Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Kirov Ballet's 'The Sleeping Beauty' at CalPerf, 10/2005

Potential sleeper depends on Aurora to keep us wide awake
The Kirov Ballet at Zellerbach Hall
Presented by CalPerformances
October 12, 2005

The Kirov Ballet returned to Berkeley last night with Konstantin Sergeyev’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” Based on Petipa’s choreography and including “fragments” by Fedor Lopukhov, the October 12th performance served as a Diana Vishneva tour de force. Her Aurora proved to be the highlight of the night, and made me glad I traveled via MUNI and BART to see her come of age, draw blood, slumber, and after much beauty rest, find love with a man who wears golden slippers and, thanks to some technical help, hits a bulls-eye on the first attempt.

Vishneva’s interpretation added magic to the air, and while this is normally a fairy’s job, no one could outshine her. She convincingly transformed from 16-year-old ecstatic teen to confused spindle pricker and then wise, love-stricken bride. All eyes followed Vishneva from step to step, and while the corps de ballet’s missteps were minor, they greatly lacked the oomph and zest which Vishneva provided. Uliana Lopatkina’s Lilac Fairy served as a nice balance to Vishneva’s dynamic Aurora. Appropriately bathed in a bright lavender spotlight throughout, Lopatkina displayed steel will and languid limbs, and this Lilac Fairy differed from the sprightly fairies of days gone by; her mature portrayal displayed an urge to provide protection and guidance, a mystical mother figure if you will. Trust me, don’t mess with her or she’ll arabesque you! Carabosse, played rather creepily by Igor Petrov, discovered this on several occasions.

One of Vishneva’s most glorious moments came in Act I where she piquéd into attitude and then relevéd into attitude entournant, adding a side cambré and making the entire movement seem circular and all-encompassing. She continued this sweeping image through each step, and her développés, passés, and pirouettes seemed never ending. This magnified when, dancing with her Prince Desiré (Igor Zelensky), she was on pointe in a low penché with the same spiral-like side cambré, and Zelensky held onto her hip softly while pulling away and promenading her, emphasizing the curve of the movement while displaying trust between the two dancers. Zelensky’s Price combined nobility with humbleness. His dancing, while crisp, contained a natural elegance that shone through constantly, such as in a set of chaîné grand jetés in a large circle, but came to fruition in his partnering sequences. Dancing with Vishneva, he held her softly yet steadily, and they made a spectacular pair onstage.

Other dancers stood out, particularly Yana Selina’s effervescent Lightheartedness Fairy and flirty Puss (the cat), Viktoria Tereshkina's polished Diamond Fairy, and Yana Serebriakova’s shining Sapphire Fairy and poised Courage Fairy. Anton Korsakov’s Blue Bird fluttered about with strong brisés and lovely pointed toes, but his Princess Florina (Yulia Bolshakova) had issues taking flight. The sets added a needed ambiance and featured a sprawling golden gate (not the kind we have in San Francisco), a springtime garden full of greenery, and a sepia-toned forest. In addition, the Orchestra overcame a sloppy Prologue and played well for the remainder of the evening

Vishneva’s Aurora conveyed beauty in an infinite amount ways, but it couldn’t conceal some of the major imperfections. The Kirov brought the older “Beauty,” as their new version doesn’t fit on U.S. stages, yet this one still looked cramped (perhaps due to the multitude of well-coached students on loan from San Francisco Ballet School) on the Zellerbach stage, and at three hours and 40 minutes, this “Beauty” treads on overstaying its welcome. Overall, the dancers looked tired and lacked energy, and it was the three leads, particularly Vishneva’s divine interpretation, that kept me awake and wanting more.

Compagnie Jant-Bi 'Fagaala,' YBC, 10/2005

Compagnie Jant-Bi 'Fagaala'

Reflecting on the past and looking towards the future
October 7 , 2005
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Germaine Acogny’s Compagnie Jant-Bi landed with a bang in San Francisco Friday night. Acogny, choreographer and “mother of contemporary African dance,” along with Japanese choreographer and Butoh-trained Kota Yamazaki, weaves a multidimensional and thought-provoking combination of dance, music, and theater into an inspirational evening-length work for seven male dancers entitled “Fagaala.” Currently touring the US and Australia, “Fagaala,” which means genocide in Wolof, the Senegalese language, claims inspiration from the genocide in Rwanda but doesn’t seem to judge or criticize past events. Instead, it takes us on a journey of the human experience during this violent period.

While I initially balked at combining contemporary modern movements, African dance, and Butoh-inspired dance into one seamless movement vocabulary, Acogny and Yamazaki succeeded in their effort, presenting a contemplative array of ideas in a loose yet directional framework. Jant-Bi’s seven dancers, Babacar Ba, Cire Beye, Abdoulaye Kane, Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye (Kaolack), Ousmane Bane Ndiaye, Tchebe Saky, and Abib Sow, performed admirably, with crisp technique and a passion for performance. They displayed a power onstage that is rarely seen. There’s a moment early on, when the cool lighting changes to a warm, golden hue, and the dancers stare into the audience with a look of longing and reflection, but when the mood shifts back to blues and grays, their faces reveal the cold, harsh reality of life as a conglomerate of solitary moments fused together. The dancers’ physicality extended beyond the forearm cartwheels and back headstand walkovers to capoeira-style kicks, modern lifts, hip rolls, and curvatures of the back. Throughout, they emphasized the physical body as a representation of the individual and the masses and visions of masturbation, sexual conquests, murder, and birth populate the work. Genocide tore apart these bodies, these people, in a raw and vulnerable way, and it further affected how they viewed themselves and everyone else around them.

