Author Archives: jolene

Lion King on Ice

This was my theater tonight! I went to check out a new ice rink tonight so I could get back into skating again after a year hiatus, except the lady on the phone forgot to tell me it was their RECITAL NIGHT. It reminded me of my ballet recital days – surrounded by parents in ski jackets, the recital was inspired by the Lion King (as from the background yellow sign), there were lots of little girls in various costumes skating in a line or a circle to “Hakuna Matata”. Very cute!! Check out their colorful rental skates.

Volti: Challenging Tradition

Man, choral music has come a long way since church-y hymns and requiems. I attended a concert this weekend with the Bay Area choral group, Volti, at the kind invite of Sid, the blogger of The Standing Room. I was immediately impressed with the premise of the group, which is dedicated to working closely with living composers and encourages risk and innovation. While I’m not always the biggest fan of modern music, I was entranced by this group that seeks to redefine music and challenge tradition, in addition to placing a premium on musicality.

Under the direction of Robert Geary, Volti is a group made up of about 20 supremely talented singers, with the agility and precision of a small group and the power of a much larger one. Almost nothing is acceptedly traditional, from its diverse musical repertoire to its placement (e.g. standing around the church around the audience singing in true surround sound, or the addition of a drunken walk into its choreography).

This program introduced a world premiere of a piece commissioned by Volti from a young composer, Eric Lam, with the riskiest piece, Words Become Unlatched. With stark piercing free form poetry written by writer Benjamin Rogers, spoken word was superimposed with singing in a Cunningham-esque manner, with the spoken words and the singing not necessarily relating. The effect was a little like listening to a speaker in a noisy room, where the audience could spend effort in discerning the words, or sit back and let it all wash over you in its cacophanous intricacy. Much thought was put into this composition as betrayed by its detailed program notes, yet most of its specific meaning was lost aside from a vague feeling of cerebral analytical organization amongst its complexity. A truly valiant effort in its innovation, especially impressive from such a young composer.

A mesmerizing plot-driven Eric Moe’s O the Flesh is Hot But the Heart is Cold (2005, commissioned by Volti) followed. There’s something enchanting about fairytales, where even adults can get lost in its sweeping metaphors and a belief that hope and love always prevails in the presence of oppression. Based on Matthea Harvey’s prose-poem “Baked Alaska, a Theory Of“, the story told through song of a group of imprisoned princesses being forced to listen to a demeaning country song on repeat (a jolly rollicking song with mocking stinging words) and being fed the same thing every single day. In order to feel something amidst the repetition, the princesses sneak away into the freezer to feel the blood drain from their limbs and to feel their heart pump, to feel love. Complexly layered with beautiful descriptive imagery (“the frost on the floor creep up the heels of their shoes”), a plotline, and music imitating the words with a powerful soaring conclusion, the overall effect was cohesively breathtaking. Cruelty only accentuates the poignancy of love, and our insane efforts to find it ultimately betrays our belief that love is always to be found.

The program opened with Steven Stucky’s Cradle Songs (1997) with its soothing gentle dissonance, and a solo sung by the smoky voiced Pamela Jane Igelsrud, which lent a lovely tinge of darkness to the sweet Polish Christmas Lullaby. William Hawley’s Two Motets (1981) was arranged with the singers placed around the room, where the audience was enveloped in more familiar but no less haunting harmonies. With nowhere for the eye to look, many audience members closed their eyes to savor the experience. The nature-inspired Ronald Caltabiano’s Metaphor (1994) where sounds were used to imitate natural creatures and using it as metaphors to humanity, and the exultant Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Effortlessly Love Flows” and “I Cannot Dance, O Lord”, completed the program.

How daring of Volti to even suggest that choral music can incorporate free form poetry, a mini-fairytale song movie, phrases like “dry ice sizzles didactically” sung to music, and purposes of choral music other than church music or drinking songs (I’m thinking of the rousing “Vive la compagnie”, a song that sticks out in my mind at the last choral concert I attended over 10 years ago when I snuck out with other members of the California all-state band during rehearsal breaks to listen to the all-state choir. Or how about “Funniculi Funnicula”, anyone?). Watching this group, you get the tingling feeling that you are witnessing something completely new, made thrilling by the fact that this group is equally committed to its musicality and to supporting new talent.

