Rita Felciano

Charting the flow



DANCE Though I missed the beginning of Aszure Barton’s gently appealing Awáa — I have trouble with 7:30pm curtains — it was easy to be drawn into her fluidly changing world, in which invisible currents propelled dancers to either give into or work against them. It’s an intimate work, rich with evocative details, fabulously danced by six men and Lara Barclay. Much appreciated were Barton’s touches of humor, but after a time I longed for a stronger underpinning for all this danced lushness.

In Awáa, water is an element that gives life to the planet — but also, in the form of the female of the species, births its inhabitants. You see primitive creatures slithering at the bottom of the sea, and a minute later a human face stares at you from inside a “womb.” Most ingeniously Barton shows water as a force that affects and shapes the body much the way wind alters vegetation.

Burke Brown’s ingenious lighting and stage design place the dancers in semidarkness, where visibility often is poor yet periodically penetrated by a beam of light. In a gorgeous sunlit solo, William Briscoe has rivulets of movement run through his impressively sculptured torso until he reaches for what could be a tear, plays with it, and gently lets it go.

Awáa also seemed to explore self-definition within an unstable environment. Some of the most intriguing dancing took place close to the floor. Something pulled dancers to the bottom where they let go of each other and appeared to melt back into the earth. Upright, they tried to find balance, were yanked sideways, or sucked into deep pliés. Their knees gave out, and they scooted on their bottoms like babies not yet able to walk. The finely boned Thomas House tried to dive upward; others buoyantly walked on the tips of their toes like would-be ballerinas in a pool.

Unisons provided a sense of stability. A body-slapping Africanist trio swelled and waned. A circle of stretching arms suggested prayer until gravity pulled the torsos backward.

In perhaps Awáa‘s most intricate segment, a separation duet, Barclay and Tobin Del Cuore crawled over each other, desperately trying to stay together. As the eternal mother she had a lot of hugging, carrying, and embracing to do. But Barton’s lightened the concept with a hilarious centipede’s procession of progressively advanced pregnancies. In a tit-for-tat comedy act Barclay asserted herself over two obstreperous “toddlers,” who scooted on their toes like windup toys. Grown up, they grabbed, threw, and dragged her to their hearts content.



At the Garage, fertile ground for much new dance, Hilary Palanza showed Close, a fascinating, well-performed collection of six multiple-choice choreographies. Included were duets, a solo, and two quartets. Before intermission, the pieces — some of them quite short but very different from each other — were performed in silence. After each one, the audience chose what kind of version of this work they would like to see again.

Watching a dance, you always wonder about what you are seeing. What’s happening? Where is this going? How do these people relate to each other? These questions become particularly acute when no helpful clues such as costumes, set, music, lighting are provided.

In this program, intermission was tallying time after which the “winners” returned. What we saw was exactly the same choreography performed to music, indirectly chosen by the audience. Music has this wonderful ability to stand on its own against (or if you like, in conjunction with) dance. The simple idea of adding sound to movement illuminated what we had seen before in sometimes quite unexpected ways.

In two duets, its partners revolving back-to-back, one of the dancers got ceremoniously stripped of layers of clothing while the other tried to put them back on. It could have been foreplay, an act of aggression, or mechanical dolls gone awry. The exuberant marching band score with its regular beat turned the whole thing into a comedy act.

In her solo, a black-clad Angela Mazziotta looked like a widow in mourning who finally had to step away. The sound score of a rainstorm didn’t counteract the dancer’s inner turmoil, but added a potent metaphor that enhanced the choreography.

Not everything worked as well. Two different kinds of athleticisms by Eric Garcia and Colin Epstein elicited a fairly predictable stadium crowd’s cheering. But what if the audience’s choice instead of “athletic” had been “religious, intense” or “outer space, heady?”

Perhaps the most illuminating was a mysterious duet between the eclectically trained Garcia and the ballet-modern dancer Nina Saraceno. She would walk away from him but yet pursue him. What was going on? Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” had one answer. Instead of “honest” we could have chosen “airy, ethereal.” Also performing were Caitlin Hafer and Barb Lankamp. Close will be part of Summer Performance Festival 7, July 16-20 at ODC Theater — perhaps looking and sounding quite differently. *


Momentum moment



DANCE For its 10th anniversary, the Black Choreographers Festival: Here & Now won’t start with its customary lineup of performances, but with a ritual so ingrained that many dancers continue it even after they have retired from the stage. Dancers are obsessed with taking classes. Classes are why they scrape money together. If you’re part of a company, classes are a part of your daily routine. If you aren’t, you’re on your own — and at around $10 or $15 a session, that can quickly add up to a serious amount of cash.

So how about 10 cents a class? At this year’s BCF, you can pay 50 cents for an all-day pass, good for up to five classes at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Forum, taught by Robert Moses, Nora Chipaumire, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and Rashad Pridgen. A showcase by the next generation of dancers — Dimensions Extensions Performance Ensemble, Destiny Arts, and the Village Dancers — is included in this bargain price.

BCF arose from the ashes of the renowned but collapsing festival known as Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century. At the festival’s final concert in 1995, financial constraints prevented it from inviting out-of-town artists, so it was an all-Bay Area show. That’s where the seed for BCF was planted. Laura Elaine Ellis, who had just started to choreograph, danced that night.

“I was so honored to be included,” she recalls. “After the performance, all of us realized that this was the first time ever that we all had shared a stage together. It felt so good.”

Kendra Barnes didn’t perform that evening — she was still a San Francisco State student — but “I had attended every concert, and I had just started my own company.” The two women realized that they, and many of their colleagues, would have to self-produce. The African and African American Performing Arts Coalition was a first, short-lived attempt.

But it was when Ellis and Barnes had one of those “what if we…” moments that BCF was born. “We wanted to create a community where we could come together and see each others’ work,” Barnes says.

From the beginning BCF turned a wide-angle lens on African American choreography. It aimed to showcase the whole range of ages and experiences, with beginning and experienced choreographers, plus youth dancers. The emphasis has always been on the “here and now” of its name, although that doesn’t mean, Ellis explains, “that folks who are rooted in traditional forms and rethink them are excluded.” The festival developed a format of showing one weekend in the East Bay (at Laney College) and in San Francisco (at Dance Mission Theater) with both established artists and what the BCF calls “Next Wave Choreographers.”

A lesser-known yet important part of the festival offers training opportunities for a handful of pre- and post-college students who are interested in theater management, tech, and other backstage responsibilities. Several of them, says Ellis, have been able to enter those fields professionally after completing the program.

For this anniversary season, BCF created its most ambitious schedule yet: four weekends of performances by an impressively diverse group of African American dance artists. A partnership with YBCA enabled the organizers to bring Zimbabwe-born Nora Chipaumire for the Bay Area premiere (Feb. 13-15 at YBCA) of Miriam, a work inspired by singer Miriam Makeba and the Virgin Mary, among others. “Nora has gone on to an international career, yet she started in the Bay Area,” Ellis points out.

On the penultimate weekend (Feb. 28-March 1 at Laney College), former Lines Ballet dancer-choreographer Gregory Dawson has created birdseye view, a sextet set to an original jazz score performed live by the Richard Howell Quintet. Zaccho Dance Theatre will present the Oakland premiere of Joanna Haigood’s haunting Dying While Black and Brown; it looks at the effect of incarceration on the human spirit. Joining the lineup will be a work in progress by Barnes (Feb. 28 only), Haitian Dancer Portsha Jefferson, and spoken-word artist Joseph.

Financial constraints prevented the programming of an accompanying film component this year, though the bitter pill was sweetened by a last-minute arrival: UPAJ, Hoku Uchiyama’s film about the partnership between Kathak artist Chitresh Das and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, will screen Feb. 28 at 6:30pm before that evening’s performance.

Looking back, Ellis figures that over the last decade they have presented almost 80 choreographers. So for this year’s special “Next Wave” program (Feb. 21-23 at Dance Mission), they sent out a call to “alumni.” It’s a homecoming for the 21 artists who accepted, and it should be heady mix, running (alphabetically) from Ramón Ramos Alayo to Jamie Wright.

For the ODC Theater finale (March 6-8), Robert Moses has curated an intriguing and somewhat mysterious evening, which includes a premiere of his own, Bliss Kohlmeyer and Dawson choreographing on his company, and Moses acting as a “host” to various choreographers. So far Raissa Simpson, Byb Chanel Bibene, and Antoine Hunter are confirmed, with more to come. *


Feb 9-March 8, 50 cents-$35

Various venues, SF and Oakl.



To the occasion



DANCE Now in its 19th season, Robert Moses’ Kin offered up a three-part program, “RISE,” this past weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. “RISE” contained two world premieres — Profligate Iniquities and The Slow Rise of a Rigid Man — and a reprise of last year’s ambitious NEVABAWARLDAPECE. It was an evening in which Moses’ 14-member ensemble showcased its individualities, and presented rich perspectives on two very different pieces of choreography. The dancers would have been even more appreciated if they could have been seen better. For some reason, David K. H. Elliott’s lighting design favored darkness; at times, it was so murky that it wasn’t easy to see who did what, where.

For Profligate, Moses chose a selection of glorious Sephardic music that evoked the cultural complexity of southern Spain before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Tiffany Snow’s brightly lit sukkah, the temporary and fragile dwelling associated with the High Holy Days, suggested a place of respite.

The duets that made up the majority of Profligate explored a wide range of relationships, yet all of them seemed to have a touch of anger and distrust to them. There was weariness in the way Katherine Wells and Brendan Barthel circled each other, with Wells bursting into limb-shaking explosions. Yet they finished by going off together into the darkness. Standing tall and self-assured, Crystaldawn Bell barely glanced at Victor Talledos, who crawled and slithered in her direction like something emerging from below the earth. They shared a couple of promising dominance encounters, but then she sent him off.

Norma Fong, fiery and fierce, and Dexandro Montalvo, the man with the loosest hips, went at each other like two different forces. When he swung her, she defiantly stared at us.

Individually, the duets were strongly delineated, beautifully showing off these fine dancers — including major solos by Carly Johnson in her second year with the company, and Jackie Goneconti in her first. But Profligate was too episodic. It dragged. It needed some thread, some trajectory to tie the individual parts together.

The evening’s second premiere was Artistic Director Moses in the modest but well-focused The Slow Rise of A Rigid Man, a solo he created for himself. The work is part of a project about family, Blood in Time, which Moses began in 2000.

Dressed in a flowing coat and wide pants, the dancer looked heavier than he is in real life. Walking calmly into the spotlight, Moses started a movement conversation with David Worm (heard on tape), a founding member of the SoVoSo singing group. His rich baritone roamed in a free-flowing but wide-ranging manner through the topic of emptiness, perhaps aging. Moses started with simple warm-up movements in place, repeatedly wishing his knee into action. As he began to spread into space, you could still see young Moses with ODC/Dance in the fluidity of his gestures. But every step, every turn has been distilled, not from memories but from a recognition of the now. At one point, he reached both arms high, perhaps to embrace Worm. Though modest in language, Slow resonated.

I had feared that without the live music and text that was such a major part of last year’s NEVABAWARLDAPECE (“never will be there a world of peace”), its reprise would lose power. In dance terms, it was made richer through the simple addition of four dancers — the unisons, for instance, whether simply sitting on the sidelines, working their way in line formations across the stage, or observing the action from the wings. However, the 45-minute work did not come more into focus.

The major issue seemed to be Carl Hancock Rux’s overwhelming text that ranges from ancient to contemporary injustices. His words thundered across the stage like some invisible doomsayer’s. Since we are more wired to absorb information aurally than visually that can’t be helped, but it put a big burden on the dance.

Often the stage looked like an arena for struggle. Jeremy Bannon-Neches gesturing and leaping as if attacked, Wells whipping through turns as if pursued, and Montalvo drawing on his hip-hop roots to tear into the fray. Even the gorgeously long-limbed Bell seemed besieged when simply standing still. In their solos, Goneconti and Johnson seemed as unstoppable as the passage of time. At one point two dancers appeared to be nailed to a wall, quite arbitrarily. And yet among these incidences, there were welcome moments of quiet, passages of waiting, and a double circle folk dance when everybody seemed to be on the same page.