One of the final segments brings many of these ideas together in a unique way. The dancer who earlier with his shirt covering his face gyrated his pelvis back and forth for four minutes in a spotlight of pale yellow light, returned to the stage covered in chalk-like dust, resembling a statue or the body of the deceased. Downstage, he moved at varying speeds, jumping, swaying, and gesturing, and as he did so, dust would lift off of his body and extend into the audience, the wings, and the stage, emphasizing that we are all connected, and while this travesty occurred in the past, it is not forgotten. We have a common responsibility to correct the errors of the past and create a better, more accepting world instead of one where genocide is condoned.

Not everything, though, works in “Fagaala.” For example, long drapes of fabric are overused in contrived manners, such as running from wing to wing being held above the head or draped over a dancer suggesting ominous things to come. But this is trivial compared to the rest of the work which exceeded my expectations and had the gears in my head spinning from the end of the performance through now. “Fagaala” truly presents compelling and provocative images in a multi-faceted, rousing, and exciting performance, and I hope it inspires and affects others for years to come.

West Wave Dance Festival, Program 9, 7/2005

Wild (yet) Mild West
West Wave Dance Festival
Program 9 at ODC Theater
July 30, 2005

A few weeks ago, I saw Program 2 of the West Wave Dance Festival, and while sparsely attended, the majority of the choreography infused originality with maturity. Last night at the opening of the two-day run of Program 9, the audience filled all of the seats and more. Perhaps this was a preview of things to come, as the works presented were not nearly as fulfilling as those of Program 2.

Two pieces stood out above the rest. With energetic and poignant music performed live by Sekou Alaje and Garno Da Paz (composed by Alaje and Ajai Jackson) and powerful vocals by Rhonda Benin, Kendra Kimbrough Barnes’ excerpt of Enduring Legacy, based on the death of her mother, combined traditional African dance with modern movement into an abstract retelling of a memory of her mother. Barnes’ choreography never stopped flowing, and her dancers’ (Shelley Davis, Clairemonica Dixon, Kelly Kennard, Latanya Tigner, and Barnes) ability to move from one genre of dance to another was quite impressive.

EmSpace’s Erin Mei-Ling Stuart presented an excerpt of How to See Red, a work that focuses on consciousness and the attempt to contemplate and understand what goes on inside of our heads. With costumes by Leigh Anne Martin that resembled an Anthropologie catalog, Stuart’s dancers, from a raised arm to sitting Indian-style, exuded a physical and emotional professionalism not seen anywhere else during the evening. Inventiveness, structure, and developed phrases tend to be Stuart’s strengths, and How to See Red proved to be a great example of this. While the overall work is still unfinished, I can’t wait to see the final product, which premieres later this October at Dance Mission.

Heidi Schweiker, a dancer in both Margaret Jenkins’ and Janice Garrett’s dance companies, presented the premiere of Come Rain, a solo for herself accompanied by an original score by local music extraordinaire Daniel Berkman. Her directional choices peaked my interest; she progressed from sharp and jagged to soft, sensual, and reflective, and her movements were focused, deliberate, and thoughtful. But Come Rain appeared more as a movement study than as a choreographic work. The debate between these two is for another day, however. Nancy Karp’s Trio Set, performed by Christy Funsch, Diane McKallip, and Anne-Lise Reusswig, felt like a placeholder. Based to some degree on the play Three Tall Women and with minimalist movement reminiscent of the early 80s, Trio Set focuses on graceful dancing that builds up and then POW, changes direction or focus. While some aspects are successful, I felt that the dancers never quite related to each other; instead, there were three separate entities dancing onstage instead of a trio. The first work of the evening was by Moving Art’s Michael Lowe with the premiere of Ghost, Life Unfinished, a fictional work that is abstractly based on the life and death of Teresa Teng, a popular Chinese folk singer. Lowe attempted to fuse traditional ballet with Chinese folk dance, but the outcome appeared superficial and unclear. Much of Lowe’s focus was on actual classical ballet positions and flexed wrists and not on the movements in between, and I felt uncomfortable watching the work, as though I were looking at pictures of Caucasian women dressed up as an American’s traditional image of a Chinese woman (black bob wig, white face, white cheongsam) with the addition of pointe shoes. Lowe has received a lot of praise for his choreographic skills, so I hope this work is simply a fluke of nature.

Overall, Program 9 presented some worthy choreography, but I feel that the expansion of the festival has caused some of the quality to be watered down. In both programs that I viewed, there was one piece of choreography that was clearly not up to the level of the others. Perhaps the festival needs to revamp how works are selected, who presents on the emerging choreographers’ program, and who presents at all. Even with the below-average selections, I believe that the festival as a whole offers Bay Area choreographers a supportive and intimate forum to present their work. Let's hope the festival is a little more focused next year.

Bolshoi Ballet's 'Romeo and Juliet' at CalPerf, 11/2004

Marriage of Old and New Lacks Innovation and Cohesion
November 5, 2004, 8PM
Zellerbach Hall
Presented by Cal Performances

Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello” and Mark Morris’ “Syliva” are two examples of contemporary retellings of stories from days gone by. They combine ballet, modern, and folk movements to create a new version of what we thought we knew. While potentially controversial and not for all tastes, they have succeeded in a new telling of the old. I had similar hopes for the Bolshoi Ballet’s “new” take on “Romeo and Juliet.” While I knew that the work didn’t include tutus or pointe shoes, I hoped that something new would present itself.

