Rita Felciano

In his footsteps



DANCE If you are even tangentially connected to San Francisco’s dance community, one name will pop up again and again: Ed Mock. He was part of San Francisco’s awakening as a center for arts on the edge before his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1986.

African American and gay, the performer-choreographer was, above all, a free spirit throughout the two decades he lived in SF. During that time, he influenced and shaped a generation of young artists. For dancers like Wayne Hazzard, Victoria Mata, Shakiri, Joanna Haigood, and Pearl Ubungen, he was crucial to who they became. Mock also collaborated with the young Rhodessa Jones; Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf premiered in his studio.

One of the dancers whom Mock profoundly marked is Amara Tabor-Smith. To honor him, she created the multi-venue He Moved Swiftly But Gently Down the Not Too Crowded Street: Ed Mock and Other True Tales in a City That Once Was. The piece will wander through the city Sat/15 and June 21-23.

The SF-born Tabor-Smith encountered Mock when, at 14, she tagged along with a friend who had been told that classes with Mock were a must. She joined his Ed Mock Dance Company at 17 and stopped dancing for a year when he died. Eventually, she joined New York’s Urban Bush Women for a decade before returning to her much-changed hometown in 2006.

Talking with her after a rehearsal in early June, it quickly becomes clear that she not only mourns the passing of a pioneering artist but also a period when San Francisco was place for experimentation, openness, and a sense of the possible. The Beats and the hippies may have put their own stamp on the city, but in the 1970s the gay pride movement filled the air with champagne-like effervescence and expectations — until the AIDS epidemic cut it down. Lately, the tech boom has had a negative effect on SF’s artist population.

“Ed was the most fearless person I ever knew,” Tabor-Smith says, “He was the embodiment of freedom, courage, and mischief. I loved the way he embraced the risk of failure and the way he could create on the spot because the spirit moved him. He knew who he was and where he came from. He was an old soul, and he walked with the ancestors.”

Mock left his primary legacy through his classes, teaching wherever he could find studio space. Tabor-Smith remembers them as always packed with all sizes, colors, body shapes, and orientations — unusual for a time when teaching was much more compartmentalized than it is today.

He choreographed for his company, but as a dancer he improvised — a pioneering act in itself. Unfortunately, little documentation has survived. A YouTube search does turn up a video of Possum Slim, an astounding solo from 1979 performed by a naked and body-painted Mock.

Tabor-Smith (in collaboration with Ellen Sebastian Young) conceived of He Moved — part of Dancers’ Group ONSITE Series — as 11 site-specific performances that journey through Mock’s life. Among others, she is working with Jose Navarette on a section about memory; Jesse Hewitt and Laura Arrington will perform “acts of disruption” for Valencia Street’s 24/7 connected crowd.

Hayes Valley’s Salle Pianos and Events — where Tabor-Smith is rehearsing He Moved‘s “A Room of Black Men” section — happens to be next door to one of the studios in Mock’s peripatetic teaching career. She sees its funky elegance, with crystal chandeliers hanging over metal folding chairs, as “an Ed kind of place.” In stark contrast to the traffic roaring by on Market Street, the nine dancers bring a statuesque dignity and stillness to what is a tribute to black manhood. But they also explode into individual solos and help each other find community. At one point the dance becomes what looks like a ceremonial blessing around a seated elder, whose eloquence emanates simply from his presence.

Tabor-Smith also likes the Salle space because it’s located across the alley from Zuni Café, where her piece’s “Window Seat” section will be shown. Appropriately, “Ed was a fixture there. The people who ran it were wonderful. He never paid for a meal. Or a bottle of wine.” *


Sat/15 and June 21-23, 3:30-8:30pm, free

Various locations (starts at 32 Page), SF



Hello solo



DANCE Christy Funsch’s latest program, State: not anywhere near to now (May 31-June 2, CounterPULSE), represents what we have come to expect from her work: it is full of surprises, as comfortable as one’s own skin, and both immensely private and ever so open. It also keeps some of its secrets. Funsch’s primary output has been in solos, a genre she enters into with the utmost confidence. Her dance making is nuanced, rich in detail, and impeccably crafted. For all their quietness, her pieces resonate like finely tuned bells.

Last year’s illuminating and entertaining One on One at Z Space, in which Funsch set a number of her solos on other dancers, served as a reminder of just how bursting with possibilities the genre is. Yet there is no place to hide. The dancer and the dance are always on the spot.

Sharing this year’s concert with Funsch was Portland, Ore.-based Katherine Longstreth, clearly a kindred spirit in creating small-scaled works that are anything but modest.

The program opened with two of Longstreth’s own solos, O What, danced by Funsch, and O Where, performed by the choreographer. Highly condensed, they propose one vision but quickly turn it inside out. O What’s collage of Americana songs called up easy corn-fed living while Funsch explored the dark stage with a flashlight. Walking, stretching her arms, rolling through the torso, and rocking to the beat, Funsch seemed to relish entering the world of Oklahoma! But in the end, she stretched herself onto a narrow strip of Astroturf, her head stuck in what looked like a huge cloud of cotton candy.

With echoes of Over the Rainbow overlapping with “Home on the Range,” O Where pierced the concept of the Americana home. Dressed in black with a white blanket that turned into a shawl, a hood, and body covering, Longstreth carefully traced regular linear patterns. Rolling on the floor, she opened her blanket into wings and eventually an elegant white frock coat. Then very quickly, she discarded it to carefully fold it — like a military flag.

Nol Simonse reprised Funsch’s fine 2012 Kneel Before the Fire. He is an articulate, highly expressive dancer always good to watch, though I couldn’t help but wonder if he took a lot of liberties with Funsch’s choreography. Performed to Alex Keitel’s viola da gamba, Simonse embraced a free-spirited approach to the music that ended when he threw himself at Keitel’s feet. A gesture of thanks, well deserved.

The beautifully economic Narrative Medicine, choreographed by Longstreth and performed by her and Kelly Bartnik, traced what was a perhaps a friendship imperiled of illness. Casually rolling big wooden spools that became chairs and a table, the women tenderly examined each other’s hands. Then Longstreth moved to what looked like a medical screen to return to her partner, now stretched out on the table. Bartnik now fiercely resisted an examination. A lovely touch was the screen’s unraveling, ensnaring Bartnik in the process. Yet Longstreth held onto her.

Funsch’s newest solo, Moving Still(s), was apparently inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M, from which she borrowed 15 characters. It’s been too long since I’ve seen that movie to discern any echoes; however, Keitel’s suggestive sound collage proposed a world through which Funsch moved, at times searchingly, at times perhaps threatened by it. Above all she seemed to have her antennas out all the time, examining space close up but also peering into nowhere.

When the fingers of one hand began to tremble, it began to look like a conversation within her body. Grabbing her leg, she wanted to control a limp that careened her downstage. When the music switched into a jazz mode, she rollicked along with it. Opening and closing Moving were Funsch’s arms angled against her head. Their motion suggested that of the shutters on a lens. If Moving returns, I’ll revisit M beforehand.

At this point, the final work, she’s near she’s now she’s nowhere (which was announced as “in-progress”) is a loosely constructed trio for Celine Alwyn-Parker, Aura Fischbeck, and Peiling Kao. How and if its robust physicality eventually will be tamed and shaped will be the challenge. Tamara Alburtis’s sound sculpture of tiny speakers looked promising, but remained silent for much of the duration.

Growth potential



DANCE For all of the hype about the communicative power of social media, the energy that flows from one body to another has yet to be beat. Dancers know that. That’s why they keep searching for new ways to make this silent language speak.

The Garage on Folsom is one place where they do it; the studio is run on a first-come, first-served basis with a compulsory performance component, so a lot of what you will see there is unfinished. Yet the other night, two Finnish-born choreographers presented pieces as refined and polished as anything shown in bigger venues.

Another venue that fosters innovation is Yannis Adoniou’s Kunst-Stoff Arts, above a Burger King across from the San Francisco Main Library. It takes a more focused approach by inviting similarly-minded artists (who don’t care about the occasional whiff of fried food making its way upstairs). The recent opening of Kunst-Stoff Arts Fest 2013 showcased three choreographers who pushed the dancing body to the edge of what seems humanly possible.

But first, back to the Garage — where Raisa Punkki’s punkkiCo world premiere, Other Space, took command. Some lengths could be edited to keep the trajectory better on track. Also, the image of a dancer emerging from a kind of subterranean existence in the shape of a raincoat didn’t ring true. But overall, this quartet (for three women and one man) was finely crafted dance making that explored states of being with a rich, multi-faceted vocabulary and formal controls that allowed for flux and even spontaneity.

Other is designed along the concept of making connections that could be in unison pirouettes or jumbled limbs of labyrinthine complexity. Densely layered encounters gave way to stillness or something as simple as a walk or sitting quietly. The spatial thinking pulsated against the stage’s perimeter, enlarged in a couple of places by mirrors. For the most part the dancing was fierce and full out, yet still had room for small gestures: hands that turned into claws, fists that pushed the dancers into relevé and down again. The idea of balance — and lack thereof — lay below much of Other, sharply brought to life by Jennifer Meek, Sarah Keeney, Meegan Hertensteiner, and Derek Harris.

The Bay Area premiere of Alpo Aaltokoski’s 2004 astounding Deep showed a dancer who seemed to exist simultaneously inside and outside his body. Gaunt with a shaven head, he whipped himself into a tornado, engaged in turns that layered his body horizontally, and stretched his frame beyond his height only to squat again and again. Crawling, he looked pre-human; howling, he became Everyman. At one point, he was on all fours and sucked in his spine to turn his shoulder blades into wings. Yet none of these physical feats were self-serving; there were stories aplenty in them. Mila Moilnan’s subsequent video, based on Deep, felt like an afterthought.

First-week performances at the Kunst-Stoff Arts Fest included three works, two of them in progress, and clearly presented as such. What I saw made me want to follow them because both choreographers seemed to think intriguingly about time.

Christina Bonansea’s Floaters #2, set on identical twin dancers Michaela and Liane Burns with excellent live music by Zachary Watkins, started as an installation in the basement. At first resembling statues of saints, the silver-gowned women came to life, slithering and scraping. Upstairs, they ripped into waves of frenzy that threatened to tear them inside out.

