Sunday, October 21, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again

reprinted with permission

It was déjà vu all over again Saturday afternoon at Oakland's Paramount Theatre. Oakland Ballet was back on stage, Ronn Guidi was in charge, and company icons were floated out in a straightforward and unpretentious celebration of what the old Oakland Ballet always did best: sweetly, and imperfectly, dance.

When a dance company slips away, as Oakland Ballet under Karen Brown did last year, the dance disappears, too. There's no material artifact left behind to remind us of what took place. This made it a curious experience Saturday -- at once comforting and discomfiting -- to see some of the same dancers perform some of the same dances they executed on the Paramount stage years ago. More touching and curious still, they managed to recreate the feel and mood of the old Oakland Ballet with its combination of zeal and naivete. Time appeared to stand still.

As a contest to resuscitate a comatose body and restore it to its previous state, Guidi (and his new performing arts foundation) succeeded in spades. But if Saturday's concert was meant as a harbinger of future plans, it is unclear what Oakland Ballet has in mind.

With financial support from Chevron and Target, the concert toured the storehouse of Guidi's Oakland Ballet (1965-1999), from his lighthearted commedia del l'arte homage, "Carnival d'Aix"(1980), to Vaslav Nijinksy's epoch-making "Afternoon of a Faun" (1912) and Mark Wilde's athletic take on Maurice Ravel's iconic "Bolero."

Given the dearth of dancemaking know-how these days, Guidi's skill read across the footlights as honest, if not scintillating, craftsmanship. His "Trois Gymnopedies" set to the Erik Satie music by the same name, was a beautiful, brutally simple study in flow and essential abstract form. "Carnival" was a charming trifle set to an exquisite score of 12 inventive dances by pioneering composer Darius Milhaud.

The limpid "Gymnopedies," dating from 1961, is one of the choreographer's more lasting works, embodying the music's timeless air of a flowing stream. Although the dancers struggled to master and transcend the movements, and couldn't, the simple boldness of the work shined through.

Nijinksy's "Faun" is a still-modern study in archaic mystery, but Saturday's performance slipped toward empty exoticism. Ethan White as Faun, along with the chorus of Nymphs, lacked the full-body articulation essential to the ballet's eerie two-dimensional power. Jenna McClintock as the lead Nymph got much closer to the quality and captured the demure tranquility of her role.

Wilde's "Bolero" is an entertaining and athletic account of dance on a naked stage. It was a great closer and showed the company to full advantage. The entire concert was accompanied heartily by the Oakland East Bay Symphony with Michael Morgan conducting, giving each work the musical support it deserved.

Guidi's company always embraced the audience with small town bonhomie, and Saturday afternoon Oakland Ballet danced with honesty and heart. They resurrected works and resurrected the mood. But the question remains: Is this enough to relaunch Oakland Ballet?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

return of the repressed

today jenn invited me to become her friend on facebook. even though i had been certain 10 minutes earlier that i'd no more join facebook than hang out at my children's parties, i set up an account.

i went through the usual rigamorole of the who what where when of it. i signed up. i was inside facebook.

or was I?

suddenly i found myself faced with a voice right out of elementary school: "you don't have any friends yet" the screen read.

i was floored. what a brilliant ploy. a stroke of primitive genius.

on the one hand this read like the line of an adult to a lonely child, a grownup trying to unravel the causes for the kid's sadness with a biting dose of truth girded by a single word of optimism: "yet". but it was also the cruel and patronizing assertion of the brat to the new kid pretending to tell a simple truth when she's actually flaunting her new social status--she's suddenly "in" because an outsider has penetrated the boundaries of the social group and by her very newness redefined what's known and what's not, what's inside and what's out. "you don't have any friends" invokes everyone's fear of being that friendless oucast. "yet" promises that the group isn't fixed--yesterday's outcast can be tomorrow's insider.

so you're through a door but it's a door of false promise. you're not really in at all but in an eerie transitional space in which not only is the future uncertain but the nature of what's behind you is subverted: you thought you had a social world? you thought you had easy access to the people in your life? you thought you engaged in unfettered communication with the people you care about? HAH. you in fact are in an endless seeming dreamspace defined by closed portals--tens of thousands of them--to which you can gain access only by permission. to not go forward is to crawl back from your transitional state, defeated, condemned to a life outside and friendless. to go forward is to plow into an unformed and therefore forbidding universe. this surreal state and the discomfitting freefall that accompanies it is designed to make people scramble to establish a place in the virtual realm: join facebook and flee the void you've unwittingly entered.

one of the underlying promises is of a new social world parallel to or better than ones social place in the material world. the other is of being rescued from friendlessness.

so, how many friends do you have?

Monday, October 8, 2007


reprinted by permission

Many years ago, during early Sunday morning arts programming on television, a group of young women in jazz shoes occupied a television studio stage. They moved independently, communicating introspectively, their hips swiveling, legs swishing, and spines slipping to the sounds of Bix Beiderbecke.

It was strange and a little disturbing. Who made dances so cool, so sexy and so unexpected? The answer was simple: Twyla Tharp.

This weekend at Zellerbach Hall, the Joffrey Ballet stages one of Tharp's masterpieces, "Deuce Coupe," the opening salvo in Cal Performances' autumn Tharp celebration. In its original form in 1973, "Deuce Coupe" paired the youthful, classically trained Joffrey dancers with Tharp's own ultra-cool company.

The piece was set to a medley of Beach Boys songs -- everything from "Honda" to "Catch a Wave." The combination was incendiary, and a conflagration in the New York dance scene followed.

This time, the 19-part ballet is undertaken by Joffrey Ballet alone. The graffiti backdrop is now a lively, finished artifact (with words like "war" and "peace"), rather than a real-time fabrication as in the original, and the stage is smaller. But the dance is as clear as a bell. Not only is its youthful idealism and silky ingenuity still credible, but "Deuce Coupe" is unobstructed by the turf battles between the two companies that blurred it three decades back. What endures is deceptively effortless genius.

At the epicenter of the work is a figure of a ballerina, performed with chiseled elegance by Heather Aagard, who occupies a pool of silver cool whether she is dancing apart from her pop-colored compatriots or weaving among their luscious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek gyrations. As the songs of youthful yearning and party-going accumulate (don't miss the surreal slo-mo scene), the crowds of dancers come and go, a cross-over takes place: Some of the cool dancers don point shoes and copy the ballerina's steps, and the ballerina loosens her joints.

If you wondered how dance found its way to "Coupe" and where it went after, the Joffrey program tries to answer that, too. Opening the night was the Romantic-era inspiration, "Pas des Déesses" by Robert Joffrey with music by John Field, played live by Paul Lewis on piano. An homage to three great 19th-century ballerinas and their man, it is a showcase for the bravura technique that is at the root of the ballet canon.

Joffrey, who died in 1988, was never a pure classicist, and he was known to flirt with kitsch in his pursuit of elan. "Déesses," in its too broad interpretation of highly restrained and filigreed movement, in its come-hither glances of Valerie Robin and the coy langor of Maia Wilkins, teetered close to sentimentality. Only Jennifer Goodman managed the gestural restraint that defined pure 19th-century ballet form.

"Sometimes It Snows In April" from Laura Dean's 1994 rock ballet "Billboard" (to music by Prince), closed the evening. Moving from linked pairs who touchingly laced the stage space to dancers dancing together alone, culminating in a great pulsing ensemble dance, "Sometimes" ended on a brash but ebullient note: Even when death comes along, the dancing never stops, not even, we suspect, in heaven.