The year in dance began as a bummer, but it’s ending on a note of hope. In January, Oakland Ballet closed its doors. This week they’re back — sort of — with former artistic director Ronn Guidi’s Nutcracker. What happened? Guidi wouldn’t face reality, that’s what. He never has. He didn’t program George Balanchine when everyone else was jumping on that bandwagon. He commissioned female choreographers when few others would. Throughout his career he swam against the stream, pursuing what he loved most, in particular almost-forgotten ballets from the ’20s and ’30s. Guidi’s successor, Karen Brown, valiantly tried to take the company — already in deep disarray when she started her tenure — in a new direction. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Now there is at least a glimmer of hope that Oakland Ballet will resurrect itself.
On a broader level, the year has been great for Asian dance — even if the label no longer fits (if it ever did). Remarkably diverse first-rate artists have emerged from that huge continent for some time, but this year has been a particularly rich one for them. The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble brought slightly updated, spectacularly expressive Odissi dance from eastern India. Japanese-born Eiko and Koma worked with exquisitely trained young artists from Cambodia. Sankai Juku may be based in Paris these days, but the company’s lush version of Butoh is both its own and distinctly Japanese. From Taiwan, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s physicalization of calligraphy was an extraordinary example of how dance can shape time and space. The Bayanihan Philippine National Dance Company’s lovely celebration of the richness of its country’s culture even acknowledged its colonizer, Spain. Locally, Gamelan Sekar Jaya continued its collaboration with Balinese artists in a simple new work dance intended as a response to the 2002 bombings of that island’s night clubs. If these artists have anything in common, it is that their work’s visual appeal sometimes supersedes choreographic values.
The following “12 of 2006” are not to be construed as the best but simply as events and artists for whose work I am particularly grateful. They are listed alphabetically.
1. At its local premiere, Paul Taylor’s antiwar Banquet of Vultures seemed over the top. I have since changed my mind. Taylor has made many dark pieces; I now think Banquet can stand with the best of them. The trajectory of this trip into hell, set to an unlikely Morton Feldman score, was masterfully realized. When Taylor is good, he still is tops.
2. Counter Phrases was a lush, breathtaking dance film from Belgium, presented as part of San Francisco Performances’ Dance/Screen series. Created by Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker and Thierry de Mey, it featured commissioned scores (created after the visuals) and used the medium with great skill and extraordinary imagination.
3. Doug Varone and Dancers made a rare appearance in the Bay Area, courtesy of San Francisco Performances. Varone shapes generous and humane impulses into highly athletic and musically astute choreography that brings out his dancers’ individuality. He is a much underrated artist.
4. Brazilian Paco Gomes, an experienced choreographer but a relative newcomer to the Bay Area, presented meticulously detailed, smartly timed minidramas that were fun to watch and told us something about ourselves. Gomes is also uncommonly skilled at integrating modern elements into an Afro-Brazilian dance vocabulary for evocations of Candomblé rituals. His dancers — eight women and one man — can do it all.
5. Liss Fain has been making unspectacular but carefully structured, ballet-inspired modern dance for many years. She chooses excellent but demanding music and works with good designers and fine dancers. This year she moved her season to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. That’s where she belongs.
6. Hell’s Kitchen Dance featured a group of talented, barely post-college-age dancers from New York who work out of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Art Center. Traveling with the still great dancer, they presented works by Benjamin Millepied and the promising Canadian Azure Barton. Barton’s skippy goofiness, as cleanly realized as if it had been planned on graph paper, was a major discovery.
7. Margaret Jenkins has been thinking about and making dance for many years. For A Slipping Glimpse, she and her dancers traveled to India to work with the modern dance Tanusree Shankar Dance Company. The collaboration resulted in a beautifully planned, exquisitely realized meditation — one of Jenkins’s best.
8. If I had to choose my favorite event of 2006, it would have to be “Kathak at the Crossroads,” the conference Pandit Chitresh Das organized to consider Kathak’s future in light of its past. Each of the 21 solo dancers who performed during those three days put new twists on a noble art.
9. Lyon Opera Ballet’s triple bill at Cal Performances featured neither toe shoes nor tutus. Instead it brought an inspiring triple bill by musically literate, kinetically gifted female choreographers who could not be more different from each other: Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Sasha Waltz, and Maguy Marin.
