Tuesday, March 11, 2008

east of eden

On the heels of last week’s celebration of the great populist, Jerome Robbins, San Francisco Ballet continued its romance with romance Friday. Four works were on the boards for program 5, three of them paens to Robbins-style lyricism, and one about as romantic as a day in divorce court.

Christopher Wheeldon’s 2002 Carousel (A Dance), which opened the program, is beloved in certain sectors for replicating the dreamy dance pairings that Broadway made famous. Taking his cues from the 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, he stages the budding love between a carnival worker and an unknowing girl. It’s romance on the other side of the tracks, where, in the original, tragedy comes calling.

Jerome Robbins is dance’s lyric poet, and his archetypes—sailor, dreamer, gang member, dancer—transform dance into popular folklore. Although talented, Wheeldon is not in the same class –he can’t pull off the kind of musically stunning, characteriologically perfect distillations that make Robbins Robbins. Overstating characters, packing too many steps into a phrase to make a point, he gives us top-notch sentimentality and likable prettiness rather than essences.

So while Sarah Van Patten as the girl and a too-nice Pierre-Francois Vilanoba as the carney danced lusciously and proved they were in full command of their material, their yearning was fraught with clich├ęs of innocence, breathlessness and surprise. Through no fault of their own, rather than dangerously mismatched lovers they seemed like middle class teens on a blind date at a local amusement park.

Wheeldon fared better in his evening’s second work, the Pas de deux from After the Rain. If the Richard Rogers score was a shower of melody and waltzing, Arvo Part’s radically slow, minimalist piano/violin duet from Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in a Mirror) was a call to sustained restraint, and Wheeldon met it.

An angularly thin and iron strong Yuan Yuan Tan in a sleeveless leotard and bare legs, and Damian Smith in bare chest and p.j. pants engaged in unspooling movement that defined relationship in often awkward, interesting patterns of vulnerability and surprise. This was a pair of lovers who explored rather than wallpapered love.

Helgi Tomasson’s On A Theme of Paganini, which followed, gave love numerous, beautiful shadings that veered from the individual to the group and back again. The sparkling quintet of Maria Kochetkova, Vanessa Zahorian, Joan Boada, Davit Karapetyan and Pascal Molat married the zest of Robbins to the purity of Balanchine. Rachmaninov’s lush score was pulled from the brink of excess by Tomasson’s Calvinist cool, while the whole was delicately designed by Martin Pakledinaz in Apollonian shades of white, twilight grey, Prussian blue and lilac.

Then, like a mutant gene, Eden/Eden (2005) crashed the love fest. What a welcome jolt.

Wayne McGregor’s dystopic ballet, which premiered at SFB last year, posits two edens—past and the future--and an anti-heroine named Dolly, the sheep cloned in Scotland in 1996. The resulting relentless, multisensory work is set to Steve Reich’s onrushing music for Three Tales plus video artist Beryl Korot’s visuals.

De-gendered dancers begin decked out in beige unitards and skullcaps, performing extreme undulations, matings and recombinations at reckless speeds in a dance language that is Cunningham squirmingly recombined. Overlaid with harsh and anguished discourse about cloning, the body, and the nature of life, it is one of the most provocative ballets in memory—frightening as well as riveting, beautiful as well as hideous. While it isn’t exactly about romance, it is, indeed, about life and our love of it.
all photos copyright of Erik Tomasson

flaming the fans

all photos copyright Erik Tomasson

Jerome Robbins' fans cheered San Francisco Ballet when the curtain came down on the company premiere of "West Side Story Suite," and leading the pack was Rita Moreno, the slight, tough-minded Anita of the 1961 film "West Side Story," who was the first to leap out of her seat.

The lineup on Thursday consisted of three eminently fluent and deeply pleasing Robbins dances, each fueled by a sexy, casual-looking elegance worn either by upper-crust characters or, more often, by likable proletarians. All of the works sailed into and through the music like well-made boats.

