Most dancers begin their training near home, then travel large distances as their career path takes them from company to company. This was not the case for former San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Joanna Berman (SFB 1984–2002). A California native, Berman began her training with Marin Ballet, just north of San Francisco, and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge when she was seventeen to dance with the larger company, where she became one of the most beloved dancers in the company’s history. She retired from SF Ballet in 2002 to start a family (she has nine-year-old twin boys) and to take her dance career into new territory as a teacher and regisseur.
Equally at home in classical and contemporary works, whether abstract or dramatic, and with a unique gift for comedy, she was the obvious choice for many visiting choreographers. In addition to the Auroras, Juliets, and Giselles, Berman created roles in works by Val Caniparoli, Mark Morris, David Bintley, and Christopher Wheeldon, among others.
Today, because of her experience in such an extensive repertory, Berman is in demand as a regisseur, assisting choreographers in bringing their existing ballets to new audiences. This past month, she has been working with Walnut Creek’s Diablo Ballet, setting Christopher Wheeldon’s Mercurial Manoeuvres, which is part of the Inside the Dancer’s Studio program to be presented Friday and Saturday, March 2 and 3.
California Literary Review recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Berman about this exciting new phase of her dancing career.
California Literary Review: You set Mercurial Manoeuvres on the Australian Ballet a while back. How were you initially selected for the project?
Joanna Berman: In my final season with San Francisco Ballet, I performed in Christopher Wheeldon’s Sea Pictures — that’s how I met him. We really connected, and he asked if I would be interested in setting another on of his ballets (Mercurial Manoeuvres) on the Australian Ballet. He knew I was retiring and thought it would be a good transition project for me.
He sent me videos of the ballet; I learned the piece from them. As part of the process, I went to New York and watched the New York City Ballet rehearsals to become more familiar with the work. It went so well in Australia that it started my career as a regisseur (Note: a person whose responsibilities include rehearsing and staging a company’s ballets).
Mercurial Manoeuvres uses the same music as David Bintley’s Dance House — a ballet I performed when I was with San Francisco Ballet — so I know the music well. It was strange to work with the music in this different context, though, as I instinctively responded to the music in the other ballet. On the other hand, it was comfortable at the same time. It did make it easier to remember the choreography. What also helps is that Wheeldon’s ballets are so musical that the steps fit like a glove.
Robert Dekkers and Mayo Sugano in Christopher Wheeldon's Mercurial Manoeuvres. Photo by Erika Johnson.
What do you see as the differences/challenges working with larger vs. smaller companies?
When we are in the studio working on a ballet, it really makes no difference. I love being in the studio, and teaching a pas de deux is the same wherever you are. Just different dancers. Talented dancers exist in both large and small dance groups.
How do you structure your rehearsals with a company? And how much time are you given for an undertaking like this?
I consult with the company where I’m going and with others who have set the work previously to see about how much time is needed at each stage of the process. As I become more and more experienced as a regisseur (especially in setting a piece on various companies), I will have more of an idea.
In the past, you have said you were not interested in choreographing. Has this changed since you have experienced setting ballets for other choreographers?
My answer today is the same as before: I’m still not interested in it. Sometimes, though, I hear a piece of music I love and maybe I want to do something, but it is not my passion.
Being a regisseur resonates almost as much as dancing for me. I love it. And it doesn’t have the same pressures as being a performer. I still get to interact with dancers and using my body. And to get the choreographer’s point across.
Besides Christopher Wheeldon, do you set ballets for other choreographers? For which companies? And what is coming up for you?
In addition to Christopher Wheeldon, I have worked with Mark Morris on setting his A Garden at Pacific Northwest Ballet, which was a wonderful experience. I have also worked with Val Caniparoli, helping to polish Hamlet and Ophelia Pas de Deux for Ballet West. (Berman originated the role of Ophelia at the world premiere in 1985.)
I really try to limit myself to one major project a year that requires intense preparation, and where I have to be gone from home for a couple of weeks. As my sons get older, though, I hope to be able to do more.
Are you teaching these days? Where and at what levels?
Yes. For four different studios; I also have some private students. I do this mostly while the boys are in school. I teach a class at Marin Dance theatre. At Dominican, I teach the sophomores in their dance program. In addition, I teach two “open classes” in San Francisco — one at ODC, and one at City Ballet. Every class has a different clientele, which keeps it interesting.