For Portraiture, the forbiddingly prodigious Lindsey Renee Derry, as much a gymnast as a dancer, assembled a linear structure from thematically distinct solos that ranged from lyrical to ferocious. In the future, she wants to extend this trajectory by inviting other choreographers, perhaps to evoke something like Andy Goldsworthy’s Wood Line installation in the Presidio.

Adoniou and the gorgeous Constantine Baecher, a former Royal Danish Ballet dancer, paired up for The Excruciating Death of St. Sebastian. One is dark and older, the other blond and tall, so the tracing of their relationship started on a note of difference. Their give and take began intertwined, as if they were asleep, and grew into teasing and tenderness, shot through with exploration and exuberance. Finally, with the help of a cane, the piece moved into darker territory. My tolerance for watching pain — real or pretend, received or given — is just about zero. Still, this was fine work. 


Through June 7, most events $10-$15

Kunst-Stoff Arts

One Grove, SF



May 31-July 3 (various curated events)


715 Bryant, SF


Visit queerculturalcenter.org/NQAF for NQAF events at different venues.

May flowers



DANCE Smuin Ballet has grown up. Perhaps that should come as no surprise, since the company celebrates its 20th anniversary this November. While the troupe, now 17 strong, has always been engaged in showing what ballet can be without huge production values (and huge budgets), the company is lately doing it better than ever.

Six years ago Michael Smuin died unexpectedly, and a remarkable woman stepped into the cowboys boots he was so fond of wearing. Artistic and executive director Celia Fushille, a founding member and longtime Smuin performer, has a done a remarkable job raising the level of dancing, of choreography, and of widening the company’s appeal to more than Smuin’s traditional, older audience who “just loved Michael.”

Perhaps this fact should be irrelevant, but it is not: Fushille is also one of very few women who are running professional ballet companies. While she is committed to Smuin’s huge repertoire — and she chooses wisely from a very mixed bag — more importantly, she is stretching these dancers with choreography that is fresh, wide-ranging, and never less than professional.

The current program, “Bouquet,” which runs at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through this weekend before moving to Walnut Creek, Mountain View, and Carmel, is very much worth seeing.

The evening opened with Smuin’s 1999 Chants d’Auvergne, set to a collection of French folk songs popularized by Joseph Canteloupe’s grand arrangements. The orchestration is unbearably soupy and an operatic soprano seems so irritatingly inappropriate for the original material’s simplicity. But Smuin cut through all that ballast and managed to create a modest, charming, and highly romantic vision of country life.

Light in spirit, often with a touch of humor, Smuin’s choreography deftly incorporates casual touches into balletic solos, duets and trios. Jonathan Dummar put his long lines to good use in a goofy yet elegant solo. Longtime company member Erin Yarborough brought ardency to her solo, as well as to her duet with Jonathan Powell.

The gem of the evening was Helen Pickett’s 2008 Petal, set to music by Thomas Montgomery Newman and two four-hand piano pieces by Philip Glass. The work’s title promised something flowery. Nope. The octet, excellently performed, offered highly structured, high-octane choreography with moments of such intimacy that they sent it shivers down your back. Performed in a white box lit in colors that ranged from blinding yellow to sunset orange, Petal’s constantly changing relationships created a pulsating space anchored by stillness. Dancers might move downstage as if being sucked into the audience; the next moment they became part of the scenery, rooted like columns or cornice pieces. A woman might sail high above her partners moments before another tore through a male relationship.

The lush sensuality of liquid torsos and dancers twining around each other balanced the non-stop, full-out dancing, with limbs shooting sky high or snaking along the floor. Yet these people — and they were people — suggested a sense of ease within their own skin that translated to the way they connected and separated. Small caresses around someone’s neck, or on an inner thigh, gave Petal one of its most appealing qualities: the intimacy of the human touch.

Last on this pleasing program was Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Jazzin’, bookended by exuberant ensemble dancing. Opener “Struttin'” was set to the Count Basie Orchestra’s take on Duke Ellington, the finale to the Wynton Marsalis Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with the LA Philharmonic. How can you go wrong with inspiration like that? These sections were choreographed with a sense of gusto and joyous celebration of the beat, but without too much personal vision.

For that we had to wait for the center sections of Jazzin’, which offered more theatrically nuanced choreography. Newcomer Erica Felsch’s “Spring in My Step” channeled a Marilyn Monroe-esque mix of innocence and sexual allure with wit and charm. The punchy “Takin’ No Mess,” in which a woman is trying to sell a chair and something else, sounded a different note of humor. Jane Rehm — perhaps the Smuin company’s finest stylist — revealed a comedic side of her talent by hitting every move, every glance with just the right timing. In the dark “Solitude” — again set to Ellington — Joshua Reynolds gave a man’s tortured soul all the pain and dignity it served. It was a beautiful performance.


Thu/16-Sat/18, 8pm (also Sat/18, 2pm); Sun/19, 2pm, $24-$65

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF



C who we R



DANCE When Charles Anderson returned from a performing and choreographing career in New York 11 years ago to start a chamber-size contemporary ballet company, it seemed fair to wonder whether the Bay Area really needed another one. In the intervening years he certainly, and justifiably, has put his Company C Contemporary Ballet on the map. He assiduously assembles contemporary choreography that, at the very least, has a tenuous relationship to ballet. If there are missteps, and there are some in almost in every program, he nonetheless manages to offer a generous and broad spectrum of perspectives. You walk away glad that you came.

In the most recent program — which was performed in San Francisco May 2-4 and travels to Walnut Creek this week — his dancers dove into a smorgasbord of world and company premieres with gusto. Only Anderson’s own 2007 Boléro, choreographed to you-know-what, has been previously danced by this well-trained troupe.

What Anderson has not yet found is a good (and affordable) San Francisco venue to showcase his fine company. This season he tried out Z Space, an inviting theater, albeit one that could benefit from updating its lighting system. And for ballet dancers, who often have flying exits, Z Space’s lack of wing space is a problem. Momentum needs to be truncated to avoid crashing into the brick walls.

Company dancer David Van Ligon’s world premiere, Natoma, in particular needs to be seen on a more suitable stage. Set to an odd assemblage of scores by iconoclast composer Zoe Keating, Natoma runs out of steam about halfway through. Yet this is an honest attempt to deal with traditional structures seen through contemporary eyes. Laura Hazlett’s simple costumes (black bathing suits for the women, tights and white top for the men) nicely highlighted the dancers’ lines.

Van Ligon bowed to convention with a central pas de deux (for gorgeous Edilisa Armendariz and Connolly Strombeck), and three couples and a female duo (Laura Dunlop and Kristin Lindsay) that also framed the pas de deux. Yet he reconfigured this set-up into a number of ever-changing variations that gave Natoma a satisfying sense of elasticity. Wisely, perhaps influenced by Keating’s stab at minimalism, he pared down his vocabulary to basic steps and unisons in conjunction with flowing arms. Still, at times one wanted more richly textured choreography. Pleasing was the design’s clarity, though it put in relief both the dancers’ strengths and their weaknesses.

The appropriately-named A Modest Proposal, from John Bohannon (concept and text) and Carl Flink (direction and choreography), was a fresh, clever, and amusing smashing of verbosity against the succinctness of art, entertained without a whiff of Swiftian sarcasm. Trying to explain complex scientific facts with more and more words, and worse, with PowerPoint, is useless, narrator Ryan Drummond. Do it through dance. When the ensemble, having swirled around Drummond, stepped out of their overalls and into Hazlett’s diaphanous white for an airy, fluid finale, you could almost believe him.

Dennis Nahat’s 1970 Ontogeny — named for the process of life forms’ individuation, in case you slept through biology class — received a stunning interpretation. Using Karel Husa’s densely-layered, Pulitzer-winning String Quartet No. 3, Nahat excellently drew on the resources of modern dance and ballet to suggest eroticism and struggle as a biological necessity. With a powerful and nuanced Jacqueline McConnell and a vulnerable and athletic Tian Tan in the leads, Nahat’s angular yet expansive choreography looked as vibrant and edgy as it must been over 40 years ago.

A surprise addition was Anderson For Your Eyes Only, a splendid duet, originally performed for a hearing-impaired audience. Chantelle Pianetta and Bobby Briscoe, he a head taller than she, sensitively explored the give and take of an on/off relationship. Performed in silence, you heard their footfalls, the exertion of their breath, even the swish of their pants.

Anderson’s Boléro closed the program. It’s a good enough Spanish-flavored work for an over-used score. But perhaps it’s one that choreographers just have to get out of their systems.


Thu/9-Sat/11, 8pm; Sun/12, 1pm, $23-$45

Lesher Center for the Arts

1601 Civic, Walnut Creek



Take the plunge



DANCE FACT/SF’s new Falling is a conceptually demanding, convincingly realized 70-minute sextet that annoys, puzzles, and ultimately persuades. Choreographer Charles Slender set his work on six beautifully-trained, well-rehearsed women. He also engaged excellent collaborators.

Falling asks questions that resonate beyond the physicality of what Slender has said he wanted to look at: the human need to stay upright and the reality of falling. That’s what the dancers do. They walk, stand, wobble, turn, and they fall — like rocks, sponges, and leaves. And then they get up. Again, and again, and again.

Repetition and unisons are the work’s most effective strategy. At first they are also annoying. A dancer bourrées across the stage like some Swan Queen, another joins her, then another. One starts an in-place stepping pattern, companions pick it up. A daisy-chain run calls up responses.

After a very short time this domino effect defocuses attention the way a déjà vu does. It also threatens to paralyze Falling’s thrust. But Slender keeps it going, and the set-up becomes uncomfortable because the process seems unstoppable. Then he shifts gears, with Shannon Leypoldt at the head of a diagonal shooting up her arm into the air as if delivering a manifesto.

