Friday, December 28, 2007

Drosselmeyer's Magic

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker.
© Erik Tomasson

reprinted by permission

When the clockmaker Uncle Drosselmeyer appeared with his white hair swept up in a punkish block opening night Thursday at San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker at the War Memorial Opera House, it was a small but radical signal. Artistic director Helgi Tomasson and Damian Smith, who inhabited Drosselmeyer with sly ingenuity, were jettisoning the tame avuncular wizard of the past. In his place they offered us a far more powerful and daring figure: the edgy artist-wizard,whose powers can transform our experience of reality.

The liberation of Drosselmeyer in San Francisco Ballet's four-year-old retooled "Nutcracker" was only one of many small knowing changes that made the night's first half -- that historic clunker in almost every production -- a deep pleasure. But it was the significant change that allowed the action of Act I to take on a clarified, poetic air.

Whether it was the pacing of the dances, the way the naughty boys behaved, or Clara's interactions with her father and Drosselmeyer -- Drosselmeyer kept the action circling in on the young girl's coming of age. Clara, danced by a budding Lacey Escabarto, aptly engaged both her father (mustachioed Val Caniparoli resembling Robin Williams) and her godfather with a mix of adoration, awe and bravery.

Drosselmeyer, meanwhile, hypnotized children and adults alike with his outsized toys and effortless magic. Even though the cannon failed to explode during the battle scene and the mousetrap proved feckless, the wizard prepared us for a new rash of spells when King and Queen of the Snow, Pierre-Francois Villanoba and a suitably grand Sarah Van Patten, appeared. With the Waltz of the Snowflakes (and a wild onstage blizzard), Drosselmeyer pulled the audience into Act II, where the wizardry finally subsided and pure dance took over.

Although packed with beautiful design and lovely dancing, Act II's magic is far more intermittent. Here, a time-traveling, dreaming Clara watches exotic spectacle after exotic spectacle, but dreamtime seems all too linked to the alarm clock. The Sugar Plum Fairy's dance, performed by Rachel Viselli, still looks schematic. Viselli, who has a lovely quietude,was also visibly nervous in the role, with consequences for her neck down into her legs. It made one want to call out -- "It's OK, Rachel, it's just a dream."

The famous divertissement of "Spanish," "Arabian,""Chinese," and "French" whirled by, distant seeming, with only "Russian" reading across the footlights as bravura dancing and dance making. Hansuke Yamamota in "Spanish," and Pascal Molat in "Chinese" nevertheless fired up the stage.

By contrast, Louis Schilling as Madame du Cirque (one part Carol Channing to two parts Divine), seemed to have all the time in the world, and her Buffoons -- tiny dancers from the Ballet School -- stopped the clock with their charm. The Waltzing Flowers luxuriated in the sunny light of the hot house they inhabited but they never seemed otherworldly.

(San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker. © Erik Tomasson)

It wasn't until the Grand Pas de Deux by petite firebrand Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan that magical Tchiakovsky again met lush, magical dancing. Armenian-born Karapetyan is an athletic yet lyrical dancer who can combine geometrically pure virtuosity with a certain warm irony, as he did Thursday during the Grand Pas de Deux. His turns in second rotated with clockwork surety, and his leaps and beats were preternaturally secure. He partnered Russian-born Kotchetkova, who combined a sparkling blend of robust attack and precise lyricism, effortlessly. And it was then that full magic of "Nutcracker" returned, the pair sewing up the night with enough wizardry to meet Drosselmeyer toe to toe.

After the dance

Ida Rubinstein as Salome, 1908

Titian's "Salome With Head of John the Baptist" c 1515

Cunning Time

He's 88 and counting. Debonair ascot at his neck, eyes alert, he rides around in a wheelchair, pushed by someone decades younger than he. Many 88-year-olds suffer similar physical hardship. But this man's constraints have little to do with garden-variety aging: He is chair-bound because he never stopped jumping, falling, darting and turning, even as arthritis consumed his joints.

Until about a decade ago, Merce Cunningham, one of the great modernists of 20th century dance, hobbled around on twisted feet in evening-long performances like a dancing Prospero. He would turn a favorite dancer in a stately promenade, then let his hands elegantly inscribe the air. With his impassive but impish face and halo of curls, Cunningham seemed to keep the otherworldly near to hand, as Shakespeare in his later plays tended to do.

The choreographer began his professional career with Martha Graham in 1939. After six years, he left Graham and story dance behind and almost overnight became the artist to apply the radical innovations of modern music and painting to movement ideas. With groundbreaking composer John Cage at his side, he designed dance sequencing based on chance, using the roll of dice to determine how the dance phrases would line up. He insisted on the independence of music, dance and decor. And he had his dancers move in Olympian fashion, yet never tell a recognizable story. He has never stopped experimenting.

