Wednesday, December 31, 2008



Friday, December 26, 2008

slumdog coalition

"slumdog millionaire" will make you rethink your childhood fantasy of being the orphan who gets taken in by kind strangers. if you haven't seen the pic yet, i expect when you do you'll sit speechless before the vertiginous, often sickening evidence that at the bottom of the great ponzi scheme of world commerce is either hard slavery or soft slavery, the first embracing total control of a human being by another and the second complete economic control. then perhaps, like me, you will be equally mute before the magic, whether of love, loyalty, or beauty, that nevertheless asserts itself the way flowers arise in dung heaps or rainbows arc over a battlefield.

pay close attention to the remaking of bombay into mumbai, and the suave marriage of crime to commerce, which has become the sine qua non of modernizing cities everywhere. the process overtakes the players, too. for instance, we watch how the beautiful girl is made to become a traditional dancer to be a better whore, and then as though lifted from an early suffragette's primer, how, later, the woman in her sleek kitchen in her gated estate is no more than a courtesan, well dressed but still enslaved. the hierarchies in "slumdog" are vicious and deadly, and boys fare only slightly better than girls.

yet hope triumphs. it arises out of a belief in a transcendent future, or an immanence that brings wisdom and beauty to hardship ("it is written"). this is where dance has its say. at the end of the film, as a kind of theatrical coda, bollywood-meets-philly/oakland hip hop is unleashed by the stars and a crowd of young dancers in a train station (metaphor of so many 19th century novels, and fitting for the subcontinent). it is far from the mudras that bring us krishna or shiva, or the numerology that translates into pattern the elements of the universe in indian dance. still this frontal, unison, collective number manages to merge ancient rites with modern eros and liberation. more than english, hip hop is made the universal language, and through this slice of global culture, youth counter the ponzi scheme. together, they are jacked up with a life force so fierce and sweet and fast that, at least in movies, it seems powerful enough to scare even a piratical status quo.

fold open

The arts fold like a losing poker hand during financial downturns. Ticket sales plummet, casts are pared back, shows and concerts flare and dim almost overnight. It's never easy to be an artist, haunting the margins, unsure of one's path or its value. In dire times, though, many of us are relegated to the margins, and the arts are often more widely recognized as the unpretentious translator of collective hope and distress.

They also can take us out of ourselves, give us relief and remind us that nothing is forever — even war, even economic depression. Fun is fundamental, no matter what the Dow is doing.

Dancers across the country are taking that to heart.

Consider Miguel Guttierrez (that's him at right).
The dancer-choreographer doesn't live in the Bay Area any longer, so there is no chance of seeing him dance during his 24-hour performance piece, beginning midnight Dec. 31 and running until midnight Jan. 1. But he has sparked a national-performance effort to acknowledge and protest the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and, locally, dancer Jesse Hewit will be engaged in this performance/protest/ritual "freedom of information 2008" at the Garage in San Francisco.

Across the country, each in his own time zone, dancers will be blindfolded, their ears plugged, moving without rest during the 24-hour period, meditating on the dislocation that Iraqis and Afghans endure in their efforts to flee violence and stay alive. Witnesses are invited to attend at any or all points along the way. Reminiscent of the ordeals religious pilgrims still endure, whether climbing up a rugged mountainside to honor Huitzilopochtli in Mexico, or shuffling on knees for miles to a holy shrine outside Rome, "freedom of information 2008" is a self-reflective act that asks all of us to think about the human cost of war.

DETAILS: The Garage, 975 Howard St., S.F.; midnight Dec. 31-midnight Jan. 1; free.

S.F. Ballet Gala

helgi tomasson's prism, photo by erik tomasson

At the other end of the artistic spectrum — where glitter and good times are as integral to the experience as overpriced but delicious sweets — is the San Francisco Ballet gala, this year named ICONic IMPERIAL, followed a week later by the season's opening. Every year, the parade of high rollers mirrors the state of the economy with its gowns and tuxes. This year, expect the average ball gown skirt size to shrink and the jewels to shine less brilliantly. Now that Bernie Madoff has taken thousands of people to the cleaners, the orchestra seat holders may resemble mourners at a funeral.

Fortunately, there is nothing funereal about San Francisco Ballet. Its "Nutcracker" this season was its meatiest, most comprehensible production yet, coming together with narrative magic and running at an almost leisurely pace ("Nutcracker" runs through Sunday). This is the inestimable Tina LeBlanc's last season, so even moderate fans of the ballet might want to catch the tiny ballerina's enormous artistry before she leaves the Opera House stage. The 2009 season begins Jan. 27 in a mixed-rep program that showcases a new work by choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokhov; and reprises Helgi Tomasson's elegant "Prism" and George Balachine's jazz-inflected modernist masterpiece, "The Four Temperaments."

DETAILS: 8 p.m. Jan. 21, S.F. Ballet gala; 8 p.m. Jan. 27-Feb. 7, S.F. Ballet Program 1; War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., at Grove, San Francisco; $20-250.

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company

The renowned modern troupe that combines the weightedness of early modern dance with the elegant expressionism of postwar ballet, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company comes to San Francisco for one night only at the Jewish Community Center, now a vital Bay Area magnet for important dance performances by both local and national artists.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. Jan. 15, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St.; $28-36; 415-292-1200.