Volti: Singing Without a Net

SR, SRO, and $1200+

The Opportunities and Frustrations of a Theater Loving Student

While reading through the Cal Performances’ new 2008-2009 season, I ran across this notice for buying tickets to Yo Yo Ma’s concert:

Available only to $1,200+ Donors and above; see our Support Cal Performances section for full listing of donor benefits and to become a Producers Circle donor today.

Now Ma is an amazingly lyrical player, and he is playing the Bach suites – but this sort of blatant soliciting by opening up this concert only to $1200+ donors is sobering. I saw Ma play in Shanghai a few years ago, and I would actually rather fly to China and see him for the same amount of money than supporting this bold move. It’s not surprising that people call theater elitist and find it uninviting.

Note that even if you donate $1200, it’s an additional $150-250 to see the Yo Yo Ma concert.

Ticket pricing is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart, because it directly affects my ability to see shows. For a person who’s willing to devote time, gas, and effort to see as much theater as I can, ticket prices are the only obstacle to enjoying my favorite and notoriously expensive hobby.

I realize that it takes a lot of money to put on the quality theater that I enjoy. The San Francisco Ballet has reportedly poured in $3 million into the New Works Festival, with Silicon Valley royalty like Yahoo’s founder Jerry Yang sponsoring Elo’s piece, Double Evil. With this, I am eternally grateful to the many institutions in the Bay area that remember the peons the students and offer great discount ticketing options. My favorite is San Francisco Ballet, where you can buy tickets over the phone for same day discounts. It’s such a luxury, and one that I utilize often. (One small complaint: this luxury was yanked for certain days over the New Works Festival which prevented me from watching Program A twice – check out sfmike’s take on what he calls the “only serious misstep” over this decision.) San Francisco Symphony also offers Center Terrace seats (located behind the stage, great for a piano concerto but not so great for something like a violin solo where the soloist faces the front) and rush tickets for certain performances based on availability. Berkeley Repertory Theatre has the most aggressive program aimed at attracting younger audiences, with a great “Under 30″ program with half priced tickets and access to their great Under 30 parties. All these programs are great for reeling in new audiences otherwise intimidated of going to see theater, and hopefully keeping these audiences as salaries expand with age. These programs have allowed me to experience and to keep my theater hobby alive, and whereve I end up, I will be a season subscriber to as many of these venues (or similar ones) as possible.

Cal Performances doesn’t have a consistent general student rush policy except for Berkeley students, which I am not, and rare occasions when most of the theater is empty, which coincidentally don’t occur in the shows that I usually want to see.

It’s also impossible to completely boycott its ticket policies when Cal Performances is bringing Mark Morris’ new Romeo and Juliet and his L’Allegro this year, in addition to the Kirov Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, and Alvin Ailey. It just means I have to limit my support and keep away from the programs that I could live without seeing. It also means no running to the Berkeley campus for last minute viewings when an evening opens up.

(On a side tangent: more information on Morris’ new Romeo and Juliet production. Not only am I looking forward to Morris’ ingenuity in seeing what he’ll do to the sweeping Prokofiev score, but this show will be a premiere in itself using the original music that Prokofiev was forced to rewrite in order to accomodate the strict Stalinist regime. Check out the new website for Morris’ Romeo and Juliet, www.lovelives.net .)

I wrote briefly about this topic before, citing a NY Times article that when NYCB changed its cheapest tickets from $30 to $15, sales tripled. Sometimes I wonder why I couldn’t have cheaper hobbies than theater, like movies or hiking. But thanks to the great student programs out there, it’s really allowed me to see as much as I can without too being too much in debt. I can only hope that these student policies don’t change.

