Monthly Archives: March 2008

Polina Semionova and Vladimir Shklyarov in Makarova’s Swan Lake

Tchaikovsky Perm Ballet and Orchestra

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The legendary Natalia Makarova, with Vladimir Shklyarov and Polina Semionova

There’s something special about seeing a Russian company dance a classic such as Swan Lake, which took the Cal Performances stage this past weekend, danced by the Russian company the Tchaikovsky Perm Ballet staged by the legendary Natalia Makarova. With a relatively unknown ballet company (unbeknownst to me, at least), the company made a smart move by scheduling in two superstars as their leads – 24 year old Polina Semionova, who joined as principal at the Berlin Staatsoper Ballet at age 18 and a music video star, and a second soloist of the Mariinsky Theatre, Vladimir Shklyarov, a replacement of the previously scheduled Denis Matvienko.

The biggest nagging thing about the show was the cramped stage, with the dancers eyeing the wires running across the front of the stage warily in the middle of their dancing, cutting tour jetes close as their feet brushed the backdrop, and preparations for jumps starting in the wings. There was only one moment in the performance where the cramped space was used to their advantage; with the swans running around in such a cramped space, it made for a beautiful packed whirlwind effect. Other than that, the movements in general felt limited, taking away from the expansiveness of the show. Despite the limitations of the stage, the company was precise, a fine display of Russian ballet training. I can’t help but to compare this company to the last company I saw here, the State Ballet of Georgia with Nina Ananshiavelli, who danced mostly Balanchine and modern works. I admire what the State Ballet of Georgia was trying to do, yet the classics are where the Russian ballet training is really displayed at its best, and the difference in the quality and ease of dancing was palpable.

Polina Semionova was a gorgeous solid presence, with her tall height and muscular arms carving through the air in time and space. She is no wispy wilting Odette, with a solidarity and earthiness and a depth of passion in her interpretation, which translated better in character as the seductress, Odile. As Odile, she grabbed Prince Siegfried with her eyes, daring him to fall in love with her. Her technique unwavered, with impossibly long balances and spinning fouettes (I swear she was doing triples, but I might be wrong). Vladimir Shkylarov used his boyish good looks to make the prince seem as young as he probably is supposed to be, yet the lack of chemistry with Polina and lack of emotional depth made it hard to be a believable character. Semionova’s solid stage presence and height overpowered his rather one-note boyish lightness, and he came across more of a moody teenager than a tortured soul. At one point in the dance in the second act when he is told to pick a princess, he looked like a a 13 year old ready to kick a trashcan. That moment actually made my seat neighbor to laugh out loud. His jumps were sky high, yet there was a lack of completion and follow through in the long time that he actually was in the air, aside from a scary moment after his tours where he almost fell and looked like he injured himself. I felt like he would have made a better Romeo than a Prince Siegfried. I couldn’t help but to feel that San Francisco Ballet dancer Tiit Helimets would have made a much better partner for Polina, with his tragic tortured quality and the solidarity to match hers. Perhaps most of my complaints have to do with the fact that he was a last minute replacement with minimal rehearsal time, and he fulfilled his role dutifully. Shkylarov will definitely be a dancer to look out for, however, and time will only bring about the emotional maturity to fill the character onstage.

Despite imperfect staging, it felt like such a treat to be able to watch superstars such as Polina Semionova locally in the Bay Area. And who can resist Swan Lake, with its tragic story and gorgeous swirling music?

As a personal preference, I found that I liked Giselle more than Swan Lake. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison due to the staging of this particular show, and the fact that I completely fell in love with Giselle first. I don’t remember much about the last Swan Lake I saw (it was with the Royal Ballet about ten years ago), and I had on ABT’s Swan Lake on TV as I was making dinner tonight. Swan Lake is more of the quintessential ballet classic, but there’s something about Giselle that resonates more on an emotional level for me – the offense is bigger, and the forgiveness more divine. In Swan Lake, Prince Siegfried’s biggest offense (aside from falling in love with a swan) is to dance briefly with Odile and to pledge his love to her but only because she reminds him of his real love Odette, which lasts all of a pas de deux, and he does it unintentionally. In Giselle, Albrecht intentionally leads on Giselle with the full knowledge that he is already engaged. But the forgiveness in the second act, where Giselle protects her love from death, is made purer given what he did to her. Not that I’m for more broken hearts in the world, but there’s something divine and inspiring about the second act of Giselle for me.

