Rita Felciano

Soaring to the heights



DANCE While watching Garrett + Moulton Productions’ exhilarating The Luminous Edge, the dramaturgical concept of “a well-made piece” kept popping up in my mind. At a time when “process-oriented” and “in progress” work seem to be the currency of the day, seeing structurally rigorous dance, in which ingredients are impeccably integrated into something akin to a universe of its own, seemed almost antediluvian. The accomplishment is all the more impressive, given the fact that until a few years ago, co-choreographers (and real-life couple) Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton kept their professional careers strictly apart. I can’t think of any other partnership like this one.

With no rough edges or tentative moments, each of Luminous’ elements — music, dance, design — contributed to the work’s confident trajectory. After 70 minutes, it curled in on itself, and instead of its final moments feeling predictable, they felt right. We emerge from a void, and we return to it, Garrett and Moulton appeared to tell us.

There is no narrative, but individually distinct episodes suggest a story, perhaps embodied by three ever-so-different couples: company dancers Carolina Czechowska and Michael Galloway, Tegan Schwab and Dudley Flores, and Vivian Aragon and Nol Simonse. Throughout they engaged with each other and in solos that built on their special abilities. Except for one small duet between Flores and Simonse, as couples they stayed put.

Luminous looked at the joys and pains of being alive — the intimacy and struggles of relationships, but also a profound sense of being at the mercy of forces beyond our understanding. The sheer brilliance of the interweaving between the black-clad movement choir and the dancers — the women in Mary Domenico’s crimson skirts with just a trace of a misplaced train, the men in simple dark blue — set into the relief how the personal exists within something larger.

As originally developed some 30 years ago, Moulton’s “movement choir” choreography (small, precise gestures in overlapping unison, performed sitting in tiers) always looked vaguely threatening. The discipline involved had something militaristic about it. Those elements are still there, but the choir has become an infinitely more expressive instrument, on par with the soloists. It envelops, protects, and constrains, but it also welcomes and opens vistas. Fingers can be claws, but filigreed they promise a gentler way of being.

In Luminous’ opening, the choir formed a fluid honor guard through which the three couples traveled, as if entering a new world. When the larger group reshaped itself into circles around them, I thought of the many cultures in which round dances are integral to wedding rituals — except here, their speed seemed more ominous than welcoming.

Later on, in one of the work’s more chilling moments, the soloists stood in brilliant separate spotlights (the first-rate lighting design throughout was by David Robertson). Staring impassively at us, disembodied hands caressed, measured, and examined their bodies. The dancers looked like pieces of meat for sale. In another section, the choir bunched into a tight group of fist-shaking arms as one of the dancers disappeared among them, swallowed up by a mob.

But these dark moments were balanced by those in which folkloric exuberance broke through as if from an almost forgotten memory. The company dancers spoke most powerfully about triumphs and tragedies of life. In their roles they celebrated, they struggled, and they also buried each other.

Almost shyly partnered by Galloway, Czechowska could appear impassive and self-absorbed until her long limbs fiercely tore into and claimed the space around her. Aragon is a firecracker of athletic exuberance, but when crumpled over Simonse’s leg, she became a different person. Schwab’s grounded physicality looked particularly open to being partnered on equal footing with the liquidly dancing Flores. Again and again, they reached for each other’s hands in a tug of war that never seemed to end.

Luminous wouldn’t exist without the extraordinary contribution of composer-musical director Jonathan Russell, his six musicians, and guest singer Karen Clark, all performing live upstage left. The choreographers had first intended to work with Mahler’s unbearably anguished Kindertotenlieder. I am glad they didn’t. Instead, Russell chose rich selections from his own and Marc Mellits’ music. They set the tone for each of Luminous’ parts. Brilliantly, however, he also chose three songs from Mahler’s masterful score and arranged them for Clark’s rich voice.

But Russell and the two choreographers gave an 11th century woman, Hildegard von Bingen, first say:

O strength of Wisdom

who, circling, circled,

enclosing all

in one lifegiving path,

three wings you have:

one soars to the heights,

one distils its essence upon the earth,

and the third is everywhere.

Praise to you, as is fitting,

O Wisdom. *



Stream of movement



DANCE Liss Fain borrowed the title of her most recent installation — the wondrous The Imperfect is Our Paradise, Sept. 11-14 at ODC Theaterfrom Wallace Stevens. But the work’s inspiration was William Faulkner’s 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury, an often stream-of-consciousness study of the Compson family in Jefferson, Miss. She employed fragments of the text, not unlike previous works in which she explored the words of Jamaica Kincaid, Virginia Woolf, and Lydia Davis.

For Imperfect, Fain turned again to previous collaborators Matthew Antaky (installation design), Frédéric Boulay (projection design), and Mary Domenico (costume design — great, ratty overalls), as well as composer Dan Wool, who has a lovely habit of including into his own scores a quote from classical music. They feel like nods to another world.

Fain now also has a fine, stable ensemble that beautifully realizes her strong, formally contained choreography. Returning dancers Jeremiah Crank, Katharine Hawthorne, sisters Megan and Shannon Kurashige, and Carson Stein were joined by Gregory DeSantis and Aidan DeYoung. They lent a workmanlike, stoic sense of inevitability to their performances, whether staring into the void or ensnaring partners every which way. This was true ensemble work.

Imperfect communicates with its intelligence, clarity of purpose, and rich, tight choreography. Antaky added his magic by designing 12 panels that hung high above the audience on all four sides. They first suggested a sense of enclosure with brick walls, then threats from nature, stockade-like fences, and finally a dead house on a hill. The stage floor looked like dry dirt, or as if covered with leaves. It made me think of Benjy, the Compsons’ disabled son, who loved the smell of trees.

About the use of Faulkner’s text, I am of two minds. In voiceover, it was often more difficult to decipher than, for instance, actor Val Sinckler’s live performance in the Kincaid-inspired work. If text is used, it should be comprehensible. That’s why it’s there. At the same time, those fragments I did catch — primarily those from Quentin, the book’s most contemporary and most tragic character — pulled me away from Fain toward Faulkner’s narrative, such as it is. I thought it distracting rather then illuminating.

Since Fain encourages audiences to walk around the perimeter of the stage, though few people do, she meticulously designed her choreography from the periphery, into and out of the center space. In the beginning, the dancers stood immobile, staring into the void, before slowly coming to life and offering us different perspectives of themselves. I expected characters to emerge, but they didn’t.

With the exception of Hawthorne, who throughout remained something of a wild card, this was a homogenous group that was caught in what was perhaps a common dilemma. The title’s slippery Imperfect refers to something flawed, but grammatically, it also references past actions that are finished in some languages; in others, they project into the present. If Fain had overreaching themes in mind, they might have been time and memory, past and present.

The choreography asks for strength with lots of elaborate partnering — mostly male to female, yet without a trace of romantic intent. These dancers engage each other almost impersonally as something that is inevitable and that will be repeated for who knows how long. Despite the few unisons — some triple duets, a few one-on-ones — Imperfect has a churning sense of commonality about it. An arabesque can turn into a backward somersault and end between a partner’s leg. The dancers engage each other by rearranging body parts — an elbow here, a foot there — and flipping in every direction. They entangle their bodies, lift and drop them. Often they sink to the floor but pneumatically rise again.

As she has in the past, Fain makes prominent use of the arms. People yank and pull at them like tug of wars. But they also lock elbows, as if going for a stroll, but then immediately slip out of this companionship into more robust moves, becoming burdens which can be dropped or gently let go.

When Wool introduces Bach, the tall and elegant Hawthorne and Crank look like they remember the ballroom decorum of an earlier era. If there is one “character” it is Hawthorne, an astoundingly versatile and detailed dancer. She can stand on the sidelines as if watching for a prey, with a single gesture break up a couple, and again and again tear across the space sweeping the floor clean with her tornado-like whipping turns, pleading arms reaching for the light.

With Hawthorne in control, you get the sense that Imperfect contemplates time — past and time as it is passing. It may all stem from Faulkner, and the watch that the Compson family patriarch gives to Quentin, his oldest son. *


Local movers



FALL ARTS I wish somebody could come up with a better word than the ugly “locavore,” particularly since it was originally used for cattle. But the idea of eating locally-grown food is fabulous: it’s good for the environment, the wallet, and the state of one’s psyche. The same approach also rings true for the way we feed our spirits. Local artists seed, tend, and harvest a crop that needs and deserves our attention. The sheer variety of Bay Area-cultivated dance offerings this fall could make gluttons out of many of us. Here is a baker’s dozen to whet your appetite. All but a few are world premieres.

For The Imperfect is Our Paradise, Liss Fain Dance’s Liss Fain fashioned her choreography from the cadences of William Faulkner’s prose in The Sound and the Fury. Imperfect promises to be another of her translucently intelligent dances, here performed in designer Matthew Antaky’s reconfigured ODC Theater. Sept. 11-14, ODC Theater, SF; www.lissfaindance.org.

In This is the Girl, Christy Funsch of Funsch Dance Experience reaches out — big time. Known for her exquisite solos, Funsch steps back into ensemble work, with seven dancers, six taiko drummers, and a chorus of singers. Never fear, the core of this look at womanhood is still that wondrous partnership between Funsch and Nol Simonse. Sept. 12-14, Dance Mission Theater, SF; www.funschdance.org.

The world premiere of Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane, by Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions, takes place on the exterior wall of the UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. The work gives voice to the homeless women who live in the surrounding neighborhood, whose lives have become even more difficult because of San Francisco rapid gentrification. Multiple is another of Kreiter’s finely crafted, emotionally resonant choreographies that also serves the political and social aspirations so basic to her artistry. Sept. 12-20, 333 Golden Gate, SF; http://flyawayproductions.com.

Jose Navarrete and Debbie Kajiyama’s NAKA honors the late Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas with The Anastasio Project. Mexican citizen Hernandez-Rojas, a longtime US resident, died in 2010 after being taken into custody by the US Border Patrol after re-entering the country. For the multidisciplinary Anastasio, NAKA collaborated with the Oakland Eastside Arts Alliance, whose youth are subjected disproportionally to violence and discrimination — and sometimes lose their lives — in conflicts with authority. Two years in the making, NAKA’s project aimed to help these artists develop their own voices. Sept. 19-21, Eastside Arts Alliance, Oakl; http://nkdancetheater.com/anastasio.

Now with a permanent home at Kunst-Stoff, the Mark Foehringer Dance Project/SF has taken on its most ambitious project yet. Besides choreography, Dances of the Sacred and Profane inspired contributions from motion-capture and digital artists and electronic musicians. Dances offers a high-tech encounter with the French Impressionists — radicals in their own days. Sept. 13-14 and 19-21, Cowell Theater, SF; http://www.mfdpsf.org.

Besides being a choreographer for her own Push Dance Company, Raissa Simpson has also a well-defined entrepreneurial spirit. Following the adage that if you want something done, ask a busy person, Simpson put together a two-program “PUSHfest,” spotlighting artists she thought would mesh well together. The idea is to establish cross-cultural communication in a field where too often, you only go and see what you already know. Sept. 19-21, ODC Theater, SF; www.pushdance.org.

Joe Goode Performance Group is bringing back two radically different works that complement each other poignantly. What do they have in common? They speak of vulnerability, self-awareness, and longing. The 2008 Wonderboy, a collaboration with puppeteer Basil Twist, is tender, poetic, and musical. Goode’s solo 29 Effeminate Gestures, now performed by Melecio Estrella, dates back to 1987; it is fierce, proud, and angry. Sept. 25-Oct. 4, Z Space, SF; http://joegoode.org.

A few years ago kathak master Chitresh Das teamed very successfully with tap virtuoso Jason Samuel Smith. Watching and listening to them, you felt dance approaching a state of pure music. Now, in Yatra: Masters of Kathak and Flamenco, Das has perhaps found an even closer spirit in Antonio Hidalgo Paz, whose flamenco ancestors came to Europe from northern India. Sept. 27-28, Palace of Fine Arts, SF; www.kathak.org.