That single gesture, besides elongating the body, becomes perhaps a leader’s command, an invitation, or a greeting among equals. It will be repeated over and over again, and everyone responds to it. To watch this process recalls cults and causes, rigid beliefs, and military indoctrination. In Falling, it’s insidious because not force but seduction sends those arms into the air. The initiation is made gently with a close body-to-body encounter as if in a tango. Tender hands help you take off that monkish, hooded robe to reveal the pretty dress, just like everyone else’s, underneath. Subjugation becomes possible because you really want to belong, no matter how hesitantly your arm responds.

There is a cool sense of inevitability about the way Leypoldt accrues these acolytes, until only Catherine Newman is left as the outsider. Desperately trying to hang on to her gown, and yet trying to step into the existing unisons, she attacks one of the dancers but crumples. That’s when hands reach out and welcome Newman to the brave new world accompanied by Dan Cantrell’s “angelic” voices. However, in that section, with its quasi-militaristic, though bare-foot stepping pattern, Falling stepped rather too close to literalism.

When Newman becomes the last acolyte and Leypoldt goes into a tailspin, Falling’s emotional temperature rises to something like a fever pitch. For the most part Slender keeps overt expressiveness in the cooler. The choreography stresses clarity and unity of purpose; there is little room for individual phrasing. Some of the floor patterns look as if they were designed on graph paper. Even when the dancers squirm flat on their backs and look like beasts about to expire, Darl Andrew Packard throws a harsh light on body parts as if they were on a dissecting table. Even in pretty phrases, elegantly rendered, the women look impersonal, primarily engaged in tasks — not in communicating. The dancing exists within strict parameters, yet not oppressively beyond the implications of the thematic material. The finale could have become melodramatic, but it didn’t; the dancers just walked away, leaving us with more questions than answers.

Falling benefits greatly from excellent production values. Packard suspended dozens of reflectors across the stage that blink on and off, suggesting a vast but dark space. Together with Slender he designed a simple set of dark woods in the beginning that became something like a world aflame at the end. Cantrell’s score, often fractured, is first-rate. Often you sense that the music, or its absence, serves as a comment to what’s happening in front of our eyes. Miyuki Bierlein designed two outstanding costumes, one a dark body-hiding robe, the other a subtly colorful summer frock that enhanced turns and suggested common ease. In addition to Leypoldt and Newman, the praiseworthy performers included Liane Burns, Michaela Burns, LizAnne Roman, and Amanda Whitehead.

Bass and space



DANCE Watching premieres by artists with track records is almost as satisfying as encountering pieces by those unknown to you. With the first, you wonder what else they have come with; with the second, you look for a voice that might grow to find even greater resonance.

Alonzo King, whose LINES Ballet celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is clearly in that veteran group. We know his approach to dance; by now we even have a sense about the conceptual streams that feed his choreography. We recognize his predilections for small units within a larger context. We know his preferences for a certain type of spatial and temporal fluidity. Yet he still manages us to surprise and excite us.

King’s collaboration with composer-bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, simply called Meyer, was full of unexpected physical turns and touches of narrative that rarely manage to insinuate themselves into King’s other choreography. Most gratifying were splotches of a light spirit, and a playful sense of presence. Not that there weren’t dark moments, but Meyer‘s sense of the complexities of human behavior floated much more to the surface than in many of King’s other works. Meyer is a friendly, welcoming piece that doesn’t play down to the audience. If that is a trend, let’s have more of it.

To see Michael Montgomery again and again tear up the space with such abandon was exhilarating. In the quartet, two couples actually competed with each other; they ended the stalemate by switching partners. In Meyer‘s somewhat enigmatic “Cards” segment, David Harvey — wonderful in a long off-balance moment — shuffled what I thought were letters, throwing them at an initially unperturbed but increasingly agitated Kara Wilkes, and spreading them around the stage to other dancers. I couldn’t help thinking about the damage that the indiscriminate dissemination of information can to do people. Harvey, somewhat obviously, then tried to eat the pieces of paper. Wilkes, who joined the company in 2011, did a star turn in this performance, turning herself inside out and upside down, ending crumpled.

For the pas de deux, Meyer went into the pit to play the piano. It was so refreshing after all those string sounds (Gabriel Cabezas on cello, Robert Moose on violin). Meredith Webster and Harvey, holding hands to support each other and keep the partner away, were wonderfully contentious and complementary. They deserved their ovation.

I believe that Meyer’s score — both new and assembled — and the musicians’ sensitive presence on stage are what made Meyer such a delightful experience. The dancers and the musicians worked with such ease that some of it looked as if had come about on the spur of the moment. Perhaps King decided to step out of the way and offer the performers a jazzy sense of freedom. Refreshingly, sometimes the dancers set a section going, and the musicians stepped into the picture. The large-scale finale, however, dragged on through several line dance formations. They were probably fun to do.

King choreographed the highly dramatic Writing Ground in 2010 for the Ballet de Monte Carlo. It’s a quintet for Webster and four men who manipulated her into becoming a tool that, at times, she acquiesced to but also desperately tried to escape from. At one point, she broke into a silent scream. The consistency with which her body was literally manhandled when it refused to cooperate was disturbing.

The program opened with two even older pieces. The six selections from the 2005 Handel, set to excerpts from the composer’s Concerto Grossi, did not make a satisfying new whole. They looked as if they had been slapped together. However, individually, they offered performance spotlights for dancers in a company that treasures and encourages independent thought.

In his solo, Paul Knoblauch, who joined LINES in 2012, proved himself as a technically assured perfumer with a wide reach and secure sense of space. Courtney Henry led the finale with a whippet’s speed and an almost desperate sense of volume. And all I could think of during the second reprise, the finale from the 1994 Ocean, was how fabulous that work looked with Pharoah Sanders and his extraordinary players in the pit. Couldn’t we please get all of Ocean back — including the musicians? *


Wed/24-Thu/25, 7:30pm; Fri/26-Sat/27, 8pm; Sun/28, 1 and 5pm, $30-65

LAM Research Theater

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,

700 Howard, SF



Without limits



DANCE Despite a last-minute change in the program, AXIS Dance Company’s 25th anniversary concert was a success. Founded as an ensemble for dancers with and without physical abilities, the company started with homegrown choreography that focused on the reason the company came into being. But under the artistic leadership of Judy Smith, AXIS started to stretch its reach by commissioning professional choreographers. Smith realized that it doesn’t matter how good the dancers are; no company can succeed unless it has a solid repertoire.

For AXIS this challenge is particularly acute because so many of its pieces are specifically designed for the company as it is at that moment. It’s not just that dancers with a variety of physical capabilities cannot easily be changed for others with similar strengths and challenges. So-called able-bodied dancers also need a particularly broad perspective on what it means to dance at the top of your abilities.

AXIS choreographers, for their part, have to rethink their own dance making. Many of them — at least those I have talked with — relish the chance to step out of their comfort zone. That’s why AXIS has become the place to see new choreography by people whose work you think you know and, who more often than not, will surprise you.

So to celebrate a quarter century of making dance you can’t see anywhere else with three world premieres seemed both appropriate and something to look forward to. Unfortunately, dance being the high-risk endeavor it is, Murphy’s Law kicked in. A few days before the gala, dancer Emily Eifler got injured. Consequently Amy Seiwert’s The Reflective Surface and Sonya Delwaide’s Dix minutes plus tard (Ten Minutes Later) had to be cancelled for the time being.

The evening did offer one first-rate premiere — Victoria Marks’ gentle and wistful what if would you — and a reconfigured version of Full of Words, Marc Brew’s 2011 look at the vagaries of love.

Marks’ choreography, set to a lively (and live-performed) commissioned score by Beth Custer and her multi-talented band, was for five dancers, but performed only by Joel Brown, Sonsherée Giles, Sebastian Grubb, and Juliana Monin. Still, what if is a remarkable achievement, an appropriate tribute to what AXIS has become.

It started so simply, growing out of an ordinary gesture: the stretched arm with an open hand. Every day, you reach, you touch, and you open and close doors or books. It’s also how we go beyond ourselves. The work, playfully, humorously, but also seriously, raised questions about opportunities, choices, and priorities made or rejected.

We first saw the dancers with their backs to us. They reached for something beyond themselves. But quickly their actions communicated frustration, anger, impatience, or revolt. What was orderly became chaotic — and funny — as they fumbled through repeated short-circuits. A sense of urgency crept in, and they turned to us with “what if” questions.

The piece reached a lovely and unexpectedly gentle climax when each dancer chose a partner from the audience. As the pairs worked together — whispering, touching, reaching, walking — they developed trust. Then they changed partners. Eventually, these interactions grew into an image of community with the obligatory handholding and daisy chains, however messy.

Brews’ Full of Words has been restructured for Brown, who assumed the role of the recently departed Rodney Bell. The piece is less well balanced because Brown, though also a wheelchair dancer, at this point is a less physically articulate performer. So the relationship between him and fellow performer Giles was not as charged as the one she had with an almost frighteningly fierce Alice Sheppard. As a result, Full lost much of its teeter-totter quality.

On a positive note the focus of attention fell more strongly on Grubb and Monin’s excitingly danced lovers duet. In and out of a bathtub, they were erotic, tender, playful, contentious, and physically grounded. You name an emotion that committed partners go through; Brew probably put it there.

Conflicted dictator


DANCE “Next door,” you are told in the packed Senegalese restaurant in the heart of the Mission. “Back there,” you hear, as a hand points in a very dark, very empty bar you enter through an unmarked door. What’s “back there”? It’s a large space, perhaps formerly used for storage, lit by blinking Christmas tree lights and two blinding spots. You wonder what a former African dictator would have thought about a celebration of his life being created in such circumstances. But then why would anybody want to pay tribute to a man who was responsible for the death of thousands of his fellow citizens?

The head of state in question is Sékou Touré, nicknamed “Syli” or “the Elephant,” who led Guinea to independence and in 1958 became the country’s first president. On the night I visit its practice space, Duniya Dance and Drum Company is working on piece about Touré, The Madness of the Elephant, which will world-premiere this weekend.

The elephant is still Guinea’s national symbol, says Duniya’s musical director, Guinea-born Alpha Oumar “Bongo” Sidibe, adding with some pride that their national soccer team is also called Syli. (“They are very good — they’ll go to the world championship.”)

