Bodsford remembers Jackson as loving all forms of dance. “Right from the beginning,” she says, “Ashley had a magnetism that simply drew you in.”
As a sixth-grader, she joined the preparatory dance program at the North Carolina School of the Arts. When she reached the high school division, Jackson decided to focus on ballet. Studying with Melissa Hayden and Nina Danilova gave the young dancer varied perspectives on classicism. “It’s good to learn several styles,” she says. “The differences were in little things: the way you hold your head or the port de bras.” Jackson still finds herself drawing on her training. “Melissa Hayden taught me to focus on the steps, the rhythms, and the tempo,” she says. “But Ms. Danilova has been a light in my life. She was the first to tell me, ‘You can do this; you have to do this for you and not anybody else.’ I still see her whenever I go back.”
At NCSA, both college and high school age students pursue academic work. Jackson took college-prep courses and kept up with her jazz, tap, and lyrical at her former studio, as well as sometimes going to competitions with them. “We tried to accommodate her schedule,” Bodsford explains.
Graduating in 2005 with both college acceptance letters and a one-year contract with North Carolina Dance Theatre2 in her pocket, Jackson entered the professional world. She performed in Balanchine’s Serenade and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Carmina Burana with the main company. With the second company, she danced in Ailey’s The River. She also realized that college would have to wait, though she has started the LEAP program to earn her BA.
“I was in an audition phase,” she says. Then during Ballet Austin’s 2006 summer program, former King dancer Tanya Weidman-Davis suggested that Jackson audition for LINES. At first Jackson felt she wasn’t ready. “I had never thought about auditioning for Alonzo until years later,” she says, “after I had more training and more experience.” But she decided to try and requested a private audition. To her surprise, King gave her one—and an offer.
Looking back today, Jackson is glad that she challenged herself to try. “Alonzo wants you to think about the detail of every step,” she says. “He will give you perhaps a phrase or some steps. They are the skeleton onto which you put the flesh, the muscle, the ligaments. He wants us to explore. Every night has to be different.”
It is this willingness to constantly work on herself that has helped her to grow in the company. “When I look at Alonzo’s work, I see a chance to better myself, not just in dance but in my mind as well,” Jackson says. “He’ll say to dance bigger than yourself, bigger than this room, bigger than San Francisco. It’s really nice to look at things from that perspective.”
Rita Felciano is a San Francisco dance critic.
Yerba Buena Center
for the Arts
San Francisco, CA
March 5, 2009
Reviewed by Rita Felciano
Photo by Lillian Wu, courtesy YBCA. David Rousseve, an intriguing storyteller in his Saudade.
David Roussève is a poet, as well as a choreographer. And at this point in his life his imagination seems to more comfortably roam the world of verbal ideas than those of dance. His latest work, Saudade, impressed with the fine articulation of his philosopher/traveler character that tries to make sense of existence. In the end he learns that he will never be able to figure it out, because life and death, grief and joy, love and hate are so inextricably interwoven that one doesn’t exist without the other.
Roussève is an intriguing storyteller with a tall and lanky frame, a face chiseled by middle age and a vocal command that even an opera singer would envy. Fado music, which has been described as the Portuguese version of the blues, gave him the underpinning for this bittersweet exploration of memory and longing for something that cannot be. Saudade became a dance-theater piece that both mesmerized and exasperated.
With words, voice, and gesture Roussève calls up five haunting portraits from the African American experience, catching each character at a crucible in his or her life: the loner who falls in love with an alley cat, 9-year-old Sally whose sister pays the price for having taught her to read, the slave girl who is being raped, the man facing death alone in a hospital, the Katrina evacuee who looses more than she gains.
Weaving in and out of Roussève’s monologues is a collage of dance episodes, both delicate and manic, which further explore the contradictions that seem to plague our lives. Seven dancers, whose separate cultural traditions enhance but don’t determine their artistic identity, perform them beautifully. It’s one of Roussève’s great accomplishments that he has found a way to suggest commonality in difference.