Directed by British theater director Declan Donnellan and choreographed by Moldavian Radu Poklitaru, the Bolshoi’s modern “Romeo and Juliet” echoes of “West Side Story” (The opening scene made me want to snap my fingers and sing “When you're a Jet…”) meets movement theatre. With a minimalist storyline, we meet Romeo, Juliet, a cross-dressing Mercutio, and an incestuous Lady Capulet (with Tybald, no less). The basic plot, though pared down to the necessities, stayed the same: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love on the spot. Family pouts and stomps. Etc. etc. etc.

Simply put, this “Romeo and Juliet” is no ballet. Probably the most disappointing aspect of “Romeo and Juliet” is the fact that dance itself (whether it’s ballet or modern) failed to make an appearance. Sure, there’s movement, but it is pedestrian and is continuously repeated to the point of becoming ineffective. The ballet steps are fleeting, and seem inconsistent with the more ordinary and quirky movements, often in unison, that fill the rest of the work. The lone arabesques, pirouette variances, and sautés that are utilized are interspersed in between posing, rash arm movements, and unsupported choreographic choices; this causes a lack of momentum throughout the piece. While corps dancer Anastasia Meskova as the naïve Juliet seemed the most at ease, the entire company had trouble delivering the Broadway dance-type sequences, Britney Spears pelvic gyrations, and flexed-feet requirements. What a shame, because they’re obviously trying! The corps is used well, at time representing townsfolk, the two warring families, and the supportive foundation of a budding relationship, but perhaps a more experienced choreographer would have developed the movement vocabulary to a higher degree. Instead, it appeared elementary and muddy. This confusion also transcended to the costuming, which ranged from top hats and tails to Company B-type outfits and “Stepford Wives” dresses; the lack of consistency again detracted from the overall performance. Maybe minimalist costuming, like the interesting and underused cubic and rectangular set design, would have helped.The Bolshoi Orchestra, though, performed Prokofiev’s score admirably with ease and energy.

The Bolshoi’s “Romeo and Juliet” feels more like a theatre piece. The static direction and lack of choreographic imagination hinder the work’s development, and it’s one that doesn’t break new ground or present an original view of the traditional storyline. From gyrations and posing to random breakdancing moves, the choreography lacks a maturity that we have come to expect from one of the top international dance companies. While the full house at Zellerbach seemed to enjoy the work, I feel that Donnellan and Poklitaru’s version did little to enhance the storyline or dance prowess normally associated with this ever-traditional ballet.

West Wave Dance Festival, Program 2, 7/2005

West Wave Dance Festival - Program 2

The Waves Come Crashing In
July 14, 2005
ODC Theatre, San Francisco

The West Wave Dance Festival has returned to San Francisco for its 14th season. Composed of nine programs over two and a half weeks, the Festival presents new, emerging and established Bay Area choreographers at the ODC Theater and the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center through July 31st.

Program 2 included three world premieres and two additional works. Definitely a standout, John Kloss’ toe-tapping “Measured Response” combined crisp sounds with varied rhythms to create a build-up of melodious energy that burst at just the right time. Lisa Townsend’s choreography always embodies structure, originality and freshness, and “can i want it?” is no exception. With music composed by Piro Patton, the six dancers moved with speed, purpose and agility, and Townsend’s sense of choreographic maturity was the highlight of the night.

Lori Bryhni, on the faculty at Modesto Junior College, presented her “Familiar Voices in Tender Passing.” While her dancers, all students at MJC, were highly competent, the choreography itself combined an excess of modern dance clichés: running in a circle; big, jazz-like straddle leaps; and chaîné turns into big jetés. Bryhni’s dancers were also caught in the shadows at times, perhaps because the blue-toned lighting design by Michael J. Sundquist was originally set for a different theater.

In contrast, watching Annie Rosenthal Parr and Ashley Holladay’s “Field,” to music by Tin Hat Trio, I felt transformed to a large wheat field where women were running about under the starry sky somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Parr and Holladay showcased strong, physical movement such as sweeping grande battements and developés into scissor-sharp arabesques, and the lighting, wind effects, and props were smartly used.

Huckabay McAllister’s Jenny McAllister premiered “Don’t Open Until Christmas,” a quirky take on all things merry with a wonderful musical score by Danny Elfman, Huey P. Meaux, and Garrison Keillor. While not as intricate as “can i want it?”, McAllister’s zany ride through Christmas via modern dance, gestures and parody gave a sense of lightness without becoming too bubblegum sweet.

Program 2 contained a variety of modern and contemporary movement styles, and I am excited to view Program 9 at the end of the month. For more information about the West Wave Dance Festival, visit

'Barred from Life' at USF, 9/2004

More life could be infused into "Barred from Life"

"Barred from Life"
University of San Francisco
Thursday, September 23, 2004

This week, "Barred from Life," which premiered at Santa Clara University earlier this year, is being presented by the Performing Arts and Social Justice Program at the University of San Francisco and the Golden Gate University of Law. Conceived by David J. Popalisky, professor of dance at Santa Clara University, and Cookie Ridolfi, director of the Northern California Innocence Project and instructor of law at Santa Clara University,"Barred from Life" examines wrongful conviction through video and dance. The work's premise is interesting and thought-provoking, and with the right blend of artistic choices, has the opportunity to succeed.

