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John Jasperse Company


PREVIEW When New York choreographer John Jasperse presented his company in its local debut in 2004, the severe and pared-down choreography of his multimedia piece California looked more New England Puritanism than California hedonism. Good for him, I remember thinking, for not having bought into popular stereotypes. Still the omnipresent leaf blower and the dancers’ self-involvement needled me. No such hint of a cultural disconnect is likely to trouble his Misuse liable to prosecution, which takes its name from the milk crates we use to store and move our belongings. The work includes a live score by Mills College composer Zeena Parkins and a found-objects design for which YBCA has sent out a call for plastic coat hangers. One wonders: when Jasperse, who has been choreographing for more than 20 years, created Misuse in 2007 and set a zero budget for design, did he have an inkling for the rough waters the country was about to enter? In retrospect, the decision has proven visionary. Misuse‘s original impetus came from a desire to hold up a mirror to a society in which Judge Judy makes more money than all nine of the Supreme Court justices combined, or in which the war in Iraq costs more than four times per day than the annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts. No doubt, if Jasperse made Misuse today, he could come with other horror figures picked straight from the headlines. But ultimately more important than the topical resonance of this work is the integrity and refinement of Jasperse’s choreography — which is his own, yet made for us.

JOHN JASPERSE COMPANY. Thurs/2–Sat/4, 8 p.m., $25–$30. Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard, SF. (415) 978-2787. www.ybca.org

Body language


In watching Jess Curtis/Gravity in The Symmetry ProjectStudy #14(re)Presentation, it becomes immediately clear why sculptors from Michelangelo to Maillol to Moore couldn’t keep their hands off the human figure. There is a tactile quality to skin — whether it has the silken gleam of white marble in Maria Francesca Scaroni or Jess Curtis’ scuffed cragginess — that is irresistible. Given how hard these two dancers work, olfactory sensations also become integral to this latest version of an extraordinarily compelling investigation of how we perceive each other and ourselves.

Symmetry premiered last year. Now it is less monochromatic and even hints at an emotional trajectory — from the animalistic to the über-civilized. Is this an improvement? Probably, it adds new forms of inquiry. Does it make the work more theatrically accessible? Yes. Should you go and see it? Yes. Symmetry is brainy, sensuous, and asks important questions.

Mostly Symmetry is performed in the nude. The dancers at first shed false skins, i.e. fur coats, only to reinhabit them later in the form of evening wear. Though improvised, the work adheres to a strict concept: symmetry — balance, complementarities, and stability — as a physical reality. It could have been as deadly as looking at rows of cabbages or graph paper. But in Scaroni and Curtis’ bodies, both alone and together, Symmetry becomes a vibrating, pulsating state of presence by what they call an "inter-corporeal kaleidoscope of flesh."

The piece moves from a sculptural and placid connectedness to a fragmentary and volatile one (think electroshock) to Cabaret-style isolation within togetherness. In the first part it’s strong buttocks; sensitive hands and astoundingly interlocking body parts are particularly compelling. In a grand coup, Symmetry ends with Scaroni rocking on her heels and looking into the black hole of her vagina. Did she see just a kaleidoscope of flesh?

Composer Klaus Janek’s subtle underpinnings — especially the breathing section — were beautifully responsive to the dancers’ needs. (Rita Felciano)


Thurs/26-Sun/29, 8 p.m., $18–$20

CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission, SF


Back to nature


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ODC/Dance opened its 38th season with world premieres by artistic director Brenda Way and co-artistic director KT Nelson. Neither Way’s In the Memory of the Forest nor Nelson’s Grassland broke new ground. But novelty is overrated. What you want from experienced choreographers is that they continue challenging themselves with ideas that are compellingly realized. If both works need some settling, the rest of the season should take care of that. In upcoming performances they will be presented as part of the repertoire, which will give them a warmer context than the opening gala did. The dancers, who now include Robert Dekkers and Vanessa Thiessen, look as good as you may want them.

Nelson set her Grassland to a commissioned score by Brazilian composer Marcelo Zarvos, with whom she collaborated for her 2006 Stomp a Waltz. It’s a restless, driving piece of music, forcefully interpreted by a piano quintet and well-suited to Nelson’s equally restless, driving choreography. She kept the relationship to the music elastic, sometimes following its rhythmic impulse but also anticipating its sweep or going against its complexity.

Even without direct references to natural phenomena, Grassland suggests a vast sense of open space. Dancers tore in and out of the wings; they walked or scurried on tiptoe as if trying to see beyond the horizon. Legs swept the floor like scythes; four-legged critters scrambled across. The beautifully individualized duets for Daniel Santos and Yaoi Kambara, Anne Zivolich and Corey Brady, and Elizabeth Farotte and Jeremy Smith involved collisions and interlockings that then split, slithered, or scooted apart. The whole suggested a pulsating sense of aliveness, sometimes almost too much to take in.

Way’s elegiac In the Memory of the Forest was inspired by her mother-in-law’s escape from Poland in 1941 to find the man she loved. The work ended with parts of a recording — incorporated into Jay Cloidt’s musical score — of Iza Erlich telling her story. The audio was fragmented, pensive, and a little scratchy, just like Way’s choreography. Instead of fashioning a narrative, Way explored the anxiety, uncertainty, and determination — as well as the innocence and sense of loss — inherent in Erlich’s experience. More than anything, this is a piece about remembering. Cloidt’s music was multilayered and supportive; in the hands of Elaine Buckholtz’s set and lighting design, David and Hi-Jin Hodge’s video work looked first rate.