All also knew how to wear their angst near the funny bone. Even in a work as traditional-seeming as his 1970 "In The Night," the choreographer insisted on making us laugh. Here Robbins presented three versions of Chopin-girded love--young, settled and falling apart--and it was the deteriorating kind that flared bigger, louder and wittier.

Lorena Fejoo and Damian Smith erupted repeatedly from their silken reverie to balletically feud, which was as irresistible as it was apt. In Robbins' world, the stunning idyll performed by Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin and the beautiful accommodations elegantly exacted by Elana Altman and Tiit Helimets are the foil to Fejoo and Smith's messy, comic unraveling.

The night got off to an old-fashioned start with Robbins' very first ballet, "Fancy Free" (1944). Rendered with slapstick sweetness by Pascal Molat, shapeshifting humor by Davit Karapetyan and boyish physicality by Garrett Anderson, it is a tale of three World War II sailors on shore leave soft-shoe-ing, clowning and competing for drinks and love. When two "Passers-by" materialize, the girlish Vanessa Zahorian and a sultry Erin McNulty, trouble of the charming kind ensues.

This was tender small potatoes, giving the audience a taste of the big stuff to come in "West Side Story Suite," which is a mini "Romeo and Juliet." Packed cleverly into 35 minutes, "Suite" required half a dozen forms of dance, five solo singers (one of them from the company), a street rumble and gangs breaking into song. In place of Officer Krupke, a police whistle repeatedly trilled.

Straddling Broadway theater and abstract ballet is a demanding stretch, yet the corps tenaciously rose to the challenge, capturing the competing New York street punk styles-- one white (note: needs more grit and sex), one Puerto Rican. They also inhabited the broad characters and sang tunefully enough after relentless dancing. Pierre-Francois Vilanoba was a hunk of a Bernardo and Shannon Roberts was the pistol-hot girlfriend Anita. Garrett Anderson's Tony was aptly sweet and loyal.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

faith, hope and ailey

With the announcement last week that Judith Jamison will retire as head of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011, dancegoers are forced to take stock of the company's extraordinary 20-year run under Jamison's care. Not only did the fiercesome, elegant 5-foot-10 dancer reassemble a troupe that had fallen into disarray, but she propelled the company to the very top of the field. Wednesday night's dancing was testament to her success.

It was the first night of the company's stop at Cal Performances in Berkeley, a program of four works that ranged from the sassy to the sculptural to the reverent. But the dances generally took second place to the dancers, who commanded the stage with more professionalism and well-chiseled character than virtually any ballet company on the map and any handful of top modern dance troupes combined.

That is Jamison's legacy, hands down.

In the Ailey company, there are no cookie-cutter dancers, no android corps members. It is a troupe of movers in astonishing command of their instruments (that means head, heart, and body), and like both chamber players and jazz musicians, each of them can step out to solo, then fuse back with the whole. They can also dance just about anything handed to them, from ballet leg beats to the Funky Chicken.

The tall and exquisitely protean Clifton Brown is one of the company's current virtuosos. He opened Wednesday with the intensely balletic "Firebird" (1970) as conceived by the once-avant-garde French choreographer Maurice Bejart, who infused ballet with greater cinematic sweep and populist impulse than it had had since the Ballets Russes.

Brown is a promethean Firebird, a male principal unabashed by fluttering softness, and he uses his long, strong but soft limbs to wing through space and make it shimmer. He is surrounded by a band of soldiers in the kind of pastel camouflage American troops now wear (in the 1970s, the soldiers wore Mao caps), and they embrace him with unison work that is broken, occasionally, by beautiful duets or solos. Battle leads to a broken-winged Firebird and the eventual emergence of his double, the Phoenix, danced by Jamar Roberts.

The original "Firebird," choreographed by Michel Fokine in 1910 for the Ballets Russes, extrapolated its story about the magical bird from the long-toothed Russian fairy tale. Bejart, in turn, took only the symbolic phoenixlike creature at the center of battle to create a work of rebellion and rebirth.

