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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.

Mondavi Center

An interview with flute player Annie Wu

The Mondavi Center graciously invited me to watch their dress rehearsal for their show, NPR’s “From the Top“, which is an NPR

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radio show hosted by Christopher O’Riley that features young musicians. In addition, I got to interview one of the performers, a rising young star flute player Annie Wu, who is as adorable in person as she is in the video. Widely known as the “beatbox flute player”, I saw this viral video way before I knew she was coming to the Mondavi Center. She is also more prestigiously known as the 2011 high school soloist winner of the National Flute Association. My conversation with her really reminded me of my old high school flute days, and it was definitely a trip back to memory lane for me. Below is a brief interview we conducted prior to her dress rehearsal (edited slightly for content.)

When did you start playing the flute?

I started when I was 8, and I’m 16 now, so I’ve been playing flute for eight years now. I started playing piano when I was five, and I really liked it. But my older sister picked another instrument to play when she was 9 – she picked cello. And I wanted to pick a new instrument too, and I wanted to pick something different from my sister. I had a picture dictionary with an instrument page, I ended up picking the flute from the dictionary randomly. And I’m glad I did!

Tell me about the Three Beats for the Beatbox Flute video.

The piece was the commissioned piece for the National Flute Association competition. When I got it in the mail, I was really surprised. Greg Pattillo [the composer] had been there

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at the NFA the year before, and I saw him perform there. The program was really good and really funny, for instance he performed the Peter and the Wolf with beatboxing and stuff. It was really interesting. I never thought about doing beatboxing for myself, but when I got the music for the commissioned piece for NFA, he sent us videos of him playing the piece. So there were no instructions, but he just played it, and that was our instruction, to watch him play it. When I first saw the video, it was really intimidating because when you don’t have the music in front of you and you’ve never done anything like that before – I was pretty scared. Working on it was pretty crazy because you have to learn everything by yourself, and I only had two months. But it was a great experience in the end because it’s such a different aspect of music, and I think that’s the whole point of the commissioned piece.

How did you learn to beatbox?

I learned from youtube videos and just trying it myself. At first, it was really discouraging because if you don’t get it at first, you feel like you don’t have enough time. What I did was basically search a bunch of youtube videos and looked at tutorials online. As a flute player, I’m comfortable with anything classical, but this was definitely a new experience for me. Usually I listen to classical music, but in preparing for this piece, I tried to

listen to more music with heavier beats.

Whose idea was the costume?

Before the NFA competition, I wanted to have a recital for my family and community to prepare, so I can play through the whole program and get a feel for it. I held my own recital at a church near my house, and I played through the whole NFA program. I wanted to do something neat for the Three Beats piece, and my friends were there, and I wanted to break the ice a little bit. It’s not something that you’re expecting after Dutilleux! And so I just came out with sunglasses and a hat and just had fun with it.

Are you surprised by the attention that this video has gotten?

Yes! It’s been amazing, and I think it’s cool how people focus on the beatbox aspect of the piece. And now I’m

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really glad that it’s a piece that I’ll always have in my repertoire. The beatbox video has also brought back a lot of opportunities for performing – I got to play in Las Vegas, for instance.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I’m a junior in high school, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s a hard question to answer, but so far, I really do want to do music. But at this point I’m not sure if I want to solely do music at a conservatory or a dual program or something at a university. I’m trying to keep all my options open, but at this point, I really want to do music.

Who are the flute players you admire?

First, it’s my teacher Isabelle Chapuis who’s been my biggest inspiration for the past two years that I’ve been with her. I also really like Tim Day with the San Francisco Symphony; since I’m in the youth orchestra, we get to watch a lot of the SF Symphony concerts. And I also like Robert Stallman, and Emmanuel Pahud. This summer, we went on tour with my orchestra and we played in Berlin, and I got to sit in his seat! That was really exciting.

Are you excited about performing in NPR’s “From The Top”?

Yes, I’m very excited! It’s really exciting to meet the other performers and to work with Christopher O’Riley. I listen to the show  and we’ll listen to it when we’re in the car. I’m playing Copeland, and then I’m ending with a part of the Three Beats piece.

