California Literary Review

Dance Vine

Post:Ballet — Dreams, Seams, and Salience

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July 24th, 2012 at 9:30 am

It is probably appropriate at this stage in its three-year-old life that Robert Dekkers’ Post:Ballet experiences growing pains. Having seen Diablo Ballet perform Dekkers’ piece Happy Ending earlier this year, I brought great and somewhat proprietary expectations to Post:Ballet’s program Triads on July 20 at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, and I was not alone. Dekkers, through the medium or reputation of his past work, and a network of dancers and friends, succeeded in filling the Herbst with an audience feeling as welcome and excited to be there as we did. In addition to the impressive size of the audience was the unusual aspect that it consisted of mostly men.

Post:Ballet, Mine is Yours

Post:Ballet dance artists Hiromi Yamazaki and Domenico Luciano with Ashley Flaner (background) and Raychel Weiner (foreground) in Robert Dekkers’ Mine is Yours.
Photography by Natalia Perez

Mine is Yours opens the program with a formidable set of which David Robertson’s lighting—high spots spiked through a haze of gray dry-ice—creates a trigonometric pattern, complementing a vertical line of three women dancers wearing textured bandeau tops in rich hues. Like the muses in Apollo, they dance apart from the male dancer, Domenico Luciano, who, bare-chested, is draped in a luminous coppery long skirt. While a surfeit of dry ice obscures what we can see of the most distal of the three women, the second of them to step over Luciano’s reclining body shows a delicacy and facility that is not present in the others. The program notes allude to a sexual theme, and indeed, each of the women has her turn with Luciano, as well as time to explore her female partners, which involves not a little nuzzling and sniffing. A single touch from Luciano, whose vibrant back literally carries Dekkers’ assays, sends the women fanning out from him. With a flick of a dancer’s foreleg, the work is momentarily sculpted into layers, enabling the women to probe the space described by the lit triangle. The electronic score does not suggest romance so much as an aural feed for tactile play dates, and in fact, that is what Dekkers is most accomplished at—involving his audience in the shared gentle and diverting moments—a rare, if not rarified talent that has opened doors for him. The challenge before him is to close the chasms that separate those doors from the outlying creative possibilities beyond them.

Post:Ballet, Happy Endings

Post:Ballet dance artists (from L to R) Beau Campbell, Christian Squires, Hiromi Yamazaki, Raychel Weiner, Myles Lavallee and Domenico Luciano in Robert Dekkers’ Happy Ending.
Photography by Natalia Perez

Happy Ending is the ultimate in the play date genre, and while comparisons may be odious, it must be said that Diablo Ballet executed it more appealingly, mostly owing to the company’s advanced technical and artistic purchase. In the Post:Ballet version, the residual (or additional) dry ice blow detracted from the required sharp edge. So it read more dully with this cast, as they lumbered through the most challenging of its counts. Christian Squires’ imaginative horizontally-striped briefs in primary colors, with sports bras for the women and black bottoms and white tops with red suspenders for the men, need to literally “pop” out at the audience from a quick dispatch that largely goes missing this night. Still, it is entertaining to see what is a romp through contact improv moves, skater chassés and runs ending in slides to and from a back wall that the dancers ping off of. Above all, Happy Ending offers a look at Dekkers’ lighthearted, kids-on-the-playground, creative bent. While some believe that art should never be strictly entertainment, sometimes an audience needs its palate cleansed. That is best accomplished when notes of piquancy are present.

In Interference Pattern (excerpts), two of the company’s best dancers, Jonathan Mangosing and Christian Squires, dance in front of a screened half portrait that grows and then diminishes until it fades. While inspiration for the piece is attributed to particle physics, the physical elements limit themselves to fastidious gyroscopic motion, and an engagement that in its intensity brings to mind the wrestling scene between two hot and hunky men that ends in agro sex, in the film Women in Love. Robertson’s lighting here is hearth-redolent, and the men are bare except for wine-red briefs, and so Dekkers has created an intimacy that reveals the articulate surety that both of the well trained and experienced dancers bring to the stage.

Post:Ballet - When in Doubt

Post:Ballet dance artists Christian Squires and Raychel Weiner in Robert Dekkers’ world premiere, When in Doubt.
Photography by Natalia Perez

When in Doubt is a world premiere. It is an ensemble piece, with the dancers dressed in black costumes by Jan Berletti, and it reads elegantly—visually. It is the only piece on the program where the women don’t look like afterthoughts, and this mainly because there is equanimity in the choreography that masks some of the technical deficiencies, which Dekkers clearly had to find a way to camouflage. It is danced to a spoken word loop that opens with the inspiring oratory of the internationally respected philosopher and social commentator, Bertrand Russell. Unfortunately, Russell’s contribution is limited to the opening of the piece, and then we hear what we imagine are various dancers offering clichéd sophisms that assess their lives, careers and life in general. Their observations are at best impressionistic and at worst prosaic, and so, while we are appreciating their limpid diagonal lines, and youthful juiciness, we find ourselves counting how many times the words “like,” “my,” “myself,” “passion,” “really,” “incredible,” and “amazing,” stammer their way to the surface of a minimally edited tape, and conclude that the tmi deluge has resulted in over sharing what they think makes them tick, much to the detriment of the piece.

Dekkers must be praised for his confidence, and willingness to extend his reach beyond his grasp. This is preferable to hiding his light under a bushel basket, and yet, he has found a lesser-known hiding place: The work he brings to us tends to be overly complex, and at times, overwrought to the point that salience is lost. Discriminating casting is subordinated to bringing more, more, more to the fore. It is not just the choreography itself that is complex, but overbuilt technical tropes tend to blunt the focus as well. Hopefully, Dekkers will see that, if he pares down the bells and whistles, and raises the overall technical and artistic level of the company to that of the three or four best dancers, his work will be good enough to stretch into the spaces he clearly covets. With the laudable exceptions of Hiromi Yamazaki and Susan Roemer, the women are not working from the waist up. They are not challenged by choreography in which they are little more than accessories for the men, dragged on the floor, or lifted between two men like a chicken on a rotisserie spit. Each dancer needs a stage personality, no matter how non-hierarchic the piece—to know whom she or he is in relation to her or himself, a specific partner, and the ensemble as a whole.

What does Post:Ballet mean in terms of classical ballet? Is it a rejection of the classical vocabulary, an integration of classical with neo-classical and contemporary styles, or a step beyond what has gone before? Any or all of these would be ambitious missions for a company of Post:Ballet’s size and scope. So, it is not an academic question: The work must genuinely center on the art it proposes. If the statement before us is that this art exceeds the bounds of ballet in its current modalities, and therefore the company shows its seams by talking about them to win audiences to its philosophy, sins of commission will accumulate, because, as in film, dance must show, not tell its libretto or raison d’être.

Dekkers is young, talented, innovative, and deserving. He cannot afford to short-circuit the necessaries because the spotlight is a temptation. There is plenty of time and space along the high road for contemplation, reflection, and at the end of an honest day’s work—success.

8 Questions with Dancer/Choreographer David Van Ligon

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July 23rd, 2012 at 11:33 am

David Van Ligon. Photo by David De Silva

 

Dancer/choreographer David Van Ligon has come a long way in a short period of time. Born in Dallas, Texas, and raised in South Carolina, he was invited to study at the San Francisco Ballet School on full scholarship when he was only sixteen. The following season, he joined the professional division of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. From 2005–2009, he danced with Nevada Ballet Theatre as a soloist, performing leading roles in George Balanchine’s Rubies, Serenade, Who Cares?, and Allegro Brilliante, in addition to performing various works by Bruce Steivel and Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena. He has performed at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., as well as at the National Theatre of Korea. Before joining Company C Contemporary Ballet in 2010, David danced with Ballet Austin.

California Literary Review caught up with David just as he was preparing to leave for Laguna Beach where he has been invited to dance in the prestigious National Choreographers Initiative. This Saturday, July 28, 2012, Director Molly Lynch invites Southern California audiences to see four new ballets created as part of the intensive three-week preparation period.

California Literary Review: Your career has taken you all over. Where have you enjoyed living most?

David Van Ligon: Of all the places I have lived throughout my career, San Francisco has always felt like home. When I came here in 2002 at the age of 16, it immediately felt right. I loved living in Seattle, too, because of the great friendships I made, and there is a special place in my heart for Las Vegas because of my friends and the opportunities I was given to grow as an artist.

Company C has a varied repertoire. What type of work do you enjoy performing the most?

I really love the blend of classical ballet and contemporary movement. Performing Twyla Tharp’s Surfer on the River Styx was such a challenge, but so fulfilling as a dancer. I’ve also really enjoyed performing in ballets by Charles Anderson, Maurice Causey, and Gregory Dawson. Each brings such a different movement quality, and it’s always fun to push myself in different directions.

However, I’ll forever be a die-hard Balanchine boy; that’s the one thing I do miss at Company C. But if I’m feeling blue, I just start doing Phlegmatic from the Four Temperaments or the opening sequence for the tall girl in Rubies to get my fix.

While they might not be your favorite to watch, some choreographers’ styles feel (to dancers) more comfortable than others. Who are your favorites to dance?

Of all the ballets I’ve performed, my favorite choreographers are definitely George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Val Caniparoli, Maurice Causey, Gregory Dawson, and Twyla Tharp. Some day, I also want to perform Christopher Wheeldon and Alexie Ratmansky’s ballets. Another dream of mine is to dance Ullysses Dove’s Red Angels. He was such a phenomenal choreographer — one we lost way too soon.

David Van Ligon rehearsing Ashley Maungmaithong and Calvin Thomas Jr.
Photo courtesy of Lululemon Athletica

 

You have presented some of your own choreography this year. Did you enjoy the process? Any plans for more? 

It was very exciting to get to showcase one of my works for Company C, and I really enjoyed watching the piece come together. It was just thrilling to watch — from the videotape of me doing the initial steps, then to have the dancers understand my vision and afterward execute it.

Charlie [Artistic Director of Company C Charles Anderson] surprised me during our conference for next season to tell me that my piece Natoma is going to be a part of Company C’s Spring 2013 repertory. It was one of the happiest moments in my life.

I have so many more ballets I want to do. There are about five in my portfolio ready to be set, two more I just started working on, and a full-length ballet that I want to see come to life.

 

Community work seems to be a passion with you. What projects are you planning to coordinate with?

I think being an activist or raising awareness in the community is something genetic. My grandmother was a big activist in her church for equal rights and other liberal points of view, my father is the LGBT safe space for the University of South Carolina where he is a professor of music, and my mother was on the front lines in the 60s and 70s protesting against the wars and other things.

As for my involvement, I feel it’s my duty as a gay man to be educated and to educate others about HIV/AIDS. It’s something that is still very present, and if it weren’t for support from the SF AIDS Foundation and the Positive Resource Center, and all of the other contributing organizations, a lot of great men and women would not be with us. I do as much as I can, whether that be organizing, donating money, or walking in the AIDS Walk.

Last year, I organized a fundraiser for Post:Ballet and our AIDS Walk team; we raised over $1,300. We just had our second annual event and raised close to $600. We wish we had matched or exceeded last year’s donations, but we had bad weather on the day of the event.

Many dancers take a break during the off-season. Is this something you do, or do you line up guest performances and teaching?

Some dancers immediately take off at season’s end. A couple of the Company C dancers went on vacation to Europe; I have to say I was slightly jealous. As for me, I usually try and plan something that will bring in some income.