The last image was of Montalvo vigorously gyrating his hips with some overhead comment about being creative, because that’s all we have. A noble thought, perhaps, but not enough to pull this ambitious project into focus. *


Vanishing point



DANCE Sitting at her large desk overlooking the intersection of Mission and 24th Street, Krissy Keefer speaks eloquently and movingly about the genesis of Hemorrhage: An Ablution of Hope and Despair, the latest work for her 10-woman Dance Brigade Company.

Keefer is a dancer-choreographer-activist who has always enthusiastically plowed into the morass of the social, environmental, and political concerns of the day. Her works are issue-oriented, theatrically savvy, and entertaining, not least because of her sense of humor. Keefer may be deadly serious about her art, but she doesn’t take herself all that seriously.

But on a recent Saturday afternoon, as her crew prepared the main theater for a rehearsal of Hemorrhage, you couldn’t help but notice a note of fatigue, even despair, in her passionate takedown of the types of disasters that drain us of our humanity with ever-increasing frequency.

Keefer admits to being a news junkie. She has her ear to the ground, not just locally; she’s in tune with Midwest farmers who can’t plant crops because of the drought, multi-millionaire Chinese who leave their fellow citizens behind, and the survivors of Fukushima and Hurricane Sandy. Where are they, she wonders, how do people survive? “If you pay attention, you live with hope and despair. You obsess with hope, but what you feel underneath is actually despair. If you are not feeling some kind of despair, you are not paying attention.”

But couldn’t the increased flood of disaster information be the result of our sensationalist 24/7 news cycle? She doesn’t think so, believing instead that violent upheavals have actually become more frequent: “What we have done to the environment, [for instance], is completely despairing.” Included in her indictment are not only the governmental, corporate, and financial forces that act out of self-interest, but also a progressive movement that she believes has not acted strongly and decisively enough.

But Keefer’s major preoccupation at the moment is what she calls the “the corporate monsters — the last robber barons,” who are destroying a culture she has helped build. She lives and works in the Mission, and raised her daughter there. In the last 12 years, Dance Mission Theater has become a community institution, offering classes for adults and children, and providing affordable rehearsal and performance space. These days, when she looks through her office window and sees all those Silicon Valley-bound buses swarming past, she wants to pull out her hair.

“I feel very protective of the culture that we have created in San Francisco. You put layer upon layer on it, from the longshoremen, the Beat poets, the Black Panthers, the hippies, the gay and lesbian solidarity movement, feminism, the immigrant communities. It’s like layers of cheesecloth that you lay down, and this is the culture that came out of it. I participated in that, I am dedicated to it, and I am devastated by its being pulled apart.” Mincing no words, she adds, “It’s one of the cultures that keeps our country from sliding into fascism.”

So Keefer is stepping into the trenches as she always has done: as an artist. Walking into the theater, you realize this is the messiest set she (with Kate Boyd) has ever created. It’s one big junk pile, taking over half the theater and filling the bleachers from top to bottom. It makes you think of the outskirts of Mumbai and Manila, where thousands of people try to eke a living from whatever they can salvage. Where did Dance Brigade get the wheel drums, broken crock pots, fans, at least one bathtub, lace curtains, suitcases, Christmas tree ornaments, and enough body parts to reassemble several automobiles?

“We went to a wrecking yard,” Keefer laughs. “They deliver.”

Thinking of herself and her dancers as having been exiled from their city, as so many people have recently been, she envisioned Hemorrhage as a work about having to live on the edges. “Women always are more vulnerable during catastrophes,” she says, “because they take care of the children.”

For the script, she drew on her own writing but also that of fellow San Franciscans Rebecca Solnit (Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism) and performer-activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, shaping it as a running monologue — a rant, a poem, a meditation, a political manifesto — that runs through the piece and ties it together.

And what do her nine women performers, most of whom have been part of Dance Brigade for close to 20 years, contribute? They sing, they shout, they play the drums, they dance; fiercely, proudly, unstoppably, full of hope, and full of despair. *


Through Feb. 8

Opens Fri/24, 8pm; Thu-Sat, 8pm (Feb 8, shows at 4 and 7pm); Sun, 6pm, $20-$25

Dance Mission Theater

3316 24th St, SF



The good foot



DANCE The fourth FRESH Festival sounds like something that might attract foodies. In fact you do need an appetite — for thinking way outside of the box. The participating dancers, musicians, designers, and writers feed on each other’s disciplines to stretch their own thinking about who they are and what they want to do. If sometimes the “how” intrigues more than the “what,” so be it. Watching new modes emerging can be such an upper.

The opening weekend (Jan. 3-4 at Kunst-Stoff Arts) presented three dancer-choreographers who took the audience into what was, for me, terra incognita. The trip was more than worth it. What impressed in Christine Bonansea’s Floaters #1, Sara Shelton Mann’s Hybrid 3, and ALTERNATIVA’s apparition was the clarity of purpose, and how — though by no means “choreographed” — these experiments were steeped in a dancer’s awareness of the body.

Bonansea structured her site-specific film noir Floaters #1 into four loosely connected sections that opened with a murky image of herself that fused with the dancer slithering down a fire escape. Thrown into pitch-black darkness, she trotted around the audience seated center stage. The dancer could have been a speed skater except that her feet hammered out percussive patterns (perhaps done in point shoes). Here Bonansea was present as sound — just like those ominous steps in the night we know from crime flicks. In the most dancerly part of the piece, she put her exceptionally lithe and pliable body into black tights, aviator glasses, and a sequined helmet to metamorphosize into scintillating, indefinable creatures — animals, plants, humans, and robots. And then she simply slipped away.

Mann, with her calm demeanor and smoky voice, sat herself center stage and read a manuscript — a script for a show she is planning — that roamed around a universe of autobiography, natural history, and feelings personal and social. All you could do was follow her along on the ride. And what a pleasure it was, to enter a mind like hers.

For apparition, ALTERNATIVA — Kathleen Hermesdorf, a brilliant performer, and longtime collaborator Albert Mathias — used video technology to play with concepts of reality. Almost like a shaman, Hermesdorf both fought and collaborated with those fragile images. Effects “sliced” her torso into layers, so that her shadow looked more reflective of her humanity than her bodily presence. With a flick of her wrist, she also turned a sewing machine, that ultimate tool of domestication, into a sputtering machine gun. If that was not turning reality inside out, and upside down, I don’t know what is.



Across the city at Z Space, scenic and lighting designer Matthew Antaky once more worked his magic with Liss Fain Dance for Fain’s new, intensely private After the Light, inspired by fragments of Virginia Woolf’s writing. Antaky surrounded a square stage space with a series of arbors through which the audience watched the dancers — who, in contrast to the elegant set, wore undershirts, pants, and suspenders (by Mary Domenico). Again we were invited to walk around with the promise of multiple perspectives. Most of us stayed stationary and become visual elements within the set’s graceful arches. The coexistence of an easy formality with casualness, however, set a welcoming tone for another of Fain’s intelligent rethinkings of literary sources.

Excerpts from The Waves (read by Marty Pistone and Val Sinckler) interwove with Dan Wool’s original score; together they generated and commented on the choreography. A few tiny narratives emerged. The heat rose momentarily to party level to the strains of Mendelssohn as the dancers (in their suspenders) remembered ballet phrases. It was a charmingly telling moment, because in the back of Fain’s mind ballet is ever present, though she rarely uses its vocabulary. Hers is a deep but not literal kinship to the tradition.

Once, all six dancers broke into a series of side hops as if engaged in a game. At another spot two people “died” and were mourned with an encircling dance by sister team Shannon Kurashige and Megan Kurashige. But these moments evaporated, leaving no traces — perhaps like memories, perhaps like passing thoughts. My sense, however, is that better familiarity on my part with the text might have yielded more insights on just how Fain used her literary sources.

Her dancers are individualists — wonderful to watch in unisons when circling the stage or hanging on to each other in a chain or a follow-the-leader section. In repeated duets the lanky Jeremiah Crank partnered a short and fierce Carson Stein, while tall Katharine Hawthorne paired with compact Alec Lytton (who promptly flipped her). One of After’s particularly intriguing traits was a plethora of unexpected stops and broken connections, with dancers waiting and watching from the sidelines much like we did. At times you felt that these people knew each other, but their encounters also seemed controlled by serendipity, as if they just happened to bump into each other. *


Through Sun/19

CounterPULSE UnderGround

80 Turk, SF

Kunst-Stoff Arts

1 Grove, SF



Joy to the stage: Smuin Ballet’s ‘The Christmas Ballet’ is a tradition worth keeping


Smuin Ballet’s The Christmas Ballet, which the late choreographer Michael Smuin premiered in 1995, has earned its spot among the myriad of Bay Area holiday entertainments. This year’s opening night at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — performances run through Dec. 28 — was packed with a casually dressed yet festive crowd of all ages, including grandparents with their elementary school age charges. (Gratefully absent were the toddlers that flood ballet performances). It was probably the most diverse and receptive audience an evening of ballet can muster these days.

And why not. The late choreographer knew how to entertain a crowd. With this take on the holidays he created a flexible show that changes a little bit every year as new material gets added and some of it is shelved for the time being. Christmas shows Smuin at his best — a broad-based love for music, an excellent sense of how to communicate through dance, and at his not so good —an unwillingness or inability to dig below the surface. Here he offered a mostly well-grown evergreen of what the holidays represent: kitsch and grandeur, sentimentality and sentiment, conviviality and loneliness, all wrapped up in tinsel-covered package.

The ballet is divided into two parts, “Classical Christmas,” with a frontispiece of Renaissance angel musicians blowing away their heavenly songs; the after-intermission introduces “Cool Christmas” with Louis Armstrong’s inimitable reciting of ‘Twas the Night before Christmas, which runs over grade school kids’ illustrations of the poem, including one which disputes the fact that “not even a mouse” was stirring.

The first part’s highlights from great and classical music works remain problematic. These are the sections in which the music has to carry the communicative weight because the choreography too often slithers over the top of the scores. Still, to see Smuin’s men soar in flying jetés and the women kick their legs to the beginning of Bach’s Magnificat suggested what could have been.

When he let himself be guided by simplicity Smuin’s choreography often beguiles. The calm walking patterns for Veni, Veni Emmanuel that evolved into a garland dance grew out of the music’s longing. New company member Eduardo Permuy did his best to convey La Virgen Lava Panãles‘ lilting poignancy, in which nature jubilates while the virgin washes diapers. Another newish dancer, Nicole Haskins, who stood out every time she was on stage, phrased the Zither Carol every so musically.

Also lovely to watch was the gently celebratory Gloucester Wassail, which echoed folk dance traditions. Robert Dekkers’ The Bells, an intricately structured and high-spirited sextet, became a welcome addition this year.

For “Cool Christmas,” the pointe shoes came off, and everybody went to town. The post-intermission segment is filled with popular music: Willie Nelson, Irving Berlin, the Chieftains, Eartha Kitt, and Elvis Presley — where Smuin was most comfortably at home. He also had a special touch with ballads. Blue Christmas, with a pelvis-rolling and grinning Jonathan Dummar plus a bevy of teeny boppers, was on the dot. So were, on a much softer note, Erin Yarbrough and Ben Needham Wood, who turned a ribbon into a cat’s cradle as they wooed each other in Pretty Paper. Twirling his drumsticks ever more expertly, Wood built Drummer Boy into something more expressive than sheer technical expertise.

Popular music has also inspired some non-Smuin additions from previous years. Robert Sund’s jazz-based trio Winter Wonderland (Erica Chipp, Haskin and Yarbrough) still looks fresh. Val Caniparoli’s Jingle Bells Mambo was performed lustily by Aidan DeYoung, Weston Krukow, and Jonathan Powell. And Amy Seiwert’s new, full-company I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm — a romp involving headgear (among other things) — is sure to join the list of perennial favorites.