Some more blurry pictures below – flashes from cameras started going off like crazy as soon as Makarova took the stage.

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Visiting Ballet Companies in San Francisco

New York City Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo

The SF Ballet is going through a

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brief hiatus right now, preparing for their New Works Festival (featuring a whopping 10 new works by the top 10 choreographers in the world). I’m only going through a slight withdrawal, which has been assuaged by the viewing of other great dance companies – Alvin Ailey, the Seoul Ballet Theatre, and Polina Semionova and Denis Matvienko in Swan Lake today at Cal Performances.

In the meantime, Program 6 is starting at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco this upcoming week. They’re doing something new as a continuation of their 75th anniversary season. Three invited international ballet companies have been invited to give tribute to San Francisco Ballet. It’s an exciting opportunity for local Bay Area audiences to be able to see three international ballet companies at once, the New York City Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada, and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. And it’s my first time viewing NYCB! It’ll be a real treat to see NYCB dance Balanchine, and I’m looking forward to seeing how NYCB will dance Balanchine’s Duo Concertante, especially having viewed Nina Ananshiavelli’s State Ballet of Georgia do it.

SF Ballet’s Program 6: Visiting Companies . April 1 – April 6

Bodies in Motion: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Episodes, Flowers, and Revelations

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater stormed into the Mondavi Center in Davis last week as a stop of their 50th anniversary tour. To me, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater signifies the quintessential American dance company, with a dance form that’s deeply rooted in American culture. The dancers are a marvel – a mixture of power and grace, strength and beauty, reminding everyone of how dance should never fully be about technique but be so much more than that. The lighting seemed specifically designed to highlight every muscle in the body, which added to their strength and power as you saw their graceful bodies in action. The programming was so serious and somber, but Revelations ended the evening on a high note, and it was a great introduction to this amazing company.

The evening opened with a abstract Episodes, choreographed by Ulysses Dove, which showcased the company’s powerful energy. It was a great introduction to the company’s passion and strength, as the piece was about opposites – strength and grace, surrender and aggression, anger and lust, showcased in a series of tumultuous relationships. A hug turns into a slap, an aggressive attack turns into a vulnerable backbend where the woman drapes herself over his strong supportive arms. There is lots of turning away and running back. It struck me how rare it is to find a title that fits the piece well; this piece was a series of episodes, snapshots of various drama-filled relationships. Linda Celeste Sims stood out with her fiery passionate stage presence, oddly more than in her solo in the subsequent piece, Flowers. The result is heavy, dramatic, slightly repetitive, and although it’s not completely original, it showcased the company very well.

The second piece was the new production of Alvin Ailey’s Flowers, inspired by the life of Janis Joplin and depicting her downward spiral in a life of fame, drugs, and paparazzi. Set to the music of Janis Joplin, Blind Faith and Pink Floyd, it was set in the colorful sixties with a strong plotline depicting the lead character’s downward spiral from fame to ruin. To me, this piece really brought to mind the limitations of a strongly plot-driven choreography – the story, in addition to the overpowering costumes, often limited the dancing to writhing on the floor or desperately reaching out to the other dancers onstage in order to propel the plot, without enough dancing. The only section which I thought depicted emotion well through the dancing was in the pas de deux between the drug dealer/boyfriend/Satan/death character (all characters that two of my friends and I came up with, no one was quite sure who he was meant to be) danced by Clifton Brown in a sharp modern black pants and button down with reflective aviator sunglasses, dancing with the passionate Linda Celeste Brown as the lead character. Their pas de deux fluctuated dangerously between the subtle and not-so-subtle struggle of power, desire, and control through movement in a conceptual but transparent way. The rest of the piece however, seemed to signify her downfall in cliche emotive movements that made the piece feel like it could have been shorter in order to make its point. The colorful costumes were often overwhelming, especially the cape in the dream sequence where most of the time it felt like she and the other dancers were adjusting it in order for no one to trip on it. It had some great elements of good choreography, but it wasn’t my favorite piece. The dancers were outstanding however, and Linda Celeste Brown was a great character actor and passionate dancer, although it was harder to see wrapped in those costumes.

