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 www.calperfs.berkeley.edu.

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 www.ybca.org.

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.