This summer I choreographed a pas de deux (SanVean) for a Yogathon conference. In addition,  I’ll be dancing at the National Choreographers Initiative in Laguna Beach. I’m so excited to be a part of that.

Truthfully, I can’t take too much time off from ballet, or I get too restless and irritable. I need to be working creatively in some form or another.

How do you coordinate your guest appearances with your Company C schedule?

I usually line them up to happen during our breaks. We have the months of November and December off because we don’t do a holiday ballet; it works out great for most of the dancers. For the past two years, I’ve worked with Bruce Steivel, my director at Nevada Ballet Theatre, and have performed in Nutcracker with his new company, Peninsula Ballet Theatre. Also, I have been fortunate to go home to South Carolina for Thanksgiving, something I was never able to do working for other companies. And while there, I have had the opportunity to guest with my old ballet school and do their Nutcracker.

Where do you see yourself five years from now? Ten?

Hopefully I still will be dancing and growing — as a dancer and a person. It would be great to have a company of my own someday — one where I can pick my favorite ballets to be performed each season, including some of my own. It would also be rewarding to have the opportunity to choreograph around the world, to share my passion for ballet with others, especially children.

 

*****

National Choreographers Initiative directed by Molly Lynch

Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 8:00 p.m.
Irvine Barclay Theatre
4242 Campus Drive
Irvine, CA
Box Office: (949) 854-4646

Comments and discussion will take place shortly after the performance.

 

SanVean in rehearsal. Choreography by David Van Ligon

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Interview for National Choreographers Initiative:

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Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio at the Museum of Performance and Design, San Francisco

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July 23rd, 2012 at 9:34 am

Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio

Now and then the tectonic plates that move beneath the surface of the San Francisco Bay Area collide, causing highways to cave in, and buildings or aboveground bridge sections to crash and burn. Humans trapped in the rubble struggle out of it, or join it as part of a layer imbedded in the geological record. It’s not only during earthquakes that surface changes take place in San Francisco. A big transformation took place a little over thirteen years ago: The Central Freeway that cut through the city’s black community of Western Addition, was torn down after having suffered damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, making way for a politically-engineered gentrification that turned the part of Octavia Street that ran under the freeway into “Octavia Boulevard.” The Library of the Performing Arts, a public building that sat in the shadow of the freeway, was forced to move. It was folded into the War Memorial Performing Arts Center, where it was recently renamed The Museum of Performance and Design, the word “library” dropped, though the library remains part of its domain.

In 2006, just a few years before the collection’s renaming, the celebrated principal dancer Muriel Maffre retired from the San Francisco Ballet. During her last years at SFB, Maffre earned a Bachelor’s degree in World Arts from St. Mary’s College, and was honored by the French government with the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. She had initiated programs within the dance company and school that challenged their traditional underpinnings and landscape. One such groundbreaking innovation was a performance of Ballet Mori, in which she and partner Damian Smith danced to fault line sounds the earth makes. The earth music was transmitted live to the War Memorial Opera House via equipment provided by the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, under the direction of one of its scientists. In spite of scant publicity for the one allotted performance of Ballet Mori, Maffre and Smith danced to a full house, and received a standing ovation for their work.

Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio

After retiring, Maffre added a Master’s degree in Museum Studies to her credentials, and produced, directed, and starred in the play, A Soldier’s Tale, at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, in which her co-star was a life-sized puppet. She also began teaching ballet at Stanford University. So it was more of a pleasant surprise than a shock to learn that Maffre has been appointed Director of The Museum of Performance and Design. Given notice that the museum would have to move yet again, she decided to mount an exhibit of a project she has not only had a hand in curating, but also conceived of personally, several years ago.

Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio

In June 2010, at the invitation of the Marina Abramovic Institute West, Maffre together with Smith, dressed in white practice clothes, positioned themselves at a ballet barre with white butcher paper under their feet. Aided by mirrors installed in their jewel box set, the gallery audience watched as they performed barre exercises, first dipping their feet in charcoal powder, so that the trajectory of their leg movements would be registered on the paper. One could easily imagine a sterile “etch-a-sketch” outcome, but the resulting drawings were in no way linear, and in fact, captured the movements in more of a solid than plane geometrical construct. Each of the two dancers’ foot art was as individualized and unique as a set of fingerprints. One has to also take into account the new dimension of awareness that the dancer records mentally as he or she moves through the exercises. The quotidian dancer’s self-talk at the barre is: “How is this barre different from all other barres? Are my transitions from one step to the next working? How can I use this to improve this or that hiccup in my technique and alignment, or the details of my arm-hand relationship to head and feet? How can I use this barre to not worsen an injury or correct a deficit? How does what I am doing compare with the work of others in my class? How does it look in the mirror?” The butcher paper exercise not only confronts the dancer with an objective mirroring of his or her work in a different medium, but it releases him or her from the trappings of traditional barre anxieties. Perhaps it introduces new ones, but certainly the experience adds a level of conductivity that is normally absent in the studio.

Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio

What an added incentive for ballet students to “learn” their bodies! Maffre brought her workshop into the studio at Stanford, and the resulting student work to the Museum of Performance and Design on July 13 in an exhibit called Body in Sight. With the help of Maffre’s assistant, Julie Balériaux, Body in Sight shows the gestural traces created by five Stanford students whose feet had been steeped in liquid pencil: Carolyn Chu, Katherine Disenhof, Laura Drohan, Jenny Koenig, and Sanjay Saverimuttu. Their work is mounted in a horseshoe formation in a gallery décor that features womb-like cherry-brick red tones, and where the “fourth wall” displays a black and white video clip streaming Maffre taking barre. Maffre is a virtuosic dancer, and her barre is a work of art unto itself. The current space is clearly in transition, as museum and library staff prepare to pack up their wares and move to a temporary space until a permanent one can be readied. So there is a palpable “take out your handkerchiefs” feel in a salon that has hosted such significant dance figures as Arthur Mitchell, Frederic Franklin, and Li Cunxin, and shown costumes from San Francisco opera and ballet performances, where the namesake ballet company is the oldest in the United States. The museum and library have been the official repository for the company’s archive, and will continue to play that role at the new location. Though much of the buzz at the Body in Sight opening was about transition, and the challenges of moving collections, there is a calendar of events that the museum will host, either in its current space or allied venues throughout the city.

***

Exhibition
Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio
MPD Main Gallery, through September 1
Main Gallery hours: Wed. – Sat., 1 – 5 pm

Open Mic Performance
San Francisco Queer Open Mic
MPD, Friday, July 27, 7:30 – 9:30 pm
*This is a regular monthly event held every fourth Friday.
$3-$5 suggested donation

Happening
In conjunction with Body In-Sight
Live action drawings by three dancers at the barre
The Annex, 1420 Harrison
Saturday, July 28, 2 – 3:30 pm
Free

Benefit Auction
of live action-drawings by three dancers at the barre
Benefiting the Museum of Performance & Design
MPD, Saturday, July 28, 5 – 7 pm
Open to the public

Talk
1st Friday: …In Conversation With…
August 3, 6:30 – 8 pm
Artists TBA
$12/$10

Open Mic Performance
San Francisco Queer Open Mic
MPD, Friday, August 24, 7:30 – 9:30 pm
*This is a regular monthly event held every fourth Friday.
$3-$5 suggested donation

Kids Camp
The Annex, 1420 Harrison
Saturday, August 25, 12 – 3 pm
Drawing the dancing figure with live percussion
$16/$14

8 Questions with Choreographer/Dancer Robert Dekkers

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July 16th, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Domenico Luciano, Post:Ballet
Photo by David DeSilva

Robert Dekkers has been choreographing for over a decade, presenting works at venues including the Tanzsommer Festival in Vienna and the Ballet Builders Showcase in New York City. In 2008, Dekkers was named resident choreographer at NovaBallet, and in 2009, Dekkers founded Post:Ballet in San Francisco, one of the most exciting dance companies to appear in the last couple of years.

With a mission to bring together artists from multiple disciplines in an innovative way, Post:Ballet emphasizes inventive choreography and intriguing music, all realized by exceptional dancers. The company combines diverse mediums and modern aesthetics with classically based dance to present work that is profoundly personal and relevant to a new generation of audiences. Audiences can check out the company’s third season July 20–21, 2012, at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. 

California Literary Review: You have achieved much as a dancer. How has your dance success helped/hurt your choreography?

I’ve been very lucky in my career thus far and have had the opportunity to perform leading roles in works by some of dance’s most influential choreographers, including George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, August Bournonville, Paul Taylor, and Lar Lubovich. But I feel that I’ve grown the most from the experiences I’ve had working on original new works. Some of my favorite creative processes have been with choreographers such as Maurice Causey, KT Nelson, Brenda Way, Val Caniparoli, Julia Adam, and Jodie Gates.

Being involved in the development of so many new works has allowed me to experience first-hand a wide range of different artists’ creative processes — and perhaps, even more importantly, these experiences have challenged and pushed me to grow as an artist and as an individual. It is this opportunity for growth and greater fulfillment that continues to motivate me, both as a choreographer and as a dancer.

Robert Dekkers: How many companies are you dancing with? How do you meet the challenge offered by different working styles in the companies?

In addition to my work with Post:Ballet, I am currently dancing with Diablo Ballet, where I have the opportunity to perform in a variety of exciting and challenging works, from George Balanchine’s technically demanding Tarantella to KT Nelson’s free-flowing The Escaping Game. I also had the pleasure of choreographing my first new work for the company earlier this year. It was an incredible experience, and I liked the new work, Happy Ending, so much that I’ve decided to restage it on Post:Ballet for our upcoming performances at the Herbst Theatre!

 

Robert Dekkers
Photo by Natalia Perez

I’m excited to continue dancing with Diablo Ballet, and I’m so thrilled to say that I’ve been invited to choreograph another new work on the company for their 2013 Spring Program. I am also a member of the Contra Costa Ballet faculty, where I recently premiered my first full-length story ballet, Alice in Wonderland, set to an original score by Daniel Berkman. The ballet was completely new, down to the sets, costumes, and lighting design. I also appear as a guest artist with other companies such as Oakland Ballet and Dominic Walsh Dance Theater.

Juggling all of my passions and commitments can be difficult, but the artists and dancers I work with constantly inspire me. I honestly wouldn’t trade my life for anything in the world!

 

 

 

The economy was in the tank, and you have a pretty full schedule. What inspired you to start a company at this particular time?

A big part of my motivation in starting Post:Ballet when I did was precisely because of the economic climate. Historically speaking, recessions are often times when young entrepreneurs are motivated to go against the grain and do things differently. As a result, they challenge the established (and sometimes antiquated) companies. I was dissatisfied with the direction I saw many ballet companies headed toward — very few newly commissioned works and lots of big story ballets that are pleasantly entertaining, but not necessarily relevant to contemporary culture.

Post:Ballet is all about taking that next step, about collaborating with new artists — not just composers and costume designers, but cinematographers, photographers, sculptors, and visual artists as well — to create living artwork that expresses the bold voice of the next generation.

What can audiences expect at a Post:Ballet performance?

Post:Ballet is all about collaborating with diverse artists to create new works that challenge us to look at our world differently. There is always much conceptual groundwork behind the works we present. One of my favorite elements of our home season concerts at the Herbst is our moderated discussion with the artists and collaborators. Hosted immediately after the Saturday evening performance (July 21) on the lip of the stage, audience members get to engage with the artists in a discussion on the ideas and motivations that inspired them to create the works presented earlier at the concert. I think it’s great to watch live dance and create your own ideas about what the work meant to you, but sometimes hearing the lead artists speak about their initial inspirations can make the work that much more meaningful to viewers.

