Tuesday, April 29, 2008

SFB's New Works Festival (Program B)

San Francisco Ballet
Works Festival, Program B
Saturday, April 26, 2008, 2PM

The city’s been abuzz with chatter surrounding San Francisco Ballet’s New Works Festival, a three-program, multi-week spectacle of new choreography created by some of ballet’s most loved and well regarded dance makers, and Helgi Tomasson, looking to knock everyone’s socks and slipp
ers off, seems to have delivered. At least, if Program B is any indication, I should be walking barefoot through the city for months to come.

Due to some personal scheduling, I started the Festival out of order, yet my gut tells me this shouldn’t be a problem. Ideally, each program should be able to stand on its own, yet as a festival, they should complement each other, too. In addition, each program’s individual works should also balance one another, yet Saturday’s matinee didn’t quite achieve my own expectations. Part of that may have been my fault, as who knows what to expect from something titled “New Works Festival.” Similar to the new InterContinental Hotel down on Howard Street, you’ve got to see it to believe it. And so I did.

The evening’s winner was a tie: Mark Morris’ continuously leg-kicking “Joyride” worked my brain into overtime while James Kudelka’s “The Ruins Proclaim The Building Was Beautiful” forcefully sauntered forward. With eight dancers clad in Isaac Mizrahi’s metallic unitards, “Joyride” takes no prisoners. The work highlights kicks, sharp arabesques, and wonderfully executed in-sync pirouettes, just as John Adams’ score (with him conducted the orchestra on this sunny afternoon) punches along at breakneck speed. Sarah Van Patten and Gennadi Nedvigin, dressed in shiny gold, led the way, steering everyone down a pulsating path of skill and gusto. Young corps member Jennifer Stahl, swathed in gunmetal grey, showed amazing control, and Rory Hohenstein flowed through the ever-challenging movement with a sexy naturalness.

Kudelka’s “Ruins” explores the social undertones of humanity, and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, under the direction of David Briskin, brought Rodney Sharman’s score, based on pieces by composer César Franck, to life. The darkly lit corps of women, adorned in pink sliced-and-diced tutus and nests of wispy hair (potentially by Helena Bonham Carter but credited to James Searle), waltzed like rosy waves from corner to corner. Frances Chung and Elana Altman were first to face the well-coifed and finely dressed (if slightly creepy) threesome of Pierre-François Vilanoba, Aaron Orza, and Martyn Garside, and the women pushed and fought, but easily gave in to the support, direction, and control the men provided. Yuan Yuan Tan, as the more modern woman in red, proved a better opponent to Vilanoba, but again, she finally succumbed to the weight and demands required of her to survive. Kudelka choreographs in stunning tangents, spilling forward with expansive ideas, and “Ruins” proved both lovely and disturbing all at the time.

Stanton Welch’s “Naked” showcased unimaginative yet structured choreography to music by Francis Poulenc. With the title, splash of neutrals across the back scrim, and peachy tutus and tunics, I expected raw expressive movement and something more telling than the basic leaps and turns. Still, the twenty-six minutes moved briskly, and the dancers brought their A-game, moving crisply across the stage. The two highlights of what “Naked” almost was were Kristin Long, who lit up the stage with her fresh spring in her jumps, and Frances Chung in her pas de deux with Brett Bauer with Chung dancing tenderly in Bauer’s arms. Why these two were not listed in the “principal” section of the casting sheet is beyond me…

Julia Adam’s “A rose by any other name” oddly set to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” sadly prompted me to recall “Angelo,” a static ballet I sat through more times than humanly necessary. With excessive posturing, gesturing, and two-dimensional walking about with arms up and down (I felt like I was examining Aztec codices or Egyptian hieroglyphs after the first few minutes), “Rose” drooped from the beginning. Yes, Adam changed the story up by having the fairies be men who then are recycled as the suitors/forest later on, and some of the ideas behind the fairy variations were cute (Bauer as Beauty always stared at himself via a mirror, even it was under his legs), but these tricks couldn’t save the ballet from wilting. Long appeared underused, but she was adorable nonetheless.

So with Program B complete (at least for me), I’ve seen it, and so far, I believe it. Sure, some of the choreography wasn’t to my taste, but I enjoyed seeing the company’s dancers in top form and on display for all to see. And to me, that's what matters most.

Sarah Van Patten and Gennadi Nedvigin in Morris' Joyride.
Elana Altman and Aaron Orza in Kudelka's The Ruins Proclaim The Building Was Beautiful.
Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Kudelka's The Ruins Proclaim The Building Was Beautiful.
Frances Chung and Brett Bauer in Welch's Naked.
Elizabeth Miner and Gennadi Nedvigin in Adam's A rose by any other name.

