Monthly Archives: February 2011

Review: 2011 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3

Lorena Feijoo and Pascal Molat in Forsythe's Artifact Suite. © Erik Tomasson

Following the premiere of choreographer-in-resident Yuri Possohkov’s RAkU a few weeks of ago (did I get the capitalization right?), it was an interesting study to see the contrasting Possohkov’s Classical Symphony in San Francisco Ballet’s program 3 last Thursday evening. In contrast to the drama created in RAkU through a violent and passionate storyline (and equally enchanting music), Classical Symphony creates drama and excitement through high-flying movements at breakneck speeds. Classical Symphony made its premiere with the company in April 2010, an abstract ballet deeply rooted in classical ballet vocabulary with modern touches – shoulder shimmies, tossed limbs, and leans, giving the classical vocabulary a fresh and flirty sex appeal. Balanchine comes to mind, with the speed and precision of the steps and the musicality of the choreography following Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1. Vanessa Zahorian and Gennadi Nedvigin spun and jumped to the music with ease and style, with long poetic phrases in a duet later in the piece. Last year, upon the first viewing of the piece, a middle section of an ensemble of men leaping in time to the Gavotte stood out as a low point of the piece, and even on second viewing, this section appears musically simplistic and predictable. But Isaac Hernandez stood out in his solos with crystalline clarity in his footwork and a noble bearing. The ensemble in Classical Symphony also looked top notch, with the women dancing with elegance and clear articulation and the men dancing with bravura. In all, Classical Symphony a fresh and exciting abstract ballet that sparkles.

San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov's Classical Symphony. © Erik Tomasson

The drama took a different turn with the next piece, Tomasson’s dark Nanna’s Lied. Created in 1993 with then principal Elizabeth Loscavio in mind as the lead role, Tomasson creates a dramatic storyline of a woman’s journey from girl to womanhood in prewar Germany, backed fittingly by the cynical and taunting melodies of Kurt Weill and Friedrich Hollaender (sung live by soprano Melody Moore). The central figure is Nanna, danced with complete abandon by Sarah Van Patten, filling every moment with tension and despair after betrayal and violence. The choreography for the men was especially commanding, particularly for Garen Scribner and James Sofranko as pursuers crackling with fire and hot temper in their pursuit of Nanna. Anthony Spaulding was a handsome Johnny, embodying the cruelty and charisma of his character with cool elegance. The audience seemed a bit subdued in response, and my guess is because since it’s not an uplifting piece. The story is a familiar one told in an intriguing way, a particular departure from Tomasson’s recent offerings.

Sarah Van Patten and Anthony Spaulding in Tomasson's Nanna's Lied. © Erik Tomasson

The evening ended with William Forsythe’s fascinatingly weird Artifact Suite. It’s a difficult piece to describe – it’s pure physicality pushed to the limits, bare industrial sets propelled by the music of J.S. bach and Eva Crossman-Hecht, with a mix of innovation and a dash of Andy Kaufman-esque dark humor. Soloists Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith stretches and pulls with sharp, alien beauty and Pascal Molat and Lorena Feijoo dance with athleticism and animal grace. There are more than a few surprises which I won’t reveal here, but if you stay with the weirdness and disjointed nature of it, you’ll be rewarded by the power of a full ensemble being stretched, powerfully and magnificently.

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3 runs through March 9. Program 4 is also currently running, and continues through March 8. Click here for more info.

Review: 2011 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Possokhov's RAkU. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2 was a varied program of modern ballet repertory pieces, including a world premiere by choreographer-in-residence, Yuri Possohkov. Having the very-modern-Program 2 open in the middle of the Giselle run was an interesting study of contrasts, professing to the versatility of the company as well. I attended the Sunday matinee performance on a particularly warm 70+ degree sunny day.