Still, there are super favorites. Santa Baby, with its oversized boa, was back, but unless the company finds another dancer of Celia Fushille’s sophistication and wit — not to speak of her legs — it might have to be shelved. Shannon Hurlburt, Dummar, and Powell tap-danced through the sad-sack Droopy Little Christmas Tree, which finally hit the dust. Hurlburt also returned in his tap shoes for Bells of Dublin, which he premiered brilliantly quite a few years ago.

Some other numbers work because of how well these dancers realize slapstick. To watch Krukow wobble on that surfboard like a country hick on a Hawaiian vacation in Christmas Island is enough to make you fall in love with every failed body builder. But perhaps the most heartwarming solo in “Cool Christmas” — because you both laugh at and want to embrace her — is Terez Dean in Seiwert’s furiously stomping, yet ever so lonely, Please Come Home for Christmas. Even if you don’t like the holidays, “The Christmas Ballet” is worth seeing. And it just might change your anti-Yule attitude to boot.

XXmas: The Christmas Ballet, 2013 Edition
Tonight and Sat/21, 8pm (also Sat/21, 2pm); Sun/22, 2 and 7pm; Tue/24, 2pm; Dec 26-28, 8pm (also Dec 26, 2pm), $24-64
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Lam Research Theater
700 Howard, SF

Keep moving



YEAR IN DANCE This is not 12 Days of Christmas but 12 Months of Dancing. And while there were plenty of lords-a-leaping and ladies dancing (and even a few drummers drumming and pipers piping), there is nothing even remotely accumulative in this annual looking-back at the year that was. Chronology — and what stood out within a particular month because of the generating ideas — and their shape on the stage determined the (sometimes difficult) selection.

January Bebe Miller, a feminist post-modern choreographer, has been making work for over 25 years. So her multimedia A History (Jan. 25, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), announced as a piece about “remembering remembering,” sounded just about right. It was and it wasn’t. The concept proved more intriguing than its realization, but watching the work attempt to give shape to complex ideas offered its own satisfaction.

February Modern dance repertory company Hubbard Street Dance Chicago teaming with Alonzo King LINES Ballet in the gorgeous Azimuth (Feb. 2, Cal Performances) seemed like one of the year’s unlikelier projects. Yet to watch Hubbard’s dancers take to LINES’ skewed approach to ballet with such ease — and seeing King rise to the challenge of choreographing for a large ensemble with utter confidence — was surprising and delightful.

March With the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands (March 1, War Memorial Opera House) San Francisco Ballet acquired another treasure from possibly the most gifted ballet choreographer working today. In a series of beautifully distinct, picture-postcard scenes of refined dancing, the choreographer honored the roots of ballet in social dance. (Lands will return Feb. 18-March 1, during SFB’s upcoming season.)

April As an Indian American dancer, singer, musician, writer, and actor, Sheetal Gandhi has a lot of resources. She excellently drew on all of them for Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-Law, Daughter, Wife)(April 19, ODC Theater), her humorous and poignant portrait of the restrictions that still shape Indian women’s lives, both in this country and in India.

May The wild applause notwithstanding, it was such a relief to watch the end of Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s overwrought Rodin (May 11, Cal Performances), based on the sculptor’s relationship with his pupil and lover Camille Claudel. You try to keep an open mind about an artist’s take on ideas, but sometimes it’s time to say “enough is enough, never again.”

June Though we also got versions by Yuri Possokhov and Bill T. Jones this year, Mark Morris and the Bad Ass Jazz Trio’s Spring, Spring, Spring (June 12, Cal Performances) was the most radical as well as most cogent reinterpretation of The Rite of Spring. Forgoing the original choregraphy and using the score’s four-hand version as musical inspiration generated a work of both ease and heft.

July Serendipity ruled. I happen to catch Pierre Lacotte’s approximation of what Parisian audiences might have seen in 1832 with La Sylphide (July 9, Palais Garnier) generally considered the first Romantic ballet. Excellently — of course — performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, this version looked like a distant cousin of the one we know, and offered a feast of classical dancing set to a score with hokey charm.

August ODC/Dance’s yearly Summer Sampler (Aug. 2-3, ODC Theater) is such a smart idea. As these superb dancers adapt themselves to their more intimate “home” theater and afford an opportunity to observe them up close, they newly reveal themselves as individuals and as a group. This year’s splendidly performed program showcased ODC’s most recent creation, the splendid Triangulating Euclid, Kimi Okada’s sparkling new Two If By Sea, and the company premiere of Kate Weare’s The Light Has Not the Arms to Carry Us.

September The San Francisco Dance Film Festival (Sept. 12-15, various venues) is growing up fast. This annual showcase of screen dance — the intricate partnering of two motion-driven arts — more than ever impressed with the range and quality of its lineup: shorts, documentaries and filmed versions of stage performances. Amy Dowling and Austin Forbord’s Well Contested Sites, filmed on Alcatraz with professional performers and former prisoners, carved itself into your brain as well as into your heart.

October Somehow artists manage to scratch enough support together to keep working (and eating, and living) in the Bay Area. So anniversaries still happen. But I can’t remember a recent one as joyous as Rhythms of Life: Down the Congo Line (Oct. 5, YBCA) for Dimensions Dance Theater’s 40th. To see a whole generation ready to build on what Deborah Vaughan has started was not the least of its gifts.

November In Joe Goode’s Annex, Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions just may have found a home. The venue’s two-story ceilings and industrial look allowed Kreiter to add some discreet ladders, wires, and ropes as support structures for the aerial work she set on her six athletic women dancers. You can take the metaphor inside the piece any way you want, but Give A Woman A Lift (Nov. 8) soared.

December Like it or not, parenthood is life-changing. Maybe that’s why, in Father On (Dec. 5, ODC Theater), Scott Wells’ five dancers — four of who are recent dads — looked not only sleep-deprived but also often frantic. The one non-dad, Rajendra Serber, was the ultimate outsider. Using game structures and sports imagery, Wells created a hilarious but also curiously affectionate piece about the challenges and confusions encountered by the male and his kid. The lesson on becoming a sensitive father left me laughing through tears. *


To have and to hold



DANCE RAWdance packed enough movement material into its new Mine to tempt lesser choreographers to dilute it into a much longer work than this quintet’s 55 minutes. But that’s not who Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith are. Here joined by Kerre Demme, Aaron Perlstein, and Laura Sharp, the duo created choreography pared down to its essence where every head turn, every lurch, every stabbing leg counts. The work has nothing to with excavating minerals; it has everything to do with possession — what we have or want control over, be it property, physical space, or other people.

Pre-performance images suggested a bunch of people tied up in hanging ropes. Thankfully, none of that materialized. Instead of ropes — they did enter as one of very few props — scenic designer Sean Riley used strands of string for what looked like a three-dimensional map in which multiple roads coalesced into a single point. They reminded me a little of those air routes maps you look at in in-flight magazines when you have run of others things to do. Hanging from the Joe Goode Annex’s high ceiling, Riley’s rope sculpture was airy and light, yet thanks to the weights attached had a downward pull.

Mine turned out to be an intricately structured, excellently performed essay on some of our less noble instincts. Slowly, it began to appear that the idea of “mine” dehumanizes us instead of enriching us. The work started on a pure dance level with images gradually emerging to become more explicit, until a final one was so literal that I wasn’t sure whether it had not gone over the top.

As the audience walked in, Perlstein found a spot for himself. Ever so slowly the other dancers joined him in a pedestrian lineup that quickly scattered into similar but individual expressions. But common moves began to look less innocent as people moved into each other’s space. Did Sharp stumble over a prone Perlstein or did she kick him because he was in her way? A push-up position for two became one for four until the dancers waddled along like some multi-limbed creature. Sinewy and so tightly focused on each other that they looked like one evolving organism, Rein and Smith in a duet looked both delicate and unbreakable. Yet they also had the shifting wariness of boxers about them.

Anxiousness and indifference seeped into Mine like dripping fog. At one point the dancers pounced to the floor and recovered, opening their arms and looking upward as if expecting some relief. At another, like soldiers going to battle, they walked bent over but fiercely yanked their knees to their chests as if to protect them. Holding flashlights in the dark, the men impassively observed the women writhing in some kind of agony. Then it was their turn to watch Perlstein’s simple touch trying to calm a fiercely shaking Smith; it elicited rage. This was one of the few spots in Mine when you could sense a gesture emanating from personal motivation. Perlstein, previously, had shaped a piece of rope into a circle around Smith’s solo. I couldn’t decide whether he was trying to expand or limit a space for the dance.

When three wire baskets descended from the ceiling to encase dancers’ heads, I thought of those dreadful headgears that slaves were forced to wear. Here they turned the dancers into automatons, who on each quarter turn executed identical patterns of small steps. Joel St. Julien’s score — excellent throughout — began to sound as if coming from below water.

In Mines fiercest section, dancers hurled themselves against the theater’s wall, where they stayed as if glued until an intruder yanked or scraped them off, forcing him or herself into the space. It was brutal because it looked so impersonal; it seemed just something that was. Sort of like Lord of the Flies for grown-ups.

But perhaps my favorite moment was also one of its simplest. Sharp danced a limb-slashing solo center space. Her colleagues watched from the corner of the square. Slowly, almost ceremoniously they moved in, shrinking Sharp’s space with every step they took. You could just feel the air constricting around her.

So what about that last image? It did involve a rope; it also reminded me of a Roman chariot. *


Wed/11-Sun/15, 8pm, $21-25

Joe Goode Annex

401 Alabama, SF



From the ground up



DANCE Conceptual French choreographer Jérôme Bel thrives on conversation. Sometimes, he participates directly, as he did in Pichet Klunchun and Myself, in which he and Thai dancer Klunchun talked on stage. Performed at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2009, the piece enchanted me with its daring theatricality and enraged me with its faux naïveté. Pichet was both sturdy like a rock and evanescent like a passing thought.

Bel has made it his task to ask questions and shake up concepts around performance. It’s the lingua franca in today’s academia, but Bel is an artist. After stripping away the hoopla around art making, what are we left with? What do we as an audience expect? What is a performer, both from our and his or her perspective? Is there room for virtuosity, or is that something to hide behind? Marcel Duchamp asked similar questions in the visual art realm 100 years ago; choreographer Pina Bausch engaged with them for most of her career.

Two performances during Stanford University’s current Festival Jérôme Bel opened a perspective on the way Bel deals with his dissecting knife — with utter skill, and yet also with a smile and an easy mind. Bel may not like creating steps for his performers because he wants to see the moving body stripped down to its laconic essence. Yet he is one hell of a choreographer.

As a backbone and a trajectory for his The Show Must Go On (presented at Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium Nov. 13), Bel — actually, his assistants — chose 20 non-dancers, plus a few professionals to spice up the mix. They gave them a series of Bel-chosen popular music selections on which to develop movement material; the songs often skirted that tenuous line between sentiment and sentimental.

The dancers carried themselves anonymously, looking as they would if you were to encounter them on the street. But at the musical cue, they jumped into action with individualized physical responses. Yet the parameters were as tightly set as anything you might want to see on a ballet stage. These performers may have appeared untrained, but they had 55 hours of rehearsal to look as ordinary as they did.

Much of Show’s appeal arose from its simple, even simpleminded sense of humor of acting out song lyrics — normally, an absolute taboo in dance. For “Let the Sunshine In,” the stage lights came up; for “La Vie en Rose,” the audience was bathed in rose hues; during “Private Dancer,” the DJ jumped into the limelight. You could feel the audience gradually relax into the setup. (I fully expected some to join in on “Macarena.“) But they needed more time. When the volume of “The Sound of Silence” repeatedly dropped off, the audience’s humming filled in the gap; they had entered the performance. Toward the end, each dancer expressed a piece of individually chosen music, heard over a headset. In the back, a group belted out “We Are the World,” while downstage, French-born Muriel Maffre croaked out a hoarse “Born in the USA” and Jesselito Bie moaned “Oops … I Did It Again.” Perhaps most surprising was that for all its easy viewing and entertainment values, The Show Must Go On rode on an undercurrent of wistfulness and melancholy.

