Ocean of motion

Pub date August 7, 2007
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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What can one say about a producer who schedules four programs with a total of 20 world premieres and gives four evenings to choreographers, two of whom the audience most certainly has never heard of? At the very least, this shows guts and a willingness to trust the artists who’ve been engaged.

Joan Lazarus, the longtime force behind the WestWave Dance Festival, has always embraced risk. She has also shown a singular commitment to local dance, which has not always paid off. For the past few years, the event has struggled to find a new identity. But for this year’s 16th annual fest, Lazarus hit pay dirt. It had been a long time since WestWave attracted such diverse, enthusiastic audiences. Some organizers complained about the paucity of local dancers in the audience. But isn’t this exactly what you want in a festival: to reach beyond the usual crowd?

Not all of the new works, of course, will stand up to repeated scrutiny. If Martt Lawrence’s Rogue Conviviality was embarrassingly amateurish, Kerry Parker’s Aine hit the jackpot in banality. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why Marina Fukushima thought that giving her dancers crutches and milquetoast movements would make Dancing to Dis/ability viable. Also disappointing was Paco Gomes and Chimene Pollard’s On Our Way to Somewhere Else. In the past few years, the Brazilian-born Gomes has shown himself to be a technically competent and fluid dance-theater maker with a distinct voice. Here he was treading water. Leslie Stuck, a well-respected composer and first-time choreographer (using movement material suggested by the peripatetic Alex Ketley), should probably stick to music. His Digression was disjointed and badly in need of a trajectory. But then, that’s often what risky behavior is all about.

WestWave featured four full-evening programs, each by one choreographer. The success rate was about par with the rest of the festival. The one real miss was by Christopher K. Morgan, apparently a substitute for a local choreographer who dropped out at the last minute. Morgan is a genially handsome performer with something of a knack for inhabiting characters, as evidenced in the otherwise maudlin The Measure of a Man. As a choreographer, however, his approach to transutf8g material with themes including race and gender into dance theater proved stupefyingly naive. Monica Bill Barnes’s short program hardly qualified for a full evening. However, her astute talent for creating deadpan gestures for two sad-sack women who stumble into Dean Martin’s lugubrious world marks her as a savvy comedian. Her Suddenly Summer Somewhere brimmed with pathos and laughter, a rare gift in dance.

No local comes close to approaching Amy Seiwert’s gutsy approach to new ballet choreography. During her first full-evening program, it was easy to appreciate how her reach has expanded and her artistry deepened in less than a decade. Seiwert showed two world premieres. Beautifully refined, Carefully Assembled Normality was indeed just that. Spooling off into separate trajectories, melting into unison, riding partners on, from, and above the floor, three couples wove through Kevin Volans’s score with the grace and ease of friends at play. Double Consciousness excellently set Charlie Neshyba-Hodges’s stocky virtuosity against the rhythm and the content of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s poetry.

Formally, the original Kate Weare is a minimalist; she choreographs short solos, duets, and the odd trio. Yet emotionally, she paints on a large scale, exploring love, power, and womanhood. Intricately structured, her pieces started innocently but quickly turned gothic. A tango’s entanglements imprisoned both partners. A loner who thought he had the stage to himself was felled by three female ghosts. The discordant tones in the tender new Duet for the tall Weare and the tiny Leslie Kraus were hardly noticeable, but they were there. The second premiere, Trio, started in a silly, teenybopper mode (hops in unison, wiggled butts, flipped skirts, belly pats). But almost imperceptibly, the game turned nasty as one of the girls became the victim of a vicious play for dominance — so vicious it got to the point at which it was almost hard to watch. Weare should try tackling larger forms.

WestWave’s second set of programs offered a mixed repertoire of four approaches to dance: ballet, international, dance theater, and modern. The genres were loosely interpreted; nevertheless, they offered a pleasing, shape-giving frame to each evening’s quintet of works.

Setting his lovely In Fugue on five men and two women allowed Mark Foehringer to reverse common gender relationships. For once, the men starred, and the women supported. Though it started on a strutting, macho note, the piece quickly shifted to a mode of congenial partnering between equals, reminding us that men elegantly dancing with one another is common in many parts of the world. Also intriguing were Christian Burns whipping through seductive yet artificial beauty in Beneath Your Sheltering Hand; Kerry Mehling’s fiercely combative duet, Are You Emotionally Involved; and Stacey Printz’s spatially and emotionally nuanced Birds, Bees and Other Metaphors. The collaboration between video artist Austin Forbord and Brittany Brown Ceres, Corps de Co., resulted in a virtuosic and cheeky game about speed, scale, and timing.

Now for the bad news. WestWave’s budget was so tight this year that the festival could not pay any of the dancers. (Previously, participants shared the house.) Once again, it’s the artists who are the biggest supporters of the arts. Also, fest producer Lazarus has had it; she quit. Is she tired of dance? Of course not. Is she sick of fighting the money battle? You bet. One doesn’t like to think it, but if WestWave should fold for financial reasons, summers in San Francisco will be ever drearier than they so often already are. *