Friday, December 18, 2009

15 Days of Dance: The Making of Ghost Light

It was 2007. After two years of talks and planning, at the beginning of the new year, Elliot Caplan finally embarked on a daring collaboration with American Ballet Theatre. The renowned filmmaker, who spent 20 years at Merce Cunningham’s side as resident filmmaker of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and today heads the Center for the Moving Image at the University at Buffalo, commissioned and was about to film a new dance under construction. He had the support of the University––an unusual move for a public institution––and he had the support of the mayor of the city. It was an auspicious beginning.

On January 8, the project began in earnest. That day ABT choreographer Brian Reeder presented the first steps of his new work, Ghost Light, set to Aaron Copland’s “Music for the Theater,” to the 11 young dancers of the ABT Studio Company in the company’s Broadway home. Caplan and fellow cameraman Donald DuBois haunted the space for 15 days as Reeder built the work, shooting 68 hours of film using two production cameras and two microphones. They caught the choreographic process at different angles, in varying light, in close up and in long shot. New York City peered through the room’s large windows as they filmed, and inside a powerful intimacy reigned over the action.

The company then shifted to Buffalo where it was in residence for the week of January 27 to February 4. On February 3, the Studio dancers debuted Ghost Light in downtown Buffalo’s historic Shea’s Performing Arts Center to 3,500 Buffalo public school students and then to a general audience on the university campus, a night of blizzard conditions. The filming continued. In March, when the troupe appeared in New Orleans, they performed the work again, this time as a symbolic gift from the city of the Buffalo Shuffle to the storm-wrecked home of Dixieland jazz.

To an outsider, the venture might seem like a conventional documentary project about a dance. But what Caplan has produced slips those bounds. His idea was to establish with 15 Days Of Dance a new standard of filmed dance preservation and at the same time to capture the choreographic process from the first step to its staged showing. Sixty-eight hours of film have been edited down not to 1.5 or even 3 hours, or even 6, as documentaries at the outer reaches of the form might run, but to 18. While 15 Days Of Dance is a document, it is far more than that: it is an extended cinematic rumination on the making of art. Graciously, Reeder and the dancers allow us in to view their artistic process, a process closely guarded by most dance makers due, in part, to its intimacy but also due to its often discursive, improvisational nature.

If you rifle through the dance archives you will discover that a dance documentary was made with ABT and released in 1995 by Frederick Wiseman whose 170-minute film is called, simply and categorically, Ballet. Wiseman, who is best known for his sociological studies of prisons, hospitals and schools, trailed American Ballet Theater dancers and administrators for a period of nine weeks and over two continents. Ranging through studios, on stage, in offices and into rehearsals, Wiseman lets the viewer taste “life” at ABT. Trained in his youth as a lawyer, he has a gritty style and lurching lens of a court reporter. His method is to impose narrative on his material, making Ballet notable as a record of the dailiness of life among a troupe of thoroughbred dancers. There are the long hiatuses between classes, rehearsals and stage events, when dancers eat, sleep, read or knit, and there are the difficulties in running dance as a business. Time is distended, sometimes interminable. When exaltation does arise, it does so out of a sheer force of will that hauls undifferentiated experience into the realm of art. In Wiseman’s hands, the central miracle is that beauty and substance transpire at all.

Caplan, who trained as a visual artist with Elizabeth Murray and as a filmmaker with Bruce Baillie and Stan Brakhage, has a different starting point and a far different objective in 15 Days Of Dance. He begins with a single and complete work of art, taking its pulse at each step of the encounter. His role is rather like a canny detective attempting to discover the mystery of the process, sifting for clues as he uses his camera to study a rich, ever-moving, always-evolving tapestry. Like many important avant-garde filmmakers before him, he invites a story to surface, he doesn’t impose one. His particular approach is painterly, elegant, and discreet, and he peers into an apparent chaos of events knowing that there are patterns hidden amid the jumble. Nothing in his filmed universe is banal and nothing is insignificant.

It is a point of view that aims for depth within the frame while seeking an overall structure that both enlarges and mirrors that depth. Caplan achieves this by filming a complete event executed by a constant group of dancers, allowing not only the details of dance making to interest us but also the group itself over time, so that they become a choreographic study even as they learn and build a dance. This layers 15 Days Of Dance with apparitions of its dominant theme, making it a work of art about artists working to create a work of art.

The technical elements of the filmmaking are crucial to this process. The filmmaker’s camera, shooting with quiet magic, captures the action in almost constant wide full shot, typically on the diagonal, and sometimes in split screen. This lets us feel the dancers and choreographer working, thinking, and plotting pensively. It also builds an even clearer intimacy than if we were in the room with them, since our own egos are not part of the ambient experience and the camera can bring us a depth of field and multiple viewpoints that permit us to see the action fully. As a result, 15 Days Of Dance also has a central miracle but one in which beauty and substance are everywhere; one need only look closely, through the eye of the camera, to find them.

“I asked the question: ‘How does a dance get made?’” Caplan explained to the Buffalo audience during a panel discussion that followed the premiere. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be around choreographers for many years and I watch the process. I find it fascinating, and I was sure others would also….What I’m capturing is the series of decisions that Brian is making in the moment with the dancers….He is giving them instruction. They are listening to what he is saying.” They move as he moves, are silent when he is silent, Caplan adds.

And so they are. We watch the dancers quickly and easily translate the complex nonverbal material Reeder transmits from his body to theirs, a kinetic process that is animal and sublime, quotidian but never commonplace, and as old as culture itself. We witness the liquid creation of art out of seamless effort and inspiration. Time moves fluidly and occasionally seems suspended. There is no backstage, and with two cameras trained on the action, all the work occurs before us. The space of the studio also has stunning aural depth, making the quiet resonant and pendant rather than shallow and flat. For this Caplan is indebted, in part, to John Cage, whose exquisite handling of musical silence continues to influence the filmmaker’s understanding of the aural landscape. Sound lets us know the space and the space is the medium in which the dance transpires.

15 Days Of Dance is not a documentary, says Caplan. “If it ends up a documentary it will because it will have first been made [in] another form and remade into a documentary. But that’s not the goal. The goal is to find the form.” That form—of some essence of dance making itself, or of Reeder’s particular process of choreographing––will emerge.

