Rita Felciano

75 alive

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With its 75th season, which starts Jan. 29, the San Francisco Ballet — the oldest ballet company in the country — intends to show that the dance form is a thoroughly contemporary, international art.

With the exception of the lovely Giselle (created by Adolphe Adam in 1841), the entire season has been choreographed within the company’s lifetime. When it was created in 1938, Lew Christensen’s Filling Station was considered the first American ballet. Other season highlights will no doubt include the New Works Festival (April 22–May 6), with premieres by 10 choreographers in three different programs. On this anniversary, it’s worth recalling that there may be a historic reason why San Francisco ballet audiences have often embraced the new.

Carlos Carvajal, now co–artistic director of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, danced with the SFB from 1950 to ’55 and, after a stint in Europe, worked from 1964 to ’70 as its ballet master and associate choreographer. He remembers the period as one of crowded quarters on 18th Avenue in the Richmond District — there was a hunt for theaters in which to perform because the Opera House shared space with the San Francisco Symphony at the time, and the SFB often lost out. But it was also a period of dazzling vitality.

"It was a crazy, wonderful time, with such creative energy. Not just for the dancers, but musicians and designers as well," Carvajal recently recalled. Dancers regularly choreographed for the main season. His Totentanz, for instance, premiered at the SFB in 1967 and stayed in the rep until 1972. When Carvajal left the SFB, he brought the piece to his San Francisco Dance Spectrum, where it proved to be one of the company’s most popular works. The SFB functioned almost like a modern dance company whose members were simply expected to take up choreography sooner or later.

While the company was unemployed after its annual spring season, its summer workshops, called the "Ballet ’60s" series, offered creative outlets and some touring opportunities. "We used to take the wall down between two studios and converted one of them into a place for the audience. The other was the theater," Carvajal remembered. "Somebody suggested choreographing the Kama Sutra, so I took a look and figured I could do [it]." The same year, he choreographed Voyage Interdit: A Noh Play, for which he created a tape collage. The work’s second incarnation had a live rock band and a light show. "Remember," he said, chuckling, "those were the crazy ’60s, when anything went. We didn’t care about money; we only cared about dancing." And audiences, particularly younger ones, both in towns and on the road, flocked to see what was new — and what was this thing called ballet.

www.sfballet.org

Twelve for the road

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The past year’s many exhilarations are here condensed into a month-by-month format. Let a veil of silence fall over the frustrations, and remember the yin and yang in everything, dance included.

January: Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, Marin Civic Center Auditorium, San Rafael. "Hungarian Concerto: Hommage à Béla Bartók," a brilliant presentation of traditional folk material, was choreographed within a sophisticated, contemporary setting that highlighted how the future and the past can coexist perfectly with each other.

February: Forsythe Company, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. Making a stunning debut with Three Atmospheric Studies, a piece that is as politically astute as it is formally challenging, William Forsythe’s new independent company confirmed his status as one of the most original contemporary thinkers about the role of dance in society.

March: Jess Curtis/Gravity, CounterPULSE, San Francisco. Under the Radar, Jess Curtis’s life-affirming cabaret, was probably the year’s single most inspired show, as poetic as it was inventive. The performers were as diverse as they come, and every one was top-notch. Radar did what good art always does: change our perceptions about who we are.

April: San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. A rich month from the SFB, with the now-departed Gonzalo Garcia glorious in a slight work, Elemental Brubeck, and two of my SFB favorites, Kristin Long and Gennadi Nedvigin, in a problematic piece, Concordia. Julia Adam’s Night also returned. Adam’s choreographic voice is idiosyncratic and spunkily irreverent. Watch for her take on Sleeping Beauty this April.

May: Pick Up Performance Company, ODC Theater, San Francisco. David Gordon, who has been creating art for more than 30 years, is a master craftsman who works brilliantly with language and movement. In Dancing Henry Five he interwove formalized and pedestrian dance with Shakespeare’s language to stunning effect.

June: Joe Goode Performance Group, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. We may know what Goode thinks of the frailties of the human heart, but we continue to watch because he keeps exploring ways to express his loves and concerns. Humansville was a fine example of dance as installation.

July: West Wave Dance Festival, Project Artaud Theater, San Francisco. The best West Wave in years — focused and straightforward — was also the last under Joan Lazarus’s stewardship. Let’s hope that showcasing quality artists (think Amy Seiwert and Kate Weare) will be utmost in the minds of future organizers.

August: Zaccho Dance Theatre, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Beckett, Mass. Watching Joanna Haigood’s haunting Invisible Wings performed in a place that served as an Underground Railroad station was both chilling and inspiring.

September: Nora Chipaumire, ODC Theater, San Francisco. Always a stunning dancer, the regal Chipaumire returned to the Bay Area with equally impressive choreography, including Chimurenga, inspired by her life in Zimbabwe.

October: Oakland Ballet Company, Paramount Theatre, Oakland. Whether this company’s tale will become a rags-to-riches story remains to be seen, but watching the hundreds in the audience give the fledgling new troupe their rousing support was not be missed.

November: San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco. Treading a fine line between the community groups that form her primary base and the main-stage artists that are pushing the genre ahead, producer Micaya again put on a smart, well-paced, and highly enjoyable weekend of hip-hop dance.

December: Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Project Artaud Theatre, San Francisco. Other Suns is the first piece in a trilogy that Jenkins is crafting with China’s Guangdong Modern Dance Company. If the remaining parts push as fiercely at the edges of the physically possible, they will be something to look forward to in 2009.

Magic garden

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A most welcome gift arrived Dec. 12: pure dance, pure music, and pure poetry. It was "Jardín de Mis Sueños," Caminos Flamencos’ new show (repeating in Mountain View on Dec. 21) and the last one at ODC Theater, which starts extensive renovations in January. Caminos Flamencos artistic director Yaelisa put together a most appealing evening of good dancing in which each artist’s contribution threw a different light on flamenco.

Working with excellent company members Fanny Ara, Christina Hall, Melissa Cruz, and Marina Elana were always-impressive music director Jason McGuire on guitar and first-rate singers Felix de Lola and, in his company debut, Miguel Rosendo. However, while the café seating, developed for Caminos Flamencos’ monthly Sunday series, created an invitingly informal atmosphere, it also meant the sight lines were not that conducive to enjoying an art form with so much emphasis on footwork. A better arrangement might be worth looking into.

In De lo Jondo spectacular guest artist Andrés Peña wrapped fiendishly fierce footwork into triple pirouettes that ended in slithery asides. While it was fun to watch such technical mastery, it was the fusion of Peña’s dancing with singers Rosendo and, especially, de Lola’s lamentations that kept me at the edge of my seat. Cruz wove a quasi-symphonic ebb and flow into her multimovement Lamento. One moment she was all swooping roundedness, with serpentine curves and flowing arms; in the next she broke into crystalline, complex heelwork that sent shivers up her torso. Here control and abandon collaborated in a performance of exceptional musicality.

The ominously dangerous-looking Pasos a Dos paired tall and elegant Ara with wispy Hall. At first the two women circled each wearily with punkish aggression, but then the confrontation blossomed into a friendly competition. While the three ensemble numbers showed the company members as at ease with one another and allowed for small solo excursions, flamenco, at heart, remains a solo form. None proved that more than Yaelisa herself, as regal and nuanced as ever. In her first solo, unlisted in the program, she performed in silence. And yet she sang — with maternally scooping arms, shimmering feet, and an embracing of the floor that recalled early Martha Graham. In the eponymous Jardín, she emerged out of darkness and opened herself to de Lola’s melismas, only to withdraw again and again into a world that we could only guess at. What a woman, and what a dancer.