On Nov. 18, the festival moved to the beautifully appointed Bing Concert Hall. It was not a good decision. Sitting toward the front center, I had to strain to hear former Merce Cunningham dancer Cédric Andrieux’s contemplation on both the man and the dancer called Cédric Andrieux. After the performance, I spoke with other audience members and learned that they’d also had difficulty following the dancer. Cédric Andrieux is an intimate show; it belonged into a more supportive environment.

Performances exist in time, and Andrieux (with Bel?) controlled every last second of his: the way he made eye contact with us and paced his narration; the time he took to change clothes or reenact a painful modeling gig. His life, loves, and professional stories became part of him, whether he danced excerpts from Cunningham or contrasting ones by Trisha Brown. He complained about the tediousness of a Cunningham class, yet he looked gorgeous in the exercise. His regret about “not ever getting it right” — which eventually he admitted to having figured out — was contradicted by what he showed. Awkwardness and difficulties are as part of art as they are of life. I think most artists know that; Andrieux showed it. *


Mon/2, 7:30pm, $10-20

Bing Concert Hall

Stanford University, Palo Alto



Tue/3, 11am, free

Pigott Theatre, Memorial Hall

Stanford University, Palo Alto



Pop shop



DANCE For an event with a reputation for wall-shaking energy, the first program of the 15th Annual San Francisco International Hip Hop DanceFest turned out to be an oddly muted experience. The mix of acts — which in the past has always opened new perspectives on an art that has moved from the street onto the stage (and even reality TV) — simply wasn’t potent enough. Also, with only one company from abroad, the evening just barely warranted its claim of being “international.”

But even though the program disappointed as a totality, it did include individual acts of quality. In an aesthetic that so often emphasizes virtuosic use of the torso and the legs, Struggle for Pleasure — from a sextet of dancers of the London-based Far From the Norm Company — captivated because of its gentle and controlled employment of the arms. They snaked, embraced, and coiled into tendrils, perhaps embodying the human spirit, maybe with a sense of longing. Performed to violins, the choreography, much of it presented as a group endeavor, dipped the dancers into a hypnotic state in which they froze or tried to break open. One of them readied himself for a sprint that never happened. Another exploded into a whirlwind. Struggle felt subdued, dreamlike, and yet true.

In their first appearance at this festival, New York’s Bones the Machine and DJ Aaron sent gasps through the audience with the decidedly uncommon Bonebreakkings. It was a truly astounding contortionist act in which they pretzled their arms into joint-crunching positions — accompanied by appropriate sound effects. Even though the act has been widely circulated thanks to America’s Got Talent, to see these two dancers live was a pleasure, though a somewhat chilly one.

Another excellent first-timer was the Embodiment Project, one of the Bay Area’s most fascinating hip-hop troupes, in part because of the way it collaborates with MoonCandy LiveHouse’s fine musicians who, once again, performed on stage. In the sinister Dare To Love, choreographer Nicole Klaymoon and Michelle “Mystique” Lukmani slithered in and out of d. Sabella Grimes’ slippery embrace, paying what looked like a heavy price. Grimes, a former member of Rennie Harris Puremovement, and an extraordinarily sinewy and seductive popper, finally snared himself vocalist Shamont Hussey. This was hot theater, over so fast you hardly knew what hit you.

Also fun to watch was the return of four members from FootworKINGz. These speed demons developed a virtuosic style of footwork, based on one that originated in Chicago as a response to house and juke music. In addition to delivering razor-sharp attacks at dizzying tempos, the quartet performed with wit and charm.

It is understandable that the fest wants to honor the Bay Area’s diverse hip-hop community, which offers training in dozens of local studios and schools. These are also places where many youngsters find a welcoming environment to develop skills and in which to express themselves, so there has always been place for them at the annual Hip Hop Fest. But this year’s selection short-changed the audience. Whatever the curating process, it needs to be improved. Openers Funk Beyond Control is one of the largest and most well-established Bay Area schools, but the group did not look as good as they had at previous festivals. The choreography looked tired and lacked care.

The premise for After Hours was intriguing enough. It took a popular dance trope — the doll that acquires life — and translated it into mannequins that take over a department store once it closes its doors. After opened with a sextet of women fighting over some hats on sale before being kicked out. Then the black-clad ensemble descended from its pedestal for elastic group dancing, some modestly intriguing solos, including the compulsory tot — here cast as the janitor. But the whole thing felt dutiful and uninspired. Also, not waiting for the traditional community bow at the end of the evening was disrespectful to fellow artists and the festival’s producer, Micaya.

Another first appearance, by the Great House of Dance, showcased a huge company from Sacramento. It was big but not great. Its group sequences seemed strung together willy-nilly, and went on for much too long. There was nothing that held this presentation together besides the good will by the performers — some who had real talent.

Illstyle & Peace Productions Ain’t No Party Like a Illstyle Party, sent individual performers into competent, sometimes athletically-impressive solos, but this was a thrown-together, clumsy, applause-milking endeavor, unworthy of a group that has done much better work. Why?

Also part of the festival were San Francisco’s well known and solidly performing SoulForce Dance Company, and Oakland’s spunky, in your face, all-women Mix’d Ingrdnts. *

Move freely



Was Kunst-Stoff’s 15th anniversary concert this past weekend its last show in town? Perhaps, perhaps not. Yannis Adoniou, who founded the company with Tomi Paasonen, chooses his words carefully a couple of days before the shows. He acknowledges talking with local presenters about maybe “having an annual season here” and about “stabilizing our presence here.”

But for the time being, Kunst-Stoff is gone. The questions are “why?” and “why now?” In some ways, Adoniou has become a victim of his own success. He, together with La Alternativa and the Off Center, has run a successful studio space — the envy of many a struggling company — which has become what he calls a “sanctuary.” Besides classes and workshops the place has offered performance opportunities, not just for local artists but also for dancers from abroad like Anthony Rizzi and Constantine Baecher. “These conversations have been fantastic,” Adoniou says. “I could stay here as institutionalized Kunst-Stoff, but that’s what not what I am supposed to be doing. I have not done a major work in a theater for a long time because I have wanted to be available [to the artists working here].”

Adoniou, a ballet dancer originally from Greece, came to the Bay Area in 1993 after having seen Alonzo King set Without Wax on the Frankfurt Ballet. What impressed him was the equality between the sexes in King’s work. “I wanted to dance,” he remembers, and he knew that most ballet repertoire (at the time) reduced the male dancer to support the ballerina. He also liked that the Bay Area “does not have institutionalized names and technique as there are in New York and Europe.” So this was a good place for him as a young artist — but like many others, he finds it “very, very hard” to get support once you have developed beyond a certain level. So back to Europe it is, where he feels he can take his own work where it needs to go.

The easy riding 98-13, the second of the three pieces which formed the 15th anniversary retrospective, offered a good overview of Adoniou’s perspective on dance. He has long passed the restrictions of his ballet training not be rejecting but by transcending it. Some of 98-13’s individual moments did ring a bell — Repetika, Less Sylphides, the moment you stood — but for the most part they toppled over each other as if spilled from a bag of toys. This was an affectionate, lighthearted look at the past.

The fun was in seeing the dancers take shape. Leyya Tawil resembled a huge bird on the tip of her toes. Daiane Lopes da Silva is a fierce mover but also a comedian. Katie Gaydos told us that giving birth is no more difficult than doing a rond de jambe en l’aire. I’ll take her word for it. Parker Murphy, as the only male, of course got to lift some obstreperous females. In the end, Adoniou, in a business suit, offered an intricate, determined walking combination that included a lovely arabesque. Maybe he was taking measure of what has passed, or perhaps of what lies ahead.

If 98-13 was full of surprises, the trajectory for the opening Solo for Yannis could be foreseen. Strongly danced by Lopes da Silva with the assistance of Widon Yang, Ivo Serra, and Tomi Paasonen, the piece posed questions about navigating unstable ground if you have no point of reference. Blinded by a hooded garment, she rolled, stretched, and recoiled on a rug that kept being yanked away, her fingers becoming antennas, her head sniffing the air. Precarious for the men and the dancer, Solo derived its interest from the tiny shifts of give and take, limitations set and rejected. The moral of this story? Keep going even if you end up being naked, vulnerable, and alone.

Paasonen’s ironically named Those Golden Years may have been inspired by a dream about his mother but it also threw a mirror at Adoniou. The work opened with composer Yuko Matsyama, a flower garden in motion, carefully tracing a path along the edge of a mound of what turned out to be crumpled sheets of gold and silver Mylar. Her rhythmically intriguing score, which included a narration by Paasonen, set the tone for what became a seductive, but also touching visual feast.

Predictably, Adoniou emerged from this heap of plastic — one limb at a time. Yet Golden’s airy, glittering artifice contrasted seductively with the solidity and warmth of the human body. The dancer smashed, admired, hugged, and hid in it. He donned it as a fairy prince’s garment but also as a garbage bag. Eventually he too was left naked — even deprived of his manhood. *


Living legend



DANCE When ODC opened its new theater in 2010, Brenda Way’s Architecture of Light celebrated the building’s bones and its potential for dance. This past weekend, the Los Angeles-based Rosanna Gamson/World Wide took over the whole complex for Layla Means Night, a feast of non-linear storytelling through dance, narrative, music, design, food, and drink. For this incarnation, the company brought richly detailed sets and costumes, excellent dancer-actors, and a first-rate trio of Persian musicians. They also made fine use of ODC Dance Jam’s teen dancers, whose poise and competence should be the envy of many a professional.

That said, not everything worked: A physical spelling of the difference between Arabic and Roman script fell flat. A solo for a caged bride in a white shift felt like filler. The celebratory finale looked thrown together. And the piece was slow getting off the ground.

Layla is a 70-minute work about power, specifically feminine power, inspired by Scheherazade, the heroine of 1,001 Nights, the collection of Middle Eastern and Indian folk tales, with which the heroine kept herself alive one more night because the king wanted to hear one more story. While she saves herself and other potential brides, the work does not address her transformative power to turn the king into a loving human being. (That was left to Alonzo King’s 2009 Scheherazade.) Gamson structured Layla into a number of distinct episodes whose sequences you watched according to your assigned group: men, women, or mixed. Just like a tourist, you followed a guide, traipsing up and down the theater’s three floors. While waiting to be admitted to the next attraction, you could catch aural cues of what other people were seeing. It certainly raised your curiosity, something this Scheherazade has also learned.

Layla‘s episodes formed a marvelously rich tapestry, the details of which constantly elicited admiration. Even though the jumbling of sequences felt distracting, they ultimately coalesced into a loosely structured but convincing theatrical experience. You can’t ask for much more.

Initially, young women offered to wash your hands, or offered a mimosa. Dominating this congeniality was an implacable Carin Noland, whose cleaver came down (on oranges) with the inevitability of a clock. Later, when you heard a rooster crow? Down came that ax. Gamson’s six women dancers, in blood red shifts, wove through the evening in almost Grahamesque modern dance, softened by a liquid use of the torso and the eloquent hands. You saw them as shadows, peering through drapes or striding and howling.

Balancing these particular images of female power was ODC’s teen Dance Jam. Lined up in a countdown of brides, they stepped into individual solos until they hit the floor and a communal handclap substituted for the ax falling. In the finale, they looked fresh and yet so professional in folkloric-inspired couple and circle dances. In another section, an overlapping trio of similar gestures in what looked like a cage looked less convincing.

In her confrontation with the King (a fierce C. Derrick Jones III), Gabrielle Rhodeen’s Scheherazade posed straightforward questions about sex that were both alluring and cleverly manipulative. Her white costume looked like a mixture of wedding dress and boudoir gown. If Layla had a single dramatic highpoint, it would have been the explosive cat-and-mouse game between these two dueling characters.

Layla is a piece that asks the audience to make decisions. Did you really want to accept a slice of orange when you knew where it came from? Two of the gorgeous sets — one a tent-like red hexagonal, the other a fragile, white paper cylinder — had slits in them. You had to step up and look in. Did this make you a voyeur? For me it did. I think this was Gamson’s way of making the audience not only participate in but also become complicit in the action.

Perhaps Layla’s most uncomfortable section involved our all-women’s group walking into the theater proper. The men were seated and blindfolded while the teen dancers whispered into their ears. It was creepy. Again, did we become participants in whatever was going on by watching this?