And what of ghost light? Ghost light, as most theatergoers know, is the light left on in the theater. In Shakespeare’s day theaters ritually kept a candle lit. Later it was a gas lamp, and today an electric light stays illuminated through the night to ward off the ghosts of past performances. Reeder’s ballet honors the theater, the ghosts, the echoes that haunt a place like Buffalo, where the New York-to-Buffalo theater circuit once thrived. And Caplan is the medium, filming the seen to capture the unseen, bringing us a little closer to the beautiful patterns hidden in front of our eyes.

(Parts of 15 Days of Dance: The Making of Ghost Light are being shown in installments at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center and at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. with the filmmaker on hand. Check the institutions' calendars for dates and times. Caplan will release the multi-disc compilation of Ghost Light in limited edition in 2010. Visit for more information.)

Nuts to All That

IT WAS A tough year for optimism until citizen Mary Strey of Wisconsin called 911 about two weeks ago. She told the dispatcher that someone terribly drunk was driving down the county road she was on. The dispatcher tried to get a bead on the location, then asked where Mary was relative to this driver. Was she behind them?

No, she said, "I am them."

"You am them?" he marveled.

Mary was making a citizen's arrest. It just happened that she was the one she wanted arrested.

Mark Morris is a little like Mary Strey, although the laws he breaks are the rules of 20th-century dance, not the highway, and where we meet him isn't on the shoulder of the road, it's in the theater. Also, as drunkenly campy as "The Hard Nut" first struck some when it premiered here, Morris' holiday romp, returning to Cal Performances for two weeks in December, is an honest remake of the Nutcracker with a core of modern, cockeyed optimism.

Nutcrackers are lavish, and this is a big, blowzy modern dance-inflected work replete with libation-fueled revelry and louche '70s dancing. It also revamps the classic tale in a way that steers closer to the strange story within a story of the ETA Hoffman original, with a result that is lovable and naughty. And though this is no sing-along dance-along Nutcracker, Morris lets us feel that we would be frolicking on stage alongside the tipsy Stahlbaums and dizzy Snowflakes with their sno-cone heads if only he'd give us the signal to leap from our theater seats.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. Dec 11-13 and 17-20, Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way, Berkeley; $36-$62; 510-642-9988,

Left Leaning

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts continues its provocative programming this month with the upcoming Left Coast Leaning Festival, an exciting collaboration among the likes of neoclassicist Amy Sweiwert and hip-hop postmodernist Rennie Harris, and others. Curated by spoken-word maverick Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the event is designed to create a collage of storytelling, music and urban dance that signals seismic shifts in the culture already under way in California.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. Thursday-Dec. 5, YBCA Forum Space, 701 Mission St., at Third; $35 festival pass, $10 for ages 24 and younger; 415-978-2787,

All together now

Bay Area ballet veteran Carlos Carvajal, director of the Peninsula Ballet, joins forces with the dancers of Oakland Ballet to stage his Nutcracker at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland and the San Mateo Performing Arts Center in San Mateo. This production is a sweet, homegrown interpretation of the classic, and live music, which gives any Nutcracker real magic, is being provided by the Oakland East Bay Symphony under Michael Morgan. (The orchestra, in order to be affordable to the cash-strapped companies, lowered the its fees for the occasion.)

For a fee, donors can climb into a costume and join the dancers on stage.

DETAILS: 4 p.m. Dec. 12 and 19, 2 p.m. Dec. 13 and 20, San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo, 650-762- 0258; 11 a.m. Dec. 24, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 26, 2 p.m. Dec. 27, Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland, 510-465-6400,; $50-$15 general, $40-$12 children 12 and younger (20 percent discount with food donation), $37.50-$11.25 seniors.

A Twirl with Twyla

Twyla Tharp, the Alice Waters of dance, is best known for putting high and low fare together in the same event. With an optimism about the world's capacity for change, she stormed the gilded halls of ballet's opera houses and steered her way into the heavily male realm of commercial theater to create revolutionary dance mash-ups blending classical and club dance. Next month, she appears in Words on Dance to discuss her latest book, "The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together."

Her newest volume is an homage to the art of working with others as much as it is to the famous folks she's worked with over the years, stars such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Milos Forman and Bob Dylan. But Tharp is a realist even more than an optimist. She understands that while collaboration may good for the soul, playing well with others is essential to get wherever one hungers to go.

DETAILS: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8, Herbst Theatre, 410 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; $25, $10 off regular price for F. Dancers' Group members; 415-392-4400,

Lab special

It takes so much optimism to run a minuscule space in a miserable economy when so many storefronts are emptying like bird nests in autumn. Yet that's what Joe Landini dares to do at the Garage in San Francisco, a tiny black box theater with a red door. The venue hosts a lineup of interesting up-and-coming Bay Area performance artists in December, and if you're looking for the unsung or experimental, this is a good place to start.

In the middle of the month the Garage spotlights Field All-Stars, including Megan Nicely, Dan Carbone and Jen Marie. They are followed by a choreography showcase, "raw & uncut," with Liz Boubion; the group BodiGram in "For the Love of the Game!"; and FACT/SF, Charles Slender's year-old company founded with a group of collaborators, in "The Consumption Series, Part III." The run concludes with "Veils and Apparitions," two evenings of intermedia work with Janet and Raja Das, Amy Lewis, Sonsherée Giles, Agnes Szelag and Caroline Penward.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. Dec. 12, Field All Stars, $10-20; 8 p.m. Dec. 15-16 raw & uncut, $10-20; 8 p.m. Dec. 18-19, Veils and Apparitions $10-15, The Garage, 975 Howard St., SF. 415-885-4006.

Nuts to that

The King of the Nuts is San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker, and despite its detractors, this beautifully revamped holiday spectacle is held together as few are by the comprehensible story of a girl's transformation from childhood to young adulthood, set in San Francisco early in the 20th century. It's a story that dashes forward breathlessly, magically, as spellbinding as a sleigh ride in moonlight.