Company C

Company C Contemporary Ballet of Walnut Creek opens its new-year run with new and old works. These include "The Envelope," the divinely crafted dance by David Parson; and premieres by company artistic director Charles Anderson.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. Jan. 23-24, Lesher Center for the Arts, Civic Drive at Locust Street, Walnut Creek; $25-40; 925-943-7469.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

against the comically vacant surface of our lives, a dying planet

October 23, 2008 at counterPulse

In “My Hot Lobotomy” by David Szlasa and Sara Shelton Mann the audience knows within moments that dancer/choreographer Erin Mei-Ling Stuart is one adroit actress. She sits alone for long minutes in the small black box theater wearing a quizzical, nearly blank face, playing a lobotomized guy named Joey, her eyes the single alert organ in her frozen form—and we can’t stop looking. Later, when a beatific expression takes hold of her features and her eyes disappear into her head as she plays part of a Bach cello concerto, we also discover that she is an equally accomplished violist.

We see Stuart decked out in a suit sitting in a bright orange chair. It is a color that gives an Impressionist touch to the scene, accentuated by a plump and contented looking blue sky and white cloud projection behind. The world we are entering, though, is a post-post-post Impressionist dreamscape, the kind of place where Cezanne, Matisse and even Van Gogh exist as happy Brave New World distractions against disaster, where peaches, apples and starry nights are fake and there is no depth of field or horizon line to look toward. In fact, this is an absurd and dystopic reality, a weird claustrophobic place in which 19th century innocence is supplanted by psychosurgical disconnection.

The cornerstone of that zombiehood is Stuart’s gentle, blank mask. In the first minutes, we scour her face for shifts and changes as we would the transfixed face of a clown. Finding none we begin to take in a barrage of small details. I noticed how, for instance, her khaki jacket and nicely pressed khaki pants were distinctly different shades of the same dun color. And how the circle of blue beefy recycling arrows surrounding a heart on her tee shirt was a variant of the blue of her turquoise shoes. During the long time in which we got to pay attention to her crookedly arranged mouth, I wondered if our gaze had heat and, if so, whether or not she could feel it on her face. I also noted activity in seemingly stationary hands. The fingers were slowly crawling along the khaki pants. Not quite like spiders. Like zombie hands awakening. Like the hands of someone dying making a monumental effort to move in their waning hours. Shelton Mann’s butoh-inspired action was laced with such sweet, dark humor.

Because this was theater, and because it was absurdist theater, somewhere between Beckettian koans and Ruth Zaporah’s Action Theater, the proverbial knock at the door came as it had to come, and it was both a shock and wholly expected. Stuart’s eyes leapt in the direction of the door behind the audience and our skin leapt with her when the hard rap arrived. It was a well-timed joke that got the charming, somewhat rambling hour-long absurd-apocalyptic dance-theater piece moving in earnest. Rather than the FBI, the CIA or the KGB, the man knocking is the pizza man, Spencer Evans, the night’s catalyst, decked out in a neo-Aussie-cowboy look, a guy who also sings and strums his slightly out-of-tune guitar to tell us about Joey. Joey, it seems, plunged an icepick into the orbit of his eyes and scrambled his brains.

The messenger Evans feeds Joey, offers instructional tapes, and leaves behind a mountain of garbage. His role is much less ominous than a government agent and far more insidious. Evans drops an audio tape into the boom box to keep Joey company as he eats. “I’m really glad you’re here,” a warm female voice croons. “You’ve met the delivery guy. He’ll bring you everything you need. No need to tip him….It’s going to be great…it’s going to be really great. It’s going to be great….” Like a vacationer in Hawaii fanned by tropical breezes, Joey drifts off into contentment and soon sleeps the sleep of the lamb.

Against this somnolent waking world, Szlasa creates Joey’s dream zone where truth appears in the form of images and messages. These are played out as projections overlaying the sheep-like clouds and happy blue sky. But this is where the not-quite sharp symbols of pizza, pizza boxes and oozing mind-control tapes that are nevertheless wacky and fairly apt become the all-too literal images of National Geographic or Time magazine, devoid of the kind of transpersonal terror that could spur even the lobotomized to action. Apocalyptic dreams tend to be far more archetypal than baby polar bears struggling in water and vast acres of automobiles, smog-clogged skylines and Al Gore from “An Inconvenient Truth”. A friend recently described her “hot lobotomy” nightmare: There’s a room full of guys, all lolling on chairs and sofas like teenagers. The house is on fire. The fire is approaching. I am screaming at them to leave, to hurry, to get out immediately, the house is on fire. They look at me casually, unperturbed. None of them moves. I’ve got my leg out the window. I can see the flames approaching. She has since bought herself a fire extinguisher and talks about selling the house.

But back to Joey. Joey wakes, repeats the process, following Jane Fonda’s workout one moment, and a musical instructional the next, each unit sweet and wry although ultimately tame and slightly disappointing, since with a bit more probing Szlasa and Shelton Mann might have disturbed our own somnolence more. Because how does the Fonda fitness craze compare to the psychotic quackery of a Star War’s missile shield, the dissemination of humvees as family transport or the embrace of conspicuous consumption as a form of religious obligation and patriotic duty? And how do the beauty of Bach and the expertise of musicianship figure in to the modern plague of papered-over consciousness? Finally, Stuart shoves off the pizza and begins to build something with the pizza boxes, and although the resistance is welcomed, the reason for it is unclear.

Since many of us are asking these days where resistance should and can go, we also wonder how we “become the change we need” without turning into an infomercial for the apocalypse or a self-parody that points to our inevitable post-post-everything absurdity. Many have begun to believe that each personal act is crucial, that awareness and responsibility are inseparable, and that reforming ones own habits is the beginning of profound and widespread socio-economic, political and spiritual change. Others are figuring out how to migrate—to Canada, or, preferably Paris, more preferably the Marais or the 5th arrondissement.