The piece opened with a stunning line of hand-holding dancers stepping from video images of woods; their line then began to fracture as if an earthquake had broken the ground beneath them. Joining them were video images of white-clad dancers who accumulated until they gave the sense of a world about to drown. But Way kept the focus on the private. Couples fused and separated, sometimes like silhouettes, sometimes very physically. Kambara was the heroine who flitted hither and yon. A limp Zivolich, dragged around by Santos, seemed to be an alter-ego whom Kambara befriended. In good movie tradition, it was not the men’s uniform gestures but Cloidt’s sound track that terrified. When Kambara finally threw herself against a slightly overwhelmed looking Smith, both froze and began to turn like music box figurines, while the shadows kept pace with their own whirling dance.


Through March 29, $10–$45

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard, SF

(415) 978-ARTS, www.odcdance.org

“Fridays at the Ballet”


PREVIEW By now the fact that San Francisco Ballet is one of the hottest ballet companies in the country is no longer news. It’s also common knowledge that ballet is an extremely expensive art form. Ticket prices reflect that unfortunate reality. That’s why SFB’s "Fridays at the Ballet" are such a good deal. For $59 (or even less if you shop around) you get a performance plus drinks afterward in the War Memorial Opera House lobby. The first of this season’s "Fridays" features Helgi Tomasson’s lovely, romantic On a Theme of Paganini (2008) and two glories of the repertoire — Jardin aux Lilas (Lilac Garden) and The Concert. The SFB premiere of Antony Tudor’s 1936 Jardin aux Lilas celebrates Tudor’s 100th birthday with an early work that is perhaps his all-time masterpiece. Its drama, its heat, its agony are underground; nothing is spelled out, everything is implied. Yet this story about love acknowledged and love denied will haunt you. Jerome Robbins’ 1956 hilarious The Concert strikes an altogether different note. Ballet doesn’t take to comedy easily, so Robbins was in for a challenge — but he watched silent movies and studied comedic timing. His mayhem in the concert hall has become a classic, and SFB has the dancers to pull it off. It’s the first of Robbins’ choreographies set to Chopin, a composer he would use very differently in later works, and all you can do is pity the poor pianist who has to contend with the kind of audience Robbins gave him. "Fridays at the Ballet," with a different program, returns April 3.

"FRIDAYS AT THE BALLET," Fri/20, 8 p.m., $59, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, SF. www.sfballet.org/fridays

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater


PREVIEW If success breeds success, why has Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater not had any imitators? The company celebrated its 50th anniversary in December, and Revelations will be half a century old next year. Yet Ailey and Revelations continue to be as unique as they were on Jan. 31, 1960, when the company thought the work had failed because the audience greeted it with a stunned silence. Then, of course, the roof came down, and Revelations continues to move audiences around the globe. So would the Ailey company be such a hit wherever they go without Revelations? It’s on every single program of this year’s Berkeley run, and my suspicion is that it wouldn’t.

Still, the company has more going for itself than one masterpiece. For one thing, there are the dancers. They all are virtuosic, generous, and committed to each other. A sense of inclusivity was also key to Ailey and continues to be vital for artistic director Judith Jamison. Ailey never wanted this to be an Ailey-only, American-only ensemble. Today the company still takes chances — with younger choreographers such as Hope Boykin, whose 2008 work Go in Grace will be on Program A. Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen’s 1997 Solo, also seen at San Francisco Ballet, will be on Program D, as will Festa Barocca, a 2008 commission from the Italian Mauro Bigonzetti. One definite highlight should be the West Coast premiere of Ailey’s 1969 piece Masekela Language on Program C. It makes you wonder, what took them so long?

ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER Wed/4–Fri/6, 8 p.m.; Sat/7, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun/8, 3 p.m.; $36–$62. Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Berk. (510) 642-9988, www.calperfs.berkeley.edu

San Francisco Ballet’s “Swan Lake”


PREVIEW Maybe it was not the best move politically for San Francisco Ballet to schedule a new, no doubt very expensive version of Swan Lake just now. But a lot — besides the pragmatic "you have to spend money to make money" — can be said for Helgi Tomasson revisiting the world’s most popular ballet. In European-derived dance, Swan Lake is the great classical achievement. Theater has Hamlet; the opera has The Marriage of Figaro; and ballet has Swan Lake.

When Tomasson joined SFB in 1985, the company had a 50-year history of presenting contemporary ballets — and had performed Willam Christensen’s Swan Lake in 1940 and Balanchine’s one-act version in 1953. But the emphasis throughout SFB’s history had been on new work, an approach that had taken them a long way. Still, Tomasson knew that the dancers of a great ballet company need the classical idiom. It creates and refines technique and roots the dancers in a living tradition. So in 1988 he choreographed Swan Lake even though he was a relative neophyte as a choreographer.

It was a risk — and a smash popular success, and by now, its sets and costumes have more than amortized. Twenty years later audiences and dancers deserve the rethinking by a much more mature artist who in the interim has created a truly great company. Tomasson is no revolutionary: choreographically this Swan Lake will respect the tradition. However, there will be a first: designer Jonathan Fenson has worked in the West End of London and on Broadway. He has seen little ballet and has never designed one.

SAN FRANCISCO BALLET’S SWAN LAKE Sat/21, Tues/24, Feb. 26–28, 8 p.m.; Sun/22, Feb. 28 and March 1, 2 p.m.; Feb. 25, 7:30 p.m.; $45–$255. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, SF. (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org

Ode to Joy


REVIEW Sean Dorsey’s new Lou is a gem. Deeply felt, splendidly shaped, Dorsey’s most ambitious project yet tells a tale of vulnerability, passion, joy, and transcendence. It’s the story of one human being: transgendered writer, lover, and poet Lou Sullivan, who died in 1991. Dorsey, who was born a woman and lives as a man, used Sullivan’s extensive archives to create a portrait of a man who had the bravery and persistence to do what he thought was right, not only for him but others. Isn’t that what the mythic heroes used to do — slay the dragons within and without? Yet an important story does not necessarily translate into good dance or theater. Lou, however, is very good.