Could you talk a little about your upcoming July performance?

Triads is definitely my most ambitious program for the company yet, but I’m also honored to say that the caliber of the dancers performing in the program (many of whom are returning now for their third season with the company!) is the highest I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with.

I’ll be focusing on a World Premiere, featuring an original score by Jacob Wolkenhauer, a Bay Area composer I’ve collaborated with several times before. Our new work together centers around our shared belief that change comes when we verbally express our beliefs and our doubts. To express this need, we both feel it is important to “speak up” — we’ve decided to use recordings of the dancers speaking as the throughline of the score. Weaving together recordings of the dancers reading selected quotes by philosopher Bertrand Russell, along with snippets of unscripted, candid conversations, we hope to develop a work that ultimately inspires us to speak up for what we believe — and to speak up for what we doubt.

In addition to this new collaboration, I’m also restaging Mine is Yours, a physically demanding and thought-provoking work that Post:Ballet premiered at the San Francisco International Arts Festival earlier this season. I’ll also be showing excerpts from Interference Pattern, my 2011 collaboration with cinematographer Amir Jaffer, as well as Happy Ending, a quirky and whimsical work that wryly alludes to our never-ending search for happiness. Originally commissioned by Diablo Ballet for their 2011–12 season, Happy Ending is set to a playful score by Australian composer Pogo and will definitely put a smile on everyone’s face.

What’s coming up next season — both dancing and choreography?

I’m currently working with photographer David DeSilva on a new live performance piece that will premiere at our Season Four opening event, Post:Arts, which will be presented again at 111 Minna Bar in October 2012. Post:Ballet also will be performing at a variety of festivals and benefit performances around the Bay Area and across the county. People can find out about our performances and events at postballet.org or on our official Facebook page. Of course, we’ll be presenting our fourth annual home season program, Four Plays, during July 2013 in San Francisco.

In addition, I’ll be returning to Diablo Ballet to dance with the company again, and I’m honored to say that I’ve also been commissioned to create another new work for the company’s 2012–13 season. Also, Contra Costa Ballet will be restaging my Alice in Wonderland next May. I’ll also be busy creating a new full-lengthstory ballet” for Post:Ballet, which we’ll premiere as part of our 2013–14 season! There are lots of details still in the works, so I can’t share too much about the full-evening work yet — except to say that it is going to be so “Post”!

You always seem to have a new rabbit to pull out of your hat. What’s this season’s direction?

The cornerstone of Post:Ballet’s mission is to collaborate with diverse artists in new and different ways, and Triads will be no exception. In addition to our World Premiere collaboration with Jacob Wolkenhauer and the other live dance works on the program, we’ll also be unveiling a new sculpture created by Bay Area artist Jeffrey Zygmunt and featuring Post:Ballet dance artist Ashley Flaner in the theater lobby during intermission.

Photographer Natalia Perez is collaborating with the hair and makeup artists at Siren Salon to create a series of head shots for our Triads playbills based on the theme “Art Inspires Hair” (which also will be viewable on our website), and photographer David DeSilva will be presenting some of his incredible action shots featuring the company dancers at our Post:Party event after the opening night show on July 20.

Talk about your creative team. Tell us a little about the selection and work process.

I don’t really have a set process for finding creative artists to collaborate with…honestly. I try just to see and hear and do as much as I can and remain open to fresh ideas and new possibilities. The Bay Area is filled with incredible artists, and I am always eager to get involved in new projects and collaborations!

Sometimes a new work begins with a concept or idea I’m interested in exploring, and as the theme begins to develop, I’ll search for and find the right artists to help me bring my creative vision to life. For Mine is Yours, I first started with such a concept — exploring the differences between communal sharing and private possessions, particularly where relationships are concerned. Then I began working with composer Daniel Berkman to develop the theme further. As we honed in on what we wanted to express through the work, I started working with four of the Post:Ballet dance artists to create new movement. During the development of the piece, Costume Designer Susan Roemer and Lighting Designer David Robertson came on board. This type of collaboration enables me to cohesively present my personal vision for the work, while also allowing the various perspectives of my creative team to shine through.

Occasionally, as with my new collaboration with sculptor Jeffrey Zygmunt, the artist will touch base with me and initiate the new work; at other times, like when I created a new film for the HIV Story Project’s full-length documentary Still Around, I am paired with one artist, yet get to select other team members. For the film, I was paired with the extremely talented cinematographer Alexander du Prel, but was able to choose my composer of choice — thus, my second collaboration with Jacob Wolkenhauer was born.

At the end of the day, creativity is all around us, and I love finding new ways to express it and share it with others!

******

Post:Ballet returns to the Herbst Theatre for its third home season program, Triads. Featuring the final, full-stage debut of Robert Dekkers’ World Premiere collaboration with Jacob Wolkenhauer, Triads will also include the reprise of Mine is Yours (2012) and Interference Pattern (2011), as well as a special screening of the company’s critically acclaimed short film Ours (2011).

Following the opening night performance, join the artists in the War Memorial’s elegant Green Room at Post:Party! And following Saturday evening’s program, the artists and collaborators will host a short moderated discussion on the skirt of the stage. Audience members are invited to participate.

 

Triads
July 20 and 21, 2012 at 8:00 p.m.
Herbst Theatre
401 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco

For tickets and information, call 415.392.4400 or visit the Post:Ballet website at www.postballet.org

 

Post:Ballet Videos

Mine is Yours

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Post:Ballet, Season III

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Dance USA’s 30th Anniversary Conference

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July 9th, 2012 at 11:13 pm

2012 Dance USA Conference

Marc Bamuthi Joseph addresses closing session of Dance USA Conference.
©Copyright 2012, Runaway Productions LLC

During the opening plenary of Dance USA’s 30th anniversary conference in San Francisco, participants were exhorted to “find their ‘why’.” Yet, the “why” of the event’s breakout sessions was subordinated to presenters who foraged for success formulas in a copse of business school buzzwords and jargon. One overbooked session on Website Enhancement gave over its allotted 90 minutes to dividing attendees into groups, selecting a note taker, and requiring no more from each group member than to choose three words, a color and the name of a spokesperson that, taken together, would best correspond to their website’s “brand.” After having been dragged into an undertow where only conference-ese is spoken, two performance programs featuring San Francisco Bay Area dance companies, made for a thrilling rescue into a harbor of hope.

The afternoon performance opened with Kompiang Metri Davies’ Nyapuh Jagat, featuring Gadung Kasturi Balinese Dance and Music, in exquisite sari-like gold and red-costumes, performing a temple ceremony danced against a batik-like royal purple backdrop, where dancers showed classic arms with flexed or stylized rond de jambs hands circling, and heads deployed from held positions en face or in profile, legs with bent knees, and feet moving quickly and decoratively. The piece closes with rose petals scattered across the proscenium, leaving an palpably pungent fragrance, expressed equally in the many artful elements that come together as one in Balinese dance.

Kompiang Metri Davies’ Nyapuh Jagat

Kompiang Metri Davies’ Nyapuh Jagat, featuring Gadung Kasturi Balinese Dance and Music.
©Copyright 2012, Runaway Productions LLC

Kristin Lindsay and David Van Ligon of Charles Anderson’s Company C performed a pas de deux from Key to Songs. They danced in embroidered satin nude-hue’d costumes that softened in the tempered lighting that bathed lithe transitions from floor to air. Music by Morton Subotnik moved from xylophone to coffee pot gurgles, all media and work pleasing to the eye and ear.

In Sara Shelton Mann’s Excerpt from Zeropoint, Jorge De Hoyos in a print costume and Rajendra Serber in blue, and a small white chair were the three elements in a bobbling “Where’s Waldo á trois” of arms and legs—both human and chair. These assumed rebounding shapes that swept the dancers into a spring-loaded quest for the opposite of equilibrium.

Charya Burt presents a solo rendering of Cambodian dance entitled Villeer Chruar Knear [Intersections Through Time]. It opens on a dark stage, with decorative fans describing a path for Burt’s serpentine movement, impelled by a chant. She rises to demi-pointe, and before long, chanting and dance blend into a single, unified thrum, mirroring the singularity of the soloist onstage.

Axis Dance Company’s The Narrowing, initiated in a wheelchair by its choreographer Sebastian Grubb, and a folding chair by his partner, Joel Brown, is a piece to a score by Michael Wall, in which signing and the rocking of each other’s chairs to set them in motion become the choreography. Bodies drop, ascend, and shift gears, as the two dancers tear down and rebuild the platforms we take for granted if we happen to have and enjoy the use of our limbs, perfecting parallel movement under the watch of virtuosic port de bras, though one dancer is working from his chair while the other works from the floor. Then they trade places. Not to be missed!

Less compelling was Excerpts from Dear Miss Cline by Amy Seiwert, danced by Smuin Ballet, where program notes referenced the company’s “diverse vocabularies.” The piece itself is a squeaky clean derivative work aping a patently non-diverse demographic that today’s choreographers cannot resist placing center stage at a moment in U.S. history when, side by side with McCarthyism and the entry of the U.S. into Southeast Asia, shampoo left residue on hair, clothes were often home-made, or drabber off-the-rack affairs than the Britex-like fabric in the costumes we saw. True, Denny’s had not yet been desegregated, so the all-Caucasian cast was the most authentic element, along with the slow dancing that has no name, or artistic apologia. Smuin is lucky to have Christian Squires, but for occasions where the dance world is gathered under one roof, he and the other adept Smuin dancers need more challenging vehicles.

Chitras Das Dance Company presented Shabd-Kathak Yoga, really a lecture demonstration of Kathak dance. It could have gone in a didactic direction, considering the audience’s scant knowledge of the genre, but there was just enough lecture to inform us, and the remainder of our education resulted from the work, a North Indian blend of complex mathematical permutations performed over a cyclic rhythmic structure, and danced expertly and enchantingly by Rachna Nivas, Antara Bhardwaj, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, and Labonee Mohanta.

The evening performance begins with the Taiko piece Synergy by the Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose and San Jose Taiko. Four men jump in circles, as women remain motionless in a tableau vivante, upstage. Then a cannon of women dressed in ceremonial gold and red arrive from the wings on bent knee with flexed feet, moving from side to side, creating a two-dimensional façade that contrasts with the seeming chaos of the taiko drumming. There are bells, paddle drums, and violins that confect a kind of elixir, rather than battle, of the bands, as the dancers change levels, working on the floor, while the musicians remain upright. Apart from there being too much feedback from the sound system, this is a veritable feast of color and sound.

San Francisco’s preeminent company, LINES, offered a pas de deux from its artistic director Alonzo King’s ballet Migration. Dancers Meredith Webster and Zachary Tang danced foot to foot, or shadowed one another in a push-pull exploration of opposites, releasing a full range of luxuriant extensions and pliant spine work.

Hoop Dance’s Eddie Madril brought a thrilling curio onto the stage with Sewam Dance, a hoop dance in which, in native dress, he manipulates at least eight hoops in, around, over and under his body as he moves to the chants of Maros Madril. The hoops become wings when splayed across his arms, and seem to turn him into a bird, an insect, or beast, depending on their configuration.