But many of these imagistic dance sections pale against the inevitability and force of Roussève’s own performance as narrator. Despite the dancers’ impressive efforts, much of the material is too generic to resonate emotionally. Some of the dances—the screaming woman, the tickle/torture and yes/no episodes––look as if they might have come from early Pina Bausch. Others are just too predictable, like the loner left behind after the scooting game, the silencing of a joyous dancer. Where they do work—and some do—they deepen the dark woods through which Roussève’s memorializing takes him.
Ballet San Jose
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, San Jose
November 20, 2008
Reviewed by Rita Felciano
Photo by Robert Shomler.
Maximo Califano and
Ramon Moreno in Flemming
Flindt's restaging of
Bournonville's The Toreador.
In 1978 Flemming Flindt brought back a rethinking of Bournonville’s 1840 one-act The Toreador, which had disappeared from the Royal Danish Ballet in 1929. In 1990, and now again in 2008, what is today Ballet San Jose revived Flindt’s extended version. Flindt’s second-act additions leave much to be desired, but overall this is charming Bournonville-inspired entertainment.
Toreador was aided by the elegantly subdued design from Hans Christian Molbeck and a pleasingly amended score by Erling Bjerno (based on Edvard Helsted). As coached by Flindt and his wife Vivi Flindt, the ballet brought to life a humorous clash of cultures—British, Spanish and French—with a buoyant modesty and a dash of flash that evokes Danish ballet with verve and integrity.
The libretto is typical of Bournonville: Its characters are wide open to the world but find true happiness at home. In this case home happens to be Spain, but the values of kindness, generosity, and contentment could be Danish. The slender story revolves around Maria (Karen Gabay) and her Toreador fiancé Alonzo (Maykel Solas) and the misunderstandings that arise with the arrival of two Englishmen (Maximo Califano, Ramon Moreno), a French ballerina (Alexsandra Meijer), and her mother (Roni Mahler). The work is set in the courtyard of Maria’s innkeeper father José (Daniel Gwatkin) and ends with three happily committed couples.
Building on artistic director Dennis Nahat’s practice of instilling in-depth characterizations in his dancers, the Flindts were able to elicit performances in which mime and dance, sentiment and humor, Spanish dance and ballet, seamlessly flowed into each other. Toreador’s characters hummed with humanity, from the little kids who did their toe-heel-toe variation to the couple of strolling nuns and tourists who enriched the scenery. Throughout, the footwork was buoyant, fleet, and detailed; the ensemble work, whether in the Spanish or the more balletic passages, lively yet disciplined
Gabay’s Maria—she first danced the role in 1990—was a finely calibrated mix of febrile anxiety, hot-headed jealousy, and womanly yielding. Still a remarkable dancer, she remains one of San Jose’s shining stars. The handsome Cuban-trained Solas put his clean lines in the service of a dashing and yet solicitous Alonzo. The lovers’ perfectly timed quarrel, fought with castanets, had a textured dramatic arch to it. Mirai Noda and Preston Dugger brought a sunny spunkiness to Paquita and Pedro; their rapid-fire heelwork sounded like peals of laughter. Long-limbed Meijer’s airy arabesques and breathy port-de-bras evoked Bournonville’s La Sylphide.
Genuine humor is rare in ballet. Toreador has it. Califano as the lanky and bumbling Mr. Williams and Moreno as a wide-eyed dreamer Mr. Arthur played each other like a game of ping-pong. But they also invested these Mutt and Jeff Englishmen with a modicum of dignity and individuality, so that we laughed as much with as at them.
The pale sun streaming onto San Francisco Ballet’s company class bathes Lily Rogers delicate blond beauty with a translucent sheen. With her slender frame, finely tapered limbs and oval face dominated by huge green eyes, the 5’ 7” corps dancer resembles a Pre-Raphaelite beauty. That is until she cuts a coupé with the precision of a razor blade and attacks a whipping turn with hurricane ferocity. There is steel under the porcelain.