The ongoing offering of food and drink — appealing to the sense of taste, something not usually satisfied in the theater — was another way in which Gamson tried to pull the audience into her work. It raised, of course, the question on just how willing an audience member was to step out of his or her observer role.

A gorgeously laid out banquet table was used very little. It’s where Gamson asked for an account of a life-changing moment after having recounted a seminal one in her own life. She wanted us to share. Only one did (in writing). Nor did anybody follow the invitation to enter the final celebratory dance. Maybe there’s a reason why we have performers and observers: They need each other, but don’t necessarily want to change roles. *


Lit up



DANCE This past weekend, two dance companies showed premieres inspired by fiction writers. Alonzo King’s imagination was stirred by Irish author Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin) for Writing Ground, commissioned in 2010 by the Monte Carlo Ballet. For Jenny McAllister, it was mystery novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler, whom she has read and loved since she was a little girl.

In the work’s San Francisco premiere, King’s LINES Ballet dancers dived into Writing’s complexities with their accustomed passion and competence. It was gratifying to see new company member Robb Beresford, and apprentices Babatunji Johnson and Jeffrey Van Sciver, already comfortable with the stylistic demands of King’s intricate choreography.

Fierce presence is what King asks of his dancers. For Writing, he placed them into an environment of spiritual music from around the globe, which has moved beyond its historical sources into a quasi-mythic arena. Rarely has a King work — divided into small scenes, as is his habit — conveyed such a fluid sense of unity.

Of course, Writing was full of struggles, disrupted connections, broken lines, and extensions that curled in on themselves. Van Sciver, in a long brown skirt, periodically whipped across the stage like some preternatural force, perhaps generating, or perhaps destructive to, the duet between Kara Wilkes and Beresford. A trio for women in pointe shoes — which suggest defiance of gravity — had them groveling in a crouch. Yet Yujin Kim serenely stretched, apparently indifferent to the violent physical struggle between Meredith Webster and David Harvey. For all their volatility, Kim and similarly tall partner Courtney Henry created visual anchors on the stage.

Writing moved toward its climactic final scene with a clear trajectory, perhaps starting with Harvey and Johnson’s contentious duet that ended with them walking upstage like brothers. They were followed by Kim’s solo to the spiritual “Over my Head.” For the finale, a door opened upstage, and an anguished Wilkes squeezed in, manipulated and supported by four men. She struggled, collapsed, and resurged again and again. Perhaps something was trying to be born out of incredible pain. And yet what compassion these men brought to whatever needed to be done.

LINES also presented the world premiere of King’s Concerto for Two Violins in D-minor, set to Bach’s much-acclaimed score. It just might be this eminent dance maker’s most musically astute choreography to Western classical music. The work opened with Johnson stretching his limbs as if trying to expand space beyond the horizon. The choreography emphasized variations within symmetry, such as the trios that chased each other or peeling stacks of double lines. Webster, Wilkes, Harvey, and Michael Montgomery danced the middle section as a double duet in a beautiful synthesis of edginess and lyricism.

McAllister’s nicely timed and entertaining Being Raymond Chandler, a one-hour dance theater piece for her 13th Floor Dance Theater, looks at the mystery icon (David Silpa) struggling with writer’s block, ambition, a messy almost-marriage, and a love for the bottle. But he was also portrayed as a serious writer, separate from the hack image that sticks to him.

The choreography, mostly social dances from the 1940s, was not particularly original, but these sequences set up a relaxed counterpoint to the staccato dialogs that keep racing from one fictional disaster to the next. There were moments when Being dragged — perhaps drowning in language — but it picked up speed and closed with a flourish.

Ever heard of a novel’s characters coming to life? In this piece, Chandler’s did, fighting with the muddle-headed writer for a different identity and desperately trying to stay in the story (hopefully, in a major part). Yet they also pitched in, with disastrous results, rewriting what was clearly a mess. The whole thing might as well be a backstage look at a soap opera.

Patric Cashman wanted to die — again and again; Erin Mei-Ling Stuart was hilarious as both Chandler’s almost-wife and the seductress who, she insists, needs to be a brunette. The versatile Blane Ashby had so many roles — a noisy neighbor, a crook, a former husband — that I couldn’t keep them apart. The weakest character in this entertainment was Eric Garcia’s sleepy Philip Marlowe, who only came to life halfway through.

Good comedy has an ability to draw you in even as you stay at arm’s length. McAllister at her best — and she is good here — has that gift of playing with perspectives and focus, while keeping the audience off balance McAllister has also learned from Chandler: Out of all those misfiring plot twists, she pulled together a lickety-split mystery that took off like a rocket. *



Wed/30-Thu/31, 7:30pm; Fri/1-Sat/2, 8pm; Sun/3, 5pm, $30-$65

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

700 Howard, SF



Sat/2-Sun/3, 8pm, $18-$23

ODC Dance Commons

351 Shotwell, SF


Spinning a precise web



DANCE Israeli-born choreographer Idan Sharabi pays meticulous attention to detail, but serendipity still has a place in his creative process. His Spider on a Mirror receives its world premiere as part of Zhukov Dance Theatre’s sixth season at the SFJAZZ Center this weekend. The work will be paired with Enlight, the latest piece by company artistic director Yuri Zhukov.

Take the way Sharabi chooses his music. For the last couple of years, romantic music — think Chopin — has “often been in the back of my mind when starting a new work,” he explains in a post-rehearsal conversation at the Zhukov studio space on Folsom Street. That’s how late 19th-century Russian maverick Alexander Scriabin popped up for Spider. But then Sharabi went clubbing and happened to encounter Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” The pop hit had good beat, melodies, and it was fun. “Besides,” he says, “it was all over the place.” So that’s how a Russian wild man met MTV.

Serendipity of a less entertaining kind also kicked in when Sharabi came to work with Zhukov’s dancers. On his first trip to San Francisco, he stayed in Pacific Heights. On his return, living south of Market Street, he got a much grittier vision of the streets of SF. Sharabi drew on this eye-opening experience for Spider. “I am not talking about the difference between rich and poor, but about not having a roof over your head, where people’s skins acquire the gray color of the streets,” he explains.

Trained at Juilliard, where he won the Zaraspe Prize for Best Juilliard Choreographer of 2006, Sharabi has spent his working life in Europe as a freelance choreographer, and as a dancer and choreographer for Nederlands Dans Theater and Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company.

Working on refining Spider — he put the bones together during a four-week residency in June — Sharabi is solicitous of, and aware of, the dancers’ individuality. Yet the process is very detail-oriented. Flailing on the floor, Doug Baum at first looks like a bug fallen on its back. But then trembles and shakes seem to throw him into death throes, tearing his body apart. Sharabi encourages a differently angled knee and fingers that extend into a line. Nick Korkos works on a dropping-wrist gesture that, as the choreographer demonstrates, releases energy to travel up the arm and down the side of the body to pull the dancer to the ground. A limb-entangling duet for Christopher Bordenave and Jeremy Neches finally breaks apart — except, as Sharabi insists, they stay glued together through their big toes.

The exactitude with which Sharabi puts Spider together seems to infuse a sinewy strength into fractured choreography that can look convulsive — sometimes to the point where one becomes conscious of how tenuously these wildly shaking body parts are connected to the skeletal structure.

At the end of the afternoon, the dancers are thoroughly spent. Yet they clearly have what Sharabi always looks for: passion and curiosity. Those are the qualities, he says, that allow superbly trained dancers to go beyond their training and step into unknown territory.

In his own life, Sharabi has encountered and worked with three choreographers who have inspired him to pursue his own path with passion and curiosity. In Jirí Kylián, Czech-born founder of Nederlands Dans Theater, he saw what he calls a “tragic vision.”

“Kylián’s choreography is often quite dark, dealing with death,” he says. “And yet it’s always so elegant. He can take garbage or cans being squashed on the floor, and make them look elegant.” Smiling broadly, he adds, “I am actually a dark person myself,” something he attributes to having suffered a serious injury, and one that may have affected his own perspective on the dancing body. One of the distinguishing marks of his choreography is the extensive and imaginative use of the floor. He views it as more than just something to hit and bounce off; instead, it offers a way to embrace what contact with the earth can offer.

The work of Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, remains an intriguing puzzle. With just a touch of embarrassment, Sharabi admits “I still don’t know whether I am supposed to try to understand his work or just go with the sensations.” But about the American-born but Europe-based William Forsythe, who has been rethinking ballet’s fundamental principle, Sharabi is clear: “It’s the math. I love his mind, the clarity of his complex and never compromising thinking.”

What about artists outside dance? Without hesitation Sharabi answers “Quentin Tarantino.” While he is comfortable with Tarantino’s sense of time and even his films’ violence, Sharabi reveres the details (always the details), the sheen, the completeness of the design, the wholeness of the vision, and the absolute control Tarantino exerts over his product. “It’s not the amount of blood that counts,” he says. “It’s the way the blood flows.” *


Oct 29-30, 8pm, $25-$55

SFJazz Center

201 Franklin, SF


Legacy of rhythm



DANCE Has there ever been a celebration at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts quite as exuberant, layered, and embracing of a people, a period, and a place as Dimensions Dance Theater’s 40th anniversary show? Not as far as I know. Despite a timing hitch at the end, probably due to the exigencies of costume changes, Dimensions offered a one of a kind evening of glorious dancing. It was a long program — but then, why can’t some events keep going so that they spill deep into the night and the dreams beyond?

The three-hour show opened on a ceremonial note with thank-yous — not to deep-pocketed donors, but to the ancestors both dead and those present who have made Dimensions possible. Poet Marvin White was the griot who poured libations and repeatedly returned to reset the company’s focus on a trajectory of kindness, strength, and love, ending with a promise of a state of being in which earthly limitations will have fallen by the wayside.

Artistic director and Dimensions founder Deborah Vaughan’s vision for the program was both intimate and grand. In the first section, the dancers revisited excerpts of works in the company’s repertoire. If there is one theme that travels through Dimensions’ history, it’s dancing that embodies strength, courage, and joy. In the excerpts of Fly and Catalyst: One by One, the very diverse bodies of Dimensions’ women took to the air with silken buoyancy. Breaking out of unisons, their individuality was still carried by a common impetus. Even the trio of youngsters from the Dimensions youth program danced with that kind of personalized discipline. Young Micaiah Bell’s initial solo just about burned itself into my mind.

In the excerpt from Project Panther, Dimensions’ trio of male dancers (Erik Lee, Justin Sharlman, and Noah James III) proved themselves fierce warriors and fierce dancers in the way they dived over each other and hurled themselves through space. Lee’s exquisitely nuanced solo from Garth Fagan’s Yesterday/Yesternow made you want to see the whole work again — as was, actually, the case with many of the glances in this retrospective, which closed with spitfire ensemble takes on South African boot and can dances.

For the world premiere of Rhythms of Life: Down the Congo Line, Vaughan invited choreographers from the Republic of Congo, Cuba, and Brazil to set works drawn from their traditions on her remarkable dancers. The piece opened with the evening’s pied pipers, MJ’s Brass Boppers, who had led the initial procession into the theater. Latanya d. Tigner choreographed a witty, yet not ironic The Last Dance/St. Ann and Rampart, inspired by New Orleans funeral traditions. With the dancers in brilliant white, they shook their hands, bowed their torsos, and stepped in and out of line, making sure that they were noticed. They were mourning but also celebrating because they were not about to be overcome.

In Palo, the Cuban section, backed by strong singer Sulkary Valverde, dancers used poles as a practice of self-defense but also to demonstrate precision ensemble work. Lovely to see how Sharlman moved through the group and slowly replaced the “weapons” with hooked drumming sticks.

From Brazil, choreographer Isaura Oliveira showcased the Dimensions men in low-to-the-ground feats, that constant shift of weight and direction that we recognize from capoeira. Despite their being filled with an inherent sense of danger, these dances also mesmerize. Danilo Portugal deserved all the applause he got for his chanting and haunting birimbau playing.

