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San Francisco & Bay Area Roundup

Summer 2012

by Heather Desaulniers

* ODC Theater presents - "Walking Distance Dance Festival - SF"
 
June 29th - July 1st, 2012, ODC Campus, San Francisco

* San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove Festival
  
Sigmund Stern Grove, San Francisco

* Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® present “DRAGONS”
  
Oracle Arena, Oakland

* ODC/Dance Summer Sampler
  
ODC Theater, San Francisco

June 30th - This summer, ODC successfully launched its first ever "Walking the Distance Dance Festival", a three-day event aimed at bringing together multiple companies, short programs and the dance audience. Spread throughout the ODC Campus, each performance was offered at two different times in either the Mott Studio, the B'Way Theater or in Studio B of the Dance Commons. With the adjacent locations and the numerous choices, patrons could easily see a diverse sampling of modern dance in a single evening or afternoon. The inaugural festival happened to coincide with the Dance/USA conference (which was also convening in the city) - what a special opportunity to share the San Francisco artistic spirit and our quality choreography with colleagues from around the country.

I took in one performance during this amazing weekend, a combined program featuring two of my favorite companies: RAWdance in "After 5:00" and Hope Mohr Dance in an excerpt of "Reluctant Light". RAWdance's co-artistic directors Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith served as both the choreographers and performers in the passionate and volatile "After 5:00". This dance highlighted how personal, individual baggage speaks to, lives, thrives and affects current relationships; an interchange of inner demons and control. The piece began with Smith sitting in a chair slowly pouring water on Rein. She moved away from him and engaged in a stunning solo, traditional modern technique with an edge - beautiful turned out attitudes and developpés in parallel second. Smith took over the space with his own solo, with the initial moments returning to the water motif. He slowly emptied the bottle over his head, almost like a painful cleansing ritual. His dance was emotionally charged, informed by real fear. The water had revealed something; a feeling, event or experience that was clearly tormenting him. Then, Rein and Smith came back together at the end of "After 5:00" for a tempestuous duet - at times clinging to each other while at others, pushing and flinging each other away. I love many things about this company, but one of their most important choreographic achievements is that the narrative is constant. It informs everything in any given piece and remains true through every movement variation.

I had seen the premiere of the full-length "Reluctant Light" at Z Space back in March, and it was fascinating to see Hope Mohr Dance again in this work, this time in an excerpt. Doing an excerpt of an entire piece is not easy at all; you must capture the essence and message of the work without the full choreographic material. Hope Mohr Dance did this very well. I still saw the juxtaposition of encasement and freedom, yet, there were also new discoveries, including a more layered exploration of 'assumption'. I felt like there was a set of different questions being asked: what does a structure or boundary suggest; how does it temper behavior; how does its assumed role challenge or hinder interactions; what happens when we re-purpose an entity; how do we try and control our surroundings? I wonder if these observations simply came from a second viewing or from the fact that in the 'Walking Distance Dance Festival', "Reluctant Light" was presented in a smaller setting and more intimate venue.

July 29th - Each year, I look forward to so many different dance performances but probably my most anticipated is the San Francisco Ballet at the Stern Grove Festival. A day filled with an amazing picnic lunch, great seats, and lively, engaging discussion with the most fun group of dance enthusiasts. What more could one ask for? Well of course, the performance (incidentally, the ballet’s only SF engagement between May and November) is the quintessential element of this one-of-a-kind experience.

I have said this many times before with respect to San Francisco Ballet’s programming, and it is certainly worth repeating. Without fail, the company manages to present work that highlights their diverse repertory and the dancer’s artistic/technical acumen. Now, that doesn’t mean I like every piece, but I always appreciate their commitment to showcasing range and depth and the 2012 Stern Grove program was no exception.