Joey, too, is planning on going somewhere. He scores boxes with scissors, folds, builds, folds and builds some more. First he constructs walls that fall (oops, can’t hide) and then he builds a space ship. A wonderful kids’ spaceship, with each box carefully puzzled together with its neighbor, the last box his hat doubling as the ship’s nose. Joey holds the true religious symbol of our time, the steering wheel, in his hands, gripping tight. He is happy. Delusion has no limits, afterall, and can project itself into outer space and new, unlit frontiers. The instructional purrs: “…It’s going to be great…it’s going to be really great. It’s going to be great….”

no caviar to the general

Saturday, October 25, 8pm at the Paramount Theater, Oakland
reprinted by permission

While most of us are watching our investments wither or our 401(k)s tank, Ronn Guidi and Oakland Ballet are plumping up the company's bank account with $200,000 from Bank of America's Community Builders Award. The prize, announced Saturday as an Oakland Ballet performance began, is given nationally each year to honor organizations that contribute in significant ways to their community, and is the kind of support the struggling company needs to move out of convalescence and into full recovery.

Accepting the honor, Guidi appeared before the curtain all in black, looking a decade or two younger than his 73 years. After promising to say little, he was as loquacious as he was relaxed, discussing the company's commitment to works that portray the human condition. "I'd love to bring back the 'Green Table,'" he said of the iconic German anti-war work choreographed in 1932 by Kurt Jooss, who was to narrowly escape a Nazi dragnet in Germany a year later.

Although the day when Oakland Ballet is able to remount such classics still appears a long way off, the troupe is able in the meantime to make seasonal forays onto the stage, presenting a limited sample of its repertory. Saturday's included three scenes from the ballet's "Romeo and Juliet," with music by Sergei Prokofiev, Ron Thiele's whimsical, beautifully crafted "How'd They Catch Me?" to a score by Igor Stravinsky, and Michael Lowe's charming fusion ballet "Bamboo" to traditional Chinese music. The evening was well-constructed if overlong; the dancing, far stronger than it had been in Guidi's several years before his abrupt retirement in 1999, was occasionally sublime; and the warmth and sweetness among the performers onstage and in the audience was palpable.

Guidi's "Romeo" is a modest work, its choreography often little more than classroom exercises that speak to the potent music in a desultory way. But it has its strengths, including the rich Italianate motifs, the humanity of its characters and, for Saturday viewers, the depiction of Juliet by curtain-stealer Jenna McClintock, especially in the pas de deux, which soared with lifts, arches and darting leg work. She has become a gorgeous and generous dancer.

If there was a significant disappointment Saturday it was that Guidi didn't pair the lithe and elegant Ikolo Griffin (a former corps member of San Francisco Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Joffrey Ballet and now with Smuin Ballet) with McClintock. With the best technique of the men onstage by a mile and a sweet demeanor to match, Griffin, who is mixed race, was the one dancer among the men who could have been able to meet McClintock's liquidy passion with his own ardor, her precise dancing with his.

Although there are often reasons for casting choices the public never knows, the upshot was that Guidi appeared once again to stumble into one of the ballet world's unfortunate stereotypes, putting the handsome blond Ethan White in the Romeo role when little but his looks were truly princely. Had Guidi cast Griffin instead, not only would the choice have added complexity to the dancing, but both Paris (African-American Omar Shabazz, who embodied the role with deep kindness and decorum) and Romeo would have been men of color. This, in turn, would have broken down some tired racial boundaries. Until the best movers are offered the choicest roles in ballet regardless of skin tone, the form will remain inhospitable to the broadest pool of talent and the broadest public.

Thiele's "How'd They Catch Me?" (1989) and Lowe's "Bamboo" are lovely indicators of the aesthetic that Guidi promoted in Oakland. Not only did he nurture local talent and encourage his dancers to choreograph, but he also spread his values about craft and gentle humanity, and these are clearly evident in both works.

"Catch Me?" set to Igor Stravinsky's Two Suites for Small Orchestra, veers through musical motifs in its eight scenes with wry gamesmanship, and yet is wonderfully personable and charming. Dancers march with playful bravura, mimic beach balls, flirt and folk dance. Although 20 years old, it has lost none its magic.

Lowe's "Bamboo" has weathered well, too, though as Asian dance has permeated both modern and ballet vocabularies and as martial arts is ubiquitous, the dance seems quainter than it did when it premiered seven years ago.

Nevertheless, Lowe's talent is clearly evident. He conducts the Melody of China in the pit, masterfully handles traditional Chinese motifs through ballet vocabulary and creates a world that is both recognizable and otherworldly.

Friday, October 17, 2008

they've got a ticket to ride, so hold on

October's Cal Performance calendar is full of timely events — muckraker Seymour Hersch this week, performance artist Laurie Anderson with her still-relevant "Homeland" at the end of the month, and Galway's Druid Theatre peppering lots of October's nights. For the balletomane, though, the only event of note is the nearly annual appearance of the Kirov Ballet accompanied by the famed Orchestra of the Maryinsky Theatre, which, not infrequently, is far more enchanting than the ballet company itself.

If that reads like faint praise, it would be if the company weren't populated with so many extraordinary specimens of dancerly clarity. For any ballet lover, to sit for a few hours and marvel at the precision of the corps de ballet — more angelic than militaristic — is nothing short of sublime. What does it matter if the dances (here, a choice between Act 3 of "Raymonda" and the whole of "Don Quixote") teeter between archaic and egoistic, fussy and antediluvian? Beloved Diana Vishneva and Leonid Sarafanov will knock our socks off again if we're lucky, and even if they don't, there are always other surprises. Whatever they are, we won't go away sorry for the experience.