YAELISA AND CAMINOS FLAMENCOS

Fri/21, 8 p.m., $15–$35

Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

500 Castro, Mountain View

(650) 903-6000

www.mvcpa.com

Ceres business

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Brittany Brown Ceres’s dances are voluptuous and lucid. They are also finely crafted, though in her first full-evening concert, "Limits of the Marvelous" — at Dance Mission Theater on Nov. 30 — they were not always quite as finely performed. The larger ensemble numbers’ speed suggested technical challenges not always met. But for those of us who value imagination and brains, Ceres is a choreographer to watch.

Announcing the evening as a world premiere was probably technically correct though a little misleading, since "Limits" consisted of works created independently. Ceres pulled them together by choreographing bridges and employed sections of red carpet as roads traveled or avoided. This unifying prop also allowed her to delineate performance space in a variety of manners, though after a while the constant rolling and unrolling of rugs began to look like ceremonial housekeeping.

Ceres choreographed in layers and sections that split and coalesced, sometimes so fast that the eye had difficulty catching them but was always aware of the underlying common trajectory. Often one had a sense of a single image bursting into multiple versions, not unlike a time-lapse photograph. The work was also fresh in its uncommonly imaginative use of arms, precisely placed but hugely extending into space.

Jenny Ward opened the evening with the crystalline Face, Façade, a solo performed on and around a stool encased in a square of red light. No matter where her body pulled her, her gaze kept focusing on the beyond. All of a sudden, it became apparent what she was looking for: a swiftly moving Gianna Shepard, who appeared behind Ward’s back. The lyrical Embrace, Detain (danced by Cari Bellinghausen and Claudia Hublak) consisted almost entirely of wide ports de bras that, as the title said, embraced and detained. In the lush, floor-bound Anahata, named after the "follow your heart" chakra, Bellinghausen weightily partnered Rebecca Gilbert in a duet of overlapping limbs and quietness that eventually curled back to its beginning.

In Epitaphe de Marie, former West Wave Dance Festival artistic director Joan Lazarus made an able guest appearance as a woman who belonged — and didn’t — to a group. She periodically entered into dynamic encounters with it but ultimately walked away. It’s a piece about loss, a little simplistic in its expression of friendship — entwining duets, circle dances — and probably too protracted, but as a whole carefully constructed as a series of waves of coming together and letting go. Set to Carlo Domeniconi’s increasingly raspy guitar, the work Epitaphe had a sense of ongoing welcome that was lovely, but fleeting. In one of the step-with-step duets, the dancers walked in spooning positions, the one in the back gently placing her hands on the hips of the one in front. The passage suggested an easy sense of communal intimacy that was both casual and private. What didn’t work were the several sections in which the women lifted Lazarus for overhead moves. These types of athletic maneuvers have to be immaculately rehearsed to be effective. Otherwise they look forced.

Before the two final ensemble numbers, Ceres introduced a tiny, hot solo for Bellinghausen, the company’s most distinguished dancer. The whiplash fast Angle, Angel was over before you could catch your breath. Streaming was lyrical, flowing, and oddly structured. It started out as a trio for Ceres, Bellinghausen, and Shepard. Midway through, a quartet streaked by, changing the trio’s relationships. The logic of that cause and effect escaped me. However, the smooth unfolding of torsos against precise, enigmatic arm language flowed with remarkable assuredness on a floor of shifting squares. How these people related to one another on such shifting grounds and what the significance of their initially huge shadows (designed by Max) was, I couldn’t tell.

Closing the evening was Corps de Co., which premiered this summer at the West Wave Dance Festival. It was a disappointment. Not because of the dancers, who performed reasonably well, or Ceres’s fast-paced choreography, which was multifocused and densely layered and beautifully balanced individuality with common purpose. The disappointment came from a deficiency in the venue. Integral to this piece is Austin Forbord’s excellent video derived from Ceres’s choreography. Because Dance Mission Theater doesn’t allow for backlighted projection, this key component appeared so pale that it was nearly washed out.

Well-heeled

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Ask a dancer under 30 in Europe about Pina Bausch, and most likely you’ll get a blank stare or a shrug. You might as well mention Isadora Duncan or Martha Graham. Important, yes; relevant, no. For them, Bausch, the most radical innovator of European dance in the past three decades, is passé. But stateside that’s not the case, judging by the many dancers who mingled with the older crowd during Cal Performances’ recent Bausch engagement, her first since a 1997 appearance showcasing the California-inspired Nur Du (Only You).

Part of the reserved reception Bausch receives overseas may be due to prophet-in-her-own-land syndrome. And another part may relate to the revolutionary aspect of her work; once a revolution is institutionalized, it loses its punch. And some of it may simply be a function of aging. Not all artists produce major works in their seventh decade. Bausch is 67.

Although people have complained for years that "there is no dancing" in Bausch’s productions, there was plenty in her 2004 Ten Chi, and it was heroic. These dancers had the physical and emotional training to be ferocious and lyrical, plangent and athletic, sometimes all within the same couple of phrases. They lived off momentum, introspection, and one another. And every one of them was an individual, though they all had that Bauschian stare.

Even longtime company members Helena Pikon, Julie Shanahan, and
Julie Anne Stanzak danced better than ever. As for Dominique Mercy, who has been with Bausch since 1973, his sad-sack clown is getting more ethereal every year, yet he’ll whip himself around the stage with the best of them. He has also given the company something else: his daughter, Thusnelda Mercy, who — along with the rest of the women — dances on heels that are a lot higher than Ginger Rogers’s. High heels are Bausch’s pointe shoes, icons of femininity that radically shift the body’s center of gravity.

Ten Chi is one of Bausch’s better travel pieces, for which she visits a country or a city to gather information, which she and her dancers then incorporate into one of her meandering colossal collages, integrating culture-specific material into a much larger whole. In the impressive Ten Chi, Azusa Seyama, who is Japanese, gave head-bobbing lessons in proper behavior to Ditta Miranda. She also turned herself into a grinning paparazza, snapping pictures of a nonplussed Pascal Merighi. These scenes started out as high comedy, but Bausch pushed them to the point where they turned into something much darker.

It was this underbelly that redeemed much of Ten Chi‘s surface frivolity. Beneath the distinct and sometimes very funny episodes, Bausch and her exceptional set designer Peter Pabst infused a slowly growing sense of dread. Initially, the innocuously falling "cherry blossoms" looked pretty, but as they accumulated, the scene transformed into something akin to an eternal winter. Concurrently, in a brilliant stroke of optical illusion, the tail of a huge whale suggested that an animal was about to rise from the deep. Think Moby-Dick, think wars, think the unconscious. In the prolonged finale the dancers returned individually. They threw themselves into hair-raising contortions, whipping turns, and slithery slides. And they did it again and again and again, until I wanted to scream, "Stop it! Enough!" — which is exactly what Bausch intended. *

Goldie winner — Dance: Shinichi Iova-Koga

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Shinichi Iova-Koga’s work is grotesque, beautiful, and funny. As a dancer he is never less than mesmerizing — ephemeral like smoke, limpid like a vernal pool. And yet he is an accidental dancer. The son of two painters, he was initially drawn to photography; at age 12 his bathroom doubled as a darkroom. Then, at San Francisco State University, he became a film major. "All the while," he says, "I was involved in theater, but I thought my main line was behind the camera."

The Oakland-born Iova-Koga also trained in Tadashi Suzuki’s method for actors, through which he was introduced to Butoh. Another influence was the investigative method of Ruth Zaporah’s Action Theater. His most formative teacher, however, was Butoh dancer Hiroko Tamano: "While we were making rice balls one day, [Tamano] asked me if I wanted to join Harupin-Ha [Butoh Dance Theater]." After a while, like many of Tamano’s pupils, Iova-Koga needed to strike out on his own. He traveled to Japan and Germany to study and work with other Butoh masters and, not incidentally, learn to adapt the genre to his expressive needs.