With Jenny McAllister’s 13th Floor Dance Theater, you never know what you’ll get — except that it’ll be wacky, with a skewed sense of humor. For A Wake, the company’s latest excursion into absurdity, McAllister draws inspiration from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I have always been told that the book is a comedy, and perhaps now we’ll find out why. Oct. 16-19, ODC Theater, SF; www.13thfloordance.org.

Dohee Lee is a phenomenon unto herself. Steeped in Korean shamanistic traditions, masked and contemporary dancing, Korean-style drumming, and extended vocal techniques, she brings all of these into play in MAGO, an installation piece in which she looks at the upheaval created by developer of her home island, Jeju. Nov. 14-15, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF; www.doheelee.com.

Both a scientist and a dancer, Katharine Hawthorne asks questions about time — via clocks geological, chronological, biological, and mythic — and the way it manifests itself in our physical bodies. For the intimate Pulse, she recorded her dancers’ heartbeats to explore how their internal senses of time related to external clock time. In The Escapement, she looks at the history of time-keeping, and the way it affects our sense of darkness and light. Nov. 20-23, ODC Theater, SF; www.khawthorne.net.

In its 40th year of teaching and performing, Diamano Coura West African Dance Company reminds us of Oakland’s importance as one of the country’s pre-eminent preservers of deeply held African and Pan-African cultural values. This year’s annual repertory concert includes a piece called M’Balsanney. Nov. 29-30, Laney College, Oakl; www.diamanocoura.org.

Former ODC dancer Private Freeman, who was a soldier and a dancer, inspired Deborah Slater Dance Theater’s world premiere, Private Life. Now in its 25th year, Slater’s company creates intelligently conceived and thoughtfully realized work that challenges established thinking on stage and off. Dec. 11-14, ODC Theater, SF; www.deborahslater.org. *



















In tune



DANCE If you have attended any ODC Theater presentations in the last couple of years, chances are you’ll recognize Christy Bolingbroke. Until recently, she was the ODC Theater director, and the one who welcomed audiences with unmatched enthusiasm. Now that she has added ODC deputy director for advancement to her title, she will be able to pour even more energy into two of her passions: performance and connecting audiences with it.

One of her initiatives, the Walking Distance Dance Festival, has offered double bills on two different ODC stages and allowed audiences to discuss the performances while navigating between the venues. During the festival’s late May run, the 300 block of Shotwell Street never looked more alive. Bolingbroke’s latest project is the ambitious, almost month-long Music Moves Festival (July 31-Aug. 24), which looks at the relationship between dance and music.

The timing of the festival, Bolingbroke explains, is tied to ODC’s first Next Moves Summer Intensive, a two-week residency program for professional and budding dancers which ODC hopes to expand into something larger, not unlike the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. Music Moves is a way to expose these students — and the audience — to different ways of thinking about looking and listening.

Music and dance, of course, have been connected since time immemorial. Many culturally specific genres, such as African, Hawaiian, Indian, and flamenco, are still unthinkable without this symbiotic relationship. Concert dance, ballet included, however, has developed a more ambiguous association with musical compositions. Think of Merce Cunningham’s works, where the sound simply ran along a parallel track to the dance. Today’s choreographers may choose an existing score, commission one, work in tandem with a composer, forego music entirely, or use it solely in the background like wallpaper.

As marketing director for the Mark Morris Dance Group, Bolingbroke became intimately aware of how dance and music inform each other. But she also realized that dance audiences are much smaller than those for music. “So if I can pull in a few more people to see dance because of the music that was used, that is exciting for me,” she says. “We’re not booking the super stars of contemporary dance. This is really for audiences interested in the creative process, and in being able to think about performance in a different way.”

The festival opens with ODC/Dance’s highly popular “Summer Sampler,” which this year includes Brenda Way’s Breathing Underwater, a collaboration with cellist Zoe Keating; Way’s Life Saving Maneuvers, set to a commissioned score by Jay Cloidt; and KT Nelson’s Scramble, her take on a couple dancing to a Bach cello suite.

The festival’s closing night program highlights alumni of ODC’s Pilot program: deaf dancer Antoine Hunter and ballet-trained Milissa Payne Bradley. Says Bolingbroke, “Antoine has interesting things to say about the fact that we hear music, while he feels it. Milissa challenges herself not to start choreography with music, as she had been trained to do.”

Other programs include “Tuesday is Tunesday” setups, with choreographers like Eric Kupers — who started out in modern dance, but with his Dandelion Dance Theater’s Bandelion Ensemble has increasingly blurred lines between dance, music, and community action (Aug 5). There’s also body music pioneer Keith Terry, making a rare local appearance on his home turf with his Corposonic ensemble (Aug 12).

Bolingbroke is also intrigued by the intersection of concert performance and pop culture, so the idea of having a culturally-rooted form like taiko collaborating with a DJ proved irresistible. So for one night it will be San Jose Taiko x The Bangerz in what the program calls “a musical conversation between taiko and hip-hop” (Aug 17).

Also on the pop side of this festival will be Napita Kappor’s Hindu Swing, her fusion of Bollywood and jazz; she shares an evening with Cuba’s salsa band Rueda Con Ritmo (Aug 22-23). Pearl Marill, who likes to meld theater, modern dance, and comedy, will premiere Some Bodies Confessional (Aug 10-11). Irresistibly Drawn, Joe Goode’s evening of song and dance (Aug 3-4), includes former company member Marit Brook-Kothlow and singer-songwriter Holcombe Waller, who will also have his own show (Aug 19).

Kate Weare is returning one more time to set work on ODC’s dancers. Drop Down is her take on the tango, and Still Life with Avalanche is a collaboration with Brenda Way. The evening also features Rande Paufve’s recent Soil, her musing on aging, set to a live cello and piano score (Aug 14-16).

Finally, the young but already much acclaimed Dance Heginbotham will present three works, including one of the late Remy Charlip’s Air Mail Dances (Aug 7-9). Says Bolingbroke, “I have been interested in them for a while, particularly as a 21st century version [of] Mark Morris,” with whom John Heginbotham danced for 14 years. “So it’s exciting to be able to present the company’s West Coast debut.” *


July 31-Aug 24, $25-45

ODC Theater

3153 17th St, SF


Great leaps forward



DANCE What the future holds for the most recent crop of dancer-choreographers to graduate from SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts’ Resident Artist Workshop remains to be seen. They may return to the comfort of the studio space at the Garage on Bryant Street for another session of work, work, work. Others might strike out on their own locally, while a few may take off for places like Amsterdam and Lisbon, as other RAW grads have done.

On the basis of five of the possible 10 programs seen last weekend during seventh annual Summer Performance Festival, or SPF7, at ODC Theater, SAFEhouse is doing more than saving the arts from extinction; it is nourishing an extraordinarily broad spectrum of choreographic voices.

Still, SPF’s currently established presentation format needs some rethinking. Scheduling three programs per night, each with a different time slot in two different venues, appears to disadvantage those performing later. Audiences dropped off noticeably during the evening. Since not everyone was able to show a 45-minute work as planned, returning to the more traditional grouping in one venue appears worth considering.

To watch expressions of untamed abandon and fierce control, first in Cali & Co’s Suspect and You Are Here, and then in similar yet so differently realized impulses in Miriam Wolodarski’s Fall Work, was enough to get one’s head spinning. Cali’s excellent Suspect is a tight, highly athletic sextet in which pedestrian moves — a lot of walking and running — build a sense of suspense that becomes increasingly ominous when glances become stares, and accidental bumps turn into shoves. Choreographed in short, intense phrases that get cut off or melt into duets and trios, Suspect is seamless. You, a work in progress, fascinated by the individuality of its sections: a woman systematically folding and unfolding her body; dancers trying to get a foot over their head; versions of boxing thrusts. Hopefully, we’ll see a completed version soon.

Because of the oddities of the programming, I saw Wolodarski’s chaotic Fall Work twice. She is a wild woman whose anarchy is meticulously timed as she works her way toward a gradual revealing of herself as a mount of raw flesh. It’s a piece that embraces physicality to the point of insanity. At first Wolodarski disappears into the shakes and twitches that emanate from her raincoat; at the end, half naked, she collapses after having flung herself into the air again and again. Fall sports some tenderness in a tortuous coupling, and a sense of humor with which the choreographer tries to keep us at arm’s length.

Closing that evening was Ronja Ver’s solo, Dear America, a piece she describes as a “complex declaration of love to the post economic collapse United States of America.” Quite a topic. Ver is a strong, at times mesmerizing performer, more interesting to watch than her choreography. Dear has some well defined theatrical impulses, as when an outstretched hand acquires ambiguous power, or a trembling motion evolves into different characters, or her take on kissing the ground of one’s country. But the piece needs to be better defined.

SPF7 opened with Jaara Dance Project, a young company that works on the intersection of experimental and traditional African dance. To see these strong, so very individual women express themselves with a contemporary sensibility rooted in African dance values made you want to see more of what they do.

The programming, however, was a little problematic. Musically speaking, having the two parts of Red Clay divided by Other Halves, a duet set to Arvo Part’s “Spiegel,” was jarring. Considering the score, Martha L. Zepeda and Kao Vey Saephanh also took a rather stiff, awkward approach to their duet.

In the opening Red Clay: Not One, choreographer Baindu Conté-Coomber introduced lacy hand gestures for a trio of women on folding chairs that they later carried on their heads like water jugs. The solos showcased Zepeda in an angular dramatic vein, while Jaade Green, gifted with a strong liquid back, performed with exuberant lyricism.

In Red Clay: Not Two, Conté-Coomber took over the stage in a fleet and finely detailed solo that celebrated her identity with its recurring refrain of “I am not afraid of my life…” Fragmentary pieces of text read by volunteers created a bond between the audience and the dancer.

In another time slot, Anata Project was co-billed with Unum Dance. Both companies deserve to be seen again. Claudia Anata Hubiak’s quietly circular and well-shaped HomeBody seemed pushed along an inexorable trajectory toward individuation that got re-absorbed into a communal identity. Ashille Kirby was the soloist who soared for but a moment. Unum’s short Working Title showcased Diana Broker, a fine expressive dancer, and a hooded Michael Michalski as … her memory? Her shadow? Her inspiration? Take your pick. 2


New classics



DANCE It took Los Angeles-born Melody Takata, founder and artistic director of Japantown’s GenRyu Arts, four years to convince her parents to let her study dance. It was her older sister’s “fault” — she had studied ballet for a while but didn’t like it and stopped. “So my parents didn’t want to go through that experience again,” Takata remembered. But Takata was living in a Japanese American community that embraced traditional arts, and ballet wasn’t what she had in mind.

When she finally got her way, she went all out, starting at eight with Odori (Japanese dance), including Bon Odori, a popular circular community dance integral to the Odon festival that honors the ancestors. At 10, she began studying Nihon Buyo (Japanese classical dance) and did so for a decade. During that time, she acquired a repertoire of some two dozen solos drawn from Kabuki. “Some of them, I perform excerpts only; they are too long for an audience to sit through,” she observed. They are also expensive to perform because they have to be licensed, and the elaborate costumes (up to $10,000 a piece) are costly, even on loan. Yet recently, Takata reprised her studies with her 93-year-old Nihon Buyo teacher, wanting to deepen her insight into this noble art.

So what attracted her to this rigorous and highly stylized form that includes — besides dancing from within heavy costumes — an intricate gestural vocabulary of fans, swords, scarves, umbrellas, and even canes? “I just liked becoming all these different characters,” she smiled.

Adding to her dance studies, at 13 she started on the shamisen (“three-stringed”) instrument; at 15 she joined the Taiko group Los Angeles Matsuri. “Dance is my first love, and music is part of that,” she explained. Taiko sharpens rhythmic acuity, but for Takata, it’s also part of a communal experience.

She creates multifaceted works in which she wants “to explore our story” through Taiko, spoken word, contemporary movement, music, traditional Japanese dance, and video. Regular collaborators include Francis Wong and Asian Improv aRts, as well as actor-comedian Todd Nakagawa and Chicago filmmaker, bassist, shamisen expert, and Taiko drummer Tatsuo Aoki.