The evening ended with the uplifting Revelations. It was everything I had heard it to be and more. Set to the music of traditional spirituals with choreography by Alvin Ailey, the dancers delved into the choreography with sparkling familiarity, as if they were born to dance in this piece. It reminded me of the enthusiastic confidence that the State Ballet of Georgia danced Possohkov’s Sagalobeli set to the traditional music of their homeland Georgia, where it felt like the dancers were home. The dancers were again, outstanding – Hope Boykin with warmth as the ringleader in “I Been ‘Buked”, Vernard Gilmore with fluid grace in “Wade in the Water”. But my favorite was Alicia Graf in the moving “Fix Me, Jesus”, danced with Jamar Roberts. With amazing stage presence, it wasn’t her famous mile long extensions or dramatic height or her balletic feet that grabbed my attention as much as the fact that she imbued every movement with a stunning musicality and a depth of sadness. In “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham”, Alicia Graf attacked the shoulder shrugs and the mad fanning with equal enthusiasm and ease as the balletic aspects of “Fix Me, Jesus”, as I happened to be sitting in the front row on her side of the stage. I really think she will be the next big thing, and would have loved to have seen her in showcased in a longer piece.

Taken from a great article about Alicia Graf in the Columbia Magazine

In all, it was a wonderful evening that left me looking forward to what Alvin Ailey Dance Theater could do next. Although Episodes and Flowers were heavy and somber and dramatic, the pieces still showcased the company’s dramatic strength and passion. Their dancers dance with a breathtaking power and unrestrained passion that’s universal, with an appeal to dance lovers and dance newbies alike. This 50th anniversary tour also seems more poignant in the face of the news that its artistic director, Judith Jamison, is set to retire in the next few years. She has been essential to leading to where AADT is today, and it opens up the question to who will continue Alvin Ailey’s legacy after her departure. One can only hope that Alvin Ailey Dance Theater will continue the fresh, contemporary feel of its dancing and its amazing legacy.

Alvin Ailey

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love the front row. Alvin Ailey is on tonight!

Swan Lake on Crack

Happy Friday, everyone!

It’s my favorite day of the week – it’s been one heck of a week. I caught an annoying bug (I know, in this beautiful weather, it’s very odd) and I haven’t been at home resting because I’ve been out and about celebrating match day for residencies with my med school friends. They did really really well, and I’m so happy for them! My ultimate plan was to plant all of them here as my residents, so by the time I’m a 3rd year med student in the wards, they’ll be my superiors. muhahaha

Below is a video that made my jaw drop. I’ve seen Swan Lakes before, but nothing like this. It gets really interesting around 3:30 and the end is unbelievable (she’s in pointe on top of his head! And the turns on his shoulder is equally incredible), although the choreography of the cygnets/frogs in the beginning isn’t half bad. What’s even better is that the lead girl has beautiful lines, and is a beautiful dancer on top of being an incredible acrobat. Thanks for the link, Patty!

May I suggest this as an addition to the repertory at SF Ballet or ABT next year? :)

Updated: more information on the video clip in a NY Times article, here.

The UK invests in dance education

In America where chief LA Times dance critic Lewis Segal just got fired and Boston Ballet is cutting 20% of its dancers, the UK government has just invested £5.5 million into dance education. (No, not P.E. education, dance education.)

It’s interesting that they state the reason for dance’s popularity is fueled by dance shows on TV. Dance shows on TV has been great exposure for dance, although I personally can’t stand watching too much of it. There’s one commercial I couldn’t escape where they do a close up on a girl’s foot in toe shoes, and her feet aren’t very pointed. I guess toe shoes on TV is pretty novel and so that was the point of that shot, but that’s something that won’t get me to watch, nonetheless. And I’d much rather watch live dance! But it’s great for people who’ve never seen dance before, and it might get people into theaters.

I’m starting to feel like I live in the wrong country.

The death of classical ballet?

Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Giselle. © Erik Tomasson

Watching San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5 showcasing great modern choreography (reviewed here) and especially its avant-garde piece, Eden/Eden, got me thinking about the future of ballet. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s exciting that great modern ballet pieces are still being created, as the ones showcased in Program 5. But how does this figure in with the great classical works, such as Giselle and Swan Lake? Is there room in one company, to satisfy both ends of the spectrum? Is one going to be phased out, in place of the other?

As sfmike mentioned in the comment below, the classical and the modern tend to “nurture” each other, in a symbiotic sort of relationship. Classical ballet is a foundation for the technique that’s tweaked by modern choreography. However, I can’t help but to think of a metaphor (I’m going to pull a metaphor from my other life in medicine) – it reminds me of the medical students who enrolled in Latin classes in order to help them with learning the Latin-based terminology for medicine. Latin can help, but precious little, and you could do without it as I have. Is this true for modern ballet as well? We can all appreciate modern ballet without liking or even having watched Giselle. Could we all survive and be happy without classical works? Is it just a ruse that classical works are necessary to round out a company’s repertoire, or are they keeping them in to satisfy the purists and dance elitists? Are classical works merely going to be stepping stones to modern choreography?

It’s no secret that some classical works, such as La Sylphide and Coppelia, are rarely being danced today. And even the classical works that are being performed, such as San Francisco Ballet’s Giselle, are being made over to make it more palatable to modern audiences. So in a way, classical works are already being modified. Perhaps this is inevitable. It’s hard to say that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, I’m the first to admit I probably wouldn’t enjoy sitting through a 3-4 hour traditional Sleeping Beauty either.

I’m also thinking of modern audiences, especially to those who are new to ballet. I’ve recommended Program 5 to my scientist non-ballet friends, who ended up loving it, especially Eden/Eden. How are these newer audiences, ever going to appreciate the technicalities of Swan Lake? Is it really just a matter of taste if they haven’t been exposed to these pieces and just refuse to see them? And if this is the audience of the future, will that mean that classical works will be phased out because there is less of a demand for them?

I’m an audience member with high and particular standards, who loves classical works as well as good modern choreography. My fear is that classical works will become more and more obscure. It’s great to view great modern works, such as Morris’ Mozart Dances or Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Classics are timeless for a reason, and hopefully they’ll persist in modern repertoire even though I can see the progression towards placing less importance on them.

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5: Mixed Repertory

Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance), After the Rain pas de deux, Helgi Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini, and Wayne McGregor’s Eden/Eden

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux. © Erik Tomasson

I’ve always wondered what the future of ballet looks like, and Program 5 at the San Francisco Ballet offered a good preview. Onstage was a program that made Balanchine look as ancient as Petipa. The oldest piece on the program was Wheeldon’s Carousel, choreographed in 2002. More than just offering recent, modern ballets however, it offered good modern ballets. My favorite of the night was Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux. Definitely my favorite Wheeldon piece so far, it features a man and a woman, looking very bare and simple, with the woman in ballet flats and loose hair. As the mesmerizing hypnotic slow music unfolds (with music by Arvo Part), the two dancers begin to melt into each other’s arms with complete surrender. An aching sadness pervades the air in their deliberate movements, as the two never make eye contact – when she falls into his arms, her gaze is aimed backwards as she arches her back; they often stand side by side, facing the same direction, or she wraps her arms around him and leans her cheek on his shoulder. In addition to complete trust without eye contact, this also implies a missed connection, as if they are harboring a guilty secret or wrongdoing, but trust each other anyway with unqualified acceptance. It includes a little bit of the experimentation that I saw in the piece Wheeldon created for SF Ballet a few years ago, Continuum. In this pas de deux, Wheeldon plays with the ebb and flow in the background of the steady music, as the two dancers push and pull through the slow music in inventive ways. This piece calls for a strong, steady partner – Damian Smith is probably one of the best partners in the company, and fulfilled his duties commandingly, with yearning compassion spilling out of every pore in his body. Yuan Yuan Tan completely trusted him, and her sensual langorous limbs were perfect for melting into him. The result left the audience mesmerized. It was a great example of modern ballet choreography, used in innovative ways with an intuition and understanding that everyone understood but could not quite verbalize.