Thanks to these shifts in focus, he has developed a personal form of mixed-media dance theater that integrates contradictory impulses — the ancient and the technological, the chaotic and the formal, nature and nurture. He might be called a dancer at the edge. To Iova-Koga, this may well be a compliment; he has said that "only a dance at the edge reveals the honest life." His process blurs the distinctions between categories of thinking, being, disciplines, and performing. He likes to dig into both humorous and horrible subjects. The resulting works have taken him around the world.

One of his early works, 1996’s Desert Body, showed dramatic flair but not much personal voice. Ironically, he says, "I first started with Butoh so that I could be a better director. Now by chance I am a dancer." He is very precise about what this means to him. Dancing, he has said, means "focusing on the body being danced. To mentally construct a choreography that ignores this is to create a false dance."

Iova-Koga is an avid solo performer as well as a collaborator; he is often inspired by the people around him. His harrowing Tasting an Ocean — influenced by his father’s having lived through the atomic bombing of Nagasaki at the age of five — kept a 2003 audience at the tiny Noh Space on the edge of their seats. His most recent, highly acclaimed solo, Milk Traces, which he has performed in Europe and Japan, was prompted by the birth of his daughter. He calls her his main teacher now: "I follow her without questions."

In ensemble pieces such as Heaven’s Radio, an adaptation of a Samuel Beckett radio drama, and this summer’s Our Breath Is as Thin as a Hummingbird’s Spine (cocreated with Nanos Operetta), Iova-Koga has worked with other Bay Area theater artists (Nils Frykdahl, Ken Rudstrom, and Allen Willner) and Butoh dancers Tanya Calamoneri and Leigh Evans. The duet Ame to Ame, featuring Yuko Kaseki, another Germany-based frequent collaborator, finds the two playing out a riotous male-female relationship in terms of both meanings of the word ame, Japanese for "candy" and "rain." The absurdist Cockroach casts Kaseki as the ghostly wife to Iova-Koga’s husband; she dances through his tea-slurping last moments. His newest enterprise is C(h)ord, which he’s collaborating on with Seattle’s Degenerate Ensemble. It premieres at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on April 24, 2008.

www.inkboat.com

Goldie winner — Dance/Performance: Keith Hennessy

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"Citizens. Wake Up. A new day is dawning in San Francisco and all over the world."

Keith Hennessy, "A Speech to the Poor Artists," San Francisco City Hall, Oct. 4, 2000

Keith Hennessy has made work in the Bay Area for more than 20 years, yet he has stayed at the margins all this time. Yes, his audiences are good, and they show up time after time to watch his latest work, but he hasn’t gotten the grants that would allow him to do big tours or reach a more mainstream audience. Maybe he prefers it that way. Maybe big audiences wouldn’t be comfortable with hearing what he has to say. But Hennessy is that rare artist who succeeds in transutf8g fierce social concerns into artistically satisfying creations that enlighten and entertain.

"Why are you wasting your time researching the grace, beauty, and strength of the human body in motion?"

Hennessy started out as a competitive social dancer in his native Canada and worked his way to San Francisco by clowning, juggling, and doing political street theater. In the Bay Area he studied with Lucas Hoving; in 1985 he became a founding member of Contraband, the most radical dance-theater group of the period. He has had a roller coaster existence ever since, pushing himself to develop new theatrical expressions that allow him to explode the conventions of form in order to speak to and about the marginalized: the poor, the victims, the ostracized, and the homeless. Against all odds he believes in art’s power to reassume its ritualistic and healing function.

"Stop trying to hack your way alone through hostile jungles in the dead of night. Take the FreeWay. It’s paved and easy, and a 24-hour SafeWay is always available."

One of Hennessy’s most daring and controversial pieces was his 1989 solo Saliva, for which he collected spit from willing audience members, mixed it with pigment, and painted his naked body with it. It was an extraordinary act of defiance, courage, and solidarity — as well as spectacular theater.

Spectacle, Hennessy has discovered, is a way to draw in audiences, not to expose them to mindless entertainment but to amuse and challenge them. This can be an intoxicating mix. During his four years with the French circus Cahin-Caha, he became an experienced aerialist and refined his skill of using circus, cabaret, and other popular art forms to create works that foster a sense of community and a set of shared values that are difficult to resist. Hennessy believes in the power of the imagination and in art as a spiritual practice. He also allows his collaborators the full range of their own imaginations.

Last year’s double bill "How to Die" was raw, violent, and difficult to watch. Both pieces examined the erotics of death. SDF USA (Sans domicile fixe, i.e., homeless) paid tribute to the many homeless people, primarily male, who kill themselves every year. American Tweaker honored disco diva Sylvester and an era of unprecedented sexual abandon and sense of liberation within the gay community.

This year’s Sol Niger is probably Hennessy’s best work yet. Looking at the devastation humankind has brought on itself — up to the present day — through a series of tightly structured vignettes, the work celebrates and laments the glory and the frailty of being alive. This is activist art that works — as art and as a call to action. Sol Niger returns to Project Artaud Theater from January 16 to 26, 2008.

"Citizens of San Francisco. Citizens of the second millennium. Wake up. The global city is yours. Blessed be."

www.circozero.com

King of the dance

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Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend, but King’s influence on Bay Area dance goes back further than that. Veteran dancers remember his ballet classes for the musical combinations that he gave his students in the ’70s. One of them was Joanna Haigood, artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theatre, who said, "Alonzo was a spirit master who happened to be a dancer." While she loved the challenge of the technique, she was really in his class because "he taught us to live the dance."

Not only local performers knew about King’s poetic approach to ballet. Big stars like Fernando Bujones and Natalia Makarova never missed an opportunity to work with him when they were in town. But eventually, King needed to have his own company. These days, in addition to periodic guest artist Muriel Maffre, Lines Ballet performs with nine dancers. This year it toured from France to Poland, from Austria to Greece, in addition to performing in stateside engagements and two home seasons.

King also founded the SF Dance Center, initially to support his company financially; the now-independent center offers classes for adults in a variety of styles. He then created Lines Ballet School, which teaches according to his principles. Last year, in conjunction with Dominican University, King established a BA program that allows dancers to simultaneously pursue professional and academic studies. In other words, in addition to choreographing 74 works, King has created an institution. "I know now that we have grown so much it will be more difficult to balance humanity and creativity with effective business practices," he said in a recent phone interview. "But if I have my choice, I will go with the humanity."

Aside from his choreography, King’s greatest contribution might turn out to be his challenging of preconceptions about dance, specifically ballet. To question the status quo is perhaps the birthright of this son and grandson of prominent civil rights leaders in Albany, Ga. King grew up participating in civil rights marches. His mother introduced him to dance, while his father, a follower of 19th-century sage Ramakrishna, taught him about meditation.

For King, dance is the appropriate medium for exploring a universe that he perceives to be in flux, where opposites don’t stand against but hold one another in balance. Ballet for him is not a style but a language — one that, he says, would have to be invented if it didn’t exist already. Ballet is abstraction; ballet is science; ballet is geometry. After all, a pirouette is a perfect circle, a tendu (stretched foot) a line that reaches into infinity. To King, ballet is a tool to investigate creativity, which, he insists, is everyone’s birthright. Does he think everyone can become an artist?

"No, that’s not what I mean," he explained. "But just like we all have a brain, we all have creativity. We either tap into it or we don’t. For most people, when they are educated as children it is stripped away from them because they are trained to give the answer which the teacher wants, when there are multifarious choices that could be selected. The government doesn’t really encourage it, because if you give people the ability to ascertain thought, to really deconstruct ideas, that’s dangerous because no longer can they be sheep, but at that point they are discerning lions. And when you have 300 million discerning lions, [you’ve] got a problem."

King’s ballets are nonhierarchical — no predetermined gender roles, no fixed vocabulary — and what looks like balletic distortion is simply an emphasis on a constantly shifting center of gravity instead of a stable focus on the body’s vertical axis. Women can be strong, men tender. Early in his career he paired a tall woman with a much shorter man. It looked odd. Why, King asked, do we always see male-female duets in terms of gender relationships? Couldn’t a dance be about a mother and a child or a sky and a landscape?