Dorsey framed the story within the larger current debate on history. The scholar, politician, or family record keeper who gets to tell the story, or as Dorsey put it, build the "house" that contains the records, is the one who shapes our present and future perceptions of what happened. In this instance the multitalented Bay Area writer, actor, dancer, and thinker has pulled an involving, theatrically viable piece from the thousands of possibilities his research must have suggested. He selected judiciously, opting for about dozen episodes at the center of which is a rollicking paean to love, sexuality, and ecstasy. Words, movement, music, and narration blend into a beautifully modulated dance-theater piece. The family portrait is hilarious; the delicate moment when Dorsey strips off his shirt feels as pure as freshly fallen snow; the lack of recognition of himself in the mirror is poignant; and the "Perfect Day" duet aches with beauty and grief. Working with the excellent Brian Fisher, Juan de la Rosa, and Nol Simonse, Dorsey chose an unadorned, intense contact movement style with the hug as a central motive that works. A small quibble. Lou has about three endings — that needs to be rethought.

“Japan Dance Now”


PREVIEW What does avant-garde Japanese dance look like? Butoh is 40 years old. Eiko and Koma have been working their version of slow dancing for three decades. What about dancers who have grown up in a high-tech, high-velocity, video-drenched urban environment? We at least get glimpses of the movies, comics, and pop music that are part of their lives. Once in a while, a company like the Condors will come through town on their way to somewhere else. But for the most part, our exposure to that type of edgy new dance — highly influenced by electronic media and sophisticated in its use of those elements — remains nil.

Now Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is making an attempt to open minds and ears to new moves from Japan. Next month they bring back Papa Taruhamara, and this weekend they present three companies in a performance titled "Japan Dance Now" on their first stop of a three-city tour of the states. Baby-Q, a multimedia company that includes a robotics specialist, is directed by choreographer Yoko Higashino. The group stages her solo E/G-Ego Geometria. Nibroll’s seven athlete-dancer-comedians are taking on the everyday in their excerpt of Coffee. Sennichimae Blue Sky Dance Club is an all-female ensemble with serious hair. The company describes The End of Water as an exploration of aspects of femininity from a pop butoh perspective.

JAPAN DANCE NOW Thurs/29–Sat/31, 8 p.m., $25–$30 (On Sat/31 audience members receive special entrance to the post-performance "Big Idea" party, 9 p.m.-midnight, in the Grand Lobby and Galleries). Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF. (415) 978-2787, www.ybca.org

Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenco


PREVIEW Two years ago when Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenco filled Zellerbach Hall to the rafters and awarded its performers with a standing ovation the likes of which Cal Performances probably had not experienced in a while, I felt very much like an outsider. I am crazy about flamenco, yet it was only when Barrio took to the stage that I got an inkling of why that southern Spanish form, which reaches deep in that country’s Arabic heritage and perhaps even further into its even more ancient gypsy roots, still manages to take my breath away in the 21st century.

Every pause, every rhythmic explosion, every serpentine turn spoke of something inside her that needed to come out. It was powerful, intimate, absolutely theatrical, and totally genuine. She was defiant, playful, and mysterious — frequently all at once. It was an unforgettable performance that probably would have been even better in a smaller venue — this tiny woman held 2,000 people in the raised palm of her hand.

The rest of the company is by no means simply backup for Barrio. These are superbly trained performers who manage to hang onto their individuality despite the constraints of this type of highly controlled, technically virtuosic performance. Company director Martin Santangelo, who got his start on the stage with El Teatro Campesino, knows how to put together sizzling shows. But the primary reason to welcome this company’s return is Barrio.

SOLEDAD BARRIO AND NOCHE FLAMENCO Fri/23–Sat/24, 8 p.m., $24–$48. Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Berk. (510) 642–9988, www.calperfs.berkeley.edu

Short and sweet


PREVIEW Leave it to Joe Goode to come up at the end of the year with something as untried as a series of pieces, some as short as 30 seconds. Having enlisted the collaboration of Portland, Ore., singer-songwriter Holcombe Waller, Goode modestly calls the program small experiments in song and dance. The idea is to create works that, as Goode describes it, have music and dance "collide."

It’s another step in the choreographer’s ongoing search for new theatrical forms in which the aural and visual feed off each other, hopefully in surprising ways. On a practical level, this means Goode’s dancers will sing while Waller, whose voice has been described as "soft as white velvet," will dance. Waller, who arrives with two instrumentalists, is bringing to the performance his experience of stretching the concert format into more theatrical frameworks. Additionally, he has worked with dancers in past. But more than that, small experiments looks like it might be a meeting of two kindred spirits. There’s a wistfulness and poignant tenderness to much of Waller’s music that surely must have resonated with Goode. The opening night will be a special New Year’s Eve celebration and includes a pre-performance champagne reception and post-performance party.

JOE GOODE PERFORMANCE GROUP’S SMALL EXPERIMENTS IN SONG AND DANCE Wed/31, 9:30 p.m., $25–$125; Fri/2 and Sat/3, 8 p.m., $20–$25. Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St., SF.

(415) 561-6565, (415) 647-2822, www.brava.org, www.joegoode.org

Steps that impressed


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Looking back over the past year always entails a look forward, and perhaps the best part of 2008 is that in 2009 there is at least the possibility of the arts becoming part of the national dialogue. Two reasons warrant such optimism: during the Great Depression, people still wrote books, went to the theater and movies, and created canvasses. Modern dance went through its most crucial development in that time.