I wish the lovely, sexy, and sassy couple dances — inherited from a colonial past though they were — could have been extended before leading into a skirt-swirling, intoxicating carnival. The section ended with a celebration of the end of colonialism with a lilting King (Sharlman) and Queen (Laura Elaine Ellis), and Tigner as an Elder who deposited a totemic doll on the altar.

The after-intermission Vulkana squarely threw the spotlight on the drum, without which African dance — whether in the Congo or in the Diaspora — would not exist. To have these different traditions come together proved both exhilarating and a little messy. Yet it was one of the evening’s highlights to have Kiazi Malonga in a friendly competition with tiny Congolese firecracker Hervé Makaya and his cohort Teber Milandou. They set not only the makuta drums but also costume parts flying.

Vukana also paid tribute to these brave Dimensions performers who, whether chanting in a sitting circle or swiveling their hips so that the energy rose up through the torso and sailed through the arms, looked at home. Whatever the specifics of the wide-ranging demands made on them, Dimensions looked as if born into them. *


Quiet powerful



DANCE Considering its name — Hush — it should have come as no surprise that Joe Goode’s latest look at the ultimate loneliness that infects us all, whether imposed or self-inflicted, is a very quiet piece. Being hushed is something we learn as babies, at the family table, in school, and at the movies. But more seriously, it becomes an essential tool for survival for those who may be perceived as “different.”

At barely an hour, Hush is another variation on a theme that has threaded itself through Goode’s works since the beginning. Unfortunately, unless you are a romantic or naïve, being on the outside happens to be a quintessential human condition. Goode approaches it from the particular perspective of a gay man. It’s his genius that he manages to frequently mine that driving concern for new and convincing theatrical expressions — a quality that distinguishes art from advocacy.

Hush feels like chamber music. It’s condensed, tight, and weaves a spell like a spider’s web. The tone is subdued, and there’s a film noir quality to Erik Flatmo’s set, with its half-empty bar. You can practically smell stale beer. Foley artist Sudhu Tewari’s brilliant sound effects suffuse this environment with a hyper-real vibe — somewhere between a comic strip and the proverbial nails on a chalkboard board.

While Goode doesn’t perform himself, you can hear him in the language for his characters, which is drawn from interviews with him (a practice he already used in last year’s When We Fall Apart). His own voice comes through most explicitly in Hush’s songs, some of whose lyrics were printed in the program. I do wish we had been given access to all of them.

But Hush can also feel like a musical in which dance stays subsidiary to other theatrical aspects. At its strongest, it takes over in ways that words cannot.

The piece focuses on two characters, portrayed by Melecio Estrella as a “sissy boy,” and Damara Vita Ganley, as a woman whose “body got touched on places I didn’t want to.” Neither of these creations accept victimhood. They refuse to be hushed. Both performers are accomplished actor-dancers who were a joy to watch every second they were on stage, and they happen to also be the company’s best singers. At first Estrella is hardly able to get a sound out in the bar’s open mic, but he learns quickly. Finally, he stands up to his bullying tormentors and spits out a lengthy scholarly disquisition on sexuality and asexuality that sounded like it was straight out of an academic paper. I have no idea whether this was science or imagination, but Estrella was magnificent in a feat of rhetoric that could not be ignored and ultimately empowered him.

Putting a rape scene on stage is probably the most daring thing Goode has done. I dreaded the prospect. On her way home — the road she follows looks like something out of The Wizard of Oz — Ganley drops her purse, stops to pick up a flower (a sentimental touch), and is attacked by three hooded individuals. In the choreography, performed in silence if I remember correctly, she gets lifted, pulled, yanked, and stretched for a considerable amount of time. In the end she picks up her purse and walks home, her heels clacking in the night. Later on, the laconic give-and-takes between her and Andrew Ward, who tries to help, beautifully suggests a relationship based on mutual respect.

Elsewhere, a gorgeous duet between Estrella and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello called up an increasingly passionate love affair. It started out with almost accidental touches and withdrawals — Barrueto-Cabello is a master of reticence — but gradually built into a tempestuous encounter when, the men having stripped off their undershirts, you couldn’t quite tell any more who was who.

If I have one regret about Hush is that the stories of the other characters were not more developed: Jessica Swanson as the driven career woman, Ward’s sympathetic bartender-listener, Alexander Zendzian’s vegetable lover, and Barrueto-Cabello’s moonstruck lover. The scene between the careerist Swanson and the pickle-making Zendzian — thank you, sound designer Tewari — sparkled with humor, but it just was too cartoonish to become emotionally resonant.

Hush ends with a rousing, operatic finale, a song-and-dance number in which the cast proclaimed its determination to be silenced no longer. No question that’s a welcome thought — but given the complexities of the issues involved, it also felt a little too much like Broadway. *


Thu/3-Fri/4, 8pm; Sat/5, 7 and 9pm, $15-$70

Z Space

450 Florida, SF



Bright future



DANCE It’s still early in the new season, yet two programs this past weekend offered worthwhile perspectives on new dance. “New” in this case doesn’t necessarily indicate right out of the oven, but the pieces were novel to these eyes, and more importantly, they looked fresh and left behind a pleasant aftertaste.

Every year Dance Mission Theater schedules two first-come, first-serve choreographer showcases, one in the fall, the other in the spring. Rarely have these evenings been a complete washout. Sure, you get the occasional novice who yet has to find a way to navigate the space (this time, that spot belonged to Erica Pinigis’ A Small and Rapid Sorrow). In the only other single-dancer piece, Todd Eckert’s hermetic Sole Soul felt like it was channeling someone being imprisoned without any possibility of escape.

The evening started on a ghostly note and ended with a paean to percussive feet. Megan Finlay’s Blood will have Blood looked suspiciously as if it were inspired by Macbeth, in the way that the man of the house was repeatedly attacked by something that nobody else could see. The piece, though a little thin, had a good sense for building suspense, starting on a comedic note but quickly becoming sinister.

Una Fusion de Percusiones’ snappy and friendly competition between Vanessa Sanchez and Arturo Flores delighted with its sense of freedom and discipline. While Flores mainly stuck to Mexican-flavored heel work, Sanchez spiced hers up with jazz and tap.

San Mateo’s Monsoon Dance Company brought a group of pre-teen girls in an exceedingly simple but enthusiastically performed Deva Ganesha, a Bollywood-style homage to the pot-bellied Indian god. Natasha Carlitz and Erika Tingey, all in white, wove their trajectories through pathways delineated by white balloons. If there was a subtext, as Subtext implied, it escaped me.

A trio of Afro-Caribbean dancers — Adonis Damian, Jose Carlos Alarcon, and Delvis Savigne Frinon — excelled in Reggaeton Fusion’s mostly unison choreography that benefited from these fine dancers’ skill, energy, and collaboration. They returned later in Ramón Ramos Alayo’s Untitled, which might have been a preview excerpt of a new piece Alayo will premiere in November. Set very closely to a lushly romantic orchestra score, the work featured dancers who kept the choreography aloft.



You can’t blame choreographer Gregory Dawson for calling his newly minted hour-long septet fabbrica materasso d’argento. It is a lot more euphonious, and mysterious, than “silver mattress factory,” which refers to the metallically painted walls of Zaccho Dance Theater’s home, a former Serta manufacturing facility.

Though badly in need of better seating facilities, the space is becoming popular as a performance venue. But it has never looked better than in Dawson’s intelligent and spacious choreography, bathed in Patrick Toebe’s bluish lighting design that highlighted the performers one minute before swallowing them up the next.

Dawson, a former member of Alonzo King Lines Ballet, decamps for Italy — he is also a mosaic artist — for extended periods of time. For a choreographer, fabbrica is a major achievement, mesmerizing, puzzling yet ultimately convincing. Of course, he carries within him much of what he learned during his 18-year tenure with King. But he made the fractured lines, the fierce attacks, and the collage approach his own.

There are moments when you began to wonder where what looked like independent units were going, besides showcasing excellent dancers at their best. But in the end the pieces came together. It felt like a veil had been yanked away and, all of a sudden, you clearly saw what had been a journey for these six dancers after all. The exception was Jeffrey Van Sciver, who after an astoundingly virtuosic yet silken solo, performed in a diaphanous white skirt that beautifully set off his dark skin, simply disappeared. Why? Was his presence a guiding force no longer needed? Dramaturgically, this seemed weak.

Dawson brilliantly balanced the vigorous, individualized center-space dancing with a haunting pictorial quality, in which the performers devolved into black silhouettes against the silver coated black wall. Moving friezes, they melted away.

Alton San Giovanni’s tempestuous score excellently supported the choreography. The dancers: Jordan Drew, Oliver Shock, Ilaria Guerra, Christopher DeVita, Jessica Wagner, Isaiah Bindel, and, of course, Van Sciver — who next month is starting his first season with Lines Ballet — performed at the top of their impressive abilities. I want to see them again. *

Primate urges



DANCE Because the Bay Area has a reputation for encouraging artistic exploration, audiences have come to expect the unexpected — including having a monkey wrench thrown at them. Case in point: Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and her cohorts, who for their newest dance theater work, Monkey Gone to Heaven, pulled together some rather odd strings. Still, in the end they managed to say something intriguing about humankind’s connections to our closest relatives below, and our aspirations to whatever is above. The piece, however, is so multifaceted that I found myself overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of references. Were there episodes involving such outcasts as the biblical Ham, Africa’s pre-human Lucy, and Nijinsky in his madness?

Yet Monkey also stands as an evenhanded, lighthearted revue that doesn’t take its subject matter too seriously. It looks honestly at fundamental questions about what makes us human and how to we relate to something beyond us. Whether that is something like an afterlife or just a better life during the here and now is, gratefully, left open.

The work acknowledges and celebrates the close relationship to our animal nature, which too often gets ignored or denigrated. For coherence, the 75-minute, loosely-constructed episodes rely less on logic than on an emotional fabric woven by the wit, charm, and goofiness of its six performers: El Beh, Jennifer Chien, Kat Cole, Michael Mohammed, Rowena Ritchie, and Christopher W. White.

But how do these troopers suggest deep connections between our arboreal neighbors, not to speak of something called the future and us? The piece starts with the performers traipsing onto the stage chanting the refrain of the Pixies’ “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” whose lyrics portray a modest creature’s ascent through environmental morass towards the divine. Cole then recalls how she folded herself against a plate-glass zoo window — behind which a gorilla responded in kind. It became a transcendent experience for the human, and perhaps, the beast. Chien, for her part, lets herself be hogtied and yanked around as a sign of submission to an authority.

White then excitedly bursts onto stage with a scientific discovery that he thinks connects prayers, primates, and humans. Dopamine, which works on primates as well, he says, activates the pleasure center, but the anticipation of dopamine also produces this optimistic response, much the way prayer does. Is this an “a-ha” moment?

The choreography seems to say so, cleverly obliterating distinctions between human and animal movements by creating one fluid stream into which everyone dips: dancers hop, crawl, and walk on all fours; they fold their arms, genuflect, cross themselves, and pick lice off each other. When they sit on their haunches and begin to gently sway you certainly can’t tell which is which. Richie looked particularly in betwixt.

At one point the performers lie on their backs, engaged in a lusty monkey chant. They fight and they screech, and Mohammed explains his way of praying: a robust purging of himself. When all the dancers, except for Beh, knelt facing upstage for a Zen meditation, they quickly began to “ape” each others’ gestures, thus breaking their the trance, leaving Beh on her own.

Prayers — sung and recited — involved being grateful for a father with Alzheimer’s who had died. (I’m pretty sure also I heard one about someone who had bestowed herpes on somebody, and one about a lost cat.) The mundane and the weighty, the rational and goofy received equal consideration. That made for much of Monkey’s charms.

One of Monkey’s dramatically strongest sections involves the humans’ loss of the tail — Sonsheree Giles’ costumes had pinned stubs of them to their costumes. Toward the end, Ritchie and Beh, each on a column on either side of the stage, engaged in a lyrical paean about the tail — so soft, so pliable, so lush, so ever available and so sensuous and sexually alluring. It began to sound uncannily like an ode to a paradise lost. *


Thu/19-Sat/21, 8pm; Sun/22, 7pm, $20


1310 Mission, SF



Essential grace



FALL ARTS Fall may no long bring with it the nervous anticipation of entering a new classroom, clutching a shiny lunch box to your chest. But for those of us hooked on live performance, September brings its own thrills, as theaters, studios, and lofts reopen their doors. If dance happens to be your particular bag, you can’t do much better than the here and now. Few other places in the country can beat the Bay Area for the sheer variety with which nude, slippered, and high-heeled feet take the stage.



