Monthly Archives: April 2008

Program B: San Francisco Ballet’s New Works Festival

Sarah Van Patten and Gennadi Nedvigin in Mark Morris’ Joyride, with costumes complete with flashing digital numbers by Isaac Mizrahi.

Program B of the New Works Festival proved, to me at least, the sleeper hit of the season. The biggest surprise was the piece that I was most wary about – Julia Adam’s A Rose by Any Other Name. It had a few factors going against it – the fact that Bach’s Goldberg Variations had already been choreographed before by Jerome Robbins, and the fact that it was a plot ballet (a remake of Sleeping Beauty). How easy is it to explain a plot by only using movement (no words) to an audience mostly unfamiliar with the classic ballet sign language, in the span of 34 minutes? With these two factors, I was suspicious of a result that would beat the classic, as well as please finicky modern palates.

Apparently success on a dangerously close-to-comparison reinterpretation of a piece can occur by choosing a movement vocabulary that’s unique to anything done previously and by using a movement language that a modern audience can easily understand. Add in a dollop of delight, humor, and a good dose of quirky novel ideas, and you end up with a completely fresh take on a classic. Using a movement vocabulary full of sharp, angular, restricted movements, reminiscent of Nijinsky’s infamous Rite of Spring that caused a violent riot in the theater audience, where body parts move in isolation to the rest of the body – first, the arms move in a sharp angle, then the leg gets pulled forward into position, and then there is a sharp head tilt in quick succession. The dancers move sharply from one pose to the next, with poses that often look like Egyptian hieroglyphics or the figures seen on the side of ancient Greek pottery, with sharp right angles at wrists and elbows and legs in parallel. This fractured way of moving actually emphasizes a lovely halting, hesitant quality in the melody of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Complete with deadpan facial expressions, the story is told purely through witty movements; even the graphic plotpoints, such as childbirth, becomes toned down when told through this atypical symbolic yet comprehensible language. Include the irony of four shirtless male fairies struggling with their identities – the Fairy of Beauty (Brett Bauer) can’t stop looking at himself in a handmirror, and the Fairy of Generosity (Daniel Devison) has a hard time letting go of the money he throws around. Add a parody of the famously difficult Rose Adagio from the original Sleeping Beauty in addition to clever staging to signify the passage of time and the fact that the story comes full circle, and you have a quirky, refreshingly original story on your hands with an appropriate nod to the past.

Lily Rogers and Tiit Helimets in Adam’s A rose by any other name.

Some might walk away feeling disappointed without the normal fluidity of classical ballet. In addition, this style of movement is the antithesis to basic ballet training; it was reflected in the fact that some dancers were much better at moving sharply from one pose to the next, fighting the usual tendency to connect each step in succession, with Lily Rogers and Kristin Long (as Princess Aurora) succeeding in this restrictive style exceedingly valliantly. I was surprised to find out about myself that I could forgo my usual penchant for fluid extensions in exchange for originality and delight. This work’s inventive charm and intelligence really made this piece my dark horse favorite for the night.

Stanton Welch’s Naked and James Kudelka’s The Ruins Proclaim the Building was Beautiful was similar in that both were deeply rooted in the classical ballet vocabulary, yet both pieces were not without its modern innovative touches. Welch’s Naked is a sparklingly neoclassical work with literal musicality set to the lush colorful music of Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos. A romantically classical piece syncopated by modern rhythms emphasized with castanets, the choreography reflected the music with a sharp releve set to the background of a pizzicato pluck in the strings, or a bouree set to a low flute trill. Kudelka’s work was more evocative of the mood of devastation and decay, like the sad beauty of a wilting rose. Complete with tattered tutus, mussy hair, and torn Victorian suit jackets on men suggestive of greater days gone by, the piece opened with the corps girls dancing facing backwards dancing with faces hidden. A muted atmosphere weighed heavily onstage, with bursts of fast movements that possessed a desperate quality, with flailing arms and surrendering bodies. The partnering was not an easy partnership and even a little threatening, especially in the central pas de deux with Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, where she pushes and fights against him before surrendering in waves. The dancers were again, superb in their commitment to the choreography. Standouts in Naked included Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin in a cool elegant pas de deux, Frances Chung and Brett Bauer in a slow expansive duet with slow turns and promenades with a full phrase from a deep plie on the floor to a lift in the air. Pascal Molat’s flying jumps and dynamic turns were utilized to an extraordinary degree in this choreography.