San Francisco Ballet presented a world premiere by their choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possohkov with their Program 2, which began last week. Possohkov’s RAkU is a Japanese-inflected narrative inspired by the burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion in 1950, and is a theatrical spectacle that showcases the dancers at their finest.

The atmosphere is set right away with a gorgeously layered commissioned score by SF Ballet Orchestra bassist Shinji Eshima and sets including video projections by Alexander V. Nichols (with lighting by Christopher Dennis). The score contained motifs with open fourth and fifths reminiscent of traditional Japanese music, with an intelligent use of harmonics in the flute and unique percussion instruments to haunting effect.  Hands down, Eshima’s score was my favorite of commissioned scores we’ve heard at the SF Ballet in recent years due to its complexity and accomplishing more than just setting the tone of the ballet. The sets using video projections blended into the ballet and added to the atmosphere rather than setting itself apart from it.

Possohkov clearly knows what the dancers are capable of, and he puts them on a pedestal. The central figure in the narrative is principal Yuan Yuan Tan; nobody throws around her superhuman extensions to such angst as she does, and Possohkov gives her plenty of opportunity to do so. Possohkov gives his dancers a center of gravity that pulls downward, giving them a grounded nobility, particularly in the choreography for the men (the soloists and the corps of four warriors). Damian Smith is Tan’s prince to her princess, personifying strength and grandeur. Pascal Molat is the jealous monk who lusts after Tan and pursues her relentlessly, to tragic results. Every muscle in Molat’s body expresses his desire, and the momentum he creates in his phrasing is mesmerizing.

In all, the narrative is nothing really new but the ballet weaves a spell, both with its choreography and its production as a whole. It’s a risk using putting so many elements his production, from the choreography to the video projections to the use of shadows projected onto screens, but rather than detracting, all the elements work together to spectacular effect.

Isaac Hernandez in Ashton's Symphonic Variations. © Erik Tomasson

The program rounded out with Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations and Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Both neoclassical pieces are of similar flavors, but then again, on the opposites sides of the spectrum too. Ashton’s Symphonic Variations personified minimalism, using only six dancers and abstract sets with a hint of Grecian influence in the sets and costumes. Like a modern art painting, pure and abstract, precision and purity reign in clean lines flavored by restraint. Principal dancers Maria Kochetkova and Gennad Nedvigin bring a lovely softness to the clean shapes and lines in the choreography.

In comparison, Balanchine’s Symphony in C was an exuberant celebration, with larger group formations and flashy technique. In this particular cast, a number of unannounced cast changes were made, with Courtney Elizabeth and Diego Cruz being onstage despite not being named in the program. In the first movement, Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz danced with a pleasant soft attack and graciousness, and soloists Courtney Elizabeth and Jennifer Stahl dancing with spirited lines. The lyrical second movement followed, with Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada dancing with serene control, aside from a brief wobble. Newcomer corps member Nicole Ciapponi dazzled with Taras Domitro in the third movement, Ciapponi dancing with the stage presence of a seasoned veteran. Sparkling and dancing with sass, she wowed onstage and will definitely be one to watch. The fourth movement featured Clara Blanco and corps member Lonnie Weeks, with delicate and fast footwork.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Symphony In C. © Erik Tomasson

For me, the Ashton and the Balanchine piece are like Mozart piano pieces, so much harder than it looks and to make it worse, oh so transparent. Every mistake was visible, from tiny variations in spacing to wobbles, of which there were a few. But overall, Program 2 is packed with neoclassical brilliance, an arena that the SF Ballet excels, and Program 2 is a celebration of both the ballet genre and the treasures within the company.

Program 2 ends on February 11. Click here for more info. What did you think? Please go see Sofiane Sylve in Symphony in C on Friday and report back!

2011 Hot Air Music Festival at the San Francisco Conservatory

The beautiful venue at the San Francisco Conservatory. © Saturday Matinee.

