Category Archives: dance

Review: 2013 Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Mondavi Center

Alicia Graf Mack of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. © Andrew Eccles

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater cranked up the temperature on the Mondavi Center stage this past week with a smashing program of their usual American hits as well as exploration into new worlds, for this company at least. The highlight of the program for me was Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort, a choreographic gem I’ve had the pleasure of seeing before on other companies. With spare costumes that highlight the physicality of bare bodies and quirky use of props, it was a perfect vehicle to highlight the athleticism of their dancers as well as their silky sensuality. Set to silence as well as the steely clarity of Mozart’s piano concerto, tension constantly simmers underneath in a riveting display. On a minor note, a few fumbles and the slightest hint of caution suggested that perhaps this realm of neo-modernism isn’t a comfortable fit for this company yet. The company emphasized the softness of rippling arms rather than the laser-sharp intensity of pinpoint urgency in the choreography. The halts and pauses in the choreography and music weren’t necessarily as heart-stopping as it could have been. Still, the effect was mesmerizing and it will be interesting to see how this piece grows on this company as it will become more instinctual with time.

Alvin Ailey’s Night Creature was a more natural fit for the company, and it’s like watching them do what they do best. Set to the music of Duke Ellington, the dancers become communal

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animals that play in the night. Led by the magnificent Alicia Graf Mack, she makes you believe in her sensual, swiveling hips and incredible extensions at her glorious height of 5′ 8″. She personifies elegance and a technical finesse and stage presence that makes her a standout. She makes you wonder why there aren’t more tall dancers onstage. She is partnered by the amazing Vernard Gilmore who gives Mack a run for her money with his elegant port de bras and power. It’s a fun piece, with a myriad of influences from classical ballet to jazz, a nice representation of this company as the quintessential American dance company.

Strange Humors is a piece by Alvin Ailey’s artistic director Robert Battle, highlighting a duet of two men with bare chests and bright orange pants (costumes by Missoni). Dramatic, powerful, and athletic, this piece highlights the strength of its dancers, Jermaine Terry and Yannick Lebrun. The statement this piece is making is unclear however, but it was a visually pleasing presentation that is too brief.

And of course, the program ends with Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, a piece that the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company performs at every performance. It’s a wonder and a blessing that they perform it with gusto and spirit, and you could never tell they perform it so often. The liveliness is genuine, and the spirituals that accompanies the piece is rousing. Deeply spiritual but also fun and uplifting, the words of the songs speak of so much more than what is seen onstage. The company looked amazing on tour, particularly the men with their refined and fierce arms – is there something in the lighting the emphasizes their musculature in such a flattering light?? – and long, tapered legs that extend to the skies with such distinction and nobility. It was an amazing

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evening of American dance, and rocka my soul indeed.


http://vimeo.com/54314491

Mondavi Center

Coming up this week…

Maria Kochetkova in Balanchine's Coppélia. © Erik Tomasson

I’m leaving on a road trip, long enough to miss the entire run of Program 5 at San Francisco Ballet, the full-length production of Balanchine’s Coppelia! Please report back and tell me what you thought in the comments below – it should be a fantastic production. I will be seeing the SF Giants’ spring training games instead – so excited!

Other things on my radar: it’s a slightly random list, but somehow these events found their way into my consciousness:

  • San Francisco Symphony will be performing Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Mozart’s Violin Concerto #4 with Arabella Steinbacher from March 24-26. Click here for more info.
  • For the new music fans: Symphony Parnassus will be performing a world premiere with young composer Stefan Cwik, a “Piano Concerto” with San Francisco Conservatory of Music professor Scott Foglesong as soloist. Their concert also includes Astor Piazzolla’s “Suite Punta del Este” for Bandoneon and Orchestra and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Cool program, no? This orchestra is conducted by principal bassoon player for the SF Symphony, Stephen Paulson. This concert will take place on Sunday, March 27th, 2011 at 3pm at the Concert Hall at the San Francisco Conservatory. Click here for more information.
  • Sacramento Ballet presents a program titled “Icons and Innovators” including Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, Lila York’s Celts, and Ron Cunningham’s Bolero. The program runs from March 24-27. Click here for more information.

What’s on your radar? Did you see any of the events listed above, and what did you think?

Have a great week, everyone!

