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San Francisco & Bay Area Roundup

May 2013

by Heather Desaulniers

  • KUNST-STOFF Dance Company - “Rapport: The statement is in the question”
    Old Mint, San Francisco
  • Hope Mohr Dance
    ODC Theater, San Francisco
  • San Francisco Ballet - “Cinderella”
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, presented by Cal Performances
    Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
  • Smuin Ballet - “Spring Bouquet”
    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

May 2nd - KUNST-STOFF Dance Company’s “Rapport: The statement is in the question” is strong, solid dance theater. Conceived by Artistic Director Yannis Adoniou, the site-specific, mobile work combines text and movement in a way that makes sense. The absurdity and bizarreness that inhabits so much dance theater these days was absent, allowing for an unfettered communication of “Rapport’s” narrative complexity. As the audience moved in and out five different spaces, Adoniou and fellow performers Lindsey Renee Derry, Katie Gaydos and Calvin Hilpert shared their individual experiences through text and movement; a physical and emotional script of their dancing and non-dancing lives. This was about speaking your history (whatever that may be) and understanding how the present is certainly informed by it but now bound to it. How appropriate that “Rapport” was set in the basement vaults of the Old Mint building. The bowels of this historic San Francisco structure was the perfect setting to reveal the bowels of the human psyche.

“Rapport’s” first scene was an invitation into the notion of the personal. Derry began by leaning against the only set piece in the room, a green armchair, and making prolonged eye contact with every audience member. And, it wasn’t just a passing glance or an uncomfortable recognition of your presence, rather, Derry was establishing a relational camaraderie between the performer and the viewer. Adoniou joined and performed a meditative series of movements, almost stylized floor barre exercises. Then, he sat in the chair as Derry turned out the lights, and he wept. Onto the second vignette and second room, which found Gaydos lip syncing to her pre-recorded voice – various facts and statements about her life. Alongside her was Hilpert dancing a fluid choreographic sequence that seemed very internally driven. Space number three was a second duet between Adoniou and Derry, a similar combination of lip-synced text and movement variations. As this duet grew and evolved, the question of what was accompanying what became very interesting. Was the text the background for the movement? Or, was the choreography scoring the words? I don’t know that the answer is important, but as the sub-title of “Rapport” suggests, “the statement is in the question”.

With a haunting story and a slow, deliberate walk, Hilpert transitioned the group into the last space, in which all four performers came together for a choreographic finale. Solo sequences were interspersed with unison duets, and in each grouping, Adoniou, Derry, Gaydos and Hilpert danced their history and their present. Ballet images were prevalent: grand battements; frappé beats sur le cou de pied. And, there was a definite sense of cleansing, of joy, and of freedom. “Rapport” concluded with a message of contentment with what is.

May 4th – The first weekend in May, Hope Mohr Dance brought its sixth home season to the ODC Theater in the Mission District of San Francisco. The evening was comprised of two works, one by Mohr (the premiere of “Failure of the Sign is the Sign”) and one by Hope Mohr Bridge Project guest Susan Rethorst (West Coast premiere of “Behold Bold Sam Dog”). This program demonstrates Mohr’s commitment to challenge the traditions and norms of modern dance through her own work and the work of other artists. And make no mistake, modern dance certainly has its share of customs and conventions that are in desperate need of some questioning from time to time.

I wanted to love “Failure of the Sign is the Sign” because as a rule, I really enjoy Mohr’s work. Unfortunately, it was just not a strong piece. So many theatrical tools and disciplinary genres (too many, in fact) were present and the cohesive thread that was needed to bind these elements together was missing. The forty-minute work was an interdisciplinary mash-up of dance, music, text, sculptural set design, props, body percussion, and vocalization. Somewhere amid all the external stimuli, the message and point got lost. One saving grace was Mohr’s brilliant choreography, which we finally got a glimpse of toward the end of “Failure of the Sign is the Sign”. The main choreographic sequence for all five dancers (Jeremy Bannon-Neches, James Graham, Katharine Hawthorne, Roche Janken, David Schleiffers and Tegan Schwab) took “Failure of the Sign is the Sign” out of its minutiae and into vitality. Buoyant jumps and unexpected groupings demonstrated that this is what Mohr does best: creative, dynamic modern dance movement.

The second half of the program brought a re-staging of Susan Rethorst’s 2001 composition, “Behold Bold Sam Dog”. Such an amazing work – an important reminder that modern dance doesn’t have to be all angst and turmoil. “Behold Bold Sam Dog” proves that contemporary choreography can be technically rigorous, yet still wacky, fun and wildly entertaining. Organized in a pseudo-concerto form, “Behold Bold Sam Dog” oscillated between featured sections (solos, duets and trios) and ritornellos (larger groupings of the cast). The dance also toggled back and forth from unaccompanied variations to those scored by music, primarily Shostakovich, with a little Beatles peppered in at the end. Variety in music was met by a wonderful variety of movement: suspension and fall; contraction and release; flexion and extension. One solo section - appearing in the middle of the piece and then returning to close “Behold Bold Sam Dog” -deserves special mention for its multi-layered genius. A dancer moved about the space, changing direction in a low and slow modern-jazz run. She looked like she was jumping over puddles – it was whimsical, musical, simplistic, and completely hypnotizing.