On Sunday, I stopped by the student-run Hot Air Music Festival at the beautiful San Francisco Conservatory. Only in its second year, the festival featured an ambitious all-day program featuring mostly living composers (with only one piece by a deceased composer). As a newbie to modern music, I went into the festival with some trepidation. It’s difficult for someone such as myself who grew up with Bach and Beethoven; most of modern music is still alien to me. My naive impression is that it seems awfully conceptual (e.g. John Cage), with irony being a common theme. I feel like I don’t understand a lot of it, and enjoyment of it isn’t even in the picture when I listen to modern music for the most part as I’m still trying to figure it out. Despite this, I was willing to be open minded and was pleasantly surprised by the result.

I was only able to attend one hour of the event (7 – 8 PM), but it was a lively one. The audience was refreshingly casual with people moving freely in and out, and I counted about three children within view. The first piece of the hour was Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union. The piece was prefaced with an enthusiastic introduction, describing that the piece is written for any number of loud, dissonant instruments. The speaker announced that he is a guitar player but will be playing a very poorly tuned violin. For someone nervous about modern music, there really couldn’t have been a scarier introduction. The piece started with two violins, playing dissonant notes but in precise syncopated rhythms, driving and insistent. One by one, a musician walks casually onstage, picks up an instrument, and joins in. A marimba player, a vibraphone player – the sound builds, with different colors added with different instruments, maintaining the same rhythm in unison. Two more violinists join in, a cello player, an accordion player, electric bass, two trombones, and a piano player. One of the violinists switch to piano. A violinist’s shoulder rest drops to the ground, and he bends down to pick it up and continues where he left off. Was this written in the music? We’ll never know.

In all, there was an exciting anticipation for what would happen next, both in the rhythmic variations and who would walk on next, and yes, the result was fascinating. The playing was energetic and bright, and the climax was impressive, rollicking and formidable. I wondered  how this would sound on a huge orchestral group or a larger group of instruments; it must be an even more awesome sound and sight.

My date wondered if the composer was expressing his opinion of workers unions as a group of drunk people. Who knows.

The hour ended with Steve Reich’s Six Pianos. The background of a repetitive running motif highlighted slight rhythmic variations, with the sound of six pianos filling the auditorium. The piece was played with tenacity, and I spotted a few heads in the audience rockin’ out to the music.

It was a brilliant display of musicianship, especially amongst such young musicians. And, it was fun! The atmosphere was an easy one for newbies and modern music fans alike. One of the highlights for me however, was catching a few minutes of the end of the Super Bowl before the concert. It was aired in German through an internet feed on a projector in a room full of conservatory students talking about modern music. It was amusing and surreal.

Hot Air Music Festival website

Review: 2011 Mark Morris Dance Group on Tour at the Mondavi Center

Mark Morris Dance Group, courtesy of Mondavi Arts

In going to a Mark Morris performance, particularly with the Mark Morris Dance Group, there are certain things that are expected for the evening. Fortunately or not, Morris’ reputation precedes him. He’s known for his musicality, sense of humor, and ingenuity, and it’s easy to expect to see these things onstage. But still, I was eager to what new things would be revealed with two pieces that were new to me.

The two dances that started the program at the Mondavi Center, Morris’ Visitation and Empire Garden, had remarkably similar themes running throughout. These two pieces were both created in 2009 with the same premiere date, both commissioned in part by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Although they were set to two very different pieces of music (Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 for Visitation, and Charles Ives’ Trio for violin, cello, and piano S. 86 for Empire Garden), both pieces were a close study of the music they both represented.

What’s always thrilled me about Morris’ choreography is his musicality, a reflection of the dance that often showed me more of the music than I ever would have gotten on my own. Watching a Morris dance can often be a primer not for dance, but for the music. Musical motifs are gently pointed out, and phrases are shaped and emphasized in the choreography (particularly in the bass lines that I often feel more than I hear). Especially for modern music which I have a hard time listening to without feeling drowned by cacophany, Morris points out the the joy or a quirky humor to an otherwise ocean of dissonant notes.

