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San Francisco & Bay Area Roundup

February 2013

by Heather Desaulniers

  • Company C Contemporary Ballet - Gala Program, 2013
    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
  • The Hamburg Ballet - “Nijinsky”
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • BAM/PFA presents Anna Halprin - “Parades and Changes”
    University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley
  • Ballet San Jose - “Don Quixote”
    San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, San Jose
  • “Analog”, choreography by Katharine Hawthorne
    Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco

February 9th - It has been two years since I last saw Company C Contemporary Ballet onstage and in that time, significant changes have been made to the company roster. As some dancers have moved on and new additions have been welcomed, one truth has held firm: this troupe holds a commitment and vision for diverse, challenging and exciting contemporary repertoire. Under the Artistic Direction of Charles Anderson, the 2013 Gala Program brought five works from across the artistic spectrum, ranging from campy entertainment to elegant depth. Company C’s rep crosses boundaries, confronts conventions and most important, seeks to create an ongoing relationship and conversation with its audience.

The evening began with the premiere of Anderson’s “Boys, Blonds and Balls”, a quartet for two couples that also incorporated two full-size fitness balls. The overall feeling of the piece was one of seductive allure and old-school mystery, in which the yoga balls played several theatrical roles: as sets, as props and as extensions of the body. “Railroad Joint”, Yuri Zhukov’s etude on articulation followed - this world premiere the result of Company C’s 2012 choreographic competition. Zhukov’s composition expertly delved into movement and mechanics, exploring how the intersection of the two conjure images, create shapes and command space. The first scene found the cast of seven emerged in small reflexive motions (both as individuals and as a collective), which then accelerated and developed over the rest of the dance. “Railroad Joint” was a choreographic highlight of this program with an equal dose of artistic sensibility and kinesthetic approach.

Act I was rounded out with two shorter works by Anderson: “For Your Eyes Only” and a comical “Swan Lake” vignette. “For Your Eyes Only” is a hauntingly raw pas de deux, danced flawlessly at this performance by Chantelle Pianetta and Bobby Briscoe. During his opening remarks, Anderson revealed that this ballet was originally choreographed to be part of a program for the hearing impaired, and to that end, it takes place unaccompanied, in silence. The result was a stage full of human sculpture with dynamic diversity: from floaty port de bras to accented grand battements. And without music to rely on or hide behind, a unique vulnerability and choreographic truth rose from the stage. Right before intermission, we were treated to Anderson’s farcical interpretation of the “Swan Lake” cygnets. This short scene juxtaposed the women ‘en pointe’ in the classical variation against three men tap dancing the choreography. It was very fun, silly and entertaining, though it would have been even more so if all of the guys could actually tap. There was a lot of ‘faking’ going on (except for one of the dancers, who was obviously a trained tapper), and that lack of skill did not add to the comedy at all.

The Gala evening concluded with Patrick Corbin’s new work, “For Use In Subhuman Primates Only”, set to a ‘Massive Attack’ soundscore. Sub-divided into four sections (each to one individual song), the dance transports the audience to an underground club scene, complete with metallic costumes and pulsating rhythms. Choreographic variance was the order of the day, with movement ranging from classic petit allegro (assemblés and soubresauts) to disco to animal-inspired sequences. As the piece wore on, it seemed that Corbin was attempting to deal with the evolutionary process in some way, but I’m not sure that he was successful. “For Use In Subhuman Primates Only” was more psychedelic rave and less kinesthetic study. Though, it did reveal David Van Ligon as the quintessential partner. He has it all and has mastered his craft: tall, strong, supportive, all with a lithely grace and masculine fervor.

February 14th - Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and the creative staff at San Francisco Ballet opted for something different with this season’s second program. They invited The Hamburg Ballet, under the direction of John Neumeier, to present the Northern Californian premiere of his “Nijinsky”. San Francisco Ballet fans absolutely loved Neumeier’s production of “The Little Mermaid”, so it’s not a huge surprise that his work is back on the War Memorial stage. But despite the rave reviews and resounding reception, his choreography is often tough for me. That is, until now. “Nijinsky” was amazing on all counts – the narrative communication, the character depth, the choreographic staging, the historical re-enactment. The San Francisco arts community is incredibly lucky that this thirteen-year-old ballet has finally arrived in Northern California.

Neumeier’s epic story ballet began and ended with the same event - Nijinsky’s final public performance in 1919 - while the rest of the dance recalled, retold and replayed various moments from Nijinsky’s life. The good, the bad, the desperate and the tumultuous all came together to communicate this man’s personal and professional existence. Neumeier not only worked for chronological accuracy, but also attempted to convey the essence of this fantastically complicated individual. The resulting full-length work shows the difficult struggle between honest intention and created illusion, an equation that Nijinsky himself fought so desperately to balance.

