November 23rd, 2012 at 12:57 pm
Diablo Ballet dancers Mayo Sugano and Aaron Orza in rehearsals for A Swingin’ Holiday.
Photo: Erika Johnson
Aaron Orza was born in Walnut Creek, California, and grew up in San Francisco, where he trained at San Francisco Ballet School, and was a corps de ballet member of the company for about 10 years. He joined Diablo Ballet this season.
Toba Singer: You are at what we can assume is the midpoint in your performing career. Referencing your time at San Francisco Ballet, can you say what you believe will change now that you are dancing with Diablo Ballet?
Aaron Orza: Now that I’m here, at this point not having danced for a year and now dancing where it is comfortable, I find that Lauren [Jonas, Diablo Ballet Artistic Director] is an easygoing person who has faith in me, knows what I can do, and who is not looking for faults but for the good things. You walk into work and it’s a positive environment. You dance without fear that your job is on the line, or that any mistake you make, even in rehearsal when you are learning it, is not forgiven. There is a calm, positive atmosphere, and so you learn quicker and make fewer mistakes and you’re less inclined to be injured.
TS: What are you dancing in Diablo’s upcoming program, A Swingin’ Holiday?
AO: I’m in the title piece by Sean Kelly. It has Christmas swing music, the Sugar Plum variation from Nutcracker, and other pieces specially arranged by Greg Sudmeier to make traditional Christmas music more entertaining. Greg conducts a live swing band, and just to hear the music, wearing Dick Tracy or 1930s mobster zoot suit outfits is great. I get to drive Mayo Sugano onto the stage in a Model T, and the set is a jazz club with a bar that reminds me of the one in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free. Sean is a totally cool guy and I love working with him on this.
TS: You come from large family of ballet dancers. I know that the countervailing pressures of five ballet careers, sometimes in direct competition with each other, hasn’t been easy. If you had a child who wanted to train for a dance career, what interests besides those directly related to dance would you encourage him or her to bring along or develop over the course of their ballet training?
AO: I would encourage them to play sports, develop a positive team spirit, and no matter what, I’d want them to be exposed to break dancing, and tap, for rhythm’s sake, so that they could be grounded in the many realities of dance. Ballet is one dance form, but there’s so much more out there to learn from and enjoy.
TS: If you ask the man or woman on the street, “Is ballet more competitive for men or women?” most would probably answer “women.” What would you say to them about the competition between men in ballet?
AO: I would say that compared to the what the women face, competition is not so ruthless for men. We are all in it more for each other, a positive, friendly competition thing. That is how I was trained to view it by my teacher at San Francisco Ballet, Jorge Esquivel. He fostered a positive competitive atmosphere in class, showing us that we got the best result when we all worked together as a team. He set the example, he set the bar high, and whenever new people came in who maybe had that super competitive attitude, he would train them to work as part of the team. We were all great friends, and still are to this day: Lorin Mathis, James Moore, James Gotesky, Moisés Martín, Nick Scott, Oliver Halkowich, and Sergio Torrado. There are probably more who came and went who I am not remembering.
TS: I remember seeing you dance the Hungarian divertissement from Swan Lake with Pauli Magierek. It was the best in memory for me. Were there moments in preparing for it or dancing it that you want to speak about?
AO: It was really great. It was the first time since Arabian that Pauli, who is my companion, and I worked together since Rodeo. She’s a giver, and sometimes you get somebody who’s not a giver as a partner. They saw that and that we both look Slavic. [laughter]. I was bummed that I couldn’t do it again because of a back injury. Working with Pauli is to work with a professional—no drama queen stuff. Plus, she is amazing!
TS: Do you see your post-performing career centering on dance or something entirely different, and if so, what?
AO: This is cool for now and if this is where I should be I will know it, but down the line I do want to dance with a big company. I would love to teach, though not fall into the pattern of being stuck in the dance world my whole life. I’d like to do something that makes money, maybe have a restaurant. I do great barbecue and can mix a really good drink!
November 21st, 2012 at 5:49 pm
Diablo Ballet dancers Mayo Sugano and Aaron Orza in A Swingin’ Holiday.
Photo: Bilha Sperling
With its Swingin’ Holiday program at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts on November 16 and 17, Diablo Ballet has etched a high water mark in its 19-year history. Three important decisions contributed to the evening’s success and what it augurs for the future of the company: the first was to commission the program’s title work by former Houston Ballet principal-turned Broadway dancer and jazz choreographer, Sean Kelly; the second was hiring former veteran San Francisco Ballet dancer Aaron Orza, and the third was effecting a collaboration with Ballet SjDANCEco that brought dancers together from both companies in José Limon’s celebrated Moor’s Pavane. Having two dancers, Rosselyn Ramírez and David Fonnegra, who benefited from training in their native Venezuela, and the contacts that result from having performed there, can also be counted as a precious resource. This small company has bagged a big quotient of ballet artistry thanks to intelligent and sensitive leadership by Diablo’s artistic director, Lauren Jonas. She has slowly but steadily acquired dancers who, while having gained valuable years of experience in larger companies, tend not to show the slightest wear and tear.
The dancing in Friday night’s Swingin’ Holiday was fresh and spirited, while adhering to the rigors of perfect timing. Mayo Sugano and Aaron Orza, the two former San Francisco Ballet dancers who since leaving that company have on occasion danced together out of town, reunited in this piece for the first time on a Bay Area stage. Their gears meshed perfectly to deliver Lindy Hop swing and a ballad assortment of styles to the old standard, Merry Christmas. Orza’s Dick Tracy looks and Sugano’s long legs and appealing proportions, make for a perfect glam match. Derek Sakakura and Rosselyn Ramírez be-bopped expertly through quickstep combinations. Then Ramírez was charged with playing the nightclub guest who stays too long at the bar, executing a heart-stopping lift as she teeters aloft, all devil-may-care! Hiromi Yamazaki and Jennifer Friel Dille flounced their stylish period costumes with runway poise, and all danced with the kind of razzle-dazzle that one would expect from a seasoned Broadway cast.
Diablo Ballet dancers Hiromi Yamazaki & David Fonnegra in the California Premiere of Lento a Tempo e Appassionato by choreographer Vicente Nebrada of Ballet Nacional de Caracas.
Photo: Bilha Sperling
The evening’s opener is Lento a Tempo e Appassionato, by Venezuelan choreographer Vicente Nebrada. It opens with Fonnegra and Yamazaki, who approximate each other in size and build, twinned and entwined in beige leotards. They rise from the floor to a standing position downstage from the piano and pianist, Roy Bogas, who accompanies them faultlessly, playing the Alexander Scriabin score. Yamazaki unfolds from Fonnegra’s embrace into languorous stretches. Though she is relatively small, Yamazaki’s lines are long and articulated, borne of steadfast concentration and focus. The shapes the couple creates are just as well formed when the duo is planted back to back as when they face one another. He whips her around and she holds her pose. She has full command of the musical passages that correspond seamlessly to the steps. It is as if the music and steps mirror the couple we see before us. Though the Scriabin score is starkly modernist, there is no dissonance between it and the carefully appointed classical detail seen in Yamazaki’s arm-hand fluency.
The third movement is quicksilver fast, with a cascade of directional changes. A thematic bicycling of the feet attends the passages, but never feels oppressively repetitive. Yamazaki eases into a thrilling high upside down lift, with legs extended into second position, yet never losing one scintilla of control.
A New York Times critic recently complained of having to sit through Moor’s Pavane “again!” Perhaps he has seen what originated as a Modern Dance classic too many times, but having first seen it in my youth when Limón danced The Moor, Betty Jones, the Moor’s Wife, Lucas Hoving, His Friend, and Pauline Koner, the Friend’s Wife, I am delighted that new generations can see it thanks to the José Limón Foundation’s continued guardianship of the work. It is a terse piece, imbedded with the stolen-glance gestures and glints of madness that betrayal can import into a society, no matter how small—even of no more than four people. In miniature, it delivers the nugget of Shakespeare’s Othello. Dance is the perfect medium for the psychological feints, underhanded maneuvers, and insidious devices that, like the parts of a well-lubricated lathe, turn an intrigue into a tragedy.
The piece is lit according to Foundation specifications, and staged by Gary Masters and Raphael Boumaïlla in keeping with its gentle orthodoxy. The Moor, Derek Sakakura, is in a sumptuous red, Robert Dekkers as His Friend is in bile-like shade of mustard, and Maria Basile as His Friend’s Wife wears burnt orange. The chiaroscuro light plays on the richly colored nap of the costumes, creating a period portrait of the pocket-sized army of nobles that by stages arrays itself against The Moor’s Wife, Heather Cooper. Cooper wears white on white, announcing her innocence. However, her dress is embellished with three softening puffs of sleeves below the shoulder, suggesting that she is a gentlewoman whose gossamer embraces might cradle either a husband or a lover.
The quartet of characters dances the pavane with courtly precision and pacing. Sakakura possesses a quiet and regal intensity that slowly simmers into something disquieting as Dekkers hisses insinuations near to the ear, pressing his head and arms from behind into Sakakura’s shoulders, his expression more unseemly and steps more deliberate as he counters the dismissal of his insinuations more aggressively. We see the distrust build in Sakakura, as he stiffens to maintain his stature, even as Dekkers inserts himself into an intimate pas de deux shared by Sakakura and Cooper.
Basile is coy when she partners with Dekkers. He is vigilantly present but always with one watchful eye on the royal couple. Theirs is a dance of mimetic gesture built on a foundation of courtly steps. We see who is lower, higher, or bent toward whom and who arrives with what motive. Dekkers and Basile dance ritual slow passes and then he suddenly jumps toward and away from her in fencing form, as if thrusting and parrying with an invisible foil. Basile circles Cooper, flattering her with little inclinations of the head. The plot turns on the appearance of a prop: a white handkerchief, introduced quite innocently in a pas de quatre and dropped as if by chance on a crossover.
Sakakura finally repulses the scheming Dekkers. One jumps high, the other low, repeating the pattern of the earlier interchange, but now exposing its barbaric underlayment. A leg whips across an arm that its opponent pushes away. Sakakura slices the air, and shoves Dekkers with all the anger and purchase attending his station.
Basile plays with the handkerchief in a triangle dance with Sakakura and Cooper. She twists her torso as if signaling a dangerous plot twist, and taunts Dekkers with the now-hated prop.
He jumps back from her taunts in turf-gobbling assemblés as Sakakura and Cooper step to the fore. The Purcell music stops at the intervals where there is a beat change in the staging. The men’s wrestling bodies escalate the contention over the evidentiary handkerchief. The women in parallel drop to one knee, and extend an arm in an appeal to the men. The music goes histrionic.
Dekkers and Basile are back to back on opposite sides of stage. Sakakura plants the kiss of death on Cooper’s mouth, and as she is stretched across his knee, he confronts her with the climax accusation that the audience has been primed to dread. She is rendered a supplicant by his mad rage, and on her knee again.
Dekkers and Basile move in front of the couple, shielding the audience from the travesty about to take place. The Moor’s wife is dead. His Friend’s Wife is aggrieved. A plotting factotum’s manipulations have brought the high low, a house to its knees and the guiltless Moor’s Wife an unwarranted death. The Moor’s Friend, having constructed the perfect betrayal, responds to his wife’s accusation with not a hint of remorse. Sakakura, distraught, grabs their hands, in the vain hope of wrenching culpability from depravity. As they open their clenched hands in dismay over the corpse, Sakakura covers his dead wife’s face with the now-debased handkerchief.
November 19th, 2012 at 11:40 am
LEVYdance performs Less: Yu Reigen (left), Josianne Valbuena, Scott Marlowe, Sarah Dionne Woods and Paul Vickers.
Photo: David DeSilva, LEVYdance / SF
Sidra Bell, the New York-based guest choreographer whose two pieces were featured in LEVYdance’s 10th Anniversary celebration on November 15 at ODC Theater in San Francisco, said in a preview interview, “I am more a facilitator than a choreographer.” It’s clear why a dance piece needs a choreographer, and unclear why it requires a facilitator, but Bell’s dropping the ball in both capacities was apparent in Less, which she set on LEVYdance and Nudity, which she created on her own dancers during a six-week residency in the Bay Area.
