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.