For Visitation and Empire Garden, Morris’ study of the music was closely literal. Simple gestural motifs – a hand movement, swirling arms, a lazy roll on the floor with protruding stiff arms and legs – mirror musical motifs, and both pieces contain a running rotation of them. Both pieces contain interactions amongst the dancers that are often brief but not especially emotional, wistful at most but mostly nonchalant.

More than this however, both pieces reflect a microscopic view of the music, with every detail in the music pointed out but without a larger context. Groups of dancers move in and out, sometimes reflecting the build in the music with more people but more often than not, not. The title Visitation speaks of a larger occurrence, but an occurrence is not revealed throughout the dance. I had a harder time connecting to Empire Garden, with dancers dressed in a bright, clashing costumes that look like a mix of uniforms for Star Trek, Chinese restaurant waiters, and flight attendants (flight attendants serving Chinese food on Star Trek, perhaps?). Movements in Empire Garden are syncopated with isolated body movements to reflect the more severe nature of the music, but I couldn’t decide if I had difficulty connecting to the piece due to the music or the dance. In Visitation, there is a common thread of a soloist, Maile Okamura, flitting throughout the piece with innocence and aplomb; I found her presence unifying and comforting.

Morris’ musicality has hardly ever been a criticism in my book, and despite all this, revelations abound. In Visitation, the choreography highlights an aching hesitancy in Beethoven’s music. There is a hand movement phrase mirrored by two people that encapsulates wonder and surprise, and the result is heart catching. It also helps immensely that the music is performed by a wonderful music ensemble, musicians Wolfram Koessel, Colin Fowler, and Jesse Mills, who jump across musical genres with agility and bright colors. I found that in these two dances, Morris reveals a more intimate and a more spare style in his choreography.

The evening ended with Grand Duo, a Mark Morris piece choreographed in 1993, which I absolutely loved. Set to music of Lou Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, the dancing is freer, with larger groups and an unabashed lack of self-consciousness. Perhaps not as musically detailed, but it contained a broader scope of the music. In “A Round”, a gentle, walking pace of the music is highlighted by a group of dancers moving from one pose to the next with their feet barely moving from being planted in one place. Each movement is a natural progression to the next, and the organic nature of the choreography is mesmerizing and so subtle. The piece ends with a raucous “Polka”, a communal dance reflecting a peasant dance of sorts, with dancers in a circle stomping to the music and throwing their hands up in the air, every second packed with something different to see. The result is a delightful romp, masterfully constructed and an absolute joy.

And thus, my love affair with Mark Morris continues. It’ll be interesting to see how his choreography changes in the future.

Mondavi Arts

On a side/personal note, this evening at the Mark Morris Dance Group solved a decade old mystery for me. My first encounter with Mark Morris’ choreography was in dance history class that I took as an undergrad. Our small class  of 15-20 students had already split into two factions, a ballet faction and a modern dance faction, and we’d already had many arguments about the modern dance faction accusing the ballet lovers of misogyny, and the ballet lovers turning up our noses at the modern dance people in general, etc. (my memory’s getting a little vague). It was the Cold War of dance history class.

In one particular class during the later years of dance history, my professor was showing us grainy VHS archival footage of a Morris dance piece, and talking about Morris’ talent at depicting group pieces, such as communal peasant dances. I had never heard of Morris before, and this was my first encounter with him. I was immediately taken by the visceral nature of the dancing and the joy of it. For years, I’d wondered about that piece and I never found out the title of the piece, and once when I recently had the pleasure of meeting a Mark Morris dancer, was tempted to dance it for him (but thankfully I chickened out, knowing that it would be completely inappropriate.) And I was thrilled when I finally learned that this piece was the “Polka” in Grand Duo. That evening at the Mondavi Center, my love affair with Mark Morris had come full circle, with two of his newest pieces and my first encounter with him back in the 90′s.