Two of Benjamin Levy’s older works, Falling After Too and Physics, book-ended Bell’s. He brought no new works to the company celebration. In the program, he explains his motive for giving the new works of the evening entirely over to Bell: “I wanted my dancers to be informed by working with another artist, while clarifying to them what it means to be a LEVYdance artist.” Two facts raise doubts about this statement: The first is that LEVYdance looks to be more of a brand than an established dance company, with only one of Levy’s dancers, Scott Marlowe, being a 10-year veteran, and the others, pickup dancers, and the second is that the individual he has chosen to work with his dancers rejects the role of choreographic artist in favor of “facilitator,” a function she neither defines nor fulfills.
The dancers in Falling After Too, Yu Reigen and Paul Vickers, wear drab, shape-blocking street clothes that are far less theatrically exciting than what the audience wore to celebrate the occasion. Facing one another, they hold hands as they dance circling arpeggios to live piano music. The arms start swinging and soon they push and pull to the limits of their acquired dance technique, completing a circuit that intermittently shorts out because he is pushing her away, casting off centrifugally, yet prompting her to come back for more until he doesn’t like the persona of himself that he discovers reflected in her movements. So he reconnects on a level of intimacy that is just enough to salvage his ego and dignity. You feel how taxing this process is for them as they strain away from each other, slam against the consequences of their own calamitous approaches, or more plainly, when he kicks the back of her knee repeatedly and she nonetheless continues to stroke him tenderly. For those of us who’ve come to see something stately instead of domestic violence-lite, the segment where Reigen and Vickers arch toward one another like slender birches, creating an arbor-ish canopy with their heads, adds a welcome layer of complexity. The brevity of the nine-year-old piece leaves it as more of a quick-study sketch than a finished work.
Substantial funds were raised and spent several years ago to improve the performance space at ODC Theater, but for “artistic reasons” related to retaining its exposed-brick open ambience, no curtain was installed. This is problematic when for artistic reasons, a program requires a curtain. With no announced intermission or pause, the seated audience witnesses black-clad stagehands with a studied lack of affect, drag a piano across a diagonal and shove it through an upstage door, yank cable onto the stage as a bank of lights descends to lower the ceiling, and a strip of klieg lights is strung across the stage to bisect it horizontally. Bored kids for whom the stage is too much of a temptation are shooed off of it when they try out their own steps during the scene change. Necessity is rechristened a virtue in the guise “radical” stagecraft. Call me a classicist, but an entire science that stagehands have taken pride in improving over centuries, intended to preserve the magic by shielding us from the cranking, dragging, and spiking, is tonight scrapped so that the show’s seams can be perversely exposed to us.
The voiceover words “your loss, weight loss, nameless” introduce Less. Vickers is huddled on the floor downstage right while two men and two women form a cluster in the corner diagonally opposite him. The costumes are white leotards for the women with attractive cowl-like ropes draped from the neck, but the leotard bottoms are so ill fitting as to get caught between the dancers’ buttocks. Did no one notice this wardrobe malfunction at the dress rehearsal and facilitate a fix? There is a menacing walkabout of the stage, where dancers you just know aren’t very scary offstage get to look a little bit that way onstage. The lone dancer does sideways chassés low to the floor, and like Quasimodo’s, these are announced by grunts that, as they aggregate, sound more like barks.
The women are challenged with side-to-side second position jumps. The barking dancer is now standing and rotating his outstretched arms the way you do in PT when you’ve had a rotator cuff tear. The remaining men half-lift Sarah Dionne Woods against the backdrop, and the first couple is left downstage, gesturing with rotating arms. The score is electronic, made musical by the occasional clap of a cymbal. Josiane Valbuena steps to the front to treat us to a shimmy. The lights go bright white. Scott Marlowe is fearless, allowing the movement to carry him as far as the choreography will permit. The thought in my head is, “I’d like a chance to watch them in class to see them actually dance.”
The dancers are behind a screen in the second segment. Marlowe walks forward with jazz hands. Reigen is standing downstage doing rippling seizure-like movements. Another woman upstage does the orgasmic shrieking part.
Social commentary in dance is difficult to bring off. If the comment is about alienation, it is best to not trick out the piece with blinding lights (this reviewer was seeing blue spots in front of her eyes post-show), a score that mostly consists of non-musical devices such as defective plumbing, car alarms, air-raid sirens or a robot voice with bad diction repeating the announcement “reduce the noise level” so that what you hear is “re-juice the noise level,” or repetition of the expletive “bullshit” in reference to what looks like war. War is anything but bullshit: war is for real and war is hell. If alienation is how you celebrate your company’s 10th anniversary, it deserves a libretto that justifies the choreography, and just as an actor or dancer playing drunk must play sober as the drunk does, expressing alienation works best when the dancer dresses for success, with every gesture pointing in the direction of the perfect outcome that never arrives.
Reigen initiates a mean-girls game of domination meant to demean the discipline of ballet. Unfortunately, the would-be dominatrix is largely inaudible thanks to the high pitch of the noisy score. When dancers in the mean-girl sequence speak, you are transported to the ballet academy dressing room of your youth, where complaints about class, casting, rival dance students and costumes, were communicated in nasal whiny voices and untutored diction that would never be tolerated on the legitimate stage, or if allowed, would cue Henry Higgins to sing a jaunty, “Why can’t the Californian ballet dancer learn to articulate?” What you end up with is a kind of Marat/Sade of Temescal and the San Fernando Valley, with one dancer yelling, “jump,” and the other answering “No!” but jumping, or the first dancer yelling, “higher,” and the second answering no again and doing it anyway, and on and on goes the gambit. One of the women is interesting to watch when she dances, but when she barks orders, it is tempting to offer her assertiveness training classes with coaching in voice and diction thrown in. It amounts to a radical-trite attack on the discipline of classical ballet under the faked rubric of sympathy for dancers. The great crimes against ballet dancers have nothing to do with the art form’s discipline or its high standards, but with the uncertainties of work, promotions, low pay, ill-equipped dressing rooms, lack of state support to cover not only company expenses, but dancer health care and attention to their injuries and retirement needs.
It is a relief when Scott Marlowe moves into the next segment doing a kind of femme balletic funky chicken. At least it’s dancing!
In Nudity the dancers wear black leotards and tights with broad transparent harlequin stripes. While revealing no sexual organs, Nudity does its exposé of the classical ballet art form to a score of guttural sounds, alarms going off and a gravelly-voiced old Frenchman singing a dirty ditty. There is minimal turnout, hips jut out delinquently to raise extensions higher, and dancers step into the risers, to “interact” by caressing and kissing individual audience members, including children and dance critics—a bad idea. To mock classical ballet you at least have to have the cred to be able to perform it as well as professionals who take daily class, and sorry, but that level of commitment is nowhere in evidence. This is not The Concert, nor Sandpaper Ballet, nor Etudes, nor Ballet 101, nor any of the many brilliantly choreographed and facilitated pieces that succeed in having dancers poke fun at their own training, or salute it because the source of inspiration for the work is as beloved as it is authentic.
And because it is authentic, Levy’s Physics is the strongest piece of the evening, bringing two couples front and eventually center, where the force field of their relationships creates the impulse for movement. Much of it is nihilistic, but well drawn, and its drama emerges from the resulting tensions instead of superimposed gimmickry. This is the Benjamin Levy I remember from a decade ago! The motive for reviewing this evening’s program was to find more to embrace in new works by him, but there were none, and of all the mysteries woven into this 10th anniversary program, the biggest one was and remains: Why not?
November 14th, 2012 at 8:15 pm
Mayo Sugano and Robert Dekkers in rehearsal for "A Swingin’ Holiday" (Kelly).
Photo by Erika Johnson
Former classical ballet dancers often branch into teaching or choreography — or leave dance altogether. But whether it is because of the profound style differences, a preference for the classical form, or even a lack of awareness of the possibilities in the format, few make the transition to Broadway.
Choreographer Sean Kelly is one who successfully has made the move. After a successful ballet career, culminating in principal dancer and ballet master status at Houston Ballet, Kelly was hired by Twyla Tharp in 2003 to dance in Movin’ Out. He toured with the show for five years as dancer and resident choreographers.
After leaving Movin’ Out, he joined the first national tour of Billy Elliott as resident choreographer, where he modified Peter Darling’s choreography to showcase the abilities of the individual actors playing Billy.
In addition to his choreography projects, Kelly is a member of Rasta Thomas’s Bad Boys of Dance. Over time, his assignments with the company have included dancing and ballet master duties; most recently, he has added resident choreographer and associate director responsibilities.
Dance Vine: How did you make the transition to Broadway from a successful career in ballet? Did you have to re-tool your dancing technique to make this successful?
Sean Kelly: When I first started dancing, I studied at a studio in Marin that taught all styles of dance like jazz, modern, Latin American, and ballroom, along with some ballet. It was later, when I went to Marin Ballet, that I began to focus primarily on classical dance. I do think that the variety of my early training helped me be open to different styles and techniques. I also think that the diverse contemporary repertoire I had the pleasure to dance while at Houston Ballet and other classical companies helped me to be a versatile dancer.
So, when I did make the transition to Broadway, I felt that I was able to pick up the various styles quickly. My classical technique was helpful, and I became known as one of the Broadway people who could help other cast members technically, as well as stylistically, with choreographers’ works.
Also, the experience of having been a choreographer and ballet master encouraged people to offer me some wonderful opportunities. In addition to performing as a swing for Broadway and touring productions, I have mostly been a dance captain, resident director, or resident choreographer — or a combination thereof.
As resident choreographer for a Broadway show or touring company, how often do you go back to check on things to ensure the cast is performing at peak wonderfulness?
I have always been either a swing or a resident on the tours I have been on, so I was able to check the show on a daily basis. I generally give at least some notes every few days so the show stays looking as good as possible.
It’s a delicate balance with noting, as the show usually is being performed eight times a week. I like to give enough notes to remind people of the details that make the show really strong without nitpicking too much. I want the cast to feel that I trust they will continually deliver a good performance, but also let them know I am watching and care that they and the show look their best.
For A Swingin’ Holiday are you using the original orchestrations — especially with the Ellington and Goodman? If not, who is doing them?
I am using the re-working of some holiday classics like Jingle Bells, the Dreidel Song, and Nutcracker selections by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ted Wilson, and Corky Hale, among others. Diablo Ballet Music Director Greg Sudmeier is arranging the music for the ballet.
Unlike ballet orchestras, most jazz bands are unused to phrasing work for dancing. How have you approached this challenge?
With Greg’s help, I have picked selections that I like, as well as ones that I feel are both appropriate to choreograph to and also ones that inspire me to create movement. I also chose a variety of tempos and qualities in the music to help make the piece more varied and to assist the dancers with their characterizations.
When working with dancers, is it more difficult to bring ballet to Broadway or Broadway to a ballet company?
I would say that depends on the dancers.
Some classical dancers are uncomfortable stepping out of the classical box, so to speak. However, given how much varied repertoire is expected from classical dancers these days, I think this is becoming less common.
For Broadway performers, some either haven’t had a lot of classical training or are somewhat uncomfortable trying it. But, these days, I also see more people with classical training in Broadway shows.
Personally, I’m a big fan of training in different styles, with an emphasis in classical study, because it likely will serve a performer well and prevent injury.
The Diablo Ballet dancers are incredibly excited and open to exploring different ways of moving. And, of course, they are well-trained classical dancers. That combination makes it enjoyable for me to work with them.
What would you consider your “dream project”?
Variety keeps me excited. I feel I have been very fortunate to be a part of some amazing ballets, in addition to some amazing Broadway shows.
In addition, I find it rewarding to take care of a show like Movin’ Out or Billy Elliot. At the same time, I love having the opportunity to be creative on a project like this one with Diablo Ballet, where I get to craft something new.
What do you have scheduled for the coming season?
I will be returning to Bad Boys of Dance, which is a company based out of Maryland that my colleague, Rasta Thomas, started about five years ago. Currently, I am the associate director.
The dancers in Bad Boys of Dance are a diverse group of athletic young men who have training in ballet as well as acrobatics. There are a few beautiful and talented young ladies in the company as well, but the main focus is to show how athletic and exciting ballet can be for men. The company has been touring extensively in Europe and has also traveled to Australia, New Zealand, and India this year. In addition to enjoying my work with the company, and hopefully passing on a lot of the wonderful training I have received, it has been fun to travel with this great group.