But Sidibe also knows all about Touré’s darker side. “He was a Marxist and he did not tolerate dissent,” he explains. “But he also was a good man, a revolutionary and a man with a vision. His madness was both good and bad. He was the first president of my country. He gave hope to the people; he supported and built our culture. I would not be here as a dancer and as a musician if it was not for him.”

The first ensemble that put African dance on the world stage was Guinea’s Les Ballets Africains; it also became the continent’s first national dance company.

But Touré’s major act of “madness” came with independence when, says Sidibe, “he was the first guy in the world who dared to say ‘no’ to Charles de Gaulle,” rejecting Francophone post-colonial attempts to shape and control the country.

It’s with that crucial moment in Guinea’s history that Madness opens. It recalls the speech in which Touré declared Guineans would rather live poor but free than rich and enslaved. The rehearsing crowd leaps, cheers, and embraces each other to the drummers playing the national rhythm created for that historic occasion.

It’s a curious group. Four of the dancers are Africans with professional performance experience, but for the other eight the African rhythms and steps are clearly foreign. Yet they embody them well.

When these dancers auditioned for Duniya’s artistic director, Joti Singh, they thought they were enrolling in Bhangra, a folkloric dance from North East India. “I told them right away that we might also do African dance,” the American-born Sing, who’s of Punjabi descent, explains. As a child Singh learned to perform Bhangra at family celebrations and cultural festival, but she lost interest as she got older.

In college, she discovered West African dance and became passionate about it. She has twice traveled to and studied in Africa, speaks some Sousou — “I can understand much better than I can speak it” — and finds herself very comfortable in both worlds. Evidently, her dancers feel the same way “Everyone is welcome,” smiles Sidibe at a question surrounding possible cultural conflicts.

In another scene, rehearsed between much teasing and laughter, a group of what looked like women in an open-air market is attacked by baton-twirling thugs. They stand up to the men. The incident, explains Sidibe, was based on fact. “Touré created a special police to enforce Marxist economic principles. But one day the women marched to the Presidential Palace singing and chanting their objections. He abolished the force the same day.”

As is wont in much of West African culture, a djeli (a storyteller), accompanied by the balafon (a wooden xylophone) will provide the through line for Madness‘ musical, dramatic, and choreographed sequences. Sighs Singh, “That has been the hardest part of this project — trying to hold all these wonderful artists together in one place.”


Fri/5-Sat/6, 8pm, $15-30

Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

Kanbar Hall, 3200 California, SF



Mathematical certainty



DANCE ODC/Dance started its 42nd season with a party-happy gala and two contrasting but complementary works: Brenda Way’s new Lifesaving Maneuvers and KT Nelson’s redressed and finessed 2012 Transit: Next Stop. Two days later, the season’s major premiere, Triangulating Euclid, co-choreographed by Way, Nelson, and Kate Weare, opened an intriguing perspective on what gifted women can do when they put their heads and hearts together. Of course, women working together is not exactly a fresh idea at ODC — it’s at the core of what this troupe set out to do four decades ago.

Though the dark Lifesaving has its moments of humor, Way’s look at wild excesses and paralyzing paranoia, both as social and personal phenomena, is a tough watch. The piece develops in front of Alexander Nichols’ semi-transparent curtain that closes off some ominous, hinted-at life beyond our vision.

While the sheer clarity and force of its choreographic vision pulls you in, Way’s unsparing look on coping strategies is chilling. Chaotic explosions could distill into social dance sequences where a partner, nonetheless, could be dropped like a rock. Yayoi Kambara looked caught in a tornado from which there seemed to be no exit, while Anne Zivolich darted around like a hunted rabbit.

Way grounds the choreography in an intense, often frantic energy that implodes mid-air. She balances discontinuity with unity processions, starting with battlefield imagery of dancers carrying off fallen comrades, women being pushed into the wings like brooms and vacuously waving men and women that might have stepped out of a Pina Bausch piece.

Still, Way doesn’t want us to feel too gloomy. You can’t help but smile when dancers choke and need Heimlich maneuvers as "Mad About the Boy" plays. In a silent movie melodrama, Natasha Adorlee Johnson throws herself at Corey Brady’s suave villain; he coolly assesses his victim and flips her off.

The piece ends with Justin Andrews cradling a desperately flailing Vanessa Thiessen. He tries to comfort her; she can’t respond. Curtain.

Whatever the process that the three collaborators engaged in for Triangulating, it worked. At first the piece looks like an illustration of basic plane geometry, but it quickly blossoms into an exuberant celebration of the way dancers inscribe themselves into space. From the moment a dancer’s leg smudges the carefully drawn line on the floor, you realize that poetry supersedes science.

The half-hour piece sails through its accumulations and dissolutions of staggered and overlapping encounters with surety and an increasing sense of freedom. The piece grows and finishes with Yayoi Kambara as the single dancer who draws the others onto the stage. Line formations give way to duets — still at the core of how and why we dance. Wonderfully, the cantilevered lifts, upside-down holds, and kicking feet feel thoroughly at home in Schubert’s music. The partnering between Corey Brady and Maggie Stack, contentious and passionate in the way he throws and whips her around, stands out.

Finally, Anne Zivolich sniffs, tiptoes, and encircles an indifferent Jeremy Smith; she breaks into one of her by-now-legendary whiplashing explosions when he takes off with someone else. One by one her colleagues march in and try to stomp her to the ground. The scene was both hilarious and spoke to truth: surely there is more to this dancer than being a female hurricane —something she appears as in just about every choreography that ODC produces.

The simple costumes (by Way and Lisa Claybaugh) of black shorts and bras for the women, and then supplemented by diaphanous white blouses, couldn’t be better. The score’s trajectory from synthesizer to Schubert to grand-style minimalism did its job as well.

Nelson’s Transit: Next Stop has acquired a spectacular set of animations which contextualize her urban dwellers’ attempts to manage their relationships. Yet Barry Steele’s design is so big that it draws undue attention to itself. It works best during a night scene in which life becomes a dream. But I am not sure whether adding a filmic sense of passing and changing habitats brings that much to this funny-yet-tender perspective on what it means to be a contemporary city dweller. *


Wed/20-Thu/21, 7:30pm; Fri/22-Sat/23, 8pm; Sun/24, 4pm, $20-$75

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater

700 Howard, SF


Who am I?



DANCE CounterPULSE always makes a point of thanking its volunteers. One can only hope that they’ll turn up en masse to help clean up after Faye Driscoll and Jesse Zaritt step off the stage this coming weekend. Their You’re Me is not exactly what might be called a clean show. Still, if the work-in-progress preview, presented at the end of their residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts almost two years ago, is any indication, the mess is more than worth it. After all, most of us will recognize a mess when we see it.

The Los Angeles-born Driscoll lived in San Francisco from 2003 to 2005. She put in a shift at the ODC/Pilot Program — for on-the-verge choreographers — even though dance was not her primary focus at the time. As she explained in a recent phone conversation from her home in Brooklyn, in San Francisco, “I really was inspired by the music and art scene, hanging out with people who were putting band together that were kind of art bands.” At the time, she was in recovery mode from two years of performing and touring with Doug Varone and Dancers. Apparently it had not been all that happy a match — too much structure, too much energy from the top down.

So San Francisco — where the mantra is “you can do anything you want,” and where you go “to find yourself” — proved to be liberating experience for her, particularly because she had been so “serious and disciplined about dance” since her childhood.

In some ways Driscoll is still trying to find herself. On the most visible level You’re Me is a piece about a relationship — after all, it is performed by a man and a woman. But it’s also a work looking at identity: the one you claim for yourself, that one you are working toward, or the one that is imposed on you by the outside world. For many people that is unstable territory that tends to slide away from under your feet.

Partly because she “had a lot going on in my home that was kind of crazy,” and because she remembered people reflecting an identity back to her that was quite different than the one she experienced herself, Driscoll was drawn to dance early on. “Dance had the structure that allowed me to express what I am in the world,” she says. “It was the place where I could go and practice my movements and make myself open to other people’s bodies.”

You’re Me is inspired by the in-between spaces Driscoll observes in non-verbal human communication, as well as by fixed historic representations she and Zaritt collected in the visual arts, from Renaissance paintings to contemporary magazines. In the process they became fascinated by how ideas of what is masculine and feminine have changed over time. Finding much that resonated but also created dissonance within themselves, the experience fed into their appetites for trying out other identities.

To do that choreographically, in one section of the five-part 80-minute duet, the two performers also draw on one of the earliest ways kids try to tell us something about who they are. A little girl who wobbles around in her mother’s heels is considered cute. A little boy who prefers dresses to pants rings alarm bells. Role-playing, fantasy games, make-believe, dress-up —whether in a playgroup or the theater — are serious business. They present way of talking about being or becoming in the world. But they are also a lot of fun.

Driscoll describes her working process as taking “things and blowing them up, creating them to excess and putting them into rhythmic structure and try to pull them apart and grapple with them.” Here, in addition, to the physically demanding movement interactions, the dancers have to don, strip off, and exchange parts of props and costumes, often at dizzying speed. They rehearsed a lot, she says, and they have a prop master who makes sure that the final mess is nicely controlled.

Pulling You’re Me together, however, was a different challenge. Like many artists, Driscoll is homeless, scurrying around from one studio to another. “I could never rehearse with all that stuff I had to lug around.” That’s why the residency at Headlands became such a respite: they gave her a closet. *


Thu/7-Sun/10, 8pm, $20-$30


1310 Mission, SF



Game on



DANCE Unlike more commercially competitive markets, the Bay Area is, fortunately, still a place where young choreographers have the freedom to grow. This past weekend, two who are primarily known for dancing other people’s works showed their own promising premieres.

Katharine Hawthorne graduated from college with degrees in physics and dance. On February 22, its opening night at the Joe Goode Annex, you could not possibly miss Analog’s dual pedigree. This startlingly intense quintet opened on the quietest of notes but built its trajectory like a smoldering volcano that finally erupted into a threatening destructive force.