Details: 2, 3 and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Oct. 19, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley campus near Bancroft Way; $50-$125; 510-642-9988 or

Alonzo King's dances for his company Lines verge on the unclassifiable. Working at the leading edge of ballet where he fuses the asymmetries of African dance with the precision of pointe shoes and geometrically clear lines, King never thinks only of movement. Movement and music are always one, and, he says, "Dancers are musicians and musicians are dancers." That makes his audiences lucky again this season, as he is back collaborating with legendary tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, a member of John Coltrane's jazz ensemble in the 1960s. Together they will present a world premiere, joined by former San Francisco Ballet ballerina Muriel Maffre.

Details: 8 p.m. Oct. 17-18, 22-25 and 3 p.m. Oct. 19 and 26, Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F.; $25-$65; 415-978-2787 or

An annual event that gets grass-roots press but too little mainstream notice is Kim Epifano's San Francisco Trolley Dances. Trolleys, aka streetcars, are the mode of transport in Epifano's now-annual outdoor event, and with the purchase of a ticket you get taken for a ride, with little long-term damage to your bank account. A $1.50 ticket entitles you to an array of place-specific dances by the likes of Zaccho Dance Theatre and Scott Wells & Dancers.

Details: Begins at 11 a.m. Oct. 18-19 for a two-hour, self-guided tour. Trolleys leave every 45 minutes from the Mission Bay branch of the San Francisco Public Library, 960 Fourth St. (at Berry). Free with a $1.50 ticket or a Muni Fast Pass.

Back this season are two companies that keep on keeping on with the inexorability of the life force itself: Oakland Ballet and Smuin Ballet. Oakland Ballet returns to the Paramount in another now-you-see-them, now-you-don't appearance, reminiscent of a weak patient allowed out for a long walk once a season. On this occasion, the company will reprise excerpts from Guidi's lovely "Romeo and Juliet," Ron Thiele's "How'd They Catch Me?" and Michael Lowe's sensitive "Bamboo," accompanied live by Melody of China.

Smuin Ballet is also back, and with a new work by rising star Amy Seiwert, who has been steering the company in Michael Smuin's absence as he was priming her to do. Also on the program are Smuin's hot "Carmen," along with his much-loved "Dances with Songs."

Details: Oakland Ballet, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 25, Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland; $15-$50; 510-465-6400. Smuin Ballet, 8 p.m. Oct. 24-25, 28-30; 7 p.m. Oct. 26; 2 p.m. Oct. 25-26; Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyons St., S.F.; $18-$55; 415-567-6642.

Friday, September 26, 2008

no sweet sorrow

There was no sweet sorrow in parting as the curtain came down on Mark Morris' "Romeo and Juliet," which played over the weekend at UC Berkeley. Clocking in at nearly three hours, this was the iconic Shakespeare tragedy of young love, and it was set, as usual, amid Verona's warring clans. The difference? This "Romeo" has a happy ending. It also didn't know when to quit.

Morris' "Romeo" is an honorable, often sweet paean to the power of hope in the face of war and fear. He makes use of composer Sergei Prokofiev's original reworking of Shakespeare to remind us that violence has an antidote: love.

There is no choreographer in the U.S. who can compete with the Seattle-born dancemaker in his ability to put his deep humanist beliefs onstage in a highly legible way. But laudable ideals are no guarantee of good theater. By the end of Act 1, where we've been introduced to most all the actors, learned about the dangerous love between the adorable lovers, and are ready for the drama to intensify, "Romeo" was already reminiscent of an old-fashioned spectacle from 1930s or a shaggy dog tale, the familiar action piling on to the familiar music with near-biblical inexorability.

Entering the theater, one saw the stage screened by a fanciful partition of geometric patterns you might see in a kaleidoscope, designed by frequent Morris collaborator Allen Moyer. When that screen lifted, we were presented with a stage box lined with more partial walls, this time consisting of enormous blond parquetry, like outsize parquet flooring.

The set became emblematic of something fundamentally awry with the overall conception of this "Romeo." By contrast, the miniature Italian buildings that dotted the stage floor hinted at the small, pared-back and minimalist approach this ballet needed.

Morris, as always, did his homework, utilizing the dances of the traditional Romeo as a reference point, sometimes with superb ingenuity; other times, as during the ball scene or in the square, with far too little heft. He also brought his storehouse of humor to work. The battle of obscene gestures between the Capulet and Montague gangs that launches the drama was here a cavalcade of flip-offs — a veritable celebration of our capacity to invent insult. Cross-dressed Amber Darragh (Mercutio) and Julie Worden (Tybalt) as the fiercest insulters have rarely been so sexy.

Morris is not a narrative choreographer, though, and even though he is adept at telling snapshot stories, he has difficulty building movement arcs into his ballets. The reason has to do with his movement vocabulary, which lacks internal complexity and relies on horizontal pattern more than volume and varied use of the body's kinesphere to shape space.

This poses serious problems when he bites off a big work, especially one with a substantial story and lots of characters to carve out. It is even more problematic when a score, such as the Prokofiev, is full of big Russian shifts of temper and tempo. Between the massive set and the score, the dance, with its many instances of wit and beauty, was overpowered, and the dancing tended to look thinner than it even was.

But there were also the transcendent moments and movers, who fully embodied what Morris and his team, including always inventive and knowing costumer Martin Pakledinaz and lighting designer James F. Ingalls, were after. There was pint-size Lauren Grant, whose artistry grows by quantum leaps each time we see her and who, as Juliet's Nurse, nearly stole the show.

Strong-sweet Maile Okamura as Juliet and a compellingly boyish Noah Vinson both infused their roles with an energy and nuance that made small steps read big and made us believe in love as a redeeming power. And Joe Bowie as Escalus, Prince of Verona, offered us a view of Good Government — calm, kind, and open to compromise.