DETAILS: 7 p.m. Dec. 8-27, 2 p.m. Dec. 11-13, 17-23 and 26-27, 11 a.m. Dec. 24, San Francisco Opera House War Memorial House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; $18-$236; 415-865-2000,

reprinted with permission (print date 11/27/09)

Monday, September 21, 2009

in a blue tango with jules feiffer

viva la revolution

(I've left in a few phrases the editors removed--the ones that plant Morris in dance history but mean little to non-dance folks. quel dommage!)

Choreographer Mark Morris has never worn his politics on his sleeve. He hasn’t had to. Decades ago he established himself as a late baby-boomer choreographer who loves music to distraction and built not merely a dance company but a village whose residents stay with him for years and years. His life itself was political.

Now, in a program Thursday night at Cal Performance’s Zellerbach Hall, (continuing through the weekend), politics comes into sharp if quiet focus, signaling that Morris has evolved into a mature, often disquieted artist who sees the inextricable link between tragedy, pleasure, chaos, beauty and the political state.

While Morris has always cared about society, and has a deeply humanist point of view, it is only in the last half dozen years that he has become increasingly eloquent about the enduring values of a Republic. In this current program he meets us with both images of sweet, balanced society and of stirring visions of unhappiness, war and death. Iraq is never far from consciousness, nor are all the follies of the war makers and their war machines, not to mention internal extremists and the rabble.

In the night’s most stirring piece, “Empire Gardens,” with deliciously bright parade costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman, Morris does what he does best—draws from early modern dance to interpret contemporary conditions, the way a modern musician might take a phrase of an old master and reconfigure it.

Set to the dissonant, multi-layered Trio for piano, violin and cello by Charles Ives, played brilliantly in the pit by Michi Wiancko, Wolfram Koessel and Colin Fowler, Morris dresses the corps in whimsical military stripes, moves them in angular semaphoric patterns, and evokes early German modern dance, military bandstands and commedia dell’arte all at the same time.

Like Ives who layers melodies and dissonant tonalities, including snippets of “Rock of Ages,” Morris is fearless in knitting together disparate elements—an Edvard Much scream and a Martha Graham frontier tableau; marching action and the mechanical style of Oskar Schlemmer. In the sheer jumble of conflicting impulses both aurally and visually, he presents a portrait of a childish, silly, but destructive brood unable to see their own folly.

“V,” choreographed to Schumann’s Quintet in E Flat Major for piano and string, which closed the evening, has some similarly arresting visuals, especially when the dancers scrabble along the ground like athletes/beasts/soldiers trying to escape the battlefield while elegantly attired in deep blue shorts and sexy hopi coats

Avian formations abound, and flocking V patterns appear and reappear, as do beautiful couplings between the dancers dressed in white pants and tops and those clad in blue. As Schumann veers from the elegiac to the funereal and back, Morris follows; late into the piece, Morris seems to run on automatic, his ideas thinning before Schumann’s music runs out.

“Visitation” set to Beethoven’s soul-searching Cello Sonata No. 4 in C Major began the evening. Here Morris offers up another, quieter dance of loss and attachment populated by ghosts and memories in which partners are sucked away from one another as by a soft gravitational pull. From loss and dream of loss, the figures repeatedly assert a heroic response, one leg angled over the other, hands together on a hip as Beethoven lets the French song of revolution, the "Marseillaise," leak into the flow.

The company danced like a democratic tribe, moving with unaffected athleticism and joy, embodying through their attack, their commitment and their joy the humanism Morris so deeply prizes.

morning becomes eclectic

May/June preview

Eclectic best describes the dance that will be hitting the theaters in the upcoming month. The other word that comes to mind is profusion—so much is going on in between now and the end of June and so much of it is intriguing that it’s easy to see how a dance lover might yearn to double (or even triple-book) a Friday or Saturday evening. Fortunately or unfortunately, the limitations of the space/time continuum--not to mention city traffic and grumpy ushers--mean that most of us are subject to the one-night-one-dance limit. There is, however, no reason not to pack in several dance concerts a week.

For those of you who love your dance big, cheeky, humane and, ultimately, married to the music, you won’t want to miss the tribute to outgoing Director of Cal Performances Robert Cole, when Cal Performances winds down its 09 season with a bang--Mark Morris’ choreographic Big Bang, to be precise—L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato (The Cheerful, the Pensive and the Moderate).

This is a dance of ardent invention and charm set to, even, some would say, illustrating George Frederick Handel’s oratorio L’Allegro and created at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Belgium where the Mark Morris Dance Group was in residence from 1988 to 1991. As an elegant, indefatigable, and often bawdy music-driven pageant on states of being, it includes 24 dancers, singers from the UC Berkley Chamber Chorus and the glorious Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

L’Allegro is not only a capo lavoro for the dance maker but is also a winning tribute to Cole, who recognized Morris’ talent in the late 1980s and worked diligently over the ensuing years to bring the choreographer to the East Bay again and again. The partnership has paid off for Cal Performances, and also for Morris, who has found a welcome home in the East and West Bay and a world of top-flight musical talent here, from the late Lou Harrison to John Adams and the musicians of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.
DETAILS: 8 p.m. May 29-30, 3 p.m. May 31, Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way, Berkeley. $36-82. 510-642-9988.

Big goes not only for MMDG but for the Bolshoi, who appear the following weekend at Zellerbach Hall. The ballet company’s name means “big” or “grand” and the Bolshoi the first weekend in June is doing the big, little-seen La Bayadere by Marius Petipa, an exquisite ballet of classicism and exotica with some of the most spellbinding ensemble work in the dance canon. And music being Cole’s first love, the Berkeley Symphony will be in the pit playing the score by Ludwig Minkus.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. June 4-6, 2 p.m. June 6-7, Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way, Berkeley. $50-125. 510-642-9988.