Looking at movement through a scientist’s lens, in conjunction with knowing it to be the dancer’s basic tool, allowed Hawthorne — and her fearlessly athletic dancers — to offer a fascinating perspective on how art and science can elegantly coexist with each other. However, why the dancers repeatedly lugged around an overhead project (and barely used it) remains a mystery.

A 19th century illustration of a mechanical hand, against which Katherine Disenhof wiggled her fingers, set the tone. Those tiny live gestures led other dancers (Hawthorne, Jesse Chin, Luke Taylor, and Megan Wright) to use their arms in almost machine-like ways, as if to demonstrate speed, direction, level, and space. Movements changed with sharp angles, trajectories were linear, and collisions avoided. Dancers also looked like planets circling a sun. Chin and Taylor repeatedly repulsed each other like two positively charged particles. Wright found herself in a whirling circle — a tornado about to take off.

But more and more the movements’ relentless and increasing intensity began to look like threats to the dancers’ well being. Several times I thought Chin was about to collapse though touches and handholds seemed to suggest temporary respite. Yet Analog resembled a nightmarish perpetuum mobile until finally the clock began to slow everything down. We were left with darkness descending on the two dancers left. I couldn’t decide whether that meant peace or the ultimate catastrophe.

As a performer, Tanya Bello brings a ferocious appetite for space, soaring elevations, and dizzying spins to her dancing. So it was almost expected that as a young choreographer she brought many of these characteristics to GamesWePlay(ed), which premiered at the ODC Dance Commons this past weekend. The half-hour piece is a nicely calibrated essay on play as both an innocent activity but also as a means to manipulate those around us. Bello wisely engaged dancers from top local companies: Vilte Bacinskaite, Tristan Ching Hartmann, Kelly Del Rosario, Norma Fong, Chin-chin Hsu, Mei-ling Murray, and Katherine Wells. The work also greatly benefited from Judy Hansen’s costumes, which were elegant, tiny dresses with just a wisp of a tutu suggestion.

GamesWePlay(ed) consisted of a number of distinct episodes which included versions of tag, races, imitation, and mirroring activities, but also pure dance sections. Some looked highly structured only to explode; others involved repeated and fast partner changes. Woven wicker balls were passed around but also hung onto. When Del Rosario curled up on the floor, a tiptoeing Wells gently sent him back into the fracas. I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was a joke here since as the ensemble’s only male, Del Rosario had to do all of the heavy lifts.

Though the work was not particularly fresh in terms of the vocabulary used, Bello showed an already impressive control in the way she used the dancers on stage. The choreography — from solos to septets — flowed and dissolved with almost filmic quality. A mirroring duet opened up into a group, loosing its architecture but gaining breath. Two dancers approaching each other from opposite corners became a double duet. But the piece also had its moments of (ballet?) humor when Fong released a quartet of shadowing women from their monotonous tasks. At another point dancers flopped over received a magic touch to blossom again like those eternal flowers in the Nutcracker.

Towards the end Bello went back to material used earlier in the piece. Was that just to lead up to a finale? There must be better ways to end a show.

Performing on the same program was Karen Reedy Dance from Washington, D.C. Reedy’s Sleepwalking (2008) was a beautifully danced septet, a work that gently yet penetratingly considered what makes us panic and silently scream at night.

Something old, something new



DANCE Once a year, long-time colleagues Todd Eckert and Nol Simonse share an evening showcasing their choreography. Unfortunately, the “Shared Space Six” program, presented last weekend at Dance Mission Theater, was not as promising as one would have hoped. Most dispiriting was that the evening’s best piece, Eckert’s Disparate Affinity, dates back to 2006.

Performed by Eckert and his former colleague at Robert Moses’ Kin, Katherine Wells, Disparate is a sensitively developed exploration of how two different people can inhabit similar universes. Here, they become aware of each other, finally get together only to separate again.

With her long-limbed physique, Wells looks as fragile as a reed, but she has a fierce and versatile technique, making her one of the finest dancers in the Bay Area. She and Eckert — strong, muscular, and sturdy — complemented each other excellently. At first occupying opposite spaces on stage, they engaged in a long-distance conversation. When they finally met, touch became an essential part of their connecting. As Eckert floated away, she was left holding in her hand the space he had occupied.

Unfortunately, Simonse badly misstepped in the premiere of his disappointing Kafka Sex Party, set primarily on himself and four male dancers, with Tanya Bello and Kaitlyn Ebert acting as, perhaps, guides to a netherworld. Referencing the fate of Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Simonse wiggled in with a giant shell on his back. He repeatedly asserted that this was who he was, and if you wanted to touch him, that’s what you’d get. Bello and Ebert, in black accessorized with aviator sunglasses, cheerfully liberated him, and the scene shifted to a dungeon.

Bathed in murky red light, the men — in black leather dance belts — pumped, stretched, and slid onto each other’s bodies, coupling and retreating. At one point, three of them squeezed themselves into a sandwich. These anonymous encounters occurred as if on cue, as did the periodic group hops and risings from the back like the spokes of a wheel. In the work’s third section, white streamers were lowered from a fan into a maypole for the men to dance around. Was it a dream or a nightmare, or both?

One of Kafka‘s difficulties may be that Simonse took a highly evocative literary reference but didn’t work with it enough (or, at least, not clearly enough). Also, the anonymous erotic encounters he tried to suggest are difficult to translate to the stage. They were both too stilted and too bland. The uncredited musical collage of rumbling drums threatening melodic strains had the kind of complexity that the choreography sadly lacked.

Last year, Simonse danced in a black ruffled skirt with Theatre Flamenco. He looked fabulous. So perhaps, it’s not surprising that for the premiere of I Could Never Make You Stay he donned a white facsimile. His and Eckert’s first try at co-creation yielded an unwieldy but harmless affair with some fine and a lot of meandering dancing. Each choreographer contributed a perspective on impermanence.

Eckert’s duet with handsomely trained newcomer David Schleiffers had the two men locked in a frozen head-to-head collision. It’s an image that would re-occur. They looked like boxers waiting for the referee to step in. But then some mysterious force started to turn and unglue them into luscious encounters with sensuously interlocking arms and a sense of spacious, though temporary, connection between them.

Taking a break from hanging laundry, Simonse’s well-paced solo sent him scurrying along the ground, loping across the stage, curling and shooting his limbs in all directions. Dancing on to his toes with his arms into ballet’s high fifth position, he projected his longing upward. I Could Never‘s most charming sequence, however, came with an unlikely duet for tall, sturdy and visibly pregnant Peta Barrett and a weasel-like Chad Dawson.

The white T-shirts on Simonse’s laundry line may have stood for past loves — but perhaps they were just ordinary white shirts. A quartet of women, in a feminist metaphor, wiped the floor with them, or donned them as accoutrements. The grand finale’s 16 whirling dancers cheerfully asserted as couples the work’s title, and indeed, they couldn’t make each other stay. Dressed in voluminous white wedding gowns, they looked as if they’d been plopped into creampuffs. Rigorously shaking their colorfully clad legs, they metamorphosed into circus artists.

Dynamic duo



DANCE The Bebe Miller Company’s A History at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last weekend proved to be both exhilarating and frustrating. First, the good: watching two gorgeous dancers engage each other in one encounter after another — both huge and tiny — for over an hour. Gradually, they emerged as two completely different and yet ever-so-compatible characters.

Angie Hauser can look almost demure, but there is such fierceness to her presence that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of that intensity. Darrell Jones, a tall, lanky dancer with limbs that can (and do) shoot in all directions simultaneously, is unstoppable — yet he also has teasing sense of humor about him. If Hauser could be almost earnest in her focus, Jones brought an often relaxed, quasi-casual quality to their work.

In the program notes, Miller says that History is a work about making work, specifically about having worked with Hauser and Jones for the last decade. On video Miller is a tiny figure, planted like a tree in a lush meadow, telling us that her body — and by implication that of her dancers — is "possessed by past dances." So History is a piece about excavating shards, remembering, or as one of the texts says, "remember remembering," everything that goes into the creative process. That’s a tough assignment. While conceptually intriguing, the 70-minute work didn’t completely convince because it didn’t stand as its own artifact with its own parameters. Hence the frustration.

History‘s collaborators, including the choreographer and her long-time dramatist Talvin Wilks, conceived of the work as a multi-media experience in which spoken and projected text, video images, and live dance would collide with each other. Unfortunately, the co-existence of these elements too often didn’t spark, proving to be more distracting than illuminating. Viewing History thus became an exercise in both reveling in and rebelling against the experience.

Even as History continued to slip one’s grasp, it was beautiful to watch. Mimi Lien’s semi-transparent panels enveloped the dancers in a neutral yet luminous space. At its best moments, Lily Skove’s video ran alongside the dancers and sometimes almost reached to grab them. The opening and closing images resonated particularly well. Michael Wall and Darren Morze’s score ranged from soft humming to a dance-y tune that sent the performers into paroxysms of joyous.

But it was Hauser and Jones who carried History. Their rich interactions were in a constant state of flux. Some were funny, some contentious; others were intimate, still others playful. Their sense of ease with each other may have developed over the last decade, but on stage it didn’t make any difference where it came from. Hauser is the verbal dynamo to Jones’ high-speed physicality; when she exploded into one of her speed monologues, he responded with a tease, or by simply rolling off their shared bed. They wearily watched each other using space, but also companionably loped around the periphery and engaged in hand games at the table. They did things as ordinary as taking off a partner’s shoe, or kneading one another like a piece of rising dough. If he came close, she flipped him off with a gesture. In an extended contact-improv inspired section, their bodies attempted to fuse almost to the point of eroticism. But they didn’t go all the way there.

One of History’s ingenuous devices was the use of headphones — the big, old-fashioned kind. The dancers raced to them periodically for a kind of grounding. Were they gateways to the past or did the simple act of listening — or yakking back — offer a respite from the physicality of moving? The headphones also highlighted the differences between the two dancers. Hauser devoured whatever she got from them, while Jones’ reactions were a lot more nonchalant.

Ultimately one walks away from History, imperfect vehicle that it is, with a sense of two dancers whose humanity is so closely integrated with what they do that you couldn’t tell the difference between the person and the persona. It was a rich idea to take home.