10. San Francisco Ballet: what can I say? It’s a great company. Helgi Tomasson’s wide-ranging repertoire allows dancers from around the globe to be who they are and yet work with a common purpose. Of the two local premieres, William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite challenged the massive corps like nothing has before; Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun showed what magic two self-absorbed dancers can create.
11. In an area that produces dance festivals quite regularly, the San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest has a future. To be able to watch hip-hop artists — who hail from all over these days — take what used to be a street form and reshape it into increasingly sophisticated theatrical dance is just a delight.
12. At both the WestWave Dance Festival and in her own concert, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart proved how much she has grown as a choreographer. With imagination and a flair for humor, she takes a skeptical look at the world and turns her perceptions into deftly choreographed characters and narratives.<\!s>
THE BOURNE IDENTITY
Well, Tim Burton it isn’t. Since Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands is inspired by Burton’s delightful but dark 1990 film, a comparison seems fair enough. Right off the top, Bourne’s dance musical has neither the gentleness nor the creepy underbelly of the filmed adaptation of Caroline Thompson’s gothic story. It’s coarser, more cartoonish, and fits too smoothly into the conventions of the Broadway musical.
And yet there is a lot to be said for what Bourne has done. Most important, he has made the parable his own. He tells his version of the old story clearly and with a light touch. It’s the one about the outcast who is destroyed by the civilization into which he is thrust. But it’s also a story of growth from naïveté to wisdom, a tale with a twist in the happy ending. These threads are woven into an at-times entertaining, mostly well-paced, and always splendidly performed piece of musical theater.
Edward Scissorhands (Sam Archer) is a leather-clad creature created by an inventor (Adam Galbraith) who is literally scared to death by Halloween pranksters — leaving the unfinished boy an orphan. How Edward makes his way in the world, becoming more vulnerable as he becomes more human, takes up the bulk of the story. Archer brilliantly realizes the trajectory, from stumbling through life to learning about love and pain to ultimate self-acceptance.
Lez Brotherston’s fabulous sets and costumes create a Hope Springs in which perfect tract houses and perfect families are perfectly color coded. Bourne creates amusing portraits of these homes in which the men go to work and play sports while the more or less desperate housewives keep the family machinery humming. It’s a world of sibling rivalries, raging hormones, secret lives, and unrealized aspirations. Within the stock character tradition in which he chooses to work, Bourne creates reasonable facsimiles of the kindly Peg Boggs (Etta Murfitt), the poodle-walking Charity Upton (Mikah Smillie), and the ever-pregnant Gloria Grubb (Mami Tomotani). But the scene-stealer is the local vamp, the man-eating Joyce Monroe (a splendid Michaela Meazza), who regularly cuckolds her husband (Steve Kirkham), an adoring father.
Bourne specializes in a genuinely new form of musical theater. At his best — Swan Lake, Cinderella, and Play Without Words — he creates characters and situations that resonate with theatrical truth. That’s exactly where I felt many parts of Scissorhands came up short. The big production numbers, in particular “The Boggs’s Barbecue” and “Christmas in Hope Springs,” fell flat. One sensed that Bourne, who clearly loves the energy of social dancing, has watched a lot of movie musicals. But he doesn’t give a fresh perspective on the genre. During “Christmas” I couldn’t help but think of the sparkling invention seen in the holiday party scene in Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut.
Yet there are moments when the choreography works excellently. “The Suburban Ballet,” depicting the town’s awakening and daily activities, was smartly layered and fast paced, with many clever touches. It was great fun to watch. “A Portrait of Kim,” which takes place in the bedroom of the Boggses’ teenage daughter (Kerry Biggins as the ingenue), has an intriguing premise. Deposited into this pink boudoir, a bewildered Edward admires three life-size pictures of Kim. They come alive through his yearning glances. Unfortunately, what could have been an enchanting dream ballet was shortchanged by bland und undistinguished choreography.
“Topiary Garden” was Scissorhands’ more successful dream ballet. Bourne had Edward and Kim waltzing through and with whimsically trimmed, tutu-wearing bushes. Though using fairly standard steps and patterns — I saw echoes of both Fred Astaire and George Balanchine — he deftly combined them for a first act closer resplendent with wit, charm, and emotion.