Born in San Francisco, and trained at SFB’s school since she was 6, Rogers’ third season has her thrilled yet clear-eyed. The 20-year old dancer is taking on the lead in Firebird, the second Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, and the trio in Helgi Tomasson’s new piece Common Ground. “He wants a really sharp, punctuated musicality, and me and Elana Altman to be very much alike. Rory Hohenstein has to sort of manipulate us in different shapes and movement patterns, kind of amoeba-like.”
While praising out Rogers’ jump and extensions, ballet master Ashley Wheater sees other qualities too. “She is musical and she is smart. She has been diligent about her work in the corps. Choreographers of stature have given her opportunities, and she has learned from them,” he says. “She clearly has a lot of potential.”
Yet Rogers is a dancer who almost didn’t make it. In her last year at the San Francisco Ballet School, after bouts of muscle tightness and arthritic pain, she discovered that her left hip socket was too small for the ball of the joint. “I was out for five months and didn’t know whether I would be able to come back.”
Rogers credits the dedication of teacher Shannon Bresnahan for her recovery. “She started me over and taught me technique from square one, in this meticulous, intense way. I am so grateful to her.” Though she had resigned herself to another year at the school, she was offered an apprenticeship after the 2004 summer session. A year later she joined the company.
The last two years have been a whirlwind of experiences, not the least was being on stage night after night in the corps de ballet and learning how to connect with an audience. The Balanchine repertoire, with its emphasis on speed, seems to fit Rogers’ impetuous appetite for movement even though she wasn’t sure that she could make it through last year’s Allegro Brillante. “It was so fast, I thought I was going die at the end, but it was so rewarding.”
Yet there is a traditional ballerina inside Rogers, one who relishes a floating port de bras and the glitter of tiny bourrées. When she performed the role of a swan maiden in Swan Lake, it would have been difficult to miss her precision hops and deeply centered arabesques. Yet her fierce cambré just about snapped the circle formation in the ‘Winter’ section of Christopher Wheeldon’s 2005 work for SFB, the edgy Quaternary. The choreographer picked her for a small featured role in the piece, and she is grateful. “He took a chance on me, and he was so patient. He made a huge difference in the way I approach rehearsal. Now I go in there with everything on the table.”
Another who has taken a chance is SFB resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov, who has set his new Firebird on her. “Lily has a personality—a quality when she steps on stage—that enables her to capture the audience. There’s a fire inside of her, a magnetic quality,” he says. “She’s still very young, but she definitely has a gift.
For Rogers the opportunity to go beyond the athleticism of contemporary styles, work in a classically expressive mode, and create a complex character is a dream come true. “This is a role I can completely dive into. You are a phoenix, half woman, half bird, and you are trying to find how much of you is this creature or this bird. And then you fall in love with this prince, and you have your heart broken. It has so many things that I can bite into and think about.”
Rita Felciano is the dance critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine.
Photographer Marty Sohl's photograph of a traditional dancer from Kala Vandana Dance Center (India) captures the beauty of the 1999 SF Ethnic Dance Festival.
San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival
Palace of Fine Arts
San Francisco, California
June 1-27, 1999
Reviewed by Rita Felciano
In San Francisco the annual return of thetwenty-one-year-old Ethnic Dance Festival (EDF) signals the advent of the foggy summer as surely as the sight of shivering tourists. The EDF is a simple but genuine celebration of why people still dance and a reminder of what lies at the heart of all theatrical dances.
Not much changes from year to year. Courting dances don't wear out their welcome. Spectacle-whether in footwork or costuming-is openly embraced. Circle patterns and unison formations emphasize a sense of community. Since these are staged versions of participatory dance forms, stylistic differences between, let's say, Jalisco, belly, and Bharata Natyam ensembles are, not surprisingly, minimal.