EmSpace Dance‘s Erin Mei-Ling Stuart ranges far and wide for her new Monkey Gone to Heaven, exploring the role of prayer, meditation, and belief systems in primates of both the higher and the lower order. Sept. 12-15 and 19-22, CounterPULSE, SF; www.counterpulse.org.

For their new, multi-disciplinary MU — based on a Japanese legend about a young man who meets a mermaid and visits a lost continent at the bottom of the sea — First Voice art and life partners Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu team up with ODC choreographer Kimi Okada. Young Kai Kane Aoki Izu portrays the traveler. Sept. 27-29, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, SF; www.jccsf.org.

13th Floor Dance Theater‘s Jenny McAllister must have a thing for writers. She follows last year’s witty take on the Bloomsbury crowd with Being Raymond Chandler, in which she channels the quintessential mystery icon as he’s haunted by his fictional characters. Oct. 26-27 and Nov. 1-2, ODC Theater, SF; www.13thfloordance.org.



In the Netherlands the baton has been passed. It remains to be seen whether the long-time choreographic team — a rarity in itself — of Sol León and Paul Lightfoot can keep up the standards of the always superb Nederlands Dans Theater. Oct. 23-24, Zellerbach Hall, Berk; www.calperfs.berkeley.edu.

Good news: the West Wave Dance Festival is stayin’ alive. Its new artistic director, Joe Landini, commissioned choreographers Anne-René Patraca, Anandha Ray, Holly Shawn, and Casey Lee Thorne for one program. He turned over the other three evenings to guest curators Dance Mission Theater, Jesse Hewit, and Amy Seiwert, who imprint their own view on the fest. Sept. 16-Oct 28, various venues, SF; www.westwavedancefestival.org.

Joe Goode is poet, a soothsayer, and a clown who addresses a loneliness that goes to the core of who we are. His particular perspective comes from being a gay man, but his reach is broad and generous. Perhaps most important is his ability to continue finding intriguing new frameworks for his musings. The new Hush is based on six real-life stories. Sept. 26-Oct. 5, Z Space, SF; www.joegoode.org.

A rarity in contemporary dance, Los Angeles’ BodyTraffic is not a single-choreographer company, but focuses its efforts on creating a rep from the most exciting new voices it can find. For SF it will be Kyle Abraham, Barak Marshall, and Richard Siegal — hip-hop, dance theater, and jazz. Sept. 26-29, ODC Theater, SF; odcdance.org/bodytraffic.



At 20, Smuin Ballet has begun to make major inroads into drawing audiences with a repertoire that pushes the boundaries of ballet without disowning late founder Michael Smuin’s heritage. Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián’s Return to a Strange Land is a case in point. Oct. 4-12, Palace of Fine Arts, SF; www.smuinballet.org.

To honor Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company‘s three decades of rethinking dance, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has scheduled exhibits, conversations, master classes, video screenings, a site-specific piece at CounterPULSE (Oct. 10), and a rethinking of a classic. In A Rite Jones works with theater pioneer Anne Bogart for a fresh take on Stravinsky’s masterwork The Rite of Spring. Oct. 7-13, YBCA and CounterPULSE, SF; www.ybca.org.

For its 40th anniversary, Oakland-based Dimensions Dance Theater makes a rare appearance in SF. At this year’s SF Ethnic Dance Festival, the company just about tore the roof off YBCA with its explosively joyous take on a New Orleans funeral. The anniversary program offers glimpses into past — going back to 1973 — and the world premiere of Rhythms of Life Down the Congo Line. Oct. 5, YBCA, SF; www.dimensionsdance.org.



Flamenco’s La Tania and ODC/Dance (with Waving Not Drowning: A Guide to Elegance, featuring paper dresses) are among the participants in Cal Performances’ annual hit show, Fall Free for All, an all-day open house of live performances on the UC Berkeley campus. Sept. 29, UC Berkeley, Berk; calperfs.berkeley.edu.

Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton of Garrett + Moulton Productions seem to inspire each other in pursuing the unknown with a common language. A Show of Hands is their latest endeavor — daytime performances exploring gestures with the help of Dan Becker’s commissioned score, performed live by the Friction Quartet. Oct. 17-26, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, SF; www.garrettmoulton.org.

Offered at noon every first Friday, the Rotunda Dance Series, presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West, makes City Hall sing in a dance-by-the-people, for-the-people sort of way. Kicking off the new season is Peruvian dance company Asociación Cultural Kanchis. Starts Sept. 6, City Hall, SF; www.dancersgroup.org. *

Season’s greetings


ODC/Dance’s 2013 “Summer Sampler” was a smash. The theater was completely packed, and it looked like the entire staff was present to greet audience members on the way to their seats, glasses in hand without spilling a drop. You couldn’t even get mad at latecomers, because theater director Christy Bolingbroke accomodated them so graciously. This was a party before the first performer even set foot on the Marley floor.

But it was dance that made this evening memorable. The short, tightly run program offered three smart, excellently chosen pieces, including a world premiere.

Does Kimi Okada’s wildly applauded Two if by Sea reference Paul Revere’s lanterns? Perhaps. The fact is that Okada, one of ODC’s three co-founders (she also runs the ODC School), has given the company a delicious morsel of intricate give-and-take pair dancing. Jeremy Smith and Vanessa Thiessen, the latter in her final performance before retiring, engaged each other in a duet in which being a jock, a snob, and a lover are all part of a contentious relationship.

Okada clearly has one foot in vaudeville, and how welcome that gift is. Two started with fiery tap dancing as Smith and Thiessen went at each other like boxers in the ring. Donning soft slippers, they extended their repartees into a whole body language, throwing out challenges and teases with their hips and wildly slashing arms. Though there’s no question that Two needs some tightening — even at the price of cutting some of Teiji Ito and Steve Reich’s rich percussion scores — the work also reminded us that humor in pure dance is very rare, because it is so difficult to pull off.

I didn’t see Kate Weare’s 2008 The Light Has Not the Arms to Carry Us when her own dancers performed it at ODC’s Walking Distance Dance Festival at the end of May. As set on ODC’s dancers, it confirms Weare as an intellectually challenging and fearless dance maker who repeatedly pushes her work nearly over the edge without letting it fall.

Light‘s two parts, a solo danced by an astounding Anne Zivolich, and a bravely rendered duet from Dennis Adams and Justin Andrews, don’t connect — except, perhaps in our heads. On stage, they simply follow each other, letting us hang in uncertainty.

Alone on stage, Zivolich seemed in a relationship with the parallel rectangles of light that became like characters, imposing their presence before slipping away from her. The fierce and nuanced Zivolich portrayed somebody (or something) haunted, terrified, and finally overcome. As she kneeled, a simple bob of her head traveled down her spine into backwards crawls and slides, leaps and headstands. When she spread her legs, the slit in her white dress revealed a dark crotch only to be covered up again. This was powerful stuff, with not a wrong move to be seen.

Looking at Adams and Andrews’ big, steady unisons, you search and find small differences. But when they start enacting partnering sequences, you want to see them go somewhere. They don’t seem to, but you sure end up smelling the dancers’ sweat.

Though it debuted in March at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, ODC’s splendid Triangulating Euclid, choreographed by Weare, Brenda Way, and KT Nelson, looked almost brand new. It’s not just that the ODC Theater is more intimate than YBCA’s Lam Research Theater; it’s also that the Mission District venue has a steep rake so that you look down at (instead of more or less straight at) the dancers. Upstage activities, for instance, acquired more prominence. Nuances and facial expressions became more visible. However, not having wing space impinged on the entrances and exits’ effectiveness. The second viewing also clarified the interlocking of Triangulation’s two parts, much the way the dancers’ transparent white blouses, donned in the latter part of the program, still allowed us to see the initial section’s black leotards and tights.

The piece opened with Yayoi Kambara’s expansively exploring solo set to a voice-over by Karen Zukor, who restored the book on Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and to whom the piece is dedicated. The dancers stepped in to give us choreographic images of Euclid’s concepts, forming themselves into squares, triangles, diagonals, and parallels. This was living geometry that moved through its patterns with the inevitability and serendipity of a kaleidoscope.

When Kambara’s single, huge ronds de jambe smudged Maggie Stack’s carefully “drawn” chalk lines, the dance exploded into a series of highly individualized duets: lush and sensuous for Stack and Corey Brady; volatile and athletic for Adams and Kambara; and, particularly intriguing, one for Zivolich and Smith in which he seemed blind to her pleading. The number two was of primary importance to Euclid; it also is for dance. And what better way to explore its ramifications than to Schubert compositions.


Drawing inspiration



DANCE Though only in its third incarnation, Amy Seiwert’s wide-open “Sketch” has become a hit. The idea behind this annual summer project is to give acclaimed choreographers a chance to tread unfamiliar territory. One of the drawbacks of having a sizable repertoire to your credit is that you develop a comfort zone. You know what’s worked for you in the past, but the world is not nearly as wide open as it used to be.

“Sketch” tries to be something like a playground for experienced dance makers, who are given between 40-50 hours to come up with a piece for Seiwert’s Imagery company dancers. This year’s version, “Sketch 3: Expectations,” for which Val Caniparoli, Marc Brew, and Seiwert herself stepped up to the challenge, must be considered a success. Not everything worked, but that’s to be expected. Still, you could see minds stretching themselves all evening long. The eight dancers — some local, some from other parts — performed heroically; they were Brandon “Private” Freeman, Rachel Furst, James Gilmer, Sarah Griffin, Weston Krukow, Annali Rose, Ben Needham-Wood, and Katherine Wells.

The most transparently cohesive work proved to be Caniparoli’s Triptych, which moved with consummate ease through its singular unisons that split up into multiple smaller configurations, only to gather its dancers again and again in the anonymity of military stand-at-attention stances. Caniparoli’s command of dance language is impressive.

He found inspiration for Triptych in Lalage Snow’s portraits of British soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. Contrasting contemporary string scores by John Tavener and Alexander Balanescu — meditative and quiet from the first, dramatic and dissonant from the second — worked well.

Instead of focusing on the horrors of war, Caniparoli investigated how it feels to be an anonymous cog in a machine. Again and again, he sent lineups around the stage, their precision and discipline suggesting confinement. Even the individualized gesture language suggested regimentation. Yet at Triptych’s center he placed a languid and intimate pas de deux for Griffin and Krukow, surely one of Caniparoli’s finest creations. But at the end, when the dancers moved straight toward the audience, you could only see their empty eyes.

For Australian-born, UK-based Brew, Awkward Beauty was a return to ballet — the style he trained in until an accident ended his performing career. As a choreographer he works in a wide variety of styles and media, but ballet is not usually one of them.

Awkward is, perhaps, ironically and yet appropriately named. A rather non-descript commissioned score by Dan Wool and murky lighting by Jim French didn’t bring much to a work in which Brew seemed interested in exploring some of ballet’s classic tenets, among them verticality. He appears to have assembled a lot of individual ideas that, unfortunately, didn’t coalesce into a comprehensive statement.

He put three of the women in pointe shoes — Wells is primarily a modern and post-modern dancer — and opened the piece with a striking image of the women standing on the men’s shoulders. From there, they individually worked their way to the ground. The maneuvers, however, looked forced and insecure — not something to attempt unless there is a lot more rehearsal time.

Upstage, a dance gesture traveled wave-like along a line; women were passed overhead in upside down splits, and (somewhat inexplicably) the dancers made repeated use of theater’s metal support beams. Center stage was given over to smaller units. The women’s trio — with the gorgeous Griffin as its center — looked balletically demure until the women literally let their hair down. Then Furst and Rose bourréed across the stage in lovely sync after a moment of looking like a sculpture of puppies.