After the Rain followed another Wheeldon piece, Carousel (A Dance). It had a completely different tone, reminiscent of an old MGM movie musical. It possessed all the elements that a modern audience would love – a sparkling set, modern costumes, and pretty imagery. It’s a pretty piece, but not much more than that. Set in a carousel, with ensemble members rotating in repetition as the horses, the rotating motif served as an apt swirling background for the love story in the central pas de deux. In the program notes, it states that the young girl is supposed to have an edge, as she goes for the “older man”. I was a little appalled that they considered Joan Boada an “older man”, and this didn’t come across at all. The central couple seemed no more than a normal teenage girl and boy at the fairgrounds, flirting. Dores Andre danced as his partner with youthful independence. My favorite part about this piece were the demi-soloists, mirroring the atmosphere of love and the fun of the fairgrounds, danced by Frances Chung, Elizabeth Miner, Rory Hohenstein, and Jaime Garcia Castilla. They were a great group that danced well together, with cheerful warmth. Historically, they were promoted to soloists around the same time (or since I started going to SF Ballet more seriously) and so it was great to see them dance together.

Helgi Tomasson debuted his piece, On a Theme of Paganini. As I’ve mentioned before, I wasn’t holding my breath with this one. However, it started hopefully, as he started with a motif of the flipped hand (shown in the picture below) .

Joan Boada and Vanessa Zahorian in On a Theme of Paganini © Erik Tomasson

This movement in itself is very witty, and a great starting point. However, the choreography never went far enough to explore its possibilities in innovative ways. The result was choreography that seemed overworked because it wasn’t going anywhere, and it felt like the piece could have been much shorter with the same results. Tomasson repeatedly displays a penchant for the melodrama and the cliche – the ensemble men dance in typical masculine bravura fashion, with big jumps and sweeping arms, and he really likes to have the girl curl up in the guy’s arms for no apparent reason in his pas de deux. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a fog machine had been turned on. Some positive things though – this piece had more complexity in its layers that I’d seen in his previous pieces. And as always, he knows how to showcase his dancers really really well. He pulled out all the stops in casting the biggest stars of the company, and I realized what a rare honor it is to see two star principals dance onstage at the same time (Maria Kochetkova and Vanessa Zahorian) in addition to three superstar men (Davit Karapetyan, Pascal Molat, Joan Boada). Kochetkova and Zahorian matched each other well in their precision, and mirrored each other well. He also cast three very tall men as demi-soloists (David Arce, Christopher Mondoux, and Anthony Spaulding) for a dashing dramatic result, although only for too brief moments onstage. It’s hard to see this piece working on any level with any other company than San Francisco Ballet, since it seems so tailored to exactly what the company has to offer now.

The evening closed with Wayne McGregor’s Eden/Eden. A few months back when I called into the NPR program that featured the SF Ballet, I asked how SFB is catering to younger audiences through its programming, and its answer given by executive director Glenn McCoy, who answered my question in short, by saying, “cutting-edge choreography”. The example he gave on air was this piece, Eden/Eden. Certainly cutting edge, this piece addresses the very futuristic issue of cloning, and utilizes video and electronic music for a multimedia experience. The music is by Steve Reich called “Dolly” from Three Tales (a video opera), led by conductor Gary Sheldon with earphones on. Interspersed with the buzzing electric music are short vocal phrases, describing the process of cloning, technology as an extension of normal evolution, and creating robots that are going to outsmart the human race. It suggests the possibility of humans as machines, with a voice that says that a silk flower isn’t a real flower. (Scientifically, I have problems with that statement because that isn’t a perfect analogy, but I will let it slide for now.) Humans as machines is then reflected in the dancers, who emerge from the ground with skin colored costumes and skin colored skull caps, who then proceed to dance in a pulsing, disjointed, and urgent fashion. The costumes are reminiscent of empty shells, vehicles to carry DNA, like a single celled enucleated egg. Partnering is gender-irrelevant, with dancers controlling and moving each other’s legs and reacting mechanically to each other. As superhuman machines, the dancers whip off multiple fouettes instinctively. Their heads move separately from their bodies, as do their hips and other joints, as a machine that is the sum of its parts. It continues like this in a disturbing progressive fashion, as anticipation builds in addition to the questions asked above the music. A transparent screen falls in front of the dancers, onto which lights and patterns are projected for an added cohesive effect of frenzy. In its final moments, a voice asks if we have it all planned out, as Yuan Yuan Tan peters out and collapses slowly onto the floor. The energy onstage was electric, with the dancers going full force the entire 30 minute piece. Anthony Spaulding was a particular standout, with a powerful presence and extra fire. The overall effect is a disturbing and chaotic high, which forces the viewer to consider the social message of science and where it’s going.