Though steeped in tradition, Takata doesn’t want these practices to become enshrined as museum pieces. In 2012, as part of Chicago’s annual Taiko Legacy festival, Takata — dressed in a black evening gown and elbow-length white gloves — performed her solo Yodan, which melded dance and Taiko. Her works may examine issues particular to her community, but they also resonate with broader audiences. In 2010, Tsuki no Usagi (Rabbit in the Moon) was created to mark the centennial of the Angel Island Immigration Center, where 60,000 Japanese passed through 1910-1940. The work is rooted in a popular myth in which a rabbit was willing to sacrifice its life for others. As a reward it was lifted to the moon where, Takata said, “it can be seen on either side of the ocean.”

The themes of 2011’s Fox and Jewel — which added jazz, animation, and poetry into the dance-and-Taiko mix — no doubt resonated with Bay Area audiences. Fox is a magical shape-shifting being who comes to the aid of humble folks; in this piece, it’s a mochi-shop owner who takes on real estate speculators who continue to threaten the existence of the local Japantown.

Takata’s newest work, Shadow to Shadow, premieres Sat/12 as part of this year’s Japan Week. The hourlong piece draws inspiration from Junichiro Tanizaki’s poetic In Praise of Shadows, in which he wistfully looks at Japan’s increasing Westernization and the essential differences between two cultures that are still learning to coexist.



Physically, Enrico Labayen may be small, but in importance, he stands tall. Faced with multiple physical challenges and exorbitant medical bills, the choreographer and artistic director of Labayen Dance/SF is in the fight of his life. So the dance community is stepping up with “Encore for Enrico,” a benefit performance to help one of its own. Though he was an early member of Lines Ballet and a longtime ballet teacher, Labayen may best be known as a prolific and wide-ranging choreographer for his own company. But he also is a generous supporter for those who come here from other places, as he did. Recent arrivals like Victor Talledos and Daiane Lopes da Silva found an early home in his company. Health permitting, Labayen will perform a new solo, Will You Still Be There? *


Sat/12, 2 and 7:30pm, free (donations accepted; sign up for free tickets at brownpapertickets.com/event/704453)

Tateuchi Hall

1830 Sutter, SF



Sat/12, 7:30pm, $25-$30

Dance Mission Theater

3316 24th St, SF





DANCE Visiting from Los Angeles, the Berkeley-born Arianne MacBean introduced the Bay Area to her Big Show Co. via two works. The elaborately titled The People Go Where the Chairs Are dates from 2012; the more condensed present tense was a world premiere. Both pieces intrigued by putting on stage the process the artists go through trying to give life and shape to something inchoate.

For MacBean, for whom language is integral to her dance-making, the challenge was that words both embody but also confine meaning. This intrinsic but probably unsolvable conundrum is at the base of the quirky, often equally funny and poignant People.

Dancers may well recognize themselves in this depiction of the struggle, frustrations, and rewards that the creative process of their practice involves. The rest of us witnessed an amusing, insightful, and lively performance of the process it takes to make an amusing, insightful, and lively performance.

People is more language-based than movement-oriented, and it did suffer from the same disadvantages as many such works. Dancers in general still are not adequately trained to communicate verbally. People’s dancers for the most part did well, but perhaps some unobtrusive body mics might have helped.

As we walked into the theater, performers blocked the stage into a set of overlapping squares. Somewhere off stage, a pianist plinked down isolated notes. One of the dancers wrote down an Alcoholics Anonymous-style 12-step scenario, whose items were erased as accomplished throughout the evening.

As the lights went down, each dancer grabbed a folding chair; rather than being shaped into a “dance,” the chairs were used to bring about collisions, bad feelings, and chaos. So they started over, chattering heatedly about finding an inspiration. Pina Bausch tops the list; however, she is dead. Something like “the dance” will have to do. This brainstorming session about meaning, inspiration, essence, and genuineness was hilarious, and yet almost unbearable to sit through.

Concrete suggestions fall flat. Angelina Attwell demonstrates “a dance I once saw;” it was fierce and left her spent, which scared the rest of them. Later, she had an I-hate-dance moment in which, assisted by her colleagues, the chairs started flying and crashing around her. All joined Max Eugene’s free-for-all, but they could never actually put a “joyous” dance on stage. Eugene’s lack of comprehension and his colleague’s disdain of spontaneous expression spoke volumes about ingrained attitudes in the dance world.

Genevieve Carson’s witty monologue, shadowed by gesticulating males, took on how choreographers use dancers’ contributions to fill transitions. It probably struck a nerve among the dancers in the audience.

Smaller, quieter moments didn’t need language. Challenged to be “genuine,” Eugene simply stood and looked into the audience until his fearful colleagues joined him. There was also a point when the audience was supposed to “participate,” and the dancers leaned on chairs, whispering, inviting us but knowing full well that nobody would step up.

In the serious yet entertaining People we see the dancers both as performers and the people they are, or at least the personas they assumed. Their bravery, their struggle, their anger, and their sense of being in this together despite the odds was something that spoke clearly and effectively.

present tense was a much quieter but also more tightly constructed work in which each moment seemed full of portent. The title, as an intermission discussion between choreographer MacBean and ODC Deputy Director Christy Bolingbroke pointed out, refers to the present moment, but also to the intense presence that is required in a performance.

Verbal language entered here as fragmentary phrases or single words, which acquired meaning in the way they are spoken, screamed, thrown about, casually chained to each other. At one point they simply disappeared into sound that is part of pure physical frustration.

In the opening passage, both Eugene and Carson seemed encased in their own worlds. He stood, and in Butoh-like fashion incrementally opened his arms and shifted his balance ever so slowly. You had to keep looking to see the moves. In contrast, the robotic Carson jerked herself like a mechanical doll onto the ground and up again. Attwell and Brad Culver slowly worked their way across the stage on their backs. The contrast between vertical and horizontal planes suggested a self-contained space that changed very slowly. But then these isolated beings tried to connect, and raced around trying to catch a hand like a lifeline. In twos, they were restrained even as they reached out. That section went on too long. Despite the constant shifting of partners, these parts did not accumulate. More effective was they way they shouted fragments, or single words that would make a sentence, at each other. It all started with Attwell’s silent scream. *



Eight up



DANCE The 36th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival opened with an ambitious agenda: presenting India’s eight classical dances in one program. Yet this first weekend — EDF continues at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through June 28 — didn’t quite meet the high expectations the festival had set for itself.

In part, this was because a shadow fell on the show. Last week, great kathakali practitioner K.P. Kunhiraman, who was to make his farewell appearance, died unexpectedly in India. With his wife, Katherine Kunhiraman, he had directed Kalanjali: Dances of India, one of the Bay Area’s oldest Indian dance schools, teaching both folk and classical Indian dance.

While bringing these classic forms together was a noble idea, EDF should have presented them on equal footing. This is particularly true because while bharatanatyam, kathak, and to a lesser extent odissi and kuchipudi are well known to Bay Area audiences, kathakali, manipuri, mohiniattam, and sattriya may have been unfamiliar even to many of the Southeast Asian families who attended the festival.

Performed by guest artists from out of town, these new-to-us genres were set to music that came out of loudspeakers. For a first exposure to an art, which so intimately depends on instruments and the human voice, recorded music was a disservice to both the practitioners and the audience.

One only had to look and listen to tabla player Samrat Kakkeri (and his colleagues) with the first-rate Chitresh Das Dance Company, which closed the program, to realize that the subtle give-and-take that flows between dancers and musicians should not be given up to expediency. No wonder the Chitresh dancers managed the intricacies of the multiple rhythmic patterns in Das’ kathak yoga with such confidence and joy. Many dance genres do just fine with unrelated music or no music at all. Indian dance, as this program proved, does not.

Also, while some of the less familiar dance forms might have been given more stage time — some others could easily have been shortened. What intrigued most in these first EDF appearances was how little use was made of the sophisticated rhythms that we have come to know as Indian dance.

More drama than dance, kathakali’s spectacular performances can last all night. The excellent Sunanda Nair gave us a glimpse of a work in which an evil demon — in the shape of a seductive woman, wouldn’t you know — gets her comeuppance from baby Krishna. She returned later in an example of mohiniattam which highlighted articulate arms and feathery hands. It was thrilling to see how her torso contrasted with her legs planted into wide plies, from which she smoothly sank into and rose from the ground.

Sohini Ray’s snippet of manipuri, however, disappointed because it looked stiff, and didn’t really develop those wonderfully gentle whipping turns that make the dancers look prayer wheels. She communicated much better in what seemed a more folkloric form of manipuri in which leaping, running, and turning on the knees conversed with a dual head drum.

Intriguing in its use of unisons and rolling wrists, sattriya — performed by two women, one in pants — conveyed the gently rocking geniality of two friends on the road. I have to assume that the one with a hat was Lord Krishna. For those familiar with the mudras, Indian dance’s gestural language, they were so beautifully clear that they were easy to follow. I recognized three for sure: a welcoming gesture, shooting an arrow, and riding a horse.

In its first appearance at the EDF, San Francisco’s Nava Dance Theatre proved itself a fresh, spunky, and musically-aware bharatanatyam company. In its piece, a love-struck young man (a dreamily handsome Arun Mathai) was comforted by a bevy of young maidens. A spectacular, theatrically savvy soloist, Bhavajan Kumar, may yet do for bharatanatyam what Joaquín Cortés did for flamenco.

In their celebratory kuchipudi — bharatanatytam’s younger, looser sister — the nine young women of San Jose’s Natyalaya school of dance handled the rigors of their geometries with considerable grace. Maybe one day we’ll see them perform to live music.

Charming, yet very serious in odissi were Maya Lochana Devalcheruvu (age 11) and Akhil Shrinivasan (10). Young as they are, they already showed odissi’s curved body position and light footwork. With good stage presence, they knew what they were aiming for. The duo then welcomed Sujata Mohapatra, an exquisite odissi dancer light but firm on her feet, floating on her toes, and her rippling neck enhancing the facial expressions.

Though in mourning, Kalanjali: Dances of India performed Tillana, the final section in a bharatanatyam performance, for which the dancers pull together everything they learned. These women probably did. *


Through June 29, $18-$58

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater

700 Howard, SF



The dual



DANCE Circus Automatic’s In the Tree of Smoke is a fun and greatly entertaining show that aims to place circus acts, traditionally viewed as club and variety show entertainments, into a more mainstream theatrical context. Tree‘s organizers could not have chosen a better place than Chinatown’s recently resurrected Great Star Theater, an old-time movie house that had fallen on hard times.

In the spirit of its venue, the show was interspersed with newsreel-like video collages that proposed a perspective of the world more inclusive than the one we tend to encounter. They included vast landscapes suggesting hunters and foragers, an homage to Blade Runner (1982), and depictions of catastrophes both natural and man-made. They created a dreamy, perhaps phantasmagoric environment — one in which a contortionist feels just at home as a would-be stripper wielding claws instead of fans, or a lusciously adorned queen dragging a bunch of black balloons behind her. On opening night the connection between the narrated video clips and the live show was not yet well enough established. Yet it is hoped that by the time this ambitious but low-budget performance closes June 27, the kinks will have been ironed out.

Circus artists face a conundrum. Because what they ask of their bodies is often so extreme, it is tempting to not look beyond their sheer physical accomplishments. But Tree‘s performers tried to go deeper, via technique, discipline, and the sheer bravado of it all. Jewel-encrusted contortionist Inka Siefker ritualistically rearranged her body parts until she finally shaped them into an eerily beautiful image involving two feet and a bow and arrow. When ballet dancer Micah Walters played with verticality and gravitational pull, he seemed to transcend and affirm his own humanity. You couldn’t miss the dance elements in Katie Scarlett’s dramatic give-and-take between her and her silk apparatus; at times the silk appeared to control her as much as she did it. When Chloe Axelrod, in white, brilliantly “danced” with, in, and around her hoop, she was highly controlled, yet ever so free. But freest of all was Fleeky Flanco, a superb apparatus juggler, varied contortionist, and clown — not to mention the brains and heart behind this brave and much-welcome artistic endeavor.