Unfortunately, most of the video moments stand out as the highlight of the work. The exonerees' stories breath life into the piece, providing gritty details and a slew of emotions. This is where the investigative aspect of the work lies: hearing how social status and ethnicity play critical roles in wrongful conviction. Throughout the video sequence, a fictional exoneree's story is interwoven with these true personal tales. Using actors to portray a plausible wrongful conviction seems phony, and this doesn't have the same honesty nor impact that the genuine stories do. Perhaps using scenes from a movie, documentary, or music video could have had a better and more realistic effect.

Similarly, the dance aspect was severely lacking in this sense of realness. Choreographed and performed by Popalisky, the movement is slow and uninventive, combining classical movements such as attitude turns and low battements with contractions and poses. Most of the time, he mimics the plausible exoneree's story, which gives the dance elements a strong literal quality. Had he emphasized the emotions the exonerees felt while using more abstract movement, the choreography might have pushed the overall work forward rather than becoming a static element to the piece.

While the dance and movement detract from the overall message, "Barred from Life" tackles a topic of great concern, and the documentary film segments do a great job conveying this issue. With some retooling, "Barred from Life" could become a successful and educational piece.

"Barred from Life" will be performed Sunday, September 26th, at 7pm at Presentation Theatre at the University of San Francisco.

West Wave Dance Festival, Program 2, 7/2004

Program 2
ODC Theater
July 23, 2004, 8PM

Summerfest/dance's mission is "to provide veteran and newly-established choreographers of all cultures and disciplines, in and beyond the Bay Area, an opportunity to present their work in a professional venue in order to experiment, develop, and refine their repertories, and to build audiences without the burden of self-producing." This year, Summerfest/dance's West Wave Dance Festival, held jointly at ODC Theater and the Cowell Theater, showcases 22 choreographers and includes 15 world premieres. Program 2 opened Friday night at ODC Theater and included works by Lisa Townsend Company, Deborah Slater Dance Theater, Scott Wells & Dancers, Brittany Brown Ceres, EmSpace Dance, and Company Mécanique.

The sold-out program opened with Slater's "TRIO (in the space between)", set to music by Erling Wold, Thom Blum, and St. Germaine. Based on a painting by Alan Evans Feltus, "TRIO" is a work for three dancers and utilizes text by Deborah Crooks, balls, and chairs. The movements varied between very circular movements, such as contractions and rounded arm positions, and intricate balances on the chairs. While the balances were impressive and unusual, I felt that they could have been better woven into the greater scheme of the work, which felt unfocused and unpolished.

Following "TRIO" was Scott Wells' "Duet in three parts: Fun. Struggle. may-be Beauty," danced by Gabriel Forestieri and Christine Cali. Emphasizing a relationship's progression, Wells used strong lifts and weight balances to represent the give-and-take aspect to great effect. Forestieri and Cali danced with great control, and their use of breath added a realness to the pure physical movement presented.

Next was Britanny Brown Ceres' "Wandrian," with music by Chalres Amirkhanian. Dressed in busy-patterned yet flowing garments by Linda Brown, the 6 female dancers wove in and out of intricate patterns with ease and agility. Ceres developed and expanded her release movements through the incorporation of canon and repetition, yet the work did not become dull. Instead, it created a sense of urgency towards the climax of a new place, of change and resolution.

Opening the second half of the program was one of the more successful pieces of the evening. EmSpace Dance's "Songs for You," is a dance about 6 paranoid people trapped in an empty room, choreographed by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart with music by The Mountain Goats/John Damielle. Stuart's thoughtful and unexpected choreographic choices were refreshing and unique. And while the strategically placed duct tape and use of brick wall were visual reminders of being physical stuck, the movement still contained a great abstract quality.

Lisa Townsend's "that i am not you" was set to music composed by Piro Patton and spoken word by Tom Patton. "that i am not you" is an excerpt from the upcoming full evening work entitled ENVY Project. Townsend and Alisa Rasera performed Townsend's choreography with great energy and conviction.

The final performance of the evening was Sara Shelton-Mann's "Eddy/ against the main current," which was the only non-premiere of the evening. Performed by Company Mécanique Dance Theater, this work integrated insightful text by James Kass and dynamic music by Daniel Berkman. Shelton-Mann's choreography and phrasing used circular patterns and arcing movements to convey ideas of progression, regression, and revolution. The dancers' motions seemed effortless and, combined with the powerful side lighting, appeared continuous like a never-ending story.

Program 2 of the West Wave Dance Festival is diverse choreography-wise, presenting performance art, live music, and interesting and creative movements well. But the one aspect that disappointed me was the lack of ethnic diversity. Ethnicity was pretty much a no-show, with no asian american or black dancers, and I cannot remember the last dance performance that I have seen where this was so apparent. Hopefully, the upcoming programs will be more representative of the dancer community.

Program 2 repeats tonight, July 24th, at 8PM at ODC Theater. Programs 3 and 4 will be presented at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center. For more information, visit or call 415.863.9834.