There is a tiny space on Howard Street in San Francisco that is one of the latest fringe dance spaces to emerge. It calls itself The Garage, and on May 17th it presents one night of sublime conceptual art improvisation in a program called “The Absence of Sequential Thought” by Non Fiction, so named because everything they do they do from life in the moment on stage. The group includes former Trisha Brown dancer Shelley Senter, who moves like water, conceptual artist and dancer Andrew Waas, and dancers Kelly Dalrymple-Waas, Adam Venker and Rosemary Hannon, with sound and video by Jerry Smith.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. May 17, The Garage, 875 Howard St. at 6th St. $10. 415-885-4006

After decades, you can still hear patrons of San Francisco Ballet grumble that the Smuin days were ever so much better than the SFB fare of today. I wonder if they know that Smuin Ballet lives on? If they’re serious and want to stop grousing, they should get themselves over to Walnut Creek or San Francisco to see what Cecile Fushille, Director, and Amy Siewert, Choreographer-in-Residence, are building for the company in Michael Smuin’s honor, and how they are keeping the showman’s flame burning. This season, the company premieres a work by Smuin and another by ballet maker Trey McIntyre.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. May 15-16, 2 p.m. May 16-17, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 3rd and Howard, SF. $18-55. 415.978.ARTS (2787)

8 p.m. May 22-23, 2 p.m. May 23-24. Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, $40-55. 925.943.SHOW (7469)

We see far too little of Brooklyn-based Ronald K. Brown in the Bay Area, a choreographer who has pushed the dance vocabulary of the African diaspora to a new level of meaning and purpose on stage. This month he moves into performance art as he collaborates with nothing less than Nick Cave’s sound suit installation at the Yerba Buena Cener for the Arts galleries. Sound, costume and movement become one in this exciting experiment.

DETAILS: 7 p.m. May 28; 3 p.m. May 30-31, YBCA Galleries, 3rd and Mission, SF. FREE with Gallery admission.

The San Francisco International Arts Festival this year hosts German dance theater maker Sasha Waltz, who employs the flat visual style of television, the theatrics of stage, and the physicality of late 20th century dance to create often disturbing dancescapes. Sasha Waltz and Friends restage her “Travelogue I—Twenty to eight” about five combative roommates, a quintet you hope never to have to live among.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. May 27, 6 p.m. May 28, Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, SF. $20. 415-399-9554.

Contra Costa Ballet, scaling nothing back no matter what the national trends or economic indicators are, is mounting Swan Lake, a new, two-hour production under the direction of school founders and renowned dancers Richard Cammack and Zola Dishong. What better way to give a youth company a demanding forum to test and hone their skills and a platform to mix with seasoned professionals? Wall Street could learn something from such humility and daring.

DETAILS: 8 p.m. May 29 and 2 p.m. May 30, Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. $30-20. 925-943-SHOW.

When Julia Adam was a principal ballerina with San Francisco Ballet, audiences awaited her every new role with almost breathless anticipation. They asked: what will Julia be dancing? What will she open and how will she adapt the role?

Whimsical, lyrical, dramatic and witty, Adam was a musical dancer who was never content to just dance to the beats but instead filled out her assignments, whether the Ice Queen Myrtha in Giselle to Hans Van Manen’s drunken partygoer in “Black Cake,” with her large and generous personality. The Canadian-born ballet-and-modern-dance-trained ballerina is part a long but ignored tradition of brainy classical dancers capable of expounding on topics far outside of pliés, developées and pirouettes. She took on Marshall McCluhan’s communication theory when she choreographed “The Medium is the Message” in 1993 for the San Francisco Ballet’s Choreographic Workshop, where she was the only woman to join the roster of dancers to make their own work during a layoff when the ballet didn’t tour. She later gamely toyed with Newtonian physics when she choreographed “Newton: Three Laws of Motion” for the Lawrence Pech Dance Company in 1998.

High-octane, incisively crafted play is the simplest way of describing Adam’s style. She takes an idea like the three laws of motion and out of it makes a dance that is awash in an insouciant descent of apples and bodies, moving and at rest. Her beautifully shaped but misunderstood contribution to the New Works Festival, “a rose by any other name” brought an offbeat, modern humanism to the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale in which symbols and bravura deconstructions of ballet effortlessly unspooled to give the work enduring power. Next month Diablo Ballet premieres her latest venture in story dance with “The Little Prince,” the tale by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, with a cast of 30 dancers. The exquisite story is about a little prince whose home is an asteroid, B612, a distant place with three volcanoes and a rose. (Adam seems to like numbers, and clearly has a thing for roses.) And while it is inspired by a story whose first audience may be children, Adam once again constructs her tales the way all the best tales are built—for all ages, but with special poignancy for those of us old enough to understand subtexts and innuendo.

DETAILS: May 8-9, 7:30, and 2 p.m. children’s show Saturday. $18-48 (2 for 1 at 2 p.m. Saturday), Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. 925-943-SHOW or

In its continuing nod to dance classics of the 20th century, Company C Contemporary Ballet rolls out Twyla Tharps’s dreamy “Little Ballet.” This dance was made in 1983 for then director of American Ballet Theater, Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose technical prowess enabled Tharp to play luxuriously with the forms, traditions and conceits of ballet. Here, most notably, it’s the conceit of an older male choreographer finding his muse in a young ballerina. Not seen in the area for 25 years, “Little Ballet” is another in Company C’s admirable stagings, offering audiences exposure to long-shelved work and affording talented Bay Area Kevin Delaney a chance to test himself against Tharp’s diabolical combination of rigor and ease. Also on Company C’s upcoming bill are Nikolai Kabaniaev’s premiere, “Dioscures,” the witty “boink!” by San Francisco Ballet’s Val Caniparoli, and Charles Anderson’s “Akimbo.”

April 18, 2:30 and 8 p.m, $21-24, Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. 707.588.3400; May 2, 8 p.m. May 3, 2 p.m. $20-30, Cowell Theater, SF. 415.345.7575; May 15-16, 8 p.m.. $25-40, Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. 925.943.SHOW

Cal Performances gives us a dizzying array of dance as its season winds down, starting with the soap opera sudsyness of Russia’s Eifman Ballet in a modern take on “Eugene Onegin,” followed by Mark Morris Dance Company’s “L’Allegro, il Pensiroso ed il Moderato” (the joyful, the pensive and the moderate man) to Handel’s pastoral ode to poetry by John Donne, and concluding with the Bolshoi Ballet in the hauntingly beautiful 19th century “La Bayadere” (The Temple Dancer).

DETAILS: Eifman Ballet, May 1-3, 8 p.m. and 3 p.m., $36-62; Mark Morris Dance Company, May 29-31, 8p.m. and 3 p.m., $36-82; Bolshoi Ballet, June 4-7, 8 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. $50-125. Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way. 510-642-9988.