But in the end, the music and its length controlled the night, forcing the choreographer to create lots of incidental movement, and that itself led to a kind of oppression: dance was reduced to the handmaiden of its sister art. This was not the message Morris was attempting to impart in the drama, yet ironically it was precisely that message that made some of us dash up the aisle the instant Berkeley Symphony Orchestra fell silent.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

studio art

There is a little-known story about a dance studio on the Berkeley/Oakland border, the kind of story that one day will be immortalized by dance historians, but for now is knowledge held by a small but devoted pool of dance lovers.

The studio is called Shawl-Anderson, named for the two trim, septuagenarian modern dancers, Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson, who set up shop one building away from College Avenue on Alcatraz 50 years ago. Both dancers had recently concluded their careers in May O'Donnell's company in New York City and they packed up and headed toward the Pacific Ocean. It was 1958, they landed in Berkeley, and then quickly got down to work.

Now, a half-century later, Shawl-Anderson as the studio is generally known, is a multifaceted center that blends dance studio, performance space and ad hoc gathering place. Since its inception it has been rooted in the ethos that has fueled the work of their mentor, May O'Donnell, an early principal dancer with Martha Graham.

How that philosophy translates is: warm-hearted independence mixed with a profound commitment to the group as it strives for always-elusive beauty, hard-to-nail truth and the body's fragile perfection. These are modern dancers for whom kindness is inseparable from hard work, and that makes them an unusual pair.

Back in the day, Shawl and Anderson began across the street, over a liquor store still in operation, before doing what so
many dance studios did then-move into a house where the living room, dining room and bedrooms all became open spaces filled with the panting breaths of sweaty, aspiring artists ranging from kindergarten on up. Those may have been quiet days in dance in the East Bay, but a lot still happened as the '50s rolled into the '60s.

Much of that activity was abetted by the shy Anderson and the ebullient Shawl, two wise men of counterbalanced temperaments. Renowned performers appeared at the studio to offer master classes. Charles Weidman was among them. He was the spirit who made modern dance safe for antic expression while his cohort, Doris Humphrey, pushed modern movement into stunning naturalistic abstractions. Such luminaries as Alwin Nikolai, Lucas Hoving and Bella Lewitzky, among others, also dropped in or stayed for a time to teach.

charles weidman

"If it hadn't been for Shawl-Anderson," French-Canadian choreographer Sonya Delwaide wrote in an e-mail, "I would never have found my place as a choreographer in the Bay Area dance community (when I arrived)."

"Frank invited me to teach at the studio, and he came to my first concert at the Bay Area Dance Series, even co-sponsoring me so I could apply for grants....When no one knows you, it is important to have one person who believes in you, and Frank was that person for me. "

Shawl, the extrovert, still has a capacity to draw talented young choreographers to him, to give them a perch as teachers, then a launching pad as choreographers. Rehearsal space has always been available at a reasonable price, and both Anderson's and Shawl's perceptive and knowledgeable eyes remain open to artists interested in being mentored.

It is quite a legacy, and this month, to honor the studio's 50 years, Shawl-Anderson's coterie of devoted studio-goers is sponsoring two salons. The first is at 7 and 9 p.m. Sept. 19, with performances by dancers and studio teachers, including past artists in residence. At 5 p.m. Sept. 20, the studio will throw a fundraising bash down the street at St. John's Presbyterian Church, where live performance will commingle with silent auctions, music and dinner.

Details: 50th Anniversary Salon, Sept. 19, 7 and 9 p.m. Sept. 19, Shawl-Anderson Dance Studio, 2704 Alcatraz Ave., Berkeley; $15. Gala Benefit, 5 p.m. Sept. 20, St. Johns Presbyterian Church, 2727 College Ave., Berkeley; $75-$125; 510-654-5921,

Shaping 'September'

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco will present Robert Moses' Kin's staging of choreographer Moses' latest work, "Toward September," Thursday through Sept. 20. At press time, it still is being developed as the company gains access to the theater space. Moses, who has long mined social and spiritual concepts in a language of lush, often ferocious intensity, is letting the space bring shape to this season's premiere.

Chance historically has played a minor role in his work, but now, as the father of two young children and as an artist who likes to challenge his own tried-and-true solutions to making dance, he is letting in serendipity. "It's not much to give you," Moses said recently by phone, "but this time I'm not collaborating. I have ideas and I'm going into the space and will see what happens."

Details: Robert Moses' Kin, 8 p.m. Thursday through Sept. 20, Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F.; $25-$30; 415-978-2787,

verona gets happy

This short piece was part of the fall arts preview for CCT.
LOL: my editors overrode the term "democrats" in the phrase "fellow democrats" (not "fellow Democrats"). The area the paper serves is big on red (forget saying "true blue" in print)), and these are times when democracy no longer exists as a generic idea, owned by Republican and Democrat and Green and Independent alike. Despite my objections, followed by my suggestions of "citizen" and "traveler", "democrat" became "celebrantor." What a fine indicator of the zeitgeist.

Mark Morris is the obvious story of any season — audiences love the man's deceptively simple dance style, which is as easy to read as a 1930s cartoon, and often as clever.

Easy or not, the power of Morris' art is that people from ages 8 to 80 can imagine letting the urge overtake them, hopping onstage and joining the dancers as they gambol through space like a population of fellow celebrantors. Viewers have their urge to dance ignited, then satisfied, by Morris' band of movers. That very kinship, unthinkable with, say, the Olympian dancers of San Francisco Ballet or Merce Cunningham's troupe, is what makes the 52-year-old choreographer, after decades of success, such a darling still.

This September, the Mark Morris Dance Group offers the West Coast premiere of its "Romeo and Juliet," evocatively subtitled "On Motifs of Shakespeare." It is a work that premiered at Bard College in New York in June and constitutes Morris' latest stab at classical rep, where some of his most ingenious ideas have taken flight.