May 7th - Program 8, the final production in San Francisco Ballet’s eightieth anniversary celebration, is the one Bay Area ballet fans have been waiting for. The US premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s fairy-tale ballet was SFB’s flagship offering this season. And, “Cinderella” did not disappoint; all the hype was spot on. Everything about the three-Act narrative was absolutely grand - from the sets to the visual effects to the orchestrations to the costuming to the performances to the choreography – it was the SFB event of the year!

Just as it was with Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s re-vamping of “Swan Lake” for SFB in 2009, Wheeldon’s decision to include a Prologue in his “Cinderella” was genius. The ballet begins by introducing us to the two main characters (Cinderella and Prince Guillaume) as children. This provides imperative insight into their history, helping the audience understand what early life events they experienced and how these continue to inform their lives as young adults. With Cinderella, we see her as a child enduring her mother’s death and her father’s subsequent marriage to another woman (and a very unfriendly one at that), Hortensia. We meet Prince Guillaume as a young boy playing with his friend Benjamin - happy, joyful and carefree. His father King Albert quickly puts a stop to his childhood fun by reminding him that his life is about responsibility and duty, nothing more. With these short prologue scenes, Wheeldon reveals how much these two individuals have in common, which further explains why they are so drawn to each other later in the ballet. The grown-up Cinderella and Prince Guillaume (the incomparable Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan at this performance) share a deep sense of fear. Her, a fear of letting herself love someone who may not always be there and he, a fear of being controlled by situations, by circumstances and by other people. As evidenced by the following two hours and fifteen minutes, fear is a common denominator for them but it is by no means the entire narrative of their love story. It is simply an important piece of the puzzle that is rarely seen or heard.

Transformation is the name of the game as Cinderella is readied for the ball. Accompanying this conversion-moment are four lovely divertissements, beautifully danced and exquisitely choreographed. By merging traditional and contemporary ballet vocabulary, Wheeldon is able to speak and physically re-create the essence of the four seasons – Spring’s sprightly blossoms, Summer’s extended sunsets, Autumn’s dynamic changes and Winter’s delicate flutter.

As the ball commenced (and Act II began), the audience was treated to a delicious collection of sensibilities. We began with the stately, regal and elegant corps de ballet in the partnered social dancing sequences. Then came much humor. The three princesses who are brought to ‘woo’ the Prince were all outrageously funny, though Courtney Elizabeth kind of stole the show as the Russian Princess. Cinderella’s Stepmother (Shannon Rugani) had an equally hilarious drunk dance; while the two Stepsisters (Dana Genshaft as Edwina and Clara Blanco as Clementine) were comic gold from beginning to end. Blanco’s Clementine evolved over this scene as she became smitten with Benjamin (Hansuke Yamamoto) and he with her. It was a nice touch for both characters; a sense of humanity in her, and sincerity in him.

Cinderella and Prince Guillaume’s pas de deux at the ball was everything it should have been – youthful, joyous; full of expectation. In each of their variations, a willingness to move forward was prevalent. Wheeldon peppered Cinderella’s choreography with various iterations of fourth position, indicating an openness to the future. Possibility could have easily been the title for the Prince’s solo with its plethora of circular jumps and leaps. I also really appreciated how “Cinderella” was not about hyperextensions, super high legs or circus tricks. Wheeldon’s choreography served the story in an honest and humble way; just one of the reasons why this particular production of “Cinderella” was so good.

Act III was short and sweet as the Prince searched the kingdom for his one true love; the foot that fit the golden shoe. As the curtain fell and the orchestra played its final chord, it was clear that Cinderella and Prince Guillaume had moved past their fears and had found love, happiness and most important, a sense of peace.

As expected, the entire run of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” was sold out at San Francisco Ballet. But, if you didn’t get a chance to see the maiden and the prince get their ‘happily ever after’ this year, you will have another opportunity. SFB has added the ballet to its 2014 season (the fourth program). Get your tickets for next year’s performance as soon as humanly possible; it is a must-see!

May 10th - Both visits that I made to the ballet in the middle of the month had a common denominator: love. First came the youthful, hopeful, ‘happily ever after’ of Cinderella and Prince Guillaume at San Francisco Ballet. Fast forward three days to a different venue, a different ballet company and a very different love story, that of sculptors Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel. Boris Eifman has envisioned this hypnotic love story into “Rodin” - an evening–length narrative filled with his daring choreography. The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s Bay Area premiere of “Rodin” was a dramatic and stunning finale to the Cal Performances dance season.