The San Francisco Ballet began with George Balanchine’s “Scotch Symphony” from their preceding season. I love this ballet, particularly because of its dynamic contrast: quick batterie against elegant adagio; playful allegro alongside emotional pas de deux. Nicole Ciapponi shone as the ‘scotch girl’. She successfully executed the vast array of footwork in the role, from the traveling brisés to stationary jètés to pliés on high demi-pointe. Ciapponi has the wherewithal to dance any style, any part, and this time, it was exciting to see her as a batterie/petit allegro soloist. Another standout performance came from within the “Scotch Symphony” corps. Dustin Spero has the regality and sharpness necessary for this ballet. Every movement was precise and exact, whether posing in a lunge or completing an entre chat six. He morphed into his character totally; projecting an advanced interpretation and understanding of this work. Maybe soon we will see him as one of the demi-soloists in Balanchine’s visual masterpiece.

Two shorter ballets filled the middle portion of the program. The first, “Spinae”, choreographed by corps de ballet member Myles Thatcher and danced by SF Ballet apprentices and trainees, lived up to and even exceeded the expectations of its title. Thatcher fully examined every possible articulation, contraction and release that can be found in the spine. The sinewy syntax was so lush and developed that at times, it seemed that the dancers were literally swimming through space. And Thatcher’s inventive running leaps are reminiscent of early Édouard Lock. The trainees and apprentices are truly fantastic technicians and performers – it was both a treat and an honor to see them dance. Having said that, the men could use a little more attention to their demi-pointe; generally speaking, the arch of their feet is a little underdeveloped.

Next came Hans van Manen’s “Solo”, danced by Gennadi Nedvigin, James Sofranko and Hansuke Yamamoto. The most interesting aspect of this work is how van Manen chose to mirror Bach’s music through the physical form. Each man embodied a different theme, seamlessly juxtaposing and layering, which is exactly what Bach was doing with the themes in the score. Much of Bach’s music has no stopping point, no cadence, until the end of the composition is reached. Similarly, Nedvigin, Sofranko and Yamamoto ushered each other on and off stage so that the movement also never stopped. van Manen captured the polyphonic texture through every playful interaction, and kept true to the compositional elements from the Baroque period: utilizing augmentation, diminution, sequence and inversion.

“Number Nine”, Christopher Wheeldon’s colorful ménage, acted as the finale of the afternoon. Yet another example of the company’s diverse repertoire, this contemporary ballet featured four couples (who were well-suited both technically and visually), supported by a corps of sixteen. One of the four solo women, Sasha DeSola, is fast becoming a favorite of mine. She is an absolute delight to watch and has the technical chops to match – textbook fouettés, and her rond de jambe en l’air absolutely soars. Gennadi Nedvigin’s jumping entrance was super-human; he was almost horizontal to the ground and landed with such presence and composure. He definitely drew a number of audible ‘wows’ from the audience. Though I enjoyed the overall performance of this ballet, “Number Nine’s” choreography is just a little busy for me. Wheeldon has so many different pairings, sequences and variations happening all at once that the stage becomes a little schizophrenic. However, to be fair, he does pull the group together for the final moments, which for me, are the most cohesive of the work.

August 8th - I have always made a clear and definite separation between dance and acrobatics. Though I can concede that each genre uses aspects of the other from time to time, they just seem like very different entities to me. However, I’m starting to re-think this demarcation a little bit. With the combination of Olympic gymnastics coverage and my recent trip to the circus (Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® “DRAGONS”), the line that I have drawn in my head between dance and acrobatics is getting fuzzier and fuzzier.

Typical for a circus show, “DRAGONS” was broken into two halves, each comprised of six to eight short ‘acts’. Some of these were traditional, old-school circus stand-bys: large cat exhibition, tight rope, clowns, etc. And then there were the acrobatics: trapeze, human pyramids and aerial work. It is with this last category that I began to reconsider my somewhat static opinions surrounding acrobatics and dance. And this time, I noticed much more cross-over between the two than I had in the past. One particular sequence really drove this idea home. Performers were suspended high above the ground in clear, transparent orbs that were engineered to toggle between being closed and open. This allowed for a range of movement from gymnastic backbends within the closed orb to more dance-y split jetés, separating the two hemispheres. Throughout this dynamic scene, it was clear that all of the participants were doing both aerial dance and artistic acrobatics. They used every part of their body to counter balance and create shapes in space, and moved flowingly from one pose to another with transitory awareness. As I watched their routine, I became fascinated with a duality. The movements were so similar to those used by San Francisco modern dance companies who specialize in aerial choreography. But at the same time, this was clearly a circus act.

