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SMUIN BALLET: PREDICTABLY ATTRACTIVE

SMUIN BALLET: PREDICTABLY ATTRACTIVE

But Are These Modern Ballets Mired In the Past?

By Karl Toepfer
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area dance
Weeks starting May 15, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 71

The San Francisco Ballet is such a powerful cultural presence in the Bay Area and in the world that other local ballet companies must struggle mightily to achieve a sustaining level of recognition from audiences, donors, and arts councils. Local companies must show what ballet can do with much more modest resources than are available to the SF Ballet. The Smuin Ballet, founded in 1994, is less closely identified with San Francisco than it once was. Most of its performances take place elsewhere in the Bay Area, and it therefore seems that annual performances are like “visits” to the city that was originally its home and perhaps remains so for the members of the company.

At any rate, the Smuin Ballet was at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the weekend of May 12-15, presenting its “Dance Series Two,” a program of three pieces, including a premiere. The corps de ballet consists of fifteen dancers, of whom nine are women. All the dancers appear equally beautiful and talented, and the program was designed to make that point.

But stylistically, the program presented looks as though it could have been created 40 years ago.

The first piece was “Tutto eccetto il lavandino” (Everything but the Kitchen Sink), with choreography by Val Caniparoli and music by Vivaldi; it had its premiere in 2014. The piece involves eleven brief scenes in which the entire ensemble alternates with duets and trios of dancers. For different performances, different dancers perform the duets and trios, so a purpose of the piece is to display the talents of the company dancers. Scenery is non-existent; lighting is minimal; and costumes are somewhat drab, greenish-grey uniforms of tights, T-shirts, and swim suits. This is a conventional postmodern work: a dance about dance. No drama, no story, hardly any theater.

Vivaldi’s music creates a cheerful mood to support the theme of dance creating a happy community in which all bodies are equally beautiful and exuberant and all dancers seem interchangeable and even indistinguishable. All of the duets seem like the same duet performed by different dancers. Conflict is utterly absent within the ensemble and within the duets and trios. So the point of the whole piece is to show that dance levels off differences between people and creates a “democratic” community of equals, especially when it doesn’t pretend to represent anything other than itself.

This way of thinking about dance is hardly innovative, as was evident from the second piece, “Return to a Strange Land,” with choreography by Jiri Kylian (b. 1947). This piece premiered at the Stuttgart Ballet in 1975, and it has been in the Smuin repertoire since 2013. Kylian composed the ballet as a memorial to the choreographer John Cranko, who died suddenly in 1973. An elegiac tone pervades the work, which uses piano music by Leos Janacek to move the dancers. One can see how Kylian is a model for Caniparoli, for again we see dance unfold without any context other than the stage, although the lighting has a vaguely autumnal feel. Here the men are bare-chested and indeed they have spectacular abs, whose movements are fascinating to watch even when the men are just breathing. The four scenes consist of alternating duets and trios, but the choreography is somewhat more complex and glamorous than in the Caniparoli piece.

Again: no conflict or drama emerges, as if Kylian and the dancers are trying to offer up a series of beautiful images to honor one of their own who has fallen. The two trios are interesting, although again, for different performances different dancers perform them. In each of the trios, two men dance with a woman. The relation between the three in each dance is ambiguous. Are the two men sharing or exchanging the woman? Or does the woman require more than one man to establish her beauty? The piece concludes with a beautiful tableau of two men on their knees balancing a woman on her back gazing up into the “sky.”

The final piece was the world premiere of “Oasis,” with choreography by Helen Pickett, a former student of Smuin, and music composed for the ballet by Jeff Beal. This was the most theatrical piece on the program: Emma Kingsbury was responsible for the costumes, décor, and video projection, and Nicholas Rayment did the lighting. Smuin established a reputation for introducing elements of popular culture into ballet, and Pickett seems to have absorbed a bit of his pop spirit in her ballet, although her piece is not nearly as emphatic in developing this spirit as Smuin himself. Silvery, thread-like veils suspended above the stage combined with vaguely aquatic video projections behind them evoke the atmosphere of a nightclub.