Frances Chung and Brett Bauer in Stanton Welch’s Naked

Elana Altman and Aaron Orza in Kudelka’s The Ruins Proclaim The Building Was Beautiful.

The program closed with Mark Morris’ Joyride, composed and conducted by modern composer John Adams. Mark Morris’ famous musicality shone through, set to this almost undanceable music with changing meters and cacophonous sound, with an ultramodern sensibility and a driving chaotic push reflected in the music. The flashy futuristic costumes designed by frequent collaborator Isaac Mizrahi shone in different tones of gold unitards with digital screens that continuously flashed numbers which lent a sense of movement even in complete stillness. Changes in meter are accentuated by points in the music, with random partnerings carrying little personal connection and accidental bypassing lifts. Women lean to deep penchees holding onto a man’s waist for support while he walks away from her. Fast spins finish with a casual saunter off stage. From the frenzied, guarded, pointed, jubilant, and watchful – the piece ventures into all these territories at breakneck exhilarating speeds. A random kiss is shared in complete silence – is this Morris’ version of the mint on the pillow? This is definitely a piece that requires a second viewing in order to take in all of its multilayered complexity.

Elizabeth Miner and Pascal Molat in Morris’ Joy Ride.

Jennifer Stahl and Rory Hohenstein in Morris’ Joy Ride.

No number of words can be enough to describe the breadth of the diversity of movement presented in this program. This program didn’t have the sense of arduous striving to be serious or deep. It was actually fun and intellectually engaging. With its modern innovation and a good helping of intelligence and charm, this program is my personal favorite in the New Works Festival. And I approve this message!

Program B of the New Works Festival: this link includes a preview video of the pieces in Program B

All photos © ErikTomasson

San Francisco Ballet The New Works Festival

General Thoughts: An Overview

San Francisco Ballet in Adam’s A rose by any other name. © Erik Tomasson

With the presentation of the entire New Works Festival, I am amazed at the breadth and diversity of not only ballet and the dance world, but also the versatility of the dancers at SF Ballet. No matter the reviews, that has always stayed constant – the quality of the dancing remains shockingly high, despite the completely different styles of movement, from the purely neoclassical to the far out modern. I’ve seen how classical training can sometimes impede upon the freer natural movement of modern dance and its disastrous results; however, I needn’t have had any doubts with SF Ballet.

I posted Allan Ulrich’s comment below because it really reflected the choreography in Program A, however Program B and C has changed that opinion for me. Ballet is not only changing in increments, but in leaps and bounds as well. The best part is, a lot of the different styles of choreography is not merely a peek into the future, but a direct reflection of dance history – from Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring style of dance (reflected in Adam’s A Rose by Any Other Name) to the Martha Grahamesque Thread by Margaret Jenkins.
The New Works Festival has not only been a celebration of the future direction of the company and dance, but a retrospective look and a lovely homage to dance’s past as well.

A note about the slew of indifferent/negative reviews – it was hard not to watch the festival with sky high expectations, having in front of you the top ten choreographers in the world and to be disappointed if your expectations were not presented to you. In my mind, the festival was even a success before it started; the fact that this is even being attempted will outlast some critic’s disgruntled grumblings and seen as a big event in dance history. I didn’t like everything i saw onstage, but it was still a rare and fascinating look into the future and the direction to where ballet is going.