And finally, if you care about dance originals and have yet to feast your eyes on one, Anna Halprin, now 89 and as vivacious as a fiery 50-year-old, is staging her latest creation, “Spirit of Place” at the beloved Stern Grove Concert Meadow, designed by Halprin’s renowned landscape architect husband, Lawrence Halprin. Few living couples have changed their respective fields as much as these two have. Anna Halprin digested the lessons of the Bauhaus and brought deep experimentation and play to dance, becoming the inspiration behind postmodern dance, while Larry Halprin took the Bauhaus ideas of democracy and simplicity and invested them in the contour of the landscape, where nature and civilization engage in a lusty and complex dialogue. In two performances on one day, Halprin and her cast of over 50 movers will embody ideas about the human form in conversation with nature and place. Or, as Larry Halprin put it, they will attempt to “create a mystical place where one would be inspired to reach into oneself."

May 3, 11:30 pm and 2 p.m., FREE, Sigmund Stern Grove, 19th Ave. and Sloat Blvd., San Francisco. 415.252.6252 ,

Sunday, September 20, 2009

marvelling at andrew

To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Monday, April 6, 2009

liable to prosecution

the stars of the john japserse evening came in constellations. the first on my list, since it shaped the entire production, were the hanger-tapestries that spilled from the flies, spectral and beautiful, a beauty heightened by bright crackling lights that ascended and descended during the 90 minute performance. i wondered only late into the evening what bizarre array of clothing the donated hangers might have held before the show. they carried few ghosts with them.

Second was the magic of Zena Parkinson 's music, which was as much a partner to the evening's performance as the dancers were to the movement. Harp wizard, winsomely dressed in a stylish confab of fed ex tyvek envelopes, the NY based musician plinked and tinkled and droned and otherwise gave life to the air and brought layers of sensation and thought to the action on stage that deepened and heightened it.

Then there was the group of elastic, protean movers who, combining fixed patterns with the danger of improvisation, wove their own tapestry. It was full of raw sensual energy and elegant physicality, not unlike the hangers themselves-isosceles triangle topped by a definite hook--the dancers' legs, which protruded repeatedly to stop and block onrushing action stuck out in space like the hangers' necks.

Jasperse is wry and profoundly ingenuous, his lithe body still expressive of the gawky kid, his balding head at odds with his delicate bone structure and nasal voice. He looks like he should always get to be a boy, although he has a man's concerns--the state of the world, for one.

"misuse liable to prosecution" didn't bill itself as a funeral, and clearly it was much more than simply a rite in honor of a species determined to move toward extinction (the very act of dancing defied our end); but the big issues were on the table--corruption, piracy, values that lead to pillage and plunder, obstruction and deflation. and with the bleating wail of a bagpipe as its player processed down the aisle at the night's close, and jasperse's fantasy of blowing the walls of the theater sky high to create otherwise impossible intimacy between his audience and his players, the terrible contradictions of living in the 21st century were upon us. this is, afterall, the century where the mad outcome of a world economic program of endless, manufactured need that dries up the earth's bounty and despoils what's left is upon us: large portions of the planet are starving, plunged into auxillary wars, and, in some cases, about to go under water, while a small royal percent (us, at all income levels) live like tutankhamen's extended family. it's the same old story of greed and destruction now taken to levels that make our 1960s fear of atomic annihilation laughable.

Jasperse is not didactic, though he's silly in a charming, almost daft way. He talks to us through the megaphonic portal of an orange traffic cone poised on a broom, his high whine of a voice telling us at that peculiar but apt remove what we already know and nevertheless need to hear, again.

thank you, john. thanks, too, to the dancers.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

musings on discourse project

(what follows is my counterpost on the subject of last week's discourse project at counterpulse....all viewable on their blog....)

I've been dropping down in front of the tv lately since i came down with the flu. I've been trying to endure the spotty HD signal, looking for juicy news or entertainment but discovering over and over how dreary the pickings are without plug-ins to the great television transmission gods in the sky/ground.

ironically, making do has its rewards because i watch what i might otherwise pass up. last week i saw bill moyers interview parker palmer, for instance. Palmer is a man whose piety irked me but whose thoughtfulness was galvanizing, the founder of something called the center for courage and renewal. He specifically addressed the recent crop of newcomers to politics, people who shed their past disinterest or disillusion because of the obama campaign's careful and emotionally connected organizing strategies. the essence of the strategy was to connect individual stories to a larger purpose, then keeping that purpose alive. parker talked about the need as citizens for a constant dialectic between what is and what might be, between the material and ideal; without that, we fall into narcissism and cynicism on the one hand, and delusion on the other. in either case we end up out of touch with the flawed realities of everyday life and disconnected from the changes that can arise from leaps of imagination and belief in the future. my own metaphor for this is making a tortilla: on one side is the real and on the other the ideal. you have to turn the masa harina ball over and over, patting one side then another, until you have something that holds together and can nourish you.

i came away from the discourse project thursday knowing that the parker palmer/tortilla notion seemed to be missing from the house. Perhaps the dance community is still in need of a place and means to tell individual stories, because virtually every voice seemed to be engaged in a separate and private conversation. What struck me as unfortunate about this is that the days of complaining about not being covered or crowing about how much you don't care about being covered are so over. That conversation was robust 25 years ago, when the papers were full of music critics doubling as dance writers (some of them quite good), the Bay Guardian and the other weeklies were yet to cover dance regularly, and no one much liked what was written about them but still desperately needed to be reviewed to qualify for grants or to gain a footing in the community among other dancemakers. Complaining actually had some traction, but even then only a little. Now, the problems are more stark and, in a way, more interesting. Rachel is a strong dance advocate, and although she isn't, as Paul Parish has noted, given the leeway to do the job she might do, she still makes a silk purse out of a sow's very small ear. She helps drive attention to dance from people close to and far from the art's inner circles, and this enhances the ecology of Bay Area dance culture whether the individual dancemakers feel the impact or not. The rest of us--Rita, Paul, Mary Ellen, Mike, Kitty, Janice, Aimee, me and others I don't even know of--each in our respective venues and in our distinct ways, attempt to do something similar. What distinguishes all of us from the past writers is we do it because we love dance and for little other reason. Certainly not the freelance pay, which is as negligible as it was 15 years ago. Some of us will write for free, simply because we need to.