And there is good news for Bay Area dance fans — Bad Boys of Dance will be in the Northern California area January 22, 24, and 26, 2013, with performances in Modesto, Folsom, and Santa Rosa.
This weekend, join Diablo Ballet for the world premiere of Kelly’s A Swingin’ Holiday, performed to live music from jazz legends Duke Ellington, Nat “King” Cole, Wynton Marsalis, along with the familiar Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. The Jose Limón classic The Moor’s Pavane and the California premiere of Lento a Tempo e Appassionato by Vicente Nebrada (Ballet National de Caracas) round out the program.
Friday November 16 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 17 at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.
Lesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
Call 925.943.7469 for tickets or purchase online at
Sean Kelly, Broadway choreographer, talks about his Diablo Ballet world premiere of A Swingin’ Holiday:
Diablo Ballet dancers Aaron Orza and Mayo Sugano work on a sultry pas de deux to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” for our November world premiere of A Swingin’ Holiday.
November 6th, 2012 at 10:07 am
Dancers Zack Tang and Yujin Kim. Mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani is in background.
Photo by Margo Moritz
SAN FRANCISCO, LAM THEATRE, OCTOBER 25, 2012: George Balanchine wanted his dancers to let him do all the thinking. Their job was to dance the musically challenging choreography of his imprimatur based on what it was not: classical. Audiences embraced Mr. B’s seditious brinksmanship, even though sedition was an overused term in the 1950s and 60s. Still, a hyper-extended leg or back, and a heel that only grazed the floor offered a delicious taste of subversion in a political and social atmosphere that blanched at the stillborn conservatism of McCarthyism. Balanchine’s collaborations with musicians shot a fresh breeze of neo-classical ballet through the newly constructed Lincoln Center, and the dancer’s job was to mirror Balanchine’s enthusiasm for the music and the creative process that rose in him like sap. Like Balanchine, Alonzo King finds his depth in the music; unlike Balanchine, King’s dancers are not the objects of his ministrations. They are the subjects. He wants them to think, question, challenge, and find the contradictions of dancing what’s inside as well as dancing against it. Constellation is in two acts containing a total of 13 movements. I will review some of them here, though not in the order in which they occurred.
In Constellation, the abundance of wishes that King imports arrives onstage as an embarrassment of riches, with moments that suggest a crise de nerfs, where all that is sentient in the dancer, the collaborator, the musician and the choreographer experiences a momentary overload. It does not worry those of us who are dyed-in-the-lycra King devotees. We know that King’s oeuvre is organic. Yes, the pieces he makes with musicians and dancers from around the world are discreet entities, but the energy that fires his collaborations issues from that organic material: it moves from one to the next, and there will always be an enriched and enriching nugget to take away from an evening’s offering.
Constellation opens with green light ceiling implants and a backdrop of the same lights. Mezzo-Soprano Maya Lahyani enters wearing a lush and somewhat overbuilt ruffled brick-red satin dress. Dancer Meredith Webster enters from the opposite wing, lengthening her legs into extensions. She reaches for a light and plucks it from above. Another dancer enters with swinging legs, turning, crawling and rolling to the spot where Lahyani is moaning a lament from Ricard Strauss’s Ach Lieb. David Harvey arrives, a light in each hand, arms raised, and (a mere three nights before the San Francisco Giants win the World Series), he is winding up for the pitch. The lights are the set, and represent a collaboration with Potrero Hill Electronic Artist, Jim Campbell. Campbell has a B.S. in Mathematics and Engineering from MIT, and has shown his work at the Whitney, SF MOMA and Harvard’s Carpenter Center. Here, his design is the pivotal element: Strings of LED lights take the form of square panels, and dancers wear or carry them like accessories. They bounce individual lights, or dance on a darkened stage with only the lights they hold in their hands visible as they move, so that their sparkle competes with feet as focal points.
Michael Montgomery is a bolt of lightning against the green and blue globes. He rolls through his moves, and then Webster, now in knickers-length black pants, enters. Ricardo Zayas joins them. In serpentine probes that are the prelude to locking an impossible pose, they marshal a strength and confidence where every muscle is stilled, but a foot shakes and the message is: “This shaking foot is both mine and part of the archive. I resist my fingers as if they are on fire. Thought it was about that turn? No! It is about this lunge that the turn sends me into.”
The third movement ushers in Keelan Whitmore. He is possessed of a LINES-iconic power quotient, and brings to the contemporary stage the kind of poetic ramp-up that Carlos Acosta has brought to classical ballet. The grid suspended behind Whitmore, Montgomery and Zachary Tang, is composed of blue lights on black. In perhaps the most compelling segment of this work, all three dance to a whoosh sound that slides over and back across a musical range. A dancer who has accompanied me on this evening comments that this could be even stronger if the dancers themselves were vocalizing the whoosh sounds. The lights brighten and the men dance as if they were large birds perched on a precipice. They approach and retreat, turning and spiraling until they roll away. Four women in grey velour skirts dance steps whose accents are down but where legs and arms go long, so that they seem to splay over the hollowed metal electronica score.
After intermission Yujin Kim opens Act II. She is holding lights and rotating her arms, so that the lights trace the circling patterns that begin at her shoulders. Caldwell’s LED grid is fully onstage as the set. It is in 1950s juke box colors that burnish into garish orange chromatics that recall the single seedy bar in what are euphemistically referred to today as “sketchy” neighborhoods, the lone neon beacon of faked warmth in a cold world where danger lurks. Kim, in a modified feather tutu, sets a light globe spinning. Montgomery scrutinizes the vibe and moonwalks his arms alongside the lights. The stage is now lit from above. The grid goes mobile, wavering like a banner in the wind as its lights change colors. A male dancer manipulates a smaller swatch of lights. He is wearing matte metallic pants. The pant legs are horizontally layered cylinders. Using tennis ball-sized lights variously as goggles, bocce balls, or baseballs, an all-boys, all-balls game takes shape. Splattering steel drum arpeggios accompany the men. They set themselves spinning in all directions, striking poses and rolling out the lights, their glowing props strung across a diagonal like footlights. Women and men now grab a pair and the stage becomes a carnival, dancers moving lights through space to sound. For some, the medium eclipses the message, and because it is electrified, sorts itself into the cheap-thrills pile of gimmicks.
Montgomery becomes a Christopher Bruce–derivative rooster who struts with his back to the audience. Another dancer is moving downstage with lights in his mouth. Webster is elegant, fully in charge of her lights. A dancer enters with a boa of lights. She drapes them over her shoulders, as would a stripper. The company engages, tethered by strings of LEDs. We see extraordinarily energetic work by Courtney Henry, Ashley Jackson, and Paul Knobloch, as the swath of lights floats to a ceiling where lights are blue. Henry is covered in lights and fashions them into a square.
A line of dancers enters bearing small screens of white stadium lights. They turn them upside down overhead as roof cover for Carolyn Rocher. She moves low across floor and raises herself in front of them, her legs imaged on the light screens.
As enormous puffs of dry ice fill the upstage area, dancers come forward to form a semicircle around Henry. After breaking into mini-solos, they exit, leaving Rocher. The original grid returns to center stage and the smaller swath moves so that it is superimposed on the upper left-hand corner, forming what looks like an electronic U.S. flag. Lahyani and Whitmore seem to pull strands of lights out of the flag as they enter and circle each other. Whitmore does flexed-footed hops, his back undulating. Montgomery and David Harvey dance a duet. With rubbery spines, they drop and rise, trading lifts as Whitmore works his spectacular body separately, sweeping the floor with his tree trunk-like legs. The push is unrelenting, and at a certain point you are thirsty for a relevé that rolls through the foot, or an extension that unfolds. There is a seamless resolution into pendulum movement, and the four stretch across the breadth of the flag backdrop, and exit.
Webster and Harvey dance an expansive pas de deux in which extensions jut back and forth as a piano trills. After the extravagance of the lights, rough-hewn simplicity is welcome refreshment. It feels as if the stretches and inclinations themselves release the notes in the privacy and quiet of a not-blazoned display.
A loud crackle of interference, and Rocher and Whitmore reappear. Renewed whooshing sends Whitmore into á la seconde turns. The music moves from whoosh to Afro-Percussive, and the dancers become the drums.
Rocher, as a bird, is backed up by replicant birds flying across the screen of lights. We’re caught in a storm of light, sound and movement. Henry returns in swirls of butter yellow tulle, to which she offers the riposte of spitfire attack. Tall and lovely and reminiscent of the former Kathryn Dunham dancer, Trina Frazier Parks, Henry circles long legs around herself, a preparation for taking luxuriant, yet flexible and commanding strides. To sacred music, Montgomery and Knobloch dance a pastorale legato etude, testing one-footed balances.
A white scrim covers the grid. Lahyani returns. Two men in black knickers join her, more animal than human. A man in long pants wrestles with one of the animal men who has been wrestling with himself. Lights flicker above the fray. Metallic clanking returns.
When displeased by a choreographer’s steps, there are New York-based critics who instead of saying “I didn’t like these steps,” pose the question, “This may be movement and theater, but is it dancing?” The works of Jorma Elo and Alonzo King are frequent targets for this brand of query. In this reviewer’s opinion, Ashley Jackson is the best dancer of King’s work and Melissa Hough the best dancer of Elo’s work to put this idle worry to rest. Both dancers ignite like rockets, hitting their stride with spot-on precision.
There are dripping sounds. Two men lift and struggle. Five dancers array themselves as if they were baseball players. A violin sounds. Each breaks out of his or her place into dance movement.
Dancers Zack Tang and Yujin Kim
Photo by Margo Moritz
Two men and Webster join Lahyani. Shadows stream across the screen as Yujin Kim enters wearing an elegant calligraphic-print costume. She begins a series of sweeping gestures, catching a light and sending it across the stage to Rocher. There is a first approach, a second and then a pileup of Kim and a partner. The bodies reverberate with the sound that Lahyani sends across to them. Out of the pileup, a standing level pas de deux matures. They reach high, break apart and she drops and redeems herself with a grasp of support that is there for her until she can once again be an equal partner. Then they circle one another. There is no time to rest or stop in this full-out surge from a leading edge and wedge of a company on the express track to immortality. Alonzo King is living the title role of one of his best-known pieces, Scheherazade. Mine is a plea to let him finish telling his thousand stories.
October 31st, 2012 at 12:26 pm
Thomasin Gülgeç and Gemma Nixon in Russell Maliphant’s AfterLight.
Photographer: Dana Fouras
After a piano intro, a spot opens up a space on the dark stage and in it is the dancer, Thomasin Gülgeç. He is dressed in a purple top. He is revolving, and then begins a series of stretches that segue into a port de bras as he inclines toward the blush of white light. The only lit surfaces on his body are the sinewy ones. He drops to the floor and the spot widens there, still centered on him. With minimal upper body movement, he tucks himself into the folds of the music, Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes. Gülgeç is pliant where the notes go hard. Now he is bare-chested in grey pants and wearing a head wrap, a transparent tribute by the British-born Canadian choreographer Russell Maliphant to Nijinsky—minus the madness. Never abandoning his wide stance Gülgeç initiates a series of sweeping circles that brings him from floor level to standing, but no higher. A breath sends him spiraling to a second spot, the place from which he vaults over one arm and then tumbles into an upright position. He pauses and spindles around himself, his arms like gentle flanges of a self-invented self-mechanism. The remaining costume elements disappear as this human motion sensor transforms himself.
The light is contrived and distracting in a subtractive way, but its impact is all consuming, even hypnotic. One is drawn into his process as if a stakeholder, and not just a Saturday night spectator. Then it is over, leaving us a little breathless.
A lit pattern is projected onto the scrim. It resolves into a dappled something from nature. Amidst the dapple, we distinguish two women dancers. They are Silvina Cortés and Gemma Nixon. Now the light suggests cloud cover, and out of it the women emerge doing floor rolls from side to side, then stretches in tandem. The women are unfortunately costumed in what were once referred to as Baby Doll nighties, obscuring the shape and line of their bodies making them look theatrically infantilized. It would be acceptable if the costumes contributed to the dream-like quality of the work, but there is something prosaically Wendy-in-Peter Pan-musical-ish about the nightgowns that actually detracts from the otherwise nebulae-like sensibility. Besides, the audience comes to dance events to see sculpted bodies move. The nighties diminish the experience by half.