Many thanks for the Mondavi Center and for Annie Wu for this interview. Best of luck to you, Annie! We’ll be watching out for you.

NPR’s “From the Top” will be taped live tomorrow night on October 25 at the Mondavi Center, and will air on NPR sometime in the near future.

Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts

Review: 2012 Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo at the Mondavi Center

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo's Swan Lake

Balanchine famously said, ballet is woman. Not always so, as this all-male troupe demonstrated. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is a pointe-shoe wearing all-male ballet troupe that breaks every ballet stereotype in the

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book. Anorexic ballerinas? No one could ever imagine such bulging biceps and healthy thighs peeking out from layers of tulle in their tutus. How about the age-old mantra that the female roles/dancers should always be shorter than their male counterparts in point? Not true – the Trocks demonstrate how arresting a 6+ foot dancer can be, majestic and powerful, and always with a touch of humor. In fact, I learned that it’s impossible to take your eyes off a dancer like that. (On this point, I guess the Trocks and Balanchine share their love for tall dancers and their resulting long lines).

It might be difficult to get past the tufts of hair peeking above sparkling white bodices and a flash of dark armpit hair under a gracefully waving arm. But try as you might, and if you can see past your tears of laughter, you will see that the Trocks aren’t just a comedic act. They have a style that is entirely their own, backed by incredible technique. In their famous Act II of Swan Lake (do the Trocks perform this at every performance?), they perform a slightly altered rendition of the notoriously difficult Dance of the Cygnets. I’m so used to seeing the original Dance with at least a little bit of trepidation on stage, which always makes me uneasy as a result. But not only did the Trocks nail it, they tossed off the choreography with humor and flair, complete with facial expressions in addition to the intricate choreography,

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like it was easy. The effect is hilarious and utterly triumphant.

In fact throughout the entire evening, there was not a whiff of caution onstage. The Trockaderos’ style is bold and exuberant. Their attack is strong and sure. Every step is full out at full speed, whether they go up on point in an arabesque, or whether they are tossing off fouettes with a rare confidence that many ballerinas dream of. Their balances are extraordinary. It’s for these reasons that I particularly enjoy the pieces that they perform without jokes around every corner. Their Go for Barocco choreographed by Peter Anastos is a brilliant spoof of Balanchine’s stark, sexy ballet style, parodying Balanchine’s geometric formations and ensemble work. But even if you had never seen Balanchine before, it’s a delightful musical sketch that holds interest through its lightning fast and repetitious footwork. It’s Balanchine with a wink and a smile.

The evening ended with Majisimas, a Spanish-inflected showcase of classical ballet technique. Danced mostly straight without too many stabs at humor, it was a refreshing showcase of what these men can really do. Through seductive hips, the dancers sailed through this showcase of classical ballet fireworks and technique. I was reminded of the Trockadero’s performance of Paquita that I saw two years earlier at the same venue, and this piece reminded me of the same joy and celebration that I still recall from that performance two years ago. (Their Paquita is a must-see, and something I’d love to see live again someday.) And Paul Ghiselin’s rendition of The Dying Swan is pitch perfect, down to every detail, and a personal favorite.

Hilarious, yes – their Swan Lake is both funny and creative, and kids and adults alike will love this show. But what makes this troupe “the real deal” is their artistry, with their hearts on their sleeve. It doesn’t hurt that names such as Jacques d’Aniels (come on, a ballet and alcohol reference all in one!) and my husband’s favorite, Stanislaus Kokitch is in the program (I had to say that last one out loud before I got it, to my husband’s chagrin). And the dancers! I’m sorry I don’t recognize a lot of the dancers yet, but the fabulous Robert Carter was a standout.

Go see it!!

For a particularly good piece on the Trockaderos, check out this great entry on You Dance Funny. And for an added bonus, you can read in

the comments my personal story of seeing the Trocks for the first time. :)

Click here for more information on the Mondavi Center.