At this performance, the role of Nijinsky and his wife Romola were danced brilliantly by guest artists Guillaume Côté and Heather Ogden. Côté’s first solo was perfectly eerie. In it, we see Nijinsky haunted by emotion, haunted by circumstance, haunted by memories, and haunted by himself. Complexity was the name of the game and it came through everywhere; from Neumeier’s choreographic detail to Côté’s artistic interpretation, every decision onstage had layers of meaning. One important example came during this opening solo: a series of en dehors pirouettes and more specifically, the fifth position between each one. Technically, it is imperative to hit every one of those in-between fifth positions, in demi-plié, with both heels grounded to the floor (which Côté accomplished with purposeful specificity). But at the same time, those fifth positions also speak to Nijinsky’s own approach to ballet technique and training. This was a dancer who practiced and drilled every step to the nth degree, never settling for less than perfection. These fifth positions may have seemed like preparatory moments, but really they were character revelations. It is with them (and other similar examples) that Neumeier illustrated Nijinsky’s technical prowess and narrative truth.

Neumeier also fabricated a position of stillness and comfort for the Nijinsky character; a pose that resurfaced at many points throughout the ballet. Multiple times, Côté carefully placed his feet in first position and opened his arms wide to second. This stance became homebase; a place of strength, peace and composure. It was his sanity; his solitude; and his moment of introspection.

Edvin Revazov as Serge Diaghilev gave another standout performance; a profound portrayal of the controlling puppet master. At the end of Act I, Revazov walked gracefully and coldly through a scene of dancers as if he was conducting his own personal orchestra. Côté and Ogden’s final pas de deux also deserves special mention. With it, Neumeier has choreographed a duet that is a physical representation of insanity – completely devastating, uncontrollable, inescapable and exhausting.

Though not only related to this piece, The Hamburg Ballet company must be applauded for their accomplished stage presence and their commitment to varied physicality. From “Nijinsky’s” opening moments until the curtain fell, the entire cast looked so confident and at ease. Gestural miming was kept to a minimum and there was not even an inkling of overacting or melodramatic posturing – these dancers seemed like real people at real events in real relationships. Whether dancing a classical or contemporary variation or sitting watching the action center stage, there was a maturity and seasoned-ness to each moment of every dancer’s performance (not with respect to age, but definitely in terms of acumen). In addition, The Hamburg Ballet currently has a wonderful roster of varied dancers who are all technical proficients. And when making a ballet about a dancer who himself did not have the traditional ballet body type, having a company that is more mosaic and less cookie-cutter is not only helpful, it is necessary.

February 15th - The Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive was home to a much anticipated three-night return of Anna Halprin’s 1965 work, “Parades and Changes”. Rumored to be this dance’s final staging, these three performances served a dual purpose. First, they introduced this famous work (or infamous, depending on who you ask) to a new generation and second, they helped to complete an artistic circle. Halprin’s postmodern composition was part of BAM/PFA’s opening in 1970 and the institute is currently readying itself to move to a new home over the next few years. With this 2013 engagement, “Parades and Changes” has bookended a large section of the BAM/PFA story; providing a fitting sense of closure to one chapter and launching the entity into its next season of life.

“Parades and Changes” began as composer Morton Subotnick took center stage; the cast having been already assembled and sprinkled throughout the audience. As each dancer shared stories of ‘personal remembrance’, Subotnick conducted them as he would an orchestra. Filled with musical cut-offs, crescendos, accents and accelerandos, the overlapping voices and interrupted sentences morphed into a polyphonic song. Once this entr’acte was complete, the cast took the stage with their official introduction; a wonderfully bizarre set of opening credits.

The undressing/dressing scene was slow and deliberate, like watching the effect of a strobe light. Here was pedestrian movement being stylized, as the dancers stared, trance-like, into the horizon. Each of the fourteen performers disrobed and then re-dressed in their own time, at their own pace and once completely dressed, resumed the walking and strolling that took up much of “Parades and Changes”. The second undressing tableau was a little different, with the addition of mirroring. No longer a lone experience, the performers worked in groups of twos and threes, imitating each other’s speed and movements. The paper-tearing section followed, and lastly, a rhythm percussion vignette, which was a little bit Judson and a little bit “Stomp” all at the same time.

“Parades and Changes” is an example of Halprin’s scored choreography, where each dance is derived from a group of tasks/goals. From one performance to the next, the score for the same piece may occur in a different order and each segment’s duration may vary. A study and method of structured improvisation, this kind of choreographic system turns the self-indulgent practice of dance improv into a useful theatrical tool.

I had never seen “Parades and Changes” live before, though of course, was familiar with both its history and legacy. So, I was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to see such an important part of the postmodern oeuvre in person. And because of its newness for me, I assumed that I wouldn’t have expectations or preconceptions, but I did. “Parades and Changes” was very good and the major tenets of postmodernism were clearly present within it: egalitarianism, non-conformity, porous boundaries between life and art and a commitment to form and structure. However, it is impossible to ignore all the hype that surrounds this one dance. I was anticipating that it would absolutely change my life, and it didn’t. For me, it was most definitely an important experience but neither artistically nor academically revelatory.