A big surprise to me is that the severely strong and very differing reactions from critics and audiences alike. That always happens to some degree, but it’s happening to an unusually strong degree here. Perhaps it’s because they’re all new pieces that no one has a preconception of? I try not to read reviews before I see a show because I’ve seen how that can directly color my experience of a show, but I was surprised to come back and to read reviews that differed considerably from mine. I think it’s a great thing, and it makes me want to see it again so I can see what someone else saw in a piece that didn’t particularly stand out. :)

Another great thing about this festival is that I’ve been able to take some ballet newbies to see a show, people who would normally never see Swan Lake or any ballet for that matter. For Program B, I took a friend of mine who had barely seen ballet and in addition, he had only slept four hours the night previously. I thought he was a goner for sure and fall asleep, but what kept him awake was he said that he was (his words) intellectually engaged. That’s what I loved about this festival; it engaged me as much as it engaged a person new to ballet. I took other friends to see Program C, and one of my favorite parts about that night was talking and analyzing the ballets afterwards and during intermission.

So my recommendation is if you only see one program, see Program B (my personal favorite) although given the diverse reviews, it’s most likely you’ll like another program more so try to catch all of them. Grab a few friends who are willing to try new things and be willing to be open minded about what you see onstage and about the opinions of the people around you.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Overheard in the audience at a Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance:

“I wish I understood what was going on.”

“Oh, you’re not supposed to be able to.”

Can a look into another person’s eyes, ever be just a look – a movement of the eyeballs, and not a connection? Can an outstretched hand ever be just that, without the connotations of reaching desire? Can a frenzied turn be dissected into a turn apart from its frenziness? If I close my eyes at a dance performance, am I transported to a music concert? If a dance is performed with a different set (or lighting or costumes), is it a different dance? Can movement ever be completely devoid of meaning? Is meaning and intention in a movement, all in my own head?

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company continues to inspire more questions than anything else, as I questioned about everything I knew about art and performance. Cunningham plays on the theme of chance, even picking audience members to throw a die for the second piece, Split Sides, in which an even and odd die throw determined the order of the music, choreography, set, costumes, and lighting. Cunningham manages to take a reductionist view on performance, breaking almost every aspect of dance performance and mixing them together in infinite possibilities. The music for Split Sides was composed by Radiohead and Sigur Ros for each “act” – when there was a sound technical glitch and a very loud noise was heard, many in the audience wondered if it was a part of the show. When so much is up to chance, aren’t wobbles and technical difficulties included in the game of chance and included in a great performance?

The evening opened with MinEvent with Kronos Quartet, made recently this year in 2008. A big highlight was having the Kronos Quartet play live, positioned around the auditorium with one of the violinists sitting uncomfortably close, about 2 feet from where I was sitting. The music was set to John Cage – it must take confidence to play John Cage, to be confident that you’re supposed to be playing at the moment you’re playing. I’m used to being told when to play, I suppose. It’s interesting that for dance choreography that’s so anti-musical, that a great deal is spent is providing the best music possible for a performance. I personally was much happier to have seen the Kronos Quartet than to put my ipod on and experience a performance that way (in eyeSpace, also being performed by Merce Cunningham on tour).

There was a brief post performance discussion, the highlight of which Merce Cunningham himself came out to speak. It wasn’t a big surprise at how intellectually philosophical he is – in speaking of the different aspects of performance that he isolates and rearranges (choreography, sets, music, lighting), he compared it to the fact that in life, we do one thing in the presence of unintentional sounds and backgrounds and lighting. Each aspect of our lives don’t necessarily have to “mean” something or correlate in any way, and he didn’t see how dance couldn’t be the same way. Along this vein, MinEvent could have been played to John Cage’s infamous 4’3″ (in which it’s performed in complete silence in three movements) and it still would have fit. It also amazed me that the dancers explained how they learn choreography in complete silence. As a dancer, it seems so wrong. but equally impressive that the dancers are able to separate different components of performance and to adapt to different stage environments.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company is so unique, it’s impossible to view it with the same standards as I do to other dance performances. I’ve always wanted to see them live, and it was an eye opening and engaging experience.