In its seventh incarnation, Nol Simonse and Todd Eckert’s “Shared Space” became a celebration of dance, dancers, and two fine choreographers. Eckert is heading for the Midwest, and the future of what has become a popular showcase may be in doubt. Both choreographers have long and distinguished performance careers, which may account for the superb dancers they have been able to enlist for a long time, but they were particularly fine in this program.

Simonse’s new trio Mistakes and Gifts is an intimate yet translucent meditation on what it means to live as a gay man, with James Graham swinging the proverbial about-to-drop other shoe like a Damocles sword, and Christy Funsch as a haunted, fearful, but ultimately embracing spirit.

Eckert’s problematic Previously Published Or I Could Never Make You Stay — Revisited is a synthesis of four earlier pieces. It traces the relationship between two couples, Crystaldawn Bell with Eckert and Norma Fong with Victor Talledos. The men find each other in glorious dancing by Talledos and Eckert; they leave the women contemplating their own futures as they are holding the T-shirts the men left behind. Previously looked like both a movie romance and a soap opera, though the quartet engaged in its tasks with such passion, competence, and individuality that I almost bought into the premise.

No such reservations came with Eckert’s mesmerizing Yaw, for which Bell, Fong, and Talledos returned in a work of pure dance that explored physical forces that affect an object in motion. Light on their feet, comfortable in the air, and close to the ground, they listened to their bodies, and then followed their impulses wherever they went.

Not every episode in Simonse’s infectiously exuberant yet thoughtful What’s Important is Not Always convinced equally. The high-intensity, unison trio (Dudley Flores, Juliann Witt, and Simonse) of money-chasing business types was brilliantly comedic and scary. However, the quartet of pole-dancing males (with one ending up as a carcass) needed more complexity. Simonse also engaged a white-clad Hannah Rose in a ghoulish courting duet. But then the pace picked up with Stella Adelman and Jerry Lin exploding into a Lindy Hop-inspired duet that segued into a large-scale beach party in which couples hooked up but just as quickly dissolved. What’s closed with a stunningly beautiful solo for 17-year-old Mia Chong that explored the dancer’s relationship not with others but with her own body, carefully, curiously, and completely. *


Through June 28

Thu-Sat, 8pm, $25

Great Star Theater

636 Jackson, SF




Stroll tide



DANCE The third Walking Distance Dance Festival — basically three programs of two pieces over two days — was modest in scale. Audience members may have traveled only half a block between venues for this fringe-style event, yet as curated by ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke, these short trips became adventures.

Running through the festival was a simple question: What do we do with what we have? Dance works used to be considered moments in time that left behind only fading footprints. No longer. Dance historians have unearthed huge chunks of the past, and the Internet, with YouTube at its core, opens much of it at the click of a key. Besides, like it or not, the past is part of who we are. We can’t get away from it.

In the festival’s opener, the question for Lionel Popkin became how he, with an Indian mother, was supposed to look at Ruth St. Denis, the pioneering modern dancer who dabbled in what she saw as Indian dance. With the brilliant and sharp Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Popkin attacked the complexities of these issues with humor, much of it self-effacing, and vigorous dancing for himself, Emily Beattie, and Carolyn Hall. They pushed along the floor and rolled over each other; they also dived into the unholy mess of St. Denis’ fixation on veils as they subverted her pedantic instructions for Nautch, her most famous work. Master accordionist Guy Klucevsek’s score, performed live, was superb.

The festival ended with Amy O’Neal’s cheekily titled solo The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See this Decade. O’Neal is a stunningly captivating performer who slides in and out of hip-hop, club, modern, and even some balletic dancing. She may have been alone on stage, but with her are Dorothy’s red slippers and choreography from music videos by Ciara and Janet Jackson, freely adapted but still recognizable. An accompanying projected text addressed issues of influences (borrowed, stolen, honoring, or accidental) on the creative process. Make them your own, O’Neal asserted. She did.

So did Doug Elkins Choreography, Etc.’s high wire comedy act Hapless Bizarre, in which voguing and musical theater ran smack into vaudeville and physical clowning. The superb Mark Gindick played the clueless outsider who wormed his way into an haute monde — in every sense of that term since all but one of the other performers towered over him. Starting with an elaborate hat trick, the dancers marvelously picked up on voguing’s haughty and competitive struts and poses. As Hapless moved on to romance, the intensity of pratfalls, rejections, and increasingly hopeless entanglements become even more frantic. Glad to say that Gindick finally got the girl.

Three local groups also participated in this fine festival. Garrett + Moulton Productions reprised its A Show of Hands, which premiered last October in the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s airy lobby. Dan Becker’s excellent score, performed live, still sounded wonderful.

At ODC, Show, inspired by Charles Moulton’s drawing of hand gestures that were projected as a backdrop, looked tighter and more focused. Hand gestures — so often neglected in Western dancing — came into their own. They poked, touched, and reached. With the dancers stacked on pedestals, their fingers resembled trembling butterflies. But the hands also lifted and carried three of the musicians in a funeral procession, leaving an elegiac cellist behind.

Show offered marvelously full-bodied and fluid dancing with phrases that flew, sank, or simply disappeared into the wings. Nol Simonse injected a comedian’s touch into his duet with Dudley Flores. Newly blond Vivian Aragon, a fiercely balletic dancer, attacked every move as if it were her last. No wonder she could grab and lift Simonse like a puppet.

Show was paired with an excerpt of Bhakti: Women’s Liberation of Love by Kathak dancer Rachna Nivas, in which she attempted to portray Hindu mystic and poet Meerabai as a proto-feminist. An exquisite dancer with a refined sense of rhythmic acuity who is well-schooled in male-female roles, Nivas charmed as the girl devoted to Krishna, but her telling of other aspects of Meerabai’s life needed more complexity.

The festival’s most haunting dancing came from Headmistress dancers Amara Tabor-Smith and Sherwood Chen. Shame the Devil explored the process of what Tabor-Smith calls becoming a crone. Hopping in place and becoming very still, her intensity mesmerized as she called up several lifetimes’ worth of states of being. She should, however, ditch her auxiliary performers.

Mummified in layers and layers of clothing, Chen’s Mongrel channeled Dervish dancing — until he stripped down to acquire a more authentic but also more vulnerable identity. Though it’s a borrowed metaphor, Mongrel convinced because of the rigor and consistency that Chen imposed on his dance making. Replacing Moroccan with Brazilian music, however, seemed just a touch too simplistic. *


Hold ‘Steady’



DANCE Alonzo King’s The Steady Heart (which opened his spring season at YBCA May 21) is among his most dramatic and, thematically, most explicit works. It also just may be one of the finest he has yet created for his 11 Lines Ballet dancers, three of whom — David Harvey, Caroline Rocher, and Meredith Webster — will retire at the end of this season.

In many of King’s pieces, small, individualized sections accumulate into collage-like structures. There is always flow but not necessarily direction. Steady however, has a trajectory. It starts with a duet for Kara Wilkes and Robb Beresford; King closes the work with the whole ensemble evoking a timeless, pulsating, yet ever-changing cosmos. Lama Gyurme’s “The Lama’s Chant: Songs of Awakening” sets the tone for a huge finale with waves of dancers stumbling, falling, rolling, and rising. Webster streaked through them but was eventually absorbed into something larger than herself. With Axel Morgenthaler’s fluidly shifting light design, the dancers moved in and out of our vision with a screen descending on them right before the final curtain. The falling snow in the background, however, was something of a cliché.

Trying to find balance within the body and outside it is a theme that is fundamental to King’s thinking. In Steady it takes the concrete shape of a small, destructive figure (Anthony S. Finley) in a World War I uniform. We only see him twice but his existence, and what he represents, permeates all of Steady.

The sculpturally elaborate opening duet begins with simple touches by two young people, she in a pretty frock, he bare-chested and in jeans. Handholding evolves into an increasingly intricate and unrelenting struggle. Every body part from necks to limbs (Wilkes hangs off his and dips between Beresford’s legs) is brought into action. They reach, grab and shove; she sinks into his arms, he flips her overhead. Yet there is no sense of violence just a feeling of inevitability and, perhaps, a need to reach out as a process of self-definition. They communicated an Edenic innocence until the soldier figure pointed his gun at them.

Steady‘s middle section explodes into something dark and chaotic. With John Oswald’s score building into frightening intensity, the magisterial Courtney Henry with Rocher and Yujin Kim takes command of the stage. They stride, turn, and extend limbs; yet they also curl and embrace the ground. In a final image they call up Rodin’s three “Shades.”

An eloquently expressive solo for Babatunji, performed in silence, then cleared the air, with the dancer sinking, turning, and opening himself to space. A unison walking section felt calm until individuals broke out, most prominently the powerful Michael Montgomery’s whose whipping turns and isolations shook his body into spasms. David Harvey, with Webster, Wilkes and Kim, looked like catastrophe survivors. Bent over they dragged their broken bodies across the stage. Again and again, they forced themselves into upright positions to keep on struggling. At one point Harvey looked like a boxer responding to an unseen opponent’s thrusts and punches.

A second trio’s intent eluded me. The soldier from the opening section re-appeared against a white screen. He elicited a duet for Harvey and Kim in which he offered himself and a rolling stage light as support for the panic-stricken Kim, who never raised her gaze. In the follow-up, a darkly lit duet, Webster — she of the steady heart — repeatedly faced the soldier’s gun but, turning its nozzle away, shoved him into the wings.

Steady‘s dancers, including the three departing ones, shone at the top of their expressive abilities. They were well-supported by the beautifully chosen music, and Morgenthaler’s majestic employment of light and space.

The evening opened with excerpts from three earlier King choreographies: Klang (1996), The Radius of Convergence (2008), and Koto (2002). It was good to see the women in point shoes, a practice that King rarely makes use of these days. The first two works also played with the traditional ballet soloist-corps format. The most intriguing standalone came in Klang; it contrasted frozen unison images with high-energy individual dancing. In the male trio, Beresford’s strutting and pugnacious stances had an almost comic flavor to them, while the women’s slinking kicks and hip poses dripped with old-fashioned coyness.

The male quintet in Radius featured solos for each dancer with Montgomery the outside observer until he jumped into the assembled quartet’s arms. They finally left him flat on his back. Radius segued without a break into a section from Koto. An ensemble piece, it showcased Jeffrey Van Sciver, a tall reed-thin dancer in his second year with Lines. His whiplash turns and long leaps felt like a storm invading a placid world. Unfortunately, Miya Masaoka’s koto music on tape jarred. It sounded tinny and sharp. Besides, I missed seeing her perform live in that huge red Colleen Quen gown of hers.


On the town




Now in his fourth year guiding the newly constituted Oakland Ballet Company, Artistic Director Graham Lustig seems to have found his stride in creating a troupe that respects its past but is no longer tied down by it. If, for the time being, the “ballet” part of the company’s name has to take a back seat to the place where it is at home, so be it.

“Oakland-esque,” four world premieres for OBC’s spring season at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, offered an affable afternoon of spiffily danced, and at the very least conceptually intriguing, choreography.

Kudos to the program’s ability to throw a spotlight on the city’s tradition in the arts. Choreographers Sonya Delwaide and Molissa Fenley teach at Mills College. Jazz piano great Earl “Fatha” Hines spent his last years in Oakland, while Larry Graham (of Sly and the Family and Graham Central Station) grew up there and created what became known as “East Bay Funk.” Guests Sonsheree Giles and Joel Brown perform with AXIS Dance Company; Garion “Noh-Justice” Morgan and Rayshawn “Looney” Thompson do so with street dancers Turffeinz.

Delwaide’s Rocky Road, named after the ice cream invented in Oakland in 1929, takes a light-hearted but intricately shaped approach to Hines’ joyously embracing pianisms within a big band context. With a quartet of four (Jori Jahn, Megan Terry, Marte Madera, and Matthew Roberts) and two soloist couples, Delwaide’s tongue-in-cheek approach to both jazz and ballet brought out a commonality between these very different arts: Both shine with a surface of ease while demanding great technical facility; their soloists also often perform against backup groups, known in ballet as the corps.

Rocky‘s loose-limbed dancers kicked, slinked, and stepped with, against, and behind the beat. With the women on point, they inhabited a universe in which stylistic differences didn’t matter, but dancing full out did.