February 16th - No matter which company is presenting it, “Don Quixote” is not my favorite full-length narrative ballet. I find it puzzling that in most versions, the protagonist and namesake of the work plays a very minor, almost absentee role. In addition, Act II (the Gypsies/Dryads) seems to happen very much in isolation, being thrown into the middle with little purpose, meaning or relation to the rest of the ballet. That being said, even I can admit when a good version of “Don Quixote” comes along, as was the case with Ballet San Jose’s company premiere (staged by Wes Chapman after Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky). The story, as always, still had these inherent issues, but the performances, choreography and design were delightful.

Act I’s opening scene was enchanting – the costuming, stage decoration and ambiance working together to transport the audience to a vibrant Spanish village. At this performance, soloist Junna Ige danced the role of Kitri, and her first solo was the stuff ballet dreams are made of. Ige has the technical chops for this demanding role, yet her commitment to artistry was the shining star. Over the years, the famous Kitri grand jeté (the one with the back leg in attitude) has turned into a jump that is all about the dancer’s head touching her back leg. Though Ige was true to the choreography and probably does have the flexibility to accomplish this feat, her jeté reflected the character’s intention, personality and joie de vivre. Ige wasn’t trying to create a spectacle by doing tricks, rather, she was embodying Kitri. Maykel Solas, as Basilio, had some brilliant moments including his Act I pirouette series – anyone who can manage four/five rotations to the left, while slowing down to hold the final pirouette position on demi-pointe deserves some extra praise.

Act II’s story does need some better cohesion with and connectedness to the rest of the ballet, yet one cannot ignore its standout performances. Maria Jacobs-Yu’s Cupid was perfection, both in technique and character interpretation. She was part imp, part matchmaker, part supernatural, all while managing some challenging choreography. The entrechat quatre batterie and relevé passé sequence was simply transcendent. Jing Zhang as the Queen of the Dryads was appropriately statuesque and regal, though I wish that she had put her heel down all the way to the floor in between each fouetté relevé, for no other reason than to spare her Achilles tendon. And in the swarm of ethereal splendor, one of the Dryads absolutely sparkled. Ballet San Jose apprentice Kathryn Meeusen will definitely be one to watch in the years to come.

One thing that I have noticed with Ballet San Jose is that more often than not, in the larger group scenes, the stage looks crowded. And this doesn’t seem to be because of sets/props that are too big or costumes that are too overwhelming, there are just too many dancers onstage at one time. And sometimes the choreography suffers a bit as a result. During the Act I Toreadors’ variation, one of the corps women was unable to extend her front leg in jeté, not because she couldn’t, but because she would have kicked someone, who incidentally also had nowhere to move, no way to adjust and no space to get out of the way.

February 23rd - Katharine Hawthorne’s second full-length work, “Analog”, comprehensively studies range of motion. This sixty-five minute contemporary dance performance creates a ‘living’ Venn Diagram, where our physical/kinesthetic boundaries form one circle and movement possibilities form the second. From there, Hawthorne seeks to understand that important middle area of intersection, and to that end, how the physical (anatomy, space) affects range of motion. Rudolf Laban would be proud to see such a pure examination of direction, articulation, and extremes.

“Analog’s” sole set piece was an overhead projector (credited as ‘Apollo’ in the program) that displayed different patent specification drawings throughout the dance. This projector was moved several times during the piece so that the projections could appear in differing places on the two huge white walls. The first patent transparency was that of an artificial hand (file date – 1927) and provided the first image for Hawthorne’s choreographic exploration. After a brief entrance phrase, the entire cast (three women, two men) began a long section of hand intonation. A wide variety of movements were present: small and large; relaxed and static; voluntary and involuntary, abrupt and deliberate. This lengthy variation crescendoed over time, building into a more abandoned full body segment, where the hand movement was still the obvious point of initiation.

Next, the overhead projector was moved farther away so that it could display a new patent drawing on a much larger scale, encompassing most of one wall. Three dancers began a new movement phrase right in front of this ‘projected screen’, creating a sense that they were in front of the image, yet in it at the same time. This portion of “Analog” was a choreographical highlight, a throw back to early Cunningham: straightness in the spine, elastic limbs, all planes of the body (sagittal, coronal, transverse). This vignette was also proof that Hawthorne is drawn to interpreting all ranges of motion, from individual anatomy to the whole body in space. And for such a physical piece, there was only one very minor collision throughout – the dancers for the most part had very good spatial awareness.

“Analog’s” repetitive motion/accumulation chapter was another standout. Here, the entire cast began with the same movement: unfolding the right side of the body. Then, different individuals moved on and added to this initial step, at their own pace, in their own time. After a while, all five were back in unison, having reached a new movement pattern. Brilliantly camouflaged within Hawthorne’s choreography, this was all underscored by a very appropriate and well-matched heartbeat soundscape.

My only criticism is that some of the internal segments were a little long. Not all of them, but a few went on well past their prime. The ending also seemed a bit ill-timed. About five minutes before the blackout, there was a clear wind-down where the dancers met with a moment of repose. It would have been a perfect ending, but instead, there was a final burst of energy. While it was impressive that the cast could rally for one last set of movement phrases, the final five minutes felt like an extra, unrelated add-on.

 

 

 

 

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