Normally, the sound of pointe shoes is unintentional accompaniment to dance performances. Here, there is a pointe shoe xylophone in the pit (made by Sigur Ros)

Dance Legends

I saw another dance legend! This week has been dance-legend-filled. Merce Cunningham himself, second from the left, in the wheelchair (sorry the picture is so horribly washed out, I went directly from work

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and didn’t have my camera). How many more will I see before the week is out?? I hope Mark Morris is in the house tomorrow -

San Francisco Ballet: New Works Festival and the Future of Ballet

Damian Smith and Yuan Yuan Tan in Yuri Possohkov’s Fusion. © Erik Tomasson

“If this New Works Festival is, in some way, an inquiry into where classical dance will go in the 21st century, the answer may have been here: Ballet will evolve in small increments, as the brightest of our choreographers impart their own distinctive sensibilities to a venerable, much abused and ultimately triumphant language.”

-Allan Ulrich, in a very nice review of Program A of San Francisco Ballet’s New Works Festival on the Voice of Dance

SF Ballet’s New Works Festival: Program A

World Premieres: Yuri Possohkov’s Fusion, Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, Paul Taylor’s Changes

Pauli Magierek and the San Francisco Ballet ensemble in Paul Taylor’s Changes. © Erik Tomasson

Masterpieces are hard to come by these days in the dance world. It’s tempting to think that masterpieces are made almost accidentally, in the same way that George Balanchine tinkered with a beginner adult ballet class to create the landmark Serenade. I highly doubt that Balanchine knew that he was creating a great piece at that time; masterpieces are probably not made with the effort and pressure of author/composer/choreographer saying, “I’m going to create a masterpiece today”.

It’s hard not to hope for at least one great masterpiece in the ongoing San Francisco Ballet’s New Works Festival, in spite of the pressure to produce one from each choreographer. Overall, program A was a strong solid start for the festival, a diverse program of three pieces that were grouped well together. The best part? Each piece had a deeply personal touch to it, offering a glimpse into each choreographer’s heart.

The program opened with SF Ballet’s resident choreographer, Yuri Possohkov’s Fusion. The piece opened with four men in Middle Eastern nomad costumes, with skirts and hats, in grounded pulsating movements with the complicated music of Graham Fitkin and Rahul Dev Burman driving the onstage action. A second group of dancers in hypermodern sleek pants set up an opposing faction. Rather than an external struggle between the two costumed populations onstage, there is a sense of an individual internalized struggle, expressed in a rushing cascade of movements continuously doubling over itself. The action is lightning fast, mostly in swirling circular movements of legs whipping around and couples turning over each other. The colors of the choreography change as quickly as the movements, from the strident and biting (emphasized by an extremely difficult saxophone parts played staccato in the high registers by Dale Wolford and Jim Dukey), to the bittersweet and sad, to the stretching and protective, to the swingy and jazzy. Damian Smith and Yuan Yuan Tan shared an introspective duet, implicitly trusting even in its awkward moments. Possohkov is delightfully cerebral and logical, with an exciting driving impetus that propelled the dancing into innovative directions. Certain moments however, the movements are so complexly layered that it strays into the area of esoteric denseness. I loved Possohkov’s Sagalobeli that he created for the State Ballet of Georgia – it felt like he really dug in, let loose, dropped all self consciousness, and had fun creating Sagalobeli more than this piece, which felt a little overworked in moments with so much thought and detail, from the cascading movements to the slightly superfluous projected video of the swirling nomad skirts onto the backdrop of hanging screens. This piece however still showcases Possohkov’s inventive and powerful momentum in the logic of his choreography, and in my mind, cements his place as a consistently strong choreographer.

Damian Smith and Yuan Yuan Tan in Yuri Possohkov’s Fusion. © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Benjamin Stewart in Possokhov’s Fusion. © Erik Tomasson

Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour was next. Swathed in luscious earthy jewel tones, Wheeldon’s musicality shimmered, reflecting the music by Ezio Bosso which was lighter in a more neoclassical style, simple and steady with emotions more limited to introspective pressing swells yet still richly layered. Starting in a steady walking pace like the second hand on a clock, the ensemble work surged to celebratory and communal, with open and expansive arms and an occasional tinge of sadness. Katita Waldo and Damian Smith performed a witty and lilting waltz in the background of whimsical string pizzicato overlaid with a soaring melody. The pas de deux was filled with quirky non sequitur flexed feet and a gentle sense of humor. In a thrillingly musical duet, Jaime Garcia Castilla and Rory Hohenstein played off each other’s differences in styles by echoing each other’s movements in a fluid camaderie with a slight competitive edge that gave it enough tension to make it fun to watch. In the background of Celtic-sounding droning fifths, Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba’s intimate pas de deux leaned into each other belying an internal strength. Joan Boada and Maria Kochetkova’s pas de deux was a perfect melding of classical with modern ballet, with asymmetrical leans and slow lovely promenading turns. In spite of her strongly classical technique and usual sublime control, Maria Kochetkova comfortably wore modern ballet technique with a light easiness, as if trying it on for size. Wheeldon’s charming musicality and comfortable effortlessness made Within the Golden Hour an audience delight.

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Within The Golden Hour. © Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Wheeldon’s Within The Golden Hour. © Erik Tomasson

The program ended with a refreshing change of pace, Paul Taylor’s Changes. Set in the 60′s with flat shoes and period street costumes, the piece opened with a group of dancers playfully rocking out to infectiously recognizable songs, with music by John Phillips, John Lennon/Paul McCartney, and John Hartford. Paul Taylor is a master of using every day movements in creative ways to communicate his intentions clearly to the audience, whether it be an emotion, feeling, thought, or message. Another aspect to Paul Taylor is that no matter how joyful a piece is, he adds a sudden contrast of sadness, with a celebratory song ending with a solitary girl staggering desperately off stage. Courteney Elizabeth danced with an easy groundedness in “California Earthquake”. In “I Call Your Name”, Pauli Magierek danced spiritedly as the sassy sexpot to the rapt audience of men as the literally unreachable girl, standing high on the shoulders of the men and falling and going up again in waves. In the tenderly touching “Dancing Bear”, Benjamin Stewart in a onesie wakes up from sleep and dances with Aaron Orza as the dancing bear, as the bear shows and teaches him to dance, which Stewart sweetly follows, with sweeping, yearning movements. In “California Dreaming”, the final rousing song with full ensemble, Anthony Spaulding stood out with explosive dynamism. The curtain falls in the midst of the entire cast dancing as if it’s their last dance. When Paul Taylor took his bow at the end of the piece, it struck me that it is amazing to see such vibrant choreography pour out of the heart of a man of his age.

Courtney Elizabeth in Taylor’s Changes. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Taylor’s Changes. © Erik Tomasson

Apart from the choreography, the San Francisco Ballet dancers danced their hearts out, jumping right into the difficult and very different choreography with arms wide open. There was a palpable excitement in the air, with a riskiness and precariousness balanced with confidence that resulted in an exciting fresh performance.

In all, this program gives me great hope for the future of ballet with its modern innovation and risk. It’s inevitable that the festival creates the pressure of creating that one work represents the best of each choreographer, in addition to the pressure of having your piece compared in succession to other world famous choreographers. It’s a tough problem that comes with being labeled as one of the best in the world; some will fall under the pressure by overthinking the details, while others will rise from the ashes in spite of it by still taking risks and staying true to their voice. Despite imperfections, each work was uniqely fascinating with deeply personal flourishes. I do hope that a few of these pieces get permanently incorporated into SF Ballet’s permanent repertoire; word on the street is that Taylor is taking Changes and staging it on his company in a month or so.

The New Works has begun with a solid start! And hooray for non-rehearsal photos -

The New Works Festival

SF Ballet’s New Works Program A: Preview

Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Wheeldon’s Within The Golden Hour. © Erik Tomasson

What a rare occasion it is to see the legendary Paul Taylor onstage, in addition to Christopher Wheeldon and Yuri Possohkov, all in one night! It was a glittering opening to the New Works Festival, with a solid opening program and the presence of many famous dance critics, from the UK’s Judith Mackrell to NY’s Alastair Macaulay and the Bay Area’s own Rachel Howard. I just got back from the show, and I need to dedicate some time to write more about it. In short: Possohkov: introspectively tension-filled and lightning fast with a lovely driving impetus, cerebral, even esoteric. Wheeldon: my favorite for the night, thrillingly musical with a dash of humor. Taylor: a great change of pace, with a grounded vibrant fun nostalgic look at the 60′s.

