Earthly creations, unearthly longings

arts@sfbg.com

The San Francisco International Arts Festival’s model of presenting guest and local dancers side by side was initially designed to alleviate Bay Area artists’ concern that SFIAF might siphon off funding for their own work. Yet the format works artistically. The 2011 festival’s first week’s lineup of local and imported dance proved it. One-night stands at the Marines Memorial Theatre came from Israel’s Barak Marshall Company and Santa Fe’s Dancing Earth. From San Francisco, Hope Mohr Dance and FACT/SF shared evenings at Fort Mason.

Marshall is a Yemeni-Israeli American now primarily living in Israel. Apparently the 2010 Monger was influenced by servant-master dichotomies like those portrayed, most prominently, in the evergreen British TV show Upstairs, Downstairs. The work turned out to be a Kafkaesque film noir comedy that wore its desperation just barely covered by maids’ aprons and grooms’ suspenders. That the despot, a mysterious Mrs. Margaret, is a woman — Marshall calls her the Whore of Babylon — only heightened its impact. After the recent Middle East (and elsewhere) turmoil, it’s impossible not to see Monger as deeply political. Marshall first presents his 10 dancers wrapped in black, anxiously scanning the sky. He ends on the same pessimistic note.

Marshall’s variety show format separates Monger‘s acts with blackouts and punctuates them with the tinkling service bell. Both provided a welcome continuum, though most of the sections work individually. The servants scurried like road-runners; the emotionally temperature between them steadily increased like a boiler about to explode. Attempts at self-assertion, whether through love or violence, failed repeatedly. I saw a touch of Ohad Naharin — Marshall cut some of his teeth in Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company — in the hilarious hate- and gossip-mongering “upstairs” ladies. Spitting venom, they bobbed up like corks in the sea. Monger gained valuable support from the choreographer’s own exceptionally imaginative patchwork score.

I have, however, major concerns with the choreography. Although the extensive use of unisons, punctuated by gestural language, made intellectual sense, they pulled the piece down toward monotony.

What’s your idea of “Native American dance?” Stomping feet, flying fringe, and pounding drums? Not a trace of a powwow could be found in the excellently danced Of Bodies Of Elements by Dancing Earth’s 10 dancers (plus two babies).

Choreographed by Rulan Tangen and performed by members from diverse North American tribal cultures, Bodies included contributions from traditional practices, including a “Deer Dance” (by guest artist Jesus “Jacoh” Cortes) and a “Prayer Dance” (by Deollo Johnson), suspiciously looking like an Eagle Dance with strong elements from women’s fancy dances. But this is a thoroughly contemporary work with performers — men and women alike — whose athleticism and multifarious talents and training acknowledge the air as much as the ground under their feet.

Bodies is presented as a creation myth whose believers become alienated from the natural order but find their way back into it. The choreography sometimes doesn’t spell out the narrative that clearly, so the program notes help for those unfamiliar with indigenous American beliefs.

A small ritual sets the tone. A member of the local Ohlone tribe blessed the space the company had asked permission to perform in.

At 90 minutes, the two-act Bodies could be tightened, though I wouldn’t give up a second of the opening, which imagines the natural world — including a splendid tree — emerging from an inchoate mass. Moving from hunter-gatherers to agricultural life was economically and clearly presented, though the water choreography for the women felt vapid. But Raul Trujillo’s “Cage Dance,” which used an elaborate double contraption (one part of it a hoop skirt) to indicate various forms of imprisonment, missed its target. The dancers physically struggled to get in and out of it — surely not the intent.

The second act included a haunting Ghost Dance. It was danced with traditional bobbing steps against a wailing wall (video by Alejandro Quintana) that documented the destruction humankind manages to inflict on itself. Perhaps Tangen’s idea that a deracinated people experiencing degradation can still hear Earth’s heartbeat in contemporary urban rhythms is overly romantic. But it’s a lovely idea to consider and made for some impressive hip-hop dancing.

Putting Hope Mohr and Charles Slender on the same double bill paired two artists who are relatively new in town — Mohr since 2007, Slender since 2008. They have nothing in common except that they clothe their formal concerns with clear expressive intent. For Mohr, this has sometimes meant working in tandem with community and professional dancers. Slender has elaborate theatrical trappings that he seems to be constantly reworking at his disposal.

Mohr’s world premiere, the deep-ringing Plainsong, was a fragile mediation for a sturdy performer, the renowned Aleta Hayes. The subject is the mythic Penelope, waiting for Odysseus to return. Katrina Rodabaugh wove-unraveled Plainsong‘s exquisite backdrop. Every meaning, every gesture of this 20-minute solo was suspended in ambiguity. In Hayes’ touch, the pile of wool became bloody entrails. She enclosed her space with a fragile thread — to imprison or to protect herself? With vigorously shoveling hands, she could have been unearthing or burying something. Her deep, almost masculine voice surged from inside her guts. The full-of-potential Plainsong is one of Hope’s finest works yet; she may want to consider refining it in the future.

Slender’s mildly witty Consumption Series is a chameleon that adapts to wherever his intrepid FACT/SF troupers take it. It’s a piece — this is the third time I’ve seen it — that looks at obsessions (food, sex, power) and envelops them with pseudo-baroque accoutrements and a slyly ballet-based vocabulary and its aberrations. The costumes and the ideas are beginning to look ragged; it’s time to retire both. 

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL

Through June 5

Various venues

www.sfiaf.org