Implicitly, some of those who spoke seemed to deny the importance of the shared or centralized conversation (despite being there to engage in it), even as some of those same people bemoaned being ignored by the press. Maybe the problem is how how we define the problem.

What I want to offer is that we think of an ecology of dance writing, a system that is complex, interwoven, and includes the generalist review down (or is that up?) to the esoteric phenomenological debates by philosophers on the nature of presence. We should be able to create a form that can hold and honor the myriad species of thinking and talking and writing about dance without having to diss one facet of the ecology. This might keep the collective from wrangling over false hierarchies and let us avoid the equally misbegotten divide between "real" dance writing and putatively inconsequential writing. The only inconsequential dance writing I can think of is the badly written and inarticulate stuff or the raving screeds that reveal the fractured mind of the writer. Dance writing is hardly new, but it only became worthy of academic study in the last handful of decades as the culture's relationship to the body and to women has changed. And some of the most exciting recent dance books are by choreographers and not by scholars. As wonderful as a lot of dance scholarship is, there is also scholarship that is wedded to theories that the other fields moved away from 20 years ago. Some writing is divorced from facts on the ground, making these works a form of intellectual gamesmanship that is hard to square as theory of dance practice or history. Sometimes dance and the body seem to be regarded as "unmarked" territory ripe for "inscription" the way the Brits regarded the desert lands of Arabia.

Dance reviews create a vital historical record--someone was actually there, strived to describe what happened and by whom and why or why not it matters. At its best it is to dance what participant observation is to anthropology. It may not lead the discipline into juicy self-assessment, and it may not be a distinct art form, but I think that it remains vital to the ecology of the whole. It asserts that the cultural phenomenon needs and deserves to be noted. As Rachel alluded to, book reviews inform us of books many of us feel we ought to hear about, even if we have no intention of reading them. That's my relationship to science. I want to know about stem cell research, or genetics and race debates even though the last science class i took was chemistry in high school and I don't know the difference between cytosine and thymine. I read Jill Johnston in the Village Voice when I was a teenager about the downtown NY dance scene even as I schlepped to ballet classes. I looked forward each week to what she had to say because in her writing I found an inventive, iconoclastic and highly personal voice for a world view and a way of being that i was struggling to find for myself. I also learned what Trisha Brown's climbing the side of buildings looked like (even though I never witnessed it in person) and what Meredith Monk's work was about, and this was long before I saw either artists' work.

A healthy dance ecology would embrace as many modes and vehicles for discussing, noting, notating and responding to dance as possible. We need the critic, the memoirist, the historian, the diarist, the practitioner and the scholar. The internet can incubate all kinds of dance writing; good quality daily/weekly monthly journalism should continue to be among them.

this is what the comment in the comment box below, written in chinese, seems to mean

"Ilan is the best Aurora-style Bed and breakfast Bed and breakfast \n Required to your home lighting LED吗? \n LED is the future mainstream merchandise you know! \n LED energy saving and environmental protection, I would like to buy one to try! \n Fitness will be lost before the United States and the United States of \n Taoyuan to find the company you move them \n Designed by Beijing Design view of ads out of something really great! \n Taiwan Railway train schedule \n Chingjing Minshuku very suitable place for leisure \n Really annoying"

Friday, February 20, 2009

by reflecting on

I want to begin.

I want to begin by reflecting on what has happened here this evening


Is Criticism


Gathered before a crowd of dancers and dance goers at
counterPULSE on Mission Street

critics Rita Felciano, Rachel Howard and Ann Murphy

dancemaker activist Keith Hennessey

a panel discussion on the future

of criticism.

The evening was part 5

Introduced by counterPULSE artistic director Jessica Robinson and

choreographer Mary Armentrout

We agreed that

the evening opened with

a summary of the dire state

arts writing.

As the economy reels from cutbacks,

print journalism foreclosures

dance writing has slowed to a trickle.

Reviews are
particularly vulnerable
under these new market conditions.

Panelists agreed.

Panelists disagreed.

Feature coverage continues to be available
in some papers
frequently written by arts editors

(soon to clean the office toilets).

The move is defended
Advertisers might still advertise coming events;
readers might still use the newspaper

Reviews, which have no perceptible market value
increasingly regarded as superfluous to the goals of print


a narrow digest of news and events.

The panel of freelancers represented varied views and opinions

Some felt lucky to be paid
freelance work is itself endangered.

The group noted the long list of lay offs among arts freelancers.

A moment of silence....

Controversy between the audience and the panelists
flaring over the dangers and opportunities provided by the usurpation of journalism by the internet.

No one knew the future

For more details visit www dot

I want to begin by saying we are here tonight attempting to forecast the future of criticism

I think the best place to start is with a definition of criticism. We might also want to define forecast. I recommend we think of that as throwing a fishing line out ahead of the current.

Criticism often signifies unkind communication that delivers a putative truth laced with barbed wire or soaked in acid. We distinguish good criticism by qualifying it as “constructive criticism.” Criticism also means a serious examination of something, coming from the Greek word “kritikos” meaning one who discerns. I find this definition beautiful, suggestive of an ability to scrutinize what is, the more refined the better. This is a far more appealing definition of critic than that of “appraiser,” which is what critics frequently become, and is interchangeable with the jeweler on the corner squinting at your grandmother’s ring with his loupe.

Criticism is like fly fishing. The critic is the fisherman, the art the fish. The critic’s job is to bring the fish in. She has the greatest chance the better her flies, the smoother her casting and the longer and farther she’s willing to wade out in her hip waders.

The fish is the beauty sought, the mystery to uncover. It is another form of dance.

I want to begin by talking about something Keith wrote to Mary. It was in an email conversation they’d been having--something I skimmed the other night. It was designed to spark conversation. This is proof that it has:

Keith argues that writing about dance is translating across a language divide that fundamentally cannot be traversed.

I say nonsense.

Dance is not wholly inscrutable. Dance, like words, music , painting and sculpture, provoke thought and feeling that arise out of the same sea of concepts, emotion and memory that we rely on to formulate verbal language. I can say things in Italian that cannot be said in English, but that doesn’t mean that I had no concept for stronzo or ingambe. The fact that there’s no exact corollary in English doesn’t make the word untranslatable. There may be no one-to-one correspondence between them. It may take me several words to do the work of the single Italian word. The question is: do I have a concept for that word? If I do, I can find a means to express it in English, no matter how clumsy.