What lured him to the project was the discovery by Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison of a new version of the sweeping Prokofiev score for the original ballet. It had lain forgotten since 1935, and was gathering dust in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow.

The find came complete with 10 pages of annotations by the composer, which Morris was left to interpret, and a different musical and narrative ending. Rather than a crypt, Prokofiev rebelliously sets the final scene in Juliet's bedroom and poses a romantically happy ending. Stalin's censors smelled subversion and kept the original from seeing light--love is a dangerous weapon to tyrannical regimes.

After Morris studied the score, he created a pared-down dance, which stands in contrast to the often-heavy Byzantine approach choreographers take to the Shakespeare tragedy. According to the Village Voice's Deborah Jowitt, Morris forgoes the pomp and cleaves toward a vocabulary of simple walks, clasps and iconic gestures. The result is spare yet hearty, and Verona is made a place where violence is not epic but ordinary, like love.

As a drama that celebrates passion, Morris's work is a love letter to our tribally violent world. But in its Berkeley context, it is even something more. It brings outgoing Cal Performances director Robert Cole a warm, optimistic goodbye. Cole, who made the Morris Dance Group Berkeley's closest thing to a dance company in residence, was an early adopter of the troupe who endorsed Morris' vision and could often be found in the orchestra pit, conducting. It led to one of the most productive partnerships between choreographer and presenter in recent decades.

It is a parting of sweet sorrow, and Morris' "Romeo and Juliet" is an apt "So long."

Details: Sept. 25-28, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, $42-$94, 510-642-9988,

Also recommended: American Ballet Theatre II, a 13-member troupe of young performers affiliated with the famed classical dance company, comes to Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center's Bankhead Theater on Sept. 21, $30-$45,925-373-6800,

Meredith Monk, whose sheer experimental genius makes this dancer, singer, and media artist a peerless performer, comes to Stanford University on Oct. 18 in a program titled "Songs of Ascension," $13-$30,, 650-725-2787. And the Merce Cunningham Dance Company promises, once again, to blow our minds with cutting-edge installations, events and concert work at UC Berkeley, Nov. 7-15, $26-$48, 510-642-9988,

Monday, June 9, 2008

text tiles

Ghanian artist El Anatsui’s wall hanging, emperor's coat, landscape and metal quilt


Joe Goode's themes haven't changed much since he began making dance theater in the Bay Area 22 years ago. He still trucks in such peculiarly American gender stereotypes as the cowboy and the cheerleader, and from his vantage point as a gay man he excavates the messy and often heartbreaking truths behind those icons. But what has changed is Goode's approach, which is at once more tender and compassionate than when he set out, as well as more elegantly rendered.

The two-week run opened Friday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with Goode and group roiling the edges of the Yerba Buena Center lobby crowd. As the ticket takers ushered me in, I saw the choreographer strolling languidly through the lobby. He wore the fanciest cowboy shirt of the dancers, a black one with long white tassels streaming from each sleeve, and a cowboy hat pressed snugly on his head. He would have been at home as King of the Pendleton Round-Up.

The rest of the men (Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, Melecio Estrella, Mark Stuver, Andrew Ward and Alexander Zendzian) were dressed in varied cowboy garb while the women (Jessica Swanson and Patricia West) were in saloon-girl regalia. They were all toting guns, yelling "pow," or "gotcha" and taking aim at the concertgoers, breaking the boundaries not only of the proscenium-arched stage but of the theater itself. It was a scenario that reminded me of clever barkers outside a Broadway theater, bringing a bit of show to the streetsto lure in the passersby. It had little theatrical clout of its own, but it said, "follow me" with humor and follow we did.

This was how Goode launched his reprise of the 1996 installation, the "Maverick Strain," his wry distillation of the 1961 movie "The Misfits," which starred Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. Like a good architectural structure, the cowboy scenario provided the choreographer a skeleton on which to hang wry observations about and inversions of iconic gender roles that run through the American bloodstream like a virus.

The world premiere "Wonderboy" had a radically different tone that was at once more formal and far more intimate, thanks to the magic of puppeteer Basil Twist, a third-generation puppeteer and native San Franciscan whose puppets are renowned for their uncanny lifelikeness and delicacy.

Accompanied by singer/violinist Carla Kihlstedt and pianist/drummer Matthias Bossi, "Wonderboy" was rendered as a series of small awakenings expressed through a beautifully expressive "boy" in a window. Looking out upon the world, he feels too much, sees too much and, through lovely touches of Asian theatrical influences, recounts his experience with poignant urgency.

Like Bunraku practitioners, two dancers held the Wonderboy in his spot in a mobile window frame (set engineered by Dan Sweeney) between billowing curtains, while another dancer stood downstage and uttered the puppet's thoughts, the speaker's voice electronically manipulated to sound childlike.

Between these, dancers engaged in dance vignettes, from a beautifully tender male-male series of lifts to a comically awful solo enactment of near date rape. A quiet river of life seemed to pass, and out of it an epiphany surfaced for the young, fragile observer: from so much aching feeling comes a profound experience of life's suchness.

By contrast, "Maverick Strain," which unfurled as a series of conversational snapshots, was far from "Wonderboy's" earnest poetic terrain, choosing to wrap itself around ironic cliches, ironic feeling tones and ironic subtexts.

Wry aphorisms about men and women amassed sweetly, like a well-arrayed pile of shotgun casings ("A woman's got to be strong; it's all she's got when she stops being pretty.").

Although it held no surprises for Goode veterans, it was rendered with the endearing and comic appeal of an old gun holster on the hips of a Mae West impersonator.