The soloist couple from inside OBC — the liquidly expressive and ever so versatile Sharon Wehner partnered by a refined Evan Flood — was paired with AXIS’s fierce Giles and Brown on wheels. In its individual duets and sharing the same stage, this quartet confirmed, one more time, that lyricism, grace, and power communicate no matter what shape they take. It helped that Delwaide has an embracing, refined choreographic voice.

Robert Moses’s choreography for TIP pitted furiously fast, shifting ensembles of various sizes against Graham’s bass-heavy, beat-heavier music. In part because of the dated-looking teenage outfits of white tops and checkered skirts and pants (by Christopher Dunn), I thought of Moses perhaps having looked at TIP as a memory of some 1970s club scene.

TIP began with a clump of people who just happened to come upon each other, and turned into a sweaty night in which they hooked up with each other and switched partners with ease. Some interactions stood out, such as the three sitting upstage who companionably slid along on their butts. Or the male dancer who tried out three women in a row. In a hetero duet, a woman lent much-needed support to her back-falling companion. TIP‘s surfeit of material developed a somewhat messy structure, yet it allowed the eye to wander over a sea of intense dancing, out of which limbs arose like curling smoke.

Mills College’s majestic grove of redwood trees has inspired both poets and painters. It also provided Fenley with ideas for the verticality, restraint, and elegance for Redwood Park. She set it on a quintet to a score by Joan Jeanrenaud, here excellently performed by percussionists Nava Dunkelman and Ann Wray. At first the music’s sharp attacks and tonal variations seemed at odds with the tranquil dancing’s soft strides and pliant turns spinning off into extended patterns — but as Redwood evolved, you realized that both arose from a calmly spacious sense of time. The piece was designed for five men, but Emily Kerr successfully pinch-hit for an injured one. While it was good to see dancers as different as Vincent Chavez, Flood, Madera, and Roberts attempt this spare choreography, not everyone was equally up to the task.

Turf dancing (taking up room on the floor) developed as way of claiming urban territory, and as a tribute to lives lost on Oakland’s streets. Lustig’s Turfland was a well-intentioned but unconvincing attempt to bring two of its practitioners to the concert stage, and have his ballet dancers in turn follow them out into the street.

Much of the piece looked improvised and none of the dancers — with the exception of Chavez, who fluidly straddled both worlds — seemed at ease. It takes more than performing on the tip of your toes, whether in blocked shoes or sneakers, to find a common language. These dancers were about as far apart as the washed-out visuals of the stage and the graffiti-inspired, scintillatingly beautiful backdrops by Samuel Renaissance. *


Sisterhood of rhythm



DANCE The Mother’s Day weekend premiere of Sarah Bush Dance Project’s reconceived 2011 Rocked by Women was a tenderly raucous, often humorous celebration of an overly sentimentalized holiday. Bush looks at the education of a “girlchild” in the “not-so-promised land” by paying tribute to the mothers who raised us physically. But it was pioneer “mothers” — the feminists of the 1970s, the lesbian activists of many decades, artists and entrepreneurs like Olivia Records and Club Q — who made us the women we have become. Their legacy, Bush realized, was in danger of being forgotten by the current generation of women for whom the battles had been fought. Molded into a convincing piece of dance theater, Rocked by Women is a joyous and self-effacing acknowledgement of prices paid and gains won.

Just as music energized the civil rights movement of the 1960s, feminism in its earlier and later stages drew inspiration from talented musicians who started the women’s music movement. Bush drew on that rich heritage and shaped Rocked‘s three parts around contributions from two generations of songwriters such as Holly Near, Cris Williams, and k.d. lang, as well as Janet Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Missy Elliott, and Bikini Kill. Julie Wolf also contributed music arrangements and wrote original songs.

Rocked derives its impressive energy as much from music as from dance. Yet Natalie Aceves, Krystal Bates, Joanna Gartner, Bianca Mendoza, Juliann Witt, and Bush performed with an intuitive grace, passion, and an almost delirious delight at the choreography’s lush physicality. Much like works by Dance Brigade (Bush’s home company), Rocked contains personal material that also feels universal, speaking to those who don’t fit into given norms, and who have had to struggle to become who they are meant to be. Using contact improv, disco, jazz, and hip-hop in an almost narrative way, the individual dances comment on the songs but do so from a distance. At its best, Rocked became a weighty yet explosive expression of the power of an indomitable spirit and embracing courage.

The show opened and closed with Near’s iconic “Mountain Song.” At first, a trio of kicking “babies” are cuddled by their mothers. It ends with the dancers facing the audience in a sing-along about the unstoppability of women who refuse to have “their dreams taken away.”

Each of the work’s movements explored a different aspect of growing up. In “Her Childhood,” the dancers engaged in circle games and playfully sculpted a mountain from their bodies. One of them triumphantly climbed it. They also donned masks cut from fashion magazines and tugged and pushed their bodies in an attempt to reshape them. Here, ballet’s preoccupation with perfection came in for a kick or two. The choreography had a sense of humor but you couldn’t miss the underlying pain and rage.

The emergence of a young girl’s sexual identity permeated the whole piece and resulted in a number of awkwardly tender duets. In one, the group’s smallest dancers, Mendoza and Bates, discover each other’s differences: Mendoza is Latina, Bates African American. Second movement “Her Adolescence” brings group pressures and rejections, driving and exploring of sexual identity; the choreography veered between plaintive and painfully funny. With Jackson’s “Control” providing the beat, the ensemble performed impressive unison hip-hop that opened into individually athletic feats. It was followed by a dancing-with-“boys” number as an awkward, one-sided groping session. In “Gossip,” teens entangled themselves in yards and yards of telephone lines. For Chapman’s “Fast Car,” they built themselves into a monster automobile that, predictably, crashed, leaving Mendoza stunned and bereft. In an achingly lovely courting duet, Mendoza gently reaches towards Aceves who keeps turning away.

The third movement — “Herself” — opened with a video of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and rather unfocused dancing on stage. The pace picked up with mock taiko drumming to recorded drum. Another playfully confrontational scene involved a boom box, one set of headphones, and Mendoza and Aceves’ different musical tastes. They come to a meeting of minds and take it from there.

The tribute to Club Q, as both a sanctuary for lesbians and a place for fierce dancing, is wonderfully evoked by Bush’s own fierce dancers. It ends in dreamy slow dancing duet for Witt and Bates. Choreographing anger is not easy. When Bush interrupted the lovers, her danced fury felt like an arrow shooting straight at them.

While Rocked‘s documentary clips are convincingly integrated into the stage action, earlier uses of video — shadowy images, dancers sitting as if in lecture by Judy Grahn, crawling from beneath the screen — are not telling enough. That needs rethinking. But Rocked is a warm, skillfully created, and generous show that just might become a Mother’s Day tradition. * sarahbushdance.com/rocked-by-women

Take to the sky



DANCE With world premieres by Amy Seiwert and Val Caniparoli, and the late Michael Smuin’s affectionate tribute to George Gershwin, Smuin Ballet closed its 20th anniversary season with fine choreography, good music, excellent performances, and, most of all, an intelligent perspective of what ballet in the 21st century has to offer. Today Smuin is a thoroughly contemporary troupe with a promising vision of what it wants to be.

Caniparoli set his full ensemble piece, Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino (everything but the kitchen sink), to a number of Vivaldi scores, including at least one for pipe organ. The work is accurately named. The emotional range slithered between goofy and poignant, refined and raucous. At times, the attempts to be clever and amusing at all costs could have been a little more restrained. But as a whole, the variety of approaches Caniparoli took made for an appealing new work.

Still a character dancer with the San Francisco Ballet despite his 30 years of experience choreographing all over the country, Caniparoli created a lively, unpretentious romp for 16 dancers, balancing smaller, more emotionally-flavored sections with full ensemble numbers. Unlike other contemporary ballet choreographers, who seem to feel that the toe shoe is hopelessly passé, Caniparoli put his women on point. They were completely at ease engaging in his more complex approach to working feet.

Some of the gestural language — stepping through a ring created by arms, crawling between legs, covering ears, torso shakes, flailing arms — looked like movie silliness, but mostly still charmed because everything grew so clearly out of the music.

Caniparoli has a nuanced touch with duets and trios. He also takes full advantage of today’s athletically trained dancers; the women are lifted, slid, and turned over and upside down in every way. The ever-shifting relationship between Terez Dean, Aidan DeYoung, and Weston Krukow felt congenial. More romantic was the duet for the long-limbed and beautifully matched Jane Rehm and Joshua Reynolds. Another, for Ben Needham-Wood and Christian Squires, initially seemed contentious, but ended by looking toward a possibly common future.

Seiwert’s But Now I Must Rest is an exquisite and embracing tribute to the late Cape Verde singer Cesária Évora. It is a work in which Seiwert takes a more theatrical dramatic approach to dance making than usual. But Now is a beautifully realized piece of choreography, performed by dancers in tune with Seiwert’s vision. It showcases the very fine Susan Roemer, one of Smuin’s longtime dancers, in the role of the “barefoot diva” who, by choosing to perform without shoes, paid tribute to the millions of women who cannot afford them. The solicitous Reynolds partnered her sometimes lovingly, sometimes just by holding her up. He seemed a friend, a lover, a guide.

Using as raw material gestures and movements from Évora’s performances — researched with the help of dancer Katherine Wells — Seiwert created wave after wave of lush and sensuous dancing that flooded the stage. Sometimes it enveloped Roemer and Reynolds; sometimes it served as a foil, much the way backup musicians might function; and sometimes the dancers embraced each other as a community. And everything was performed to those lilting beats and rocking rhythms.

A lightly skipping trio (Dean, Jonathan Dummar and Krukow) streaking across the stage suggested happier times, but Christian Squires’ ashen solo dragged him down with grief. It was a risk to actually have him weep, but he brought it off.

The production values were excellent. Sandra Woodall’s earth-toned costumes, with bustiers for the women and, for everyone, floor-length skirts with slits to the hip, allowed for freedom of movement and highlighted working legs. Brian Jones’ azure lighting suggested a view one might glimpse, gazing out from an island.

The excerpts from Smuin’s full-evening Dancin’ with Gershwin threw a spotlight on a man of the theater, at home in ballet but also in love with Broadway. When he created the work in 2001, Smuin commissioned the still impressive costumes from the excellent Willa Kim; lighting from Sara Linnie Slocum; and serviceable sets by Rick Goodwin. Dancin’ opened with video posters from the shows by the redoubtable Gershwins; they elicited both sighs and cheers from the audience.

It’s a rare company that offers its performers opportunities in ballroom, ballet, tap, jazz, modern, and show dancing. Smuin’s troupe took to the challenge with obvious glee. Erin Yarbrough swooned and triumphed with Krukow. Supported by guys with strippers’ fans, Erica Felsch relished being the vamp, though she was no competition to Marilyn Monroe. A poignant Rehm’s pained but resilient “Summertime,” as sung by Peter Gabriel, recalled the whole of the composer’s glorious Porgy and Bess. With Shannon Hurlbut, still a respectable tapper, at the helm, the dancers click-clacked through the final “Shall We Dance.” If that was a question, the answer was a resounding “Yes!” *


Wed/7-Sat/10, 8pm (also Sat/10, 2pm); Sun/11, 2pm, $24-$64

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

700 Howard, SF


Performances continue through June 7 at various Northern California venues.


Opening up



DANCE “Location, location, location” is real estate’s mantra, as those of us who keep running up against it know only too well. But location has also become essential to dance, especially for artists who want to forego the theater and make the outside world their stage.

For the last six years, Dancers’ Group, the Bay Area’s dance service organization, has sponsored the ONSITE series, weaving free dance performances into the urban fabric. Recent events have showcased Amara Tabor-Smith’s He Moved Swiftly (various locations), Jo Kreiter’s Niagara Falling (Seventh and Market streets), and Erika Chong Shuch’s Love Everywhere (City Hall Rotunda). Sara Shelton Mann’s The Eye of Horus, performed in Jessie Square, is the latest addition. She could not have chosen a better location.