He does follow one convention — putting women on pointe — though he noted that this doesn’t have to be a female prerogative. "If you look at most cultures, you see an appreciation of the idea of being elevated, of being above the earth. In Africa dancers use stilts. In Balkan countries men do dance on their toes." He often took barre on pointe, and during his training at Harkness House men took pointe class once a week. If enough training becomes available, one of these days King just might put men into pointe shoes.

For his anniversary premieres, King has choreographed two works, one to a new score by tabla master Zakir Hussein, the other to selections from baroque composers. The connection? Both types of music, to be performed live, allow for improvisation. According to the enthusiastic King, "That’s when the artists can go deep inside themselves and become fully who they are." *

ALONZO KING’S LINES BALLET

Fri/2, 9 p.m.; Sat/3 and Nov. 7–10, 8 p.m.; Sun/4, 7 p.m.; Nov. 11, 3 p.m.; $25–$65

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts theater

700 Howard, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

Bigger is (mostly) better

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REVIEW Moving from the small ODC Theater to the much larger Kanbar Hall of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco seems to have been a good idea for Benjamin Levy’s LEVYdance. At the opening of its home season Oct. 12, a large crowd seemed curious to see what else the young choreographer has in his palette. The good news is that Levy has no intention of repeating himself. The two world premieres, Nu Nu and Bone Lines, showed him stepping outside his previously hyperkinetic fierceness and embracing a more imagistic approach to dance making. Nu Nu is a candy-colored romp for four dancers set to music by rapper Fabolous, jazz singer Peggy Lee, and British songstress Anita Harris. The more ambitious Bone Lines, however, looked curiously unfocused; it didn’t sustain itself, Colleen Quan’s transparent and fragmented costumes notwithstanding.

Nu Nu‘s fast-paced mix of clowning, glamour-puss posing, and blossoming and breaking relationships was clever, smartly paced, and unpretentious.

Oral imagery permeated Bone Lines, which suggests a physical though inchoate passing of knowledge from one body to another. The piece examines Levy’s relationship with his immigrant parents; he seems much more interested in the process of his absorbing that knowledge — fragmentarily, unconsciously — than in any specific facts. The music and sets were strong, and so were recurring motifs of connectedness, but structurally, Bone Lines felt shadowy.

Oh, Donna

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You don’t necessarily expect a choreographer to be interested in playing with conceits. After all, dancers work in an art form that is primarily nonverbal and movement driven. Yet Donna Uchizono’s imagination embraces ideas in conjunction with physicality. "All of my work is concept based," she explained over the phone from her home in New York. "The idea always comes first, and then I develop a movement vocabulary to support the concept. So the pieces are very different from each other."

Sometimes she takes off from a single word. When I asked her about an early work, Fault (1990) — which had struck me as a puzzling combination of brain and brawn — she chuckled. "The piece was terrible," she remembered. "But then [later that year] I made San Andreas out of it, which was very beautiful." It turns out that she had been inspired by the idea of "fault," as both a geological concept and the attributing and accepting of blame, as in "It’s my (or your) fault."

More recently, for last year’s Leap to Tall for Mikhail Baryshnikov, she thought about how his life has been full of huge leaps — to the top of the ballet world, from the Soviet Union to the West, from ballet to modern dance, and from dancer to the founder of the Baryshnikov Arts Center. She also noticed that for many women Baryshnikov is still a matinee idol and that at his arts center he is surrounded by "strong, capable women." Leap turned into a trio for Baryshnikov, Hristoula Harakas, and Jodi Melnick, the last two of whom support him in his leaps, both literally and metaphorically.

Uchizono has been choreographing for close to 20 years, and her work has garnered just about every major dance award, from a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998 and a Bessie Award in 2002 to three Rockefeller Foundation Multi-Arts Production Fund grants (to work in Argentina with indigenous musicians) and most recently an Alpert Award in 2005.

Uchizono is known for lush movement and intricate partnering that "takes months and months to learn." For Thin Air, with which her namesake company makes its Bay Area debut Oct. 18, she chose a different approach. "It’s very minimal, very transparent, and it takes a long time for something to develop," she said. "I am working with a very long time frame." She described the piece as having been influenced by quantum physics and the Buddhist concept of emptiness.

Cocommissioned by ODC Theater, Thin Air premiered Oct. 9 in New York City. Locally, it’s part of ODC’s expanded presentation series, which will continue to showcase local companies and also include national and international artists, similar to the way ODC operated in the 1980s.

Thin Air includes a score by Fred Firth and a video component, agreed to somewhat reluctantly by the choreographer. In principle, Uchizono doesn’t like video with dance. "I am so tired of how these large projections dwarf dancers, but since I am working with the idea that the observer is actually projecting reality into emptiness, video seemed appropriate. Video clearly is projected reality." Uchizono, who is not dancing in the work, relied heavily on her dancers’ input, particularly that of longtime troupe member Harakas, whom Uchizono described as being "her inside eye" and "like a great actor who gets involved in the part and [has] discussions with the lighting designer and the director."

As for the future of her project-based company, Uchizono is both a conceptualizer and a realist. She dreams of an installation project, but then she pulls back, noting that what she’d really like to do is provide her dancers with health insurance. Ideas may turn her on, but Uchizono’s feet remain firmly planted on the ground. *

THIN AIR

Thurs/18–Sat/20, 8 p.m., $18–$25

ODC Theater

3153 17th St., SF

(415) 863-9834

www.odctheater.org

Let there be bright

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Sol Niger ("Black sun" in Latin) sounds like a contradiction. Not that choreographer–theater maven Keith Hennessy is uncomfortable with oppositional thinking. But if you’ve ever experienced the gray-on-gray blanket that a solar eclipse throws over the world, you’ll understand the appropriateness of the title of Hennessy’s most recent work.

With a Bay Area premiere run kicking off Sept. 20, Sol Niger — Hennessy’s MA project at UC Davis — was partially developed in France, where it was described as his "search for an American identity." Here it is presented as addressing "shifting definitions of war, torture, terror and justice." Hennessy shrugs off the difference in perspectives. French cultural institutions have sponsored several of his works, and he is used to the public there seeing him primarily in terms of national identity. In fact, the distinctions between the stateside and French observations just prove that the nature of the light shining on a object determines our perception of it, which is exactly one of Hennessy’s points.

Hennessy believes that the events since Sept. 11, 2001, define his generation much the way AIDS or World War II did earlier ones. In Sol Niger he examines the shadowy nature of our awareness of what’s going on. A key figure, borrowed from Japanese theater, is a kurogo (black-clad man), who manipulates the lights from the stage, invisible yet all-powerful in determining what we see. "I wanted to look less [at] what we do know about Iraq than what we half-know about, let’s say, Abu Ghraib, about our foreign policy," he says. "Is it really about oil and the oligarchies? These are the issues I want to bring to light."

One reason Hennessy chose to perform at Project Artaud Theater is because of the venue’s high ceilings, necessary for the aerial work that he continues to explore. He was first drawn to trapeze work because of a fascination with risk and danger and the ideas it provokes on dealing with fear. Still, Sol Niger is a departure for him. "There is a lot more choreographed dancing here than I have had in a long time. Some of it is quite beautiful," he says. "Also, I am taking a much less head-on approach." Like an alchemist, he works with symbols, metaphors, and abstractions — away from the glare of certainty but determined to shed light on what the shadows reveal.

SOL NIGER

Thurs/20–Sun/23 and Sept. 26–29, 8 p.m., $25

Project Artaud Theater

540 Florida, SF

(415) 255-2500

www.brownpapertickets.com

Toshiro worship

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Christy Funsch is tiny, but she commands attention. During a run-through of her solo dance in the upcoming To Mifune, she filled CounterPULSE’s stage with a torrent of lanky, highly detailed movements, out of which tumbled a recognizable character not unlike the breeches-hoisting heroine in Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo. But Funsch’s cowgirl isn’t heading for a hoedown; her eyes are set on loftier horizons. She’s on her way to meet Toshiro Mifune, who played larger-than-life warrior heroes in Akira Kurosawa’s epic films.