Christine Cali and Gabriel Forestieri, Jon Sims, 8/2004

The Sound That Comes Out
Choreographed and directed by Christine Cali and Gabriel Forestieri
Performed at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts
August 13, 2004

We walk through our everyday lives connected to our earth: breathing its air, bathing in its water, and walking on its turf. Some of us recycle, plant trees, and light our days and nights with solar energy. Perhaps you even own one of those newer Energy Star appliances or a hybrid vehicle. Not often, though, do we think about how we are connected to the planet. Sure, the hippies down in the Haight do, but the common person rarely contemplates about where that uneaten food goes (how about a compost?) or what you can recycle. And just a few months ago, the question of environmental dance works, and were there any, came up. This was a tough one! Why had there not been a lot of dance works created specifically exploring our environment and issues surrounding it?

Christine Cali and Gabriel Forestieri’s new multi-disciplinary work “The Sound That Comes Out” fills this void with an intricate work that explores social and environmental issues. Combining dance, spoken word, satirical drama, video, song, bicycle ballet, and live music, this performance piece explores support systems, the disconnect between thought and action, and our relationship with the earth as a symbiotic (and often lopsided) one. This idea of “give and take” is prevalent throughout the work, but is most clearly seen in Cali and Forestieri’s duet where their use of contact improv, speed, and realness showed a relationship that utilized space and time to its fullest. Cali and Forestieri danced and sang with refreshing abandon while also moving together with responsiveness and an understanding of how their bodies related to each other and, on a larger scale, to the earth. One of the most intriguing segments was a dance for four, dressed in corporate-type button down shirts covering the dancers heads. They chugged on the floor like they were driving cars, gyrated their hips, and performed an impressive Roger Rabbit. I remember the Roger Rabbit; my friends and I did it at bar mitzvahs and dance parties. It was probably one of the hokiest hip-hop moves around, yet everyone loved it because everyone else was doing it. Like my girl friends and I doing the Roger Rabbit, these “stuffed shirts” danced like they couldn’t see what was truly going on around them; they were simply bodies going through the motions rather than being aware of their surroundings, and the smart choreography and costuming worked wonders.

The non-dance aspects were just as enjoyable and thought provoking. One small skit involved Cali dressed in a cocktail-type red dress repeatedly eating delicious looking chocolate cupcakes until she looked sick and ashamed. I felt this spoke to the average person’s tendency to take things at face value without questioning its validity. We are force-fed material everyday in ads, newspapers, magazines, music, school, etc. Yes, some people complain, but not many do anything about it. They just walk around feeling guilty, yet progressive action or change in behavior rarely occurs.

The live music, performed by Tim Frick (composer) on bass and guitar; Dan Cantrell on Rhodes and accordion; Mike Ramos on guitar; and Ben Tuttle on drums and glockenspiel infused energy into the work. Accompanied by video by Benjamin Connelly of Monopod Productions and a performance by the San Francisco Bicycle Ballet, this work certainly left no rock unturned. From a Material Girl adorned in trash (with great looking tulle heels) to headless dancers, “The Sound That Comes Out” intertwined dance, drama, and song to create an introspective performance piece. It’s too bad that Cali and Forestieri are moving to New York, but it is for a good cause. The dancing duo be working on their master’s at NYU, and from the looks of things, they’ll be creating many insightful works to come.

Dandelion Dancetheater, Jon Sims, 7/2004

Dandelion Dancetheater
Undressed Project: "illusive" and the Bay Area premiere of "Night Marsh"
Jon Sims Center for the Arts
July 2, 2004

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me."

Created through a series of residencies at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts, Eric Kupers' three-year Undressed Project, performed by his and Kumiko Guthrie's company Dandelion Dancetheater, focuses on the human body. Each segment of the project is performed naked, allowing the human form to take center stage, not in an erotic way, but in a manner of investigation and appreciation.

This final program opened with Kupers' "illusive," which premiered in 2002 as part of the Project's initial phase. Performed by Kupers with live text spoken by Susannah Richter, "illusive" explores the preconceived notions of what we expect a dancer to look like. Kupers, with an atypical body, does not fit into these constrictive norms. He has dreads, short legs, and jiggle. But, we see that his leaps are pure, his attitude turns contain flow and balance, and his movements create an effortless rhythm from beginning to end. Why, then, do we believe that the image of our physical body should inhibit or encourage our ability to dance? And how can we begin to change these notions? Through its text and reflective choreography, "illusive" points out our immediate dance-related biases and begins to strip away our expectations of what a dancer is.

Following "illusive" is the Bay Area premiere of "Night Marsh," the third and final installment of the Undressed Project. A work for 15 dancers with choreography, direction, text, and video by Kupers, "Night Marsh" continues the exploration of the body, focusing on body image, beauty, and death. These performers are not your typical dancers with perfect feet and chiseled abs. They are dancers of all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, sexualities, and abilities. In short, they are real people, and this realness extends to their bodies. We do not see dancers in costumes or dressed in layers. There is no hiding behind cloth. Instead, they dance in and of themselves: in the flesh.