In Alas al viento [Wings to the Wind) La Tania, dressed from head to toe in a luminous white costume like an angel of jubilation, reveals the subtle though brilliant detail of authentic flamenco dance, in which the dancer is the instrument of both music and movement. While her zapateo is not elaborate, it is technically superb in the way that she spots all four points in her turns, and dispatches the most fluid of veronicas, pets the air with her arms and hips, and widens and narrows her circles with a well-tended attentiveness. Her collaboration with singer Kina Méndez, guitarist Roberto Aguilar, and palmas player Clara Rodríguez, is seamless.

Veteran modern dance choreographer Margaret Jenkins presented Excerpt from Light Moves (2011), in which movement, now jazzy, now cylindrical, motors the timing in a well-oiled presentation by dancers whose bravura is a pleasure to watch.

The audience returns from intermission to Diamano Coura West African Dance Company’s Breaking of the Sande Bush, after which the gentleman to my right turned to me and asked, “Does it get any better than this?” Dancers of every age, size, and description share one crucial talent in this extravagant piece choreographed by Nimley and Naomi Diouf—they can and clearly love to move! In a solo by one of the male dancers, speed and dispatch bring a heat to traditional African dance steps, and invite a frenzied response from the rest of the cast, including the drummers. A dancer is a moving haystack, earthen colors abound, masks and wigs render all dancers identical siblings in a symbolism of unity that defies any erstwhile hackneyed political intonations.

San Francisco Ballet brought to the stage the Pas de Deux from Symphonic Dances by Edward Liang (reviewed in CLR earlier this year.) The company was on tour, and so perhaps it did not get the attention or preparation it required, but the performance by Dana Genshaft and Vitor Luiz looked a bit stiff and undernourished and was marked by an absence of rapport.

Robert Moses’ KIN’s Speaking Ill of the Dead resonated as the best-conceived and best-elucidated piece on the program. Its anti-war theme, captured in the voiceover repetition in various tonalities of the dreaded Selective Service telegram message, “We regret to inform you,” was depicted by canons of dancers in black costumes rolling across the stage, both wounding and wounded, pairing to expedite dance missions, pairing to find solace, pairing in combat with one another, and then dancing in quatrains of camaraderie. They delivered the full payload of fighting a war for a purpose that is alien to those who find themselves on the battlefield. A solo by Katharine Wells, as she negotiates her way over and around the bodies of faceless others, is riveting.

The closing piece, Auhea Wale ‘Oe E Ka Ua Noe [First Time Ever I Saw Your Face] choreographed by Patrick Makhuakane, was a Hawaiian style hula danced to a mesmerizing, slow, yet vigilantly-tended tempo, by beautifully expressive women dressed in black strapless form-fitting gowns, with white gardenias tucked behind their ears. Their arms, when held softly at shoulder height or above their heads, formed a sheltering canopy. It proved to be a tantalizing representation of peace and tranquility in tandem with the war theme of the previous piece. No member of the audience will be likely to forget the visceral lessons and visual impact of either one.

Wepa! It’s Aqua Zumba!

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June 25th, 2012 at 9:11 am

Oscar and Plunge Zumba class

Oscar Ivan Solano’s Aqua Zumba class.

When I retired from my day job nearly two years ago, I had a very definite idea of how I planned to use the nine hours each day that I had given over to public service for the previous 22 years. At the top of my list was Zumba class. A colleague who had raved about hers, convinced me to join her at a local studio packed to the gills with other Zumba enthusiasts. I went twice a week for six weeks, and bought a pair of regulation Zumba shoes when I saw that my old reliable jazz shoes were not up to the challenge. I had recently recovered from hip surgery, and a subsequent fractured hip. I couldn’t wait to get my mojo back!

Eduardo’s Zumba class attracted that remnant of the population parlaying dance movement to settle accounts with a stressful day. After six weeks, I was forced to acknowledge that replacement of my hip hadn’t extinguished my arthritis. Though the rest of me was singing after Zumba class, my right knee was screaming, and no amount of heat/ice/heat/ice or ibuprofen could relieve the pain. I bid my teacher Eduardo a reluctant farewell via email, and signed up for water aerobics at the faded glory Richmond Plunge natatorium that had recently been artfully renovated to keep the natural light of its original design. During the two hours a day, twice a week of water aerobics taught by Sandy, I balleticized jumping jacks into echapés and turned side steps into glissades. I had almost recaptured my dance mojo! The only obstacle was that knee, now at the bone-on-bone stage of its degeneration. Last week, I noticed that the Plunge had begun an aquatic Zumba class! I couldn’t wait to join it! My compromised knee and I could now dance outright in a new non-weight-bearing context. My new water Zumba teacher is Oscar Ivan Solano, Jr. and I had an opportunity to speak with him about Aquatic Zumba.

Oscar was born in El Salvador. Both his parents were teachers in the 1970s there, when a civil war divided the country into two camps. Opponents of the government favored overthrow of the 60-family right wing oligarchic dictatorship headed by Jose Napoleon Duarte, a figurehead who remained in power with the help of U.S. government-trained death squads and military aid. The national teachers union was a big force in protests against the Duarte government. Oscar’s father was a member of the teacher’s union, but he was not politically active. Nonetheless, his name showed up on a list of individuals targeted by the death squads, and so both of Oscar’s parents fled to the United States, leaving Oscar, his two brothers and younger sister in the care of their grandmother. They had hoped that the conflict would be a short one, and intended to return, but the separation lasted six years, at which time, the two boys came to the United States by obtaining student visas.

“I studied at the Philip and Sala Burton High School in San Francisco, graduated, and went to community college with the intention of becoming a doctor, but that was not possible, so I switched to architecture, as I loved drawing and sketching.”

Solano attended Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, and became an architectural designer. “Never feeling any urgency to become an architect, I worked in the architectural field for 10 years before the economic woes hit and I lost my job. I was unemployed for almost a year, and through salsa dancing, met someone in San José who happened to be a Zumba instructor. She saw my style, exuberance, honesty, and we became friends. In May, 2010, she suggested that I become a Zumba instructor, and by October, 2010, I was teaching it.”

The Zumba industry is international: There are different styles from all over the world, including merengue, salsa, cha-cha-cha, tango, flamenco, bhangra [Indian] , swing, bachata [Dominican], hip hop, and reggaeton. Another aspect that lends Zumba its international character is that instructors are from many different countries. Bay Area Zumba teachers are planning an evening Zumba party on July 4th, in Concord, California. The teachers who will participate are from Mexico, India, and the Americas, including the United States. Solano sees it as a “wonderful opportunity” for Zumba dancers to experience all styles. “I feel like the world has gotten a little smaller thanks to Zumba. Another international aspect is that I can go anywhere on the globe, and the class will be the same. Also, students come from different backgrounds, ages, nationalities, and economic backgrounds.”

Beto Pérez, a Colombian aerobics instructor, created Zumba. He invented it by playing music from many different cultures and choreographing progressive exercise steps to the music. The physiological goal is aerobic exercise to burn calories, and to get dancers moving fast to achieve a racing metabolism. “The way I see it,” says Solano, “is that the endorphins kick in and make you feel happy, love dancing, and you want to share it. Your mental ability is improved, and it helps the memory, calms you, and whatever anxieties you have accumulated can be turned around. Students say they feel great: they come in feeling stressed, but during class they don’t think about those stresses, and by the end of class, put enough distance between themselves and their stress that they feel happy. For whatever reason a student comes, I always tell them ‘Do your best, be here in the moment, let’s move,’ and they do that, and the seniors are the ones who seem to have the most fun. They yell ‘Wepa!’ They are my favorites.”

Oscar currently teaches an average of 14 classes per week. Sometimes there are parties and he teaches more, mostly at the Richmond Recreation complex, and now at The Plunge in Point Richmond.

“The point is the journey to find what makes you feel good or happy. People ask, ‘What happened to architecture?’ Maybe it was for the best that after ten years, I was laid off, and met this person who was instrumental in changing what I do. When I was trying to find work after I was laid off, I was skeptical, but after 10 months, I grew frustrated, because I did as much as possible to get interviews, and even though I sent out 25 resumés I never even got an acknowledgment from a single one of the companies I wrote to, so I thought that maybe I should try something new, and then that’s when I tried Zumba.” What about the difference in income? “Right now, I think am making about 60 to 65% of what I made in architecture and that is pretty amazing, because I hear that the pay is not as good as that for fitness instructors, and by being independent of the fitness industry, I think I can reach a level where I will be as comfortable as I was in my former job, especially if I am being smart about what I want, honest in reflecting my sense of self worth; I give a lot, but there’s still more room, and to reach my former income level may require becoming a personal trainer. Though I don’t have health care benefits, because of Zumba I am living a healthy life style.”

Could this fun form of exercise be promoted to public school officials as a required program?

“Yes, it could be sold as a package for the school district. I have taught a few free community classes at Mira Vista Elementary School to make parents aware of how much fun it can be. On July 7, the City of Richmond will host the American Tennis Association, and I’ll do a Zumba demo there. City council reps will be there and it’s national, so I’ll have that opportunity and we’ll see what they are willing to do to extend Zumba into the schools.”

***

Oscar Ivan Solano’s Aqua Zumba classes: FRIDAYS at 9, SATURDAYS at 10 AM, Richmond Municipal Natatorium -”The Plunge” at Point Richmond, 1 East Richmond Ave. (at S. Garrard Blvd.), Richmond, CA 94801 ($10); SATURDAYS at 8:30 AM, Richmond Recreation Complex, 3230 MacDonald Ave. Richmond, CA 94804 ($8/class/student or a $72 monthly pass; SATURDAYS at 12 noon, Forma Gym,1410 North California Blvd., Walnut Creek, CA 94956 (go to www.formagym.com for free guest pass and price information).

Bay Area Dancers Perform in a Benefit for Cancer Prevention

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June 18th, 2012 at 9:41 am

Movie Still: The Killers

Sarah Van Patten dances a solo from Paul Taylor’s I Can Dream Can’t I?

It is no secret that a national health care program controlled by those who use it is the only practical solution to the medicine-for-profit system that leaves more and more of us out in the cold with the coming of each new fiscal year.

Arguing for such a program raises the much-debated question of socialized medicine. “But it’s human nature to be self-interested. People will never cooperate for the greater good,” say the opponents. As my own health twists and turns on the slender thread it hangs from, I have become practiced at coming up with examples to disprove their shortsightedness, but such examples have rarely been located on the landscape of the North American dance world. Get in Front: A dance performance to benefit the Cancer Prevention Institute of California has changed all that by serving as a shining example of the willingness of people to cooperate, and volunteer their best talents and skills to put a premium on support for cancer prevention. Prevention, by definition, takes big strides in the direction of leaving the self-interested out of the equation of the cancer business. And Get in Front may have turned the question of self-interest on its head. Maybe self-interest is best served by cooperation. Maybe, instead of cancer being yet another vehicle for stepping all over each other to get ahead, we get the better result when we compete with ourselves to help prevent cancer’s spread, and leave the world a better place than we found it.

On Wednesday, June 6, thirty-three dancers from or associated with twelve San Francisco Bay Area dance companies, came together to dance for a packed audience at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater. Each piece represented the best of that company or dancer’s repertoire, and it was a rare opportunity for the dancers to share it not only with an audience, but with colleagues in the dance world. The atmosphere took on the excitement of this being a first-time-out effort to raise funds for the prevention of a disease that with certainty will show up in the lives of every other person we know.

I was able to interview the curators of Get in Front, Garen Scribner and James Sofranko, who are soloists with San Francisco Ballet.