The “Farewell” pas de deux, at the end of the piece, showed just how good Bourne can be. Here the two lovers unite for the first and last time. Back-to-back, in and out of each other’s arms, they swirled and swooned and held each other. When Kim finally came to rest inside Edward’s enfolding embrace, the scissors against her chest looked like silver flowers. (Rita Felciano)
Through Dec. 10
1192 Market, SF
Goldies Dance winners Benjamin Levy and LEVYdance
Benjamin Levy entered college as a future pediatrician. He left as a dancer — not exactly what his Jewish Iranian parents had in mind. “They were not pooh-poohing it,” Levy recently recalled. “They just had no frame of reference. It was not even in their lexicon.”
After graduating from UC Berkeley, Levy danced with the Joe Goode Performance Group for two seasons. “He was such a beautiful mover. He could do anything and was a good inventor and great collaborator,” Goode says. “But it was very clear that he needed to do his own thing.” So in 2003 the newly formed LEVYdance company made its first splash as part of the second House Special, ODC Theater’s two-week residency program. The following year the company made its East Coast debut, and the dancers have been back every year since. In 2005 they were chosen for the prestigious California Regional Touring Project. Last March they performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of its “Minimalist Jukebox” festival. Last month they embarked on their first international tour — a two-week gig in Lithuania. The company has given workshops across the country and worked with college ensembles. Recently, it moved into its own large and handsome studio South of Market. And all of this with a repertory of barely a dozen pieces.
So what makes LEVYdance so hot? For one thing, the dances crawl under your skin. Levy’s pieces look a little bit like creepy film noir. Shadowy forces lurk inside the voluptuously strong dancers, but you can’t quite pin those forces down. And actually, you probably don’t really want to know why a hug turns into a chokehold or flailing limbs get so entangled that you wonder whether they’ll ever return to their owners. The intensity is fierce. The choreographer describes Violent Momentum, a 2005 commission from ODC and Meet the Composer, as “being with the rawest part of yourself. It may be an uncomfortable experience, it may be an embracing one, but ultimately, it’s an important, sobering journey.”
And yet Levy’s work is gorgeous to look at. He embeds finely detailed choreography into theatrical contexts with sophisticated lighting designs, stark but elegant costumes, and imaginative and oft-original scores. This is a man of the theater, maybe even an old-fashioned man of the theater.
Levy started to dance and choreograph in high school (“It fulfilled a PE requirement, and I didn’t want to run laps”), but his eyes were opened by his Martha Graham training. It’s as much Graham’s ethics as her movement that impressed him: “Life is too precious to mess around. If you can’t be here fully, don’t show up.” Used to seeing a lot of dance that he describes as “the ooey, gooey, never-ending releasy soup,” Levy appreciated that in Graham “a hard line could be a hard line, and it could stay there and be energized and buzz with life. That was so exciting.”
Up next is an untitled work to be premiered at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco in 2007. It will be the biggest piece Levy has done yet. “It’s about how identity is formed in first-generation Americans who are born of parents who fled oppressive governments,” he says. “The interesting thing is that it is a veiled past — a past that is vast and influential, yet your parents don’t speak about it very much.”
So are his parents reconciled to not having a pediatrician in the family? “My mom not too long ago said to me that doctors can heal bones, but artists can heal human souls,” Levy says with a smile. (Rita Felciano)
Goldies Lifetime Achievement winner Pandit Chitresh Das
After a highly disciplined childhood, spending up to six hours a day practicing on a cement floor for his very demanding but revered guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra, Kathak master Chitresh Das moved from his native Calcutta (by way of a one-year stint in Maryland) to the Bay Area.
The year was 1971. Das had been hired by the Ali Akbar College of Music to teach one of the most ancient arts of India to young countercultural Americans eager to learn Eastern practices.
It was, at the very least, something of a cultural shock — for both sides. “This was the beautiful age of the flower children, the hippie generation,” Das remembers. “They were looking toward the East for answers, but I did not fit their idealized image of an Indian guru. Having been schooled in the old-world traditions — to respect and obey my teachers and elders and to assume a secondary stance in their presence — my amused bewilderment at my students’ behavior never ceased.”