The choreography is sleek and athletic. The ensemble keeps moving in and out of one configuration after another, for the piece is ostensibly a “celebration” of water inspired by Jessica Yu’s documentary film, Last Call at the Oasis (2011). Thus much of the choreography creates “eddies” or “currents” of movement, with perhaps some movements “inspired by” rather than actually representing “drops” or “waves” or “foam.” The storm scene finally brings something stirring to the evening, although it is by no means scary or in any way an image of raw power in nature. The piece also contains a charming ensemble waltz, for which Beal has written a strong, haunting melody. “Oasis” is a pleasant, pretty piece excellently performed. But it is like so many other postmodern dance pieces that wish to “celebrate” or “honor” nature, persons, or dance itself: it focuses on movement tropes that can be distributed equally across all members of the ensemble to make everyone beautifully indistinguishable. When presented in conjunction with Kylian’s piece, it feels as if Pickett’s ballet, like Caniparoli’s, might have been done forty years ago.

Smuin Ballet will present Dance Series Two May 27-28, 2016 • Lesher Center for the Arts (Walnut Creek); June 3-4, 2016 • San Mateo Performing Arts Center (San Mateo); June 10-11, 2016 • Sunset Center (Carmel). For info: (415) 556-5000, or go online.

© Karl Toepfer 2016

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Karl Toepfer is a dance reviewer for artssf.com.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region) as well.

OPTIMISM AS OBFUSCATION

OPTIMISM AS OBFUSCATION

ODC’s Dance Downtown Program

Postmodern aesthetics emphasizes inclusivity, the value of difference and the “beauty” of the mundane. Translated into dance, the aesthetic tends to imply that all bodies are lovely, all movements are to be treasured and all moments are equal. This thinking supposedly produces a sense of optimism, since all that is excluded is conflict, struggle, drama, differences that cannot be reconciled, or incompatibilities that cannot be resolved through the simple exchange or interchangeability of movement.

The idea is that if movements make a performer feel good, the spectator will feel good, too. Movements that make a performer feel good are “playful,” and playful movements are those given to and received from other bodies without representing anything but “innocent” movements. But if everything feels good and every day is sunny, how do we know it is good or sunny? Without shadows we lose the meaning of light, without acknowledging what is bad, how could anything be good?

These thoughts crossed our minds when watching ODC perform the Dance Downtown Week 1 program at Yerba Buena Center on March 20, which included two world premieres: “Going Solo” by KT Nelson and Brandon “Private” Freeman, who was also the performer of the piece, and “Walk Back The Cat” by Brenda Way. The program also presented Kimi Okada’s 2011 piece “I look vacantly at the Pacific… though regret.”

ODC Artistic Director Brenda Way explained to the audience before the concert began that the pieces on the program were about “optimism,” which apparently is a current theme for the whole Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Although different choreographers built the program, they shared a similar approach to dance (and probably its making) and thus made them strangely alike, making one feel by the end of the concert as if one were watching variations of the same piece.

What made them alike? First of all: even though the twelve ODC dancers, seven men and five women, had different body shapes and haircuts, they all seemed to lack a specific character or personality. Even if “characters” flickered somewhat in Kimi Okada’s piece, which dealt with the issues of translation, they were not explored or did not go further than the commentary: “we are all different”, and “is that not great” without touching on why difference is great or why it should matter at all. Even when dancers changed costumes, as in Brenda Way’s piece, when initially they wore very similar black training-type garments and then changed into 1930s fashions, the costumes brought in no new themes.

Secondly: the choreography, despite glorifying all these beautifully moving bodies and showing off their skillfulness, unfolded on the same physical and emotional level. No contrast, except an occasional change in groupings and level of movements, no turbulence – all pleasing, all well executed, all full of happy optimism. Finally: generic music and video projections of abstract designs and colors acting as a décor. They were fine, but interchangeable or removable: the pieces would have lost little without the “background soundscape” or with a different one than presented, and the same applies to the backdrop and lights. Their impact or interaction with the dance was minimal.

The 10-minute “Going Solo” performed by Brandon “Private” Freeman, one of the choreographers of the piece, presented three slightly different moods. The initial mood was of the mundane business of preparing the body for daily tasks, stretching, swinging, spiraling, and so on. He then threw away his shirt and bared his upper body, the music changed into a slightly melancholy piano, and the mood became one of gentle longing, though most the movement vocabulary was the same as in the previous section.