A great beginning to the New Works Festival!

SF Ballet’s New Works Festival

Quote: Christopher Wheeldon

Christopher Wheeldon and members of San Francisco Ballet rehearse Wheeldon’s world premiere. © Erik Tomasson.

“Of the five ballets I’ve just made in rapid succession, my favorite is this one for San Francisco Ballet.”

- Christopher Wheeldon, regarding his new work for SF Ballet premiering tonight called “Within the Golden Hour” in

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this article in the SF Chronicle.

New Works Festival: Program A, also includes Paul Taylor’s “Changes” and Yuri Possohkov’s “Fusion”.

The New Works Festival Starts Tomorrow!

Be sure to check out Rachel Howard’s article in the NY Times on the behind-the-scenes preparation for the gargantuan New Works Festival. This picture is taken from that article – San Francisco Ballet dancers, from left: Courtney Wright and Garen Scribner; Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-François Vilanoba; Sarah Van Patten and Gennadi Nedvigin. It sounds like a mad house, with only one full dress rehearsal with orchestra per piece, and several pieces using new music that had just been finished weeks before. The article also mentions an interesting choreographic “void” that’s left in the post-Balanchine dance world, and more the fact that audiences are really searching for the next Balanchine. It’s nice to have a choreographer such as Balanchine who consistently produced solid pieces, but I’m happy with modern ballets that have been shown onstage such as Wheeldon’s After the Rain, McGregor’s Eden/Eden, and virtually anything that Mark Morris produces. More choreographers bring in diversity as well; I think that void is big enough to fill with lots of choreographers and not just one person. Can I also say that I love how Tomasson really incorporates female choreographers in this festival??

There’s so much information about the New Works Festival, short of seeing it, it’s a great preview. It’s also just enough information to set expectations so high that nothing could possibly meet it. :) jk It really does build hype for the festival. Check out some of the feature stories highlighting some of the choreographers and their thought processes behind their pieces, and podcast interviews.

Principal Nicolas Blanc and Mark Morris rehearse Morris’ Joyride.

More information on the works being presented in the New Works Festival, presented here in a summary format, giving a brief history and style of each choreographer, in addition to information on their piece. It makes me nervous that Julia Adam is not only choreographing to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but is creating a plot ballet, reimagining the story of Sleeping Beauty. I guess we’ll have to see how it turns out. Paul Taylor (in Program A) presents a 60′s inspired piece, while Kudelka meditates on death, decay, and loss.

Photos © Erik Tomasson.

SF Ballet’s New Works Festival

In Nature: Blogging, Dancing

PBS Dance in America

I found my official favorite blogging spot, in front of a calming yet lively fountain, half hidden by the plant. I hope everyone’s having a nice weekend like I have, it’s been especially relaxing after a frantic, klutzy week. eek, a hummingbird just visited me and I nearly jumped out of my skin; it made the sound that was a cross between a mini war plane and a bee. My mom said he mistook me for a flower.

Tonya’s blog brought to my attention that another great PBS Great Performances program is to air tomorrow night, on March 21, featuring dance choreography in the backdrop of the natural grandeur of America’s national parks. This program is a part of their Dance in America series, which highlights one of my favorites, the dance company Project Bandaloop, a group I’ve blogged about before. I’m amazed how this group is helping to redefine dance in innovative ways. It’s also led to philosophical questions such as, “If there is a dance show and no one is there to see it (or record it), did it really exist?” (This is an extension of the existential question, if a tree drops in the forest and no one sees it, did it really fall?) This program also features the U.S. Synchronized Swim team in the coral reefs of the Virgin Islands. Check your local listings for air times in your area, or even better, check out the entire program online.

I’ve been uber impressed with the dance programming at PBS, from Morris’ Mozart Dances to Jock Soto’s documentary, Water Flowing Together. I hope such quality tv programming continues.

Dance in America: Wolf Trap’s Face of America