In any event, this experience got me thinking more about the blurry and complex relationship between dance and acrobatics. And in this case, external forces like intention, context, format, costuming and location determined the movement’s categorization. If I had seen the exact same variation on the side of a wall in San Francisco, without a doubt, I would characterize it as aerial dance, but here at “DRAGONS”, I was definitely seeing circus acrobatics. Interesting how outside factors have so much influence on perception.

August 11th - So many San Francisco/Bay Area dance companies have embraced new ways to share their work with the audience. In addition to their ‘primary’ home seasons, many groups are now offering shorter mixed repertory collections in smaller more intimate settings. This brings dancers, patrons and the choreography itself together in a very different, yet exciting way. RAWdance has its ‘Concept Series’, Diablo Ballet invites us ‘Inside the Dancer’s Studio’ and ODC/Dance offers a ‘Summer Sampler’. This year’s ‘Summer Sampler’ was not only a unique opportunity to see a major company off-season but also a chance to say goodbye to one of their long-time dancers, Daniel Santos.

The program featured choreography spanning the past six years, with KT Nelson’s “Cut Out Guy” (2012) and Brenda Way’s “Unintended Consequences” (2008) and “Parts Of A Longer Story” (2006). In the program notes, Nelson shared that “Cut Out Guy” was a tribute to school-aged competitive wrestlers. She handily captured the complex array of skills and traits that these phenomenal athletes possess. The notions of balance, centeredness, agility, litheness and grace abounded through the dancing of Dennis Adams, Justin Andrews, Corey Brady, Daniel Santos and Jeremy Smith. Looseness was illustrated by ‘shaking’ sequences, flexibility in the leg extensions and the strength, oh my, the feats of strength she created. Adams picked up one of the other dancers on his shoulders and upper back, rising all the way from the floor to standing. Another dancer balanced himself in the air by holding onto only the torso of a second dancer. Nelson and these 5 men were totally ‘in the zone’ with this study of physical and mental ability.

I did like both the movement and the performances in “Unintended Consequences (A Meditation)” - especially Vanessa Thiessen’s opening variation and the final unison section - though the piece was really the weakest of the three. Chunks of differing choreographic material had been put together in sequence but were lacking any transitional linkage. Much of the dance seemed like it came out of nowhere and was artistically independent from and unrelated to what had just occurred. Maybe that was Way’s intention with this work; a kind of absurdist take on juxtaposing unrelated movement.

It was well worth the wait to see Way’s “Part Of A Longer Story” as the ‘Summer Sampler’ finale. ODC/Dance performed Parts I and II of this 2006 work and it was absolutely magical. Set to Mozart’s gorgeous Clarinet Concerto in A Major, Way managed to create an interdependent relationship between the music and the movement, each breathing life into the other. I don’t use the word masterpiece very often, but “Parts Of A Longer Story” is a true masterpiece, one of those once-in-a-lifetime creations. Genre-wise, the work is a fusion of traditional ballet and modern whimsy: attitude turns ending with a hand flourish, slow developpés culminating with a staccato flexed foot. Part II, a long duet between Santos and Thiessen, was all about sustained regality. Through the lushly beautiful, yet simple musical theme, promenades glided, hands floated and legs lengthened as far away from the body as was humanly possible. Here was a true pas de deux, a dance of two, where the first half finds Santos and Thiessen dancing in the same space, yet separately. And then, right before the final recapitulation of the theme, they come together for an even fuller understanding and statement of suspension. Way has captured the perfect physical representation of the long appoggiatura, a non-chord note which sits in dissonance and then finally leans into its musical resolution. Stunning. This piece will live forever.

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