Still, there have been changes. While the majority of these ensembles is still made up of non-professional dancers, the performance level is considerably higher than it used to be. Fewer soloists are featured, but there is more live music, a most welcome addition. A few years ago the Festival tried having an emcee, primarily popular television anchor personalities. Mostly they were an embarrassment. This time around, the organizers got it right. Chiori Santiago, a local arts writer, beautifully set the tone with her colloquial but informative introductions about the styles and contexts of the works about to be seen. The programs, of which I managed to see the first and the last, were thematically grouped as "Dance as a Second Language," "Spectacular Vernaculars," and "Rhythm Sticks." At three hours each-one had ten, the other eleven, groups-they were, as usual, too long. Three hours of unremitting cheer is simply too much. Either the audition process should be tightened or the works should be spread over a fourth weekend.
The first weekend, three groups from Peru provided more than worthwhile glimpses into Peruvian traditions. All three worked with glosses on indigenous and non-native influences. Star-shaped and circular unisons, with the women gently swaying against the men's more assertive flatfooted stepping by Kanchis Folkloric Dance Group, enlivened a dance that mocked the Spanish bullfighting tradition.
De Rompe y Raja's barefoot washer- women celebrated their African ancestry: their upper bodies did the talking as they gossiped in syncopating shoulder shakes with hip rolls, while sitting in a circle.
Finally, El Tunante performed the marinera, a national dance of Peru, in which swaying lines for the upper body and fleet footwork, including cross-steps and a skipping walk, distantly echoed flamenco.
Some of the more intriguing presentations were by performers who put their own stamp on folkloric material. You couldn't miss the Beijing opera influence in the flowing lines and rolling foot patterns of Liu and Han Chinese Dance's flirtatious courting duet. However, its speed and less-restrained expressiveness imprinted on the dance an unmistakable contemporary identity.
Similarly, Harsanari performed jaipongan, a fusion dance form created in the 1960's in Indonesia, in which martial arts inform the men's grounded hops and broad-beamed stances. These are contrasted with the women's dainty, close-to-the body sways and turns. It's a dance at the same time comical and flirtatious.
The Celtic Dance Ensemble's The Immigrants Return, a humorous and deftly choreographed work in which Irish step dance and American clogging meet in the context of a family reunion, was a wonderful illustration of differences and similarities in footwork. Sometimes, however, ensembles ran afoul of the context. On the final program, Salsanismo, a takeoff on salsa with gyrating unison duets, suffered from cookie-cutter blandness despite a central spitfire all-legs pas de deux. Also, its Las Vegas-style slickness felt distinctly out of place.
Fatchancebellydance & Helm lined up its dancers in a semicircle with not much to do except undulate in rhythm while accompanying the few excursions into solo presentations. This maywork in a crowded Middle Eastern marketplace but it looked thin on the Palace's enormous stage.
Still, the most successful works stuck pretty close to tradition. Dressed in a white gown with sleeves some six feet long, Il Hyun Kim from Korea performed a blessedly quiet monk's dance in which tight turns from the tips of her toes led to prostrations, only to serpentine into intricate rhythm patterns on a single taiko drum on stage left. Los Lupeños de San Jose shone in an all-male military dance from Michoacán that mixed precision stick patterns with circles, crouches, and line-up maneuvers.
Most enchanting, Folklorico Latino de Woodland's fandango suite was exquisite in the way the women were swept along by their voluminous white gowns over quick percussive footwork, which fused into the men's more robust, high-stepping patterns.
Also performing were Chung Ngai Lion Dance Troupe; Chitresh Das Dance Company; Kalanjali: Dances of India; The Minoan Dancers: Greek Folklore Dance Ensemble; The Red Thistle [Scottish] Dancers; Owo Ache, African Queens; Kaiaulu; The English Ritual Dance Company; and Ballet Folklorico Alma de Mexico of South San Francisco High School and Community.
Ensemble members perform in German choreographer Joachim Schlömers La Guerra dAmore.