From the NY Times article, If You Discount It, Will They Come?

Updated: Are you a student at UCSF or the SF Conservatory? Check out the SF Performances Culture Card, where you can see over 20 shows for $25. It’s got to be one of the best deals that I’ve ever heard of.

Program C: San Francisco Ballet’s New Works Festival

Sarah Van Patten and Rory Hohenstein in Elo’s Double Evil

Program C rounded out the last of the new works for the festival. Equally diverse the rest of the new works, in my mind it stood out as the riskiest set of pieces. Margaret Jenkins’ Thread is being labeled as the riskiest piece in the entire New Works Festival, and I have to agree. It starts out with stirring anticipation, with a transparent screen with a maze and a video projection of a woman’s face and poetry being spoken over the music, commissioned for this piece and written by Paul Dresher. However, the anticipation fizzles out in a flurry of athletic physicality and drama, where the plotline gets lost in the action. It speaks vaguely of its inspiration, the myth of Aradiane and the labyrinth at Knossos, utilizing an athletic modern dance vocabulary to tell its tale. Damian Smith and Pauli Magierek danced the leads, with a Greek chorus-like ensemble that would often mirror and react to the soloists and their movements. There is a sense of seeking, as the dancers pointed – perhaps they were searching for a plot?? As always, the dancers were wholeheartedly committed to the movement, with a natural inhabitation of the movement in their bodies. The women stood out to me, in their gut-wrenching sweeping passion, where in ensemble dancing, looked like an alive moving organism, breathing as one.

Pauli Magierek in Jenkins’ Thread.

The second piece was Val Caniparoli’s vividly haunting Ibsen’s House, based on the writings of Henrik Ibsen who wrote about challenging feminist roles in Victorian society. This unique subject matter made for a series of fascinating sketches of couples with different stories – real life husband and wife Tiit Helimets and Molly Smolen danced the couple in an abusive relationship, where Helimets partners her threateningly by gripping her upper arms, where the wife tries to maintain a calm exterior by smoothing out her dress and her hair. Dana Genshaft and Garen Scribner portrayed more of an equal partnership, with Scribner showing a moving vulnerability as he grasps Genshaft’s waist as she’s moving away, yet there’s still a sense of the inability to connect as they struggle through awkward partnering moves with as much grace as possible. Scribner and Genshaft danced with a tender tortured transparency, speaking volumes about strife in Genshaft’s arching back and Scribner’s fervent reach. Lorena Feijoo and David Arce danced with fiery abandon, with Feijoo covering her mouth as if to stop herself from speaking her mind. The other couples – Courtney Elizabeth and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, and Nicole Grand and Anthony Spaulding – were less clear in their specific situations, but no less entrancing as they represented different aspects of diverse relationships. The best thing about this piece was that this is the sort of movement that showcases the San Francisco Ballet company at their best, where you get the sense that the dancers felt completely at ease in this choreography, following through every moment to its fullest.

Tiit Helimets and Molly Smolen in Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House