A company spokeswoman said that Ailey has been trying to acquire a Bejart ballet for some time (Jamison herself danced with Bejart's company). "Firebird," with its allusions to nationalist struggles of the 1960s and social renewal, is a timely choice this year. Jim Crow laws segregating whites and blacks were still on the books in the South when Ailey created a troupe in 1958 with artistic and racial diversity as its guiding principles. Much has changed since, while much remains to change.

Jim Crow was alive and well, too, when Ray Charles sang "Lonely Avenue" and sang and wrote "What'd I Say," the latter appropriating gospel music at honky-tonk speeds to celebrate physical pleasures. This is the music that launches "The Groove to Nobody's Business" (2007) by Camille A. Brown in its West Coast premiere. It's a delightful slice of New York life above ground and in the subway. Though it loses steam by the time the ensemble is riding a subway (both music by Brandon McCune and Brown's movement are too tame), it offers us a wacky array of bit players and their butt-shaking fulminations danced hilariously by Matthew Rushing and company.

The rest of the program "" Elsa Monte's sinuous "Treading" (1979), set to Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians," and the venerable "Revelations," set to gospel and folk songs "" upended conventions when they were crafted. The Ailey company doesn't let us forget the power of those landmarks, and with a vision and fortitude that puts faith in art, keeps giving them new life and meaning with joyful and peerless dancing.

reprinted with permission

Friday, March 7, 2008

breathing is the same for everyone

"Peace joins us. Breathing is the same for everyone."
Hearan Chung

I first met Hearan Chung six years ago. The dancer, recently arrived from South Korea, was living with her two children in an apartment in Millbrae, and I drove down to interview her in person. It was late spring, and I was writing an article about the upcoming Ethnic Dance Festival where she was to appear. Girded with only a smattering of knowledge about Korean dance inhaled quickly from a few sources, I plied her with basic questions; she talked with depth. At one point she graciously offered to demonstrate some of the dance’s fundamentals—the arc of movement, the trajectory of the breath, the courtly 4/4 meter. It didn’t matter that she was in jeans and tee shirt or that her floor space was limited. I could see why this modest woman was designated “a holder of important invisible properties.” She made the invisible visible.

Some weeks later the movement fragments she showed me appeared in Salpuri, an exacting shaman dance that Chung performed in the Festival. It was a work full of heroic restraint, channeling deep, emotional tides and complex thought about time and reality. Movements seemed to arise from far away then return to their source. A wrist, a knee, a step—each gesture was performed with chiseled deliberation and internal sweep. I saw her again in the Festival last year and was astonished all over again. Chung is a master.

Late in February on one of those nights the rain came down so hard it was like being inside the car wash during the rinse cycle, I joined a packed crowd gathered at San Mateo Community College to revisit Chung’s dance in a program entitled “Eternal Korea (Dance and the spirit of death)”. Accompanying the dancer was a band of performers, middle-aged women from the Korean community learning about and celebrating their heritage, and a well-trained group of young assimilated Korean-American teens, including Chung’s now teenaged daughter.

This mix of professional and amateur is often freighted with the earnestness of a school recital, and there was some of that about the evening. Every family had a bouquet of flowers for their mother/wife/daughter, filling the theater with rustling plastic and the lovely scent of flowers. Even the gracious emcee Jong Hyuk Lee spoke of pride in his wife’s performance and admired the 50-year-olds for their fortitude.

But the evening was far more than a recital, and more than a celebration of an honorable culture rooted in animist practices, Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. Chung is foremost an artist, and even when some of her cohorts looked unsure or only half filled out a movement, the “holder of important invisible properties” shaped the evening into an event of and about Korean dance and music. The cultural celebration flowed from that source.

What made this possible, and what kept this night from descending into a nostalgic yearning for home, was Chung’s replication of the master/disciple relationship and the depth of her artistic practice. Rather than professional versus amateurs, an opposition that seems designed to make the pro shine and the non-pro look mediocre, Chung embodied the sublime and transcendent, her students apprentices on the path toward that goal. Rather than second rate, their efforts became deeply honorable achievements on a long journey difficult to master. The relationship was philosophical more than theatrical, and it mirrored the process of being and becoming (and the eternal cycle of life and death) fundamental to traditional Korean music and dance.