On Jan. 25 and 26 in two separate programs at Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium, the Bay Area gets to sample the wizard's latest invention, "eyeSpace." Bring your iPods to the theater (first go to and download), or, if you don't own one, be issued a player when you walk into the theater with preloaded sound selections (iPods must be returned). As eyeSpace begins, start tuning: You get to make the choices in the sound you hear.

The other option is to remove the earbuds and listen to composer Mikel Rouse's sound score or, perhaps, your neighbor's dreamy humming. The idea, according to Cunningham's executive director Trevor Carlson, is to have a private experience shared by an entire group. Think a New York subway car filled with people plugged into the same array of sounds, chosen at will, randomly.

No one would be surprised if the use of iPods were a gimmick -- a way, perhaps, to get Apple sponsorship, or draw in a crossover audience. What is surprising is that Cunningham almost always comes off as the master of whatever trends he tries, not the marketeers.

In the 1990s, Cunningham began applying computer technology and a program called Dance Forms (previously Life Forms) to expand his dance-making capacities. Some accused him of faddism. To the choreographer, though, technology offered and continues to offer another way to push the boundaries of the physical universe.

Using Dance Forms, he began to design movement of almost humanly impossible shape, projecting onto his dancers the angularity of Egyptian figures or giving them a science-fiction strangeness, like creatures whose legs were arms and arms were legs. Whether or not the results were always successful mattered little to Cunningham. What he has cared about, he says, is not whether the experiment works, but that he learn something new.

Experimentation isn't exclusive to "eyeSpace" in this run. The Jan. 25 concert includes two other seminal works, "Crises" from 1960, and the 1993 "CRWDSPCR." Asked to describe "Crises," John Cage once called it "a dramatic, though not a narrative, dance concerned with decisive moments in the relationship between a man and four women."

It is set to selections from Conlon Nancarrow's "Rhythm Studies for Player Piano," created by the avant-garde composer by punching holes in player piano rolls. "CRWDSPCR," as dance historian Roger Copeland aptly says, is one of the savviest comments on the role of the microchip in our perception of time and space (the title, allowed to breathe, can be read as either Crowd Spacer or Crowds Pacer). On Jan. 26 in addition to "eyeSpace," the evening will include the 1999 work "Biped."

Details: Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Stanford's Memorial Auditorium, Jan. 25 and 26, 8 p.m. $20-46 general, $10-23 Stanford students. 551 Serra Mall, Stanford University. 650-725-ARTS,

ALSO COMING UP: At the nether end of the contemporary spectrum, anarchist dancemaker Keith Hennessy will reprise his 2007 anti-war spectacle, "Sol niger" (Black sun), which is as messy and eclectic as Cunningham's work is abstract and refined. Running for two weeks at Project Artaud Theater in San Francisco (Jan. 16-19 and 23-26), Hennessy's band of deft performers employs circus techniques, aerial work, expressionist theater and live and prepared music in a potent political cocktail. Referring to a solar eclipse, "Sol niger" takes a hard look at the Iraq war and national and international U.S. policies.
Details: 8 p.m. Jan. 16-19 and Jan. 23-26. 450 Florida St., S.F. Tickets $25 except Wednesdays -- "Pay what you can," cash only at the door. 415-255-2500 or

On an altogether different note, the Boston-based Collage Dance Ensemble joins Stanford's Turkish troupe Yore Folk Dance Ensemble on Jan. 19 at Berkeley's Roda Theatre. The two troupes join forces for a lively night of Turkish, Balkan and Eastern European music and dance titled "Anatolian Rhythms." They promise to have you dancing in your seat.
Details: 8 p.m. Jan. 19, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $15-$30. 510-647-2949.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Other Suns

(reprinted by permission)
Margaret Jenkins, one of the grande dames of Bay Area modern dance, never seems to take on a dance project lightly. There's no fluff in her rigorous post-modern movement, no effort to appease or be easily understood.

To the uninitiated, in fact, plenty of her dances can appear downright daunting. With swift slicing arms, tossed legs, undulant torsos and obscure mini-dramas at nearly every turn, these can seem dances as mysterious as a surreal story in another tongue.

And if you don't know the language, how could you possibly translate the movement?

Jenkin's latest premiere Thursday, "Other Suns," at Project Artaud Theater in San Francisco, poses and answers this question in one brief but packed evening of stunning movement theater. "Other Suns" is the first part of a three-part work that will be presented in its entirety in 2009.

Here, the sixtysomething choreographer, who has been making dance in her native Bay Area for more than 30 years, set out to investigate the nature of symmetry. The problem was prompted by a collaboration with Chinese dancers from the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, in Guangzhou, China.

During the project, she urged the Guangdong dancers to be expressive and asymmetrical in their movement, but she found herself confronted by a dance culture devoted to ancient and modern practices of symmetry and balance. This led to the kind of deeper discourse for which Jenkins is renowned, one about balance and imbalance in dance, politics, society and nature. Issues of political strife and global warming were not far behind.