Review: Takacs Quartet with Nobuyuki Tsujii

Takacs Quartet, image provided by the Mondavi Center

The Takacs Quartet graced the stage of the Mondavi Center in a warmly nuanced performance. I was struck by the transparency of the genre of string quartets, where balance and technique is magnified to the utmost, and even the smallest tilt in one direction is glaringly obvious. The Takacs Quartet however are proven experts, and their unity was in moments, breathtaking. In Haydn’s String Quartet in g Minor, “The Rider”, the quartet began with a few technical difficulties but melted comfortingly in the slow second movement, where the harmonies and beautiful melodies were savored to the last moment. The program took a different turn with Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7, ruled atonal meanderings with a touch of fantasy and a lot of heart. The quartet personified music that was felt, not studied or analyzed.

Van Cliburn gold medalist Nobuyuki Tsujii joined the quartet for their final piece, Schumann’s Quintet for Piano and String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 44. I previously wrote about Tsujii and followed him closely throughout the Van Cliburn competition back in 2009, where Tsujii won the gold medal (along with pianist Haochen Zhang), being the first blind pianist to win the Van Cliburn competition. It was a thrilling experience to be able to see him live, playing the same piece that he played in one of the final rounds of the Van Cliburn competition.

Aside from the sheer impossibility of a blind pianist playing  chamber music (cueing through breaths and carefully memorized rests and perfect timing and lots of rehearsal no doubt), Tsujii plays with a heightened sensitivity and a keen intuition, a complete lack of self consciousness and courage but intelligence and heart. He began with brisk, bold strokes that quickly mellows into bittersweet wistful tones, catching you off guard with his phrasing that is simultaneously sudden and fearless. Tsujii’s playing is not perhaps as finessed as other pianists (including co-winner Haochen Zhang who excelled in this arena), but there is something so unique about his playing that is spectacular, heartbreaking, and so moving.

Tsujii’s playing matches well with the style of the Takacs Quartet, playing with a lot of heart and soul, and the collaboration brought out the best in both parties. Listening to this piece, it was difficult to remember the last time I heard Schumann so full of life, and so vibrant.

Mondavi Arts

Review: 2011 San Francisco Symphony and Chorus

Bach’s Mass in b Minor, BWV 232

San Francisco Symphony, image provided by the Mondavi Center

Yesterday, San Francisco Symphony came eastward for a second performance this year at the Mondavi Center, adding to the festivity of the occasion with the San Francisco Chorus in tow. The evening was dedicated to performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in b Minor conducted by Ragnar Bohlin.

First, a few words on the San Francisco Chorus (a group I’d only heard once before with the weird and tremendous Ligeti’s Requiem). The group was established in 1972 at the request of the symphony’s music director at the time, Seiji Ozawa. The 142 member chorus gives at least 26 performances each season, and is currently made up of 30 professionals and 112 volunteer singers (does this surprise anybody? I just assumed they were all professionals, but I was wrong).

Bach’s Mass in b Minor is considered a seminal piece in classical music, sacred music in particular. Lasting nearly two hours, it’s made up of different sections with a number of songs in each section. Bach first started writing parts of it in 1724 and finished writing the whole score in the late 1740s. Upon my first viewing of this piece, the different songs (gorgeous in itself) felt a little disjointed, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Bach had written sections of it in different times. It’s a study of contrasts, going from grandiose orchestral resonances with the full chorus to small chamber ensembles with a solo or duet voice. The piece is cloaked in somber tones but with wonderful swells of hope throughout. It’s a piece that I felt needed more of my time to experience and to absorb fully, but the combination of the music and the subject matter was awe-inspiring.

The performance of Bach’s Mass in b Minor was a wonderfully balanced performance. The symphony was a smaller ensemble for this performance with the appearance of several baroque instruments (including the keyboard instrument (anybody know the name?) and the oboe d’amore (thanks for the tip, Patty!)), playing with a pointed but a discriminating presence. The large choral singing was nuanced and expressive, and the vocal soloists were a particular highlight. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor sang in warm, lush tones, tenor Nicholas Phan with a wistful quality wrapped in passion, and bass-baritone Shenyang with a unique elegance and precision that appearto be rare qualities in bass-baritone voices.  Soprano Ingela Bohlin’s voice didn’t appear to project very well to where I was sitting, but blended in lovely ways in her duet with mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims.