WHAT: Joe Goode Performance Group: "Wonderboy" and "Maverick Strain"
WHERE: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, Third and Howard streets, S.F.
WHEN: 8 p.m. June 13 and 14, 7 p.m. June 15
COST: $25-$40
CONTACT: 415-978-2787,,

summer in the city

For those who just moved to the area from Chicago, New York or other sites of blistering June-August heat, be forewarned: Summer in the Bay Area is a complex state of mind. Every day the weather swings from giddy freewheeling sunshine (Palo Alto, Orinda) to bone-numbing fog (El Cerrito, Berkeley, parts of Oakland and outer regions of San Francisco), gray plumes of frigid moisture stomping in with high drama and setting the teeth chattering.

This is no benign, balmy damp; we're talking fog that requires travelers to stuff their backpacks or trunks with extra clothes, down jackets included. While you may think the lovely Stern Grove or Ocean Beach look like estimable sites for a picnic, when the witching hour hits and the clouds roll in, early afternoon becomes indistinguishable from 7 o'clock, and what seemed bucolic looks suddenly like the cold and creepy setting of a Hitchcock pic.

So how does a presenter conduct an arts festival in a place that, instead of a steady climate, has a manic-depressive season with no appropriate name?

Answer: He skips Shakespeare in the Park, brings most of the art inside, and acts as if it's fall.

Andrew Wood, a rangy English arts presenter who launched the long-needed San Francisco International Arts Festival five years ago, situated it late in spring — right after the wave of graduations, at the tail end of the large presenting organizations' seasons, and before locals leave in search of real summer. His goal: to bring the world to the Bay Area and have the Bay Area see the rich arts in its midst.

"The city is a great incubator, and many young artists from all over the country come here to live and learn about their craft," said Wood. "But sometimes San Francisco is seen as being isolated from the world's major art centers. So, as artists mature, they feel they have to leave in order to fulfill their potential." In other words, don't blame it on the fog.

Wood is committed not only to keeping the artists here but offering them new laboratories in which to explore. "We are trying to create an international platform for local artists to present their work as well as to develop a model that promotes international relationships."

This year Wood has organized 40 international and local artists, closing with Afro-Cuban maestro Omar Sosa playing live in Yerba Buena Center gardens June 8, a Sunday event free to the public.

Between now and then Wood has lined up maverick dance collaborations, such as local company paige starling sorvillo's Blindsight in league with Los Angeles artist Lucy HG and Australian composer Susan Hawkins in a work called "thirty-seven isolated events" (through Saturday). The dancemakers' task is to explore the seam between the virtual and the real. Even if their goals read like a page out of a postmodern critical theory text, you don't need a philosophy degree to understand that the dance is gutsy and real.

Then, on Saturday and Sunday, Brazilian solo artist Cristina Moura presents the California premiere of "like an idiot." Here Moura plays on the univeral experience of being a fool and uses her eclectic Brazilian-European training to explore the experience we can all grasp.

In June, daring local movers Scott Wells, Kate Foley, Rachel Lincoln, Leslie Seiters, Leyya Tawil, Jose Navarrete and Debby Kajiyama are also given platforms to pursue multicultural conversations. The recurrent themes — themes that plague us all in an era of war, globalization and declining resources —— are about identity, place and what we can and cannot know.
Details: San Francisco International Arts Festival through June 8. Various dates and times. Venues include Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St. (at Mission Street); Shotwell Studios, 3252-A 19th St. at Shotwell Street; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission St.; and CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission St. at Ninth Street. $20. 800-838-3006,

REGINALD RAY SAVAGE'S work may seem to have little to do with the experiments the San Francisco International Arts Festival
artists imbibe. But in reality, Savage and his Savage Jazz Dance Company have been quietly, radically questioning the parameters of dance since he founded his company in Oakland 16 years ago. At the center of his inquiry is the identity of "high" art and jazz's place in concert performance.

Savage was trained at the Katherine Dunham Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis and by the ballerina Ruth Page in Chicago, and he has a well-deserved East Bay following. This month he presents "OakTown: DownTown."

Music is the lightning rod for Savage, whether it is live or taped, and music keeps the company pushing the boundaries of its jazz-inflected movement style. For "OakTown: DownTown," Broadway hoofer and guest artist Alex Sanchez dives into jazz-tango fusion in his untitled premiere. Savage challenges himself with the experimental sounds of Alarm Will Sound in his latest work "Blue Calx," while Savage Company stalwart Maia Siani has choreographed a new work "Between Us" to the lyrical soul vocals of Maxwell.

Details: Savage Jazz Dance Company: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St., Oakland, $10-15, 415-256-8499 or 866-558-4253,,

OAKLAND DANCE: The Fifth Oakland Dance Festival on June 21 and 22 has a lineup reminiscent of the first Bay Area dance festivals, one that fearlessly ranges across the dance spectrum agglomerating dance styles. On the opening night, June 20, it will creating mind-bending juxtapositions in rapid-fire succession when 12 companies fly across the stage in brief forays.
On tap are groups that range from mixed-abilities dancers, wacky movement theater performers, butoh dancers, East-West fusion artists to neoclassical ballet dancers (including guest appearances by San Francisco Ballet dancers Courtney Wright and Garrett Anderson).

Saturday's and Sunday's programs are more stately, with Company C Contemporary Ballet joining forces with ODC/Dance. But all in all, Oakland Dance Festival leaves the aesthetic and existential soul-searching for the other folks and engages in an old-fashioned variety show.

Details: Oakland Dance Festival, 8 p.m. June 20 and 21, 2 p.m. June 22, Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St., Oakland, $10 Friday, $20-$25 Saturday and Sunday, 925-708-0752.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

kung fu fusion

San Francisco's Lines Ballet has never been a stranger to cross-cultural collaboration. Long before mixing idioms was commonplace in the concert hall, company founder and artistic director Alonzo King began to inflect ballet with fractured, zigzagging shapes that held echoes of Asia, Indonesia and Africa.