The choreographic result, set to haunting music by Bung-Ching Lam, the bright serialism of Paul Dresher and the stunningly elegant visual design of Alex V. Nichols, takes us on a ride as vertiginous and relentless as it is beautiful. As the piece opens with Nichols' constellation of hanging lights swaying in the theater's breeze, a jangly sculpture jutting through their center, the balances and ruptures to come remain hidden.

Five motionless dancers stand on the periphery of the space. A platform stage left, suggesting everything from Huck Finn's raft to a gallows platform holds dancer Melanie Elms, angled stolidly.

When the piece begins in earnest, Elms suddenly engages with dark-haired Matthew Holland at the edge of the platform. Elms nudges and thrusts her weight against his side, and we see the first images of a haunting asymmetry of a soft body against a hard wall.

"Suns" becomes a densely gestural piece, where Deborah Miller can make angling arms seem to conjugate a condition, or Joseph Copely's balletic feet can hold a conversation with the floor. But Jenkins has also found a stunning new synthesis here that unites the hectic language of the limbs with morphing group sculptural forms, tied together with her unflinching commitment to beauty.

With time, duos, trios and line patterns evolve. Walls of bodies arise and fall. The small platform rises and reveals a pool set into the stage. The individuality of the other dancers becomes increasingly apparent, and the uniqueness of each (also Copely, Kelly Del Rosario, Steffany Perroni, Holland, Miller and Ryan T. Smith) becomes indispensable to the character of the whole.

Never one to hit us over the head with her politics, Jenkins nevertheless makes them clear. In the last moments of the dance Thursday, they are crystal clear as Copely runs downstage, leaps and hurls an invisible object at an invisible foe. With the group looking on, he repeats the act again and again, wearily, beautifully, hopefully. He keeps going, even as the lights come down.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

HeavenEarth, Ten Chi

(reprinted with permission)

Late in choreographer Pina Bausch's "Ten Chi," Dominique Mercy stands upstage wearing a wine-red kimono. He waits, palms facing outward, his gaze fixed on the middle distance. A man unties Mercy's sash, then slips the red gown off with ceremonial calm. A white kimono is revealed. That robe is peeled away. Below it, Mercy wears a purple gown. That, too, is slipped off and beneath it is revealed a black kimono.

Finally, the black gown is removed. With a small shock, we discover veteran dancer Mercy wrapped in yards of tissue-thin, blood-red fabric. When that, too, is shed, Mercy stands before us, all but naked. Next, he slips into a Western-style shirt and long Western trousers and begins a haunting dance solo.

Vignettes like this, which seem to sum up Japan as a culture that poignantly dresses itself both in its own and a foreign culture's traditions, pack the evening-long dance theater work performed by Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall Friday night.

"Ten Chi," in fact, is an homage to a culturally layered, often magical and sybaritically surreal Japan, created by Germany's high priestess of dance theater with her dancers, who first performed it in 2004. It is among her recent lineup of savvy and unsentimental love letters to whole cultures.

As an island country, Japan lives off the sea, with fish and seaweed as central to the diet as milk is to the French. It makes exquisite sense that the central prop created by long-time Bausch decor wizard Peter Pabst is an outsized whale tail downstage left and, upstage, deep right, a protruding mound of whale torso. The mythic whale's vast form, like reality itself, is visible to us only in part.

As a canny metaphor, the whale fragments get at the sometimes buried, always layered nature of Japan's traditions and also do a pretty good job of summing up the giddy displacement of love, sex and intimacy. These potent forces seem to lurk beneath the dancers' feet, compelling, comic and sometimes monstrous.

Female longing erupts throughout. A character, for example, goes gaga over gorgeous vegetables. Another gets hot over a sizzling black shopping bag. Still another is titillated to the point of hysteria by protruding feet in an otherwise deserted movie theater. Women's fantasies and longing overwhelm moments as much as cleanliness, solitude and anxiety did in "Nur Du," Bausch's 1996 portrait of the United States. It is no wonder that Japan is a country of fans.

A second decor element, falling petals or snowflakes, does for our sense of time what the whale parts do for our grasp of space. From early on, we see a single petal fall. Then, later, another. By intermission, a blizzard of white descends on the unpopulated but still-visible stage space. Bausch lets theatrical time run even as the audience leaves the theater to use the bathroom.

It was not a perfect night. There were fallow scenes, and segues from one evocative music choice to another often lurched ineptly. But Bausch is never after perfection. She builds operatic renderings of life that finger the comic, the grotesque and the beautiful. "Ten Chi" had plenty of it all.