Arms circle above heads from side to side in a rhythm where the counts are one tock behind the metronome-like beats of the score. Gülgeç comes downstage to stand between Cortés and Nixon. He rolls off stage right as they move upstage left. They roll from floor to half standing. Gülgeç loop-jumps over himself. The women rise and male/female places are exchanged again. He revolves, and then they, like him, become cylinders. All three come together, fanning and folding into a dense tripartite profile. The screened set becomes an orchard where clouds have delineated themselves into fruit trees.
The time we have spent here seems boundless, as if it too has been spindled and then stretched, never attaining its limit. There is the sense of a continuum of light, music and movement, a tone poem with no pause for equivocation. Just as we begin to feel at home in this un-gated community, Gülgeç withdraws, leaving the women to circle to a vanishing point as the again-dappled pattern fades into nothingness.
The next segment opens to music from a sitar or dulcimer. The lone Gülgeç is lit with a faint spot. He walks downstage to a Chinese-scale melody. The women join him. Cloud projections are caught on his face for an instant. Now Gülgeç, bare-chested, is with just one woman. They explore an imaginary horizon that follows the line of the proscenium. When they bring their arms together, they are half moons along that horizontal.
Each body lights out to probe the atmosphere, then reunites with its other to repeat the patterns of curves and spirals. There are the only two in this universe. They are each other’s ultimate complements, but just as they are fully absorbed by their shape making, the other woman enters. After a slow approach leading with shoulders and slow turns, the two women face off in mirror-image profile, and then both turn their heads to the audience. There is an insistent dinging sound, costumes flutter, and the lighting goes more oblique. The faces fade as nighties flounce in a frippy girl game of “I can do this I can do that.” The insistent note finds a richer voice, the beneficiary of more ardent orchestration. Spidery globes of light frame the dancers, and the note fades into a single jingle.
The next segment opens with a flute solo. Gülgeç is hardly visible. He stays low and reaches across space, crab like. The clouds are back, and begin to move as the women leave. Gülgeç does dervish-like jumping turns, and ends up wrestling with himself as the pace accelerates. A woman joins him as the music come up syncopated, the flute leading. We see them more clearly as he pulls her to standing and they revolve separately. Light patterns on the floor bypass them like rapids as they struggle to find a place mid-stream. Water and light showcase the couple. The other woman joins them, and though the light is still, the rhythms are more effluent, reliable without being predictable. Gülgeç’s new solo strives for mastery over the ecosystem. His spirals go faster and tighter until they are a dance of self-infringement. Then he dips from a small jump into a low bow, like a ladle scooping a thick elixir. The light reveals only the sinews, as the audience, in a reluctant act of collective obedience, awakens from its timeless trance state.
October 24th, 2012 at 11:00 am
Milos Marijan and Amanda McGovern rehearsing Bruce Steivel’s Dracula — A Ballet to Die For
Photo by Lance Huntley
Internationally recognized choreographer and teacher Bruce Steivel has served as artistic director for Bern Stadt Theater in Switzerland, Hong Kong Ballet, Universal Ballet of Korea, and Nevada Ballet Theater, where he worked for over a decade.
As artistic director for Nevada Ballet Theatre, Steivel expanded the repertoire by adding thirty ballets — thirteen from visiting choreographers and seventeen of his own creation. His Nutcracker was a perennial favorite; also popular were his Peter Pan, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dracula, and Good Times. Several of his works are currently in the repertoire of five major dance companies.
Frequently sought after as a guest teacher, Steivel has taught at Nederland Dans Theater, Norwegian National Ballet, Hungarian National Ballet, National Ballet of Portugal, Berlin Stadstoper, Beijing Ballet, Shanghai Ballet, Bat-Dor of Israel, the National Institute of Istanbul, and many schools in Japan and the U.S.
For the past three years, he has been the artistic and conservatory director for Peninsula Ballet Theatre in San Mateo, California. In addition to his Peninsula assignment, in 2011, Steivel was appointed artistic director for the Serbian National Ballet in Belgrade, Serbia.
California Literary Review: You are now Artistic Director for two companies, one in the States and one in Europe. Other than personal economics, what do you see as a benefit to combining the two assignments?
Bruce Steivel: Being an Artistic Director of two companies an ocean apart is certainly an interesting assignment. I plan to incorporate the dancers from both countries into several productions. I already have brought one male dancer from San Mateo to perform with the company in Belgrade and intend to bring three dancers from Belgrade to San Mateo to perform this season. It will be an interesting cultural exchange and benefit both the dancers and the companies.
What is scheduled for Peninsula Ballet’s 2012–2013 season?
We are putting on my production of Dracula October 26–28, Nutcracker in December, and hopefully a spring Gala performance.
At Peninsula Ballet, will you host any guest choreographers or present new in-house work by the dancers?
At present, we are preparing a Young Choreographers Workshop to be held here in our studios. We presented the workshop this past year, and it was hugely successful. This year, we will enlarge the evening — nine new pieces will be performed. To accomplish this, we transform our large studio into a performing space, complete with bleacher seating and some minimal stage lighting.
Artistic Director and Choreographer Bruce Steivel
Any plans for guest teaching/choreography during your off-seasons?
The only off-season teaching I am doing at present is in San Mateo with our summer intensive program. I have been asked to return to Athens, Greece, but unfortunately I have not had the time to fit it in. I did take two weeks off after the summer intensive to visit my daughter in Paris.
Serbia is coming off an old company system and moving to a new one. There are, obviously, challenges in making the transition. How do you see your role in effecting the change?
Being the new guy on the block it is going to be easier for me than if there had been a local Serbian artistic director trying to accomplish the same thing. The company has been under the influence of the “old” Soviet style of ballet company for many years. The Western way of working — at a faster pace — has been a shock to some of the dancers. However, on the whole, my way of working has been received well, and I am enjoying acceptance in the ballet studio.
What do you see are the Serbian National Ballet’s strengths?
The Serbian company has some strong and talented dancers. Their basic training is the excellent Vaganova method, the most common ballet technique taught in Russia. This training enables them to do most anything. The dancers have a strong feeling for the classics, but enjoy trying new things. It is a company hungry for change.
Are there plans for the Serbian National Ballet to tour?
There are several tours planned within the Balkans, and I am trying to secure a more lengthy tour to foreign ports of call. At this point in history, the cost of touring a ballet company is extremely difficult, as funds all over the world are being allocated to programs other than the arts.
How much opportunity do you have to showcase your own choreography for the Serbian National Ballet? You said you are going to present your popular ballet, Peter Pan, in Serbia. Why did you choose this for your first full-length for the company? How many companies now perform your Peter Pan?
I haven’t had much time to do new choreography, but I will be presenting Peter Pan this November. Currently, the Serbian repertoire is quite extensive and includes all the major classics and a few contemporary pieces. I hope that in the coming years I will be able to do something fresh — and also bring in new choreographers.
Serbia needs to bring the youth back to the theater, and it is our hope that the popular Peter Pan will do just that. It is not too demanding on the dancers and allows them to have fun. The ballet, additionally, provides parents the opportunity to bring their families to the theater, as this ballet is appropriate for all ages. Four U.S. companies have performed Peter Pan — and now, this year, Belgrade.
Will you add Nutcracker to the Serbian repertory?
There is a desire by the board of the theater to mount Nutcracker; however, Serbia is in a financial crisis at the moment, so I think it may be two years before we can produce anything of that size. The theater has enjoyed for many years the distinction of being a state company — the demands on funds were not a problem as new productions were paid for by the state. The theater now has to move into a more Western way of thinking — one where it is necessary to find sponsors for individual productions. We do have several American corporations in Belgrade, and the American Embassy has been extremely helpful with funding.
Dracula — A Ballet to Die For
Peninsula Ballet TheatreOctober 26 to 28, 2012
2215 Broadway Street
Redwood City, California
For tickets and information call 650.369.7770
October 21st, 2012 at 1:21 pm
Ten years ago, my husband Jim and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in Madrid and Gijón. Our list of sights to see and events to take in was modest, but at the top was a café flamenco performance. I had seen stage and film productions, but wanted to see it up close in a café in Spain. The café we chose wasn’t an intimate one, our seats were in the back, and the distractions of the dinner they served before the performance made it feel as if commercialization had eclipsed authenticity, but there was no denying that the dancing transcended the pesetas, with a layered jaleo that cried out beseechingly to draw us into the drama unfolding on the smallish stage. It was the individual personality of each dancer, dressed in bold polka dots or rich rioja or canary yellow, burnt orange or the verdant green of the rough-hewn countryside, whose steady gazes burned holes through black mantillas and the drifting smoke, which stole my heart. Each contributed to a sure-footed zapateo dispatched from the “Spanish back,” held and high with shoulders angled downstage, and the syncopated tempos of feet, shouts, cries, guitars and clapping—made this dance form come alive. The dancers were all Spanish, and Spanish- looking in the ways we are groomed to expect: women with porcelain skin and chiseled features, or dark skin and long bones, men with taught jaws and hips that gave definition to the term “kinetic energy.” Among them was one huera, a blond, and when we consulted the program we saw that she was from the United States, and in a simple and shameless tourist kind of way, were proud that our countrywoman qualified to join this troupe of veteran professionals. Her name was Cristina Hall.
A short time later, I was lucky enough to see another flamenco performance in the Bay Area, and the ubiquitous Ms. Hall was in the program there and once again, she thrilled the audience. A number of years passed, and I met the San Francisco artist, Ana Teresa Fernández, who on occasion accompanied me to dance events. She mentioned her new interest in flamenco, having met a dancer she was eager for me to meet. The dancer’s name was—Cristina Hall. Since Cristina and I were both busy with various projects, the opportunity to meet was put on hold until this past week, when Cristina Hall gave a series of workshops in San Francisco, and I was able to attend one of them in a small studio on McAllister Street.
Hall was born and raised in San Francisco. She began her artistic life not as a dancer, but a violinist. Shortly after moving to Seville in Spain, she began studying with such flamenco masters as Eva Yerbabuena, Israel Galvan, Antonio Canales, Farruquito, and Andrés Marin. Her credits with famous flamenco dancers in Spain are many, and she danced in the 2004 Torero Al-lucinogeno show at the Teatro Central in Seville, and performed in the 2005 Tercer Festival Annual de Flamenco in Vancouver. In 2011, she was a finalist in the London Sadler’s Wells choreography competition for her piece Blackbird. Recently, she placed second in the Concurso Internacional del Tablao las Carboneras de Madrid.
Six women dressed in practice clothes and wearing special character shoes with tiny nails banged into the heels, stood facing Hall and the mirror behind her. Each pair of shoes is something to carefully observe, for its individual style, the material it is made of (leather or suede), and the heel height.
The class opened with stretches. Feet, while in parallel, were shoulder width apart. The students reached high above their heads and then all the way down to the floor. They lifted their shoulders to do rolls forward and back, and then head rolls. The dancers then extend their arms to the side to do arm rolls, and Hall tells them in English, “You want to isolate the ribs,” as she lifts hers to demonstrate, and counts in Spanish, “Un, dos, tres y cuatr’.” She urges the dancers to engage the middle back as they extend the arms. The hands are flexed and roll open and closed into a fist and back again, wrists rotating the whole time. “Center the stomach, knees over toes, and not like this,” she says, indicating that she wants no hyperextension. She lunges into a wide fourth position and shows how to square the shoulders. “Feel the weight shift from one foot to the other.” She gives the remaining directions in Spanish and English, “Subimos, left foot lifted and knee turned out, but bent. Bring it around. Make sure you have a triangle aqui,” and she points to where the legs join the pelvic bone. “Now, turn and place the leg in back. Weight is on the balls of feet. The torso is lifted. Plié, and bring the foot around. And turn. The head is always the last to turn. Spotting is important. We will practice spotting later.”
Hall’s students are picking up the combinations and incorporating her corrections handily, but some show that they have more attack than others. “Plant the foot behind. Never dance in relevé, always grounded,” she advises. Un dos, tres, cuatro turn!”