Kupers uses nudity to great effect, recognizing the body's own movements, its own sense of being. As the piece progresses, we follow Debby Kajiyama through an exploration of the physical body; we look at its force, flab, and fascinations. Taking on a whole new meaning, the human form's nuances shine through. Solos, duets, and group work convey personal and physical meaning. One potent example is near the beginning of the piece, where a young woman performs a solo. There is emotion running from the top of her mohawk down through the tips of her toes. As she extends an arm outward and lowers her eyelids slightly, you do not just see her body. There is more inside, a consciousness that joins who she is with what she is, and we recognize that these two cannot be separated. Repeated at the end of the work accompanied by text, it takes on an even deeper meaning. Another dancer that catches the eye is Jacques Poulin-Denis. His graceful movements and supporting lifts and positions stand out among the group; the fact that he uses a prosthesis seems to disappear. The group sections are incredibly strong. Use of flashlights in the opening sequence eases the audience into the idea of watches dancers in the flesh. Later, the dancers emote a powerful energy as the corps follows a woman in an exploration of the breast. Hey, everyone has them, even men!

Kupers selected diverse styles of music by local Bay Area artists to accompany each section, but the music that had the greatest impact was the dancers' own bodily accompaniment of singing, changing, slapping, stomping, and spoken noises. Through these self-produced sounds, the dancers reemphasized that the body is not just a shell.

A few parts of "Night Marsh" could still use some tweaking. One aspect is the video journey of Kajiyama from bodily birth to death. While a great idea, we also follow Kajiyama in the flesh. This is a lot more interesting and has a greater impact on the overall concept. While the video usage at the end of the piece is strong, the journey itself does not support the work, but instead slows the piece down. "Night Marsh" could also benefit from some choreographic edits; there are instances where the vignettes become a little long and repetitive. By trimming a few of these and adding more connections between each section, Kupers might be able to create an even more potent work.

Performed in an intimate atmosphere with everyday dancers, "Night Marsh" faces bodily stereotypes and explores body image issues in a constructive and artistic way. There is no perfect body, and there is no one way to perform a movement. Stressing inquiry and acceptance over quick judgment provides a safe haven for body exploration. Overall, Dandelion Dancetheater's "Night Marsh" conveys a successful conclusion to the Undressed Project.

The performances of "Night Marsh" and "illusive" will conclude this coming weekend with performances at 8pm and 10pm on July 9th and 10th at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts. Tickets are $10-$15 (sliding scale). For tickets, call 415.554.0402.

SFBS, 5/2004

San Francisco Ballet School
Spring Student Showcase
May 20, 2004, 8PM

San Francisco Ballet School’s Spring Student Showcase was aptly held at the Palace of Fine Arts. Outside swans glided across the lake, and one might think it was a sign of the purity of dance to be found inside.

The performance began with short class-like demonstrations accompanied by Alla Gladysheva and Laura Tishchenko on piano. Each plié, tendú, and relevé was given the utmost care and attention. As the levels progressed, the movements became more complicated while the students’ abilities and growth became more evident. Level 4 Girls (Group IV of the program) exhibited gorgeous épualement not seen in the lower levels. Christopher Oullette, in the Boys III (Group V) section, demonstrated incredible flexibility and strong presentation. The level 6 Women (Group VIII) performed a Balanchine-inspired section, displaying strong technique, impressive lines, and passion. No small feat (feet!) for these young ladies.

George Balanchine’s Donizetti Variations, with music by Gaetano Donizetti, closed the first half with Andrea McGinnis and Ryan Camou dazzling as the principal couple. McGinnis danced with precision and grace; her double pirouettes into a sauté entournant were beautiful. Camou performed with speed and energy. Rachel Maher, as one of the soloists, had a refreshingly radiant quality to her dancing.

Opening the second half was Passing Fancies, a world premiere choreographed by 20-year-old Avichai Scher. Scher, a former student of SAB and SF Ballet’s summer program, has choreographed works for the New York Choreographic Institute, ABT Studio Company, and The Washington Ballet. Utilizing music by French composer Yann Tiersen, Scher, a promising young choreographer, created a large group piece for 24 dancers. While this was an avid attempt, I felt that the corps sections were uninteresting and predictable, depending on an incredible amount of unison and canon. While Scher seemed to explore more possibilities with the principal roles such as innovative lifts and various rhythms, I feel that he could have extended his movement vocabulary to the corps. In lead roles, Courtney Hellebuyck danced with maturity and conviction, and Shannon Roberts was exciting to watch in her zest-filled variation. In their duet, Daniel Benavides was a gentle and gifted partner to supple Shannon Maynor. Logan Learned, who will compete at the upcoming Adeline Genée International Ballet Competition, had buoyant jumps and an effervescent smile.

Nest, Kelsey Hellebuyck and Daniel Cooper performed the “Bluebird Pas de Deux” from Helgi Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty with music by Tchaikovsky. Helleybuyck showed great control and smoothness in her double piqué turns, and Cooper’s beats and carriage was impressive. Last on the program was excerpts from Tomasson’s Handel – A Celebration, set to music by George Frideric Handel. While Handel features a large number of dancers, it didn’t have that showstopping power that one would hope for in a closing work. But, the dancers were committed to the movements and appeared to be enjoying themselves on stage, even with a few bobbles here and there. Sandy Brown, dancing the female solo surrounded by 6 men, commanded the stage throughout every step, moving with purpose and fluidity. In the men’s duet, Jason Chinea and Anthony Spaulding were well matched. Both had strong technique and more importantly, they danced together as a pair, even in their pirouettes.

Each group of students, from the younger ones to the more advanced groups, impressed me. Thought went into each group, variation, and choreographic work. And, it is evident that many of these students have a promising career in ballet. Soon these swans will take flight.

San Francisco Ballet School will be presenting the repertory portion of its Showcase on Sunday, May 23, 2PM at the Esplanade Gardens as part of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.