Peace corps



DANCE In a pre-rehearsal conversation at the ODC Commons, choreographer Robert Moses says that his newest piece, Nevabawarldapece (“never be a world of peace”– premiering at YBCA Fri/25-Sun/27), is “a dance about protest movements.” The evening-length work is set on ten dancers and is a collaboration between Moses and Obie and Bessie winning writer-performer Carl Hancock Rux; activist and singer-composer Laura Love; and MacArthur Fellow and blues musician Corey Harris. The trio will perform live during this weekend’s world premiere at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

The impetus for Neva, explains Moses, came less from the specifics of historic revolutions and contemporary challenges to the social order than from the people who gave their all attempting to bring about fundamental change — only to see their efforts dissipated, co-opted, or met with failure. “It’s about idealism, the loss of it, and then what you do? What are you left with if the rage, the energy, and all the sacrifices you have made fall by the wayside? Can you pick up and keeping moving forward? I don’t know,” he says.

Moses and Love, who is in town for her first look at the company, discussed leaders like Malcolm X, James Brady, and Nat Turner, but also contemporary movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and environmental activism. Referencing Sisyphus’ rock, Moses says, “When it falls, it’s hard to go down that mountain and pick it up again. It takes courage and energy to roll it and believe that this time it just might stay up.”

For Love the choice is clear. “I have moments of disillusionment, and moments when I believe that we can have justice. Right now I am more afraid not to act than to act.” She remembers a banner at a recent Freedom of Choice rally that said: “I can’t believe that we have to do this again.”

Neva had been in the back of Moses’ mind for a long time. “It’s a big idea,” he admits. So he was pleasantly surprised that when he called his now collaborators and described exactly what he wanted to explore, everybody agreed to participate. For Love, it was Moses’ willingness to not restrict her role. (Moses laughs, “I can’t do what she does, so why would I restrict her?”)

Love and Harris sent him musical suggestions; Hancock Rux emailed texts he had written. Moses has yet to determine Neva’s final shape. For instance, he has two versions of one of Love’s banjo tunes. He also wants to hear Hancock Rux’s voice reading text. “I don’t want to pin myself down, because when we get together I want to see how context and content push against each other.”

Heading into rehearsal, he chuckles, “Yeah, the piece is finished … and it is not.” A thread, he knows, will emerge when everybody finally meets in the studio a few days before the premiere. Right now, he explains, the dancers have between 30 and 40 choreographic sections from which choices will be made.

In the studio on this particular afternoon, the dancers work on three of these pieces. As other couples observe and copy, Moses refines small gestures — a handgrip, a leg stretch, an overhead lift — on tiny Norma Fong and lanky Brendan Barthel. Then Crystaldawn Bell, softly but intensely, talks the company through a section that she has developed based on a solo which Moses had created for senior dancer Katherine Wells. Finally, Moses gives newcomer Jeremy Bannon-Neches five minutes to keep teaching to the company a piece he had choreographed for him. “The teaching is good experience,” Moses notes.

Dripping with sweat, tired to the point of exhaustion, and throwing themselves with every ounce of their being into fierce, volatile, and ever-changing movement challenges, the dancers are an odd contrast to the studio’s serene and neutral environment. They are also unstoppable — just like those who are willing to commit whatever it takes to make their ideals come to life.


Fri/25-Sun/27, 8pm, $25-$50

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Lam Research Theater

700 Howard, SF



New steps



THEATER/DANCE Choreographer Mary Armentrout’s itinerant, site-specific performance installation, reveries and elegies, passed through CounterPULSE last weekend. A post-solstice meditation on dislocation and flux, it was also the harbinger of a striking new season at the SOMA performance incubator. In fact, reveries and elegies, true to its theme of displacement, can be considered the odd one out among programming whose defining structure is the duet.

A broad range of interpretation and subversion of that basic form comprises CounterPULSE’s Queer Series, running January through March and showcasing new work from artists as diverse and far-flung as New York’s Faye Driscoll, the Minneapolis-based BodyCartography Project, San Francisco’s Annie Danger, Berlin-based American Jeremy Wade, and conjoined local choreographic dynamo Jarry (aka Jesse Hewit and Laura Arrington).

If you’ve followed the vicissitudes of programming at CounterPULSE even intermittently, a glance at this year’s calendar prompts a double take for the careful concentration of work and the thematic consistency it evinces, in addition to its impressive international lineup. The rigorous queering of the duet structure underlined by the series, for instance, comes further elaborated through complimentary work like DavEnd’s well-received 2012 debut, F.A.G.G.O.T.S.: the Musical! (which turns on a duet of sorts with a wall mirror) as well as some rich auxiliary events.

The latter include a talk on gender by Judith Butler (on February 16) and, on February 28 (the eve of Danger’s genuflection to sexual healing and empowerment, The Great Church of the Holy Fuck), a screening of Community Action Center (2010), the aesthetically and politically astute, 69-minute, queer, trans, women-centered celebration/subversion of 1970s porn by A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner. (That program includes a post-screening Q&A with Steiner, whose film was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art).

The duet form (and the act of reimagining it) is an apt metaphor for the programming model behind the season too, which represents something of a departure from business as usual.

CounterPULSE’s Julie Phelps, central in the development of the season and currently serving as interim artistic and executive director for Jessica Robinson Love (who is on sabbatical), explained that the Queer Series and the season as a whole had emerged from some serious rethinking at the organizational level.

“We were sort of primed to embark on this new season, which [comes directly] after our strategic planning process, where we really identified who we are, how we do what we do, and what limits we still have on our impact.”

Phelps says one limit they identified was a single-minded commitment to the bottom line that was keeping certain kinds of work almost permanently out of reach — for example, much work by touring artists from out of the state or country, for which there is relatively little foundational money available for tapping.

“We’re actually, financially, a very conservative organization,” says Phelps, “which has brought with it a lot of stability — very important especially in the young years of an organization, but ultimately stopping us from taking risk on vision. We were always on a break-even model. Either it needs to be some mix of foundation support or some other kind of funding with some tickets sales. The bottom line always has to equal zero. So we’ve been pushing ourselves to think bigger about the types of risks that we can take.”

That’s far from inviting recklessness, Phelps stresses, but it does mean modifying notions of financial success and failure, bringing them in line with an artistic spirit of experimentation and what might be thought of as the useful flop.

“Actually, failure is just as valid a result as success,” says Phelps. “When we had been building failure out of every income model we had, we’d also been building out risk from some of the artistic selections, and from the way we were making artistic selections. We’ve really only just recently moved into curating in the first place. Before we were like, we have a space, if you want to do a show, come ask us and we’ll work it out. [In this] season, every artist was someone we approached and worked with, found out ways that they could intersect with CounterPULSE, what was financially viable for us and for them, what was artistically interesting for us and for them — actually build something from the inside out, instead of the outside in.”

Despite the considerate design in the program, Phelps calls it more art than science and insists it’s all “still a very organic process,” noting that the queer label is at least partly one of sheer convenience.

“I mean, ‘queer’ is basically the only banner that you could fly over that season, and only because it is so indistinct — because actually each of these works is hugely different. So there’s still a patchwork element to it, but it’s a little bit more deliberate [than usual],” she explains, laughing at the metaphor carrying her away. “At least the patches were picked out, and the fabric was cut to shape before they were added to the quilt this time.” *






DANCE After a decade of dancing and choreographing in the Bay Area, Cid Pearlman departed for Los Angeles, spent a year in Estonia, and now lives in Santa Cruz.

At last May’s San Francisco International Arts Festival, she re-introduced herself with This is what we do in winter, choreographed in 2010 for both her own dancers and performers from Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. In that piece, dance as social activity beautifully co-existed with the art as rigorous practice. This is what made you wonder what else this choreographer might have percolating.

It turns out to be the premiere of the intriguingly named Your Body is Not a Shark, a collaboration between Pearlman, composer Joan Jeanrenaud, and poet Denise Leto. Maya Barsacq, music director of chamber orchestra Cadenza, instigated the project. The women came together with a common interest in exploring constraints — physical and otherwise — as a generative force in art making. “In dance,” Pearlman says, “the young athletic body is the norm. I want to explore physical differences because I am interested in complicated stories that show people at different stages in their lives.” Shark’s seven dancers range from 18 to 64.

As a no-longer-young dancer, the 49-year-old Pearlman knows about the fragility and vulnerability of the human body. But, as she pointed out in a New Year’s Day conversation from Santa Cruz, “there are different kinds of virtuosity. There is hugely physical, deeply embodied dancing in your 20s and 30s which relies on strength and sharpness technique. Older dancers bring maturity to their work. If they can’t jump so high, don’t ask them to. You ask a performer to do what they are good at.”

“Limitations can hit you any time,” she adds. “It’s part of the human condition.” Her collaborators know whereof she speaks. Poet Leto, who wrote the text for this production, likes to present her works orally. A few years ago, she developed dystonia, a neurological disorder that has affected her vocal chords. “Sometimes she can get the words out, sometimes she can’t,” Pearlman says. But like the dancer who finds new ways to use her body, Leto has developed new strategies for presenting her poetry. Among them is the presence of a co-reader, “so if her voice gives out, the other person picks up.” Jeanrenaud was a cellist with the Kronos Quartet who had to alter her musical career in 1999, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She too adapted to the changed circumstances by becoming a solo performer and composer with wide-ranging works in many media.

Each of these three artists has faced the restrictions on their expressiveness by expanding their reach. (And as Pearlman points out, sharks die if they stop moving.) At the core of Shark are Leto’s poems, each written within the constraints of separate, highly formal parameters: a sestina, an oulipo, and a tanka. She then turned the verses over to Jeanrenaud, who generated a sound collage and an instrumental score to be performed by herself, percussionist William Winant, and members of the Cadenza chamber players. Leto too will be on stage.

Shark’s most demanding task by going farther afield may well have been Pearlman’s. Having immersed herself in the verses’ technical demands — some of them sound like algorithms — she shaped her choreography along the same rules. Leto seems to be happy with how her partners have worked with the poems. “Taken off the page — by the movement of bodies and the movement of sound — they have become something altogether different,” she says in the introduction to the texts’ printed version.