Thirty-five years later Das and his American-born dancers, many of Indian descent, have more than reached harmony. His Chhandam School of Kathak has five Bay Area branches, plus outposts in Boston, Toronto, and Calcutta. The most accomplished of his Chitresh Das Dance Company members is the Floridian Charlotte Moraga, who stumbled into Das’s class at San Francisco State University — where he taught for 17 years — because the jazz dance class she wanted was full.
Das’s most important contribution to the Bay Area may well be the way he has woven Kathak into the fabric of local dance. Once an exceedingly esoteric art form, born at the Islamic courts of the Mogul Empire in northern India, Kathak now has a home in the Bay Area’s more egalitarian environment. In the ’80s, Das’s dancers were among the first participants in the SF Ethnic Dance Festival. His company regularly presents him as a solo dancer and as a choreographer of both traditional and unconventional work.
Now in his early 60s, an age at which most Western dancers have long retired from the theater, Das remains a stunning performer and the best advocate for his art. When he is onstage, you cannot take your eyes off him, whether he’s moving through the pure dance passages that require dizzying turns and mind-boggling footwork or the more expressive sections in which the dancer calls up a favorite story from the Mahabharata, impersonating all its different characters and sometimes the landscape as well.
Das thinks nothing of transforming a performance into something akin to a lecture demo if his audience will walk away with a better understanding of Kathak’s rhythmic intricacies and the vast world of the Hindu mythology in which the art is rooted. A “kathaka,” he likes to remind theatergoers, is a storyteller.
In September, Das organized “Kathak at the Crossroads,” the largest festival of its kind ever held outside India. The San Francisco event’s subtitle, “Innovation within Tradition,” could describe Das himself. A fierce traditionalist, he is also explosively freethinking. He embraces the improvisatory interaction between dancer and musician — a connection that takes place within given parameters but is never rehearsed. The way he talks about it, the dancer strives toward a kind of oneness, maybe a divine type of play that is both meditative and intensely joyful. His guru used to tell him to “dance in such a way that the sound of your [ankle] bells and the room become one.”
As traditional as Das can be, he is also an innovator. A few years ago he created a new genre of dancing, Kathak yoga, inspired by the ascetic traditions of the Himalayas. It is primarily designed as a spiritual and physical practice. Without music the dancer mentally counts the rhythms, recites and chants the embellishments aloud, and dances the footwork.
As a storytelling choreographer, Das has been a force for change ever since he first performed the clever and amusing The Train as a student at an international East-West dance conference in India. Choreographed by his guru, the piece imitates a train — traveling, speeding up, changing tracks, breaking, passing a railroad station.
Das has created traditional dance dramas (such as Darbar ) but also less traditional ones, such as Impressions of the California Gold Rush (1990), in which a trio of 49ers perform in ankle bells and cowboy outfits.
Sadhana (2001) is a multimedia solo evening about different forms of practice — dance, life, meditation. For his 60th birthday he created the autobiographical Sampurnam (2004) for himself and his company.
But Das’s most innovative work has come with practitioners of other dance styles: The Guru (Bharata Natyam, 1991), Sole Music (tap and flamenco, 1986), Sugriya-Subali (Balinese, 2000), and East as Center (Kathakali and Balinese, 2003). His latest exploration in that direction is Jazz Suites, a collaboration with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith that grew out of a friendly competition in the hallways of the American Dance Festival in 2004. The duo have been touring the piece around the country and will take it to India this winter.
While Das has been passionate about opening American eyes to the beauty of his art form, he is equally committed to doing the same for Indian audiences. He spends part of every year in Calcutta teaching, performing, and giving workshops. In 2002 he reopened his father’s old school, which had trained Kathak dancers in Calcutta even before Indian independence. Last year Das started a training program for the children of Calcutta’s sex workers; most recently he gave a lecture demonstration for professional Indian boxers about their connection with the Hindu goddess Kali and the monkey god Hanuman.
Clearly, one lifetime simply may not be enough to contain Chitresh Das, his artistry, his humanity, his passion. (Rita Felciano)
“Trolley Dances,” as a friend pointed out, really is a misnomer, at least when applied here: San Francisco’s rail-bound transportation is either on streetcar lines or the underground BART tracks. But “Trolley Dances,” which returned this year for the third time and presented four dance companies in four different venues, gets its name from San Diego, where trolley cars do exist. In Northern California the free event is produced by Kim Epifano’s Epiphany Productions. These relaxed performances are a hit for tourists as well as locals, and they both turned out in respectable numbers — between 60 and 100 at any one station — on the morning of Oct. 20. It was quite a splendid way to spend two balmy mid-October hours in the sun.