Courtesy Cal Performances
La Guerra d'amore
November 17, 2001
Reviewed by Rita Felciano
Joachim Schlömer's choreography for La Guerra d'amore, his 1999 setting of a series of Monteverdi madrigals, looks like a line drawing response to a richly hued canvas. Simple, even minimalist, the choreography is streamlined and decidedly contemporary in contrast to the madrigals' lyric opulence and the robust instrumental interludes (by various Monteverdi contemporaries). Schlömer doesn't imitate the musicbrilliantly performed by the nine singers and the twenty-one baroque instrumentalists of René Jacobs's Concerto Vocalebut he is in tune with Monteverdi.
To Renaissance poets, being in love meant living in a kind of delirium, literally being out of your mind. Both artists have taken this power to unleash mental turmoil and translated it into sensuous, yet highly formal, language. For Monteverdi, this meant melismatic vocal lines and transgressive harmonies; to Schlömer, it said bodies windblown across the stage in unison or chaotic dreamlike encounters. It also told him that every once in a while, having tongue-in-cheek fun with all that high-blown passion is perfectly OK.
He set his fifteen dances on an anonymous square against a gray brick wall, with one bench and a "vending" machine that spit out labels. The singers and nineteen dancers were costumed in equally drab generic clothing. The vocabulary came from everyday movement: skipping, running, walking, falling, standing, loping, collapsing. However, buoyant expressivity and an elegance of line and form elevated these ordinary steps beyond the pedestrian. You could see shadows of baroque dance conventions: arms angled away from the body, a hand delicately resting on another, heads demurely angled, a preponderance of measured unison steps and patterns, but these echoes merely perfumed the dancers' wholly contemporary energy.
Some of Schlömer's kinetic responses to Monteverdi were simply delicious: Fabio Pink's clownlike negotiation between a seductive Venus (mezzo-soprano Cecilia Diaz) and a rather pompous Pluto (bass Antonio Abete) in "Il ballo delle ingrate"; women dancers playfully flipped the male singers' arms into the air when the vocal lines threatened to carry them away in "Zefiro torna," or caught them in their laps when the men were about to sink into despondency in "Interrotte speranze, eternal fede" Other physical encounters had a febrile intensity that eroticized a touch of a foot or a shoulder. In "Se i languidi miei sguardi," dancer Jean-Guillaume Weis practically set mezzo-soprano Marisa Martins aflame in anticipation of their impending wedding night.
Touching and funny was the scene in "Il ballo"which deals with women who reject the game of lovewhere one of the forlorn young males, in absence of the real thing, projected pictures of beautiful, independent-looking women against the wall. The photographs were of the female dancers who, when Pluto finally brought them back, went through the paces of their ballo with all the energy of wilted flowers.
Guerra's war element was mostly portrayed as that of internal conflicts but also found external expression in such sections as "Ohimè, dov'è il moi ben, dov'è il moi core?"a series of fierce duets in which lovers yanked each other around. To a chaconne by Marco Uccelini, men and women not only clashed like armies in the night but descended into cannibalism.
Not everything worked. The choreography for "Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda," a self-contained proto-opera within this quasi-operatic work, was too thin. Inexplicably also, the opening counterpoint between the singers' slow circling patterns and the dancers' skipping traverse lines was cut. Furthermore, since the choreography commented on the madrigals' Italian narrative only in the most abstract manner, the relationship between music and dance was often unclear. Maybe we have come to the point where dance needs supertitles?
The Mark Morris Dance Group, accompanied by violinist Yo-Yo Ma and percussionist Zakir Hussain, premiered the Silk Road Project piece Kolam.
Courtesy Cal Performances
Mark Morris Dance Group
Zellerbach Hall, University of California
April 1921, 2002
Reviewed by Rita Felciano
There is a reason the Mark Morris Dance Group calls the Bay Area its second home. Cal Performancess Robert Cole has been supportive of the company since before it went to Belgium, when Morris was better known for his ability to épater les bourgeois than for his dance-making. This investment in a then little-known artist has paid off.
Today Morris has a large and faithful audience here. But partner him with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and tabla player and percussionist Zakir Hussain, and tickets to his most recent engagement, which introduced the world premiere of the splendid Kolam, as part of the Silk Road Project, simply melted away.