Furthermore, President-elect Barack Obama actually has an arts agenda — the first president to have one in a long while. That alone is encouraging. As for 2008, out of dozens of experiences, some inevitably have imprinted themselves more than others.

**If I had to choose the single most important event of the year, it would have to be the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s two-week residency at Cal Performances, culminating with Craneway Event at a former Ford auto plant in Richmond. It was a quiet, luminous, and utterly unforgettable Sunday afternoon of being in the presence of genius.

**San Francisco Ballet’s commissioning of 10 works by 10 choreographers in honor of its 75th anniversary could have been more adventuresome. Still, it signaled a commitment to the future. Margaret Jenkins’ and Julia Adam’s pieces were not critically acclaimed, but both choreographers dared to go outside the conventionally balletic.

**Ballet San Jose impressed with first-rate programming. Just Balanchine, Swan Lake, The Firebird, and The Toreador highlighted just how fine a group of dancers they are — with an excellent repertoire the South Bay can call its own.

**Shelley Senter set Trisha Brown’s 1979 hauntingly beautiful Glacial Decoy before the professionals and graduate students of Mills College dance department, titling it Glacial Decoy Redux. Adapted for a smaller stage, the 30-year-old piece looked as pristine and daring as ever.

**Joe Goode Performance Group made Wonderboy after a sabbatical spent recharging batteries with travel. With its touching tenderness and poignant exploration of loneliness and community, Wonderboy was vintage Goode, though in its use of the material — dance in particular, but also text, music, and puppetry — it was as fresh and imaginative as anything he has created.

**Former Joe Goode dancer, Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People’s edgy and audience-challenging Retrospective Exhibitionist asked the year’s most intellectually trenchant questions about the nature of performance, perception, and theatrical manipulation.

**Hip-hop artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s the break/s: a mixtape for stage proved to be another of his meditations on what it means to be an African American, a man, a father, and a human being. Using a travel diary approach, he integrated language, music, and movement into a self-effacing monologue that was as freewheeling yet formally cogent.

**Certainly the most intriguing, but least promising, collaboration happened between Janice Garrett and Dancers and the Del Sol String Quartet. The idea was to have dancers and musicians physically interact with each other. The result was the sparkling StringWreck, a spirited entertainment with musical as well as choreographic substance.

**Jess Curtis/Gravity’s imagistic Symmetry Study #7 for Curtis and Maria Francesca Scaroni paired the two nude dancers in a structured contact improvisation in which their interlocking bodies became a piece of sculpture trying to find its form. They used the body at its most basic: weight, mass, and skeletal structure.

**The San Francisco International Arts Festival brought the year’s best surprise: Berkeley’s Art Street Theater’s US premiere of Yes, Yes to Moscow, a wistful and beautifully imaginative dance theater work that picked up where Chekhov’s Three Sisters left off. If you have ever wondered what would have happened if Olga, Masha, and Irina had made it Moscow, go and see Yes — if it ever returns.

Half-forgotten memories


PREVIEW Choreographer-dancer Erika Tsimbrovsky and visual artist–performer Vadim Puyandaev may be new to the Bay Area, but they are old hands in the theater. Having more than a decade of what they describe as "audio-visual-kinetic" performance under their belts, mostly in Eastern Europe and Israel, they have also developed a fine nose for ferreting out good collaborators. For their new Scrap-Soup, they have enlisted some top Bay Area artists: musicians Sean Felt and Albert Mathias and, among others, dancers Suzanne Lappas, Kira Kirsch, and Andrew Ward.

The primary impetus that drives Tsimbrovsky and Puyandaev’s work is an interest in exploring — through improvisational structures — different media and their relationships to one another. The Garden (2007), their first work in this country, looked at how gestures — musical, visual, and kinetic — can reignite half-forgotten memories. For Scrap they went through records of how information has been visually transmitted historically, via medieval manuscripts, hieroglyphs, and Japanese scrolls, and in contemporary mass communication, by way of billboards and computer screens. They want to know whether the preservation of content has been changed by today’s technology, and if so, how? Those are big theoretical questions, but the artists involved — all of them experienced improvisers — are hands-on, dig-into-the-material kinds of collaborators. Scrap‘s format will take the shape of a constantly shifting installation for which Tsimbrovsky and Puyandaev set the parameters, but within which the performers are on their own to hopefully bounce off one another.

SCRAP-SOUP Fri/19–Sat/20, 8 p.m., $15–$20. Project Theater Artaud, 450 Florida, SF. (415) 863-9834, www.artaud.org/theater

The odd couple


PREVIEW Do we have a new odd couple in town? At first glance Todd Eckert and Nol Simonse don’t seem to have much in common though both are tall, lanky dancers who allow themselves to disappear into other people’s choreography. Eckert’s steadying presence in Robert Moses’ Kin company contrasts strongly with Simonse’s febrile intensity in companies as diverse as Kunst-Stoff, Stephen Pelton Dance, and Janice Garrett and Dancers.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that the two have in common a desire to strike out on their own. Unlike ballet dancers, who are still mostly trained to interpret within a given language, modern dancers learn early on to create language and content from within themselves. So last year Eckert and Simonse hooked up for a performance of their own works. They liked what they saw. So did audiences.

For Shared Space 2, an evening of world premieres, each artist will create a solo and a group piece. Eckert’s Routines of Chaos investigates compulsive behavior: his yet unnamed quartet looks at self-sabotage in connection to relationship building. Simonse’s How Fortunate the Man with None mixes his own material with some "borrowed" from other dancers. For his group piece on grief, he examines the concept of the journey as developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying.