Asked what led to the discussion about taking on such an ambitious project, Scribner said, “We were good friends who shared a dressing room at the theater, as well as rooms on tour, and together we brainstormed ideas of things to do during our summer layoffs, and researched similar events in other cities.”

Did they expect the outpouring of dancers volunteering to be part of the program?

“We knew so many dancers, and when we started reaching out, we were overwhelmed by the positive responses! Our event grew quickly into so much more than we ever imagined.”

The Bay Area can truly boast an embarrassment of riches when it comes to dance, and Scribner and Sofranko crafted a program that presented works that ranged from Balanchine to Alonzo King, Helgi Tomasson to Robert Moses, KT Nelson to Paul Taylor and Christopher Wheeldon, and Sofranko contributed a very moving dance piece of his own for the event, called Fantasie 2011. Such outstanding dancers as Yuan Yuan Tan, Katherine Wells, Sarah Van Patten, Rodney Bell, Sonsherée Giles, Anne Zivolich, Dennis Adams, Martyn Garside, Maria Kochetkova, Joan Boada, Frances Chung and Matthew Stewart, Meredith Webster, Zack Tang, and others, brought the audience to its feet in appreciation of the short, but virtuosic work they donated to this memorable and successful evening, organized in the short space of two months.

But dancers did not only participate by performing. Scribner said, “We couldn’t have done this whole thing by ourselves! We enlisted help from our friends, Sarah Van Patten and Luke Willis (both SFB dancers), who chaired the silent auction, and former SFB dancer Margaret Carl,” who organized the lush after party in a terrace room with a view of San Francisco’s night-lit City Hall. “We sought advice from ballet patrons such as Yurie Pascarella, who is a specialist at fund-raisers, as well as the CPIC staff, in order to insure that we would be giving our audience clear information about what CPIC does.”

What made Scribner and Sofranko choose CPIC as the beneficiary of the event? Sofranko says, “CPIC spoke to us directly as being a proactive, research-based group that takes a holistic approach toward wellness. We felt that as healthy, active people, we could embody that ethos while uniting great dancers on one stage.”

Get In Front dancers

The Get In Front dancers.

One need not go much further than taking a long look at the printed program to understand exactly how well Scribner and Sofranko utilized their resources to make the event a success. Dancers drew on connections from their private lives to garner support: among the donors was LEAP, an academic program offering dancers a chance to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree by in part utilizing their dance careers as life credits, and in-kind donations came from dance academies, a winery, and other local sources. In other words, the organizers not only danced the dance, but walked the walk, and gathered a small army of supporters who walked alongside them to make this dream come true. They raised nearly $150,000, as well as the morale of their colleagues, and the larger community here that follows and supports dance. Get in Front demonstrated that when presented with an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade, dancers are a far cry from the prima donnas, princes and princesses that they are sometimes called upon to interpret onstage. They are no different from the rest of us, as they put into practice the socialist adage: “From each according to their abilities to each according to their needs.”

Claiming Cranko’s Shrewd Choreography: An Interview with Andreza Randisek and Rodrigo Guzmán

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June 5th, 2012 at 9:02 am

Rodrigo Guzman and Andreza Randisek in Taming of the Shrew

Rodrigo Guzman and Andreza Randisek in Taming of the Shrew.

While in Chile during the last week of May, I was able to interview Andreza Randisek and Rodrigo Guzman a few hours before they were to open as Katarina and Petruchio in Ballet de Santiago’s Taming of the Shrew.

Toba Singer: What from your own lives do you use to create your characters?

Andreza Randisek: I feel that all of life’s experiences serve us in interpreting roles. Katarina is no different. Her rebellion, desire to scream at everybody, ill will, we experience those things often. We fight, have problems; we’re tired of everything. It’s out of those everyday experiences that you can create a persona. All of us, many times, have had to accept things we don’t like, agree to something the other person wants that we don’t. This is especially true for women: So often, you have to submit to men, even lie about what you really feel. Having experienced all this helps me to do Katarina.

Rodrigo Guzmán: Everything we experience contributes to the relations between human beings, above all as a couple, but in this piece there are situations that are especially similar to what happens in our lives. It’s my second time dancing this role. The first time I didn’t have access to the coach who originated it. Now, with Richard Cragun here, I am better able to see what John Cranko wanted when he made it. We benefited from having seen the Francisco Zeferelli 1967 film, Taming of the Shrew, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. But this time, I have been able to develop the role from the material Richard Cragun is sharing about its first conception. There are two distinct processes: The first has to do with Marcía Haydée, who originated the role of Katarina and is Artistic Director of Ballet de Santiago, and then with Richard, as I gain an understanding of precisely what Cranko wanted from the choreography. So the process began by me doing it alone, and developed more as I began to work with Richard. The character grew through this process. For example, it is easier to do more than less with the comic elements, and you court the danger of moving quickly from comic into caricature, and that cheapens it. It has been important to work with Richard on the details. In the first pas de deux fight Petruchio is very macho. Then he develops an approach in which he needs to see himself as a gentleman instead because his vanity demands it. Both are two sides of the same coin. The audience has to be able to see him actually go through this process. This is where the help with the details has been so important: He flatters her, and her frank response is, “What a fraud!” Thanks to Richard and Marcía, we have all of this in this production.

What has been the most difficult technical challenge in this ballet?

AR: It’s very difficult to go from hunching one’s shoulders and planting the heel in anger, where all the accents are down and the alignment of the body is not balletic to suddenly doing an up-accented bourrée en pointe to get to another place on the stage where you will returning to the hunched back down accent. One moment you are down here [demonstrates heel planted and arms akimbo] and the next, you have to be on your leg to achieve the correct alignment. I have danced 30 years, and the hardest pas de deux I have ever danced are the three in this ballet. This ballet is so hard! It will never go perfectly no matter how much you rehearse. Something always goes wrong. But this ballet is one of my favorites is because it’s a joy when you can give the public something for the soul and the brain.

RG: We are a classical company, but here we have an opportunity to do these subtle colorations. Last time, it was so hard that all the casts found it difficult. It takes at least 10 weeks to perfect it. During the first rehearsals everyone feels disheartened because the conflict and the difficulties consume you. But as you conquer it over the weeks that follow, you find out how much it enriches you.

What has been the most difficult theatrical challenge?

RG: For every one of the roles, the most difficult thing is to do the technical work without losing the character. One very difficult theatrical challenge comes in the first scene where Petruchio has to pretend that he is drunk. It’s the most complicated of all. I began to dance this pas de deux late in my career, but the first time I saw it danced, I said to myself, “This is what I want to do, to dance.”

Which part of the ballet do you enjoy most?

AR: If I had to choose, it would be impossible: In the first act, she is angry, and that’s very hard, and so I like being able to do it, but in the second, I like the other side of her personality, and I love the last pas de deux because it has the magic, the music, and lightness, the freedom! Each pas de deux is so different that it’s hard to say.

RG: I like the fighting.

Were there specific suggestions that Marcía or Richard made that helped you?

AR: Marcía and Richard were key to the process. Each word he or she said was important. To dance comedy successfully, one must be serious. Don’t ham it up. That was an important piece of advice, but honestly, we worked every day with the millions of the things they told us.

RG: The other important role they played was to transmit what they know to a new generation of dancers. Above all, it is a privilege and an honor to work with such great artists, who know every detail of Cranko’s conceptions, not just the steps, but also the nuances. One cannot allow that they be lost to new generations. Unfortunately, other companies do a copy of a copy and the original traits can be lost.

AR: This is why working with them is such a gift.

Marcia Haydée and Richard Cragun

Marcia Haydée and Richard Cragun coaching Rodrigo Guzman.

What do you hope that the audience will see about themselves in Katarina and Petruchio?

RG: Mostly, I hope that they will go through each emotional stage along with us, each moment, and experience each emotion.

AR: I think that many women will identify with Katarina, and that it will happen in two ways. First, they will resist wanting to look like her: angry, masculine, and forceful, but the other way is to identify with those same emotions. I hope the public will enjoy Taming of the Shrew. The purpose of this ballet is for the audience to enjoy it. I hope all the women feel like Katarina and all the men feel like Petruchio for two hours.

RG: It may not correspond to their lives exactly, but I hope they can experience the climate, the weather between Katarina and Petruchio, as their own.

AR: I hope they will walk out of the theater and consider their own behavior. Does how I behave toward others work for me?

Dance to the Music: National Youth Orchestras of Chile

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June 4th, 2012 at 10:17 am

National Youth Orchestras of Chile

National Youth Orchestra tunes up before ballet rehearsal.
Photo: Toba Singer

While in Chile in late May, I was able to observe rehearsals and a performance of Taming of the Shrew by Ballet de Santiago, under the direction of the world-famous dancer Marcia Haydée, and coached by Richard Cragun, who had from its founding been Haydée’s acclaimed partner at Stuttgart Ballet. Outstanding at these events was the National Youth Symphony Orchestra, which accompanied the dancers. The orchestra is composed of musicians, ages 17 to 24, from all social classes, who played Kurt Heinz-Stolze’s complicated ballet score, based on music by Domenico Scarlatti. The orchestra’s director and conductor, José Luis Domínguez, resident conductor of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Santiago [Santiago Philharmonic Orchestra] is one of Chile’s most respected conductors. I interviewed Domíngez at the Hotel Galerias in Santiago on May 28, one hour before the opening night performance of Taming of the Shrew.

Toba Singer: How did you become director of the National Youth Orchestra?

José Luis Domínguez: When I came back from studying abroad, the prize-winning Chilean conductor, Don Fernando Rosas, was still alive. He approached me in a special manner. I had played in the National Youth Orchestra in the eighties, and he asked me to become its director. I had strong opinions on who should teach music to the orchestra “families” [strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, etc.) and the teachers at the time were not my favorites. My first response was to say no because I didn’t want to come back to my country and become a controversial figure. We kept the conversation going for about a year, and in the meantime, I agreed to guest conduct.

Where did the idea come from to create this orchestra?

The orchestra’s founder, Fernando Rosas, got the idea to create the orchestra from the work of a Chilean musician, Jorge Peña Hen. Hen founded Chile Sinfonica in the sixties. He was a socialist, and was executed in 1973, by Pinochet after the coup, for having taken Chile Sinfonica on a tour of Cuba. I was born in La Serena, Chile, and the orchestra school there was the first where I was trained. My father, Hugo Domínguez, had been Hen’s assistant, and one day they were walking in a poor neighborhood, where the kids played soccer barefoot in the dust with a sweater rolled up as a ball. Jorge said to my father, “How many Claudio Araújo’s do you think there are there in that group?” That was his vision. Rafael García came from there.

Hundreds of these young people have studied in Germany. Rosas managed a couple of projects: The Beethoven Foundation had a radio, and there was the Catholic University Chamber Orchestra, and when we regained some democratic rights once the Pinochet dictatorship was gone, they reinstituted the National Youth Orchestra, which I was able to join. Rosas built the Foundation of Youth and Children’s Orchestras to support the program in 2000, and through its efforts over the past 12 years, we now have 300 youth orchestras in Chile. All the kids are serious. These are not spaces that are filled by kids from families who have political connections. The kids are ages 17 to 23, and come from all over the country. They have to audition before a panel. I sit on the panel, as do our instructors, as well as specialists in string, woodwind, brass and percussion, or guest professionals.

What is the guiding concept?