In Kolam, Morris played with symmetry and balance in an almost painterly way. Images imprinted themselves on your retina even as they dissolved, at first individually, then in small groups, and finally in a polyrhythmic triple circle dance for the whole ensemble. Canons and mirrors abounded as dancers fell out of, or were pushed and pulled from, stances held just long enough so that you couldnt miss them. Looking two-dimensional, their silhouettes slid or stepped horizontally across the stage, reversing directions, repeating patterns, one pulling the next one out of the wings. The initial isolated posesa headstand, a yoga stretch, a curl in fetal position, a repose echoing Manets Olympiascattered and gave way to men bearing women aloft by their armpits. The guys dove them gently, like kids playing with toy airplanes. Even as the tempo picked up at the tablas percussive insistence, the loping walks and runs in plié floated along on softly padding feet, which finally propelled the dancers into a pulsating circle of silence. Later on, ankle bells only added to Kolams mesmerizing serenity, though punctuated by Morriss witty use of armsstretched ones that ended in fists, wrists hanging limply from sharply angled ones, fluttering hands and prayerful crossings.
Hussains multilayered score, in addition to highlighting his own brilliant tabla playing, sent Ma into the stratospheric range of his cello and offered the opportunity for a lively syncopated jazz solo by Ethan Iverson. The inclusion of a bass (Ben Street) was a brilliant idea; his gentle, almost electronic-sounding drone put a foundation of otherworldliness under this latest artifact of Morriss protean imagination.
The program also included the 1995 World Power and last falls darkly luminous V, which had received its unofficial premiere in Berkeley in the aftermath of September 11. Created before that event, it is now dedicated to the City of New York. Despite Mas stunning contribution on the cello part of Schumanns Quintet in E flat for piano and strings, the performance felt oddly pale. It looked as if the dancers couldnt quite create the requisite connecting tissue. World Power, excellently accompanied by the Perfect Fifth chorus and members of the Indonesian music ensemble Gamelan Sari Raras, only grows on repeated viewing. Paired as it was with the new Kolam, it gave us a completely different perspective on Morriss take on Asian-influenced dance and music.
Judson Caldeira and choreographer Sonya Delwaide perform her new work De la Tete aux Pieds at ODC Theater in San Francisco.
Photo by Michael Slobodian, courtesy of Sonya Delwaide
De la Tête aux Pieds
ODC Theater, california
February 26-28, 1999
Reviewed by Rita Felciano
San Francisco-Sonya Delwaide's recent move from her native Québec is good news for the San Francisco Bay Area. As a performer, the long-limbed dancer with the articulate body has impressed with the integrity and excitement of her high-voltage performances. In this concert, which included three world premieres, she also presented herself as a choreographer working for the first time with dancers outside her own Compagnie de Danse L'Astragale. Delwaide has a good eye for movement, although its shaping is not always convincing.Lui ("Him"), a solo for former Broadway dancer Frank Shawl, is an impish piece of non-nostalgic looking at the past through the eyes of the present, despite some crotch-grabbing gestures that quickly wore thin. Restricted mainly to upper body and arm movements, the dreamy middle section of the piece, with its long, sliding sideways steps, revealed Shawl as the elegant dancer he once was.
Chuchotements ("Whisperings") was made for AXIS Dance Company, two of whose members performed in wheelchairs, while a third for a time had her mobility restricted by the train of her costume which was attached to one corner of the ceiling. The work used a Telemann score as a conceit for Baroque salon intrigue. Formal comportment-smoothly gliding wheelchairs in mirroring patterns can be quite elegant-amusingly contrasted with an occasional moue or disdainful gesture. A triangular tug of war had its moments of preciousness, particularly in the way the dancer on legs was pushed, pulled, folded, rolled, and cradled, but the equanimity of its resolution was satisfying.