And for the lovers of sheer movement, the wild calligraphic dance solos that stocked the evening were a joy. They were full of the flexed feet of Noh, the lunges of martial arts, the robotic angles of video and the sinewy ripples of geisha dance. They also ranged from the virtuosic work of young dancers to less elastic but theatrically keen solos of the older performers.

It was a blizzard of such solos that brought the night to a stunning close. How apt it seemed that in a landscape so alive with petals/snow, everyone danced alone, yet no one, but no one, looked lonely.

Friday, November 2, 2007


reprinted from SF Gate
by Jon Carroll, 2000

ABOUT A DECADE ago I was in the town of Launceton in the state of Tasmania, which is an island off the south coast of Australia. Tasmania is famous for its devils (nocturnal marsupials, relatively gentle unless you are a nocturnal rodent), wombats (herbivorous marsupials with square excrement), landscape (wild rivers, lush mountains, stormy seas) and conservative residents (think Kansas, 1956).

It was night. I was by myself in a car, driving back to the B&B after a meeting. Uncertain of my direction, I pulled to the curb to get out my map. Looking up, I saw on the corner, bathed in the streetlight, a man alone. He was dancing.

There was no music. The street was entirely deserted except for me and him. He was not performing. He was just dancing.
I am the last person to be sentimental about drunkenness -- I am guessing that booze played a profound initiative role in this impromptu display of the terpsichorean arts -- but I was still charmed by the moment. I smiled then, and somehow the shutter of my memory clicked when I smiled, and that image is with me now.

He was wearing a dark pea coat and bulky shoes. He might have been a sailor. Sailors have a grand tradition of male dancing, hornpipes and the like, and he may have been answering an ancient call. It was a stately dance, whatever it was, suffused with regret and dignity.

Perhaps he was making a graceful gesture unto the Lord. Perhaps he was just blotto. Doesn't matter. His dance is mine now, to do with as I will. Viz: MEN -- AT LEAST pale guys like me -- don't dance enough. Somehow between the age of the windjammers and now, dancing became unmanly. Lots of men I know ``don't dance,'' they often announce. There are also women who ``don't dance,'' but they are rarer.

An enduring image from high school: two girls dancing together, for want of partners, for love of dancing anyway. A lot of guys are situational dancers -- they will dance during the courtship phase, then stop as soon as the mate is securely bound by mutual vows.

The idea of dancing as an interior event has been lost. It's either a social thing or a performance thing; it somehow involves awareness of a partner or an audience or both.

At my gym, many people exercise with earphones on. Maybe some of them are listening to NPR or Rush Limbaugh, but some of them are listening to music. I assume that the people attached to CD players are listening to music. I'm listening to music.

And yet they do not dance. They work on their little machines with fierce dedication, not a move wasted, not a gesture inserted merely for the sake of gesture. Is the music being used merely as white noise, to shut out other sounds? Are they all listening to Beethoven string quartets and following the complexity of thematic development? Or . . . what?

Sometimes, on my little reclining bicycle, I dance. I keep my eyes closed because I fear the opprobrium of others. Nevertheless, I am addicted to the rhythm; it's what keeps me coming back.

I recently played the soundtrack album to ``The Sopranos.'' The theme by A3 was on. ``Got myself a gun,'' I sang softly, and did a small interpretive movement involving pointing my fingers and cocking my thumbs. All of a sudden, I wanted to be on a lonely street corner in Tasmania.

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.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Denizens of Democracy

reprinted with permission

Imagine tossing together hints of history, visual art and folk culture from the late 1700s. Next imagine cooking this mix down to a broth so refined that you can sense where the various parts came from, though you can no longer see their sources.

Then add dance of layered beauty, wit, and design. Finally, put the whole thing fluidly together with three piano works by Mozart.

The result is Mark Morris' dazzling "Mozart Dances," which had its West Coast premiere Thursday at Cal Performances in Berkeley and runs through Sunday.

Given a commission for an evening-long work to Mozart's music for the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York's Lincoln Center last fall, Morris looked for piano-saturated compositions that he could get his arms around. He chose early, not so early and late Mozart. He then assembled a landscape of movements that returned in new guises throughout the night, everything from simple walks, runs, strident marching, and chasing steps to liquidy falls and circles of seemingly endless variation.

Within this deceptively simple format, Morris takes us on a voyage that coils inward to a jewel-like center and out again. Opening with "Eleven" (Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major), the first section is introduced by men who vanish and leave the stage to black-clad women (costumes by Martin Pakledinaz) in a domain overseen by long-time Morris company member Lauren Grant. Shimmering with authority, the pixielike dancer darts in and out of the action, leading the ensemble like an incarnation of Liberty herself, her dancing a marvel of crystalline timing and fearless intelligence.

Miraculously for an art form bound by time, the center section, "Double" is the place from which everything, ultimately, seems to radiate. Set to the Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, it is a segment full of mirroring, designed for the men and led by longtime company member Joe Bowie. (Bare-chested and dressed in waistcoat and shorts, he looks like a latter day Lord Nelson.)