SFB's 'Sylvia,' 5/2004

San Francisco Ballet
Program 8 – “Sylvia”
May 9, 2004, 2PM

San Francisco Ballet’s production of Mark Morris’ “Sylvia” came to a close on Sunday afternoon. This version of “Sylvia” brought several firsts to the Opera House, including the first full-length ballet by Morris for a ballet company; the first full-length “Sylvia” to be shown on a U.S. stage; and initial principal roles for corps de ballet members Elizabeth Miner and Megan Low. There were also a few lasts, namely final performances for soloists Leslie Young and Sherri LeBlanc and corps de ballet member Caroline Loyola who are all retiring.

The curtain opened on a beautifully constructed set of lush green panels; tall grass; a shiny "pond"; a wonderfully painted scrim consisting of blooming flowers and greenery; and a prominent statue of Eros, the god of love and desire. Setting the tone for the afternoon, dryads (wood nymphs) in brown/green dresses leaped about, satyrs (male inhabitants of the woodlands) in furry animal leggings jumped with eagerness, and naiads (water nymphs) in dreamy pastel dresses with reflective head pieces fluttered about the stage in an amusingly flirtatious and overly drawn-out romp. Guennadi Nedviguine, as the shepherd Aminta, showed incredible control and ability. He used his soft plié; large, effortless jumps; and mature quality to display purity and elegance throughout his portrayal. Megan Low, as Sylvia, danced with a nice blend of crisp attack, solid technique, and fresh joy. While Low does not possess ultra-bendy limbs or unusual tricks, she emoted an effervescent energy combined with a great sense of comic timing throughout her dancing. But, there were times when she seemed lost and overwhelmed.

In Act II, Orion courted Sylvia in his expansive cave dwelling, complete with a sliding boulder door and luminescent rock-like panels. With just enough facial hair, brown textured pants, and a fitted shirt, he looked like the menacing hunter he was supposed to be. As Orion, Pierre-François Vilanoba presented a dark contrast to Nedviguine’s Aminta. Vilanoba’s Orion was sinister and lonely, and with only 8 dim-witted male slaves to keep him company, who wouldn’t be? Orion’s slaves received the royal treatment, with impressive yet hideous make-up and brown sack-like pants. Their movements were distorted and inane while also entertaining and enjoyable.

The final act used stark white columns, stairs, beams, and pillars erected for Diana, Bacchus, and Eros to portray a planned spiritual gathering. Ruben Martin and Garen Scribner danced the roles of the Heralds. Scribner, an apprentice, was a good match for Martin’s smooth and articulate dancing. Muriel Maffre portrayed a regal Diana. Dressed in silver, she was a cool contrast to James Sofranko’s golden boy Eros. While Sofranko’s costumes and choreography were a tad kooky, he shined as the mythological fairy godfather to Sylvia and Aminta, performing Eros and his slew of aliases (Sorcerer and Pirate) with charm and abandon. The orchestra sounded superb, and conductor Anthony Mogrelia should be commended for a wonderful performance.

Morris’ “Sylvia” is not traditional. But, what is traditional about Mark Morris? Each set of characters is distinctive and developed. The villagers’ dance is reminiscent of folk dance, while the slaves move in a slouched and somewhat miserable manner. Sylvia embodies depth, leadership, and vulnerability. And, while Aminta’s development seems limited internally, he acts as a catalyst for Sylvia’s personal growth. While lengthy, Morris’ “Sylvia” tells an old story in a new way. Using striking sets, innovative and often modern-based movements, and pantomime, Morris has produced an intriguing ballet. “Sylvia” is not scheduled for SF Ballet’s 2005 season, but I hope that it returns to the repertory soon. It deserves to be shown again.

SFB, Program 6, 4/2004

San Francisco Ballet
Program 6: Square Dance, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Who Cares?
April 3, 2004, 8pm

Even though the audience would soon be losing an hour of sleep, they were wide-awake for San Francisco Ballet’s Saturday evening performance at War Memorial Opera House. Seats were mostly full, and attendees varied from young to elderly, single to families, and dressed casually to dressed to the nines. At times an entire evening of Balanchine can feel repetitive, but the three works presented offered variety as well as excellent dancing.

Program 6 opened with Balanchine’s Square Dance, set to music by Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, and as the curtain opened on the corps de ballet, true dance ignited on stage. Feet and arms pointed with precision, and each dancer’s movement was full of breath. Tina LeBlanc, as the female principal, exhibited excellent carriage and technique as she flowed through the difficult chorography with an effortlessness rarely seen on any stage. Joan Boada, as her steady partner, danced with polish. But, it seemed he was thinking too much about the choreography and initiated the movements from his limbs instead of moving as a whole body. Female corps members Frances Chung, Megan Low, and Dalene Bramer displayed gorgeous technique along with a wondrous feel for the music. Pablo Patino, Garrett Anderson, and Jonathan Mangosing showed wonderful lift in their jumps and tight 5ths throughout. The lighting was fresh and complemented the pastel costumes nicely, lending a sense of openness and directness to the choreography.