SHARED SPACE 2 Fri/5-Sat/6, 8 p.m., and Sun/7, 7 p.m.; $20. Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St., SF. (415) 273-4633, www.dancemission.com

Let the rhythm hit ’em


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REVIEW The exuberance bouncing off the walls of the Palace of Fine Arts at the Nov. 22 opening of the 10th annual San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest probably kept the audience in a buoyant mood well beyond the theater. These young dancers — and hip-hop is still primarily a young person’s art — presented a show that was sassy, skilled, and a hoot to boot.

Artistic director Micaya has developed a dual approach to programming, and it works. She showcases local hip-hop schools that are worthy of exposure and that bring in audiences, and features them with professionals who, increasingly, may come from abroad. This year, in its infinite wisdom, the US Department of Homeland Security denied visas to dancers from Russia and the Netherlands.

Still, the DanceFest carried on. By their very nature, the school performances are ensemble-oriented. To watch these dancers is to be drawn into the sheer joy of what they are doing. Split-second timing and constantly shifting relationships within the group compensate for the relative simplicity of the individual steps. The whole, with its sense of interlocking gears, is held together by a sometimes almost militaristic discipline. Yet the format is flexible enough to showcase individual talent.

The DanceFest also gauges hip-hop’s ongoing evolution. Having started in the ’70s as a popular expression — urban folk dancing rooted in African and African American practices — hip-hop has been moving from the streets to the theater, from the community center to the concert hall. Whether that means that hip-hop will lose its grounding in pop culture remains to be seen. It probably has already. But there are gains.

Returning to this year’s festival with their mesmerizing HipHop/Beebop was the first-rate MopTop Music and Movement from Philadelphia. Two years ago they took on the founding fathers. Last year it was The Wizard of Oz. This time they brought a fabulously slinky vision of a hot night on the town. With Buddha Stretch and Mr. Valentine in zoot suits and rakishly tilted hats, and Uko Snowbunny and B-girl Bounce in flouncing minis, they were a marvel of strutting control, flashing showmanship, and barely contained heat. Flawless’ Manipulation was indeed flawless in the way its two ingenious dancers — dressed in metallic hats and jackets under black lights — sent currents of energy into each other’s bodies, both to support and to control. It’s no surprise that they were the UK’s World Hip Hop Dance Champions in 2006. Another champion was one-man wonder, veteran hip-hopper Popin Pete from Electric Boogaloos. With appropriate wigs on hand, he unfolded popping’s history in one smooth take — from a vibrating ’70s style, to raucous ’80s moves, to today’s elegant, dinner-jacket-clad incarnation.

Breaksk8 Dance Crew from Indiana, on rollerblades, disappointed. While somewhat impressive for their technical skills, they performed This Is How We Roll with a studied nonchalance that was off-putting. Also new to the festival was the all-male Formality group from San Diego. Their well-performed Players Club had the energy of a traffic jam and stood out in its fresh use of arm gestures. SoulSector turned out to be the only company interested in exploring hip-hop’s capacity to delve into deep issues: their Reinvention: Headhunters was a tough examination of militarism and war.

There was much to enjoy in the studio-based ensembles — the clean and swift U.F.O. Movement among them. Sunset’s smartly staged and hilarious Toonz dressed its dancers as Looney Tunes characters. Its smallest elementary-school-age dancers, of course, got the biggest applause. If this year’s DanceFest proves one thing, it’s that the artists have barely begun to scratch the surface of the genre’s potential for entertaining and thought-provoking dance. Now if we can just get Homeland Security off their backs …

Irresistible ODC


PREVIEW Some traditions are just too good to give up. I can forgo most holiday customs, except for singing carols, The Nutcracker, and a Tom and Jerry with lots of nutmeg and rum, preferably drunk from properly labeled china cups. Another, a peculiar San Francisco tradition is ODC/Dance’s The Velveteen Rabbit. It has proved remarkably sturdy and remains quite irresistible.

You’d think at a time when kids are growing up with anime and Nintendo games, there would be little interest in a story about a sawdust-stuffed rabbit and 10-foot-tall nanny who brooks no nonsense in the nursery. Yet KT Nelson’s 22-year-old adaptation of Margery Williams’ 1922 classic,with its whiff of upper-class British propriety, has not lost one iota of its charm. Nelson choreographed it when her son was young. Maybe that helped with the inspiration.

Another reason is that right from the beginning, ODC went for top quality in its choice of its collaborators. They could barely afford children’s author Brian Arrowsmith’s costumes and design, but what an investment that turned to be. The combination of Geoff Hoyle’s narration, Benjamin Britten’s score, and Rinde Eckert’s voice was inspired. By now ODC’s dancers may be able to dance their roles in their sleep — but it doesn’t show. They don the parts like a second skin and seem to enjoy themselves. Daytime performances, at 90 minutes, in a relatively small theater, should make Rabbit accessible even to the younger crowd.

THE VELVETEEN RABBIT Fri/28-Dec. 14, call for times, $15–$45. Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard, SF. (415) 978-2787, www.ybca.org, www.odcdance.org

Inspiring at 89


REVIEW After the Company’s opening night performance on Nov. 7, 89-year-old Merce Cunningham took to the Zellerbach Hall stage in a wheelchair. With his impish smile still intact but otherwise looking frail, he spread his hands. That’s when I started to cry for the second time that week. It’s what happens when history unfolds before your eyes.