All photos © Erik Tomasson

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Doug Varone and Dancers @YBCA

Doug Varone and Dancers
At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Presented by San Francisco Performances
Sunday, April 20, 2008, 2PM

Doug Varone and Dancers, a fixture in the New York City dance scene and modern dance departments at various New England colleges for years, graced San Francisco with its presence this past weekend. The company, plus Mr. Varone himself, skipped across the stage and back into our hearts, reminding us that dance is an everlasting feeling, even when sitting upright in a well padded chair.

The evening opened with Varone’s shining “Lux,” a visual kaleidoscope of Philip Glass’s minimalist “The Light.” The ever-introspective Eddie Taketa opened the work with soft jumps and a thoughtful look upon his face while a round, yellow moon began to rise in the background. The seven other dancers, dressed in Liz Prince’s elegant black separates, sprung out of the wings to join Taketa in this intelligent yet deceivingly simple-looking romp. They circled about in pairs, trios, and groups, continuously growing and retreating with the pulsing music until everyone burst into a glowing lit of bodies against the darkness behind.

“Home,” a dance theater duet with Natalie Desch and Varone, swayed the mood from lighthearted to downright serious and depressing. “Home” may be where the heart is, but Desch and Varone investigated some ups and mostly downs of life at home: the angst, love, passion, hate, and need. Both of the performers put their best into this performance, and their powerful presence grew as they shifted their wooden chairs from one spot to another quickly. Clack, Clack. Bang, Bang. Boom, Boom. But the mood had shifted so far from the tenderness and beauty of “Lux” that I felt it hard to become totally immersed in “Home.”

“Boats Leaving,” though, mixed the best of both worlds into one picturesque movement score. Accompanied by Arvo Pärt's “Te Deum,” a choral work with voices beautifully rising and falling, the eight dancers formed into snapshots and then elaborated on them, expressing emotions and feelings as they fluttered about or wiggled on the floor face down. Bathed in Jane Cox’s golden and then cooler side lighting, the dancers pushed forward, supporting each other as they danced in isolation or together. Taketa and Desch led the way, whether leading the group in a sharp diagonal or gesturing with an arm or head, and Netta Yerushalmy danced with a quiet intensity.

Each of Varone’s dancers displayed impressive qualities, which is a telling sign. He understands how to direct and showcase a remarkable complement of abilities within his own well-structured and developed movement, and he tells a good story through airy gestures and musical choreography to boot. Varone and his troupe aren’t scheduled to return to San Francisco anytime soon, but let’s hope they do.

"Boats Leaving" Photo © Richard Termine

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Urban Bush Women and Compagnie Jant-Bi @ YBCA

Urban Bush Women and Compagnie Jant-Bi
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
“Les écailles de la mémoire (The scales of memory)”
Friday, April 4, 2008

Urban Bush Women and Compagnie Jant-Bi have collaborated on “Les écailles de la mémoire (The scales of memory),” a full-evening length work centering on identity, family, and history. I’ve seen both companies before, albeit separately, and this unique union proved that collaboration is a good thing.

The dancers begin by reciting their names and their ancestors: parents, grand parents, great grandparents, etc. There’s a connection, even if just by blood, that we can’t deny. “Memory” tackles many of the same issues as Company Ea Sola’s “Draught and Rain, Vol 2” did, but with much more choreographic development and success.

The men of Compagnie Jant-Bi easily compare to Urban Bush Women’s dancers. These strong men display presence and fortitude. Had I not known these were two separate groups, I would have assumed the dancers formed one complete troupe. The men strutted across the stage early on wearing red shirts that they later pulled off and slapped the floor with. The images of the bright red striking against their backs and then the ground as they hovered in a low squat lingered in my mind, and while I consciously knew they were up on a stage, dancing, performing, I still cringed and tried to look away. These men were enjoyable to watch, but their shapes and motions felt haunting all the same.

Nora Chipaumire, a 2007 Bessie Performer Award winner, led the Urban Bush Women with fire in her belly. A tall and striking woman, Chipaumire may not have looked the sharpest at times, but her passion and full-bodied submission to the movement overwhelmed everything else around her. The women kicked high and thrusted their hips deep, sending excitement through the audience. They giggled and flirted with the men, looking happy or competitive at times and disturbingly trapped at times. No one’s past is a perfect image, and “Memory” explored this well.