Morris fills the scene with allusions to sailoring, friendship and love. Here, British artist Howard Hodgkin's evocative backdrop of outsided brushstrokes is initially lit by warm red tones.

Then, the music shifts, and, with Garrick Ohlsson and Yoko Nozaki on pianos and Jane Glover conducting the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, so does the climate. Death comes lurking, and when fine-boned Noah Vinson breeches the circling men, sorrows follow. A ghostly crew of women ensues, encircling Vinson, and together they seem joined in an exquisite netherworld.

Morris, not content to leave his actors to their sorrows, allows hope and beauty to wash over the actions. We see it in the delicacy of the gestures, and it emerges in the backdrop in emerald hues -- the green of renewal.

Glory spreads in part three, "Twenty Seven" (Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major). The company is vividly decked in white and set against a modernist red and black version of the backdrop. They form a band of citizens, who parade and shimmer in parallel lines, striding easily, with a liberty of their own. Morris, the humanist, is triumphant.

reprinted with the permission of Contra Costa Times

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Bewegung: Movement, move (of: in motion) is a change of a position and/or a place or a situation, an object or subject sets compared with a reference system.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Gus Solomons

The extraordinary choreographer, dancer, writer and architect Gus Solomons Jr will be in brief residence at Mills College next month as part of a tour sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society's Visiting Scholar's Program. During his stay he'll offer a public lecture he calls “50 Million Ways to Make a Dance” and will discuss the evolution of his choreography over his 40-year career. The event takes place at Danforth Hall on the campus Thursday, October 4, at 5:15 pm and is free and open to all.

The Boston-raised Solomons took up dance at the Boston Conservatory of Music while at MIT studying architecture, working with Jan Veen in Laban technique and Robert Cohan in Graham. After getting his architecture degree, he moved to New York to dance. He launched his career with Donald McKayle, Pearl Lang, Joyce Trisler and Paul Sansardo then danced with Graham for a season. Soon he pressed on into the kind of late modernist terrain that would come to define his work. He spent from 1964-68 with the Cunningham company, during which time he originated roles in "Winterbranch" and "Rainforest." In 1971 he formed his own troupe, the Solomons Company/Dance, to explore dance as "melted architecture," linking his love of puzzles and design to forms that he has called "kinetic autobiography," according to historian Thomas DeFrantz. In 2000 he was awarded a "Bessie" for sustained achievement in choreography.

On a side note, Phi Beta Kappa is that society for select brainiacs who display excellence across disciplines and open-minded curiosity. It was started at the venerable College of William & Mary in 1776 (16 signers of the Declaration of Independence attended, and George Washington got his surveyors certificate there). The Greek initials Phi Φ(F) Beta (B ) and Kappa (K) - represent the motto "Love of learning is the guide of life" (philosophia biou kubernetes).

On another and architecturally pertinent note, the small case Phi, φ, represents the Golden Mean in math--1.618--drawn from the ratio of 1 plus the square root of 5 over 2 and defines the harmonious division of a line as understood by the ancient Greeks. Many architects live by its elegant proportions.

Sirius Consequences

The dog days of August that scorched New York and ignited fires in the West have passed. I've noticed this last week that the light has begun to look bruised late in the afternoon and the air is starting to chill, like an old woman's hands. Harvest time. The squirrels are eating anything resembling fruit and stashing nuts in flower pots. I can smell the tangy rot of apples. In the yard, the petals of white dinner plate dahlias are mashed on the ground.

Other smells--the scent of sorrow in the body politic mixed with an ugly stink of predation. I've watched public cheating and stealing being tossed off as a kind of game by people who have no need to cheat or steal. Much of the social contract is broken. And beneath that rot I detect an odor of abiding fear. The economy is held aloft by churning debt, and soldiers are returning from an infernal occupation looking more gruesome than anything Mary Shelley imagined for her Monster. We're living in an age of hucksterism bolstered by inquisitorial zeal.

Red or blue, it isn't what most of us signed up for.

This next year things are going to rock and roll. An election is coming. Remember the last two?

The good news, if you believe in signs and portents, is that the Muslim and Jewish new years, Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah, both began yesterday. A new synchronized beginning....I can dream can't I?

L'shanah tovah.

Kullu Sana wa Antum bi-Khayr.

The top of the dance season is also here. This week Jo Kreiter's Flyaway Productions takes on war and propaganda in her latest piece, "Lies You Can Dance To." Next week Mark Morris' deceptively formal Mozart Dances makes its premiere in Berkeley. Morris, whom pianist Emanuel Ax suggested could have been a conductor had he not been a dancer, has crafted a night packed with piano music--a tryptich of 2 concertos and one sonata with three sections each.