If I may nitpick for a moment: those who expected to ride from one performance to the next were happy only if they had walking shoes on. Two of the four locations were reached on foot (at a pretty clipped pace for some of the elderly audience members), and the rest were accessible by Muni, which — surprise, surprise — kept everyone waiting a good 20 minutes. No wonder some lost patience and hoofed it elsewhere. I am not a fan of walking behind a leader hoisting a placard ahead of me, but if I hadn’t done just that, I might never have found my way into the impressively spacious Spear Tower Atrium of One Market Street, site of Yannis Adoniou’s In the Crowd.
With his own Kunst-Stoff dancers Kara Davis and Julian DeLeon in red jumpsuits and 22 dancers from the Lines Repertory Ensemble in black leotards and tops, Adoniou and his crew looked quite at home amid these elegant environs. He took his inspiration from the central aluminum-rod sculpture, arranging his dancers stelalike around it. It was good to see him work with a large ensemble, giving the dancers relatively simple but nicely varied patterns that billowed and contracted to good effect. The excellently paired Davis and DeLeon were the wanderers in this crowd: alone and together, supportive of and indifferent to each other. Carey Lambrecht set the mood — at times quite melancholic — with her solo violin.
Next stop was Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton’s Tzigane, in front of 50 California Street. Tanya Bello, Jennifer Bishop-Orsulak, Nol Simonse, and the multitalented Heidi Schweiker romped through precision dances suggested by the loony music of the Fanfare Ciocarlia, which sounded like a military band that had plopped into a circus. Set tightly to the score, the piece — with performers all in black, including berets — had a bouncy, folk dance quality. Dancers took the lead in setting patterns, splitting courting couples, playing around with hand signals, and bouncing off each other and the surrounding flower boxes. At Tzigane’s core as a reluctantly shy ballerina, Schweiker was coaxed into taking the stage, accompanied by some grandmotherly wailing on the soundtrack.
Next, Seawall: Beneath the Surface, by Facing East Dance and Music, was performed against a glorious view of the bay and anchored boats on Pier 38. With the excellent Vijay Anderson on traps, a sextet of women engaged in fairly conventional partnering and ensemble moves. Seawall’s most intriguing parts came from the juxtaposition of the quintet’s sometimes feverish activity with Rae Chung’s stillness and her ability to place martial arts–like moves with exceptionally directed focus.
Finally, the singer-dancers in Epifano’s Love in Transfer, at the Fourth Street Caltrain Station, may have looked like down-and-out travelers, but their folk music–inspired celebration of community and love “for as long as it lasts” suggested a robustly joyous celebration of community. SFBG
“The shattering of paradise” is how Kali Yuga director Ellen Sebastian Chang refers to the 2002 bombing in Bali in which 202 people from 22 nations died. A series of attacks in 2005 killed 23 more. A world indeed had crashed, not only for the Balinese people but for the music and dance lovers who have made pilgrimages to that magical isle where art is integrated into the texture of daily life.
Gamelan Sekar Jaya was particularly hard-hit. With both Balinese and American members, the El Cerrito–based music and dance group has had an ongoing, close relationship with Balinese culture. In 2000, during its last tour, the group received a Dharma Kusuma award, Indonesia’s highest artistic recognition, never before given to a foreign company. So Gamelan Sekar Jaya wanted to address the tragedy in artistic terms. Its members also realized, says company director Wayne Vitale, that “what happened in Bali is a worldwide problem.”
The result is Kali Yuga, directed by Sebastian Chang and choreographed by I Wayan Dibia, with music composed by Vitale and Made Arnawa. Two years in the making, the work will receive its world premiere Oct. 14 at Zellerbach Hall. “We want this to be a gift to the Balinese people,” Vitale explains.
Working closely with poet-journalist Goenawan Mohamad, a vocal critic of the Indonesian government, the collaborators found the seed for the 70-minute piece in the Mahabharata: during the Kali Yuga — the age of chaos and destruction — a prince, challenged by his brother, gambles away everything he owns, including his wife. From this story of male testosterone and female humiliation arises a contemporary parable about the gambling we do with Mother Earth.