Arm movements are a veritable anthology of the flamenco oeuvre. While they rarely go swan-like as in ballet, they tell about flight (see YouTube of Hall dancing to Nina Simone’s Blackbird shown here:
They also express frustration, exasperation, murder, mayhem, and love, careless, intentional, and unrequited.
Cristina tells the class to draw a straightened arm across the opposite shoulder, and raise any lazy elbows. The upper torso moves to a breath. Students are getting both the fullness and the economy of it. As they stand with arms raised and palms facing out, the women manipulate their hands in sequence in what is called Muñeca. There are no castanets, but it is easy to imagine how easily these could be incorporated as the dancers wave their hands from side to side at pelvis level, adding a little pop at the end. Muñeca does not mean “doll,” as one might assume by thinking of the movements in the doll-themed ballet Coppélia. It means wrist. This is not so much a decorative flourish as a clean accent.
“When you come across with the arm, no elbow. Arms are low. It us not the hip that moves, but the upper body,” Hall counsels, reverting to Spanish syntax, even when speaking in English. “Arms sweep past the face, but not higher. . .” Then she shows Double Muñeca. “No shoulders.” She steps forward into a fourth position lunge to show how it transitions to another shape with a transfer of weight. One hand slides down the inside of the other, while both extend above the head. When the dancer lowers her arm it should descend naturally. . . “Just flip the hand and let it come down.”
The students are rapidly aggregating the steps of the dance Hall is building before their eyes. They open their arms, a hip juts out, and they flip their hands. They align their arms against the space between the hip and ribs. They circle the arms using an impulse from a raised shoulder. Hall reminds them that it all starts with a breath. “If you don’t breathe, the shoulders freeze in place. Don’t let the back go too far back.” I am noticing a fluidity that was not present earlier. I see how the face can nest in the space between the upper arm and side of head. “Get rid of your elbows! Rise with a breath and then lower. If you don’t breathe, there’s too much tension and you can’t make the movement flow. Arms rotate from the elbow, reversing on last count and rising to the head.”
As Hall adds a modified pas de cheval, we realize that she is giving sophisticated corrections that couldn’t have had the same impact at the beginning of the class. She tells her students to plié so that they may feel grounded in their wide stance, and then explains that the hip never moves from side to side, but more forward and back, and that to really feel this, one has to get fully seated and low in the plié.
“The head follows the hand.” Now smiling broadly, she demonstrates slamming the back foot onto the floor behind her, then in front, so that we hear the stamp each time. The hand slaps the thigh, though the elbows stay softened. The hip movement isn’t perfunctory: It’s sustained. With the neck and head held, the dynamic of the body is circular, and rounded in a kind of upper-body barrel turn that is technically impressive, but even more so when Hall tells the dancers to “let go a little,” and the arms relax a bit.
Toward the end of the workshop, after Hall has shown the women how to show themselves that they can master the steps, she emphasizes how to use the legs. “Use the legs fully, extend them! You’ll be in a skirt, so you can’t see, but you have to use the same energy as in the golpe (stamp) in the rond de jamb (bringing the leg around and behind the body). Try not to be inside so much. I know you’re thinking internally, but. . . don’t dance that way!
Cristina Hall will be performing with Carola Zertuche in Flamenco en Movimiento. San Francisco: November 11 & 12, 2011, Friday & Saturday, 8 PM?November 13, 2011, Sunday, 3 PM Marines’ Memorial Theater San Francisco. Contact Marines’ Memorial Box Office, or for more information, click on: www.theatreflamenco.org.
October 16th, 2012 at 8:53 am
Members of the Mariinsky Ballet perform in Swan Lake
U.S. audiences carry a lot of baggage to a Mariinsky Ballet Swan Lake performance at the Zellerbach Auditorium, and we’re not talking picnic baskets, here. A goodly number are Soviet ex-pats or descendants of them, who bear emotional and sentimental attachments or contradictory feelings of estrangement. Others in attendance may be dancers or former dancers who studied ballet and hold strong opinions about, or loyalties to the Vaganova style. Then there is that generation that gained its exposure to Russian and Soviet history via the toxic prick of McCarthyism. Some express the liberal view that “State-supported ballet is the best thing about the Soviet legacy.” Some embrace the conservative view that says “Give the devil his due: dictatorships forge good artists and athletes.”
As an unapologetic supporter of the Russian Revolution, and an opponent of the 1928 Stalin-consolidated counterrevolution, I too came packing my personalized sampler of expectations, along with my laptop. Instead of taking notes by hand in the dark theater, I was determined to make my own technological revolution on the occasion of the Mariinsky tour—and type them on my computer—its screen darkened to black, keystrokes politely muffled by a keyboard protector. From the performer side of the proscenium, this is a show that carries with it more than its dancers, sets, orchestra and costumes. It is fair to say that nearly everyone in the house held a substantial stake in what this special occasion had to offer. I report triumphantly that my notes were for the first time ever, entirely legible and a thrill to revisit!
Seeing two of the four casts on October 10 and 11 offered a chance at assessing not only single performances, but also the company compared with its former selves, and its sister-companies in the U.S. I reject any lens tailored to the jaundiced eye of State Department reconnaissance. I prefer instead to go with my conviction that companies no longer can lay claim to single-state provenance. Rather, they seem to live a in a wrinkle in time where today, dancers from many nations compose an international cast apportioned to companies throughout the world. We are approaching an era that nearly renders the dancer’s passport a curio. The Cuban National Ballet, commonly (and erroneously) considered mono-cultural, in its pre-embargo rosters has boasted dancers from the United States, Puerto Rico, Spain and England, as well as Latin American countries. The Leningrad Kirov or St. Petersburg Mariinsky (as it is now called), has been exclusively Soviet or Russian—until recently. According to general director Valery Gergiev, who fielded questions in the pressroom during intermission, a dancer each from the United States, Korea, England and Azerbaijan—which is not strictly speaking un-Russian—have now joined the company. In other confessions in the same vein, Gergiev revealed that modification of the time-honored Vaganova technique now have dancers rolling through the foot instead of going directly up or down, and showing a passé that conforms with the lifted version seen elsewhere.
The October 10 cast featured Ekaterina Kondaurova as Odette/Odile, and Danila Korsuntsev as Siegfried. Kondaurova’s Odile hit all the vixen-like poses and balances. She dispatched a labored 32 fouettés, singles and doubles, but her Odette was more troublesome. She has a lower body that is athletic and gives good attack, arms that are lithe and silken, but a back that can’t seem to place itself so as to reconcile the upper with the lower body. So, there are moments of visible strain and discordant movement. Korsuntsev is 38, but was chosen for the role of Siegfried because he is young looking. Yet, dramatically, there is a lack of commitment to the character of an indecisive prince being pushed out of the nest belatedly. Instead of choosing from a selection of lovely human aristocratic princess candidates, Siegfried sets his sights on a swan—or two. While the prince is indecisive, the dancer who plays him cannot afford to equivocate, let alone go agnostic.
There is in some versions and this is one of them, a court jester, who ought to be importing moments of comic relief into the otherwise gloomy story. Vasily Tkachenko, a young dancer who shows some promise, still has to find a comic persona—or the jester becomes more of an annoyance than an adornment. The Jester in the October 11 cast, Ilya Petrov, did not have a perfect line, but he nailed the comic moments with a sly grin and slight rakishness, squiring us along our way through the libretto.
Oksana Skoryk, who was put in at the last minute for a pregnant dancer, danced a beguiling Odette that same night, showing an unwavering fluidity and coherence throughout. Her Odile was more problematic: It looked as if she was not settled on the character she wanted to be, her arms failing to support Odile as well as they did Odette; her piqués and passés going a little mushy and disconnected, and so her sizzle tended to fizzle. Her safe choice of single fouettés worked well for her. But when she is once again Odette, bourrées back, and crosses her arms, she regains her earlier stature with high extensions and extreme penchées, and so one wonders if the culprit is choreography that has Rothbart and Siegfried sharing her equally instead of Rothbart hovering menacingly at a distance as he does in other versions.
Skoryk’s Siegfried, Vladimir Schklyarov, though more responsive than Korsuntsev to his mother, the Princess Regent, was at the outset a tepid prince, and not only dramatically. His raised leg lagged in en dehors jumps, and his tour jeté was balky, but unlike Korsuntsev, he had a pulse, and so you could follow his transformation, and by Act IV, he found his bravura and ended the show as awe-struck by Odile as he was moonstruck by Odette. It is disappointing that neither Siegfried followed Odile’s fouetté variation with the customary á la seconde turns. Instead, both Siegfrieds did a well-rendered manège. Asked why there were no secondes, the general director gave the curious response that “not everyone can do that step.” We scoured our memory to come up with a major company where that is the case—and couldn’t!
In both shows, the weak link in the pas de trois was its male dancer, though of the two casts, the October 11 dancer was the stronger; and the two women (Maria Shirinkina and Anastasia Nikitina—both nights) danced with a lackluster academic overlay.
Konstantin Sverev danced the Evil Sorcerer Rothbart on October 10. Andrey Solovyov did the honors on October 11. Both turned in the best performances overall of any male dancer on either night. Their entrances were dramatic and fiery, with behind-the-scenes chicanery woven deftly into their tangled webs.
The decision to roll what are conventionally Acts I and II into a single act undercut the drama of Odette’s entrance in Act II, the decisive moment upon which Odette interpretations are largely judged. Nonetheless, Skoryk had full command of her character and mesmerized the audience with long lovely and expressive arms in the opening pas de deux as she leaned back, folding into Schklyarov, though he adamantly remained more of a spectator than a true believer. As Odette, she uses her head and arms more persuasively than as Odile. When Rothbart enters, she lowers her body to port de bras, conceding deference to him, the hateful mastermind who must be defeated by love, or all is lost.
The swan corps de ballet is the star of the show, the collective prima ballerina whose exquisite timing, perfect bi-lateral v-formations, shaking of water off a loose-limbed leg in a rond de jamb en l’air, inclination of the head so it fits under a raised arm, or interpolation into a kind of duck blind as all dancers descend halfway to the floor on both sides of the stage, makes the evening a standout. All corps members contribute stunningly to the portrait that remains with us when the curtain goes down. Though there are so many very wonderful corps swans in companies I have seen, the Russians and the Cubans will always be the most memorable for their focus and collective charisma. Against the swans, Skoryk is suspended in an architecture that she creates out of movement and poses; there is none of the coltishness here that we saw in Kondaurova the evening before.
The Spanish, Neapolitan and Hungarian Dance and Mazurka Prince’s Ball divertissements were well executed with lighthearted renverses and chassés, low-to-the-floor pas de chevals, all to near funereal-tempo music. There is a spirited polish in the Cuban version that goes missing in this production.
We rarely get to see an Act IV in the U.S., and so it was a pleasure to observe how this version uses the black and white swans in a U formation to set the stage for the finale. The scene opens with a tableau that has white swans clustered on two sides of the stage and six of them burrowed into the floor with their tutu tails raised in the air so that all we see is tulle. Odette whirls through the swans stage left and right, and strikes a fourth position lunge and then, working from her shoulder blades, lowers her back until she finds the classic Swan Lake port de bras that settles floorward. Rothbart enters on a diagonal of razor-sharp jetés, disturbing the serene quiet of the lakeside tableau. Lightning strikes and reveals Odette so near and yet distant from his jealous reach. She appears, he lifts her and drops her to the floor. He then abandons the fallen swan and deserts. Siegfried enters and she rises. After defeating the reappeared Rothbart, Siegfried carries Odette downstage with a tenderness he has not shared until now. The corps swans are delicate, childlike witnesses, their steps softening to a lilt in response to Odette and Siegfried’s reconciliation. Soloists Lyudmila Chaikovskaya on violin, Alexander Ponomarev on cello and Bzhena Chornak on harp, and the orchestra under the direction Mikhail Agrest, provide dulcet accompaniment.
Decried by many, the Russian ending is a happy one, as the human prince and the swan embrace; but then, if it is true that both men and swans can swim, can’t hope float alongside them as a worthy and sporting chaperone?
October 5th, 2012 at 9:00 am
John Speed Orr and Erin Yarbrough-Stewart rehearsing "Cold Virtues" (Hougland). Photo by Keith Sutter.