Cal Performances then launches into a Twylathon, beginning with the Joffrey Ballet performing Deuce Coupe.

Lines Ballet's 25th anniversary season begins November 2 with the inimitable Zakhir Hussain, the genius of tabla, and Philharmonia Chamber Players.

Music is dance's main squeeze this season; Politics is its shadow.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Bird on Fire

Tamara Karsavina, Michel Fokine's original Firebird.

photo by Emil Otto Hoppe

Friday, August 3, 2007

Bird Don't Call

Pierre's molting. His singing's stopped. He's entered a month of silence, and he flits but does little flying. I wonder, who's his god?

(Exotic Bird by Jan Sand)

Bird Love

Our Breath Is As Thin As A Hummingbird’s Spine
Nanos Operetta and inkBoat
July 27

In his latest outing, butoh maverick Shinichi Iova-Koga put himself under the powerful spell of Nanos Operetta and its director Ali Tabatabai, along with dramaturge Ellen Sebastian Chang, to create "Our Breath Is As Thin As A Hummingbird's Spine." Performing in July with long-time Bay Area actor Sten Rudstrom, and backed by the adept seven-member music ensemble, Iova-Koga and his collaborators produced a touching if unrealized surrealist cartoon about unrequited love of a man for a bird.

This was a light year from Iova-Koga’s solo winter show, “Milk Traces,” in which he worked alone in a tiny black box theater, presenting spare butoh with a furious intensity that seemed to float in a pool of quiet. It was also a big break from his spellbinding all-white duet in 2004 “Ame to Ame,” where relationships and objects were both acutely abstract and audibly physical. This time the comedic ruled, and narrative became a series of sometimes-delightful gags and absurd juxtapositions that, although offbeat, were unable to establish the kind of poetic depth that has distinguished Iova-Koga’s work in the past. Whether due to divergent methods and aesthetics among the team, or too little time, the result was a production that seemed still in workshop phase, ripe for a huge shove into far more illogical and less comic book terrain.

With the versatile and imaginative band backed against the theater’s brick wall and made spectral by a scrim, the concert began with salted whiskey baritone Nyls Frykdahl (of Sleepytime Gorrila Museum renown) in faintly Dickensian rust colored morning coat and top hat, crooning into his mike a rococo tale of unexpected love. Next, Iova-Koga took charge of the proceedings as he emerged from a squinchy fairytale door (marked “door”). He was dressed in a pulsing red lounge suit and shirt bedecked in gold glitter. The Lounge Lizard get-up was apt costume for a man about to fall in love with a skinny, cool-hearted and red-legged bird. Less than 10 feet away, out of a huge nest (labeled “nest”) on a platform, a ball of lemon-yellow feathers emerged until it revealed itself to be as big as Big Bird but even stranger looking, like a giant feathery yellow fruit on top of two ridiculously thin red sticks.

It’s at this point that I should disclose that I was given a canary songster as a gift quite recently, and as I watched “hummingbird”, I experienced an eerie sense that the production was channeling my life with my new friend. Since I hadn’t read the program beforehand, I was abashed to see myself in the story. Critics shouldn’t do that. But during intermission I read the notes: Operetta’s Tabatabai, like me, had tripped into a deep love for his pet, a sentient ball of feathers in a cage. Soon enough he found that no matter how loving or entertaining he was, his depth of feelings weren’t met in the slightest, a role Iova-Koga played with exquisite tenderness and comedy, whether it was performing a liquidy dance of yearning, a series of entertainments with a branch (golfer, batter, dog, paddler), a goofy chicken dance, or lip sync-ing “You Are my Destiny” (Paul Anka). But there’s another story to bird love. Avian sentience is strange and delicate and to find any communion one may have to enter bird mind. What a ripe path for butoh to travel.

But that’s not where “Hummingbird” ventured. Well into the production, Rudstrom cut then devoured the string that tied together the tin can phones that were meant to connect the two creatures across their animal and existential divide. It then became even clearer that if the bird—or any solipsist, for that matter––could talk intelligibly about its state, it would probably echo Tina Turner and ask: “What’s love got to do with it?” This made crystalline that interspecies love was really the pretext, not the point of this cracked fairy tale about love. What was this “pet,” after all, but a blazing narcissist in feathers happier to preen in his bed before a mirror than commune with a companion, which sounds like plenty of people plenty of us know. The team never quite sorted these facts.

One of the moments when Iova-Koga came close to taking the story into more layered terrain is when he accepted a beribboned box and out of an egg-shaped package he made materialize a female blow-up doll with B-29 breasts. Then he taped feathers on her arms. But committed too literally to the bird tale, “Hummingbird” lost its drift. And as welcomed as his voice was, it was unclear why the captivating Frykdahl kept popping up when he did, darkly singing hurdy-gurdy songs (“Lulu, for us the moon is too high. A spoon on the table is a star in the sky.”). Such episodes neither deepened the mystery nor injected a big enough dose of helium into the atmosphere.