Gently terraced and surrounded on three sides by glass and steel — but also the warmth of the old bricks of St. Patrick Church and the newer ones of the Contemporary Jewish Museum — Jessie Square opens itself to the greenery of Yerba Buena Gardens. The totality suggests an urban environment in which disparate perspectives (nature and culture, the past and the present, private and public spaces) harmoniously bump against each other.

In other words, Jessie Square was a perfect stage for Mann to send her dancer-disciples into a 40-minute performance in which they revealed different aspects of themselves, inspired by the way the Egyptian god Horus embodied multiple identities.

Each of the four — Christine Bonansea, Jorge de Hoyos, Jesse Hewit, and Sara Yassky — had developed a multi-sectional solo that, according to the preperformance information, was based on archetypes as derived from Caroline Myss’ book Sacred Contracts. Whatever the generating forces for these solos were, in performance they emerged and receded into the much larger activities at Jessie Square, the whole becoming a kind of moving tableau vivant. The dancers transformed lunchtime crowd actions — eating, talking, strolling, and waiting — into something beyond the commonplace. They injected poetry into daily life.

Generous and welcoming as these types of performances are, I personally miss the more intimate and more focused encounters that inside spaces offer. Mann and production designer David Szlasa stepped in with props or directions as needed. In a favorite moment, Szlasa’s breadcrumbs coaxed a flock of pigeons into a procession across the square. Mann pulled Bonansea up to her full height to send her off on an imaginary tightrope; she also shushed (or at least I think she did) Hewit’s screaming tantrum. Later on, when he sat immobile in a beggar’s pose, she brought him what I first saw as a fishing rod. It was a whip.

Eye is full of small incidents — some touching, some hilarious, some nonsensical — controlled by planning and a lot of serendipity. Hewit tried a shoulder stand, holding a carnation. De Hoyos raced along a diagonal as if shot from a bow. Yassick played what looked like a solitary game of bocce ball. Interspersing these lighter incidents were moments of anguish, lack of stability, and a sense of mortality. At one point or another, just about everyone looked dead as the plank that de Hoyos dragged around.

Bonansea bitterly wept as she put her clown makeup on; her mad laughter while racing the square became monstrous. Yassky, apparently in severe pain, rubbed a balloon against her belly and approached a passerby who politely put his phone away to acknowledge her.

Sometimes, the dancers disappeared in the crowd. I had lost sight of de Hoyos when someone pointed him out leaping and gesticulating on top of the parking garage. If there were any narrative suggestions, it was the ongoing give and take between de Hoyos and Mann. Or perhaps it was Bonansea marching up to de Hoyos, who had dropped to the ground after his lovely ballad fragment. In her best French rhetorical manner, the petite performer started a discourse (on, among other things, mortality) and the corpse in front of her. She finally decided that theory had run into reality and proceeded with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

If Bonansea was something of clown figure, the powerful Yassky seemed imprisoned inside her own body. She is a slender, gamine performer, and I don’t think I ever saw her relax. When she held her limbs tight to her body, they looked like they were enchaining her. When she crouched on a tiny stool on one leg, she repeatedly spilled water and salt offered to her. Whispering into a mike, she asked for help. Clawing her throat while lying on her back, she looked about ready to expire.

For all the portentous self-examination in Eye, the work was free-spirited, unpretentious, and yet quite serious. The boom box sound score, however, needs rethinking; much of it was too blatantly obvious. While Eye greatly benefited from its gorgeous location, at times it looked too thin, dissipating some of its energy. It probably will benefit from the additional performers — Sherwood Chen and a group of community volunteers — who will join the final show Sat/3. *


Wed/30 and Sat/3, 12:30pm, free

Jessie Square

736 Mission, SF



Think again



DANCE With three world premieres in its recent Spring Home Season performances, Hope Mohr Dance gave the audiences pieces that were both opaque and transparent. They were opaque because their physical imagery contained narrative traces that resonated beyond the stage, but was often equally focused on a gesture’s physicality in the moment. They were transparent because of the clarity and intensity that these fabulous dancers brought to their tasks. Their presence burnt itself into your retina and your soul. Any way you want to take this, Hope Mohr Dance is a head trip these days.

For Route 20, Connie Strayer put Jeremy Bannon-Neches, James Graham, and Tegan Schwab into off-white, hooded unitards. It made the dancers look like robotic extraterrestrials, except that the red streaks on their bodies suggested freshly spilled blood. Given enough time, designer David Szlasa’s dripping block of ice, which encased some dark mystery, might have revealed its secrets.

While the body suits encouraged seeing the dancers as gender-neutral — a hopeless task as far as I am concerned — the choreography treated the three performers as equals. The tension, such as it was, seemed to be based more on an inherent lack of stability within the triangle than on any specific movement patterns. It allowed for a constant flow of interactions without much emotional baggage. Abrupt turns, collapsing torsos, and dancers jumping on each other and being carried aloft felt neutral. The music’s brilliant pointillism seemed to encourage the lack of a clear trajectory in favor of an intense presence. And yet there were moments — the ice melting? — when Mohr’s neutral beings became more individualized. When Schwab streaked between the two men, was she breaking something up? When two dancers held on to each other at arms’ length, was one of them looking into a mirror? Repeatedly, a nuzzling gesture suggested skin-on-skin contact.

There are moments in ridetherhythm, a sextet for which theater director Mark Jackson signed on as dramaturge, when the work approached pure music in the way fractured language rose into a chorus to retreat again into individual voices. Fragments of text flew from dancer to dancer, and countdown patterns became threatening even as they tried to impose a sense of order. It’s rare that dancers become truly expert at delivering words and movement; Mohr’s troupe was first-rate in both.

The choreographer went for inspiration to Anne Carson’s Antigonick, the poet’s translation of Sophocles’ play, and to Todd Haynes’ 1995 Safe, in which Julianne Moore plays a housewife trapped in a poisonous environment. Katharine Hawthorne, in a beautifully subtle performance that ebbed and swelled, was the woman who went her own way despite the fact that she lived in a man’s world. When she fell, Schwab threw herself on top of her, in what was perhaps the work’s single most touching moment. The narrative emerged only in bits and pieces, but Mohr’s ability to suggest a pervading doom, despite Evan Johnson’s soothsaying along the lines of “everything is all right, we are safe,” and “he’s a jolly good fellow,” was impressive. In one spot, the group’s search for an oasis of safety was almost comical, and when the dancers kneeled you didn’t know whether they did so in despair or with hope.

I never could figure out the work’s connection between Hegel, Beckett, and Sophocles. But then Megan Brian, a character in high heels and sunglasses who tried to bring order into the chaotic proceedings by obsessively writing down whatever she saw — not unlike some dance critics — finally threw in the towel. ridetherhythm clearly warrants repeated viewing.

Exuberant and yet ever so controlled, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction was a two-way street in terms of improvisation. Here the musicians — Michael Coleman on keyboard, Henry Hung on trumpet, Tommy Folen on bass, and Gerald Patrick Korte on percussion — responded as much to the dancers as the other way around. For this choreography the excellent Lindsey Renee Derry, Roche Janken, and David Schleiffers joined Bannon-Neches, Graham, and Schwab, who also individualized the dancers with color-saturated tank tops.

Schwab and Hung engaged each other in a playful duet, while Folen’s bass sent Bannon-Neches into spasmodic travels. Graham at one point strode upstage with every part of his torso alive to the music. I don’t know whether his greeting of dancers was a spur of the moment idea but it felt right on.

While some sections — unisons for instance — served as time markers and probably were planned, a duet between Schwab and Janken, for instance, could have been improvised. It was important that spontaneity blossomed within given parameters, sometimes determined by simple commands like “stop” and “go.” With Szlasa favoring slightly dimmed houselights, thus suggesting the breaking of the fourth wall, Notes came to look like a spacious and airy informal get-together. I kept thinking of watching outdoor ice skaters on a sunny afternoon. *


Icon and on



DANCE Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the country’s most financially successful dance enterprise. Apparently, it regularly ends with a surplus, something most everyone else can only sigh over. But the success comes with a price: it tours like no one else. That makes it hard to keep performances fresh, a repertoire fluid, and dancers focused. And yet, the dancers showed little wear and tear on this 14th stop of their current 23-city US tour.

Two reasons account for the dancers’ success. They have one of the great masterpieces of 20th century art in their repertoire, and they never hit the road without it: Alvin Ailey’s 1960 Revelations. Audiences around the world want it. Again, and again, and again. There are times when I am tempted to skip it. I never do, and I never regret it. The only piece of choreography I feel similarly about is Giselle (and that music is not half as good).

Ailey dancers are also an extraordinarily beautiful lot — fierce technicians, with immaculate ensemble work, the women as strong as the men. For speed, attack, sense of space, and range of motion, they have little competition. Most of them stay with the company until they quit dancing, so an audience feels like it gets to know them over the years.

But Ailey dancers also look like they come out of one mold — the Ailey mold. One of the issues that has plagued the company for years is the rest of the repertoire. Bringing in new choreography has been a hit-and-miss affair. Robert Battle, artistic director for the last three years, has made valiant efforts to cast his net wider. Judging from the company’s opening night at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall this year, it still is something of a hit-and-miss affair.

Aszure Barton’s LIFT and Ronald K. Brown’s Four Corners are Battle commissions from 2013. Watching these two works — the first of which clocked in at 26 minutes, the second at 24 minutes — offered radically different experiences of time passing. LIFT flattened out thin ideas long beyond their welcome, and despite Curtis Macdonald’s assertive beat, the work began to drag quickly. Four Corners spun its sturdy gossamer web to the point where you didn’t want to let it go.

Barton, whose own company performed somewhat more successfully as part of San Francisco Performances in February, appears to have looked at the Ailey dancers and decided on the kind of suit that she wanted to tailor for them. While it fit them physically, it constrained their expressivity. LIFT’s vocabulary is somewhat reminiscent of African traditions — wide stances, articulated shoulders and hips, strong flat-footed stepping, and arms that fly away when not engaged in body-clapping. But Barton didn’t succeed in pulling these elements into a coherent statement.

A prominent male trio, with powerful Jermaine Terry as its leader, appeared to search the ground for something. Often the dancers performed with their backs to us. Men and women moved in and out of the shadows, arms often flailing, feet fussily engaged when not stomping.

Two duets were oddest of all. Matthew Rushing — still dancing fabulously — and Hope Boykin engaged each other in a hysterically laughing and screaming match. Ghrai DeVore’s lips became a suction cup against Marcus Jarrell Willis’ chest, turning the two of them in a four-legged creature of uncertain origin. Is that what those male searchers were trying to escape from?

Brown’s Four Corners, apparently, is inspired by the apocalypse’s four horsemen. I didn’t see it except when some unseen forces, perhaps launched by a divine spirit, perhaps just a strong wind, appeared to animate and propel the performers on some kind of journey toward ecstasy. Brown’s vocabulary has integrated modern dance and African influences like no other choreographer whom I can think of; it has become a language that starts inside and ripples out so that every part of the body seems to sing. The dancers open their torsos in every direction, giving in to the momentum, with their flexible arms turned into wings that keep them buoyed. Yet periodically, like birds alighting, they fold them on their backs and focus on the ground ahead of them.

Rushing is the leader on the lookout for his group of congregants; eventually, he leads them in a single-file procession toward who knows where. He is joined by the regal Linda Celeste Sims and the astounding Belen Pereyra, in an earth-colored outfit that lets you see every tremor, every shift of weight, and every searching glance.

Revelations is what it is, or perhaps not. This was the first time that I remember seeing a white dancer in this quintessential tribute to African American culture. The finale of the piece once again turned into a competition between the audience and the dancers. The audience won. “Rocka My Soul” got a repeat. *

Talk it through




“She started right away on the collaborative process. I have this wonderful image of the Bryant Street studio. There was no real mirror, only one leaning against the wall. I remember Margy sitting with her back against it — I was afraid that it might fall on her — and her saying, ‘I have so many ideas in my head that I am afraid I can’t all get them out.’ What I really liked was that she also was interested in the ideas in my head, and she wasn’t going to impose her ideas, and this was going to be a conversation.” — Ginny Matthews, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, 1974-1980

That’s how one of the country’s most remarkably individual companies was born. After moving back to her hometown in 1970 at a time when San Francisco was barely a dot on the map in terms of modern and postmodern dance, Margaret Jenkins has created over 75 works. Now 70, she has just renewed the lease on her spacious Margaret Jenkins Dance Lab studio on Eighth Street for another five years. CHIME, Jenkins’ mentorship program for professional dancers, is a wild success locally and in Los Angeles.