Cunningham is the single most important 20th century choreographer still alive — and still working. The opening concert of his company’s two-week residence showed why: imagination, buoyancy, and impeccable craft. Nowhere was this more evident than in the breathtakingly beautiful Suite for Five (1953-58), the company’s first group piece — its male roles originally realized by Cunningham himself and our own blithe spirit, Remy Charlip. As performed by Julie Cunningham, Holley Farmer, Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, and Marcie Munnerlyn, the work was crystalline in its transparent clarity. Every unadorned gesture, every gazelle leap, and every pivoting turn filled the stage with radical purity. One can only fantasize about what the original audiences must have thought at a time when Martha Graham and Jose Limon still dominated concepts of modern dance. Only Balanchine could rival Cunningham.

In this context the other two pieces, eyeSpace (2006) and BIPED (1999), with many more resources and 40 years of dance-thinking behind them, seemed almost tame. EyeSpace was made with the iPod generation in mind. You could either bring your own, or borrow one in Zellerbach’s lobby. Mikel Rouse’s score was made of environmental sounds — mostly urban but also from nature — and you superimposed the sounds you could find at the moment. Cunningham’s urgent choreography had the quality of bouncing water drops on a hot griddle. A dozen performers popped off the floor, in and out of the wings, into unisons, trios, and off-kilter solos in this good if not spectacular late Cunningham.

The astounding BIPED juxtaposed the 13 company members with three "virtual" dancers, created with Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser’s motion-capture technology. Projected onto a scrim of ever-changing light beams, the work suggested a voluminous universe whose spatial dimensions expanded and contracted, dwarfing or putting into relief the glorious performers. In this third viewing, BIPED still felt too long, and Gavin Bryars’ textured score didn’t help. For the metaphorically inclined, however, the piece’s pulsating sense of presence suggests nothing less than a physical universe made up of light and energy.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Fri/14–Sat/15, 8 p.m., $26–$48. Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Berk. (510) 642-9988, www.calperfs.berkeley.edu



PREVIEW LEVYdance company is small: only five performers. But they dance big — hugely physical, totally in charge — and they also think big. They once performed at ODC Theater, but that was too small. Last year they pushed themselves onto the much larger stage of Kenbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center, yet even that space proved too confining. So for the fall season LEVYdance created its own space on the street outside their studio, where they built three stages connected by catwalks. Audiences are interspersed between them. The location: one of the city’s smallest alleys — with very supportive neighbors. No wings or sets. Graffiti will have to do. Since it’s November, the company will provide hot beverages. For sweaters, blankets, and hats, you’re on your own. The program includes three world premieres: Physics, with a commissioned score by composer-DJ Mason Bates, which looks at the forces the body is subject to; Wake, a duet about the essence of communication for company veterans Brooke Gessay and Scott Marlow; and a yet-unnamed ensemble work performed to music from the Middle Ages. The event also introduces LEVYdance’s newest member, Aline Wachsmuth. Last year’s pop music-inspired and now-reworked Nu Nu completes the lineup.

LEVYDANCE Wed/12-Sat/15, 8 p.m., $20–$30. Heron Street, off Eighth Street between Folsom and Harrison, SF. www.brownpapertickets.com.

Erin Mei-Ling Stuart


When Erin Mei-Ling Stuart packed her bags to leave her hometown of Fresno in 1992, she included her viola — because she had won a scholarship to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Here, however, she played so much that she developed tendinitis and had to take a break. That’s when dance kicked in. Big time.

The viola went into the closet, and Stuart started to study modern dance — she had dabbled in ballet as a child — first at City College and then in just about every studio she could find. She turned herself into a liquid, sensuously vulnerable performer who learned to work with anybody who piqued her interest. Some were choreographers who sought direct input from their dancers — Erika Chong Shuch, Jesselito Bie, Stephen Pelton, and Chris Black — while others, like Nancy Karp, Jennie McAllister, and Deborah Slater, created along more traditional, formal lines.

Stuart learned from both approaches and expresses no preference. "There is such freedom when you can make up movement, but also it’s wonderful when you can just show up and dance," she explains.

Along the way, Stuart started to choreograph, often creating vignettes with casual looks that belie the attention to detail behind their making. These sketches and miniatures are frequently funny, evoking not a guffaw but a chuckle. They bring to life characters we probably have known or whose experiences we have shared. And Stuart does so without a word — she works purely through movement. Remember your prissy elementary school teacher and the know-it-all class brat? Stuart did in Continuing Education (2006). Have you ever been in an elevator with one other person so different from yourself that you felt creeped out? Stuart has, in Between Floors (2002). Do you walk in a neighborhood of lost souls who nonetheless furtively relate to each other? You’ll recognize its inhabitants in Songs for You (2004). And do you live with roommates? She does in her most recent work Keyhole Dances.

Stuart freely confesses that her commitment to create formally cogent dances "rubs up against a desire to examine often overlooked aspects of everyday life," and that she likes to work with "the shared intimacy of daily experience." She knows that she is old-fashioned that way. "I can’t help it," she says. "I like to make dances about relationships."

What she sees — on the bus, on the street corner, in the coffee shop — is us, more or less bungling our way through the day-to-day grind. That’s where she gets her material. If there is a political component to her work — and I happen to think that there is — it is an implied criticism of the social institutions to which we commit ourselves or by which we let ourselves be trapped.

Stuart does skewer, but does so gently, focusing on the mess humans manage to create for themselves. For her recent excursion into a mess — Sara Shelton Mann’s My Hot Lobotomy, which looks at the difficulty of staying sane given our environmental policies — the dancer took her viola out of the closet.


Yaelisa and Caminos Flamencos


PREVIEW How many outside the flamenco family — a sizable one in the Bay Area — realize just how special an artist Yaelisa is? In a less ghettoized genre, this Emmy-winning and always expanding and deepening performer and choreographer would be considered a superstar. Yaelisa foregoes some of the showbiz antics of her colleagues for performances that are no less captivating and, frequently, more intelligently planned and presented. Her monthly Café Flamenco sessions — every third Sunday of the month and currently at Theater Artaud — have become a Bay Area staple.