Until now Funsch has primarily choreographed solos and duets, but for To Mifune, a work she describes as equally inspired by spaghetti westerns and samurai dramas, she has expanded her Funsch Dance Experience to eight members, including DJ K808, Chinese acrobat Glenn Curtis, and break-dancer Skorpio. As a performer with local companies (currently the Stephen Pelton Dance Theater, and as a duo with Sue Roginski), Funsch has been mesmerizing to watch: intense, incisive, but also often lyrical and a little mysterious. So perhaps her fascination with the great actor is not as surprising as it might seem.

Funsch says she admires the range of Mifune’s "intense command of a huge physicality" in such films as Seven Samurai (1954). Even more, she’s in awe of his "ability to pull back, to give with smaller gestures," the way he did in Yojimbo (1961), a film that was remade in Italy as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with Clint Eastwood. Though she is taking a light-hearted approach in her tribute to Mifune, Funsch admits to a fascination with the figure of the morally ambiguous loner who only gradually reveals himself in the context of a film — whether that film was directed by Kurosawa or Sergio Leone.

Skorpio, with whom Funsch performed at the Live Worms Gallery in North Beach in March, interprets Mifune. Funsch and Skorpio hooked up by accident when their rehearsal schedules overlapped. Skorpio calls what he does "true skool," combining old-style break-dance moves with more contemporary dancing. Their Live Worms duet, at once relaxed and intense, showed that these so-different dancers are naturally congenial partners. "A lot of the breaking vocabulary is just as set as our ballet language is," Funsch says, explaining her admiration for Skorpio. "It was immediately apparent that he is about how you put things together and give it your own flavor. I never felt that I was watching a break-dancer." *

TO MIFUNE

With Isak Immanuel’s Illegal Echo

Thurs/6–Sat/8, 8 p.m., $12–$20

CounterPULSE

1310 Mission, SF

(415) 435-7552

www.counterpulse.org

Limber up

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Are you looking for edginess? Do you prefer subtlety to pizzazz? The upcoming dance calendar has it all, however exotic or traditional your tastes. Fortunately, presenters seem to be aware of the Bay Area’s knowledgeable and supportive dancegoing audience. Cal Perfomances’ monthlong focus on Twyla Tharp — with the American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey and Miami City ballets — and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ presentation of international companies whose work circles around big ideas (reality, peace, identity) are particularly noteworthy. Two smaller venues deserve equal attention: ODC Theater, long a stalwart supporter of local companies, has restarted an excellent presenting series of touring artists who can’t fill larger spaces; and CounterPULSE, which, in addition to showcasing fresh works, offers ongoing postperformance conversations between dancers and their audience.

Nora Chipaumire Chipaumire left the Bay Area to join Urban Bush Women, the country’s preeminent African American all-female dance group. Nobody who saw her last performance at ODC could possibly have forgotten the fierce intensity of the statuesque Zimbabwean’s dancing. She returns with Chimurenga, her one-woman multimedia show in which she meditates on her and her country’s history.

Sept. 9. ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., SF. (415) 863-9834, www.odctheater.org

Erika Shuch Performance Project Shuch is never afraid of pushing sensitive buttons. She also does her homework and often works with collaborators. Her new 51802 looks at how incarceration imprisons and liberates those left behind.

Sept. 13–29. Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia, SF. (415) 626-3311, www.theintersection.org

Chris Black Black really wanted to be a baseball player, but she ended up a dancer-choreographer of witty and theatrically savvy dance theater works. In her newest, Pastime, she gets to be both, with nine innings, nine dancers, and three weekends of free shows.

Sept. 15–30. Justin Herman Plaza, Embarcadero at Washington, SF; Precita Park, Precita at Harrison, SF; Golden Gate Park, Peacock Meadow, JFK near Fell entrance, SF. www.potrzebie.com

Mark Morris Dance Group Morris choreographing to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has to be either sublime or a travesty. By all accounts, he has succeeded where just about everyone else (except George Balanchine) has failed. The West Coast premiere of the tripartite Mozart Dances will surely enthrall the Morris faithful; it may even convert a few straggling skeptics.

Sept. 20–23. Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Lower Sproul Plaza (near Bancroft at Telegraph), Berk. (510) 642-9988, www.calperformances.net

Smuin Ballet One of Michael Smuin’s great accomplishments was the encouragement he gave to performers whose dances could not be more different from his own. Amy Seiwert is an exceptionally gifted choreographer whose reach and expertise have been growing exponentially. Her new piece will be the seventh for the company, joining works by Smuin and Kirk Peterson.

Oct. 5–14. Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon, SF. (415) 978-2787, www.smuinballet.org

Armitage Gone! Dance In the ’80s, Karole Armitage’s steely-edged choreography to punk scores shook up the New York dance world. Now, after 15 years of self-imposed exile in Europe, she has come home. For her company’s Bay Area debut, she brings the enthusiastically acclaimed Ligeti Essays and Time Is the Echo of an Axe Within a Wood.

Oct. 13–14. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard, SF. (415) 392-2545, www.performances.org

Oakland Ballet Company At 72, Oakland Ballet’s Ronn Guidi won’t give up. He is bringing the company back with a splendid, all–French music program: Marc Wilde’s Bolero, set to Maurice Ravel; Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Afternoon of a Faun, to Claude Debussy; and Guidi’s Trois Gymnopédies, to Erik Satie.

Oct. 20. Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakl. (510) 763-7308, www.rgfpa.org

Marc Bamuthi Joseph When Joseph’s Scourge premiered at the YBCA two years ago, it was impressive though uneven. No doubt this hip-hop-inspired — and by now heavily traveled — look at family and society from a Haitian perspective has since found its groove.

Oct. 25–Nov. 3. ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., SF. (415) 863-9834, www.odctheater.org

Lines Contemporary Ballet Alonzo King opens his company’s 25th season with two world premieres inspired by classical music traditions that allow for improvisation, baroque and Hindustani. Freedom within strictures — leave it to King to find their common ground where none seems to exist.

Nov. 2–11. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard, SF. (415) 987-2787, www.linesballet.org

Faustin Linyekula/Les Studio Kabako For his return engagement, the Congolese choreographer is bringing his Festival of Lies, an installation–fiesta piece that both celebrates and mourns what his country has become. The Nov. 10 show runs from 6 p.m. to midnight and includes local performers.

Nov. 8–10. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard, SF. (415) 987-2787, www.ybca.org

Ocean of motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.westwavedancefestival.org

Flocking together

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They are an odd couple, the giant canary and the lounge-suited would-be lover. Yet you can’t help rooting for the unlikely protagonists of Our Breath Is as Thin as a Hummingbird’s Spine, Nanos Operetta and inkBoat’s collaborative journey into the absurd and hilarious world of love offered and rejected. In two acts and at 75 minutes, this witty charmer drags a bit midway; it probably could be condensed into one act without losing any of its considerable flair. Yet overall the show sings.

Lanky and bald Sten Rudstrom plays a hybrid of Tweety and Big Bird and the object of passionate affection from a wide-eyed dreamer, portrayed by Shinchi Iova-Koga, who will do anything to gain the bird’s attention. That includes donning a Rasputin beard, roosting in a tree, and turning himself into Dr. Strangelove. Ali Tabatabai’s smart script sharply defines its characters. Rudstrom’s placidity contrasts with Iova-Koga’s mercurial intensity; their chemistry carries the show through some of its weaker moments.