Although less adroitly performed than some of the other sections of the night, the segment entitled “Realization that death is not the end and desire to lead the soul safely to Heaven” made these relationships crystalline. At one point the dance resembled a May Pole dance, with a white robed Chung herself functioning as the fulcrum, her five dancers winding ribbons around their mentor accompanied by a wordless chant. While the floor patterns designed to help the spirit on her way needed greater clarity both in space and in intention, the women were participants in a sublime rite. That much was very clear.

As a group, their greatest prowess showed in Gum Mu, a dance from the Shilla era (100 BCE) in which the women were garbed in bright yellow blouses under red gowns draped in blue-green panels, and small, black bowler-style hats with feathers. Together they performed an eloquent sword dance accompanied by a high nasal drone and flute. Used in shamanic rituals to prepare for battle, it was a lesson in bounded movement and flow and sat at the crossroads of religion, art and politics. Each dancer’s focus was magically inward even as the ensemble moved as a unifed whole, circling, slicing, and turning.

Sogo Cheum, a hearty drum performance as aerobic as it was rhythmic, was wonderfully rendered by Chung and the teens, whose gestures shared some of Chung’s own precision and elegance. But it was Chung’s solos that, in the end, created the deepest spell. The 27th Intangible Cultural Asset called Seung Mu opened the second half of the program. Considered the most artistic of all Korean dances, it is a folk dance originally performed by Buddhist monks, later developed into an expressive solo. Wearing a robe, a white hood, a red neck sash, with a dash of blue sleeve slipping into view, Chung rhythmically stepped, turned, tossed her arms, dancing the joy of being delivered from karma and the eternal cycle of rebirth. And like the best of dancers, she used the movements as exquisite vehicles for forces much larger than herself alone.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

into the darkness

Feb. 20, 2008 reprinted with permission

If it was a perfect night for an eclipse -- and those who crawled out around 9 p.m. say it was -- it was no less perfect an evening for dance from Spain. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Wednesday in San Francisco, luminousness flowed from the stage as the contemporary Compania Nacional de Danza made its San Francisco debut in three physically daring works on themes of violence and addiction and the irrepressibility of beauty.

Although this is the company's first trip to the city, dancegoers may be familiar with the work of director Nacho Duato from his time at Nederlands Dans Theater.

Lured to the Dutch company by director Jiri Kylian in 1981, the native Valencian spent his next nine years refining his movement idiom, ultimately serving as resident choreographer for the troupe. More than two decades later, his style contains echoes not only the work of Kylian and Nederlands Dans Theater's other resident choreographer, the probing Hans van Manen. It also has hints of Alvin Ailey style, which he studied as a young man in New York, and of the comic grotesque classicism evident in some work by the Cullberg Ballet of Sweden, where Duato danced in 1980.

The result is a kind of polyglot language with roots deep in early modern dance, shapes that have the heft of European expressionism made anxious by the ruptures of postmodernism. Add to that ballet's scalpel-sharp clarity and soaring loft, and the results, even when not wholly successful, are as sensuous and mysterious as a full moon following an eclipse.Wednesday's Program A teemed with eerily beautiful incidences of brutality and human cruelty, although Duato's complex optimism was vanquished by neither violence nor inhumanity.

"Castrati," set for eight stunning male dancers, opened the program and was perhaps the most disturbing, and the most beautiful, of the three works. Designed for men in black corseted dresses, black wristbands and various kinds of underwear, the stunning group flowed and broke and stormed the stage in endless canon forms, oppositions and block movements.

This was a monastic community, initiating a terrified novice (the soft, lovely Stein Fluijt) in order to create another feminine-voiced singer for a church that long prohibited women to sing. While Fluijt's bloodied hands at the dance's end was unnecessary overstatement, it was mutilation for God's glory €" that of singing exquisitely pure music, exemplified by Antonio Vivaldi's vocal work for countertenor.