The guiding concept is to give them an idea of what a professional career consists of. The composition of the orchestra changes each year, and the musicians must leave at age 24. So it is hard to do projects that last for more than a year. The traditional way of teaching is to have beginners play mostly Haydn and Mozart, which “old school” teachers regard as easy, as opposed to, for example, Mahler, to challenge them with difficult work. But we finally reached an agreement, and so I took the position. After a couple years, we got to do opera, one in concerto with no regie, but the other was a staged performance of Tosca and Don Pasquale. So they were able to handle both Italian Romantic and Bel Canto very successfully, helped immeasurably by the fact they were a youth orchestra, and everything about their attitude was young.

Where does financial support come from?

The Foundation is the main source of support, and because in Latin America, a government figure is traditionally appointed as the chair of such an institution, the foundation’s national secretary is President Piñeiro’s wife, Maritza Parada. She is very enthusiastic. It helps that she has a background as a ballet dancer.

What sorts of projects does the orchestra undertake?

We took on the big challenge of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and after working on it for six months while continuing to rehearse other works, they did a very good job with it. At a certain point in the development of our repertoire, we needed two things to complete the cycle: opera and ballet, and with tonight’s performance of Taming of the Shrew, we will have met that goal. The arts are an amazing reflection of society. I was trained by Maximiano Váldes and Mauricio Benini. My first conducting experience was with my father, who studied at the New England Conservatory. I’m convinced that the artistic results depend on how well the surroundings work; ours is the only orchestra in Chile that has an air-conditioned rehearsal room. While ours is not the most impressive rehearsal room in the world, we have had many improvements, thanks to the foundation. Young people from all social classes may audition. But the important thing is that if your circumstances require it, you can get one scholarship for playing, a second for food and another for transportation. If you need it, you could get as much as $1000 a month, which is a nice sum here in Chile.

Did you establish goals for the musicians?

Because the musicians participate year by year, each year there is a basic artistic project, but I have developed have a trick. By June or July (the halfway point in our season), I look at the statistics pertaining to grades, age, and what orchestras they are coming from, and that gives me a pretty good idea of who is coming or leaving, their level, and so I make an educated guess about how to program the following season. Still, it can be very stressful, and sometimes I find myself on the edge, but for the most part, it has worked. Having very little turnover from last year has allowed me to take on Taming of the Shrew. Bear in mind that we only get two days of rehearsal with the ballet. So I had to rehearse with them from the first day, bar by bar. Here we had this funny music in the complex Stolze score, with baroque motifs; he built an amazing but very tough score for every family of the orchestra. Then we had to change tempos for the dancers. I had taken them to the opera, but the ballet was missing. After having toured major concert halls in Germany, Austria, and Bratislava, they now have ballet. I am very privileged to be their conductor.

What have proven to be the biggest obstacles to achieving the goals you set out?

The major obstacle is lack of proper musical formation in the early years. Half of the teachers would disagree, but a good half will agree with me. The Andes mountain range is no longer a barrier. We have every tool we need in order to be up to date, and I see a lot of old style training that occurs in first and second grade. This lack of formation betrays these young kids. This ballet took six months because I had to teach theory—and I am not a theory teacher. The Foundation has the Naxos Music Library. It amazes me how little it is used. Another obstacle is the overall cultural level. To do this well, it is important to reference culture on a broad scale. So I make them read this or that book if I can. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, but in the context of this experience I get them trained in whatever they’re missing. There are huge lagoons, and it is important to fill them.

What have you found surprising about the project?

I was surprised by what a young motivated musician can do even given these lagoons. I can’t say they weren’t going to make it, I knew we’d kind of make it, but didn’t expect such fluency. Once more they have shown what they can really do when you push them in a positive way, and it encourages me to get them the information they need. I don’t want them to hit walls in the world they go into.

What auxiliary skills are they learning?

We have a new department in the Foundation, a social assistant and a psychologist. So the kids are getting free psychological support, and social assistance support, to help them navigate through the application process. I have seen major changes in these kids as a result.

Can we expect to see some of these musicians in major orchestras?

Ten percent of the kids go to major orchestras. Two are currently auditioning in Berlin for the academy there, a former member is at the Paris Conservatoire Nationale; we have an oboe player in the Conservatoire Americain Fontainebleau; there are some I have helped personally and privately because of their special talent. I have contacted a couple of international colleagues in order to send them to the best schools or orchestras. The first clarinet, Nicolas, is my pride. He saved money, auditioned, studied English on his own, and went to the U.S. to find Ricardo Morales at the New York Philharmonic, who teaches at Temple. He also went to Chicago, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. He will study with Ricardo Morales next year. There are always two or three who are special, and I go as far as I can to get them the best. The foundation has a separate account to fund their tickets abroad.

What is the most important lesson that you have gained from this?

I couldn’t live without music in my life, I have always needed music to live, and I am in love and passionate about what I do. More and more, the difference is blurred between how I see pros and kids. There are some professional orchestras that are quite young in their philosophy. Where is my passion fed? Among those with the lowest technical capabilities: the kids. They have taught me through their lack of information about what really matters. These kids make me remember why I’m doing this in the first place, and the result is that I have become a better conductor. I used to think that I had to show what I knew. Because of them, I now understand that I don’t have to show that I know it, only that I love it. Professional commitments leave me less and less time for these kids. For example, I was opening at the Philharmonic with Carmen, and each day I was still there rehearsing beforehand with kids. So we are working that out. The Foundation is interested in keeping me, and so we are coming up with the structure to make that happen.

Smuin Ballet and Diablo Ballet: Two Praiseworthy Bay Area Dance Companies

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May 10th, 2012 at 9:15 am

Movie Still: King of New York

Diablo Ballet Dancers Hiromi Yamazaki and Robert Dekkers in Balanchine’s Tarantella
[Photo: Ashraf]

There are a few privileges that come with the role of dance critic. One that is not so obvious, but very gratifying, is watching companies start, develop, and come into their own. If you remain in one locale long enough, you see large companies grow more magisterial, and small ones pop up on the horizon, fall away, or survive and aggregate dancers, repertoire, audiences, endowment, and heft. Observing this process is the perk that I value above all others. The companies can begin to act like siblings, mugging for attention, or quietly positioning themselves for recognition within the local dance family and larger national and international community. This week, I was able to see programs offered by two such San Francisco Bay Area companies: Smuin Ballet and Diablo Ballet.

Diablo Ballet, under the artistic direction of Lauren Jonas, has been around for more than two decades, having survived financial crises and changes in artistic leadership, to become a recognized cultural force in the community. It has a season at the Dean Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, tours abroad, offers presentations at public libraries and community centers, and its PEEK school outreach program famously brings hundreds of children into the world of ballet for the first time to see performances, and create choreography for the company’s dancers. Several years ago, it added another performance module: “Inside the Dancers’ Studio,” an intimate cabaret-style interface with East Bay audiences.

With the company’s current size at seven, the three men and three women dancers fit snuggly onto the small stage at the Shadelands Arts Center, where on May 4, they were surrounded by subscribers seated at tables, and an audience of ballet students, long-time fans, and others who traveled across bridges and through tunnels to see the company’s evening of short pieces.

The program opened with Behind Doors, by company member David Fonnegra and danced by Edward Stegge. It was an occasional dream sequence set to Debussy’s Clair de Lune that Stegge danced in segments during each pause between works on the program. It made for a centering thread that connected the programmed pieces, as it “re-set” the audience’s attention and sense of expectation. Stegge’s theatrical stage presence made him an excellent choice for the evening’s somnambulant steward.

An audience pleaser was the dramatic lovers’ quarrel piece, Red Tea, by ODC’s veteran choreographer, KT Nelson, to music by Max Richter. While a difficult theme to develop in a short work, and obscured slightly by a set that consisted of two planters holding fair-sized ferns, the piece presented a couple danced by Rosselyn Ramírez and Derek Sakakura, who were playing out the anger in their relationship through the sensual medium of their bodies. A compelling moment arrived when they faced one another and seemed to seek what was in the other’s heart by touching each other at that place, each taking a tactile pulse of the other in order to connect with the feelings of their antagonist, even if that antagonist was at times the one within. Ramírez alternated between fire and ice, and shows potential for becoming the company’s next Carmen. Sakakura propelled her through circles of lifts, shaping the piece with his clean partnering.

Hiromi Yamazaki and Robert Dekkers delighted with a pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Tarantella, staged by Christopher Stowell. Dekkers dispatches clean, fast footwork while sharing heartfelt buoyancy that he punctuates with another partner: his tambourine! Yamazaki’s spirited en dehors turns and clean diagonals intersect propitiously with the music and Dekkers’ enthusiasm for the challenging footwork.

Mayo Sugano dressed in a royal blue evening gown and David Fonnegra in tie and tails, danced the bistro number Shall We Dance by Erin Leedom. Fonnegra was dapper and dashing as he led and lifted the confident Sugano through familiar melodies by Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart, played by a combo directed by Greg Sudmeier. In the post performance encounter with the dancers, we learned that Sugano came to the rescue of the piece: Quick thinking led her to direct Fonnegra to execute a brilliant “save” ending when the musicians dropped an important phrase in the arrangement. The audience was none the wiser, and Sugano demonstrated as she has many times before, that she is the consummate professional.

The evening’s closer and audience favorite by dancer Robert Dekkers was aptly named Happy Ending. The dancers were dressed in black and white, with bubble gum color accents (costumes by Christian Squires) as they variously bounced off the back wall upstage and skittered downstage and then bounded back again. Sakakura and Fonnegra sandwich Ramírez in a lift, and then she opts out and they are left embracing one another. Stegge and Ramírez drop to the floor like rag dolls, while others go contact improv with the wall, pushing off it with a raised leg to then jump waist high. The piece offers an assortment of euphoric snapshots danced to wind-up toy-inspired music by Pogo, and besides accomplishing the title’s stated goal, shows that Diablo Ballet has acquired not only a fine dancer in Dekkers, but also a choreographer of great promise.

News story on Diablo Ballet’s outreach program to local students.

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Michael Smuin founded Smuin Ballet after a rich career during which he danced with American Ballet Theatre, in musical comedy on Broadway, was artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, and created choreography for stage and film. Smuin had a knack for gauging the tastes of the audiences he attracted, and was able to “sell it,” as they say in the theater; his was the name most people of a certain generation would associate with ballet in the Bay Area. The company is now under the direction of his closest collaborator, Celia Fushille, and under her direction its size has grown to 19. It has attracted dancers who began dancing with other larger companies, and have come to Smuin late in their careers, as well as a few new dancers with energy, but scant experience. Since Fushille took over the direction of the company, it has expanded its repertoire to show more and more works by choreographers other than Smuin, while continuing to keep his best work in front of the public.

The program I saw on April 29 brought these elements together in the spirit, if not the letter of Michael Smuin. Through was a jubilantly inventive piece by Ma Cong that used the fast infiltration of dancers and screened floor projections against changing panels to create a pocket ballet place and mood that transported the action far from the caucasiana of the Novellus Theater into what Eddie Izzard refers to tongue-in-cheek as the RTW (Rest Of The World). Quick steps-to-lifts raised the action above eye level, followed by sequenced profile leg lifts to African rhythms. The piece is an intriguing weave of color, sound and euphoria in a vocabulary all its own, and will make you look forward to more work by this choreographer.

Val Canaparoli’s Swipe brought the audience a generous slice of William Forsythe-like off balance pas de deux explorations introduced by hands over head signals. It is a work that could potentially be a game changer for the conservatively inclined audiences Smuin typically draws. For that to succeed, however, the dancers will have to step into it at a heightened level of mastery.