Much of Hummingbird‘s gentle humor derives from the physical discrepancies between its two heroes, with Iova-Koga’s love-struck poet trying to make himself more "manly" in the eyes of the laconic avian. Certain moments make you smile with pleasure: Iova-Koga’s quicksilver transformation of a forked stick into a tool and his lip-synching "You Are My Destiny" perfectly to Paul Anka. To watch Rudstrom’s bird finally spread his wings and Iova-Koga’s pursuer shyly rest his head against the bird’s breast is high comedy and also genuinely plaintive.

For the production’s third character, the narrator, imagine Tom Waits as a wandering troubadour in top hat and velvet overcoat, and you get a sense of Nils Frykdahl. Also a member of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Frykdahl has an astonishing vocal range — he easily slides from bass to soprano, with attacks that are as silken as they are raucous — which is put to first-rate use in the score composed collaboratively by Nanos members Max Baloian, Craig Demel, Robin Reynolds, Tabatabai, and Phil Williams. The music — which includes echoes of those most romantic dance forms, the tango and the waltz — is beautifully orchestrated. No surprise here: that’s something at which Nanos excels.

OUR BREATH IS AS THIN AS A HUMMINGBIRD’S SPINE

Through July 28

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m., $18–$25

ODC Theater

3153 17th St., SF

(415) 863-9834, www.odctheatre.org

Only human

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Great art has a moral force that ennobles anyone it touches. Not that Joe Goode’s new Humansville, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is that great. But the work nudges at so many raw spots in a lovingly healing way that you end up believing there may yet be hope for human nature, at least until you leave the theater. Still, Goode’s latest essay on acceptance and the embracing of frailty left me with conflicting emotions.

To longtime Goode watchers — and the night I attended, the YBCA’s Forum seemed packed with them — Humansville‘s inhabitants may have looked vaguely familiar: the wistful, lonely guy (Melecio Estrella) stretched out poolside; the poodle-skirted, Doris Day–ish country inhabitant (Jessica Swanson); the preternaturally mismatched couple (Marit Brook-Kothlow and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello); and the two tough-luck buddies (Estrella and Alexander Zendzian). We know them; we have met them before. But Goode never seems to tire of making us look at them again. Yet because he does it with such clear-sighted wit and compassion, we will probably continue to cherish them and recognize ourselves in these hapless strugglers for sanity.

Humansville is divided into two parts. At first the audience walks around dioramas devised by designer Erik Flatmo and video artist Austin Forbord. One rains words, another is all furry softness, a third is composed of chintz and flowers. In each, dancers present episodes of disconnectedness. As you return to them, the sections begin to blend. You shudder as you hear Patricia West bitching about a missed dinner reservation while Zendzian and Estrella crash their bodies against their cell walls. Swanson’s relationship hysterics bleed into Brook-Kothlow’s and Barrueto-Cabello’s stony silences. This roundabout of foolishness, pain, and absurdity works well despite being a vaguely voyeuristic experience. Swanson’s TV news–inspired echo of a mourning mother on the video screen below her is particularly chilling.

The more conventionally choreographed second half elaborates on what went before. Estrella laments the death of his fellow prisoner; Brook-Kothlow endlessly nuzzles up to a tormented Barrueto-Cabello; Swanson wails about a nest being a launching pad. But the choreography falls short — it is bland and stiff. The lifts, reaches, and stretches of shifting connections look too unmotivated to suggest the fragile community proposed by Brook-Kothlow’s hymn about an empathy that enables you to step out of yourself. Not even Joan Jeanrenaud’s delicate cello, weaving in and out of the hour-long show, made me buy it.

HUMANSVILLE

Thurs/7–Sat/9, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., $19–$25

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

Muse of fire

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REVIEW Perhaps the most intriguing question about David Gordon’s Pick Up Performance Company’s Dancing Henry Five is why it works so well. Gordon took the third of William Shakespeare’s Henry plays, the monumental but stiff Henry V, sent it through the wringer of his imagination, and spit it out as what he calls in the subtitle "a pre-emptive (post modern) strike and spin." That’s about as razor-sharp and witty a label as you could stick on this elegant and prickly entertainment, which lasts for an hour but resonated well beyond the confines of the ODC Theater’s modest stage during its May 16 to 19 run.

Not that Gordon didn’t have plenty of help; for one, there is Shakespeare’s resonant language, taken from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version, which buoyed a dispirited Britain. Then there is William Walton’s mostly excellent score. And let’s not forget the Bushites, whose own strike and spin provided the impetus for this sly look at history repeated. As for Gordon’s eight-member ensemble ("plus three dummies," as Valda Setterfield, the key pin in this finely tuned work, makes a point of specifying), it is an admirably gifted and beautiful group of dancers.

Gordon is not the first to use dance and language in a fully integrated way, but few others have become as masterful at holding the two in perfect balance. In a nod to his roots in the Judson Dance Theater, his work looks casual and ordinary. The language can be everyday conversational, the dancing based on walking. But the commonplace surface is deceptive. Gordon has assembled his components with a clockmaker’s attention to using finely calibrated gears that interlock to create momentum and flow. The resulting work charms with easy grace but impresses through impeccable craft.

For Dancing, Gordon took key elements of Shakespeare’s play — Henry’s debauched youth, his politically expedient abandonment of old friends, his going to war for economic reasons and with the moral force of religion behind him — and spun them into a contemporary fable whose parallels at times amuse but more often cut deeply.

The British-born Setterfield, Gordon’s life and artistic partner for the past 30-plus years, was the key to setting the tone for a work that easily could be but never became preachy. Her clipped delivery — sometimes cool, sometimes wry, and always straightforward — set up an ironic contrast with the mellifluous sonority of the Shakespearean language heard on tape. She brilliantly navigated between her roles as master of ceremonies, observing chorus, and when necessary, the various characters. Her function, she explained, was "to fill in, fill up, and fill out." She did so with the simplest of means. With direct addresses to the audience, while scurrying about or from her pedestal on a ladder, she interpreted the swiftly moving narrative. As the dying Falstaff, with a pillow held as a belly, she shrank in front of our eyes; as a woman with an adult-size rag doll in her arms, she became a mother who has lost a child to war; and as an attendant to Catherine of France, she was dainty, subservient, yet authoritative.

For all its simplicity, Gordon’s choreography is structured in overlapping phrases and precisely timed rhythms that are endlessly fascinating. Much of the dancing is robust, but it is always inflected. In the opening passage, the apparently random walks had a slight bounce to them. The Dauphin’s insulting gift of tennis balls became a game of passing and bouncing — at first one, then two balls — while crisply circling walking patterns were maintained. During the multilevel battle of Agincourt, the pounding poles’ rhythmic accelerations suggested the rising violence. However, whether throwing dolls and folding chairs was the best way to choreograph the collapse of civility remains dubious.

Dancing is also elegant and refined. Setterfield’s charming English lesson to the future queen (a sturdy, fleet on her feet Karen Graham) was delivered as a minuet between the two women, their arms lacily acting out the anatomical vocabulary. After Falstaff’s death, Sadira A. Smith danced a lyrical solo that mourned the loss of innocence. In the courting duet, which became a trio with Setterfield as an intermediary, the dour king (a stocky Tadej Brdnik) even managed a low-level jeté or two. The costumes were rugby inspired, and Jennifer Tipton’s lush lighting design was brilliant. *

All that she wants

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DANCE Deborah Slater’s new The Desire Line is as quietly atmospheric as it is rambunctiously explosive. It is also a lot of fun as you catch glimpses — a hand holding a foot, a striped tie, a letter, teacups — of Alan Felton’s figurative paintings, reproduced in the Dance Mission Theater lobby, that inspired this fine hour-long piece. But Slater isn’t interested in imitating the portraits of these self-absorbed narcissists. She wants to dig below the canvas. This is her second go at Felton, whose silent figures look like they’d be full of stories if one just knew how to access them. Slater’s 2004 Trio (in the space between) was a trial run for the more ambitious and more thoroughly developed Desire.