The eclectic score sampled beat box by Babacar Ba, wolof flows by Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye (Kaolack), the Drummers of L’Ecole des Sables, Kinshasa Theme music by Frederic Bobin, and other vocals and sound score by Christine King. Each choice pushed the evening forward, while highlighting the ins and outs of Germaine Acogny and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s developed yet fun-to-watch choreography. Now if only the two companies could come back. That’d be an even better thing.

Photos by Thomas Dorn and Antoine Tempé

Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Tribute to SF Ballet, Program 6

San Francisco Ballet
Program 6


The National Ballet of Canada, New York City Ballet, and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo
Tuesday, April 1

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 6, billed as an international salute to the company’s 75th ann
iversary, doesn’t even showcase SF Ballet. Or at least not directly. Three companies have traveled to San Francisco with the goal of honoring SF Ballet, presenting works reminiscent of its rich and varied history while also showcasing their own strengths. Probably unintentionally, the evening also focused on relationships.

Traveling the farthest yet almost making the greatest audience impact, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, hailing from the tiny yet regal country of Monaco, presented the U.S. debut of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Altro Canto,” a smorgasbord of shapes, pairings, and dramatic imagery set against a never ending backdrop of rising and falling candles. Haunting baroque music played on as the 20 dancers explored ideas of loneliness and tension of relationships. Gender didn’t appear to be much of an issue at first, but as half of the dancers (male and female) were wearing trendy bubble skirts and the other half are wearing corsets and pants (all designed by Karl Lagerfeld), the androgyny question took on the role of white elephant. Maillot likes a show, and there’s no middle ground here. The choreography focuses on relationships of friends and lovers. Chris Roelandt, Jérôme Marchand, and Ramon Gomes Reis crossed and linked hands, creating a fluid wave motion reminiscent of scenes from “Winged Migration” with their arms, producing a beautiful and tender moment on stage. Later several of the men propelled Bernice Coppieters into the air, and she soared, doing an aerial worm up and over the men below. Coppieters and Reis also had a touching yet anger-filled duet: he trying to figure out just how to let her be while still being with her. It’s something we all wrestle with every day. That idea of self, of who we are alone, and who we are with others. Is there compromise or can we continue on this path, never yielding to anyone but ourselves? There’s a downside, though. Maillot tends to rely on big ideas, repetition and canon, and “Altro Canto” feels recycled after the first few sections. Reduce, reuse, and recycle would have worked wonders here, potentially transforming a barely simmering ballet to boiling. The majority of the audience, though, seemed to enjoy it.

The National Ballet of Canada journeyed south of the border to present Matjash Mrozewski’s “A Delicate Battle.” NBC’s dancers displayed strong technique and commanding stage presence, and “Battle” illustrated this well. With white flakes floating from the rafters, seven dancers (including Brett van Sickle, a former apprentice with SF Ballet), dressed in white dancewear, socks, and shoes, piqued into arabesque, flicked their wrists, and turned on a dime. This was crisp and honest ballet, even without pointe shoes. Alejandra Perez-Gomez, Heather Ogden, and Sonia Rodriguez rushed through the stage in 19th century gowns, and Etienne Lavigne, Patrick Lavoie, and Christopher Body chased them through people and falling pieces of white paper until each woman found herself facing the question of who they were and how they were supported: physically, emotionally, and relationship-wise. Perez-Gomez expressed anger and suppression in her pas de deux with Lavigne; she tensed her shoulders but furrowed her brow, and even with the enormous, billowy skirt and high neck of her dress, nothing could constrict her elegant presence or poise.

New York City Ballet brought George Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant,” a pas de duex of fancy, intrigue, and love. A lovely study of romance, opening night featured Yvonne Borree and Jared Angle being inspired by Anton Delmoni playing the violin and Cameron Grant on the piano. Borree projected innocence and coy well, and as she batted her eyes for the first time, you couldn’t help but not like her. But she didn’t quite measure up to Angle’s stage presence. He just projected a certain calmness that, even in his little sauté entournant (jumps in a circle), made him look much more well at ease up on the Opera House stage.

For the most part, the program worked. Plus, it’s a nice change to see other companies here in San Francisco, which is a rarity because if they visit the Bay Area at all, it’s normally in Berkeley. I just wish the end of the program achieved what the first few portions promised. One of the biggest positives of this program is that it offers the company’s own dancers a short but well deserved performance break while rehearsing for the grueling 10 new repertory pieces that are part of the New Works Festival. So here’s to the company’s past successes and future achievements. Salud!

Ramon Gomes Reis and Bernice Coppieters in Maillot's Altro Canto.
Sonia Rodriguez and Christopher Body in Mrozewski's A Delicate Battle.
Yvonne Borree and Jared Angle in Balanchine's Duo Concertant.

All photos © Erik Tomasson