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

Mark Morris Dance Group, courtesy of Mondavi Arts http://www.mondaviarts.org

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.

Mrs. Stahlbaum in Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut

From the NY Times in an article about Mother Gingers and Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut, specifically about the Waltz of the Flowers presided by Mrs. Stahlbaum:

“Mrs. Stahlbaum, the heroine’s mother… is played by a man (John Heginbotham), and the dance she presides over — a fertility ritual she seems not to want to understand — is the Waltz of the Flowers. Vain, feckless, affected, vulgar, silly but tender-hearted, she’s the American dance equivalent of one of the great comic mothers of fiction: Mrs. Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice.””

You know, I don’t agree with this at all – I feel like this scene in Mark Morris’ Hard Nut is an exploration into Mrs. Stahlbaum’s heart. I see a woman of many secrets, embodying unfulfilled desire, anger, but ultimately, a calm and a peace of acceptance. Through most of the waltz, she seems wrapped up in her own world with swiveling shoulders, participating in the music but not in the dance with the flowers around her. Sometimes she finishes the phrases the flowers starts, and seems to conduct the dance in other moments. She is cognizant of the world around her, but has chosen to find peace in herself. And what better gift of womanhood can a mother share with her daughter?

Maybe my interpretation isn’t too far off from what the article was saying.

Everyone loves the snow scene in The Hard Nut, but from my very first viewing, the waltz of the flowers was my favorite. The complexity, the darker colors, and the eye opening moments in the music are all wonderful. I love that Mrs. Stahlbaum, in the middle of the waltz, starts pulling imaginary pizzicatos in the air, mirroring the still but sure pizzicato bass line in the strings. It’s a dream of a dance and music lover like myself, when both fields merge into one, and it’s so fun to watch.

For those of who have stumbled onto this blog looking for information on The Hard Nut, all I can see is, GO SEE IT. I’ve never seen kids so riveted in a Nutcracker performance, and it’ll entertain everyone from the dance newbie to the longtime dance obsessive. It’s funny, touching, and remarkably complex. Click here for my sister’s review in 2007 when they were in Berkeley.

This year it’s only playing in Brooklyn through December 19. Click here for more information.

Review: Paul Taylor Dance Company on tour

Are modern dancers getting better and better, or is it just the Paul Taylor Dance Company?

Five years ago, I fell for Paul Taylor’s choreography and his ability to use gestures in powerful ways. This time, it’s the dancing that caught my eye. The standards of modern dance appear to be changing to higher standards, as compared to being the “anti-ballet” as it has been seen historically. Bodies have become leaner – this has been attributed to the changes in training, and maybe due to the high crossover rate of dancers between modern dance and ballet. Details are crisper, the angles are sharper, and the movement is quicker, an explosive vehicle for conveying the emotions in Paul Taylor’s stories.

All of these qualities are seen in no one better than Paul Taylor dancer Michael Trusnovec. As the “A Man of the Cloth” in Taylor’s Speaking in Tongue, Trusnovec portrays the charismatic leader of a violent and hypocritical cult. In choreography that suggests arrogance and sarcasm, Trusnovec digs deep into a biting portrayal, and you understand the leader’s charisma. There is a guarded welcome to his parishioners in his arms beckoning wide, and strict violence in short, stuttering movements. Trusnovec was a bright light in a piece that that didn’t really say anything new about cults – it was a cult with a happy exterior, a hypocritical interior, and exclusivity of people not dressed in the same colors as the “in-crowd”, punctuated by shocking sexual violence.

The evening took a lighter turn with the second piece, Taylor’s Also Playing. A tribute to vaudeville, the stage opens on another stage in a series of short dance sketches with intruding stagehands, falling costumes, and general hilarity of the workings of a live performance. More than mere comedy, this piece conjured up a nostalgia for simpler times, when things weren’t so polished and there was an added element of excitement in the underrehearsed moment. Taylor ends the piece with a stagehand (danced longingly by Robert Kleinendorst) taking a turn on the stage after the performers have left, in a soaring monologue of a peek at a man’s dream beyond the normal humdrum life. This is what I love about Paul Taylor – his messages almost always contain a message of humanity that’s relateable even if it’s not so tangible.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company

Mondavi Arts

Review: Smuin Ballet’s 2010-11 Fall/Winter Program

Smuin dancers Erin Yarbrough Stewart and Matthew Linzer in Trey McIntyre's world premiere, "Oh, Inverted World" at the Palace of Fine Arts. Photo credit: David Allen

These days, there are a lot of new choreographers, and there are a lot of new pieces being made. Very few however, linger. Trey McIntyre’s Oh, Inverted World is one that lingers.