The Yaelisa and Caminos Flamenco ensemble includes Melissa Cruz, Christina Hall, Mariana Elana, and Fanny Ara. Each of these women is a soloist in her own right. For the company’s new program, Canciones, Yaelisa and her dancers are stepping beyond their comfort level into non-flamenco music — not exactly a new idea, but one that apparently Yaelisa has wanted to explore for a long time. The impetus came from a 2006 collaboration with tap virtuoso Savion Glover that involved Brazilian funk, Miles Davis, and Dave Brubeck. Canciones — with guest dancer Timo Nuñez — includes music by Iron and Wine and the Spanish pop group Ketama and live sounds by Sonikéte, as well as more traditional compositions by Isaac Albéniz. Latin percussionist Michael Spiro and vocalists Felix de Lola and Miguel Rosendo join music director and master flamenco artist Jason McGuire.

YAELISA AND CAMINOS FLAMENCOS Sat/1, 8 p.m., and Sun/2, 7 p.m., $15–$60. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF. (415) 978-ARTS, www.ybca.org>.

Ritual de lo non-habitual


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REVIEW Since rituals necessitate a community of believers, presenting one for an audience in a theater runs the risk of becoming a mere item of cultural consumption. Yet, on Oct. 16, master drummer-vocalist-dancer Dohee Lee went beyond expectations. Her oddly named Flux succeeded best in its most ritualistic elements — the moments when it called up soul-wrenching memory, pain, and reconciliation.

The title refers to the ever-changing aspects of all creation. That’s a cliché and doesn’t tell us much about the nature of this, at times, powerful work of dance theater created by the Korean-born Lee and a slew of excellent collaborators. Foremost among them are the musicians of Asian Improv Arts: Francis Wong; Tatsu Aoki, who also created one of Flux‘s films; Jason Lewis; and Jonathan Chen. They are master performers. And as a result of their efforts — along with Lee’s — Flux‘s seamless unity of dance and music made for an exceedingly rare experience. The only other dancer besides Lee was the very capable Sherwood Chen. Relegated for the most part to subsidiary roles, he was, however, underused.

Using the I-Ching as a shaping device and philosophical tool, Lee divided the evocative Flux into nine sections, helpfully explained in the program insert. The work started on a dreamy note and moved through historical sequences to the climactic dramatization focusing on the memory of Lee’s grandmother. The piece wound down to a peaceful, even joyously embracing close with the traditional passing of the Banyayoungsun, the ship that connects the living with ancestors.

Deann Borshay Liem’s excellent appropriations of historic Korean films included sepia-colored portraits of ordinary men and women in addition to haunting sequences of refugees, corpses, and iconic symbols. Combined with Aoki’s more abstract images — water, fire, wind, a ravine — which set the context for the individual sections, Flux captured the experiences of a specific people while placing them in a universal context of human experience. Less effectively, the program notes to the "Fire=Trade" sequence seemed a little naïve in the way it commemorated only the unequal trade treaties "between the US and Korea from 1850 to the present." It’s not as if Asian nations and European powers were entirely innocent when it came to Korea’s woes.

As a performer, Lee is a wonder of versatility and strength. In "Water," she commenced the refugee’s journey by stepping gingerly into the sea, her feet floating and blindly attempting to find firmer ground — her only guide a fan-shaped wooden rattle. In "Thunder," she played a battery of Korean drums with an increasingly furious intensity as we stared at those all-too-familiar images of terrorized faces and rows of bodies, victims of war. In the somewhat prolonged finale, a bouncy, almost jazz-like freedom propelled Lee into a rollicking celebration of hope.

Lee’s duets and the choreography for Chen, in contrast, looked uncertain. They spoke of what may be inexperience choreographing for other dancers. Yet as a soloist, Lee is outstanding. The "Mountain" section was an astounding tour de force that started on a rather low-key interchange between a child and her grandmother, then swelled into something approaching the demonic. The program notes explained that the old woman was recalling her experience during the Korean War, and that the style evokes Korean opera.

The moment was as dramatically powerful as anything in Puccini — and those vocalists don’t dance. Though performed in Korean and therefore verbally unintelligible to many in the audience, the trajectory of this tale of pain and fury was crystal clear. Bent over and dragging a drum behind her, Lee gradually straightened and then whipped herself into shamanistic ecstasy. In the end, standing on her drum, she returned to her guise as a fragile human being. It was the closest thing to a ritual that you are likely to see onstage. *

San Francisco Trolley Dances


PREVIEW How many more 38s do I have to look at when I really need the 5? And how come the 35 is always empty, while you can’t find a spot to put your feet, not to mention a seat, on the 22? Muni manages to infuriate just about everybody — from the latte-clutching N-Judah riders to the grocery bag-shlepping "Chinatown Express" shoppers.

Still, I’ve never lived in a city where people did not vociferously complain about their public transportation system. That’s why San Francisco Trolley Dances is such a neat idea. No, they are not another Muni pacification plan, but the brainchild of local choreographer Kim Epifano. If you are a stickler for accuracy, the idea came from Jean Isaacs Dance Theater in San Diego where they do have trolleys. For this year’s San Francisco Trolley Dances you board the new T-Third Street line anywhere between Mission Bay and Bayview-Hunters Point. Besides taking you through vastly varied cityscapes, you can watch performances on the street as you ride by or get off at designated spots. Scott Wells and his high-flying acrobat/dancers will send you off at Fourth and Berry streets, and Joanna Haigood’s community dancers will welcome you in front of the Bayview Opera House. All that for $1.50.