The same with dance. An arm floating behind a dancer’s back as she looks down at the floor may have no obvious correspondence to a single word. But that doesn’t mean I can’t capture the conceptual sense of that moment. The deeper the dance is, the richer each movement, and that usually means that phrases, even paragraphs, are needed to capture the poetry of the act.

The essence of criticism as the pursuit of some shared notion of truth and beauty and transcendent values is to engage our shared language to generate and expand discourse in the public sphere. As flawed and imperfect as that discourse is, without it we would be hostage to the solipsism of every faction, social movement, political leader and dance practitioner who claimed to be above or beyond language and mutual conversation.

The word, or logos (which the Bible claims brought the world into being when clearly it was movement) has its limits, and words are often used in a brutish and two-dimensional fashion. But so are dances. Words are signifiers capable of carving out great meaning and haunting beauty about the things they signify. When they fail it’s often the messenger and not the message system that’s lacking.

Is writing a substitute for dance? Hardly. But most of us can agree that, at bottom, it is vital that we have people writing about dance with vivid intelligence. Dance leaves no artifact behind; wrapping words around the vanished moment becomes a means to transform the ghostly experience through an emulsion of words into something we can partially see again. In our culture, a written record is also proof that you exist.

As for the inability to translate across the divide: For those of us who hold Plato’s idealism in one hand and John Dewey’s pragmatism in the other, everything is both an act of translation and nothing more than itself. I am a translation. And I am only me. My dance writing is a translation and it is itself. My name is a translation. My body and my presence here tonight are translations.

My dance writing translates to paper my experience of the dance I watch, and it always does so through my imperfect writing skills and the limitations of my understanding—and I don’t only mean my understanding of the work but the understanding of my own thought.

My name is a translation of my father’s urge for continuity, passing on his love for his mother by giving his daughter her name. It is also a translation of my mother’s lost battle to name me something else. My name is not me, and still it’s inextricable from who I am and have become, forever translating me to the world.

My body is endlessly mediating my soul, and though it often seems to have little to do with anything noncorporeal, this body is, for better and for worse, the mouthpiece of what I am.

My presence here tonight is a translation of my ideal presence, which I can only imperfectly imagine and can’t attain.

So what of the future of dance criticism?

The future of dance criticism is an unknown. I find that exciting because of the endless possibilities of the internet. I find that terrifying because of the tyrannical cacophony of the internet. The mob rules yet out of the chaos can come structures we haven’t dreamed of. The mob rules and that can be very ugly, as some of us know first hand.

Dismantling printing presses, newspaper infrastructure and intelligent journalistic culture worries me. The internet isn’t alone to blame. Remember that corporate raiders bought up papers, pirated their assets then left near empty shells to totter into the 21st century. Libertarians consumed progressive weeklies around the country and divested them of their political and aesthetic content. We need to beware of how vulnerable to oligarchies and corporate elites centralized information is. Countries like China and Russia are all too happy to control news and suppress opinion; corporations like ATT would prefer to sell bandwidth to the rich. The end of family run print journalism and the destruction of the old information infrastructure, with it ideals and ethical standards, challenges us to insure that information remains free and freely shared. It also cries out for discipline and purpose. These were the hallmarks of the best 20th century journalism. May they become them for the 21st.

spring fever

Almonds and cherries, magnolias and hardenbergia, cyclamen, tulips, lilies and roses are in bloom again. The plant world is heating up and, with dance fairly dormant during the winter, so is the dance scene. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Novellus Theater appears to be leading the profusion, hosting one-night-only appearances, new companies from far-flung continents and artists from another part of the state.

This weekend, for example, the YBCA curators continue their recent exploration of contemporary Japanese dance, training the spotlight on Hiroshi Koike's dance-theater company, Pappa Tarahumara, in "Ship in a View." The work, combining dance-theater spectacle with formalist abstraction, centers around a facsimile of a ship that traverses the stage during the evening, carrying dancers as it moves from a 1960s townscape to a mysterious, silvery future.
On March 3, French conceptualist Jerome Bel makes a single appearance on stage with Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun, together blurring the boundaries of formal presentation, casual inquiry and cross-cultural exploration as each attempts to understand how the other one dances.

Then, from March 5 to 7, David Rousseve, professor in UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures as well as artistic director of David Rousseve/Reality, presents "Saudade" (meaning "yearning" in Portuguese), described by one reviewer as a "sprawling, chaotic patchwork of cultures, stories and dance forms." Rousseve toys with time and place and character in an effort to capture our contemporary condition.

Details: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, March 3 and 5-7, Novellus Theater, 700 Howard St., at Third Street; $15-$30; 415-978-2787,

ODC's spring

When ODC launches its bountiful spring season at the Novellus Theater for two weeks, co-directors Brenda Way and KT Nelson will deliver up new works and a rash of poignant and sensual rep pieces. In Program 1, Nelson presents her latest, "Grassland," with live music to a commissioned score by Brazilian pianist Marcelo Sarvos. In Program 2, Way gives us "In the Memory of the Forest," a work about her fearless mother-in-law, Iza Erlich, who walked out of Warsaw in 1940, as the Nazis were walling up the ghetto, and went east in search of her husband. (The choreographer has enlisted David and Ha-Jin Hodge to create video, Jay Cloidt, who uses some of Erlich's narration, to create a sound score, and Elaine Buckholtz for lighting design.)
The company also reprises an array of its deeply humanist dances, including Way's 2008 "Unintended Consequences: A Meditation" and Nelson's sexy, energy-packed "They've Lost Their Footing."
Details: ODC Dancing Downtown, 7, 8, 8:30 and 2 p.m. March 12-29, Novellus Theater, 700 Howard St., at Third Street; $15-45: 415-978-2787,

SF Ballet's 'Swan'