Dana Genshaft in Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House

The evening ended with a bang with the much anticipated and the clear audience favorite, Jorma Elo’s Double Evil. With intrigue around every corner, this piece was all about two extremes. The movement merged lush classical ballet segments with hyperkinetic robotic angular jerking movements, and the music switched from the urgent Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra to the minimalist Vladimir Marynov’s Come In!, and the lighting switched from darkly mysterious to a cheery bright white. This use of polar extremes juxtaposed sharply against one another just felt too big of a jarring disconnect in the big picture. In my first viewing of the piece, it left me with a feeling of confusion without quite being able to put my finger on why I felt this way in an otherwise action-packed yet fractured piece. Also, Elo’s movement vocabulary is in itself innovative, but it’s also limited, not only within this piece but also resorting to reusing a memorable motif from a previous piece that I saw, in ABT’s “Close to Chuck” – a move where a female dancer reacts as a ricocheting pinball in response to her partner. In addition, this was the first piece that failed to showcase the company at its best, with lack of group unison and even timing being off by a full beat around every corner in this extremely difficult choreography. This clashed with the showy circus-like nature of the piece, which should have been more of a thrilling showcase instead of a flurry of arms perhaps in response to a suppressed fear of being left behind the music. This is not to say that it was all puzzling and conflicted; there is a pleasing arc to the movements that gets repeated, and the precarious lightning fast action in response to the insistence of the timpani adds to the overall excitement. There are some genuine moments as well, which includes my favorite moment in the piece which is the pose shown above, with Rory Hohenstein supporting Sarah Van Patten from the floor; there is an air of dangerously thrilling riskiness in this careful pose, with a moment of connection as Hohenstein looks up at her. It felt like everything paused in that moment, like an oasis in the middle of a desert storm. Standouts were Rory Hohenstein with his unbridled articulation, Jamie Garcia Castilla in his luxurious extensions, Lily Rogers with her noble lean lines and an increasingly growing confidence, and Maria Kochetkova with her weightless agility bringing a freshly modern sharpness to the choreography. Pascal Molat soared effortlessly, and Nicolas Blanc brought applause with his lively turns.

Sarah Van Patten and Rory Hohenstein in Elo’s Double Evil

Pascal Molat in Elo’s Double Evil

Program C was a risky program, yet thrillingly so. Risk in itself is always admirable, which was a hallmark quality of the entire New Works Festival.

Other notes – why are so many dancers leaving?? Superstar and company darling Rory Hohenstein danced his last performance this past week, with no less than four dancers dancing their last dance on the last day of the season. Principal Molly Smolen has been with the company since 2006, yet the first time I ever saw her dance was in Ibsen’s House. She danced with a multilayered complexity and emotional depth; it would have been great to see her dance more roles. Garrett Anderson, Courtney Wright, and Steven Norman also danced their last. They will all be missed!

The amazing 75th anniversary season is over. What better way to close out the season with the New Works Festival. Innovation is deep in the heart of the company, and it was a privilege to experience it and to get a glimpse into the future of ballet and the San Francisco Ballet company.

Other takes on Program C:

San Francisco Ballet Program C: click for a video preview

All photos © ErikTomasson

2008-2009 Season for San Francisco Ballet

Ratmansky, Balanchine, and Morris, oh my!

Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin in Balanchine’s Diamonds. © Erik Tomasson

Is it possible to be any more excited than this past groundbreaking 75th anniversary season for the San Francisco Ballet? Apparently so – I’m almost more excited for next year than for this year’s amazing programming! Although the new production of Swan Lake, complete with video and multimedia effects, is being touted as the crown jewel for next year, I’m thrilled to see a great sampling of Balanchine’s greatest works, including what I was holding my breath for, the full length production of Jewels; the last act, “Diamonds”, pictured above, was presented as a part of Program 1 this past year. Other Balanchine works I’m really excited about is The Four Temperaments and Stravinsky Violin Concerto.

Also, they are presenting a full evening of my favorite modern choreographer, Mark Morris, presenting his baroque The Garden to the music of Richard Strauss, his recently made Joyride, and his brilliantly humorous Sandpaper Ballet, which I’ve been itching to see again. Six out of the 10 new works that were presented in the New Works Festival, a new commission by resident choreographer Yuri Possohkov, and Alexei Ratmansky’s much touted Russian Seasons round out an ideal programming for the 76th season for the San Francisco Ballet.

Taken from the SF Chronicle:

Program 1: World premiere by Yuri Possohkov, George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” and Helgi Tomasson’s “Prism.”

Program 2: Stanton Welch’s “Naked,” Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House” and William Forsythe’s “in the middle, somewhat elevated.”

Program 3: All-new production of “Swan Lake” by Tomasson, after Petipa, with costumes and scenery by Jonathan Fensom.

Program 4: Company premiere of Antony Tudor’s “Jardin aux Lilas,” an encore presentation of Tomasson’s “On a Theme of Paganini” and Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert.”