On first look, it doesn’t seem very outlandish or flashy. Dancers are dressed in 70′s gym clothes, in flat shoes, engaged in athletic choreography. Set to the music of The Shins, the choreography reflects the sadness in the music’s energetic beats. Using deconstructed movements, and a lot of it, the action-packed choreography speaks of something familiar, with phrasing that breathes. In a duet with Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Matthew Linzer, the physical sparring is immediately interrupted by a surprising intimate moment in stillness – standing behind Yarbrough-Stewart, Linzer places his cheek on hers. Her arms flutter up in surprise, as the music marches on. The quiet moment is sudden, awkward, surprising, and heart catching. The final monologue danced by Smuin newcomer Travis Walker is a powerful tour de force. Caught in a world that’s confusing, frightening, heartbreaking, and beautiful, Walker danced with arresting surrender and abandon. Nothing about this piece seems new or groundbreaking – reminiscent, almost – but it quietly hits at the heart.

Smuin dancer Travis Walker in Trey McIntyre's world premiere, "Oh, Inverted World," at the Palace of Fine Arts. Photo credit: David Allen

Two Michael Smuin pieces rounded out the program. The Smuin dancers’ added a touch of elegance to the evening with the neoclassical Brahms-Haydn Variations. Smuin Ballet’s strength isn’t in the realm of classical ballet, but it was still a classy display. One of the limitations of using taped music is that it can be relentless in terms of tempo especially during the fast sections. But dancer Jessica Touchet kept up with a touch of flair in her solo. The evening ended with Smuin’s Bluegrass/Slyde. Thankfully, not a cowboy hat was in sight. Smuin captures the emotion in each song by Edgar Meyer and Bela Fleck. The bright red industrial sets were a little too incongruent with the music, reminding me of the 80′s. Three spinning poles are used deftly by the dancers to represent the lazy drawl in the music. Smuin creates interesting patterns between groups of people reflecting different countermelodies in the music. Ryan Camou was an audience favorite, a shot of energy amidst the sea of sass and attitude.

The company in Smuin Ballet's BLUEGRASS/SLYDE by Michael Smuin. Photo credit: Tom Hauck

The Smuin Ballet’s Fall/Winter Program ends today at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. The program will repeat in Mountain View, Walnut Creek, and Carmel in February 2011. Click here for more information.

Other reviews:

Smuin Ballet kicks off their 2010-11 season with a world premiere by Trey McIntyre

Acclaimed choreographer Trey McIntyre (back center) sets his world premiere Oh, Inverted World on Smuin Ballet dancers (l-r front) Ben Behrends, Erin Yarbrough-Stewart, and Matt Linzer opening at the Palace of Fine Arts October 1-9.

Smuin Ballet continues its trend of bringing exciting choreographers to the Bay Area by kicking off  its 2010-11 season with “Oh, Inverted World”, a world premiere by choreographer Trey McIntyre. Set to the music of the Shins, this piece joins two of Michael Smuin’s pieces, “Brahms-Haydn Variations”, and “Bluegrass/Slyde” in their fall season which begins on October 1. Word is that Trey McIntyre turned down an opportunity to choreograph with NYCB so that he could present this piece.

To read more about Trey McIntyre and the decision to base the dance company’s home base in Boise, Idaho, click here.

For information on tickets, click here.

Dance Your PhD 2010


The Quantum Ruler – Dance your Ph.D. 2010 from Krister Shalm on Vimeo.

The competition is back on, folks! For all you scientists who work all day and night in windowless labs in fluorescent lighting (or is that just me?) and have always longed to express yourself through dance!, here’s your chance. The Dance Your PhD competition is on again for current and past PhD candidates, and the deadline for submitting your video is on September 1, 2010. The prizes are cash this year, and a chance to see your video at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City in October. (Personally, last year’s prize of seeing professional choreographers reinterpret your PhD into a more official dance sounded cooler, but I’m most likely in the minority.) An even cooler prize would be a guarantee from Science to print a first author paper from your PhD, but no such guarantees are included. :)

Is it also an unexpected perk for non-scientists to be able to read about the science that is being done behind closed doors?

