YEAR IN DANCE Watching dance in the Bay Area is a privilege. With the constant influx of eager young talents, people who stick around and develop, and established artists who still manage to surprise year after year, the experience can be a ball. This celebration is boosted by the “travelers” from other cities and countries who come in for a day or two and keep local dance from becoming overly self-satisfied. There is a lot wrong with capitalism, but competition — in terms of ideas — can be a real quality booster.
Watching dance in the Bay Area can also be a chore. Performances bunch up on each other, making it difficult to schedule which shows to attend. No one seems to perform on Easter or Memorial Day, but everyone goes crazy on the adjacent weekends. What is this — do we all go to church on Easter or to the beach on Memorial Day? Kudos to the West Wave Dance Festival, which this year moved its schedule to Monday nights.
One consequence of the plethora of dance available all year round is my editor’s annual request for a retrospective of the past 12 months. It’s a useful exercise, I suppose, though I have yet to decide whether it’s a privilege or a chore. Here are a dozen highlights that rose to the surface.
1. I call them surprisers, because you think you know what to expect from them and then find out that you don’t. One example is long-term dancer Kara Davis. She’s unafraid to use large ensembles in increasingly complex choreography. Another is Katie Faulkner, who possesses wit in addition to a fine eye for form. Jazz choreographer Reginald Ray Savage took Stravinsky’s Agon and used it to choreograph for his tiny group. I still don’t know whether the result works, but it was great to see him daring to take on a ballet icon. Rajendra Serber and Stephany Auberville’s Dance for the Flies was an hour-long improvisation that thrilled, thanks to the dancers’ intensity and the contributions of equally good musicians Matt Davignon and Cheryl Leonard.
2. San Francisco Ballet. Helgi Tomasson is committed to stretching our notions about ballet. So he programmed John Neumeier’s visually stunning though choreographically problematic The Mermaid. Was the risk worth taking? Perhaps. SFB artists who still dance in my head: Sarah Van Patten as Juliet; Maria Kochetkova in Yuri Possokov’s Classical Symphony; Damian Smith in everything he touched; and Pascal Molat as Petrouchka.
3. Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project’s Love Everywhere in the City Hall rotunda on Valentine’s Day. Professional and community performers, plus a chamber ensemble, celebrated people’s commitment to each other in a work that was funny, humorous, and ever so gentle. It humanized the seat of power.
4. Lines Ballet. By now we may know choreographer Alonzo King’s choreographic language, yet he finds wondrous new ways to use it. For the gorgeous Wheel in the Middle of the Field, he interpreted European classical songs, putting the singers on stage with the dancers. With Zakir Hussein, he rethought both the music and the tale of Scheherazade.
5. In its reprise this year, Joe Goode Performance Group’s mesmerizing Traveling Light proved to be one of Goode’s most worthwhile journey in every way. Inspired by the Old Mint’s history and architecture, his company of seven and 15 additional dancers evoked 19th century ordinary folks, all of them recognizable.
6. Kuchipudi is one of the lesser-known classical Indian dance forms. It’s even more of a pity that Shantala Shivalingappa, a dancer of rare refinement and virtuosity, showed her Gamaka for one night only. Part of this evening’s appeal came from the ease and joy that she and her musicians brought to the performance.
7. In October, Zaccho Dance Theatre’s noble Sailing Away commemorated the exodus from San Francisco in 1858 of a whole segment of the African American community. When it was performed on Market Street, the contrast between the everyday crowd and the dignity and steely focus of the traveling performers (Anna Tabor-Smith and Antoine Hunter) created a high drama of its own.
8. If anybody still needed to be convinced, Socrates confirmed that the Mark Morris Dance Group is the finest modern dance company in the country. Based on Eric Satie’s astounding score, Morris luminously quiet meditation on death wove a spell that has yet to evaporate.
9. Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? drew me in because of the many balls — formal questions about tonal nuances; juxtapositions of material; deeply-felt thematic concerns — that he had to keep afloat. He did so brilliantly. It was lovely to see — a major accomplishment by a gifted artist-thinker.
10. Carole Zertuche, artistic director of Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco, has reoriented flamenco to where it belongs: the soloist. For “Una Noche Flamenco,” the company’s 44th season, she invited dancers Manuel Gutierrez, Juan Siddi, and Cristina Hall, whose takes on flamenco could not be more different. They joined Zertuche and a group of equally strong, individualized singers and instrumentalists for an exceptionally well-balanced evening of powerfully performed dance.
11. This year also brought the inaugural — and much-needed — San Francisco Dance Film Festival. Greta Schoenberg assembled an impressive program of locally-made and imported works. The sheer number of perspectives that these dance/film artists brought to their work was inspiring. Good news: the festival returns March 25-27, 2011.
12. The collaboration between AXIS Dance Company and inkboat resulted in Odd — a work that was anything but odd. It was exquisite, fragile, and wispy. Taking his cue from Norwegian painter Odd Nordrum, choreographer Shinichi Iova-Koga worked with two groups of nontraditionally trained dancers. The result was a stunner. May it have a long and healthy life.