In 2006, she took her conversation global, collaborating with India’s Tansuree Shankar Dance Company on A Slipping Glance; in 2009, she created Other Suns with China’s Guangdong Modern Dance Company. And she is still at it, intrigued by questions that pop up in discussions with her again and again: “Wouldn’t be interesting if…”

As the light streams in through the studio’s floor-to-ceiling windows on this March afternoon, Jenkins is watching 15 dancers, seven of her own and eight from the Jerusalem-based Kolben Dance Company. They have just taken a break from rehearsing The Gate of Winds, which came about after Jenkins traveled to Jerusalem, a city she had always wanted to visit. “Having been raised in a progressive Jewish family, and as an atheist, I was curious what it would feel like putting my feet on the ground,” she observed.

She is aware that she and Kolben’s artistic director, Amir Kolben, have quite different approaches to the creative process. But working with his dancers in Jerusalem, she found them “fierce and wonderful movers.” Kolben, who had never worked with a collaborator before, was intrigued “more with the way we think than with how we create,” he explains.

Jenkins seems pleased with what she has just witnessed: two beautifully trained groups of performers who are stretching themselves emotionally and physically in exploring paths that they may not even know to have existed.

“Margy is very brave. She has an intellectual honesty about her that I really appreciated and [that she] communicated with me. I was doing solo work, and it was a very difficult time for me, and I learned to trust myself. [Being with the company] buoyed me up in so many different ways. Besides, it was nice to be on stage with others.” — Rinde Eckert, MJDC, 1987-1995

Still, Jenkins seems to have just a touch of melancholy about her when she looks forward and backward. Will she renew her lease again five years? “All too often, I ask myself whether there will be any money,” she sighs. “Every year, I start from absolute zero.”

Perhaps it was some of those thoughts that gave rise to the second piece on this 40th anniversary bill. For Times Bones, which premiered at the University of Maryland last September, Jenkins took a look at her past repertoire — at least the 68 pieces of which video exists — to see whether there were “untold stories” in them. She was struck by “how little contact the dancers had with each other. Now they partner each other. I have no idea why that’s the case.” This became another “wouldn’t it be interesting…” question. She had her present company learn fragments of pieces she had chosen, and then told the dancers to have their own conversations with them.

“I found her democratic process, her way of giving everyone voice in the process, to be infuriating and enlightening all at the same time. I hated the idea that she didn’t tell us what to do. It wasn’t enough to make movement that got you from here to there; it had to be thoroughly investigated. We were constantly throwing out anything that felt familiar or ‘already been done before.’ And the enlightening part was her willingness to let divergent types of material exist together. I still use this idea of colliding materials together, in an effort to surprise my original conception of things.” — Joe Goode, MJDC, 1980-1984 *


Thu/3-Sat/5, 7:30pm; Sun/6, 3pm, $30-35

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF



Natural selection



DANCE Looking at ODC/Dance choreographers Brenda Way and KT Nelson’s first evening-length collaboration, boulders and bones, proved to be both fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating, because the work beautifully addressed a question probably going back to when we first took a chisel to a rock and stamped a dancing circle into the ground. In order to create, apparently, you must disturb nature’s order; you break down what’s there to make room for what will be. Frustrating, because boulders’ balancing act between visuals, music, and dance didn’t push the work far enough beyond the inspiration provided by RJ Muna’s documentary about the making of Andy Goldsworthy’s stunning Culvert Cairn.

boulders opens with Muna’s time-lapse film, which follows Goldsworthy tearing up the earth, rearranging it, and ending with an exquisitely embedded sculpture. Muna is a gifted photographer but the rhythm he imposed on the visuals felt unmusical and top-heavy. I almost wish that the choreographers had not shown the film, since it put an underpinning of narrative implications on the dance’s structure that at times felt restrictive. boulders is also an hour long, probably not a time frame Way and Nelson are all that comfortable with yet.

Still, despite some plodding moments, boulders soars when it finds its own voice, starting with the transition from the film to the stage. We find Music (Zoë Keating and her magic cello) and Dance (Anne Zivolich at her most evanescent) in Alexander Nichols’ black-hole set that emerged from Goldsworthy’s Culvert.

Each of the women gets a major solo. Having been moved downstage right, Keating displays playing that blooms into exquisite, melodic raptures that are about as rhythmically dancey as anything I have heard of hers. Zivolich, caught in a large spotlight — a mirror image of Nichols’ hole against a soft landscape — seems like a spirit trying to find a place to alight. The intensity of her searching, flipping, flying almost looked like a duet with that blackness. It’s a long, risky solo, performed in silence but Zivolich was free like the wind and twitchy as a nervous wreck. She pulled on all of her considerable technical and emotional resources to bring off a remarkable tour de force.

Despite the fact that Way and Nelson have different creative sensibilities, for boulders they have found a common language, in which individuals often disappear in pileups, and rolls on the floor or small units coalesce into larger ones only to explode. Balances are fragile except when Maggie Stack freezes in the middle of a run and has to be released, or Natasha Adorlee Johnson throws herself against Jeremy Smith and just about knocks him over.

Much of the choreography consists of small unison duets that suggest a sense of order that is constantly undermined. The dancers line up until somebody squeezes into a space between, or Yayoi Kambara nonchalantly squeezes their proper straight line into a muddle. People drag themselves, or crawl close to the ground. They end between each other’s legs or flat on their back hoisting a partner overhead. They are pushed like brooms or swung in whipping circles. Some of the maneuvers suggest animal, or at least non-biped, behavior.

Zivolich and Kambara’s duet emphasizes their different personalities, with Kambara towering over the petite Zivolich, though without a note of rancor. Zivolich and Dennis Adam again and again meet up as if getting to know each other. He swings her overhead like a helicopter propeller; she precariously leans against his lower arm, and in the end he sprinkles her with some red dust and caresses her cheek.

In its third part, boulders radically changes gears. With the dancers dressed in white gossamer garments, and the women in spring-green bodices, they look like celebrants, perhaps of some ancient rite. They again line up; this time with feet that deliver unison staccato stomps, but arms that fly all over. Then they spread in easily flowing sequences that stream out of that black hole like water. It’s a celebration of new life, perhaps love, certainly the power of dance.

boulders is an honorable tribute to Goldsworthy — but ultimately it’s no competition to the force, resonance, and weightiness of what looked like a teardrop quarried out of the earth.

boulders and bones will be shown again in ODC’s program A (Wed/26, Fri/28, and Sun/30). Program B (Thu/27 and Sat/29) includes Kimi Okada’s delightful Two If By Sea; Way’s dystopic Unintended Consequences: A Meditation, set to Laurie Anderson; and the exuberant Triangulating Euclid, choreographed by Way, Nelson, and Kate Weare. *


“ODC/Dance Downtown”

Wed/26-Thu/27, 7:30pm; Fri/28-Sat/29, 8pm; Sun/30, 4pm, $20-75

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater

700 Howard, SF


East Bay grace



DANCE Though it’s gone mostly unnoticed by us San Francisco-dwelling dance watchers, a remarkable thing has been growing across the bay on the other side of the tunnel. On March 6, the Walnut Creek-based Diablo Ballet celebrated its 20th anniversary with a gala — without fancy gowns, but with an hour-long program that did what galas are supposed to do: look at the past and the here and now, and say thank-you to a lot of folks.

While it might have been gracious to have acknowledged the contributions of co-founder Lawrence Pech and brothers Nikolai and Viktor Kabaniaev — all of whom danced, choreographed, and contributed to running the company — Diablo Ballet is the product of that still-rare breed in American ballet, a woman artistic director.

When she set out to create Diablo Valley’s first professional ballet company, Lauren Jonas had a lot going for herself: a brand new, beautifully equipped theater in what is now called the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek; generous private support by ballet-loving local entrepreneurs; and an audience willing to take its chances on a small, easily accessible company. I can’t remember how many times in those early years I heard people during intermission commenting on how happy they were “not to have to fight the tunnel.”

Above all, Jonas had taste, standards, and knowledge of the available repertoire. Locally trained at Marin Ballet, she had performed in national companies as well as Oakland Ballet under Ronn Guidi, in both 19th and 20th century classics. She also knew that the Bay Area, and other parts of the country, had plenty of professional ballet dancers who were eager to perform, and on whose talent and experience she could draw.

At the gala, the petite and charming Jonas was repeatedly praised for her commitment to community and her capacity for work. She must also have an iron determination to carry out her vision of professionally-danced professional choreography. It may not be easy to say “no” to her.

The auspicious beginnings, which included an orchestra, didn’t last. Money dried up because of the economy but also because foundations redirected their priorities. The first to go was the live music; eventually the Lesher facility became too expensive for a full season. There were times when Jonas went back on stage to perform because she couldn’t afford to hire another dancer.

That’s when Jonas’ backbone kicked in. She didn’t change her vision but adapted to the changed circumstances by shifting her performances to the Shadelands Arts Center, one of Walnut Creek’s neighborhood rec centers, where the company rehearsed. They attracted new audiences who could never have afforded the ticket prices in the downtown venue.

In some ways Shadelands seems an impossible place for ballet. With no theater lighting, a stage the size of what looks like a large table, and terrible sight lines — recently improved by installed risers — it was difficult to imagine ballet dancers whipping pirouettes and traveling jetés. But they did and they do. The opportunity to see these experienced artists close up, noticing the impetus behind a move or even the fatigue creeping up on them, makes up for much of what is lost in scale.

The gala, which included some history and many tributes, started with a simple but charming waltz by an octet of former dancers. It ended with “Variation and Finale” from Balanchine’s Who Cares? Rearranged for six dancers by Jonas, with a fine interpretation of Gershwin by Diablo music director Greg Sudmeier and his jazz trio (live music remains important to Jonas), the sextet got the spirit though not always the precision of the original. Robert Dekkers’ casual charm, however, didn’t keep him from delivering “Variation”‘s spitfire turns and beats with utmost confidence.

Dekkers, also Diablo’s choreographer in residence, premiered his lengthy and goofy cares you know not for Mayo Sugano and Diablo’s newest dancers, Tetyana Martyanova and Justin Vanweest.

Welcome contributions came from Derek Sakakura and Rosselyn Ramirez’s pas de deux in Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid, a ballet that in 1938 was much condemned for including gestures drawn from life. Roy Bogas contributed the spiffy piano arrangement of Aaron Copland’s cowboy tune-flavored score.

Making good and practical use of available technology allowed filmed versions of parts of a ballet which then continued live on stage. Tina Kay Bohnstedt and David Fonnegra shone in a torrid pas de deux from Val Caniparoli’s Lady of the Camellia. The dancers in Kelly Teo’s Dancing Miles at first looked like sparks in the night but live, they filled the stage with jazzy energy. On film, Teo, who danced and choreographed for Diablo, declared his gratitude: “I left my profession fulfilled; I had accomplished what I had wanted to do.” Not a bad record for 20 years. *



Branching out



ODC Theater has a good track record of presenting homegrown and visiting companies, some making their local debuts, others having been around for a while. In between these ODC-presented programs — or, increasingly these days, co-presented with other organizations — are slots for artists who want to self-produce, which means that they rent the space for a fixed fee.

The remodeled theater, with its upgraded technical facilities, can accommodate not only dance, but musical and language-based performances. It has become a flexible, desirable venue in a city that has too few of them. Yet if I read history correctly, a kind of open-door policy has always been part of ODC’s mission, even during its more modest times — as in 1976, when it bought what used to be a hardware store and before that a stable.

Bianca Cabrera’s two-year-old East Bay-based troupe Blind Tiger Society (the name comes from a Prohibition-era speakeasy) is the latest of these self-producing independents to take advantage of what ODC Theater has to offer.