But even with its flaws, “Hummingbird” was valiant and madcap. And it reminded us that butoh is a large Dadaist container capable of holding all kinds of material dredged up from the wild recesses of our hearts, our homes and our cages.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

in memory of carol, who died last night

paul klee's Ancient Sound

Yit-gadal v'yit-kadash sh'may raba b'alma dee-v'ra che-ru-tay, ve'yam-lich mal-chutay b'chai-yay-chon uv'yo-may-chon uv-cha-yay d'chol beit Yisrael, ba-agala u'vitze-man ka-riv, ve'imru amen.
Y'hay sh'may raba me'varach le-alam uleh-almay alma-ya.

Yit-barach v'yish-tabach, v'yit-pa-ar v'yit-romam v'yit-nasay, v'yit-hadar v'yit-aleh v'yit-halal sh'may d'koo-d'shah, b'rich hoo. layla (ool-ayla)* meen kol beer-chata v'she-rata, toosh-b'chata v'nay-ch'mata, da-a meran b'alma, ve'imru amen.

Y'hay sh'lama raba meen sh'maya v'cha-yim aleynu v'al kol Yisrael, ve'imru amen.

O'seh shalom beem-romav, hoo ya'ah-seh shalom aleynu v'al kol Yisrael, ve'imru amen.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Albert Einstein & Rabindamath Tagore Talk

Excerpted from: A Tagore Reader, edied by Amiya Chakravarty

Tagore and Einstein met through a common friend, Dr. Mendel. Tagore visited Einstein at his residence at Kaputh in the suburbs of Berlin on July 14, 1930, and Einstein returned the call and visited Tagore at the Mendel home. Both conversations were recorded and the above photograph was taken. The July 14 conversation is reproduced here, and was originally published in The Religion of Man (George, Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London), Appendix II, pp. 222-225.

TAGORE: I was discussing with Dr. Mendel today the new mathematical discoveries which tell us that in the realm of infinitesimal atoms chance has its play; the drama of existence is not absolutely predestined in character.

EINSTEIN: The facts that make science tend toward this view do not say good-bye to causality.

TAGORE: Maybe not, yet it appears that the idea of causality is not in the elements, but that some other force builds up with them an organized universe.

EINSTEIN: One tries to understand in the higher plane how the order is. The order is there, where the big elements combine and guide existence, but in the minute elements this order is not perceptible.

TAGORE: Thus duality is in the depths of existence, the contradiction of free impulse and the directive will which works upon it and evolves an orderly scheme of things.

EINSTEIN: Modern physics would not say they are contradictory. Clouds look as one from a distance, but if you see them nearby, they show themselves as disorderly drops of water.

TAGORE: I find a parallel in human psychology. Our passions and desires are unruly, but our character subdues these elements into a harmonious whole. Does something similar to this happen in the physical world? Are the elements rebellious, dynamic with individual impulse? And is there a principle in the physical world which dominates them and puts them into an orderly organization?

EINSTEIN: Even the elements are not without statistical order; elements of radium will always maintain their specific order, now and ever onward, just as they have done all along. There is, then, a statistical order in the elements.

TAGORE: Otherwise, the drama of existence would be too desultory. It is the constant harmony of chance and determination which makes it eternally new and living.

EINSTEIN: I believe that whatever we do or live for has its causality; it is good, however, that we cannot see through to it.

TAGORE: There is in human affairs an element of elasticity also, some freedom within a small range which is for the expression of our personality. It is like the musical system in India, which is not so rigidly fixed as western music. Our composers give a certain definite outline, a system of melody and rhythmic arrangement, and within a certain limit the player can improvise upon it. He must be one with the law of that particular melody, and then he can give spontaneous expression to his musical feeling within the prescribed regulation. We praise the composer for his genius in creating a foundation along with a superstructure of melodies, but we expect from the player his own skill in the creation of variations of melodic flourish and ornamentation. In creation we follow the central law of existence, but if we do not cut ourselves adrift from it, we can have sufficient freedom within the limits of our personality for the fullest self-expression.

EINSTEIN: That is possible only when there is a strong artistic tradition in music to guide the people's mind. In Europe, music has come too far away from popular art and popular feeling and has become something like a secret art with conventions and traditions of its own.

TAGORE: You have to be absolutely obedient to this too complicated music. In India, the measure of a singer's freedom is in his own creative personality. He can sing the composer's song as his own, if he has the power creatively to assert himself in his interpretation of the general law of the melody which he is given to interpret.

EINSTEIN: It requires a very high standard of art to realize fully the great idea in the original music, so that one can make variations upon it. In our country, the variations are often prescribed.