Smuin Ballet, as part of its opening program for the 2012–2013 season, is presenting the West Coast premiere of Cold Virtues by the exciting young choreographer Adam Hougland. Popular with audience and critics alike, the work is set to Philip Glass’s haunting Violin Concerto and features fourteen dancers, whirling and leaping against a mesmerizing backdrop of spinning fans. The Louisville Courier-Journal described the ballet as “beautifully bleak, honest in unflinching fashion.”
Hougland currently is principal choreographer for the Louisville Ballet and the resident choreographer for Cincinnati Ballet. In addition, he has created original works for American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, the Limon Dance Company, and Washington Ballet, among others. Winner of the Princess Grace Award for Choreography, Hougland was one of Dance Magazine‘s “25 to Watch” for 2011.
California Literary Review: How would you describe your choreographic style?
Adam Hougland: I’m very inspired by music, so I would say that my work is musically driven, and as my dance background is diverse, I tend to draw both from classical techniques as well as contemporary. I really like telling stories and making dances that are movement driven, first and foremost, but that also have a strong sense of theatricality.
Each choreographer has a dance vocabulary that is unique to him or her. Who do you cite as influences on yours?
Martha Graham, Jiri Kylian, José Limon, Paul Taylor — also George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, and Kenneth McMillian.
It seems that although your performance experience was mostly in the modern arena, ballet companies have performed more of your choreography than modern groups. What caused you to move in this direction?
There aren’t many modern dance repertory companies in the States. For the most part, ballet companies are where new work gets commissioned. And really, this whole thing about “ballet” or “modern” is so outdated. It’s all dance — period.
You chose the Philip Glass Violin Concerto for Cold Virtues. Did you use the complete work, or have you edited the music in any way?
The whole thing!
Adam Hougland. Photo by Armando Braswell.
When you set an existing work on a new company, what choreographic changes do you make, if any, to take advantage of the different dancers’ skill sets?
I don’t usually make any changes unless a dancer is seriously struggling with a step, or if there has been that one lift that has always bugged me. I think it’s easy to tinker too much and spoil the whole thing. You have to know when to “stop painting.”
For works with complicated sets and other tech, do you ship the original construction, or are new ones created to accommodate the different theaters?
Usually original sets and costumes are rented at the new theater’s location — unless it’s something simple like the fans in Cold Virtues. It would cost more to ship the original sets than to buy brand new ones on site.
As principal choreographer for Cincinnati Ballet and Louisville Ballet, you have a pretty full plate. Yet you manage to add in freelance projects. What is your secret to keeping all these balls in the air?
It’s really a lot less crazy than it might seem. My situation with both Louisville and Cincinnati usually is one new work or one restaging at each. So I’m not in Cincinnati or Louisville unless I’m working on something specific.
As principal or resident choreographer for a company, what level of freedom do you have when choosing topics and music for new works?
Usually I get to do whatever I want, but there are always limitations in terms of budgets for sets/costumes. So, depending, we just agree on how big or small a new work will be ahead of time and then try not to go over — which is never easy.
What new projects do you have in the works? Are you considering the possibility of a full-length narrative ballet for either Louisville or Cincinnati?
Well, I have choreographed Mozart’s Requiem for Cincinnati, which was done as an evening-length work. I also have a Firebird that’s a one act full-length and also my Rite of Spring.
However, I would jump at the chance to make an even more substantial evening-length work. It’s just hard to get those kinds of opportunities these days, as money is tight. But, yes, I would jump at the chance!
October 5–14, 2012
Cold Virtues by Adam Hougland (West Coast Premiere)
Oh, Inverted World by Trey McIntyre
Starshadows, Homeless, No Viviré (Michael Smuin)
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
3301 Lyon Street, San Francisco
For tickets and information, please visit www.smuinballet.org or call 415.912.1899.
*This program repeats in Spring 2013 in Walnut Creek, Mountain View, and Carmel.
October 4th, 2012 at 3:07 pm
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performs Stamping Ground.
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is the centerpiece of a bold collaboration on an ever-broadening scale to merge arts organizations in two cities to maximize their impact in both locales. Beginning in 1996 in Aspen under the direction and at the impetus of Aspen Ballet founder Bebe Schweppe, the company hired Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty to build a company based on the ballet school Schweppe had established in the Rocky Mountain region. In 2000, with Santa Fe, the two-city structure was inaugurated. Offering a repertoire that one would expect to find in the four top U.S. companies, Aspen Santa Fe became a destination for top-flight classically trained dancers with a natural gift for movement who enjoy dancing the contemporary works of some of today’s most innovative choreographers. The dancers we saw could have just as easily found their way to San Francisco’s LINES Ballet or Amsterdam’s Nederlands Dans Theater. Appearing at the Cullen Theater in Houston’s Wortham Center on September 29, the small but sturdy company of eleven dancers met and surpassed the high expectations of a full house audience studded with ballet aficionados and the most urbane of dance critics.
Last, a commissioned work by Alejandro Cerrudo to music by Henryk Gorecki, opened on a stage diminished in height by a curtain that reached to the midpoint of the backdrop. Scabbards of winter white light added depth, as dancers placed in profile, leaning slightly forward in semi-lunges, responded to counts sounded by chimes. Women in grey tunics and black-shirted men in jeans began an adagio ritual of shape making as the women ascended in lifts toward the hemline of the half curtain, then flipping so that they were held upside down. Two men appeared and then a woman with a blue cami under her tunic. The men guided her through airborne lifts where she was parallel to the floor, now bisecting the half-height space. She is passed from one to the other, as sustained piano notes infiltrated by violin music elongate the whoosh of the passages, at first visual and then auditory. Then there is just one couple and the chimes accompany their duet, offering a deepening of a Calvary-like quality only hinted at in the opening moments, a cross-bearing supplication, where arms held across the shoulders call attention to suffering within. A woman in a floor split is dragged across half the stage and raised to a still-deferential low lift. This is a passion play in the contemporary argot, as dancers struggle for full-out expression against prerogatives that have been halved. A woman’s hands reach to her legs to bring her knees together in this same mood of self-reproach. Her neck reaches upward to thin and elongate a sustained note. Her partner is sprawled on the floor, crablike: he can go no lower or flatter, and yet, she bores her way in to crawl beneath him at his lowest moment, until they are both spread like a smear of crushed violets.
The second movement opens with a volley of scattershot runs. The runs become turns, creating a flipbook of shapes, arms above heads. Then comes an andante movement, where the music stops short as pas de deux lifts reveal legs liberated by halves as they open into bent-knee extensions. A tolling bell sounds, beckoning an ending in which a woman dancer is dragged up off the floor and into a skater’s bent-knee second position, pulled into a half circle around by her partner. She faces the audience, mouth agape in a silent scream. Her partner brings his hands across her mouth to muzzle her as the curtain finally descends all the way to the stage floor.
Jiri Kylian’s Stamping Ground, staged by Patrick Delacroix, opens to no music. For a good six minutes, we hear nothing of the Carlos Chávez score. We focus on the thin silvery strands thickly strung as an upstage backdrop, through which dancers emerge, half disappear and re-appear. A woman shows up. Arms flail left and then right. In profile, she contracts and releases, accelerating more each time until, driven by her spine, her body goes orgasmic. A man then does what she did. More movements are shown, as if the dancers are selecting them from a half-century-old New Dance Group archive brought out for commemorative purposes; a soundless hit parade. Just as we allow that the absence of music is dipping into the zone of tedium, hot men in black briefs slap their thighs, someone mimes peeking through a window curtain, and there are galloping chassés. A woman begins a set of hand manipulations as she searches out the audience, her head checking in from behind her armpit. Soon, all are stamping their feet and a line of dancers breaks into a profile plié walk, weight on the back foot, heads thrown back. Shadow puppet hands create new roles instantly.
At last the music comes up—the icing on a wedding cake where two styles marry: LINES with jewel box. A male dancer arrives with lush, gorgeous movement in opposition to his heat-packing female partner. They are dancing large, with big gulping jumps. Rat-a-tat knees top off legs stomping out the ceremonial beat, as three women join them in a contrapuntal combination, chasing each other across the stage with flexed-footed grand jetés. The rhythms turn indigenously aboriginal in a side-to-side bellows-like triplet step. Torsos rock to xylophonic notes in a sideways cloche, as this frenetic carnival of animals comes to a close.
Katie Dehler and Sam Chittenden in Overglow.
Photo by Sharen Bradford; courtesy of Society for the Performing Arts in Houston, Texas.
Jorma Elo’s Overglow enunciates a parallel vocabulary that for this reviewer settles all mysteries, debates, and rants against and about his work, and places him in a benighted league of his own. The work begins with a series of rock ’em sock ’em chainé turns by a dancer costumed in the springtime green that we recognize as the ubiquitous environmentalist brand. Then come tours, not the kind that bob on top of the music like oversized vessels, but turns that deftly defy the traditions sewn into every point shoe by a Mendelssohn score such as this one is, though sharing the honors with Beethoven. Elo favors turning steps that are passive into active ones, and drives those that are active into the camp of the differently active. So his degagé becomes a squirrelly accent instead of a salvo. The plié becomes a step in its own right instead of a preparation, ending or transition. Even passé is active. Hands are not so much decorative as they are outsized neurotransmitters. A circle of dancers is a sweet thing until one dancer inexplicably recuses herself, and it is no longer the perfect shape that completes us, but a snippet of landscape on the road to infinity. Head movements act as the bridge between steps instead of accents or other more mundane punctuation marks.
Elo’s parallel lexicon is both a tribute and a repost to ballet formalities. In Overglow, it assumes the role of a crazy/happy brainteaser, the riddles kids tell to make each other giddy during car trips, or the games adults used to play on long railroad journeys, where adulthood would be temporarily and mercifully suspended.
The second movement is ceremonial, but not in the same way as Kylian. Here formality takes center stage, with reverential half lifts showing wobbly-nervous knees. A woman is raised higher, as if on an expanding scaffold, a vision in extremis that resolves into an impassioned lift, opening in silky ecstasy. The lift unfolds like the petals of a flower, each assay mastering a new level of difficulty. Somewhere else, there is a profile cloche step that stiffens into something more acute, arms closing en avant into the oblique. Then up she goes again into the pendulum mode, and we see that these steps are points on a fulcrum, not made to show off balletic bodies so much as launch a discourse filled with inclinations and feints to the theatrical side.
The dancer’s lifeless body lies submerged in a puddle of slate-colored silken folds. This cloud of grey is her costume, a color that blends with the earth beneath her. Another woman paces in circles a half a stage away. Her classical steps are unassailable as she discharges frappés like bullets from the body one could mistake for a revolver on a dark and rainy Houston evening.
August 30th, 2012 at 9:38 pm
Photo by Damián Donestévez García
From Havana yesterday, August 27, came the sad news that Mirta Hermida, the headmistress of the Cuban National Ballet School, died of a heart attack after having spent an afternoon relaxing with colleagues and friends. Below is an interview with Hermida that I conducted on July 14, 2011, at the Centro ProArt in Querétaro, Mexico, during the Festival Iberica Contemporanea de Danza. Portions of the interview appeared in a longer article on the festival on the website criticaldance.com.
How did you get started dancing?
At first, I attended the Conservatorio Principal de Ballet in Havana and joined the Lyric Opera Ballet. We danced as a corps de ballet in operas such as Rigoletto, or operettas. Then the Ballet Nacional de Cuba merged with the Lyric Opera, and came under the direction of Fernando and Alicia Alonso, so I continued to dance in the corps de ballet of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
How was it that you became a teacher?
Understanding that dancers’ careers had a limited time span and usually ended at the age of 30, Fernando and Alicia taught us how to teach, even as we learned. And so, by the age of 19 I had begun teaching. This development of dancers simultaneously as teachers assured the continuity of the Cuban school and style for generations to come. It conferred the stamp of Alicia Alonso as a ballerina assoluta and her accomplishments on the company and school.
What lessons from Fernando Alonso remain with you today?
He was the one who was director of both the school and company, and in the 1978-79 season turned the school over to Ramona de Sáa. I have been side by side with her all the way, colleagues and friends for over 50 years.