The curtain rose to reveal the women of the asylum, all costumed in white. Tortured, frenetic movements spoke of frayed psyches; the masses looking like an institutionalized version of the Wilis from “Giselle”. Camille, danced by Lyubov Andreyeva, emerged from the center of the crowd, eyes wide with depth, fear and obsession. In one instant, she appeared almost childlike, and then in the next was totally detached from reality; completely distant from the present. Andreyeva is a mesmerizing mover, yet she is equally skilled as an actress – her face and her haunting eyes spoke volumes.

“Rodin” did not follow a linear timeline; instead opting to toggle between scenes in the mental institution and vignettes from Rodin and Camille’s past. Eifman likely crafted the work (and brilliantly so) in this haphazard chronology to reflect the unbalanced and volatile nature of Rodin the man, his relationship with both Camille and Rose, and the mental state of all three main characters.

During his opening solo, Oleg Gabyshev constructed the character of Rodin as a manic, tortured genius, which carried into Rodin and Camille’s first pas de deux. As Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” played delicately in the background, Gabyshev and Andreyeva created a living sculpture with their partnering, lifts and poses. Passion and tumult were the primary emotions; expressed in their work, for each other and inwardly toward themselves. Rodin and Camille’s abandon was visceral, so much so that they became completely intertwined and utterly damaged. As Eifman’s gorgeous pas de deux came to a close, his message leapt from the stage: here were two individuals who spent their whole lives obsessed with sculpting the landscape around them, yet were powerless to control the consequences on their respective mental states.

Though the character of Rose Beuret (Nina Zmievets at this performance) was certainly present in “Rodin’s” first half, her role as his ‘other love’ was much more prominent in Act II. While Rodin and Camille were fiery and out-of-control, Rodin and Rose were genuine, perhaps even gentle at times. And as the lights dimmed, the truth shone. Rodin may have truly loved both Rose and Camille, but he was always trying to sculpt them into who he needed them to be.

May 17th - For the final program of its nineteenth season, Smuin Ballet presented a lovely mixed repertory evening: Michael Smuin’s “Chants D’Auvergne” (1999), Helen Pickett’s “Petal” (2008) and Darrell Grand Moultrie’s “Jazzin’” (2012). A diverse set of offerings, the Spring Dance Series revealed a lasting characteristic of this San Francisco troupe: elegance. The current artistic leadership is committed to retaining Michael Smuin’s vision and honoring his legacy yet, at the same time, not becoming stuck in the past. Smuin Ballet is spring boarding into their coming twentieth anniversary year with strength, technique and of course, a regal elegance.

“Chants D’Auvergne”, choreographed by Smuin to Joseph Canteloube’s score of French folk songs, was a sweet, charming ballet. An ode to civility, couples entered the stage and greeted each other, bowing and curtseying; a dignified sense of community. The choreography reflected Smuin’s lyrical sensibility, though “Chants D’Auvergne” was certainly more classical than many of his other works. Robin Semmelhack was divine – her stage presence drawing the audience in at every moment. While the dance was both graceful and enchanting, it was not without its issues. First and foremost, it is just too long. With the exception of one humorous pas de trois for the men (danced at this performance by Jonathan Powell, Aidan DeYoung and Jonathan Mangosing), the choreography and dynamics are pretty much the same through the whole ballet. Length-wise, it really could have been cut in half. Secondly, it revealed some pretty obvious technical disparities amongst the women of the cast. A couple of the women in this company (Janica Smith, for one) technically outshine some of the others and it’s starting to become noticeable.

A new addition to Smuin’s repertory is Helen Pickett’s 2008 contemporary work, “Petal”. This was far and away the best piece of the evening. Here we saw range, strength and flexibility (something that was missing in “Chants D’Auvergne”) from the entire cast: Erica Chipp, Erica Felsch, Jane Rehm, Erin Yarbrough, Jonathan Dummar, John Speed Orr, Joshua Reynolds and Christian Squires. Squires had a fantastic, though brief solo about two-thirds of the way through the ballet. He is such an amazing mover, able to immediately adapt to the stylistic demands of any work. But the accolade for performance of the night certainly goes to Jane Rehm. Even though this piece was originally made years ago on another company, Pickett’s choreography looked like it was created on and for Rehm. Her performance was fueled by a deep abandon and technical ferocity that was out of this world. I’ve seen her featured in other works, but it was in this piece that she distinguished herself as a force to be reckoned with. I only wish the women’s costumes had been different; they just weren’t very flattering.

Closing the Spring Program was Darrell Grand Moultrie’s “Jazzin’”. An entertaining, high energy piece, it fused together so many fun and different tastes. The first sequence, appropriately dubbed ‘The Strut’, was reminiscent of Tharp’s “Deuce Coupe” and Robbins’ “West Side Story”. Erica Felsch’s solo (titled ‘Spring in My Step’) was gorgeous. A recent addition to the Smuin roster, Felsch is going to go far. The final full-cast unison variation was absolutely smashing, though it took forever to get to this last brilliant moment. The ensemble finale ramp up was just way too long.

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