With Les Voisins ("The Neighbors"), a duo for herself and Kate Weare, Delwaide picked up a thread she first spun in the 1995 Du Balcon: isolation and self-absorption. The overlong initial solos pitted Delwaide's fulminating and fierce verticality on one side of a wooden fence against Weare's more expansive, lower-to-the-ground physicality. The piece became more intriguing as the two women-one high-strung, the other weighty-found themselves together in an erotically charged duet in which each dancer fed off the other's energies.
Least communicative was 100 Fois ("100 Times"), a solo for Suzanne Gallo that involved lots of hair, including what you pull out of your comb. Here it was worshiped, and in the end carried off as an offering. Gallo's athletic expressivity could not make up for the jejune quality of this pseudoritual.
Mel Wong's Hidden Histories was a last-minute substitute in this otherwise all-Delwaide program. Wong clearly knows the unique qualities in this special dancer (she used to perform in his company). An excellent choice, History is intelligent and intriguing in its use of oppositions-in space and within the body-as well as in its recurring phrases and admirably jumbled moods. It's a bravura piece for Delwaide and she shone in it.
Watch for the fall preview of ODC Theatre's season in the October issue of Dance Magazine.
Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley grapples with Beethoven in Celebrations and Ode.
Photo by Robert C. Ragsdale
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
San Jose, California
April 30, 2001
Reviewed by Rita Felciano
The jury on whether Beethoven can be choreographed is still out. Isadora Duncan and Leonide Massine, apparently, weren't too successful at it. But Mark Morris and, most recently, Helgi Tomasson have created fine works to Beethoven. Maybe wisely, they stayed away from the symphonies. Dennis Nahat, some twenty years ago, used Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, described by Wagner as the apotheosis of dance, for his Celebrations; four years later he tackled the Ninth for his Ode. If one had to decide their suitability for dance on the basis of the recent West Coast premiere of these two works as a combined piece, one would have to say "maybe" for the first, "no way" for the second part.
Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley is very much building its identity. A third of its members joined either last or this year, some of them barely beyond the apprentice stage. The fact that the company danced as competently and with such verve as it did is a credit to the survival of a core of, at times, exciting professionals. To see someone like Kevin Belanger, a new dancer, more than hold his own against the company's much more experienced men was most encouraging.
Celebrations is buoyed by a joyful exuberance, elegantly restrained by Nahat's easy use of the classical vocabulary. Airborne women float over the men with rounded ports de bras that caress the air like spring breezes. The piece's irresistible triple meters inspire constant motion; couples shape into circles, groups divide into men and women only to reform into a tutti. Nahat acknowledges the churning score, though he doesn't come close to realizing its trajectories. Alighting on the music as he saw fit, he picked up on recurring themes and changing moods, acknowledging shifting orchestral relationships, but he stayed very much on the surface. He appropriately uses the extensive introduction like an overturethe curtain doesn't open until the exposition; in "Commemorative Ritual," Sean Kelly partners three very different women in response to the allegretto's theme and variationsstately Joanne Jaglowski, an elfin Emi Hariyama, and a pert DeAnn Petruschke. Loveliest of all was Nahat's nod to the presto's ("Sudden Laughter") antecedent in the minuet with its stately promenades, bows, and curtsys for the lead couple, Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriguez.
Celebrations may be problematic, but on its own terms it makes sense. Ode doesn't. Here the monumentality of the music's "universal drama" defeated the choreography. Stage fog and moody lighting can't make up for thin invention and lack of structural rigor. The adagio's ("Remembrances") sculptural posed endings looked contrived, undercutting the preceding duets, one of which, for Gabay and Rodriguez, soared with impressive urgency and passion. The choreography for the last movement opened with a nod to The Magic Flute's Temple of Isis procession and ended like a gymnastics competition. Overtaxed soloist Stephane Dalle looked as if he wanted to sweep everything away. Beethoven didn't help. That last choral movement approached bathos. San Jose State's University Chorale made it worse. Ensconced by set designer David Guthrie as putti in floating clouds, they often sang flat, and the badly amplified soloists sounded as if they were kept in a cave. One had to pity conductor Dwight Oltman, who did an otherwise creditable job for Ludwig Van.