McGregor’s Eden/Eden. © Erik Tomasson

If this is the future of ballet, there is much to look forward to. With this program, it really cemented in my mind that one of San Francisco Ballet’s best strengths is its solidarity in modern ballet choreography. Their dancers absolutely absorb and breathe the choreography naturally. I was thinking though, if a ballet newbie sees Eden/Eden and enjoys it, how will that viewer ever be able to appreciate Giselle? Or do they need to?

Program 5 runs through March 18.

San Francisco Ballet Program 5

Can Scientists Dance? Choreographing Your Ph.D. Dissertation

Happy Friday! I have two more reviews to write (San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5 and the Spelling Bee Musical), but I haven’t had a few spare hours to sit down and write them yet. So in the meantime, here’s something I stumbled across in my in my daily dance blog reads.

Lisa Traiger of D.C. Dancewatcher posted about a Science magazine sponsored event, where graduate students, post docs, and professors were invited to come and to dance out their Ph.D. dissertations. The rules were to interpret your Ph.D. thesis in dance form without using words. Winners get a free year’s subscription to Science magazine, one of the top scientific magazines in the field. I know the prize sounds dorky, but it’s very expensive (several hundred dollars? thousands?) and is a great prize worth striving for. Judges were mostly dance folk, with an addition of a “non-profit science communicator”, whatever that is. The winner, Brian Stewart, who not only won for his “graduate student” category but also took the prize overall, danced out his thesis titled, “Refitting repasts: a spatial exploration of food processing, sharing, cooking, and disposal at the Dunefield Midden campsite, South Africa”. An observer writes,

“No one was surprised when he scooped the prize. For one thing, Stewart wore nothing but a shimmering, translucent loin cloth. (That’s worth a few bonus points in my book.) But the judges told me afterward that his dance stood out because it accomplished two things at once. Most importantly, “he connected with the audience,” said Pastorini. “That is the purpose of dance: to create emotions.” A big help was his choice of music—a jazz interpretation of African Pygmy tribal music by Herbie Hancock—which created an atmosphere of funky ancientness.”

I love the title of the postdoc category winner, “mRNA Stability Regulation as a Drug Target”. Hilarious! That title has a world of opportunity in terms of how you can translate that into dance.

The Ph.D. thesis would translate well into a dance for a few reasons. First of all, it has a point – you’re dancing out your thesis, and how well you accomplish this communication to the audience defines good choreography, as it should in the dance world. Also, as I was reminded this past weekend when I saw the scientific based “Eden/Eden” at SF Ballet, science can translate very well into art. I’ll blog more about it later, but the artist’s take on science can be very beautiful and thought-provoking. And multidisciplinary approaches to anything is always fascinating and creative.

Scientists, contrary to popular belief, have to be very creative people. You have to be able to approach a scientific problem in a myriad of complicated ways, and you have to be able to drum up all the possibilities and explanations for the results that you get. (You also have to be used to failure, which I’m sure has parallels in the dance world.) And how fun is it that these creative people get to show their creativity in a different and completely unprecendented way?

My Ph.D. thesis (in the field of neuroscience) has the possibility for a great dance. I work on synapse formation in the brain – so it incorporates broader themes of the creation of memories and thoughts, and destruction of both in abnormal function. The brain (or the higher cortex) is also what defines humanity; it’s what makes us human compared to other animals. It’s also very dynamic, so that could translate well into movement as well. The soundtrack to my dissertation would be… hm, I’d have to think about this. I would love to use Bach, but the sounds of a polymerase chain reaction machine might be more fitting (it’s very John Cage).