The final mood was a playful, “let’s have fun” with water splashed on the stage, with the dancer sliding in it on his feet, on his back, on his belly – all presenting a different form of fun with the same emotional quality. Kimi Okada’s “I look vacantly..” had three sections: “language class,” “honorifics and insults”, and “culture shock.” These sections looked at ways of translating verbal language into movement or how cultures mistranslate each other’s bodily significations, such as rituals of greeting and paying respect. In “honorifics and insults,” the eleven dancers formed three groups that performed three separate mistranslations of common but culturally distinct modes of encounter, such as a handshake meeting a bow, which actually causes estrangement. But the section simply repeats the “problem” for comic effect, as if to suggest that such cultural differences are incapable of resolution and perhaps not worth solving anyway.

“Culture shock” is a lively section with the entire ensemble swinging exuberantly to a loud, cheerful J-Pop tune, and the section suggests that high energy, heavily rhythmic pop music is what brings different bodies, cultures, and sensibilities into a state of playful togetherness. It’s a fun message precisely because one can’t take it seriously. It has the optimism of a promotional video, although it’s well and delightfully performed.

“Walk Back The Cat” offered the “usual” postmodern way of “discovering the joints” with movement sequences using rolls down, slides, various turns, kicks of the leg, always emphasizing the broken line, the flexibility of the joint. Brenda Way commissioned Paul Dresher to compose the score for the piece, played live, by Dresher himself, Tom Dambly and Emily Packard, but this is not one of Dresher’s stronger pieces. It features a trumpeter (Dambly), who appears on stage a couple of times, an electronic violin (Packard), and a mixer (Dresher). The music is sort of elegiac and relentlessly plaintive, but the dancers seem to be in a different mood altogether, and it’s as if the music comments “ironically” on the dancers’ obliviousness to it. Way says that the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton inspired sections of her piece, but it was difficult to discern how Benton worked as an influence other than putting the dancers in 1930s costumes. Indeed, it seemed as if the piece expected the audience to “like” the dancers, with their playful interactions and “dressing up,” without having to like the music or sound of our own time.

The dance became repetitive and in the end monotonous, because of a limited view of how to embody optimism. Within this postmodern aesthetic, optimism becomes an obfuscation or exclusion of the complexities that make playfulness “difficult”: anxieties, conflicts, jubilations, any sort of violent or disruptive action that changes relations between bodies or people. But in this context, optimism is not about social or individual change. It is about maintaining individual and communal equilibrium, a friendly circulation of gestures and agreeable inputs from other bodies. Under such direct sunlight all things become flattened out, all things become level – without actually becoming clear. If everything is equal, if everything is even, then nothing matters much, including dance and the pieces that esteem diversity and difference.

Optimism as mood, however, is credible only to the extent that it is a response to a situation or condition about which it is just as possible to be pessimistic. But if optimism is not a response to such a condition, but merely and only the conditions you feel good about, then optimism is not only obfuscation but a kind of illusion.

The second and final week of Downtown Dance series by the local company ODC plays at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco on March 24, 25, and 26 at 7:30 PM and on March 27 at 5:00 PM.
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© Karl Toepfer 2016
Karl Toepfer is a dance reviewer for artssf.com.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.
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By Heili Einasto and Karl Toepfer
Vol. 18, No. 57

 

SAN FRANCISCO’S DANCE CORNUCOPIA

SAN FRANCISCO’S DANCE CORNUCOPIA

Via the International Festival

By Karl Toepfer
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area dance
Weeks starting June 15, 2015
Vol. 17, No. 74

SAN FRANCISCO—From May 21 to June 7, Fort Mason hosted the San Francisco International Arts Festival. This extravaganza presented more theater, dance, and music groups than anyone can sanely absorb. Most of the performers came from the United States, but several groups came from faraway places like Iran, Poland, Kurdistan, Ireland, Taiwan and Argentina.

Of course, the commendable and exciting purpose of such a festival is to showcase the diversity of aesthetic strategies and performance cultures that characterize a global idea of “contemporary” performing arts. Dance concerts featured three or four companies on the same program, with concerts occurring in different spaces of Fort Mason. The spectator therefore tended to get a sampling of different dance styles rather than a sustained look at any one style. Audiences were small, but they were obviously enthusiastic devotees of “new” ways of making dance, and one does get a sense in this sort of performance environment that the future of dance rests with performers and organizers who want to make innovative “connections” between companies, cultures, and performance styles in a collaborative production environment rather than in the autonomous fiefdoms of heavily institutionalized domains of separate companies. I saw seven dance companies perform in two spaces, The Fleet Room and Cowell Theater.