The evening's last piece, "White Darkness," was Duato's investigation of a drug--cocaine or heroin, say--and its impact on the individual and collective soul. Set to a compelling score by Karl Jenkins, the dancing was packed with superbly crafted and feverish group athleticism, juxtaposed by deliciously edgy couplings and crowned by the sinuous linkages of Africa Guzman and Randy Castillo.

Here, Duato used the spill of white flour, a motif of Japanese butoh dance, as an inverted metaphor, signaling death rather than rebirth, darkness rather than light. Though beautiful, especially raining down and vanquishing Africa Guzman, the motif was forced to work where the movement itself ought to have spoken.

"Rassemblement," a substitute for the intended "Arcangelo" (its sets didn't meet fire standards), was a cri de coeur for human rights, and a noble effort to portray the plight of Haitians. But after 50 years of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the wealth of complex, African-inspired dance in the United States, the work had a stock quality, and felt underserved by the lovely but too-linear songs of Toto Bissainthe, a literalism the splendid dancing could not undo.

broken-heart society

copyright erik tomasson

Giselle, from the 1841 ballet by the same name, is one of ballet's oldest Romantic heroines. She is usually portrayed as a lively country girl who loves to dance and, despite a weak heart, shyly moves in and out of her beloved's grasp. On rare occasions, she is performed as a young woman with an artistic imagination, rejecting the stolid local boy Hilarion for the more poetic Albrecht who has moved in across the yard.

Even more rarely, Giselle materializes as both the high-spirited peasant and the soulful idealist, which is how she was crafted Saturday night in Yuan Yuan Tan's sublime interpretation of one of ballet's most important roles. Tan let nothing get in the way of her multilayered Giselle, not even her classically elegant but fussy partner Tiit Helimets, whose technical grasp of the aristocrat's role was impeccable and enactment of the drama irritatingly callow.

Tan is one of San Francisco Ballet's reigning principals. She is also the company's queen of long limbs, with a lethally beautiful line and feet so articulate and strong, they appear to have their own center of intelligence. Her only real competition came from Muriel Maffre, who retired last year, and Maffre had a leg up on the cerebrally cool Tan, since Maffre was a dancer of enormous artistic breadth and musicality. Tan long seemed destined to shine best in abstract roles with limited musical and emotive demands.

No more. Tan claimed Maffre's terrain Saturday, proving to be a stunning actress of womanly depth and musical subtlety and inhabiting the mid-19th century role with complete assurance.

She progressed as Act 1 came to an end from happy to crazed and dying girl. She then morphed with effortlessness into a tender and womanly beauty in Act 2, protecting Albrecht from the vengeance of her fellow spirits and becoming as ethereal as a dragonfly in the eerie graveside setting among the Wilis, the spirits of jilted brides. Each pristine beat of her long, supple feet or winglike arms, and every precise plunge into arabesque, was as exquisite as it was heartbreaking.

She and Helimets, whose own beats and leaps were deliciously spongey, were supported by stunning demi-soloists and a company in fine if not always purely classical form ensconced in a set designed with simple fairy-tale elegance (sets, costumes and lighting by Mikael Melbye). Nicholas Blanc and Pascal Molat singed the air in the Peasant Pas de Cinq with their bravura jumps, pump-action turns and nearly out-of-control landings. Clara Blanco, Elizabeth Miner and Frances Chung were a lovely if more demure grouping, picking up and elaborating on Giselle's vocabulary of leaps, hops and turns.

Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is often danced with the burning cold intensity of liquid nitrogen, but visiting artist Sofiane Sylve danced with an intriguingly sad warmth and implacable will. The corps moved in moonlit unison throughout Act 2, swarming first around Hilarion, then Albrecht. And when Giselle floats in Helimets' arms, skimming the ground like a glittering fairy, the pair gave shape to love and sorrow and loss with breathtaking magic.

The deeply human production has been honed by Spanish maestra Lola de Avila, associate director of the San Francisco Ballet school. Paul Ehrlich performed the viola solo in Act 2 with soulful clarity and the orchestra, under the baton of Martin West, played with unerring sensitivity.

reprinted with permission