Some may find the length of the work to be difficult to sit through. But this baroque masterpiece is beautifully served by the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Chorus, a testament to the power of the sounds of beauty and faith to last through the centuries.

For clips of Bach’s Mass in b Minor, check out Patty’s blog entry, here. San Francisco Symphony and Chorus continue their performance of Bach’s Mass in b Minor this weekend at their home symphony hall at the Davies. Check it out on their website including a very cool podcast to learn more about the work.

Mondavi Arts

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: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet on Tour

Photo by Lois Greenfield

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is an energetic company with genius management (under founder Bebe Schweppe and executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty) that distinguishes itself by capitalizing on showcasing today’s best modern ballet choreographers to new audiences. They also expose audiences to some of these big names’ lesser works, which is a huge draw for balletomanes such as myself. With a lineup of choreographers like Elo, Tharp, Forsythe, and Pendleton, an evening at the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at the Mondavi Center was a program that had its finger on the heartbeat of today’s world of modern ballet. The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is a small company of 12 dancers, but it’s a talented company with a palpable energy of youthful vitality.

The program opened with Jorma Elo’s Red Sweet, which was commissioned by the company in 2008. It’s a visual wonder in movements a mix of precision and speed in Elo’s busy choreography that’s packed with a combination of balletic and robotic movement. With music by Vivaldi and Biber, this is the most musical piece of Elo’s that I’ve seen, with musical motifs that mirror choreographic structural motifs in a moment of mental clarity amidst a sea of random but pretty movements. But as with the other Elo works, I found that the novelty of his thrilling dance vocabulary wore off, and the piece would have benefited from a shorter presentation.

Twyla Tharp’s Sue’s Leg choreographed in 1975 gave us a glimpse of Tharp’s earlier works in a piece that’s rarely performed today. Set to the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller, it features a small group of dancers in plain clothes, swinging easily to the jazzy stylings of the music. The easy shoulders and floppy arms remind me of the caricature of Robin Williams doing Twyla Tharp in the movie Birdcage, which must have characterized her work early on in her career. The softly shifting formations ease in and out, and without solid conclusions, this piece captures a nostalgic mood and the beginnings of her storytelling ability that would define her later works.

William Forsythe’s Slingerland was a sleek and dramatic duet for Katherine Bolanos and Sam Chittenden. Choreographed in 2000 for Ballet Frankfurt, the dancers dive and reach and lunge in a backdrop of undulating musical lines. An alien echo of atonal singing lines with harmonics gave an eerie edge in Gavin Bryars’ stirring music. The evening ended with Moses Pendleton’s Noir Blanc, also commissioned by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in 2002, a curiously whimsical display of floating limbs flying through space lit with black light and a haze of stage magic.

This program was a versatile program of the little engine that could – a small but powerful dance company with the ambitious spirit packaged in a way that makes people want to buy tickets for. It was a program that showed both the dance world of present, past, and future in four living choreographers and their lesser known works which still highlight their style and substance. The spirit of this company is infectious, with a pleasing sleek and dynamic style, and an example of what a small dance company can do.

Mondavi Arts

Review: Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company – the West Coast Tour

Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company

When Christopher Wheeldon’s company Morphoses rolled into town for their first highly anticipated West Coast tour, I got to thinking about the music behind ballet. In its best scenarios, the music is everything – it is the basis for the movement choreographed to it. In other examples, the music disappears into the background – in Tudor’s Lilac Garden, I can’t remember the music or the composer of that piece for the life of me. I’ve also found that music can be the stumbling block for me to be able to enjoy certain pieces. The pieces set to undanceable pieces come to mind – such as Mark Morris’ Joyride set to the cacophanous music of John Adams. Wheeldon’s Continuum is another piece, and this piece opened the evening with Morphoses.