The idea is as simple as it is ingenuous: break open shells of self-absorption, and watch as sparks fly as people start to rub against one another. In Desire privacy and isolation are held in balance with volcanic explosions of fury, jealousy, attraction, confusion, fear, you name it — the whole gamut of human emotions. For a while it looked like the piece turned around Kerry Mehling’s never-explained outbursts of hysteria, but then she became another member of a group, which bumped into each other and found brief connections before spinning away. The other performers, all strong, were Shannon Preto, Elizebeth Randall, Travis Rowland, Kenneth Scott, Breton Tyner-Bryan, and Shaunna Vella.

Slater forwent elaborate sets and empowered her septet of dancers to carry the piece with choreography that was as full-bodied and visceral as any of hers that I have seen. (Rita Felciano)

THE DESIRE LINE

Thurs/10–Sat/12, 8 p.m.; Sun/13, 7 p.m.; $18

Dance Mission Theater

1310 Mission, SF

(415) 273-4633

www.artofthematter.org

Taylor made

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It’s been easy getting used to having the Paul Taylor Company around. For each of the past five years, the group has presented three different programs of new and repertory works, courtesy of San Francisco Performances. Even taking into account the occasional repeat, this amounts to close to 50 pieces of choreography, an extraordinary overview of the artistic output of one of modern dance’s giants.

But San Francisco Performances can no longer afford to host the company on such a regular basis. Word has it a hoped-for increase in subscriptions — the lifeblood of every nonprofit arts organization — has not materialized. One reason may be that Taylor, who is unique in having performed with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, and had a solo choreographed for him by George Balanchine, is such a well-known entity. Audiences may feel the 76-year-old choreographer has nothing new to offer them. Yet there is such pleasure in discovering the new in the familiar and the familiar in the new.

The first of this season’s programs beautifully illustrated what Taylor choreographs so brilliantly: humorous pieces, some with bite; wistful celebrations of idealized communities; and fierce, almost apocalyptic rages. These dark pieces provide no relief — Taylor doesn’t seem to believe in catharsis.

The new Lines of Loss is among his darkest. Its distillation of grief weighs heavily. In the past few years Taylor has homed in on the communal impact of violence. Here he focused on the individual. The walking patterns for the ensemble were austere and stripped-down: ceremonial like a procession, casual like a friendly stroll, and enfolding in a hand-holding chain. Turbulent solos and duets fatally imploded this sense of order: Lisa Viola descended into ground-brushing back bends as if something horrendous were descending on her; later, Annmaria Mazzini appeared crushed by the same force. Looking up, a frantic Robert Kleinendorf acted as if he’d been hit in the chest, after which his writhing body was dragged away. An innocent shove made claw-bearing enemies of Richard Chen See and James Samson. A weighted-down Michael Trusnovec crumbled from full manhood into a doddering old man. The closest thing to comfort was a feeble kiss blown across the stage after Viola and Trusnovec vainly tried to bridge the distance between their intertwining bodies.

Taylor’s 1962 Piece Period, only recently revived, represented a young choreographer’s effort at spoofing the establishment. Fun to watch, it was very much of its time. Taylor took on not only theatrical dance’s formal conventions — both Graham’s and Balanchine’s — but also the period’s fascination with the bobbing beats of baroque music. Even though Taylor never joined the Judson Group’s embrace of the ordinary, lurking in the background of this work is a similar desire to sweep away the constraints of artifice. Viola, the company’s supreme comedian, bounced about in a minitutu, sternly watched from behind fans by mantilla-clad matrons. A bewigged Kleinendorf pranced as Papa Haydn. Julie Tice’s movements with empty pots were little digs at Taylor’s Judson colleagues. Chen See, as the court jester of this motley troupe, performed his leaps as if pressed from a stencil.

Later, of course, Taylor embraced baroque music with a passion, creating works to strains of William Boyce (Arden Court), Johann Sebastian Bach (Esplanade), and George Frideric Handel (Aureole, Airs). The 1972 Airs looked as infectiously joyous as ever. Newcomer Laura Halzack’s poignant vulnerability and the lushly luminous Parisa Khobdeh contributed their shine to this shimmering jewel. As for the Paul Taylor Company, it will return to San Francisco Performances in 2009, in a format yet to be determined. *

www.performances.org

http://www.ptdc.org

Deborah Hay Dance Company

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PREVIEW Deborah Hay may not be a household name among today’s dance fans. But take even a cursory look at the Judson Dance Theater movement of the ’60s, an influence that still courses through dance like some subterranean stream of inspiration, and her name will pop up. Again and again. One of the pioneers of pedestrian movement and a firm believer that anyone can dance, the My Body, the Buddhist author moved quickly from performance to dance as a communal activity to dance as a spiritual exploration. In Austin, Texas — where she settled in 1976 — she developed workshops for dancers and devotees who flocked there as if to nirvana. For a while she had been creating huge circle dances and dances to be performed without audiences. In the mid-’90s she started to focus on solo choreography by designing pieces that individual dancers could adapt. Moving in yet another direction, last year she created Mountain with Seattle-based dancers Gaelen Hanson, Peggy Piacenza, and Amelia Reeber. She said of the work, "A mountain has a shape, yet we know it is not fixed. It is easy to imagine it teeming with life. How is it that we look for shape in the dancing body and forget to imagine it teeming with life?" (Rita Felciano)

DEBORAH HAY DANCE COMPANY Thurs/29–Sat/31, 8 p.m., $18–$25. ODC Theater, 3157 17th St., SF. (415) 863-9834, www.odctheater.org

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Home court advantage

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A dance community is only as healthy as its humblest members, much the way a ballet company can never attain greatness without a fabulous corps. The team that runs Yerba Buena Center for the Arts knows this. According to associate performing arts curator Angela Mattox, "We want to nurture and support local artists and offer them an opportunity to perform at Yerba Buena." But when Ken Foster, the YBCA’s executive director, presented his first season in 2004, shock waves resulted. There was a new curatorial emphasis on bringing major performers to the Bay Area, and a legitimate fear arose among local dancers, particularly younger ones, that they were going to be shut out for good. (Larger local companies rent the theater; a few — including Joe Goode this year — have performed commissioned works.)

With last year’s "Under the Radar" program, the YBCA calmed the waters by presenting younger artists and their category-defying work. This year the shared performance event "Worlds Apart: Local Response" draws together work that aligns with the YBCA’s three-pronged seasonal theme: "deeply personal, worlds apart, and medium as message."

The participating artists are not beginners, but for both financial and artistic reasons they would not be able to present their own full-evening programs at the YBCA. So for them, a shot at performing in the YBCA’s Forum means a professional venue, exposure to a larger audience, and a paycheck. For the YBCA it’s a community-building, relatively low-risk gesture; also, highlighting up-and-coming local artists now may offer the venue an opportunity to say "we told you so" a few years down the line.

Performers at "Worlds Apart: Local Response" include Edmund Welles: The Bass Clarinet Quartet, surely one of the most unusual chamber music groups. It premieres 2012: A Requiem for Baktun 12 [the 13th and Final Cycle], inspired by a Mayan prophecy about the end of an evolutionary cycle in the title year. Erica Shuch Performance Project has been working on 51802, a piece in which an imaginative thinker examines the effects of incarceration on those inside and outside prison. For Clothes x Sun, performance artist Isak Immanuel of the "Floor of Sky Projects" weaves a personal narrative into installation pieces inspired by their environments. Also on the bill are Hagen and Simone, the brash, smart-aleck, and theatrically inspired Kevin Clarke and Monique Jenkinson. Their new duet, The Excused, promises to tussle with icons of common expectations. Finally, the reprise of Remote by Kraft and Purver takes a humorous, ironic, and compassionate look at how technology affects the way we relate to one another. (Rita Felciano)

WORLDS APART: LOCAL RESPONSE

Thurs/29–Sat/31, 8 p.m., $15–$20

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-ARTS

www.ybca.org

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Vettin’ the vets

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Four world premieres during the two-week run of "ODC/Dance Downtown" prove there’s something to be said for long-term creative leadership. Both artistic director Brenda Way and co–artistic director KT Nelson have been with the company since before it relocated to San Francisco 31 years ago. And yet neither of them shows any sign of artistic burnout.