The program closed with Smuin’s Symphony of Psalms, which opens on a sumptuous set (designed by Rick Goodwin) of three enormous white papier-mâché frosting-like mound structures that suggest the pearly gates of heaven. These lift heavenward as women in white tutu and men in white turtleneck shirts with an appliqué across the front that unfortunately make them look ill fitting—emerge. They dance in the neo-classical style to a score by Stravinsky, and the piece, with its breathtaking moments, stands as a pedagogical demonstration that choreographers of Smuin’s generation knew how to marry steps to the music, and still leave audience members plenty of room to exercise their imaginations.

The dancers who stand out in this program are Erin Yarborough-Stewart, whose line is long and expressive, Shannon Hurlburt and Robin Cornwall, whose partnering is lush and vivid, Christian Squires and Jane Rehm, who erupt in a volcanic way, and Jonathan Powell, whose strong presence anchors the ensemble.

Five Questions with Oregon Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Christopher Stowell

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May 1st, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Christopher Stowell

Christopher Stowell
[Photo: Angela Sterling]

During his 16 years at San Francisco Ballet, Christopher Stowell performed leading roles in much of the classical repertoire, including Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and Sleeping Beauty. In addition, he established himself at SFB as one of the company’s favorite interpreters of the Balanchine repertoire, appearing in almost every Balanchine ballet performed by SFB.

In 2003, Christopher Stowell became Oregon Ballet Theatre’s second artistic director. Since his debut season, he has made significant additions to the OBT repertoire, including the company’s first Swan Lake (2006) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2007). His success at OBT was summed up by Grant Butler of The Oregonian, who said that under Stowell’s leadership, the company has gone “from a scrappy house of funk into a regional ballet powerhouse.”

The past few weeks, along with his packed schedule at OBT, Stowell has been setting one of his signature ballets, Balanchine’s Tarantella, on the talented Diablo Ballet dancers in Walnut Creek.

California Literary Review: Oregon Ballet Theatre has an ambitious schedule, and you seem to have a pretty busy time up there in Portland. How often are you able to set works or choreograph for other companies?

Christopher Stowell: Actually not very often. I oversee the final rehearsals of Balanchine works at Diablo Ballet, I guest teach occasionally (I’m going to Guangzhou Ballet this summer), and some of my own works are performed by other companies (Carolina Ballet is doing my Rite of Spring next season).

Christopher Stowell

Diablo Ballet dancers Hiromi Yamakazi and Robert Dekkers in the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Tarantella.
[Photo: Ashraf]

When setting a Balanchine work on a new company, what do you emphasize the most — technique, musicality, speed, flair?

The first step is to make sure the steps are accurate and clear to the dancers and to emphasize that the musicality is paramount. I always want to make sure to get past that, though, so that the intent and spirit of the work is alive — and that no one is holding back.

With the Balanchine ballets, is there any flexibility in altering a step or step sequence if the company you are working with has difficulty with the existing material?

I would never alter a step, but in some works there are alternative versions of certain steps or passages, and I may select a different one depending on the particular strengths of a dancer. Tarantella, for instance, is a showcase for the dancers’ virtuosity, and the effect the steps have is very important.

What special projects are you working on currently — either in Portland or elsewhere?

We have a number of exciting projects on our plate at OBT right now. We just finished a program of works by Balanchine, Wheeldon, Caniparoli, and Mrozewski. Then, in May, we are going on a brief tour and will finish the season with a Gala in June. Next season, we return to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for Ballet Across America.

You have been at OBT for almost 10 years. What do you feel has been your most significant accomplishment during that time?

We have created a lean, but very powerful group of artists with an incredible work ethic and drive and a hunger for giving their all on stage. We also have a sophisticated and eclectic repertoire that our audiences eat up.

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See Christopher Stowell’s staging of Balanchine’s Tarantella, along with world premieres from KT Nelson, Robert Dekkers, and Erin Leedom at:

Inside the Dancer’s Studio
May 4-5, 2012
Shadelands Arts Center Auditorium
111 N. Wiget Lane, Walnut Creek

World Premiere by KT Nelson, CoArtistic Director, ODC/SF
World Premiere by Diablo Ballet’s Robert Dekkers
World Premiere by Erin Leedom, former principal at Ballet West
Tarantella Pas de Deux, by George Balanchine

Purchase tickets online or by calling (925) 943-1775.

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Christopher Stowell talks about Balanchine’s Tarantella

An Interview with San Francisco Ballet Soloist Clara Blanco

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April 26th, 2012 at 8:40 am

Clara Blanco

Clara Blanco in Balanchine’s Coppelia
© Erik Tomasson

Clara Blanco is a soloist with San Francisco Ballet. She is from Valladolid, Spain, and trained at the Escuela de Maria de Avila in Zaragoza. When she was 15, she won the Prix de Lausanne Young Dancers International Dance Competition scholarship prize to attend the San Francisco Ballet School, which she entered in 1999. She was invited to join the company in 2001, and was promoted to soloist in 2012.

How did you begin dancing?

I started at six and it happened randomly because I did after-school activities, and these included some dancing: I was learning and doing sevillanas and also Karate, because my mother wanted me to be involved in after-school activities. Then, a small ballet studio opened up next to my father’s business. My mother asked me if I wanted to start ballet there. I was only six, but I had a friend who had danced, and so I went and I just loved it!

Which feelings from your first inclinations to dance do you carry with you when you perform?

I always have in mind the things my second teacher Maria de Avila said to us, because she was always quite specific and detailed, and so even if I tried, I couldn’t forget what she instilled in my brain! She gave explanations for every step she taught, so that you could apply them even when there is no one helping you out. As a professional dancer these days, it is often the case that you don’t have a coach, but I am always aware that I still have what she shared with us. So whenever I’m in class, I know to go back to basics and clean up what I may have messed up the day before. She is always very present.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

My training was very classical, and so I wasn’t exposed to modern, contemporary or Balanchine-style dancing. So, when I came here–first to San Francisco Ballet School, it was the first time that I was exposed to that kind of movement. I was in the school for two years before joining the company and becoming a professional dancer. My first exposure to Balanchine was in the school. Growing as a person makes you grow as a dancer in terms of finding yourself, knowing yourself, your work, what you are good or bad at, and how to work with what you have. As I get older I continue to notice that I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge through living. Having a good school gave me strong technique. Having strong technique makes you feel freer because you have no second thoughts about it, and that allows you to concentrate on the character you are dancing or the feeling the choreography evokes. It also makes me feel satisfied that I am doing things right, and that I don’t have to use little devices to hide things that if you don’t have good technique you can tend to want to cover up.

In what ways do you think being an only child affected how you approach the competitive aspect of ballet?

I think I am a real perfectionist, not only a dancer, but as a person, and always had the inclination to do everything as well as possible for myself, but also for my parents, since I was their only child. So wanting to do well can make you competitive. I always competed with myself when I was a student, so there is a whole different level of exposure when you are confronted with another 100 students who are professional-track dancers. The challenge is much bigger. I always wanted to be better than I was at any given moment, not better than that other person, but better than myself. The other person wasn’t a vehicle for competing.

What has been most exciting for you?

There is a certain feeling that I experience as I get older, and each year I get that feeling at least once. It’s the breakthrough exhilaration of doing something I never thought I could do. It started with the contemporary piece Artifact Suite [by William Forsythe]. I realized I could move in a way I never thought possible; it also happened with Balanchine, though not in as drastic a way, and also, I was always told when I was little that I should express more feeling: “You have to smile, interpret who you are in those moments,” and I always felt shy about that, and never felt I’d feel free enough to be someone else, but the first time it happened and I felt I could do a role and portray the role throughout a piece or a full-length, it was in Ibsen’s House [by Val Caniparoli]. I Remember feeling very satisfied and fulfilled, and it happened again this season in Onegin. It is not something at all abstract when you portray a character. Steps may be hard and challenging, and you feel proud of that and have fun if it’s a fun ballet, but this thing of being a specific character and being that character for the length of the ballet, makes the whole ballet world make sense to me. Before, when I experienced a variation in a competition or when you win, or you don’t win, or you have good reviews or you don’t, that’s one kind of feeling. But dancing a character both fulfills and exhausts you. After Artifact, I felt dead, but it was a good dead!

Who among your colleagues have you looked to for direction?

From the moment I began training with Maria de Avila, she taught me to observe everything all the time. She would say that often you can learn more from watching than from doing, so I always did that and I think you can learn as much from the person who has been here 15 years as you can from someone who has just walked in. Sometimes the young people haven’t yet developed a certain kind of fear that can creep in as you get more experienced. They still have spontaneity, and fear holds you back. So, sometimes I find myself looking to the younger dancers to find that fearlessness in myself again. When I was younger, I did some things that now scare me to even think about doing, even though they were quite wonderful. I look to the older ones for the benefits that come with experience: for example, Muriel Maffre [former SFB Principal Dancer], because she was the opposite of what I am in terms of how we tend to be cast in certain roles. She would get the more legato roles because she is tall with long limbs. I am short, and tend to get the roles with short, quick steps. I admired her work ethic. She would process every step. I was able to learn a lot from that, and how she worked with her own body made me aware of how to work with mine.

Hasn’t Lorena Feijoo also helped you?

Lorena Feijoo [currently a principal dancer with SFB] coached me for the Nutcracker Grand Pas de Deux. Because I was in the school and joined the company when I was young, I always remember having had the feeling of needing help and looking up to the older dancers, and feeling happy and thankful even if they helped me with something small.

Have you mentored younger dancers?

I have wanted to give the younger dancers the tips I have gotten over the years. The smallest things may be very helpful to someone who is new. I want them to have the best experience possible, so I like to give them those tips in advance, I know they’ll experience what I am saying eventually, but I want to help before that time comes. It is very important because we have less coaching nowadays.

What did your promotion this season to soloist signify to you?

My promotion [in January] is finally starting to sink in! In seeing the whole picture, and what it means to me is that you should never give up. I tend to be stubborn. I work for what I want. People tell me to let go of things. Every time I begin a new project, I want to do it the best I can or I won’t try. I am very persistent in everything. So my goal has been to rise in the ranks, fighting to get that, not just the roles, but getting the recognition that should come with dancing them well. It is a little ironic that it was this year that I got promoted, when I finally made peace with myself, and while I had not given up trying, I decided that maybe it just wasn’t meant for me, even though I can’t really say I gave up. So when it happened, I was glad that my persistence paid off. The promotions and all the successes don’t always take place at the same time for dancers of a particular generation, so even though it took me so long to get the promotion, maybe for some of the others it was too late, but also, maybe because I didn’t give up, I succeeded. It meant a lot. It wasn’t easy, so it makes it all the more special; it was hard work and a long process, but unlike how it may feel for those who get promoted very early in their careers, it feels completely solid.

Can you tell us something about the role you will dance in the upcoming performances of Don Quixote?

I will be dancing Cupid. In this production, Cupid is the character that makes Don Quixote fall in love with Kitri, confusing him into thinking she is Dulcinea. During the dance he wants to touch her, and I pull him back, teasing him. Helgi [Artistic Director Helgi Tomassen] would like me to dance it as a cute, sweet, and comic role, though it is not as comic as other parts in the production. He wants it cute, but at the same time sharp, but at the same time light: Present, but something ephemeral that comes and goes, a charming little troublemaker!

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San Francisco Ballet’s Don Quixote will run at the War Memorial Opera House from April 27-May 6. Click here for ticket and casting information.