Second on the bill was Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, set to music by Stravinsky (of course). This work contrasted nicely with Square Dance. Instead of what traditionalists would call pure dancing, Stravinsky Violin Concerto contained more angular positions and extremeness of the limbs. Innovative positions were used to create a more abstract movement vocabulary. Muriel Maffre and Pierre-Francois Villanoba danced Aria I with steadiness. Villanoba seemed to suffer from the same malady as Boada, using his limbs to propel and place him instead of moving from the center of his body. Maffre, whom I normally enjoy, looked emaciated, and perhaps it was because of the skin-tight costume. But, her performance was difficult to watch. In Aria II, Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith easily performed Balanchine’s choreography as if it were second nature. Tan danced with a certain “come-hither” attitude that drew the audience in with every movement, and Smith presented each step and phrase with great conviction. In the corps, Elana Altman and Rachel Viselli displayed grace and security, and Mangosing’s and Karill Zaretskiy’s clarity of movement stood out among the men. Roy Malan performed the violin solos with ease.

Last was Balanchine’s Who Cares? set to music by Gershwin. Yes, the costumes and backdrop sets are a little bright and dated, but it is spring, so get used to the colors. They’ll be around for awhile. Stephen Legate was a gentle partner for all of the women, and he performed with a great Broadway style that wasn’t too showy or flashy. While his role was not as technically demanding as some of the other principals of the evening, he danced with such refinement and charm that I could watch him move for hours. Lorena Feijoo performed “The Man I Love” and “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” technically well. But, her arms seemed to be displaced from the rest of her body, moving harshly and without direction rather than softly as the rest of her body was. Vanessa Zahorian danced “Sweet Embraceable You” with an alluring quality I never knew she possessed. Her technique continues to amaze me, but so does her personality that is beginning to emerge quietly from within. Katita Waldo, in “I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" performed with maturity and zest. Waldo seemed more comfortable in this Balanchine-meets-Broadway style than Zahorian and Feijoo, and because of this, I found her to be my favorite of the three lead women. In the corps, Megan Low, Dalene Bramer, and Frances Chung impressed me again, dancing with joy and excellent technique, and Courtney Elizabeth’s personality projected throughout the entire work. Brett Bauer and James Sofranko performed with suave style.

Overall, the corps looked well-rehearsed (thanks to Bart Cook and Sandra Jennings), and the principals appeared comfortable. With SF Ballet’s Balanchine Centennial celebration, Helgi Tomasson and San Francisco Ballet have proved that the legacy of Balanchine continues to live on today.

Interview with Peter Butt, Technical Director of SF Ballet

An Interview with Peter Butt, Technical Director of San Francisco Ballet: Ready for the Road

August 2004 -- San Francisco

San Francisco Ballet is about to embark upon a tour to Athens and London. It’s a monumental effort to pack up and relocate sets, costumes, and other stage equipment halfway around the world, but Peter Butt, the company’s technical director, seems to do it with ease. Recently, I had an opportunity to chat with him about his job and responsibilities at SF Ballet.

I’ve heard that you come from an arts and production-oriented family. Do you mind telling me about this?

My grandmother was a modern dancer in the 1920’s with Denishawn and other companies, and my mother was a modern dancer in NY in the 60’s. My father was involved in technical theater from college on. He worked with The Joffrey Ballet, New York City Opera, and finally with ABT.

Did this inspire or encourage you to work behind the scenes in the arts?

I don’t know if it was conscious, but I was definitely subconsciously exposed, being taken backstage to theaters. My dad would be up with the follow-spot and I would be up there with him. I know that my experiences somehow contributed to my appreciation of the arts.

What’s your background? Have you always worked for ballet companies?

Here at SF Ballet, I started as assistant stage manager, the entry-level position in terms of staff positions, and I worked my way through. Prior to this, I worked with a number of dance companies including Oakland Ballet and ODC [ODC/San Francisco], working as a stagehand.

What do you do as technical director at San Francisco Ballet?

I oversee all of the backstage operations at the Ballet: scheduling of the stage crews, developing the production season schedule including when technical work will take place, and scheduling orchestra rehearsals and dancer rehearsals in the Opera House.

When the company is touring, do you have any extra duties or job responsibilities?

I deal all of the freight moves, getting all of the equipment to wherever the international destination it is. Sometimes we use air freight like on this tour where we need to get equipment from Athens to London. I also deal with the communications on tour between these locations. We’ve been dealing with a freight companies for years that can pull a rabbit out of a hat.

You met your wife (Julie Begley) at SF Ballet, and you both still work there. What’s this like?

It’s great. We try not to bring the work home and we’re pretty successful at that. It’s great to have the occasion to see each other or say hello, but since we’re both so busy, it doesn’t happen very often.

At SF Ballet, are there any special, favorite, or humorous moments that come to mind?

There are, especially surrounding the larger full-length ballets such as “Romeo and Juliet” or “Sleeping Beauty” and the new “Nutcracker.” For me, this is because the production elements were pretty substantial in size and scope, and there’s a lot of work done by so many people. It will always be a memorable process of getting these ballets onto the stage. I try to make or find humorous moments any time I can. I think the UNited We Dance Festival was a great experience for the company, being exposed to so many different types and styles of performers along with the few technical staff that came with those groups. It was great to be the host for all of those people, trying to open up our theater to them.

How are you planning for the new “Nutcracker” that premieres this December?

Because of the size and the scope of this production, we spent an unusual 2 weeks in the Opera House, teching it out and testing out the lighting because the way the Opera House works, it is a very short time between when the Opera closes and the Ballet opens in December. Our advertising says it’s all-new and it is, from bottom to top. It’s going to be magical.