However, the festival environment brings with it various constraints. The performance spaces are quite rudimentary. In the Fleet Room, the audience surrounds the stage on three sides, and the stage is simply a rather narrow section of warehouse floor on which the dancers perform. But the audience is encouraged to move about the space to view the performance from different angles, especially since large pillars can obscure a view of some of the action. Opportunities for creating a scenic environment are extremely limited here and in the Cowell Theater. The festival format does not allow for the display of performance innovation in relation to lighting, costume, or digital technology. Choreographic imagination consequently tends to focus on bodily movement of an abstract nature and to avoid narrative complexity. This means often that choreographers avoid drama or conflict-oriented action that engages audiences emotionally. Nearly all the pieces are no longer than 20 minutes long.

The scale of performance is small, even if the theme is big, such as the world premiere, in the Cowell Theater, of “Remembering Again” by Christine Germain and Dancers. The spectator definitely needs to consult the program notes to understand that the piece is about remembering the Bhopal chemical disaster of 1984. On the stage, under a dim spotlight, one sees a pair of female bodies locked together and pushing against each other, until a third woman appears, also in some sort of drab, brown-gray costume; finally, the three bodies form an imploding cluster accompanied by the sound of distorted electronic noise.

A similar mood of dark alienation under a dim spotlight prevailed in “A Dedication” (2014) by Gretchen Garnett and Dancers, accompanied by electronic music from Colleen et les Boites a Musiques, in the Cowell Theater. The piece “looks into loss and how people deal with death.” Four female dancers engage in a combination of interactions that create the impression of bodies clinging to each other or navigating around each other in a depressive atmosphere. But because the piece does not identify the conditions under which loss and death has occurred, the spectator witnesses the attempt by the choreographer to describe in movement an emotional state that, devoid of context, has less to do with grief or with any other tragic emotion than with the representation of feeling being stifled or deeply recessed, incapable of revealing itself in the empty darkness.

In the Fleet Room, the ka.nei.see collective, under choreographer Tanya Chianese, presented a medley of excerpts from different pieces in its repertoire. Four female dancers in green tops and black skirts performed a variety of modern dance tropes: bodies roll toward and away from each other; they hunch together then pivot away; they lunge under and over each other; they dart away from each other and a flinch or slight undulation draws them together again. Often movements resemble gymnastic poses or components of a tumbling exhibition. Indeed, the piece unfolded like a series of studio exercises strung together.

The four women consistently appeared “friendly” with each other, but the dancing became more agitated toward the end until they collapsed and lay on the floor; all you could hear was their breathing. But then they rose up in unison. The piece seemed to be about the unity of the small group across different pieces with different musical accompaniment—it’s about staying “friendly” despite moments when bodies don’t feel comfortable with each other and must break away momentarily.

This seems to be a common theme of modern dance choreographers these days: how to maintain a group identity in spite of occasional slight differences between members, which in this and many other modern dance works implies maintaining a “friendly” disposition toward the idiosyncrasies of others in the group. With this philosophy, groups do not harbor or nurture fundamental conflicts within them, do not engage in dramatic struggles for power over others, and avoid examining relations between leaders and followers. It is an aesthetic that self-consciously strives to imagine social organization that is free of “dominant” personalities. The result, however, is a work that is friendly without having any power to move an audience or to awaken any deeper awareness of one’s need to belong to a group.

A similar sensibility is at work in Katerina Wong’s piece “36 Questions,” which had its premiere in the Fleet Room, with intermittent music by four composers. The group consisted of four female dancers. What was interesting here was the incorporation of speech and digital text into the dance. On a screen at the rear of the room appeared questions or statements in rapid succession, although it was sometimes difficult to see the screen from where I sat. The text consists of 36 questions (“inspired by Arthur Aron’s study, The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness) that ask the viewer to consider how the answer defines or differentiates him or her, such as “For what in your life are you always grateful?” or “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?” A dancer also speaks each question, and the dancers move with each question into varying physical representations of “closeness,” for these are questions that Aron believes turns strangers into friends. But the piece culminates with a monologue given by Ms. Wong, who recounts a story by a friend that focuses on the phrase, “We’re all feeling worn out.” She danced while speaking, and this was quite delightful, although at the end of the piece, she turned to the row in which I was sitting to remark, “I feel really conflicted about doing this.” Other dancers in the group said other things to the spectators nearest them, while the soundtrack, however, produced indistinct male voices.