SAN FRANCISCO TROLLEY DANCES Sat/18-Sun/19, 11 a.m.–2:45 p.m. (rides start every 45 minutes from Fourth and Berry streets), $1.50 or Fast Pass. (415) 226-1139, www.epiphanydance.org

Hawaii calls


PREVIEW Patrick Makuakane is big. But the tall, muscular choreographer’s physical size is nothing compared to the largeness of his laughter, personality, and, above all, his love for and knowledge of hula. In addition to a very large school, Makuakane runs the Bay Area’s most successful Hawaiian company, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu. He has coached, choreographed, directed, and MC’d the halau’s productions since 1985, and while about half of the dancers are Hawaiian, the rest are there for the love of the art. None are paid, but, Makuakane says, "We take good care of them." Learning about Hawaii, its history, and its arts and crafts — in addition to being fed well — is just one of the benefits.

Onstage Makuakane’s gifts as a showman at times overshadow his remarkable ability as a vocalist and a percussionist. Watch him hunched over a drum and giving life to lyrics few of us understand, and you get a glimpse of an immensely serious artist at work. In India he would be called a guru; in Africa, a griot. Makuakane’s greatest gift is in embracing a generous perspective on hula: he calls it "Hula Mula" — respecting the old, putting it into contemporary expression. That’s why he can create a hula to "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" — far removed from the ancient chants and drums — and it explains the origins of one early piece unearthed for this year’s extravaganza, Krishna Hula. He remembers its genesis in Golden Gate Park. "We were doing our own thing and this band of chanting Hare Krishnas showed up," he recalls. "It was wild."

THE HULA SHOW 2008 Thurs/11, Oct. 17 and 18, 8 p.m.; Fri/12, 4 p.m.; Oct. 19, noon and 3 p.m.; $10–$40. Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon, SF. 1-800-407-1400, www.cityboxoffice.com

Inbal Pinto Dance Company


PREVIEW Two years ago the Inbal Pinto Dance Company made its San Francisco debut with Oyster. On first glance it looked like a freak show, one of those traveling circuses that paraded so-called human deformities to titillate audiences. I mean, what are you going to do with a two-headed, four-armed MC and a crone who controls live puppets? The entire piece looked like a mix of Fellini, without his loving acceptance, and early Günther Grass, without his sardonic humor — plus a solid dose of that French invention, "new circus." Watching the performers move and dance in that no man’s land between fantasy and reality, you couldn’t quite let yourself relax to enjoy Oyster‘s sheer theatrical punch, because underneath all the merriment hid a ghost in the basement.

For their return visit, this Israeli group, appropriately co-managed by a choreographer and a theater director, is presenting its latest work, Shakers, which has nothing to do with condiments or 19th-century New England religion. Its inspiration comes via one of the most common kitsch objects you can buy in tourist locations ranging from Oslo and Moscow — where they make sense — to Cairo and Bombay — where they don’t. Remember snowglobes, those little glass-domed, hermetically-sealed trinkets you shake and snow keeps falling, falling, falling? Shakers.

INBAL PINTO DANCE COMPANY Sat/11, 8 p.m., and Sun/12, 2 p.m., $39–$27; family matinee, Sat/11, 2 p.m., $12–$25. Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF. (415) 392-2545, www.performances.org

Raging hormones


REVIEW Romeo and Juliet — the ballet, not the play — is not exactly known for its wit. Prokofiev’s heavy-handed use of thematic material at times makes Wagner sound frivolous. But leave it to Mark Morris to turn ballet’s most beloved 20th-century tragedy into a fairy tale whose comedic overtones are difficult to miss. Does the piece — which was given its West Coast premiere by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall Sept. 25 — work? Up to a point it does, because Morris set clearly defined parameters and shaped his take accordingly. At the end, however, the choreographer falls flat on his face.

Morris’ Romeo and Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare is the result of musicologist Simon Morrison’s discovery of the composer’s original manuscript in Russia. It doesn’t include a balcony scene, nor do the lovers die. The most welcome revelation is that the music was not designed to hit you over the head. The orchestration is thinner, shading its colors instead of splashing them on.

When tackling the largely unchanged libretto, Morris decided to keep the story at arm’s length. His characters are not quite flesh-and-blood people. The dancers inhabit their roles against the backdrop of a story we already know well. And they do it superbly. In many ways, Morris is playing a game with us. It’s witty, fun, and distanced.

The minute the work opens and we see the good citizens with their wooden swords, you know that this is make-believe. There is no conflict between these families: everybody, including the parents, is immature. Hormones rage. Stuff happens. The whole society is kept together by Escalus (a fabulously effective Joe Bowie) who prowls the town like a playground supervisor.

Morris’ handling of the crowd scenes works. He treats them like accidental encounters, akin to neighborhood gossip that swells then recedes. It’s one way of dealing with Prokofiev’s propensity for repetition. The ballroom scene’s formality resembles early Martha Graham with Romeo posturing like a pouting teenager. In a nod to the famous pillow dance, Morris includes a parlor game involving a cushion.

He explores a similar thematic development in the market scenes. A hop and turn motive spools the citizens on stage as if they were coming off a conveyor belt. As for the love story, Morris makes it into a puppy love that unexpectedly grows into something the kids can no longer handle. Noah Vinson’s Romeo is splendid, tender and ready to jump out of his skin from sheer happiness. Maile Okamura’s Juliet evolves nicely into take-charge maturity.

In the end, Morris’ Romeo falls apart. The divertissements in the bedroom look like caricatures, as do Romeo’s and the Friar’s ex machina appearances. Morris’ imagination fails him badly as he transports the lovers into a literally star-crossed universe. The choreographer prides himself on using every note of a composer’s music, but perhaps that’s not always such a hot idea.