The momentum in Wheeldon’s Continuum is derived mostly from the sharply-cornered music by Gyorgy Ligeti. The most challenging piece of a very forward-thinking program, the angular choreography pieced together stark images of geometric angles, alternating flexed and pointed feet, insect-like images, and tension that always seem to result from movements in silence. (The audience seems to start breathing again once the music starts up again.) It’s colored by a bewildering sense of randomness to this piece. Momentum is built up between images from moment to moment, but its logic remains murky and elusive. However through movement, Wheeldon is able to point out the humanity and the dark humor in the music I never would have heard otherwise. Even in tension, an urgency and a driving energy challenges the audience to consider it, most of all. Gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz (recredited by Mary Louise Geiger) offsets the clean angles and creates different worlds, from an austere world with black and bright white, or a warm glow of red.

The program also features choreography other than Wheeldon’s, which is an advantage in variety not only for its dancers but for the audience as well. Lightfoot Leon’s Softly As I Leave You featured a dramatic duet about loss between dancers Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk. Even entrapped in a box, the dancers struggle with angry intensity, yet an atmosphere of surrender and sadness pervades. Lush earthiness is backed by Bach’s sensuous, drawn out phases, and Jacoby and Pronk dance with a mercurial power that’s breathtaking.

Ratmansky was also featured on the program, with Bolero. Six dancers wearing numbers on their leotards dance to the familiar strains of Ravel’s Bolero in movements that mirror the repetitive motif with imperceptible yet building climax. It starts slowly, with a solo and a background chorus of softly shifting shapes. More people join as the music builds. There is a sense of competition (perhaps because of the numbers on their leotards?) yet a nonchalance and a haughty disregard for each other. Yet it’s always changing, as partners switch and different groups dance with each other. Ratmansky’s choreography emphasizes the complex detail in the music, with offbeats that are given as much attention as the onbeats. The irrepressible shifting and pointed movement slowly casts its spell as does the music, which only broke when an accidental skirt came loose and had to be tossed to the back. It was only at this point when I realized how much I had been emotionally caught up in the piece. The piece soldiers on, skirt or not, with the piece coming to an impressive crashing close.

The evening ended with Wheeldon’s Rhapsody Fantaisie, which was my favorite for the night. Highlighted with searing red costumes by Francisco Costa, from beginning to end, the piece was all seamless fluidity, seething with power and life. The dancers were like watching animals in the wild – a harnessed invincibility, an expansive confidence to fly.

With Morphoses’ West Coast tour, California audiences were privileged to be exposed to a company with such a cutting-edge sensibility and an amazing repertoire. Yet it was hard not to notice the empty seats that appeared after each of the two intermissions. Perhaps Wheeldon is ahead of his time with audiences not used to change – at the post performance Q&A, a woman admitted she had never seen such sensuality onstage before. I have to remember that this sort of dance is still new to a lot of people. Or perhaps he’s still trying to find a convincing voice with his lofty vision to challenge audiences as well as seek their favor and support. This favor is made more difficult by music like Ligeti’s. Yet Wheeldon is not afraid to take that risk, and everyone benefits as he searches for beauty, even in difficult places.

An adorable Christopher Wheeldon at the post-performance Q&A.

Shakespeare’s Globe Love’s Labour Lost


It’s nice to know that Shakespeare can still pack a house, even if it’s not in a park. It helps that the company is London-based Shakespeare’s Globe stage troupe to show us how it’s really done, bringing the comedic production of Love’s Labour Lost on a US national tour, with their stop at the Mondavi Center.

From the get go, it was a bit like going back into history. Shakespearean minstrels greeted the audience in the lobby, and actors mingled in the aisles before the show and during intermission, riffing with attendees and even serving hors d’oeuvres. It was enlightening to see how interactive theater was back then. Actors regularly ran up and down the aisles with some of the action going on amongst the audience (with one actor sitting in one poor (or lucky) lady’s lap and flipping through the program and hiding from the king). Shakespearean theater wasn’t some glorified, elevated art form that demands to be treated with kid gloves. It was entertainment for the commoners.