But what about the rest of us? With its intricately interweaving of formal questions and demands, will Shark be readable to an audience? “It’s not a problem,” Pearlman laughs. “They don’t have to know how it works. It’s an experiment. It’s meant to be a puzzle.” *


Fri/11-Sat/12, 8pm; Sun/13, 3pm, $18-$24

ODC Theater

3153 17th St, SF



Discovery channels



YEAR IN DANCE Looking back on 2012’s over 500 performances — as calculated by Dancers’ Group — the game of “best” and “worst” makes less sense than ever. What makes the Bay Area a place worth living in is the vitality of its arts, and dance in particular. We only have one superstar company, San Francisco Ballet, but we’ve got a number of excellent mid-size ensembles and just enough of a competitive environment to discourage rank amateurism.

Whether for financial reasons or a desire to forego the demands of conventional stage presentations, dancers have continued their exodus to galleries and museums, like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Asian Art Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, and the de Young Museum. But they have also presented work in public spaces: City Hall, Market Street, Union Square, and Golden Gate Park. These performances necessitate the rethinking of formal parameters, but also reach out to new audiences.

Here are ten companies and artists who challenged expectations or unveiled surprises (at least to me) in 2012. Surprises from young artists are the norm, but experienced choreographers have a far more difficult task when it comes to catching viewers off-guard.

In the middle of March (and after 40 years of rethinking time, space, and motion), Eiko and Koma presented their most radical performance yet. With the breathtaking Fragile, a four-hour meditation in which they moved perhaps two feet, they stretched every conceivable theatrical concept beyond where it could reasonably be expected to go. It was mesmerizing, though I kept wondering where Fragile would be without the wondrous collage of music that David Harrington had assembled for his Kronos Quartet.

Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy), a many-tentacled creature that sprawled and oozed its way through Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, was one of the year’s most controversial premieres. No easy viewing, it showed that, for all his passion to redesign the social order, Hennessy is still working on creating new vehicles into which to pour his content. Gratifyingly, Hennessy just received a USA Fellows Award, one of only five Bay Area choreographers to have been so honored.

Monique Jenkinson’s splendid solo Instrument just finished its run at CounterPULSE. It needs to come back. She’s known as Fauxnique in her drag alter ego, but there is nothing faux about this dancer-performance artist. In Instrument, perhaps Jenkinson’s finest work yet, she asks questions about the body as a tool and the nature of being on stage. The figure of Rudolf Nureyev gave her the entrance into a witty but also heartbreaking portrayal of what it means to be a performer.

Even if you watch dance a lot, once in a while it happens that somebody pops up that you have never seen — and yet what they show is already excellent. Such was the case with Nicole Klaymoon’s Embodiment and her joyously rocking House Matter. Working with very good modern and hip-hop dancers, plus jazz singer Valerie Troutt and her vocal ensemble, the women created an evening-long piece about how a house can become a home.

Jenny McAllister’s two-year old 13th Floor Dance Theater is the newest incarnation of McAllister’s dance making endeavors. She has been choreographing genuinely funny dance, often sending up popular culture, for a long time. Bloomsbury/It’s Not Real was her first evening-length work. Using reality TV as a format, she came up with a lovingly loony but smart portrait of the lives and loves of that motley crew known as the Bloomsbury Group.

At the end of September, Birju Maharaj, the 74-year-old Kathak virtuoso, packed the Palace of Fine Arts with a primarily Indian audience who sat through a four-plus hour performance of superb dance. Maharaj performs here every couple of years, often with a similar repertoire. And still you sit there and can’t believe your eyes and ear at this gentle, witty, and generous artist playing “games” with someone like Zakir Hussein.

During its 41st home season, ODC/Dance premiered KT Nelson’s Transit. Taking one look at Max Chen’s whimsical bike concoctions, I just knew that they would steal the show — but they didn’t. Nelson used these metamorphosing velocipedes to call to the stage an image of urban life as fast-paced, fluid, and unstable. Yet for all its fractured continuity, Nelson and ODC’s superb dancers seemed to say, it’s a wonderful life.

San Francisco Ballet’s Beau raised more eyebrows than any of its other commissions, as far as I can remember. Longtime guest artist Mark Morris has built up expectations, so people were furious, feeling let down by what they considered thin, slipshod, easy-way-out choreography. My opinion was in the minority — so I’m looking forward to the piece’s return to find out whether what I thought was there, really is.

In the fall, my first encounter with Einstein at the Beach opened my ears and eyes to what I had known as “an opera” by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass. Surprising to see was how its exquisite details and extraordinary stylization owed more to kabuki than opera, and how Lucinda Childs’ choreography fit into it like a jewel set into a frame. For once the hype surrounding a piece did not even approach the reality of the experience.

Dancers around the world know the Venezuelan-born David Zambrano as a superb, idiosyncratic teacher. So his Soul Project, set to a rich selection of blues and soul music, raised questions about his approach to choreography. Using the YBCA’s Forum as a unified space for dancers and audience, Soul’s meandering trajectory — you never knew who would perform what where — made this one of the year’s most intimate experiences. To be a couple of inches away from such different, yet such superb performers doing what they do best was a treat.


Sing the body


DANCE Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ new Director of Performing Arts, received thunderous applause even before he had said a welcoming word to the capacity crowd in the venue’s lobby. Such is this exceptional artist’s charisma. When he told them that he wanted YBCA to become accessible to people who in the past may not have felt welcome there, they roared. It was to be that kind of evening.

For “Clas/sick Hip Hop,” Bamuthi’s first program in his new position, he drew on what he knows so well — not just hip-hop as dance, but as a culture that has spread around the globe. Still an essentially urban genre, it started as a popular expression that is moving from the community into the concert hall. It’s how dance genres have always evolved, from India to Egypt to France. For the time being, hip-hop seems to thrive in both places.

While San Francisco’s yearly International Hip Hop DanceFest has a rich tradition of presenting theatricalized versions, Bamuthi went back to the origins of the art as an essentially social practice. He structured “Clas/sick” in two parts: the first half as a dance party with guest artists freestyling, the second half based on more formalized “battles” between individual practitioners.

If anybody still needs convincing of hip-hop’s potential as an expressive dance language, “Clas/sick” made as good a point as one could wish for. This sextet of bravura performers mesmerized without theatrical accoutrements, just working with music, a torso, and four limbs. They seemed to ignore physical restrictions such as gravity, balance, time, or verticality. No ballerina can slither in her toe shoes as they did in their sneakers. And who has ever of supporting turns on an ankle? While many of the moves — head spins, backspins, windmills, popping and locking — looked familiar, these soloists rethought the basic vocabulary and made them their own.

<P>Levi Allen (a.k.a. I Dummy), the 19-year-old obviously joint-less virtuoso from Oakland, dances the Oakland street-derived style Turf, while Marquesa “NonStop” Scott, who manipulates time from super slow and superfast, performs Dubstep. Arthur “Lil Crabe” Cadre turns himself into pretzels while hopping on one hand. I was previously unaware of what “Memphis Jookin” is — but it was clear that Ladia Yate’s platform shoes were a health risk even just standing, let alone dancing in them. (Sensibly she later safeguarded her feet in sneakers.) As for Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, she magnificently overcame gravitational pull by shooting horizontally along the floor only to rock up as smoothly as a tree righting itself.

But none of these physically virtuosic performers approached the depth of Rennie Harris, who some 20 years ago started the move towards developing choreographic structures that make hip-hop more than an expression of individuality. He no longer pops and locks as he used to, but he remains enthralling, with split-second mood shifts from rage to vulnerability, aggression to pride, and fatigue to full power ahead. Harris’ performance impressed the sense of a human being as complex and indomitable.

In the first half the audience danced lustily — so much fun to watch — to DJ Elan Vytal’s spinning, while the professionals brought in their own tracks. For the battles, Matthew Szemela took his fiddle to places where I didn’t know it could go. It’s not clear whether these hip-hop performers had ever faced each other, but here they had to step beyond themselves and relate to a partner. They approached each other wearily much as they might on a street or a boxing arena, throwing out challenges and invitations, finally coming to an understanding (or not). Scott and Allen’s sliding and toe moves were reminiscent of ice skating, while Cadre’s duet with Garcia came as close to a courting encounter as you are likely to find in hip-hop.

It remains to be seen where Bamuthi intends to take the performing arts at YBCA. One thing is clear: he recognizes excellence when he sees it. He also throws a helluva a good party. *

Midwinter dreaming



DANCE This weekend the parade of holiday entertainments started off on a festive note, and it wasn’t thanks to another interpretation of The Nutcracker or good old Scrooge. It was a brand new charmer from two experienced choreographers who pooled their artistic resources in 2008 to form Garrett + Moulton Productions. Given Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton’s different artistic temperaments, this union sounded like an iffy proposition. But with three hits to their credit, the duo has proved that opposites do indeed attract.

Garrett and Moulton’s newest endeavor for their four dancers, Angles of Enchantment, might not have been quite as consistently involving as their previous collaborations — but it was such a pleasure to watch the skill with which they handled the tasks they had set for themselves.

Angles was a frothy, endearing, and at-times rambunctious quartet that manages to suggest that we may not be doomed to live frantic lives without time or space for fantasy, abandon, and such a thing as pure fun. It was an excellent antidote to holiday anxiety.

The work’s biggest surprise, and one of its chief attractions, was Peter Whitehead’s imaginative score. In dance, music usually fulfills a supportive role. Here its high profile often drew not-unpleasant attention to itself. With his splendid collection of instruments — from kids’ noisemakers to homemade banjos — Whitehead called up a vibrant soundscape. A gentle singer, his lyrics spoke about the small joys and small pains of ordinary people. This kept Angles’ sometimes madcap fancifulness grounded. The music even suggested narrative threads. It made me wonder how effective Angles would be without that emotional backbone.