In the Fleet Room, the Detour Dance Company presented glimpses of a work, “Beckon,” that it will premiere in December at NOHspace in San Francisco. The ensemble contained four women and two men. This piece, which uses music by the Steve Reich Ensemble and Boys Town Gang, introduced some drama into dance performance. The two men formed a pair that for the most part performed independently or at least in contrast to the female group. The men display an erotic bond, and the choreography, by Kat Cole and Erik Garcia, is skillful at combining movements of intense intimacy with sudden eruptions of aggressive posturing, as if moments of affection and vulnerability spark impulses in the dancers to test each other’s strength or resistance to desire.

One especially unusual moment occurs when both men lower their pants to their ankles and then dance with their feet thus shackled. The female group functions somewhat independently of the male pair. It’s not a “friendly” group; each time the group holds the stage, something menacing happens, and it is as if the group turns upon itself and picks on one of its members to ostracize or victimize. The piece makes abundant use of apples as props and motivations for movement; dancers lunge at upheld apples; they eat them; they steal and hoard them; they balance them on their heads while moving. Apples roll onto the stage as dancers intertwine; a dancer attempts to pick up all the apples, hold them, precariously, then arrange them in a mysterious circle or line, as the erotic male duo return for some more macho posturing. “Beckon” offers numerous tantalizing moments, but the significance of the piece will probably not be clear or coherent until the complete work premieres in December.

The Davalos Dance Company, in the Cowell Theater, also performed excerpts from a large work, “Oh, the MOON!” which it will take on a tour of Italy in 2016. The company is much larger than any of the other groups and much more attached to theatrical effects. The piece presents a progression, in five brief scenes, from twilight until the summit of the full moon deep in the night. A couple enjoys a sunset picnic at the beach and dances to the music of Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore.” Soon a family enters the scene and takes over, with music by The Beatles.

With this company, music is integrated into the choreography: dancers convey a sense of interacting with the shifting rhythms and tonalities; the music is not simply a background texture meant to fill the oppressive emptiness of movement performed in silence. Music from Frank Sinatra (“Fly Me to the Moon”) and Glenn Miller (“Moonlight Serenade”) accompany further scenes, along with texts from Frederico Garcia Lorca and the choreographer, CatherineMarie Davalos. In one scene, a middle-aged woman seems to recall, under the spell of moonlight, the happier, more beautiful days of her youth. It is a very romantic work, with a wide range of dancers who construct, with the aid of colored lighting, pretty costumes, and a few projections, the impression that moonlight casts a peculiar spell over people of different ages and heritages. It is this otherworldly light that creates a measure of poetic unity in a world otherwise invaded with darkness and dark dreams.

Horse Company, from Taiwan, made its West Coast debut at the Festival with the piece “Two Men” (2012), in the Cowell Theater. This was the most interesting of all the pieces seen. The company consists of four men, but in performance only three men are seen. The composer, Shih-Yang Lee, appears on stage playing a prepared piano from which he extracted a wide range of sounds ranging from Chopin-like nocturnal passages to honky-tonk rambles to aggressive strumming and smacking of the piano strings. The piece lasts about 35 minutes and always in quite subdued lighting, as if all the action occurred under a street lamp.

The dance describes the erotic relation between two men (Wu-Kang Chen and Wei-Chia Su). One man has a beautiful, athletic body; the other man is “chubby.” The chubby man explains, often quite humorously, his complicated relationship with the beautiful man, and his speech blends well with graceful, incisive movements. But the relation between these two men becomes tangled up with the chubby man’s relations with his disapproving father and brother, both performed by Su. The piece is about the struggle of two men to overcome external and internal pressures to embody a masculinity that is in profound tension with the masculinity that binds them together. Speech and movement are often exquisitely interwoven, and a delicate melancholy suffuses the entire work. At one point, the two men perform an elegant and moving duet in unison with movements that combine soft shoe steps with balletic inflections. Lee and Su are the choreographers, but the conception and organization of the piece is evidently the work of theater director Edward Lam. Although “Two Men” was perhaps the smallest work in both concerts in relation to production values, it also was the most vividly emotional, inventive, and complex of all the works presented, in part because of its blatant embrace of theatricality and pleasure in introducing melodramatic touches, elements of pathos.