Though Cabrera has shown work locally in small studio settings, the world premiere of the hourlong The Aftermath Affair is the company’s most ambitious effort yet. Sixteen women, some clearly more technically trained than others, threw themselves with considerable energy and commitment into fast-paced unisons, scurrying on the tips of their toes one moment, and then entangling themselves head over heels, only to then freeze into identical sculptural poses.

By far the most intriguing aspect of what was a decidedly odd affair was Cabrera’s attempt to create her own language from disparate sources. With a background in cabaret and musical theater, in addition to modern dance and ballet, she has a lot to draw on. While her vocabulary doesn’t yet cohere into a flexible enough tool, the yanking together or simple juxtaposing of elements from modern dance, cabaret, contact improvisation, and even ballet was intriguing in the way it tried to break down easy categorizations and perceptual barriers.

Cabrera’s dancers make good use of strong upper-body movements with articulated necks and shoulders, perhaps borrowed from belly dancing. Much of the movement for the many duets and small ensembles, however, was crystallized out of contact improvisation, with its give and taking of weight, supporting each other, and allowing a movement thread to run its course. Despite their robust physicality, these encounters were so formalized that sometimes they felt regimented. The plain beige-brown costumes, which looked like uniforms, probably didn’t help. Fortunately, several of the solos communicated a controlled but enthusiastic sense of being in the moment.

Contrasting with earthbound sequences were formal unisons of lines: diagonals, wedges, parallels, intersections, and overlappings that could have come from Broadway or movie musicals. To see a kick line of 16 pairs of (more or less) unison legs advance downstage was really most unusual.

A finely developed tactile sense proved an essential ingredient to Aftermath. Hands were everywhere. The dancers contacted each other with their fingers, exploring each other’s bodies and their own as if wanting to access some hidden knowledge. They wrapped arms tightly around themselves and held their hands over their pelvis as if trying to hold something in. Yet all of this was curiously clinical, devoid of any erotic implications.

Some the imagery also recalled wildlife observations on the National Geographic channel, in which animals sniff each other out and make tentative physical contact only to retreat again. When some of the dancers scurried back and forth across the stage on tiptoes, I thought of sandpipers trying to escape approaching waves.

Toward the end, pallor drops on Aftermath like fog with a sense of impending doom. The dancers plopped to the ground, rolled like logs, and then mechanically turned like the hands of a clock. I couldn’t quite see a connection to the rest of this worthwhile though not entirely successful endeavor.

Ben Juodvalkis’ dramatic and colorful score gave Aftermath its backbone. Cabrera, however, should have hired a lighting designer. Making such primitive use of the theater’s excellent facilities was a waste.

Independent productions at ODC resume with Gamelan Sekar Jaya (April 4-5) and Company C (April 25-May 5). Immediately on the horizon are three co-presentations. March 6-8, as the last lineup of this year’s Black Choreographers Festival, Robert Moses’ Kin has a double bill: as part of the company’s 2014 “BY Series,” Bliss Kohlmeyer, Dexandro Montalvo, and Gregory Dawson set works for the Kin dancers; for Draft, Moses choreographed for 10 guest performers.

March 21-22 brings Israeli dancers Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor, in Two Room Apartment, their adaptation of what was considered a highly erotic duet by the husband and wife team Liat Dror and Nir Ben-Gal.

And joined by guest artist and former Sweet Honey of the Rock member Ysaye M. Barnwell, Eric Kupers’ Dandelion Dancetheater will reprise his double bill Tongues/Gather March 26. *



Goldies 2014 Lifetime Achievement: Sara Shelton Mann


GOLDIES In 1979, Sara Shelton Mann — the farm girl from the wilds of Tennessee who ended up studying with such greats as Alwin Nikolais, Erick Hawkins, and Merce Cunningham — moved to San Francisco. Earthquake country. And did she ever shake up the place. With Contraband, the collective of performers she directed until 1996, she reconfigured what the dancing body can be. Their aim, she has said, was to “make bold live theater with an aggressive, lyric physicality.”

But why San Francisco? “I was lonely in those cold winters in Nova Scotia,” she recalls; she’d been working there with a support of a Canadian arts support program. So she jumped at the chance when Mangrove (the all-male troupe that grew into Mixed Bag Productions) invited her to join it. It was here where she translated concepts like “improv-based,” “collaborative,” “interdisciplinary,” and “dance theater” into vital, raucous, and highly effective performances that inspired a whole generation of artists to wander into unknown territory. The Bay Area would not be as welcoming and supportive of experimentation in dance were it not for the ongoing presence of Sara Shelton Mann.

With Contraband, she staged pieces in theaters, warehouses, the pit of a former apartment building, an abandoned public housing project, under bridges, and on the streets, both in this country and abroad. The troupe described itself as wanting to “manifest joyous creation — reclaiming the flight of the imagination, laughter, love, truth, and evolutionary impulse.”

The works were irresistible because of the daring, the force, and the integrity of the processes that made them possible. “We believed that art could change the world,” Shelton Mann says. At the height of the AIDS crisis, Evol turned the concept of love inside out. Religare honored the people who died or became homeless after the 1975 arson fire that gutted the Mission District’s Gartland Apartments. Oracle was a painful examination of the burdens of the past. The Mira Cycles and Monk at the Met dug deep into spirituality, both individual and communal.


Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover

“I had only one rule,” she explains. “Everybody does personal inquiry, everybody does contact, everybody sings, everybody dances, everybody writes, everybody makes images, everybody works outdoors.”

This process encouraged individual voices to emerge, allowing members of the group to go on to substantial careers of their own. Besides designers and musicians, there were, among others, Rinde Eckert; Jess Curtis (“Contraband was an amazing laboratory of group process and collaboration, always with Sara at the center,” he says); Keith Hennessey (“Working with Sara revealed me to myself, and revealed me to the worlds around me”); Nina Haft (“I like to think my work is better for having been part of that wild soup of training in the ’80s. Sara still amazes me with what she does”); and Kim Epifano (“We learned from each other as we created with Sara’s thrust of topic and mastery of metaphor. It was a place where gender did not define the physicality but a common ground of athletic love”).

Indeed, in addition to her formidable reach as an artist, Shelton Mann’s role as a teacher has been immense. The latest wave of artists to find Shelton Mann and the rare degree of mutual inspiration she offers includes many of the most persuasive dance makers in the Bay Area.

“When you’ve trained with Sara, and you’ve worked with Sara, your idea of dance really explodes,” says Jesse Hewit. “You identify what your dance is in your body.” Hewit explains the difference as distinct from a focus on mere technical perfection. “The dancing is crazy virtuosic,” he notes, “but not virtuosic in the high-kick, pointed-toe sense; virtuosic in that it’s infused with an intense energetic focus.”

Shelton Mann celebrated her 70th birthday in December, and her work shows no signs of dimming. Even in the smaller, minimalist dances of recent months she proves riveting: a lovingly rowdy duet with Hewit at Z Space during the 2013 West Wave Dance Festival; a reading at Kunst-Stoff in January for Fresh Festival — delivering a slipstream rumination on time, decay, and memory in the body, the body social, the body politic. More recently still, she had a cameo during a comic-chaotic conversation about contemporary dance in Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Saul Garcia Lopez, and Esther Baker Tarpaga’s Part 1: Dancing with Fear at Galería de la Raza.

In the last two years, Shelton Mann has been at work on a set of extraordinary solos, a series she calls The Eye of Leo. Each has been made on a different dancer, and each one thus far has premiered in the plain white box of the Joe Goode Annex.

In October 2012, the first, featuring Jorge De Hoyos, was a revelation. The limpidness of these works, their spare quality — in contrast to the exuberant sumptuousness of Contraband or even recent Shelton Mann work like 2011’s Zeropoint, made with regular collaborator David Szlasa — combined with a quivering field of contact between dancer and choreographer, represents a powerful shift in focus.

The Leo series culminates outdoors and downtown this April, in a simultaneous unfolding she calls a “mandala of magic,” The Eye of Horus. The project is more proof that Shelton Mann is working at the height of her powers. One of the country’s supreme artists, she continues to evolve — moving more than the land she adopted back in 1979, and more sensitive to the tremors beneath our feet than a Richter scale.

“She’s a very strong conduit now. A very strong conduit. I mean, I think she’s a goddess,” says Kathleen Hermesdorf, another Contraband veteran who has gone onto a formidable career of her own. “I can’t help but deify her a bit. I can’t pigeonhole her. She’s still an iconoclast; she’s still part of the avant-garde. And it still comes from so deep inside her.”

Goldies 2014 Dance: RAWdance


GOLDIES “Anybody want more popcorn? How about coffee?”

Ryan T. Smith is calling out to a packed audience in the oddest-shaped dance studio in San Francisco — long and narrow, like a bowling alley. The occasion is the latest installment in RAWdance’s popular bi-annual CONCEPT series, started in 2007 by Smith and partner Wendy Rein in their Duboce Triangle neighborhood.

CONCEPT is an occasion where dance watching and socializing go hand in hand. You pay what you can … and you pitch in with moving the furniture. An old-fashioned salon of serious fun but also serious art, the series has become one of the most congenial places to watch dance in SF.

And yet the project started as something like a self-help group. When Smith and Rein moved to the city, they came into an environment rich in dance theater, multimedia, text-based dance, and identity- and gender-inspired material. “This is not who we are,” Rein explains while sitting at their kitchen table. “Our dances are abstract.” And, continues Smith, “We also didn’t know anybody [at the time].”

Looking around, however, they found artists who — like themselves — had pieces that had been seen only once, or were works in progress. Artists who wanted to rework something, or just try out new material. Today, over 60 choreographers have shown at CONCEPT; anyone can apply, though the team curates the show lightly to ensure a good mix.

Another reason behind CONCEPT arises from the duo’s desire to make dance more generally accessible. “We are so tired of going to dance concerts and seeing the same people all the time,” they agree. Rein remembered a couple who just walked into CONCEPT off the street. “I just loved that.”


Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover

They don’t complain about the lack of attention paid to theatrically demanding dance. They don’t wait for audiences — they go to them. Locally, they have performed in public spaces like Union Square and beneath the SF City Hall Rotunda.

The duo calls its choreography “abstract;” in truth, that’s something of a misnomer since there is no such thing as abstract dance. When you put a human being on a stage, abstraction goes out the back door. RAWdance derives its strength from the fact that the pieces tell stories without relying on explicit narratives. “We don’t spoon-feed our audiences. We just want to go so deep that the experience becomes visceral,” they agree.

For Two by Two: Love on Loop, they created a 20-minute dance on themselves, and then taught it to 12 very different couples who performed it over an eight-hour period in the middle of the UN Plaza. For A Public Affair, a 10-minute duet performed at the height of the dinner hour at the now closed Orson Restaurant, they condensed gestures and movements that would have looked familiar to the patrons. The Beauty Project, first performed in an empty storefront, eventually made it into a theater — but its inspirations (mannequins, a fashion-show runway) remained unmistakable.

In their own duets — still their preferred way of working — Smith and Rein often move like liquid sculptures; we see them as one even as they strive to pull apart. They were at first drawn to each other in college because choreographers so frequently paired them together. It makes sense.

Both of them are tall and long-limbed, with superb techniques. Rein looks fragile but she is fierce. “I feel more comfortably working with Wendy, trying out things that are physically bizarre, than with anybody else in a studio,” Smith says. “I trust her with my weight.”

Rein feels the same way but explains the trust also comes from the fact that “we create everything together, so we are interested in seeing the interactions between us.” Chatting with them in their kitchen, you get the sense that they are completely in tune with each other. They finish each other’s sentences like an old married couple (which they are not).

At the most recent CONCEPT series last August, RAWdance showed the beginnings of new piece, Turing’s Appel, inspired by Alan Turing, the pioneering British scientist who was driven to suicide because of his homosexuality. (The piece is set to premiere this summer at Z Space.) Dance critic Heather Desaulniers described the excerpt in terms of the questions she saw the choreographers raising: “How do constraints affect physicality; how do situations differ when change is purposeful or accidental; what circumstances make the most sense in the body?”