In Program One, Nelson’s free-spirited Scramble, set to Bach’s (overamplified) Cello Suite no. 6 in D Major, was an easy charmer for two couples in various combinations. Anne Zivolich and Daniel Santos — ODC’s most balletically elegant dancer — opened the piece on a note of airborne high; their antics were nicely balanced by the slow movements of Elizabeth Farotte and Justin Flores. With an evocative video by Hiraki Sawa and a serviceable score by David Lang, Way’s A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes contemplated the fear that has entered the daily lives of ordinary people. Sawa’s video of domesticity, which was invaded by a mounting number of toy airplanes, created a growing sense of terror and suffocation — one that the choreography only partially reflected.

The 1999 piece Investigating Grace concluded the evening on about as inspiring a note as one would wish. Surely, this extraordinarily beautiful and musically astute setting of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is one of Way’s enduring masterpieces. (Rita Felciano)

ODC/DANCE DOWNTOWN

Through March 18, $10–$40

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater

701 Howard, SF

(415) 978-ARTS

www.ybca.org, www.odcdance.org

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Chorophobics, beware

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For the last decade four baseball players have been staring at me as I sit at my computer. They never say anything, but their presence is uncanny. I first encountered them in a downtown office building where I was working. Every time I walked into that sterile lobby, they looked at me. There was something about those burning eyes, open smiles, and striped uniforms that made these players look more like skeletons than athletes. I couldn’t ignore them, so I took them home.

A couple years ago choreographer Kim Epifano became similarly hooked on Fears of Your Life, a book about the dreads and anxieties that haunt our days and invade our nights. It was written by Michael Bernard Loggins, who — just like baseball-player painter Vernon Streeter — is an artist at Creativity Explored, a nonprofit that helps adults with developmental disabilities make, show, and sell their art.

Epifano proceeded to create a dance theater piece inspired by Loggins’s little red book. At the time, she had gone back to grad school and was full of her own anxieties. She asked the mixed-ability AXIS Dance Company to collaborate with her, figuring that "Michael has one kind of disability, and some AXIS dancers have [others]." She also realized that "many of Michael’s fears are also my fears — everyone’s fears. The overlap is astonishing." Fears of Your Life became Epifano’s MA dissertation at UC Davis in 2006; the piece "was just such a lovely way to bring my academic and my professional life together."

At the first stage rehearsal in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, site of the piece’s three performances Feb.23–25, large puppets (by sculptor Mike Stasiuk) sat at the edge of the stage waiting to join the show, as did clunky white shoes covered in writing, including a letter to Epifano.

Performers executed wheelies or spread on the floor like puddles; technicians hooked up cables for the boom box; dancer Katie Faulkner tuned her guitar; and Stephanie Bastos worked on her beatbox moves while coaching narrator C. Derrick Jones on his Portuguese. The atmosphere was one of relaxed attentiveness as the performers acclimated to the new environment. But then the fears begin to splatter in words and movements: fear of hospitals and needles, black cats, schools and dentists, spiders and monsters, cars at intersections, and strangers. And then there is "the fear of taking your own life away from yourself," demonstrated by Jones making a protective tent out of his raincoat.

The most moving sections of Loggins’s litany offer insights into what it means to be different in this society. He talks of his fear of the bus going too fast, being exposed to ridicule from strangers, and "people being just mean to him," Epifano says. "He gets pulled over by the police all the time because they think he is some kind of weirdo." Has Loggins come to any rehearsals? "He sure has, all the time," Epifano says. "He made us change one thing. He won’t let us say ‘shit,’ so now we say ‘aw shucks.’ " (Rita Felciano)

FEARS OF YOUR LIFE

Fri/23–Sat/24, 8 p.m.; Sun/25, 2 p.m.; $21–$25

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-ARTS

www.ybca.org

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Attraction is hell

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REVIEW Rarely does ODC Theater pack them in the way it did Feb. 2 for SHIFT Physical Theater’s first full-evening piece, The Shape of Poison. Manuelito Biag has been making work for close to 10 years, but the buzz has really picked up since 2003, when he presented the anguished Giving Strength to this Fragile Tongue. With Poison, developed as an artist-in-residence project at ODC, he has created a work about the inarticulate, often unacknowledged forces that shape our realities. Watching the dancers in pursuit of endless and often turned-in-on-themselves encounters felt like looking for a cause in all those ruffles, vortices, and surges that continually disturb the ocean’s surface. Poison moves leisurely but doesn’t meander; for all its churning, at its core the piece is quiet and wistful.

Philippines-born and California-raised, Biag has described Poison as influenced by the yogic kleshas — corruptions of the mind that prevent enlightenment. It’s not necessary to know that Poison‘s three sections, which can stand independent of each other, explore three kleshas: ignorance, passion, and anger. It’s quite enough to realize that for each part the choreographer developed a highly charged, intensely physical language that he shaped into fluid, at-times soaring movements, which drop hints of narrative like beads of color into a pool of oil. As he did with Tongue, he turned to Jess Rowland for an inspired score, here partially performed live on piano.

The opening trio (Amy Foley, Damara Ganley, and Tessa Nebrida) began posed like statues facing different directions, until Ganley’s tiny tremor sent out enough waves to animate Foley and Nebrida. Even though each of them developed something of a personality — Foley’s lyric groundedness was particularly lovely — more than anything the dancers created a sense of space through which they were reaching for each other, at times tentatively, at times assertively. One had the feeling they were trying to pierce clouds or curtains that hid something. But whenever a connection or moment of clarity was made, it either evaporated or was cut off randomly. There was blindness to the way their hands reached out; touches became almost accidental. In a kneeling position, two dancers held hands and then simply dropped them. A cupped open hand welcomed another, but no emotional current flowed. Almost animal-like, the dancers nosed up to each other, aware of one another’s presence but rarely reutf8g.

The central duet for Biag and the resplendently fierce Erin Mei-Ling Stuart worked with material already explored in Tongue: the unspeakable tension in a relationship in which two individuals feed off each other’s heat. Here the two people were very much equals. Each emotional punch was matched by one of similar force; the two of them were always at a standoff, trapped with no end in sight. The heartbeat in Rowland’s score at times sounded like water torture as the pair watched wearily, waiting for the next explosion to hit. Biag had a stooped way of yanking his legs up — as if dragging them out of a swamp — and then ever so gently moving them like a tiger on the prowl that was truly terrifying. Though he designed wave after wave of full-bodied confrontations, one of the most telling came through his use of arms, which present very narrow points of contact. When the dancers stood face-to-face, forcing their stretched arms against each other, you could see the hell of this mutual repulsion and attraction. This duet is Poison‘s strongest component.

At this point, Biag has not quite mastered choreographing for his multicast group. In Poison‘s third section he looked at chaos and instability from a communal perspective. While he was wonderfully adept at designing fluid and formally inventive movements, the circle and diagonal lineups that he set in opposition to individual expressions of anger — tiny Tanya Bello was particularly fierce — didn’t quite add up. However, an excellent duet for Ganley and Noel Plemmons that peeled away from the ensemble brought on a finale that teetered between hope and despair. In the context of Naomi Lazard’s existential pessimism in her poem "Ordinance on Arrival" (read on tape), about a bleak world from which "there is no vehicle out," hands repeatedly planting seeds suggest futility. Yet the stricken Plemmons, after being brutally repulsed by Ganley, reached out his hand to receive a drop of saliva from each of the other dancers. Thus nourished, he veered toward a strong Ashley Taylor, who throughout seemed to function as a calm within the storm. Was he able to push through suffering into the light? It would be nice to think so. *