Reports that next year it’s going to be global, on Youtube! It’d be fun if there was a U.S. one. I would definitely try for it… anybody want to help?? Any ideas would be appreciated! The stakes are even higher for next year, where for the prize, “Negotiations are underway to have the winners’ latest peer-reviewed publications interpreted by a professional dance company.” Fun!! My feeling is though, that more rules have to be put into place. For instance, you could technically post a video of a ballet company performing “Eden/Eden” for a postdoc or a student who happens to electroporate enucleated eggs, or even for anyone works in the in vitro fertilization field. Can you use professional dancers or choreographers? Does the author of the study in question, have to be a major feature of the dance, perhaps the lead dancer? Perhaps I can borrow Jaime Garcia Castilla for my piece. :)

Jaime Garcia Castilla in “Eden/Eden”
© Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet

Check out the videos in the link below – I found that the links don’t work here, but maybe it’s because I’m at lab and the school’s firewall isn’t happy. You also have to read the entry, especially the last paragraph – I just KNOW the author/observer, John Bohannon, actually sat down to calculate the statistics of the number of grad students and professors dancing on the dance floor to come up with the p-value that he came up with.

Can Scientists Dance? by John Bohannon of Science magazine

This was also covered by the NY Times. And in response to the question asked in the article, no, it would ruin it if it was changed to having the best music video of your thesis. I prefer dance; music video would be too easy, you would just have to explain your thesis verbally and to make it rhyme somehow. Dance would stretch people’s imaginations more, and have scientists’ imaginations really come into play.

San Francisco Ballet: Program 4, A Tribute to Jerome Robbins 3/8/2008

Or, Garrett Anderson’s Big Night Out

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Pascal Molat, Davit Karapetyan and Garrett Anderson (and David Arce as the bartender) in Robbins’ Fancy Free.
© Erik Tomasson

Program 4 of the San Francisco Ballet’s 75th anniversary season is a tribute to Jerome Robbins, an American choreographer who is equally well known for his ballet choreography in addition to his work as a director and choreographer of movies, Broadway musicals and plays, and TV programs. With a long list of more popular works from the 1940′s through the 1990′s, I wasn’t all to familiar with his choreography aside from vague impressions of the movie West Side Story, which he directed and choreographed (and a brief introduction to Fancy Free danced by ABT last year). Program 4 served to be a great introduction to Jerome Robbins and his choreography to Bay area audiences.

Jerome Robbins is, above all, a story teller. He uses movement to convey stories, with a narrative that runs through his pieces, even his abstract ballets. Modern audiences with little or no exposure to dance would easily be able to follow his stories, yet the quality of choreography is never compromised, as movements are used in fresh ways to propel the plotline and to embody emotion, from the hilarious to the quietly reserved.

One of Robbins’ well known pieces is Fancy Free, a rip roaring light hearted quest for three sailors in a night out on the town for the most mysterious of holy grails – how to catch the attention of a girl. There is anticipation, indignation, competition, all shown through high kicking and high flying movement. Garrett Anderson danced the role of the sweetly sensitive sailor, in his first appearance of the night, wooing Vanessa Zahorian gently and awkwardly, albeit their duet lacked a certain chemistry. Pascal Molat was the high flying sailor, utilizing his natural gift for comedic acting to its fullest. Davit Karapetyan danced the role of the sailor initially left out, who attempts to seductively sway his hips back into the competition with a reserved calm yet hilarious results. It’s hard to watch this without comparisons to ABT’s version of it last summer. SF Ballet’s version was packed with dramatic details (after all, Robbins is known for being a perfectionist), whereas ABT’s seemed to skim over details yet captured a little more of the lilt that was so appealing in this piece. Overall, it was a spirited well-acted performance that the audience obviously enjoyed.