Directed by Dominic Dromgoole, this company brought first class comedy to the stage in a fresh production that brought Shakespeare to life. A bright, airy set (by Jonathan Fensom), nimble wordplay, and impeccable comedic timing made this production accessible to modern audiences. The king and his three friends swear to devote themselves to study and chastity and are confounded when the Princess of France and her three ladies visit the royal court. Hilarity ensues. Men in love are just so silly. And they pontificate. A lot. I guess that’s something that hasn’t changed since the Shakespearean times.

In a cast of stellar actors, a standout was Fergal McElherron as Costard, an unlikely swain who inhabited his character in every spirited moment.

It was refreshing to hear unmiked voices, as if the voices were talking directly to you with dynamic vocal projection. However, in addition to the Shakespearean language and a smattering of foreign accents, there were parts that were hard to catch. It’s a speed and speech that American audiences aren’t used to hearing, and I had difficulty in comprehending the unfamiliar script and convoluted story. It was no wonder the audience reacted more consistently to the physical comedy, and there were many chances to laugh.

I’ve forgotten how sophomoric Shakespeare can be, and this show reminded me at how phallic jokes never grow old. Despite its obscure moments, this production was first rate production that throughout history, audiences have always been entertained by both high intellectual comedy of witty wordplay, along with the low.

Mondavi Arts

Patti Lupone’s “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”


Sometimes, the audience becomes an unwitting additional character in a show. At Patti Lupone’s one-woman show at the Mondavi Center on Saturday night titled “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”, the show itself was amazing. Backed by pianist Joseph Talken playing with witty ease, Lupone was her larger-than-life self, showcasing her performing skills in a series of showtunes and personal anecdotes of her journey through career highs and lows – mass cattle calls (auditions with non unionized actors where hundreds of people show up to audition), her accidental entrance to Juilliard, or so she says, and through several Tony awards. She delivers with spot-on comedic timing and a flair for the dramatic. And that voice! Not the most refined, it’s not even her power to bring down the house that’s the most impressive, but her ability to hold your attention with breathless anticipation. This one-woman show is a perfect vehicle for her persona as the quintessential performer. 

I couldn’t help but to feel that it was a bit unfortunate that the audience was filled with people who didn’t seem to know a lot about Broadway. This show was put on in honor of Chancellor Larry and Rosalie Vanderhoef, who is retiring soon after an illustrious career. Chandellor Vanderhoef did a lot in promoting the arts in this community, even in just building the magnificent Mondavi Center which brings in a lot of art in itself. From our orchestra seats, the audience was packed with people who looked like administrators, many of them with nametags from a previous event, in what looked like in honor of the chancellor. Everyone in the audience seemed to know each other, and my friend and I were apparently in the middle of about 10 different conversations with people in front of us talking through us to speak to the people behind us. The only exception that I could see was the front row of starry-eyed young men hanging on her every word. 

With Lupone’s show, it was too bad that when she pointed the mike towards the audience to sing along, she was met with dead silence. Being a cabaret-style show that depends on casual audience interaction, this part sadly fell flat, through no fault of her own. But she geared up and utilized everything she had (including a perfeclty handled impromptu moment where she almost fell through a trap door in the wall) to whip up audience enthusiasm. She was able to get the audience palpably excited even if no one recognized the showtunes. And by the end with a rousing medley of Sondheim songs including the powerhouse “Being Alive”, it was obvious that she had a theater full of her newest fans.

A word on Chancellor Vanderhoef and the wonderful Mondavi Center. If he brought in the Mondavi Center, that alone is enough to convince me that he is a great man with an uncanny unique vision for the arts. As an example of the great programming here, I have seen Ballet Preljocaj, Yo-Yo Ma, the San Francisco Symphony with Mason Bates and Yuja Wang, and Patti Lupone in the span about a month. Next year, this center is bringing in the infamous and hilarious Ballet Trockadero and Morphoses, Christopher Wheeldon’s company. Even with the recession and an increase in more “conservative” financially dependable programs such as classical music concerts, how fabulous and risky is that programming? Love!

Mondavi Center