An intricate duet for Wells and Needham-Wood played with verticality, and the giving and taking of support. Subtly, athletically, and with some poignancy, the piece showed what could have been by showing how awkwardness and beauty can coexist.

Seiwert has said that her work The Devil Ties My Tongue was inspired by Leonard Cohen’s poem S.O.S, fragments of which became part of Olafur Arnalds’ weather-inspired score. It also buzzed through dancers’ intimate whisperings. The piece opened with the dancers in semi-darkness watching a vulnerable Gilmer unfolding himself, before segueing into small units — double and triple duets, a male trio, and two contrasting pas de deux for Griffin and Krukow, and, to end the piece, Freeman and Wells.

Seiwert’s ability to layer complex, tension-filled structures that change kaleidoscopically with jutting limbs and interlocking legs — yet always look as if etched moment by moment — continues to surprise. Here, some of the encounters had a newfound intimacy about them, none more than the one for Freeman and Wells. The way he snuck around her, it wasn’t clear whether he was courting, protecting, or preying on her. Still, I want to see Devil again in a different context. It was not well suited as a closer. *


The ascendants



DANCE Though only in its fourth season, Robert Dekkers’ Post:Ballet has already gained an enthusiastic, impressively large following that has allowed the company to move from the Cowell to the Herbst to this year’s Lam Research Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It’s easy to see the reason for Dekkers’ success.

While his dance making is clearly ballet-based, his works have an expansive sense of freedom that makes them welcoming and easy on the eye. By choosing to perform in the summer when other companies are on break, he can also work with highly trained professionals otherwise unavailable to a small (ten-person) ensemble like his. This year they came from Houston Ballet and Ballet Arizona, as well as the local Smuin Ballet, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and Company C Contemporary Ballet.

Perhaps most intriguing is the ease with which Dekkers’ choreography embraces the ground and the air as one liquid continuum. His dancers crawl, slither, and slide along the floor like billowing smoke — and then rise into space as if born to it.

The world premiere for seven dancers, field the present shifts, is probably Dekkers’ most ambitious piece yet. It is a problematic work. A collaboration with architects Robert Gilson and Catherine Caldwell and a commissioned score, performed live by Matthew Pierce, it also features gorgeous magenta body-hugging costumes by Christine Darch, and a richly varied lighting design by David Robertson.

According to the program notes, field examines complex relationships. Within a given set of parameters, the piece also allows for individual decision-making by everyone involved. It added up to a lot of in-the-moment choices by a lot of people, and the results did not convince.

Visually, however, field was a feast for the senses. The dancers flew at each other like arrows, bunched up into swaying unisons as if buffeted by some gale force wind. They gathered on individual squares of light, responded to each other across the stage, and seemed to walk on water. They rolled into somersaults and carefully explored and yanked at each other. What I missed was an encompassing frame that held these individual units together. Also, a sense of uncertainty marred some the canons and unisons.

The two designers came up with what looked like huge sheaves of wheat hung upside down; at one point, they were lowered, presumably for the dancers to interact with. Few of them did. So what was the point? The distinct character of each of the ten or so sections of Pierce’s score for five violins, however, was a pleasure to hear.

The evening opened with the reworked Colouring II from 2011, danced with great authority by Ashley Flaner and Domenico Luciano. The piece traced the making of a pas de deux, developing at the same time as Enrico Quintero’s creation of a large, calligraphy-inspired painting. The dancers, approaching each other from opposite sides, added another gesture with each encounter, suggesting an almost filmic sense of accumulation. Daniel Berkman’s score, performed live, contributed his own voice to this intriguing process. This was watching visual and kinetic art in the making, and it was a delight. However, Dekkers standing on the sidelines, cueing the process, seemed intrusive. He should have trusted his artists.

Sixes and Seven, also from 2011, is a solo, here danced delicately yet firmly by Jessica Collado. This was richly varied choreography in which the dancer made full use of her body, including an excellent use of gestural language. At times, Collado appeared to withdraw into herself, but she also reacted to invisible external forces that impinged on her. You got a sense that she was living in a rich world. If the use of an excerpt from Philip Glass’s Einstein at the Beach meant to suggest some kind of cosmic existence, the choice was perfect.

Last year’s When in Doubt ended awkwardly in a wobbly pyramid, and used a distracting word-and-sound score by Jacob Wolkenhauer. But Dekkers showed considerable choreographic chops in the way he used his septet of dancers both in unisons and in smaller units. With the women on pointe walking in plié, and Robertson’s stark lighting that pulled the dancers across the stage with a quasi magnetic force, When began to feel ominous. This was even true for the two very different duets for Raychel Weiner and Christian Squire, and Collado and Jane Hope Rehm.

Dressing the women in black leotards and the topless men in black tights was inspired because the dancers could almost disappear into each other. The women were dark from the waist up, the men from the waist down. The color scheme abstracted personal interactions and sequences into two-dimensional patterns — thus foregoing overly eager tendencies to read narrative intentions into Dekkers’ choreography. *


Diversity in motion



DANCE Last weekend, World Arts West’s San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival closed out four almost completely sold-out weekends of performances. It is tempting to take this 35-year-old celebration for granted. Yet despite universal accolades, excellent audiences, a steadily improving roster of artists, an increase in live music, and ever-better production values, EDF still does not receive the support it deserves.

Consider this: according to its own numbers, EDF’s budget this year was two-thirds of what it was five years ago. Foundation and corporate support is down, between 30 and 50 percent. This time around, even Grants for the Arts — a stalwart champion of the festival since the beginning — had to cut its contribution by close to 20 percent.

Add to these challenges the fact that in 2011, due to the complications of the Doyle Drive construction, EDF lost its home at the Palace of Fine Arts. The much smaller Lam Research Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts cannot make up the lost ticket sales.

Of course, in these mean and lean times, all the arts suffer. But other institutions of similar size, track record, and scope have endowments that help tie them over. Not EDF. It’s paycheck to paycheck. One reason for EDF’s survival, however, is that the biggest supporters of the arts have always been the artists themselves. Most of this year’s 500 dancers and musicians performed for free. (Their companies get a small stipend.)

So perhaps it’s appropriate to give a small bouquet to these eminent artists who may have come from places most of us will never visit — 19 countries on five continents — but are bringing to both fellow dancers and audiences their perspectives on what dance can tell us about being human.

While the Palace’s loss deprived EDF of its preferred stage, spreading the dance to different venues was a successful experiment. On June 7, a free, mid-day gala opening rocked the rotunda at San Francisco City Hall; the following day, Charya Burt’s reimagining of sculptor Auguste Rodin’s 1906 encounter with classical Cambodian dance brought East and West together at the Legion of Honor Museum’s jewel box theater. Later in the festival, one could walk across the lawn at Yerba Buena Gardens, where Patrick Makuakane was teaching light-hearted contemporary hula — and then, at YBCA, watch Halau o Keikiali’i present dignified re-interpretations of sacred Hawaiian rituals, offering an inkling of the complexities of culturally-specific dance.

EDF presents cultural traditions that range from high classicism (Chinese Performing Arts of America) to folkloric community celebrations (Lowiczanie Polish Folk Ensemble). But the fest also embraces change within continuity. It gives newcomers a chance, and welcomes re-interpretations of the past.

Nine of this year’s 33 participants made their EDF debuts. Among them were Colectivo Anqari, which charmed with an urban reinterpretation of popular dance from the Andes in which the men both danced and played the pan pipes. The women’s contribution almost looked like an afterthought. Ceremonially stepping dancers, drummers, and a flute player from Ensohza Minyoushu performed Sansador from Northern Japan, its high degree of formality leavened by a leaping masked “spirit.” Antoine Hunter’s short Risk showed a fascinating mix of jazz and sign language by this deaf dancer. High fives, however, must go to the two dozen youngsters of Mona Khan Company Emerging Performers. Their rousing, Bollywood-inspired Jalsa showed them to be disciplined, tough, and exuberant.

A relatively recent phenomenon is dancers and companies who rethink their heritage and reframe it into the kind of individual expression that Western art encourages. Charya Burt is one of them. Another is La Tania Baile Flamenco, whose Tierra translated the quintessential male farruca into a women’s dance. The trio became a striking expression of female power — rigorous and utterly convincing. Solo artist Oreet incorporated modern and ballet vocabulary into her spunky belly dancing, making it a decidedly contemporary expression of womanhood.

I do find it problematic, however, that dance from Mexico — there are over two dozen folklórico groups in the Bay Area — inevitably is represented by suites that are happy, fast, and loud. Surely there are more varied ways to showcase that culture’s rich variety of traditions.

The Palace of Fine Arts is scheduled to re-open in 2015. The people at World Arts West would like the complex to become a center for art and culture from around the globe. Sounds like a good idea to me.

Where to next?



DANCE Ben Levy sure knows how to throw a party. For the 10th anniversary celebration of his LEVYdance company, he once again closed off SOMA alley Heron Street, where his studio is located, and hung balloons, speakers, and lights. He put up bars and set out soft sofas, and erected a large stage with a central pit full of pillows (for those who might prefer to recline). It was one of those rare San Francisco evenings with clear skies — and just the slightest of breezes — which made you glad you don’t live across any bridges.

But does Levy know to choreograph? You bet he does. A decade ago he burst onto the San Francisco dance scene with clarity of vision and skills to match, unheard-of in a dancer just barely out of college. But that’s exactly why this festive event lacked an essential ingredient.

Seeing the four works — one from 2002, two from 2004, and one from 2005 — put a damper on the evening. No amount of finessing and rethinking of repertoire can take the place of the risk and excitement involved when a choreographer steps into unknown territory. Looking back on a decade’s accomplishments may be gratifying, but more essential is giving an audience an inkling of where the artistic trajectory is going.

Grant Diffendaffer’s open-air stage, essentially an elevated square of walkways around an open center, necessitated some reconfigurations that diluted what sometimes felt like volcanic forces about to explode in Levy’s choreography. But it also allowed for increased intimacy, depending on where you sat.

Levy’s four dancers dove into the choreography with an impressive unity of purpose. They attacked complex interactions — often at top speed — with razor sharp timing. Seeing the dancers dressed in brilliant white against the riotous chaos of the graffiti covered brick walls suggested an unexpected symbiotic relationship between dance and murals.

pOrtal, the oldest piece on the program, still fascinated in the way Scott Marlowe, Yu Kondo Reigen, Paul Vickers, and Sarah Dianne Woods upset each other’s balances. They grabbed, yanked, and poked; flipped a partner; or pushed a knee against a belly. When a dancer leaned over a colleague’s knee, it would drop away beneath them. The idea seems to be avoiding stability at any cost — like living in the middle of a non-stop earthquake. What might look like violence or aggression in another case is delivered in such a matter-of-fact way that it becomes a self-contained image of one way of being.

Originally, If this small space, choreographed by Levy and Rachael Lincoln, was performed on a five-by-five lit square that set up limitations. Shifted to the open, the attention immediately shifted onto the internal forces that strained against the confines of Marlowe’s body. Performed magnificently by this beautiful dancer, If this small space might have him look up and push against invisible walls — but it was the small trembles, muscular contractions, currents, and mysterious somethings rolling through his torso that collapsed his knees. The effect indicated just how at the mercy of imprisoning forces this human being was. Perhaps the most touching moment came when Marlowe lifted one leg and it looked like it might try to float away from him.

The engaging Holding Pattern opened with Reigen’s stunningly performed solo, in which warring forces seemed to tear her body apart as Vickers and Woods traced a cautious circle around her. The trio engaged in a contentious give and take, part wrestling match, part karate engagement. For a while it looked like the two women were ganging up on Vickers, but then he gave as good as he got.

That Four Letter Word (apply your own definition) finds the quartet in every possible permutation of relationships between two men and two women. Some of it is quite funny — though I could have done without the balloon jokes — but here the spatial reconfigurations created too much distance. Four ran out of steam though it did showcase Vickers and Marlowe — super-articulate, elegant dancers — exquisitely mirroring each other.

The program also highlighted Levy’s excellent musical choices — many of them commissioned. Let’s hope he’ll soon have an opportunity to use some more.