At a recent rehearsal in a warehouse in West Oakland, one could sense a little of Bali’s community-minded spirit. Kids roamed freely around the periphery of the performance space. One of the dancers had a baby slung over her shoulder; another would periodically step out to gently redirect the energy of a particularly rambunctious little boy. For a sectional rehearsal, Sebastian Chang knelt on the floor, coaxing the required laughs and stories from two six-year-old girls. Minutes earlier, they had exuberantly twirled all over the place; now they focused diligently on the task at hand.
The team has conceived Kali Yuga as a conflict between two parallel universes, one visible, the other not. Even in the piece’s unfinished state, it appeared that the dancers were keeping to the parameters of Balinese drama. The villain — who in the original tale humiliates the woman by attempting to strip her naked — is wonderfully raucous; the heroine is soft and pliant.
However, even traditional forms allow for innovation, as Sebastian Chang knows from experience. A writer as well as a director, she has worked within many genres and often with young people, hip-hop artists and the poets of Youth Speaks among them. In conceiving Kali Yuga, she wondered about the people in that Balinese nightclub. They must have been young. But who were they? What kind of music did they listen to on that fateful night? What were the dance moves that those bombs cut off so fatally?
Rhythmic sophistication, she also knows, is not unique to gamelan music. Rashidi Omari-Byrd is an Oakland-based rap artist and hip-hop dancer with whom Sebastian Chang has worked in the past. He had never heard gamelan music. Nor was he was familiar with Kecak, the percussive chanting originally performed by Balinese male ensembles. But the match was perfect. In Kali Yuga, Omari-Byrd — a tall, lanky performer who towers over everyone in the show — raps Mohamad’s poetry and break-dances to the musicians’ snapping heads and chack-chacking chant. (Rita Felciano)
Sat/14, 8 p.m.
Lower Sproul (near Bancroft and Telegraph), UC Berkeley, Berk.
Dancer-choreographer David Dorfman is a poet of the ordinary. He digs below the commonplace and lets us see what’s underneath. Early in his career, with Out of Season, he paired football players with highly trained dancers. Ten years ago he invited his ensemble’s family members to join in performances of Familiar Movements. Both pieces revealed fresh ideas about dance, community, and beauty. They also showed Dorfman to be an artist of sparkling wit with a generous spirit.
In the two pieces that his David Dorfman Dance company made its Bay Area debut with last year, he worked single conceits into exuberant, athletic choreography that resonated beyond its voluptuously evocative appeal. In See Level, sprawled bodies on a studio floor suggested maps of continents, with individual countries that were self-contained yet had relationships with each other. A naked lightbulb inspired Lightbulb Theory, a meditation on death. Is it better, the piece asked in densely layered images, to die quickly or to flicker for a while?
Dorfman’s newest work, the 50-minute underground, opens the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ new Worlds Apart series, which according to executive director Ken Foster features artists who “create work that inspires us to think deeply and become responsible citizens of the global village.”
For underground, Dorfman started with history, using local filmmaker Sam Green’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Weather Underground as a jumping-off point. The film documents the activities of the Weathermen (later, Weather Underground). In the 1960s and ’70s, this radical offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society advocated violence to incite change. For Dorfman, the film and his associated research raised questions about individual and social responsibilities when faced with injustice. He also began to wonder about the effect of age on one’s perspective and decision-making process.
Speaking from his home in Connecticut, Dorfman explained that he was a Chicago teenager during the Days of Rage — four days in 1969 when stores and public buildings were attacked in protest of the Chicago Seven trial. “Now, I wanted to look at the idea of resistance against an unwarranted war from the perspective of a man with a 50-year-old body.”
Dorfman’s underground will strike a raw nerve with audiences, though he refuses to narrowly assign blame for the causes of societal unrest. He wants to unearth root causes, not apply Band-Aids. “Yes, of course I feel burned by the elections of 2000 and 2004 and the shameful behavior of our government. But this is not just about the current administration. Much damage was done before,” he said, pointing out that our conversation happened to be taking place on the anniversary of 9/11.
“I try hard to be a good global citizen, and I mourn the needless loss of life. So I want my generation and younger people to look at the nature of activism and what, if anything, justifies the use of force and violence.”