What for me stands out about Fernando’s direction is the continuity of development we were able to achieve (with Ramona’s help). She developed the curriculum for the beginner students with my help. But Fernando has that eagle eye to this day, and continues to attend classes and rehearsals and help coach the girls, holding them to his high standards, to assure that we do not lose them. Cuba has created a system of teaching that she and others can carry across borders. It is a system that not only teaches students, but teaches students to teach, and she has received substantial recognition for her work.
Is Ramona’s work well recognized?
Oh, yes! She has taught in Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Colombia, and a little bit in Venezuela, where she has introduced the Cuban method to broader and broader layers of students internationally.
Do you have concerns that because a number of dancers have left Cuba that there will not be a sufficient number remaining to continue teaching in generations to come?
Because our students receive a firm base in the Cuban school, which has taken the best from the Russian, English, North American, French and Danish traditions, our dancers are able to go anywhere in the world—as we have seen with Lorna Feijoo in Boston, Lorena Feijoo in San Francisco, Carlos Acosta in London and José Manuel Carreño in New York, and bring an amplified experience back to Cuba, without losing the values of the school and our pedagogy.
Do Cubans resent the fact that everyone in Cuba invests at a high cost in the future of its dancers, and then sometimes they leave for other companies so that audiences in other countries get to enjoy the fruits of Cuba’s labor?
Not at all. This enriches us! Everyone broadens their horizons. Schools and companies in other countries see what we do and we see what they do, and we have demonstrated our capacity to absorb all of it without losing who we are. We have nothing to fear from such exposure. This year is the 50th anniversary of our school, During Holy Week we will have our usual Encuentro de Academias, but to celebrate our 50th birthday, we will also have a special international competition, and we are inviting students from all over the world to join us in this event.
August 26th, 2012 at 10:21 am
Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon in All That Jazz.
© 1979 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.
Start pointing and flexing those fingers to warm up for our Summertime Digital Dance Quiz, because unless you happen to live in New York, or near one of the festival cities, dance performances are hard to find come summer, so fans tend to lean on the silver screen or the flat one to get their needs met. Little that is new is available on TV in summer, so other family members or roommates ought not to raise strenuous objections to you clicking on “free movies” on your cable menu to find old dance films, or uploading them from Netflix or borrowing them from the public library. Of course, once you light out on the shadowy path of digital dance, certain ghosts are likely to leap out at you. You’ve seen them before. They’re the semi-friendly ones that tend to shape shift into questions about dance that are over-discussed in dance circles, and largely ignored or discounted by everyone else. Here are a few of them. Please post your responses in the comments section at the end of the blog.
Was Turning Point a cornball family movie or a great mid-century dance film?
Is the artistic director in The Red Shoes the archetype for all his real-life successors?
Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ray Bolger, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds amazed their viewing audiences. Who among them was most difficult to work with?
Did Ginger Rodgers have or not have turnout?
Which was more important to you in Billy Elliot—the dancing or the plot?
Did Natalie Portman deserve to win an Oscar for Black Swan because in one year and a half years she lost 25 pounds and, with Benjamin Millepied’s coaching, developed credible port de bras?
Were Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron underrated as dancers?
Was it fair that Jerome Robbins was fired from his job as choreographer of West Side Story, a movie in which the male dancers bear no resemblance to any New York gang member, living or dead?
Is it worth watching John Turturro slog through his crass knockoff of Groucho Marx shtick in Brain Donors, just to see the final twenty minutes of a riotously whacky Swan Lake parody by George de la Peña as the insufferable Volare?
Does Dirty Dancing win out over all comers for the best popular dance/romance movie of all time?
Does any dance film’s photographic work and direction match Carlos Saura’s of Antonio Gades and Cristina Hoyos’s virtuosic flamenco dancing in Blood Wedding?
If you have seen Ballet Russes, is that a guarantee that in three years you will remember or be able to pronounce the names of the Baby Ballerinas?
Is Busby Berkeley a total sellout to the industrial age, or a choreographic genius?
Can the movie version of A Chorus Line remotely compare to the stage production?
Do you believe that students at New York City’s High School of Performing Arts actually danced on the tops of cars driving down 46th Street, as seen in Fame?
Has there ever been a film made about an individual choreographer that equals Pina?
Were the performances by Roy Scheider and Ben Vereen in All That Jazz two of the best in a dance film?
How many of the unidentified dance figures can you name in the film La danse—Le ballet de l’Opera de Paris?
Whose style in Chicago do you prefer: Renée Zellweger’s or Catherine Zeta Jones’s?
Is Bunheads a vast improvement over dance reality shows, even if Sutton Foster and Kelly Bishop reprise that grating and (in Foster’s case) overly mannered, mostly un-funny, cerebral verbal jousting that was tantamount to a dentist drilling when you heard it in Gilmore Girls?
Are Joel Grey and Liza Minelli in Cabaret the best overall triple-threat team in a movie, any movie?
Here are the dance films and TV shows you may want to check out in order to form, not to mention inform your opinions:
Flying Down to Rio
The Red Shoes
Singing in the Rain
On the Town
All That Jazz
Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
Singin’ in the Rain
West Side Story
An American in Paris
All That Jazz
La danse—le ballet de l’Opera de Paris
August 12th, 2012 at 1:42 pm
Richard Cragun and the author in Santiago.
I almost didn’t go. When on Tuesday, I told the otolaryngologist, Dr. Schindler, that I had to fly on Saturday, he said, “You remind me of Pavarotti. He came in here and said, ‘I have to sing tonight.’ I told him, ‘What? Don’t they have understudies?’” He could have done standup, this Doctor Schindler, but instead he squirted the insides of my ears with his semi-secret remedy, Castellani Paint. Having benefited from a repeat application two days later, I woke up on a Saturday morning, last May, pain-free, and flew the first leg of my trip to Houston, and then to my final destination, Santiago de Chile, mid-week. My assignment? To interview the famous Brazilian ballerina and erstwhile star of the Stuttgart Ballet, Marcía Haydée, who at 75, directs the Ballet de Santiago, and to review of the company’s production of John Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew. Haydée was not easy to find, and I suspect that that is why my editor gave me this plum of an assignment—it had a sleuth component and this was something of a test run, as I had never written for the magazine before. As a retired librarian, I couldn’t resist the challenge. My friend Jim Nelson at Houston Ballet came through. I learned quite by accident that he had danced for a brief year with Ballet de Santiago, and appealed to him to help me out, which he did in spades. So there I was standing face to face with the radiant, yet unpretentious Marcía Haydée in her office above the Teatro Municipal. We arranged a time for an interview, and then in an offhanded manner, she said, “Oh, you know, Richard Cragun is here.”
“Here?” I said, looking around her modest office for a revolving bookcase where he might be hidden. “Well, in the next room. Would you like to meet him?” “Would I? Why, yes!” I said, realizing that I must have sounded like Mickey Rooney doing Andy Hardy. Within seconds, her famous co-star at Stuttgart Ballet was standing opposite me, shaking my hand and hugging me, while saying that he was from Sacramento, California, and his father had been a college librarian.”
“We have so many things in common, Mr. Cragun. I think you should let me interview you,” I said. This time, I let the Andy Hardy persona return to the era whence he came. Marcía proposed that Richard and I meet over breakfast. After all, he and I were staying at the same hotel, and it offered one of those pugilistic breakfast buffets that you can never win against. He declined the breakfast proposal, mysteriously hinting at being a little slow in the morning. So we set up a rendez-vous for the following evening. Later that night, I attended an encounter intended to prime the Teatro Muncipal audience several days in advance, for the special elements in Taming of the Shrew that had to do with its having been set by Cranko on Haydée, and the challenges, such as Cragun’s famed triple tour, which the Santiago casts had to conquer. Cragun spoke no Spanish, but Haydée translated his remarks in English, seeming to pick up where he left off in the seamless and intuitive way that wives finish their husband’s sentences, and in fact, they were a couple for 16 years. Later, Cragun, having extended his sexual repertoire to include male partners, came out, and eventually followed one special partner, Roberto de Oliveira, to Rio de Janeiro, where Cragun lived and worked until he died of AIDS-related complications last Monday, August 6.
But back in Santiago last May, our interview took place in a cozy hotel conference room. He ordered water. I did too, but Richard insisted that I have something more substantial. I ordered pineapple juice. A short time later, a waiter brought a plate of fresh pineapple and mango. Ricky—which by now is the nickname Cragun had asked me to call him—insisted that the plate be returned and juice be brought in its stead. The waiter protested that it was too late at night for pineapple juice, which, it turned out, was a staple of the intrepid breakfast buffet and not available nocturnally. So I declared that the fruit was even better, and over glistening pineapple chunks, and under the rubric of an interview, we began one of the most stimulating discussions about ballet in memory. It lasted three hours, but we had only covered five out of my eight questions!
Groggy from jet lag and somewhat in the throes of post-traumatic stress from the events that had in a day magically transformed me into a marathon interviewer, as if a mythical character had handed me a pouch of special beans, I repaired to my room and wrote my editor. I related my good fortune: Not only would there be an interview with Marcía Haydée, but Richard Cragun has just given me a three-hour interview and we are not yet done. There are editors who would have strokingly replied, “Lovely, we can probably do a sidebar,” but this editor understood that this was huge, and instead wrote, “Great! We’ll put it into the next issue after the one with the Haydée interview.” Did I waltz around my room, rinse out a blouse in the bathroom sink, or collapse on my hotel room bed? All three, perhaps. I can’t remember.
The next day, Ricky and I returned to our discussion, this time over the sad runny eggs from the breakfast buffet. He ate the scrambled ones that come from the steam table, and turned up his nose at my choice of the hard-boiled version. I pointed out that if I was required to eat eggs from a breakfast buffet, they would be the ones that were certifiably eggs, as opposed to something more inorganic. He gazed up at me with a new-found respect, and we plowed through Cranko—his habits, predilections, charms, precocious choreographic genius, and the sorrier parts, such as his untimely death, and the result that he bequeathed Cragun almost nothing of his repertoire, such that Ricky, in poor health, was living in straitened circumstances in Rio. He was thankful to be the titular artistic director of his ex-lover’s ballet studio, and for the occasional opportunity to coach Cranko works at Ballet de Santiago. He mentioned that he did cartooning, and showed examples of his work that he kept archived on his phone. I shared my thought that the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design might be interested enough in the cartoons to mount an exhibit of them. He then asked me whether I had an opinion on where he might leave his papers. The question startled me, because it seemed premature, but twenty-two years of librarianship had taught me to show no reaction to even the most upsetting of queries. Cragun went on to say that he had 4,000 letters to his father, alone, and many other documents. As a responsible librarian, I mentioned a couple of options, but he seemed quite determined that his papers go to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design because he was at heart a Californian.
We had begun the five-hour interview with me as journalist, him as former dance star, and now we had moved into a new relationship, as we exchanged suggestions, email addresses, views, outlooks on politics and religion—the two subjects one is supposed to scrupulously avoid, and shared meals together, along with a choreologist who had come from Bremen, Birgit Deharde, whom we both had befriended. The three of us became a serendipitous triple tour of sorts, sharing technology horror stories, dance anecdotes, family lore, and laughing boisterously until we closed down the odious breakfast buffet, chassée-ing between tables and chairs, and thereby earning contemptuous stares from the Maître D’.
On some mornings, Ricky would excuse himself from the breakfast table, quipping coyly, “I tell people that I’m leaving to wash my hands,” trot off to the restroom, and then return, looking a little more robust. One couldn’t help but wonder whether he was feeling ill, and taking medication. We would enjoy the luxury of a coffee or tea refill, and return to some previous thread in the conversation until we had exhausted it. There were rehearsals that Ricky and Birgit were there to vet, where I was invited to be an observer. But every evening ended at an excellent sushi restaurant, or the chicken joint across from the theater called La Picá de Clinton [Clinton’s Pecker], where the chicken was succulent and the beer was cold. Ricky paid for these outings with fits of coughing, but would recover, and the three of us were then skipping gaily out the door and down the darkened rain-damp street, Ricky singing in a German accent, á la Joel Grey, “Do-do-do-do-do-two lehdeez und I’m zee only mahn,” from Caberet, as tolerant Chileans looked on.