Horse Dance Company is the first and only all-male dance company in Taiwan, founded in 2004. The company has performed in New York City, Shanghai, Singapore, and Germany: http://www.horse.org.tw/horse/abouthorse.html.

Christine Germain and Dancers, founded in 2007 in Montreal, now makes it home in San Francisco and works closely with Counterpulse. Germain is from Quebec, but she studied dance at UC Davis, before doing graduate work at Concordia University in Canada: http://cganddancers.org/about-bio/

Gretchen Garnett and Dancers was founded in 2008 in San Francisco, but since 2012 has made Amsterdam it base of operations. The company has performed at various places in the Bay Area, but more recently most of its performances have occurred in The Netherlands: http://www.gretchengarnettanddancers.com/

Detour Dance, founded in 2009 by Kat Cole and Erik Garcia while they were students at the University of San Francisco. The company operates in San Francisco; its primary focus is the production of experimental dance videos and it produces the San Francisco Tiny Dance Festival, which showcases short dance videos. A goal of the company is to “explore the inconspicuous through multi-media, dance-theater, and site-specific work.” http://www.detourdance.com/mission/

CatherineMarie Davalos founded the Davalos Dance Company in 1994 with the goal of infusing dance with themes, motifs, and elements derived from her Chicana heritage, with a special focus on issues of “identity, racism, sexuality and community.” The company has strong ties with St. Mary’s College, where Davalos is a Professor, and the CounterPulse dance space in San Francisco. http://davalosdance.org/bios.html
Ka.nei.see collective is a “Bay Area performing arts ensemble” under the direction of Tanya Chianese. The collective seeks to “create vitalizing and accessible contemporary dance that promotes finding humor, appreciation, compassion, awareness, and celebration in life.” http://www.kaneisee.org/#!about/c240r

Katerina Wong works with ka.nei.see collective, but she is also busy as an actress, singer, writer, and photographer. She began choreographing as a student at Princeton University. She has danced with and choreographed for numerous companies in Bay Area, and she is the “digital engagement specialist” for the LINES ballet. http://katerinawong.weebly.com/bio.html

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© Karl Toepfer 2015

Karl Toepfer is a dance reviewer for artssf.com.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.
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CAN AILEY CO. BUILD UPON ITS PAST?

CAN AILEY CO. BUILD UPON ITS PAST?

Its Old Repertory Is Still the Best

By Karl Toepfer
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area dance
Weeks starting April 28, 2015
Vol. 17, No. 56

BERKELEY — Last week, the Alvin Ailey Company visited Berkeley, bringing with it three programs in six concerts. The programs mostly featured new works receiving their Bay Area premieres and works adopted by the Ailey Company. The only piece choreographed by Ailey was Revelations, his great, enduring, and immensely popular hit from way back in 1960, which concluded each program. It is indeed remarkable that the Company remains exceptionally vigorous, exciting, and prosperous without having to depend heavily or even much at all on the choreography of its founder, Alvin Ailey, who died in 1989. I saw “Program C” on April 25. Eighteen dancers performed, and it is only rarely that one is able to see modern dance operate with such a large ensemble.

The concert opened with the Ailey premiere of Uprising, choreographed by the Israeli-British dance-theater artist Hofesh Schecter, who introduced the piece through his own company in 2006. Schechter was also responsible for the music, which features a thunderous, pounding ostinato, like the sound of a gigantic stamping machine. The stage is dark, illuminated only by nocturnal sidelights, a spotlight, or an occasional set of strip lights seeking to penetrate the fog that veils the empty, vaguely industrial scene. The piece presents seven men dressed in pants and pullover shirts, facing the audience in a line, but the apparent unity disappears, as the group disintegrates into pairs and a kind of frantic muscularity. The men can’t seem to find a movement that provides them with a sustained sense of unity. They gather in circles or huddles, but they can’t overcome fundamental differences: a pat on the shoulder turns into a hostile punch; jocularity turns into thuggishness. Bonding and fighting are inextricable. A great deal of very rapid, athletic scrambling, jostling, and buzzing around ensues. Some of the movements are quite interesting, such as a sort of crawling-hopping like a wounded chimpanzee, a waddle-shimmy, and a zombie-like procession accompanied by the sound of heavy rainfall. The piece is a bit too long, but eventually the men are able to form a coherent group and raise one of their members up before the audience holding a little red flag, although it was not clear to me what movements or actions or conditions actually precipitated this unified feeling of “rising up” other than some cryptic, mutual recognition that they are all victims of the dark, oppressive environment.