After the June premiere at the American Dance Festival, which occurred during the Israel-Lebanon conflict, a young audience member told Dorfman that he wanted to get off his backside and do something. “I don’t know what that something is,” Dorfman responded. “But we have to talk about it.”
The show stitches documentary footage, photo collages, spoken and projected text, and a commissioned score by Bessie winner Jonathan Bepler to Dorfman’s choreography for his nine dancers — plus some 20 local performers whom he auditioned this month. Though he still loves to work with people he calls “folks who don’t think they can dance,” underground’s choreography requires professionally trained artists.
Reminded of his ideal “to get the whole world dancing,” Dorfman is quick to point out that while realistically war may not always be avoided, perhaps we could learn to tolerate each other, and that dance — “nonsexual, noninvasive physical contact” — just might help.
Besides, he said, “If people are dancing, for that one brief moment they cannot kill each other.” SFBG
Thurs/21 and Sat/23, 8 p.m.;
Sun/24, 2 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater
700 Howard, SF
High tide, low tide
Moving the WestWave Dance Festival (called Summerfest/dance until two years ago and now in its 15th year) to the Project Artaud Theater was a smart idea. Even though the cavernous former warehouse dwarfs some of the smaller companies using the space, Artaud lays out an altogether funky welcome mat, squeaky stairs included.
Due to philosophical and financial considerations, WestWave has always focused on up-and-coming choreographers. That means there’s an abundance of new work — at least half of the pieces in this year’s fest are world premieres — as well as a lot more duos, rather than pieces for six and more. On opening night two works exemplified the vitality of local dance: You and You and You by EmSpace Dance’s Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and RAWdance’s Drained. The two couldn’t have been more different. Both were terrific.
In Stuart’s piece, three dancers (Damara Ganley, Noel Plemmons, and Julie Sheetz) began very far apart but oozed toward each other like streams of lava. Voluptuous without being erotic, the dancers pressed themselves together, piled on top of each other, and rearranged limbs in order to find space for themselves. This was dancing about mass and weight but also softness and yielding. At the end Plemmons encased Sheetz so tightly that you couldn’t be sure whether he was strangling or embracing her.
RAWdance’s Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith are high-stakes gamblers. In Drained, performed with Dudley Flores and Laura Sharp, they threw themselves into a game of kamikaze dancing that was as exacting as it was freewheeling. They had at their disposal a defined number of moves and gestures for two men, two women, and two boxes. So how many permutations were possible? To find out, the dancers dove in at top speed. Drained may be a one-idea piece, but watching the choreography test the body’s limits with such skill and exuberance was great fun.
The rest of the program was more of a mixed bag. Poorly projected visuals undercut Fellow Travelers Performance Group’s spare and reticent Warning Signs (by Ken James, with Cynthia Adams). Still, the juxtaposition of the live dancers with their “talking” portraits was intriguing. In the wispy In Closing, Fresh Meat Productions’ Sean Dorsey (with Courtney Moreno) looked at the inevitable winding down of a relationship in which love and tenderness survive only as memories. Delicately weaving its components, the piece was a little thin but evoked the situation’s mix of tenderness and regret.
Cathleen McCarthy’s passionately danced quintet Driven to This started with a protracted but not uninteresting solo, though the piece quickly lost its way. It almost felt like the solo belonged somewhere else. Driven needs a backbone and pruning. The evening’s low point came when Kyoungil Ong (who runs quite a good Korean dance company, Ong Dance Company) performed her Flower Tears II. This was a derivative and shallow excursion into dance theater. Centered on a huge white paper gown from which legs or arms periodically emerged, the work was so overwrought and cliché that it bordered on self-parody.
On WestWave’s second night, four of the six pieces were by beginners. Showcasing truly inexperienced artists in a festival doesn’t do anybody a favor, not least the artists themselves. However, even this decidedly subpar program yielded one discovery. Alena Odrene Cawthorne’s delicious Face It embraced weight and phrasing for a vernal celebration of maidenhood in a way that has not been seen since the very early days of modern dance. The choreographer sent her quartet of elegant, pastel-clad dancers (Kathleen Franklin, Angela Pasalis, Susan Tobiason, and herself) into José Limón’s swooping circles, serpentine trajectories, wide pliés, and stretching arms — all without a trace of irony. It was hard to believe that this companionable bliss was for real. In stepped Pamela Wood, an older woman in African dress. She couldn’t believe it either. The dancers tried to “convert” her by drawing her in. She wasn’t having any of it. In the end, they simply danced around her. Bravo!