In the beginning, when the four dancers momentarily hooked up one-on-one, only to frantically pursue someone else in the next spotlight, it wasn’t clear whether they were playing or escaping. They leaped and grasped and tumbled, piling up on top of each other. But then, after a blackout — there were several — the dancers reappeared as if kissed by fairy dust, cavorting in the most ridiculous tutus and matching headdresses. The whole thing began to feel like a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Tegan Schwab became an airborne, mischievous fairy with fingers and feet aflutter, when she was not interfering with Whitehead’s music making. A little later she morphed into a majestically promenading tree under which Nol Simonse found momentary respite. Lanky Carolina Czechowska, perhaps a wood sprite, sported what might have been an acorn hat — until she returned in a black tutu and sexy gloves, as a sexy sorceress whose breath made everyone tremble.

Tanya Bello and Simonse, both of them longtime colleagues in the company, paired up for a series of quasi pas de duex. They were our lovers, teasing each other with playful touches and kicks. Sitting together on a bench, they looked like the end of a Hollywood movie.

Bello barely comes up to Simonse’s chin, but their yearning arms interlocked as equals. And if Bello and Simonse are physically different, temperamentally they are even farther apart. It’s what gave their dancing together such frisson. Bello was a witty whirlwind, whether she spun like a top or raced circles around a partner. Languid and fluid, Simonse could not deliver an inexpressive gesture if he tried. He remains a marvel of a dancer.

There was something vaudevillian about the way Angles’ individual scenes, separated by darkness, followed each other. The structure did not quite sustain itself for a whole hour, delightful as this flight into a world of fairies, pixies, and playful Pucks was. Angles ends on a note of pure hilarity. For the finale, the dancers dressed in ballet wedding outfits: the women in huge white tutus, Simonse equally splendid in half a frock coat. And just to top it off, designer Margaret Hatcher adorned them with strings of Christmas tree lights. Happy holidays to one and all. 


Thu/29-Sat/1, 8pm (also Sat/1, 2pm); Sun/2, 2 and 7:30pm, $30-$36

ODC Theater

3153 17th St, SF



No satisfaction



DANCE The tenth anniversary concert for Benjamin Levy’s LEVYdance Company should have been an occasion for looking back a little and glancing into the future a lot. The fact that this was a subdued, at-time depressing event was certainly not the dancers’ fault. They were fabulous, crackerjack performers: fierce, fast, and committed, whether in solo passages or in ensemble work. If you watch dance primarily because of its performers, this was your night.

Where the program fell short was in choreography that would stay in your mind beyond its ephemeral existence on stage. Instead of showing a work that would hint at where he might be going in the next decade, Levy chose to present two pieces from the past. Good as they were, they gave the unfortunate impression that he is a one-note choreographer. He is not. One of the reasons this choreographer has been a pleasure to watch over the years is because he tries to find new vehicles for his volatile and fractured vocabulary. Despite their surface appeal, an undercurrent of violence and danger often propels Levy’s choreographies. It’s what keeps you on the edge of your seat.

It’s with the stunningly tight Falling After Too that Levy introduced himself as choreographer in 2003. Performing it himself at the time, he was partnered by a much heftier Christopher Hajin Lee. The up and down of this contest between will and muscle was partly based on the two men’s different physicalities. Reprised as a duet between Yu Reigen and a slender Paul Vickers, it inevitably shifted the focus onto a male-female relationship. It’s a sign of the work’s choreographic strength — and the performance, including Anthony Porter on piano — that it worked as well as it did.

But why did Levy program Physics (2008), which is essentially an elaboration for two couples of that earlier work? The sequential and overlapping duets, including switching partners, didn’t really tell us much about these couples. Still, Levy has an appealing way of including tiny gestures — a pat here, a kick there — in the muscularity of these ever-shifting encounters. They suggested a sense of spontaneity not unlike the grace notes in a piece of music.

And why Levy chose Sidra Bell Dance New York to collaborate on this concert remains a mystery. What on earth did he think his company — such as it is — could learn from Bell’s? Robert Moses’ Kin introduced her last spring when she set a modest quartet on his female dancers. Here the New York-based artist created less for Levy, and Nudity for her own dancers. Bell knows a good thing when she sees it; she sent her dancers behind the screen, up the walls, and into the audience. She took advantage of ODC Theater’s vaunted lighting possibilities, lowering and tilting levels of the grids in less and having a bank of floor lights shine directly into her audience in Nudity. Maybe turn-around is fair play since that’s what performers have to deal with on a daily basis. But there was something offensive about the approach that left my seat neighbor with a fierce headache and a fiercer fury.

Bell is a complete creature of the theater. Interestingly, she takes credit as “director” instead of “choreographer” of her works. One thing is certain: she is big on image making — whether they come from Glamour or “girlie” (and their male counterpart) magazines. And the accoutrement of these two dance theater works looked promising; the dancers in less wore flimsy whites with big, noose-like scarves, and in Nudity they went Goth — mohawks, black outfits, and fright make-up.

Spectacle, in-your-face aggressiveness, a contempt for continuity in favor of the moment, and raw and supposedly unmediated energy seem to be the elements that fascinate Bell. That’s fine and good, but these practices need to arise from ideas that suggest more than clichés. A man crawling on all fours? Throwing people and catching them — sometimes? Retching to some comment on nutrition — in French? Dominatrixes in both pieces?

The ferocious physicality of Bell’s dance making is its most attractive quality, but the imagery — and she uses a lot of it — has to accumulate into something bigger than its constituent parts. Otherwise why do it? Both of Bell’s works fell short that way. They left behind a sense of ennui and déjà vu.

GOLDIES 2012 LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT: Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center


GOLDIES John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and Fayard and Harold Nicholas are among the dance world’s most famous couples. In the Bay Area, nobody comes close to the relationship between Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson, of Berkeley’s Shawl-Anderson Dance Center.

Over the years the two men have a created a heaven for dance unlike anything that exists here, and probably could not be replicated anywhere else. Shawl and Anderson are the local dance community’s patriarchs.

They started modestly in 1958, above a liquor store on the corner of Alcatraz and College. After dance careers that spanned both coasts, they moved West from New York because they wanted to teach. Anderson had family roots in Berkeley, and the duo figured they might have a better chance at making a living in the Bay Area than in NYC’s competitive jungle.

Having performed and studied with May O’Donnell, a Martha Graham Dance Company member, they wanted to teach modern dance — at the time, a discipline that was not easily available to local dancers. They called their studio “Shawl-Anderson Modern Dance Center,” still its official name. In the beginning, Shawl remembers, “We did not even make enough money to pay its one-hundred dollar rent.”

From those early beginnings has grown the Bay Area’s oldest and — if you listen to dancers — most-beloved teaching institution, with over 100 classes per week. In addition to a full pre-professional curriculum for children, they teach modern dance; that style’s focus on individuality and personal expression has created an atmosphere that also welcomes ballet, hip-hop, jazz, and Horton, plus physical practices like Feldenkrais, pilates, and yoga.

Most remarkable is the breadth and longevity of its teaching staff, all of whom are on salary. Marina Eglevsky, whose artistic roots go back to the legendary André Eglevsky, considered the greatest ballet dancer of his generation, still teaches ballet twice a week. “Her classes are packed — people come from all over,” Shawl says. Wendy Diamond has taught modern since 1988; Joanna Harris’ decade-long Sunday morning class, “Lifelong Movement,” addresses the needs of older adults.

Younger teachers who are still actively choreographing — like Randee Paufve, Nina Haft, Antoine Hunter, and Nol Simonse — bring their own creative perspectives to the classes. The combination of life-long experiences and fresh approaches is invaluable to student dancers.

To get teachers — some start as substitutes — Shawl relies on his instincts and his experience. “I talk with them, and I can usually tell whether they would be a good fit,” he explains. “Very rarely have we had to let somebody go.”

He remembers Reginald Ray-Savage just walking in a few years ago. “I listened to what he had to say, and I just could tell that he was the real thing.” Today, Shawl-Anderson has the Savage Jazz Dance Company in residence.

But back to the earlier days: when the center was facing eviction from the liquor store (apparently, all that dancing made too much noise), student Sylvia McGraw suggested the two men look at a building across the street. “It was a home,” Shawl remembers. “I walked in and all I saw was a bunch of tiny little rooms.” McGraw pointed out that the house was zoned residential-commercial and, furthermore, that her husband was an architect.

With the budget spent on the essentials, in 1968 the school moved into the reconfigured space, with two small studios on the entry level and two huge ones — beautiful dance floors, lots of light, and high ceilings — one floor up. Shawl’s office is still the size of a closet, and the women’s dressing room still looks like it might originally have been a kitchen.

Most remarkably, the building still feels like a home. Walking up the small pathway from the street and the few steps that invite stoop-sitting, it uncannily feels like the rest of the Arts and Crafts residences that stretch toward the Berkeley hills. The wooden floors in the entry are well-worn, and the bench on the side looks like it has been there forever.

No doubt its funky charm and good usable studios have helped make what Shawl-Anderson has become. But it’s these two remarkable men who have given the place its soul. The minute you walk in, you pick up its sense of generosity of spirit, a commitment to craft and creativity, and a welcoming embrace of diversity in all its manifestations.

It’s what Paufve, whose company now is in residence, experienced when she first stepped through the door in 1986. “I don’t remember not ever having felt at home here,” she says. After moving from New York, she heard about the place the first week she was here. She also found teachers with whom she wanted to work. Over the years, she says, “People here have been incredibly generous. I honestly don’t know if I would still have Paufve Dance if it was not for Shawl-Anderson.”

Fog Beast, one of San Francisco’s newest dance companies (formed by Joe Goode dancers Melecio Estrella and Andrew Ward), recently paid tribute to “the decades of dance art cultivation at Shawl-Anderson.” Move Here, created when the duo was in residence, was a site-specific work using the building’s architectural space. It allowed the choreographers “to step into the role of host, exploring the aesthetics of hospitality, the art of friendliness and warmth.” Shawl enjoyed the performance. “They had pictures of the two of us on the walls — it was so nice,” he smiles.

Both men are now in their 80s. Anderson is semi-retired, but Shawl still takes class every day and substitute teaches when needed. Looking back over more than 50 years, is there something that they would have changed? “It is the way it was [meant] to be,” Shawl says. “I believe in the right path. We didn’t do it for the ego, we did it for love.”