The second piece favored the female dancers of the Company. Suspended Women is a 2000 piece adopted by the Ailey Company in 2014. The choreography is by Jacqulyn Buglisi, a veteran of Martha Graham’s company, and the music is by Maurice Ravel, chiefly the Piano Concerto in G. The piece exudes an early twentieth century atmosphere, but the stage still remains rather dark. Eleven women glide forward in a line; they wear ballroom dresses. They dance together, gracefully, with swirling, undulating, pivoting, and darting movements, but they don’t really dance with each other. It is a group without any fundamental tensions or conflicts or impulses to reorganize or abandon the melancholy lyricism that creates the group. The appearance of four men disrupts the romantic reverie of the women. The men divide the women, they slip between the women, partner them, trade them with each other, hoist them, lay them low, and in general guide them away from moving in the exclusive world that began the piece. But the women somehow manage through their graceful response to every situation to reassemble their group and recover the exclusive elegance and self-contained, refined melancholy with which they began the piece. Suspended Women is a very pretty work, suffused with an overpowering feminine desire to please through lilting gracefulness. It is the opposite of Uprising, with its determination to impress with overpowering muscular masculinity.

After the Rain Pas de Deux is another 2014 Ailey Company adoption; the original choreography was in 2005 by Christopher Wheeldon, with music by Arvo Pärt. The piece involves only two dancers (Akua Noni and Jamar Roberts) and describes the complex relationship between a male-female couple. The pair make use of the entire stage, making the point that their feelings for each take up a lot of space. Much of the dance consists of movements involving physical contact between the man and the woman, as they sidle up to each other, cling to each other, coil themselves around each other, slip over, under, and around each other, cradle each other, push each other, encircle each other, and inflame each other. What makes the piece compelling and unlike a conventional pas deux is that the couple use their bodies to build a little architecture of their relationship. The dancers make their bodies form physical structures that support each other, so that the conjoined bodies appear like little buildings, like little towers or even ramparts. And this architecture metamorphoses, as one structure seems to fold or flip into another. But like more conventional pas de deux, the piece includes a couple of spectacular lifts of the female body.

The program concluded with perhaps Alvin Ailey’s most famous work, Revelations, which involved the entire Company ensemble. The piece uses ten African American spirituals as musical accompaniment, and the dancers wear costumes that evoke sometimes the rural South, sometimes a Caribbean milieu, and sometimes an urban environment from a time before we were born. The dances are at moments mournful or lamentational and at other moments boisterous or exultant. The piece is 55 years old, yet it hardly seems to have aged. It is as “modern” as the twenty-first century pieces elsewhere on the program, and it delivers much more emotional intensity and variety than the other pieces. Seeing Revelations makes one see how conservative modern dance choreography has become in our time and how hesitant it is to engage with large and complex emotional conditions. The audience, however, was quite thrilled with the concert and gave it a standing ovation. The ensemble responded with an encore reprise of a scene from Revelations.

A large ensemble of beautiful male and female bodies moving beautifully and always barefoot is a wonderful thing to behold, but it does exact a cost. The scenic environment is minimalistic, reduced almost entirely to modest lighting effects on a bare stage. Costumes are consistently “appropriate” without being very interesting. Except for a parasol in one of the Revelations scenes, props are non-existent. The dancers execute their movements with great conviction, energy, and refinement. They are marvelous talents, capable of substituting for each other on different performances; they produce a powerful image of group cohesion. At the same time, however, the concert conveyed the impression that modern dance remains only as modern as it was in 1960. The Company’s repertoire may now consist largely of works created after Ailey’s death, but these works do not seem to embody a conception of dance or movement or scenic context that is any more modern than what Alvin Ailey made so astonishing when he started the Company in 1958.

The Alvin Ailey Company performs at Zellerbach Hall through April 26, then travels to Baltimore with the same concert series starting May 1.

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© Karl Toepfer 2015

Karl Toepfer is a dance reviewer for artssf.com.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.
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