Fancy Free was followed by Robbins’ abstract ballet, In the Night, set to the nocturnes of Frederic Chopin. It features a couple dancing to each nocturne, representing three different relationships. Although the choreography was abstract, each couple told a story to the audience. It was definitely the quietest piece of the night, even a little bland, although it showcased Robbins’ narrative abilities through dance alone. Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin danced beautifully as a couple first in love, with Katita Waldo and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba danced as a couple long been in love with a reserved yet simmering emotion. Lorena Feijoo and Damian Smith danced with fiery anger and passion, yet in the end, she lies down prostrate before him and he lovingly lifts her wrists and pulls her up to her toes and then into a high lift, and then catches her in his arms. That full movement from the floor to the sky and into his arms was in one fell swoop, and lovely in its completion.

The evening ended with the most anticipated piece of the night, San Francisco Ballet’s premiere of the West Side Story Suite. West Side Story Suite completely brought down the house due to its orchestral music and its dancing. Truth? I’m a little ambivalent about ballet dancers, singing. I realize that this piece was made to attract younger audiences to the theater, although if you wanted to see singing and dancing, I would recommend seeing a Broadway musical where performers specialize in these skills, whereas ballet dancers do not. The poor sound amplification did not help either, where I rarely understood a word anyone was singing. It’s hard enough to ask dancers to sing, and then ask them to sing… and harmonize… and sing with an accent; it’s a little too much. Despite this, the SF Ballet dancers sang with laudable effort and sang much better than I had anticipated (especially for Matthew Stewart, who has a clear sweet singing voice). The key to this suite’s success was the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, conducted by the always perfect Martin West, who fulfilled their difficult duties with this daunting score with a larger-than-life brash (American?) confidence. In this piece and in Fancy Free, the orchestra emphasized nicely the brassy quality of Leonard Bernstein’s music, which I know isn’t easy. It adds a lively three-dimensional aspect to the choreography that is so essential for the full theatrical experience.

The dancing in West Side Story Suite was absolutely superb, filled with a fierce sharpness in ensemble dancing and a finesse all at the same time that continues to stay in my mind. With the opposing Jets and the Sharks fight with heated rage, the male ensemble dancers kicked, fought, and threw livid looks with an unforgettable intensity. The intensity was punctuated even further with vocalizations such as commands, mocking laughter, and shouts. Speaking on a ballet stage is unexpectedly jarring to ballet audience’s ears, and this jarring effect utilized to its full effect by conveying the intensity of hate between the two gangs and setting the scene for the ensuing love story to take place between Tony and Maria. The role of Tony was danced by Garrett Anderson, who danced with a poetic softness of a naive hero in love. Rory Hohenstein danced the role of Riff with dangerous wild abandonment that was thrilling to watch; it’s an almost-feral quality I saw last in Diana Vishneva – that’s probably a jump in comparison, but I’m going with it anyways. Shannon Roberts as Anita was the audience favorite, a hip-swiveling performer with sass and sauciness to spare. The explosive energy and a piercing sharpness in the dancing with a natural approach to movement rather than the ballet-ish movement that would look out of place, elevated this piece to an unforgettable intense and thrilling experience.

Some general notes – this was a great night for Garrett Anderson, who danced both in Fancy Free and in the West Side Story Suite, and a great way for me to be able to see a dancer I hadn’t seen that much before. He dances with a lovely lyricism and a charming poetic quality.

Also, I wanted to say hello to my seat mate, Dr. R, a French horn playing orthopaedic surgeon. He served as a great example for a possibility for my future, a merging of the arts and medicine, who spent his one night in San Francisco at the ballet. A great seat mate is hard to come by, especially if you’re left to the mercy of strangers, and it was nice to have an intelligent being with similar arts interests and a sense of humor to share opinions with. If you’re reading this, please click here for the definition of “blog”, I don’t think I defined it for you very well.

This is definitely one of the programs to catch at the San Francicsco Ballet, where the excitement is palpable and the dancing is thrilling and it’s oh-so-fun. It’s really great for ballet newbies and first-timers, since Robbins uses a more universal dance language vocabulary that is more intuitive for modern audiences. Program 4 ends on March 20.

San Francisco Ballet Program 4 : A Tribute to Jerome Robbins

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Rory Hohenstein in the middle, as Riff in West Side Story Suite

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Did anyone else see it? Any thoughts on alternate casts? I’m curious about a different cast for Fancy Free and what that was like.

Photos © Erik Tomasson