5 Questions with Choreographer Val Caniparoli (Part 2)

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April 25th, 2012 at 9:49 am

Choreographer Val Caniparoli

Val Caniparoli
Photo by Chris Hardy

The following is the second part of my interview with noted choreographer Val Caniparol, which focuses on this weekend’s Smuin Ballet premiere of Swipe.

A highly-technical piece for four men and three women, Swipe is set to a remix of London composer Gabriel Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2. A classically-trained composer known for electro club and hip-hop music, Prokofiev’s music compliments the pulsing energy of Caniparoli’s choreography, as well as the choreographer’s penchant for mixing classical and contemporary styles. Also on the program is Michael Smuin’s full-company work Symphony of Psalms, set to Stravinsky’s score. A world premiere by choreographer Ma Cong rounds out the bill.

California Literary Review: Do you visit a dance company to assess its capabilities before you take on a project — especially the creation of a new ballet?

Val Caniparoli: I usually do assess a dance company, especially if I’ve never seen them before or it’s been a while since I’ve seen them. It’s always good to try and schedule time when the company is performing, as you get a better sense of individual dancers and how they perform onstage. You can’t always know if and how a dancer transforms onstage as opposed to how they work in the rehearsal studio.

The premiere of Swipe you are doing for Smuin Ballet’s spring program appears to have some incredibly tricky timing and direction shifts. How do you explain some of these more counterintuitive aspects to the dancers?

Swipe was originally created for the Richmond Ballet, a company I have worked with for over 12 years. They are very familiar with me and my way of working. Hence, I am always able to pull out all the stops and challenge them; some of my trickiest and most interesting work has been created for this company. Smuin Ballet Artistic and Executive Director Celia Fushille saw Swipe on DVD and immediately felt it was right for the company — she wanted to challenge them as well.

Smuin Ballet is a good-sized company. Will the scope of Swipe use most of the dancers? For solo and featured parts, will they be double-cast?

Swipe is for four men and three women. Each member is featured at some point and given their moment to shine. At this time, I have almost three complete casts learning the ballet.

Lambarena is one of your most popular works, and I’m sure that many more dance companies want to include it in their repertoire. How do you decide who gets to perform this ballet?

Lambarena is often requested. If a company hasn’t performed a work of mine, I usually require them to perform another work prior to booking Lambarena. I want the dancers to first be familiar with my style before plunging into it, as Lambarena is very specialized with my way of working and with the blending of classical and African dance. It is a difficult ballet to pull off stylistically.

You have had success with your full-length ballets Lady of the Camellias and A Cinderella Story. Will the Bay Area get to see them any time soon? Do you have any new full-length ballets in your plans?

Unfortunately, at this point there are no plans for either to be seen in the Bay Area. As for new full-length works –– I’m always looking for ideas for the future. At this point, there are some possibilities. I’m always up for suggestions from anyone on this, as well.

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Smuin Ballet Spring Program: April 27th to May 6th, 2012, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and through May 27, 2012, around the Bay Area. Call 415.912.1899 for tickets and information or purchase online.

Dance Review: Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s Triangle of Squinches

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April 19th, 2012 at 8:34 am

Triangle of Squinches

Keelan Whitmore in Triangle of Squinches
Photo: © Angela Sterling

Act I of Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s Triangle of Squinches plays out in front of a backdrop of several hundred silvered bungee cords, stretched perpendicular to the Novellus Theater stage floor so that they form a brilliantine thicket through which dancers will emerge, and retreat. The dancers will pluck the cords like harp strings, lean in to, ascend and descend them. The bungees are supply lines in their own right for this small but sturdy army of dancers who are the very embodiment of the excellence that can spring even from the 21st Century culture we often work very hard to distance ourselves from.

King is the diametrical opposite of your garden variety artistic director who ritualistically follows the formulas of his antecedents: An African-American artist who waded with his family in the thermal waters of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, King chose to dance ballet and tailor its rudiments to his inspired needs for self-expression, and some of those needs betray an atavistic pull toward solidarity. It took time to chase the thread of his own instincts to achieve an ethos of collaboration with musicians such as Mickey Hart, Pharaoh Sanders, and Zakir Hussain. His path took a detour off the Yellow Brick Road leading skippingly toward wizardry. Instead he located the agony and ecstasy of the heart in an oasis of authenticity, peopled by artists of the same persuasion as King. These are dancers with bodies that have emerged out of a broth of naturalism, where the mind is not an obstacle to mining artistic self-confidence, but an integral extrusion tool.

It’s as if the dancers in this company birth their own best exponents, and of the women, Courtney Henry, a recent addition, is a fine example. All sinew and sculpted muscle, because she is tall, there is the temptation to think of her as athletic or a super-soaker of a dancer, but that would be to fall for a trompe d’oeil. While she has the strength and tenacity of an Olympic athlete, there is an artisanal quality to her dancing that beckons you to hear and see the vibrational symmetry she brings to the plaintive string melody that accompanies her solo in the second movement of Act I. It is tempting to list the dancers one by one to detail what sizzles in the zarzuela each brings to the feast. Suffice it to say that Carolyn Rocher tenders slow, deliberate technique, most evident in her plush developpés; Kara Wilkes unpacks a trousseau of crisply starched technique heirlooms, each an artifact of embroidered homespun. In this setting, they wax classical, and in a complementary way, Yu Jin Kim effortlessly wields the whisk of ballet technique to whip up a frothy embellishment for their intertwined presentation.

At the point at which each woman dancer has a sound assigned to her, an engine starting up, a ringing bell, sounds of every day life that we normally hardly notice as they mark a specific hour, we see that the cylindrical turns, arms in opposition, and floor squinches, are stamped with some element of our collective subliminal experience. These are filtered through the elastic boundaries of the bungees. Two men venture into the bungees, burrowing into the sumptuous nest of contradictions that invite one man to lean his head into the hollow between the arm and the breast of the other.

In Act II, a dun-colored hinged assembly of tongue and groove corrugated cardboard assumes the shape of a citadel—at least for the moment. The indomitable, but gentle giant of a dancer, Keelan Whitmore is tasked with scaling the wall, vertically and horizontally Mickey Hart’s music and the women are past containment in this segment, as Whitmore eventually reaches upper and outer limits of the teetering obstacle, until makes a conquest of the final panels. Arms embrace him, bells ring, light goes into a slow diminuendo, the wall reveals its brilliantly-engineered innards as it turns into a traveling twist-o-gram, having been the silent witness to the hieroglyphs of the sound and furies of movement.

If there is any deficit in this otherwise volcanic company, it is the public image of it as a precious New Age, more-sensitive-than-thou, mystic phenomenon, accessible only to those annointed with transcendental sensibilities. On the contrary, this is a company grounded in the material reality of nature and naturalism. Its sublime effort to find and present the truth in art, step over the hype and faddism which devalues its competitors, renders it bracingly authentic and potentially places it on the same wavelength of the broadest spectrum of the population.

***

Alonzo King LINES Ballet will present Program 2, Migration and Scheherazade from April 18-22, 2012 at the Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. For ticket information, call 415 863-3040.

Two World Premiers from ODC/Dance

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March 19th, 2012 at 12:38 pm

ODC Downtown: Transit

Transit, a new work performed by ODC/Dance

“ODC Downtown,” held for the past decade at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Novellus Theater, has become the high water mark for members of an Oberlin College dance department who commandeered a school bus, and drove it across country to San Francisco, where they staked their claim as that city’s modern dance company, now known as ODC/Dance, and known by that name the world over. Under the direction of Brenda Way, it has acted as the mother ship for several spinoff companies who danced their way out of the womb of ODC’s Mission-based compound at Shotwell and 17th Streets and into seasons, tours and accolades of their own: Robert Moses’ KIN, Jacinta Vlach’s Liberation Dance Theater and LEVYDance, are among them. This season, ODC presents two programs. I saw the three pieces in Program 1 on opening night.

Transit, a world premiere, is billed as a collaboration between “Choreographer KT Nelson and the Dancers,” to music composed by Nico Huhly. On a set built to suggest an urban street scene, including a bench that also serves as a bicycle built for two (designed by Max Chen), hipster types in street clothes move swiftly through their interchanges and read the newspaper during and between them, accompanied by water dripping, and staccato lyrics in languages other than English. Two feral kids grab a clueless dad, and jerk him out of the tableau, setting off a chain reaction of snapping newspaper pages. The signature “run fast and stop short” steps that slide into home in many ODC pieces, are very much in evidence, but earlier generations of male company members didn’t get as winded when executing them. Overall, Transit creates a recognizable place, but the dancers, while mostly a spirited lot, seem to lack the spitfire facility of their predecessors, and here I am thinking of Shannon D. Mitchell, Robert Moses, Brian Fisher, Kevin Ware, KT Nelson and Yukie Fujimoto, a vanished comet of former ODC stars. Ann Zivolich is an exception. She is a well-trained, self-possessed, fearless but focused dancer, whose mere promenade raises the stakes. Daniel Santos, who is leaving the company, is similarly gifted. But in the context of a workshop-to-stage piece, where personality gets buried under the counts, we are left wanting to admire the way a head or an eye responds, or a hand, even when it is knocked out of place, and instead we get dancers dragged about by partners, short poses with flailing runs, or lifts that are so athletic and fast that they are indistinguishable from jumps. It’s not that these categories are immutable, but when they lose definition they risk also forsaking their impact.

Raking Light is a 1999 piece by Brenda Way. It opens to strange sounds and men in gym clothes from that period laboring under the burden of carrying women across their shoulders or on their backs. There is a square-ish, pleated hanging above their heads. As the women assume their rightful places on the floor with the men and move across it, every so often a dancer will fall, and then the accompaniment changes from random sounds to a metronome’s tic-tock. Dogs bark, dancers spring to and fro, and a pas de deux of mostly leaning and swinging adds a focal point. Surprisingly, the score slightly overwhelms the dancing, as the dancers seem overcome by the data it imparts. This is remedied by a series of impulse-propelled steps and a vaudevillian “You do this, so I do that” dialogue cum contact improv. In Jay Cloidt’s score there’s fiddling, washboards, brakes (violins) squealing and enough water dripping to raise drought concerns. Fast lifts end in feet peddling instead of pointing, with contrasting legato movement, showing women in dark shadow. It’s a rich selection of movement, and the strongest offering of the evening.

The world premiere of Brenda Way’s Breathing Underwater, opens with bass violinist Zoe Keating, stunningly long-limbed, and possessed of a face that you think you’ve seen in a Roman Polansky film. She is lit, while the remainder of the Magik Magik Orchestra is not (lighting design by Matthew Antaky), as she plays a long solo. Dancer Natasha Adorlee Johnson then sings a “The Weaver’s Bonny,” to the orchestra’s accompaniment, after which she joins three other dancers wearing bell-shaped pastel shifts in movement that captures the kinds of relationships girls leading unencumbered kinds of lives often have, a complex of loyalty, jealousy, competition, intuited moves and countermoves, a framework for life before it is fully eclipsed by adolescence. Zivolich confers exploration by pawing the ground with rond de jambes á terre and there are trios doing quick jumps, followed by girly contretemps, as two couple-cliques form, face off, and dissolve, and the iconic pajama party peopled by girls of a certain age (and class) celebrates a brief ensemble moment.

ODC Downtown runs from March 15-25, Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco, CA. Tickets: $20-$70; $15, students. Phone: 415-978-2727.

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