Program 5 (All Morris program): Mark Morris’ “A Garden,” “Joyride” and “Sandpaper Ballet.”

Program 6: Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour,” Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite” and Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.”

Program 7: Balanchine’s evening-length “Jewels.”

Program 8: Alexei Ratmansky’s “Russian Seasons,” Possokhov’s “Fusion” and Jorma Elo’s “Double Evil.”

It’s really going to be a great season!! It takes the edge off of the sadness that this season is ending tomorrow. :)

San Francisco Ballet

UPDATED: The official press release from the SF Ballet

Program B: A Second Look

San Francisco Ballet The New Works Festival: Program B

Frances Chung and Brett Bauer in Welch’s Naked. © ErikTomasson

I always learn a lot more when I watch something for the second time. This is especially true for hyped up events, or events with either no expectations or no knowledge, or events in which I have too much knowledge. The second time, I almost feel like since I know what’s coming, I can really enjoy it. It’s bad for my wallet since I have to see things multiple times, but I also get the additional pleasure of viewing different casts and their interpretations of the same roles. Welch’s Naked was not received well critically; on second viewing however, I still thoroughly enjoyed its sparkling musicality. Perhaps there is a little excess repetition in the end of the first central pas de deux with Katita Waldo and Tiit Helimets but it was hardly recognizable in my mind. The brilliant Poulenc’s piano concerto definitely propels this piece along. Vanessa Zahorian danced the lead female role, with such solid technique that often she was ahead of the beat; she is definitely more assured in her technique than in her ease in the beautiful music. Her feisty attitude was fun to watch. Clara Blanco held her own with her elegant upper body, with Frances Chung dancing surely with warmth.

Julia Adam’s A rose by any other name really separated the dancers into two groups – dancers who were comfortable dancing in this restrictive style, and those who weren’t. For the most part, the second cast wasn’t as comfortable and portrayed the striving behind actively restricting their normal comfort zones. The movements express more when danced with a deadpan irony where the movements speak for themselves, rather than when danced with obvious emotion. The exception in the second cast was Tina LeBlanc, as Princess Aurora, who was charmingly spry.

The key to Morris’ Joyride is knowing how to listen to the music. I should have known this, knowing Morris, but the first time around, I got lost in John Adam’s cacophanous pit of chaos. It’s a matter of personal taste and familiarity that I happen to prefer Beethoven symphonies to John Adams. Despite this, the stars seem to line up at every moment where I “get” it, and understand that he’s using the dancers’ movement to keep the beat here, and he’s using different dancers to follow different instrumental lines there. It speaks volumes of Morris’ ingenuity; the music near the end of the piece sounds like different instrumental melody lines are in completely independent time meters, and the dancing vividly reflects that, with different dancers following each instrumental line. Nicolas Blanc danced wholeheartedly in his solo, garnering well deserved applause midway for his energetic performance.

The biggest difference in the second viewing is the toll of the festival is beginning to show onstage. Maybe it’s because the initial excitement of the festival is over, but the raggedness of fatigue were beginning to show, with a slip here, a few nail-bitingly precarious and shaky lifts there, a missed developpe or a turn here, and a “tree” missing its branches on the hand of a dancer in the Adam piece. The mad, flailing arms in the men in Kudelka’s The Ruins Proclaim the Building was Beautiful weren’t nearly so desperate, and the hyperkinetic adrenaline of the wild Joyride was a tad muffled, which took away from the complete picture onstage. It struck me at how difficult the choreography is, and it must be a huge physical and mental challenge to take on 10 new works all at one time. There are also signs of injuries, as an announcement that Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba replaced Katita Waldo and David Arce in Kudelka’s piece was made before the show. The SF Ballet has a monster weekend this weekend (four shows on Saturday and Sunday) but the season ends on Tuesday. Despite this, the company still brought its magic onstage and I left satisfied, happy to have gotten to see this program again.

Sadly, it’s the final home stretch! It’s been a great season, and what a fitting way to end the 75th anniversary season with a bang.

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 -