For more details, click here. If anyone submits one, please let me know!! Also included this year are comments from last year’s videos, which are helpful. I wonder what they said about mine, the exploring, dancing, slightly promiscuous young neuron??

Napa Valley’s Festival del Sole

Summer is a downtime for the arts as many organizations closes its doors for the summer, but there’s still a lot to see, especially in the form of festivals which appear to be everywhere in the Bay Area.

The 5th annual Festival del Sole begins today in Napa Valley. In the beautiful locale, a festival of fine arts, fine foods, wine, and wellness includes, for the

first time, an evening of international dance, featuring stars from the American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet. Titled, “Stars of American and Russian Ballet”, this is like the all-star exhibition game in baseball that I was forced to watch the other night. Representative dancers from top international ballet companies come together in an exciting program of classical and modern ballet, Â including some of my favorite ballets and some I’ve always wanted to see.

Principals from American Ballet Theatre Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky will be dancing Balanchine’s Apollo pas de deux, Jessica Lang’s Splendid Isolation III, and Anatoliy Beliy’s Carmen Suite. New York City Ballet principals Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette will perform an excerpt from Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes and Jerome Robbins’ Andantino. Bolshoi principals Marianna Ryzhkina and Dmitri Gudanov will perform exceprts from Raymonda and Leonid Lavrovsky’s Paganini. San Francisco Ballet principals Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz will perform excerpts from Forsythe’s in the middle, somewhat elevated and Don Quixote.

The gala will be on Friday, July 23, 2010, 6:30pm, at the Lincoln Theater Napa Valley in Yountville.For more information on this concert as well as the full calendar of the Festival del Sole, click here. Other performers participating in the Festival del Sole include Joshua Bell, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Chris Botti, Conrad Tao, and the Bay Area choir Volti.

So You Think You Can Dance – the 7th season

My review after watching about 5 minutes of it

WHY are the judges crying??

Seriously, I tried to give this show “So You Think You Can Dance” another chance, especially when I heard that Alex Wong was back on the show. Don’t get me wrong – there is a lot of absolutely jaw-dropping amazing dancing on the show. But certain things I can’t stand – for instance, the judging has been like listening to nails on a chalkboard. A ballroom dance expert judging hip hop is not an expert opinion, no more than mine is. And it really pushed me over the top when Nigel Lythgoe, one of the judges, said, ”You don’t just need a formal training. It’s because you have a great feel for dance.” And one of the judges lost my respect in his bone-headed arrogance in the documentary of A Chorus Line, Every Little Step, made even sweeter by the fact that he didn’t get the role despite his confidence in that he can do anything.

And crying has become so ubiquitous on reality TV, it’s not shocking or heart-tugging anymore. People cry when they win and move onto the next round, and they cry when they don’t. And now, the judges cry. A lot.

Is it weird that a lot of the dancers are already professionals? I’ve even blogged about two of them, who were in professional companies. Is the point not about getting a job or guiding professional dancers, but widespread promotion and branding yourself?

It feels like a TV show can start off well, and it gets worse, season after season. It’s like the show becomes a caricature of itself, being more and more outrageous. Maybe this show doesn’t even know its point anymore. They’re not trying to find the diamond in the rough, or promote the amazing dance that comes with years of training.

Or maybe the thing that bugs me the most is that this show doesn’t project an image of the world that I know and love.  They promote the breathtaking beauty of dance, but now it’s looking more like a sport or a string of tricks. That is fine in itself – fouettes, sky high split jumps, and a dancing body is a wonderful thing to behold. But that enough isn’t enough to engage my attention and my heart and my brain – not for long, anyways. The dance that I see on TV has ceased to be about subtlety, or complexity. Or perhaps my hopes for TV are just too high.

I’m just going to hope now that someone posts Alex Wong’s solos somewhere on the internet. Would that person mind just muting the judges’ words for me?

Well, if anything, this show got me to blog again. I’m currently buried up to my neck in writing my PhD dissertation, and blogging after writing 70 pages of neuroscience jargon has been a bit much. I did recently enjoy a fun show of A Chorus Line on tour. The dancing was superb, and it was nice to see a Cassie that I liked. A singular sensation, indeed.