The program also featured Apryl Renee’s buffoonish Trope of Seuss, a rather miserable take on Green Eggs and Ham. Renee acted as the narrator and Susan Donham as the reluctant object of Charlotte Mayang’s manic nuturer. The same trio, joined by Kate Joyce, returned in the obscure Traveling Companions. Heavy on atmosphere but light on movement invention, the piece rather crudely explored the push and pull of a calling, based on the Book of Ruth.
The earnestness and focus of young Catalina Jackson in danceNAGANUMA’s Pallid Faeries were enchanting. Claudine Naganuma tried to portray four different versions of the mythic creatures as both youngsters and adults — but why? She had a concept; she needed to translate it into stageworthy choreography. Even less intriguing were Rebecca Wender’s Afterward and Amy Lewis’s Conversion, neither of which belonged in a program of professional dance. SFBG
WESTWAVE DANCE FESTIVAL
July 27–30, 8 p.m.
Project Artaud Theater
450 Florida, SF
Anicca — at the Theater Artaud complex this week — is not exactly your everyday site-specific dance theater event. With the audience in tow, the piece makes its way from the Noh Space through internal hallways into Theater Artaud proper. Its 20 dancers (half professionals, half amateurs) all perform in the nude. Onstage. Outside. Foggy or not.
Eric Kupers, codirector of Dandelion Dancetheater, knows the risks of this kind of endeavor. Anicca, which means “the impermanence of all phenomena,” is but the latest work of his Undressed Project, which challenges us to look closely at what usually goes unacknowledged. Though we may no longer be shocked by naked bodies in public, for the most part this is still an uncomfortable experience for both viewer and dancer, particularly when the performers come in all sizes and shapes. Two of them have each lost a leg in a car accident.
“We have to accept the discomfort that comes with nudity,” says Kupers, who practices Buddhist mediation. “If we make room and embrace it, we can harness the energy that comes from relaxing with it.” At the very least, a project such as Anicca raises questions about vulnerability and voyeurism.
By exposing themselves the way they do, the dancers have to let go not only of the way they see themselves but also of the way they customarily present themselves to an audience. They put themselves into extreme, emotionally fragile positions. In doing so, they challenge perceptions of how identity is tied to the image we have of ourselves and of others. Still, Kupers was amused to see that while some dancers had no problem with being seen naked by hundreds of people, “they said they wouldn’t dance barefoot on cement.”
As for voyeurism, Kupers remembers that in the early days of the Undressed Project he would get audiences who were ready to ogle buffed and muscled bodies. That’s not what they got. Looking at the diverse bodies of his dancers — old, young, skinny, wrinkled, and big, as well as toned — raises questions. What does our gaze mean to us, to the dancers? Is there shame, embarrassment, titillation, curiosity, acceptance?
Anicca features a taped score and at least one live (naked) violinist. As they view the piece, audience members will be guided by members of Kupers’s Undressed Project workshop. “I think I’ll call them ‘naked rangers,’” Kupers concludes. (Rita Felciano)
Wed/12 and Fri/14, 7pm (also Fri/14, 10 p.m.);
Thurs/13 and Sat/15–Sun/16, 6 p.m. (also Sat/15, 10 p.m.)
Begins at Noh Space
2840 Mariposa, SF
Pick: Swan Lake
BALLET As a kid I got assaulted by a swan. I hadn’t let go of a piece of bread fast enough. The creature rushed at me with the wings of a dragon, a neck of steel, and a beak that hit like a hammer. So when Matthew Bourne, in his version of Swan Lake, turned Petipa’s demure elfin princesses into ferocious attack birds, I knew what he was talking about. Bare-chested male swans in feathered pants may be Bourne’s most spectacular contribution to this fabulous 1995 Swan Lake, but they are not the sole reason to see this truly original and radical rethinking of the world’s most popular ballet. By refocusing the story on the prince and that Queen Mom of his, Bourne at last came up with an answer to what has bothered many of us about the traditional tale: What’s the matter with that dork of a prince who can’t tell the black from the white swan? While the show is uproariously funny