Reimagining ballet classics for our time, San Francisco Ballet's Helgi Tomasson floats a new "Swan Lake," his second since he took the company's helm in 1985. "Ballet at its most beautiful," Tomasson has called this fairy-tale dance, and who could disagree? In "Swan Lake," story serves poetry; the steps themselves are what's truly sublime, telling a story through the body steeped in the heartaches of 19th-century Romanticism. While Tomasson says he has chopped some dances that might strike us as comparable to overstuffed furniture in a modernist palace, he promises to leave the iconic dances alone.
Details: San Francisco Ballet, Saturday through March 1; 8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Feb. 27 and 28, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., at Grove Street; $20-$255; 415-865-2000,

More Hope

Bay Area native Hope Mohr, who has danced in New York with Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs and Douglas Dunn, among others, presents her fluid dances at Theatre Artaud next weekend in her company's second season in San Francisco. The Stanford grad and recent mother plumbs space, the environment, and the listening body.
Details: 8 p.m. Thursday through Feb. 28, Project Artaud Theater (formerly Theater Artaud), 450 Florida St., San Francisco; $18; 415-626-4370, 800-838-3006,

Alvin Ailey company at 50

Decades ago, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with Judith Jamison, arrived at my suburban high school for a residency. It was at the point in my nascent dance life when the Ailey was the alpha and the omega. It was not just a dance institution but an embodiment of a different way of life — integrated, streetwise, devoted and beautiful. During their stay I prowled the edges of the company, chauffeuring around three dancers in my parents' old Impala. I drove in mute adoration as these divine beings chatted about nothing.

Then there was Jamison herself. The goddess, about 6 feet tall, had one of the most supple backs in the field, and she rolled her furious head as though it were a ball spinning freely on a flexible pole, blending Africa, the blues and youth culture in a glorious profusion of movement. It caused a hall of affluent Puritans to leap to their feet stomping and singing — the spirit seizing them as it, perhaps, had never seized them before. That night I experienced the transcendent power of art in a high school auditorium.

Jamison left the company in 1980 but reappeared as the artistic director in 1989 when Ailey died, as he had wanted her to. With the same kind of feline majesty and moral clarity she manifested on stage, she set about the task of reanimating Ailey's vision, turning a troupe that had lost itself in the wilderness for a while into a company that has been treating dance as a celebration of life for 20 years.

For its 50th anniversary, that devotion manifests in a number of ways. One is in its two West Coast premieres, a collaboration with the glorious vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock on March 3-4 in dancer Hope Boykin's "Go in Grace." The other in Mauro Bigonzetti's "Festa Barocca," to music by Handel. It also comes through in Jamison's tribute to the past in Program B, with its range of Ailey work from "Blues Suite" and "Lark Ascending" to "Hidden Rites" and "For Bird—With Love." Jamison retires in two years. One wishes the best for AAADT after she's gone, but don't miss it now.

Details: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, 8 p.m. (with 2 and 3 p.m. matinees) March 3-8, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Way; $36-$62; 510-642-9988,

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


when lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd

San Francisco Ballet opened its 76th season this week with the quiet elegance artistic director Helgi Tomasson has been carving into the company's character for more than two decades.

With three big, structurally complex works Tuesday evening in Program 1 and three bittersweet studies of romance in Program 2 Thursday at the War Memorial Opera House, Tomasson showed us again that he is a director who shapes his programs with understated yet fierce curatorial care. As admirable as this is, the result is often uneven — sometimes sublime and at others uptight. This week produced a bit of both.

Program 1 offered a lineup of big dances that happened also to be subtle color studies, which is where they were most interesting. Opening the program was Tomasson's "Prism," a grand ballet he created for the New York City Ballet Diamond Project in 2001. Alternating between sweeping blocks of ensemble dancing and duets and trios, it was warmly bathed in apricot and red tones and set to Beethoven's Concerto No. 1.

At its heart "Prism" deployed an array of triangular formations, essential to some prisms, danced boldly by Kristin Long, Ruben Marin and Hansuke Yamaoto and later by Sofiane Sylve, Ivan Popov and Tars Domitro, the puckish wonder of the night. Still, emotionally, none of it quite struck home.

George Balanchine's "Four Temperaments," was Prism's bookend. This is an ascetic ballet but it can pack a wallop when
performed with the right quality of ironic austerity. Built from jazz-inflected, hip-thrusting movement and set to a commissioned score by Paul Hindemith in 1946, the ballet Tuesday was ably but too squarely and decorously danced. Lacking the elegant edginess Balanchine intended, "Four Temperaments" devolves into a series of impressive academic exercises.

In between was the night's delicate premiere, "Diving into the Lilacs," by Yuri Possokhov. This ballet not only seemed to tremble with designer Sandra Woodall's lilac hued costumes, Benjamin Pierce's color-shifting lilac flower projection, and lighting designer David Finn's dusky lighting, but allowed the exquisite lineup of dancers an emotional depth missing from the other two works. It hardly mattered that the sum of the parts didn't add up to more.

Thursday was altogether cheekier. The night wrapped with William Forsythe's still-sexy and wonderfully defiant "in the middle, somewhat elevated," set to Thom Willems' brash industrial music score. The dancers, in what looked like practice attire, thrust their legs and checked their hips, while the still extraordinary Katita Waldo presided, alternating between pedestrian and virtuosic movement.

Stanton Welch's "Naked" was just as elegantly cheeky. It opened the program with the choreographer's signature wit, elaborating on the pinpoint precision of Italian ballet technique, classical form and modern insouciance. Like Forsythe's work, "Naked" upended the classical idiom, though its effect was sweet rather than Promethean.

Val Caniparoli's "Ibsen's House," the centerpiece, was a beautifully disappointing study of five of playwright Henrik Ibsen's gothic couples, danced sublimely by each one. Ironically, the very propriety Caniparoli set out to attack seemed to keep his cast from the entanglements — the lies, syphyllis, and suicide — that Ibsen fearlessly portrayed. This suggests that a little less propriety would do San Francisco Ballet a lot of good.

all photos ©erik tomasson

what: San Franciso Ballet, Programs 1 and 2
WHERE: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. (at Grove Street), S.F.
when: Program 1 repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 7, 8 p.m. Thursday and Feb. 7; Program 2 repeats at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Tuesday and Feb. 6, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, and 2 p.m. today and Feb. 8
tickets: $20-$250; 415.865.2000,