Our final soirée together was on the opening night of Taming of the Shrew. Marcía invited us to join her, her husband, Günter Schoberl, and the ballet masters, in the director’s box. After the final bows, Günter said, “Marcía has asked me to invite you to dinner with us.” Dinner was at a Spanish restaurant near the couple’s home, where the cuisine was Catalonian, and I found myself seated next to Ricky. We shared our piquillo peppers stuffed with bacalao, and other specialties of the house with one another, and wine, beer and aperitifs appeared out of nowhere. Before long, everyone was feeling the collective bliss and resulting camaraderie of a successful opening night, during which John Cranko had been brought back to life once again, as only two of his most favored protégés could have succeeded in doing so perfectly.
Richard and I said our goodbyes at breakfast the next morning, with a promise on my part, that I would propose the exhibit of his cartoons to the Museum of Performance and Design. In spite of the confession that he was exhausted, he said that he would stay on another day in Santiago, in order to see the second-cast performance of Taming.
Shortly after I returned to the Bay Area, I was invited to an after-party for a dancer-initiated fund-raiser for a cancer prevention program. While there, former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Muriel Maffre’s companion, Benjamin Pierce and I were chatting, and Ben said, “You’ll have to congratulate Muriel. She has just been named director of the Museum for Performance and Design.” Friends and fans surrounded Maffre, but we managed a short chat, and I explained about Ricky’s cartoons and the papers he was looking to deposit. “We must have both,” Maffre pronounced, as if no alternative existed. I rushed home. First, I wrote to Regina Bustillos, San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s assistant, and urged her to urge Tomasson to hire Ricky to coach the next run of John Cranko’s Onegin, and then I wrote an email to Ricky. “Send cartoon samples pronto! The museum wants to do a show!” He wrote back to ask for my postal address. I sent it to him. It was our last communication.
No samples arrived, and no samples arrived, and I felt like the little boy in the The Carrot Seed, the first book I remember my mother having read to me as a child. That is, I felt both a little unsure, and at the same time, confident that the samples would arrive. When we met at an exhibition at the museum, Muriel said, “I’d like to do the show next August, but I must have the samples very soon.” I wrote to Ricky, this time in a tone that was the tiniest bit insistent. But no samples arrived. No email either. I wrote to Luz Lorca, Marcía Haydée’s assistant to ask whether Ricky happened to be in Santiago to help coach the company’s upcoming Mayerling. Just a few days later, Luz wrote back, “I am sorry to have to tell you that Richard Cragun died this morning in Rio. Marcía is devastated.”
When you have lived a long life, you receive such news so many times that you would think you’d become a pro at accepting it. But nature has arranged it so that there is no way to perfect your response, no “The Zen of___” to study and internalize for such occasions. Later, you can picture what you were doing, where you were, or the time of day it was when you were jolted out of your complacency by news of a loved one’s death. Even if you are not prepared for the news, you summon some morsel of dignity to partner the shock and horror that overcomes you. I was alone when the news pixilated itself across my screen. In my mind’s eye, I called up an image of the lovely person I knew as Luz Lorca, who had let me use her desk one afternoon, now moments ago at that very same desk, typing these words, with their inherent finality, that she could not delete or take back. I thought of the many people I would feel compelled to “inform.” But before that inexorable stream of disclosure could begin, I would need a moment to be alone with the memory of my new best friend, who I had paradoxically just lost forever. He would be my partner in this last enterprise. I would not require him to pull out triple tours, as earlier critics and audiences had. I would simply locate the joy inside of me that the chimera of his spirit could evince. I would let some channeled avatar of him slip his once-warm arm through mine, as if it were once again a dark rainy night, and the two of us were belting out a stanza or two of “Two Lehdeez,” before letting go.
Toba Singer’s interviews with Marcía Haydée and Richard Cragun will appear in the last two 2012 quarterly issues of Dance International, a print and online publication.
August 10th, 2012 at 1:42 pm
San Francisco Ballet dancer and choreographer Myles Thatcher.
© David Allen
I first saw San Francisco corps de ballet member Myles Thatcher in class about six years ago when he was a first-year student at New York’s Ellison Ballet. I saw his first choreographic work, Timepiece, at the Assemblée International, hosted by the School of the National Ballet of Canada, in Toronto in 2009. The Assemblée International was a first-time experiment, in which graduating students from ballet schools in 14 locations throughout the world brought both a student choreographic piece and an established work from their parent company’s repertoire, to be performed by mixed casts drawn from all the participating schools. Thatcher’s work drew the curtain back on a young man who was in the thrall of ballet. I wondered where his choreographic career would take him, but didn’t have to wait long for the answer, as his Timepiece and Spinae were selected by San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson to be included, one each year, in the 2011 and 2012 Stern Grove Festival SFB performances. I was able to interview Thatcher between rehearsals for the company’s upcoming London tour at the Sadler’s Wells Theater.
What brought you into the world of dance?
I grew up in Pennsylvania, and was part of a theater youth program there. When I was eight years old, I was auditioning for a show one day, and afterwards, Margo Clifford Ging, the teacher who oversaw the dance section, told my mother, “This boy should dance!” and so my mom enrolled me in ballet, telling me that if I wanted to, I could stop after three classes. I was the only boy dancing. I had attended summer sessions at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, and when I was 14, decided to go to the Harid Conservatory in Florida. After a year and one summer at Harid, I was accepted into Edward Ellison’s program in New York for two years. I came here for the summer school, and was asked to stay as a member of the trainee program, and then invited to join the company.
I observed you in class with Edward Ellison about six years ago. What from your studies with Ellison do you carry into the studio every day?
Most importantly, he instilled a great work ethic in his students. That’s the main thing I carry with me, along with an appreciation of classical technique and all the refinements. We spent a lot of time on every hand, arm and middle step’s detail, in order to get to know those qualities that finish a step. We spent a lot of time after class discussing those things, and on some days we had technique classes that lasted for four hours, so it was very thorough, and you got to know the correct place for everything, and that training really corresponded to how my brain works. I developed those skills during the first half of the year and in the second half, prepared to dance the Giselle pas de deux for the Youth America Grand Prix Competition in New York. We spent a lot of time talking about the emotional content of the pas de deux, and it was a wonderful experience for the two of us sixteen-year-olds, getting to the substance in that way.
Which came first, the desire to dance or to make dances?
Definitely, the desire to dance came first, but when I was 12, I told my mom I wanted to be a choreographer, and this was before Harid, so I had thought about it at a young age. I remember choreographing to The Nutcracker Suite, but once I began training more seriously, I wasn’t thinking about it, I didn’t have time! When I was in the trainee program here, we had a choreographic workshop to prepare for the Assemblée International, and we were using each other in a very experimental way. It was intimidating, but also fun, and then Helgi chose my piece for the festival and well, it has snowballed, and all of a sudden I’m getting opportunities. It’s such a different side of dancing, and it comes very naturally to me.
Have you had any opportunities outside of SFB?
I did two projects with the San Francisco Symphony. One was for a citywide teachers gathering; we did a small solo with a girl in the school and then I did another piece with Damian Smith [an SFB principal dancer] for a St. Sebastian Symphony production. That was more elaborate, with projections, a full chorus, and a speaker.
What were the biggest challenges and rewards of participating in the Assemblée International three years ago?
The biggest challenge was the short amount of time we had to put it together. It was hard to delve into the movement and to get the quality that I wanted. Another challenge was the language barrier, which was actually kind of fun; some kids spoke five languages, others only one. The Cubans spoke only Spanish; I spoke only English! It was very interesting to see what each school brought from its existing repertoire and how it correlated with their parent company’s. We also got to see the strengths of different schools and styles, and what was most important to them as dancers. We tend to adopt the perspective of the schools we come from. It’s easy to get stuck in the bubble of where you are at the moment. So, it was good to see what was happening in the scholastic world. Those are the dancers of my generation, and as a choreographer, it made me analyze my own movement. When working with the dancers at SFB, we are in sync, but when working with dancers from other schools, you can take nothing for granted, and have to specify everything, and yet I was able to discover consistencies among all of them with the piece I set.
If you were organizing the next Assemblée International, what changes would you consider making?
I had to miss the culminating meeting, because the SFB trainees had to leave to attend a big meeting to prepare for rehearsals, so I wish I had been there to be part of that process, to see what the teachers from each school gained. Now looking back at it, there is a fascinating aspect in seeing what you can learn from different schools, and I definitely wish we had had more time back at home to prepare. As trainees, we danced in both company and school performances, so we were coming in early before class to steal the time to work on our preparation. Jean-Yves Esquerre was the director of the program at the time, and I very much admired how he consciously took a step back and let us craft it, but then just when we needed help, he would step in and say, “Think about this—“ because it’s so scary the first time out; I didn’t have fancy lighting, nor did I think I needed it. I told the dancers my ideas and then it just happened. I definitely would have liked to hear what the directors thought about the experience, and how it has changed how they are approaching it now. Keeping one’s perspective and learning from taking an objective look, are things you have to step back and do for the good of the art.
SF Ballet Apprentices Emma Rubinowitz and Alexander Reneff-Olson in Myles Thatcher’s Spinae.
© Erik Tomasson
When four lines of dancers are going in different direction, working on different levels, changing partners every few seconds, some turning, some jumping, some rolling across the floor, how do you let the audience experience the sweet spot amidst all the movement?
This is based on instinct. I try not to analyze too much, especially what other people have done. I like to create that moment, test the moment of when it goes over to being too much, and then bringing it back where it should be. I’ve been thinking about which rules to break, test, which we need to test: V formations and cannons, stashing so much on one side of the stage. What do I want to keep or test? I’m completely new, and don’t want to fall back into fast-food formulas. I try to put movements together that are complementary, and find that the more you see the work, the easier it is to process.
When you lay awake at night, which do you think about more: your career, your work in rehearsal that day, or a piece you are setting?
If I’m working a lot with the school, I think as a choreographer. It’s like a puzzle that needs to be cracked. It may seem to me that the steps are predetermined, but really, the music is dictating what should be there: Even though I may think this needs to be there, the music tells me that needs to be there instead. The work has to be cohesive with the score, and then you can play with the layers of music.
When you audition or select dancers, do you have differing criteria for different works, or are you more interested in a certain kind of dancer for all your work?
So far, I’ve tried to use everyone who has been given to me. In the Trainee Program, I make a point of working with everybody because I think that year is so important artistically, in order to get what you will need when you join a company. To not use someone because contemporary style seems to not be their strength—no! And that’s what is amazing about working with the trainees, and seeing them grow over these past eight months. We’re seeing the subtleties they’ve managed to add, just in the time between spring showcase and Stern Grove!
I worked a lot with improv to construct some of the movement, I paired up men and women, men and men or women and women and gave them a task. For example, we’d put two people together with the task of competing with each other to get from point A to point B and take turns, guy and girl, and then pairs competing, and so that ended up directly helping us shape the piece, and gave us the material to talk about what the piece was trying to say. It was fascinating that the men would be more aggressive, flinging each other across the stage, whereas women would out-maneuver each other, work in a more strategic way, and we’d talk about it how funny it was how we reacted to a human conflict we’d decided on and what we extracted from it artistically; I’m not naturally someone who enjoys conflict. There are a couple of layers. The first tended to be the man’s aggressive approach; second was the woman’s more strategic thing where she’s always one step ahead of him; then we blurred the lines between male and female because conflict is never about other people. When I was going through the music, and began setting the steps, I wanted it to have that edge of conflict, and then halfway through, didn’t know where I was going with it, and so we worked together to develop it conceptually. I’d would ask the dancers what they thought they were representing, and then I would share what I was thinking and then discuss how important it was to all be on the same page. I think that’s what’s missing these days in contemporary works. We have so much going on, and if we don’t have the same focus, we lose the quality.
My challenge with pre-professionals is, “What can I do within the process of creating a ballet to open their minds to what ballet is besides technique, and how will that quality add dimension to the piece?” The process is what our career is all about. You want to come in and get to the meat of what the art is, not just learn steps and perform them. Finally, there was one rehearsal where I thought to myself, “This is isn’t mine anymore; they have taken this and made it their own.”
San Francisco Ballet will appear at the Sadler’s Wells Theater, Rosebery Avenue, London, September 14-23 2012. For more information, call 08444124.