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,