Such cultural surfing could be an add-on or a gimmick, and in some hands it would. For King, however, recombining Western classical dance with non-Western forms is a fundamental aspect of his quest to find new ways of expressing what is shared across cultures and through time.

This week's reprise of "Long River High Sky," his 2007 collaboration with the masterful Shaolin Monks, demonstrates how potent cultural partnerships can be, and may be King's most riveting collaboration yet.

Performed through Sunday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the evening-long work teams nine exquisite Lines dancers with seven kung fu practicing monks from the Shaolin Temple USA in Fremont dressed in robes of two shades of saffron.

Though not always transparent in its aims and overlong at times, the two-part work is a stunning exploration of energy, intention and communication through the body. The monks make the ballet dancers appear like gods and goddesses; the dancers reveal the monks' extraordinary earthy power both as warriors and masters of the physical. Together they create what, at moments, becomes a dreamscape of sublime and glinting movers.

The night opened on the serpentine limbs of bare-chested Brett Conway flowing through brash fluorescent-lit space downstage as Shi Yanliang watched from his crossed-leg position on the stage floor. Then the two movers changed roles and the monk slashed and squatted and burst through the air with fighting limbs.

This pattern of observing, then being observed, of standing apart, then partnering, became the rhythmic structure of the night's many extraordinary exchanges. Two languages were being spoken. Sometimes their grammar and syntax overlapped, or their intent — to communicate, to clarify — were the same.

Breathtaking Corey Scott-Gilbert appeared to embody a bird during one eloquent solo, and when Shi Yanzhong partnered Laurel Keen, King created a beautiful moment of touching, awkward humanity that reverberated through the night.

reprinted with permission

Saturday, May 10, 2008

hard works

all photos copyright of erik tomasson

April 24, 2008. It may be the end of the 2008 San Francisco Ballet 75th anniversary season, but it felt Tuesday night that the year's festivities have just begun.

The night marked the gala opening of the much-anticipated New Works Festival, with the launch of the first three of 10 newly commissioned works by as many choreographers, and as disparate as local modern dance luminary Margaret Jenkins and little-known Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo.

A house overflowing with dancers' families, artists, press from the far coast as well as Europe, and a suffusing warmth underscored both the intimacy and intensity of artistic director Helgi Tomasson's undertaking. And while such an undertaking seems like it would be a snap for a large ballet company with great dancers and enormous resources at its disposal, in fact it is no easy trick at all. Bombing at the box office is not in any ballet's financial cards these days, and this means that artists' daring has to be tempered by success — people have to like the work enough to fill the seats in order to ensure the continuation of the company.

It is these implicit terms that can tamp down innovation. That was clear Tuesday — a night of exquisite dancing and pleasant beautifully dancey dances--but real dance daring was going on somewhere south of Market Street, not in the Opera House. One hopes that the next two programs shift the paradigm just a little.

On the bill for Program A was "Fusion" by Yuri Possokhov, "Within the Golden Hour" by Christopher Wheeldon and "Changes" by Paul Taylor — not a crowd-killing choreographer among them, and each a veteran of San Francisco Ballet commissions, which made them reliable choices. Ukrainian-born Possokhov, a former principal with the company and now Tomasson's choreographer in residence, is an inventive dancemaker with a strong sense of sculptural space, while British-born Wheeldon incises space with line, crisp musical pattern and a bag of intricate moves. Both handle music ably, and both on Tuesday employed their scores with sophisticated verve. Taylor was a maverick in the 1960s and '70s, but settled into self-parody some time ago.

Possokhov's beautiful "Fusion" suffered most from a kitschy Turkish male quartet stationed in a row in white billowing clothes and fez (reminiscent of harem guards from 19th century ballets), doing jazz isolations set to Rahul Dev Burnam's Bollywood music. Their phalanx was repeatedly ruptured by magnificent dancers in dusky-hued leotards who paired up gloriously, darting and diving to Philip Glass-inspired compositions by British composer Graham Fitkin. The whole looked as if it was meant to hold timely geopolitical allusions, but when one tried to add them up, it was just a mirage.

Fusion seemed equally to be on Wheeldon's mind. Oversaturated colored backdrops and all, he presented "Within the Golden Hour" to the work of Ezio Bosso's wryly global lounge music.

The result was sexy whimsy and novel and mesmerizing male/female motifs that seemed to talk back to Possokhov. His vocabulary included Graham floor positions, Japanese flexions, decorous Via Veneto lounge dancing, box steps and waltzes, but like Possokhov, he broke no real new aesthetic ground. The cast danced joyously.

So did Taylor's group, shimmying and boogalooing to a medley of the Mamas and Papas and John Lennon and Paul McCartney's lyrical '60s songs that was lost on half the crowd and elicited wary stillness from the other half. Nowhere in this sweet choreographic agglutination with its banal take on the counterculture of the '60s was there a hint of relevance or a shred of contemporary consciousness, no matter what claim the program notes made to an eternal social impulse for change.

This was a trite and empty cartoon of the dope-smoking '60s portrayed as trite and empty. Taylor has produced such fatuous work for his own troupe. To share it is not only unkind, but a waste of an opportunity for a once-great choreographer. (Because they would look divine reading the phone book, the dancers were glorious anyway.)
The festival continues through May 6 with choreographers Stanton Welch, Julia Adam and James Kudelka on Program B, and Margaret Jenkins, Val Caniparoli and Jorma Elo on Program C.

reprinted with permission

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Harry made the NYT, Newsday, the Daily News, the Voice etc., and has the men in blue turning red,0,1720357,print.story,kelly-for-mayor-a-voters-guide,427148,4.html