TAGORE: If in our conduct we can follow the law of goodness, we can have real liberty of self-expression. The principle of conduct is there, but the character which makes it true and individual is our own creation. In our music there is a duality of freedom and prescribed order.

EINSTEIN: Are the words of a song also free? I mean to say, is the singer at liberty to add his own words to the song which he is singing?

TAGORE: Yes. In Bengal we have a kind of song-kirtan, we call it-which gives freedom to the singer to introduce parenthetical comments, phrases not in the original song. This occasions great enthusiasm, since the audience is constantly thrilled by some beautiful, spontaneous sentiment added by the singer.

EINSTEIN: Is the metrical form quite severe?

TAGORE: Yes, quite. You cannot exceed the limits of versification; the singer in all his variations must keep the rhythm and the time, which is fixed. In European music you have a comparative liberty with time, but not with melody.

EINSTEIN: Can the Indian music be sung without words? Can one understand a song without words?

TAGORE: Yes, we have songs with unmeaning words, sounds which just help to act as carriers of the notes. In North India, music is an independent art, not the interpretation of words and thoughts, as in Bengal. The music is very intricate and subtle and is a complete world of melody by itself.

EINSTEIN: Is it not polyphonic?

TAGORE: Instruments are used, not for harmony, but for keeping time and adding to the volume and depth. Has melody suffered in your music by the imposition of harmony?

EINSTEIN: Sometimes it does suffer very much. Sometimes the harmony swallows up the melody altogether.

TAGORE: Melody and harmony are like lines and colors in pictures. A simple linear picture may be completely beautiful; the introduction of color may make it vague and insignificant. Yet color may, by combination with lines, create great pictures, so long as it does not smother and destroy their value.

EINSTEIN: It is a beautiful comparison; line is also much older than color. It seems that your melody is much richer in structure than ours. Japanese music also seems to be so.

TAGORE: It is difficult to analyze the effect of eastern and western music on our minds. I am deeply moved by the western music; I feel that it is great, that it is vast in its structure and grand in its composition. Our own music touches me more deeply by its fundamental lyrical appeal. European music is epic in character; it has a broad background and is Gothic in its structure.

EINSTEIN: This is a question we Europeans cannot properly answer, we are so used to our own music. We want to know whether our own music is a conventional or a fundamental human feeling, whether to feel consonance and dissonance is natural, or a convention which we accept.

TAGORE: Somehow the piano confounds me. The violin pleases me much more.

EINSTEIN: It would be interesting to study the effects of European music on an Indian who had never heard it when he was young.

TAGORE: Once I asked an English musician to analyze for me some classical music, and explain to me what elements make for the beauty of the piece.

EINSTEIN: The difficulty is that the really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analyzed.

TAGORE: Yes, and what deeply affects the hearer is beyond himself.

EINSTEIN: The same uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience, in our reaction to art, whether in Europe or in Asia. Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.

TAGORE: And yet there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste conforming to the universal standard.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Dying Swan

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The plain was grassy, wild and bare,
Wide, wild, and open to the air,
Which had built up everywhere
An under-roof of doleful gray.
With an inner voice the river ran,
Adown it floated a dying swan,
And loudly did lament.
It was the middle of the day.
Ever the weary wind went on,
And took the reed-tops as it went.

Some blue peaks in the distance rose,
And white against the cold-white sky,
Shone out their crowning snows.
One willow over the river wept,
And shook the wave as the wind did sigh;
Above in the wind was the swallow,
Chasing itself at its own wild will,
And far thro’ the marish green and still
The tangled water-courses slept,
Shot over with purple, and green, and yellow.

The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear;
And floating about the under-sky,
Prevailing in weakness, the coronach stole
Sometimes afar, and sometimes anear;
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;
As when a mighty people rejoice
With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold,
And the tumult of their acclaim is roll’d
Thro’ the open gates of the city afar,
To the shepherd who watcheth the evening star.
And the creeping mosses and clambering weeds,
And the willow-branches hoar and dank,
And the wavy swell of the soughing reeds,
And the wave-worn horns of the echoing bank,
And the silvery marish-flowers that throng
The desolate creeks and pools among,
Were flooded over with eddying song.

Swan's Way

Mi-Xa-Cka, Chief White Swan

Swan's Nebula

Swan Lake, Montana

bluebird, bluebird

Alicia Markova as Bluebird. Photo by Carl Van Vechten. October 6, 1940.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

from "The Truth About God" by Anne Carson

God's Work

Moonlight in the kitchen is a sign of God.
The kind of sadness that is a black suction pipe extracting you
from your own navel and which the Buddhists call

"no mindcover" is a sign of God.
The blind alleys that run alongside human conversation
like lashes are a sign of God.

God's own calmness is a sign of God.
The surprisingly cold smell of potatoes or money.
Solid pieces of silence.

From these diverse signs you can see how much work remains to do.
Put away your sadness, it is a mantle of work.