Do you have time for any performing? Or are you too busy with other assignments?
I have no plans for performing right now. I’m not saying I won’t, but there is nothing in the works. If the right thing came about, maybe.
Don’t miss Diablo Ballet in this weekend’s Inside theDancer’s Studio.
7:30 p.m. March 2 and 3; 2:00 p.m. March 3 Shadelands Arts Center Auditorium, 111 N. Wiget Lane, Walnut Creek For tickets: 925.943.1775, www.diablo ballet.org.
Batsheva Dance Company dancers in Max by Ohad Naharin Photo: Gadi
Men are standing, and opposite them are women in grand plié, who tip to the left, then to the right, and change position so that they are kneeling in profile. Their costumes are simple leotards. In fact, it looks as if the company boxed up the dancers and little more than a string of lights and red gels, and set off on tour.
There is silence as the men twist like train couplings into pairs with the women, and then position themselves like sentries in an empty, cold, nighttime desert. For a moment, the men soften and lean into the women. That is the most affect we will see, and it is the cue for A Capella music by Maxin Waratt to begin, with lyrics in Portuguese, the beginning of a mix by Ohad Fishof. A pattern emerges from what at first look like random poses, dancers disconnected from one another, isolates, each on his or her own Gaga-centered journey. In slo-mo, we see that the poses (a modified arabesque or penchée) give way to a short, quick jump, a mad runabout, and then a tableau that assembles all ten dancers, in graduated rows, as if for a class photo. They distribute themselves across the barren landscape and fall to the floor. No chemistry, no alchemy, nothing connects them except their random arrival on the same stage like ball bearings in a Physics exercise. Their movements assume a strategic character. It’s a game of chess with bodies, and the floor is the board. They move in fits and starts, but once a direction is taken, it is done so in haste. The sound effects, which are part of the score, become more identifiable. The dancers disperse themselves into lines, and we hear pops—like from guns—as they respond, contracting or dropping, as if hit by a bullet and felled—or temporarily disabled until they recoil and reload the earlier combinations. A great rolling sound gathers momentum, like a caisson barreling down a road; there is a quick solo, breathing deepens into a whispered utterance. We see an arabesque and hear dripping water over the whisper, and one imagines that the water is dripping from the extended leg, like blood. Is the score accompaniment to the movement, or is the movement an annotation of the score? The lens of the sensory experience needs adjustment with each succeeding sequence of sound and movement.
Movement gives way to dancers sidling up to partners, though they do not dance with them, except in one chassé sequence, where the partners face one another and take a tentative, almost disinterested measure of the calculated steps.
Words are now intoned in what sounds like Hebrew, and the formations become more athletic and callisthenic, interrupted by plodding bent-knee leg lifts, and with backs to the audience, heads bobble in nods to the sound of bellows pumping. From their downstage tableau the dancers scatter randomly, and fractionalize again as the sound of a mosquito’s buzz intensifies. A dancer’s midriff undulates to the bandwidth of the mosquito’s expanding and contracting vibration, and two of the company’s most athletic dancers, Bobbi Smith and Shamel Pitts dance a sharp-edged duet. Men nearly skid onto the stage with hips thrust forward, and a jazz-like set of combinations follow. Chanting morphs into the sound of ratcheting and then an air hose, a veritable sound machine under construction. Are we in the middle of William Forsythe? I’d venture that there has been a little shameless pilfering: Dancers respond with off-balance thrusts or lifts, to loud clanking crashes of metal. A manufactured language, a kind of African dialect with echoes of Spanish, and then counting in another invented tongue, and then the Roman alphabet camouflaged by a polyglot of related sounds, takes us into the home stretch until the dancers find their tableau, and the audience goes gaga.
Batsheva Dance Company dancers in Max by Ohad Naharin Photo: Gadi
Sonsherée Giles and Lisa Bufano perform Was it a Dream I Loved.
Nijinsky was in the house during This Sweet Nothing’s performance of Was it a Dream I Loved at Oakland’s Fox Theater on February 12. Windsocks fluttered from arms where one would have expected hands, and a changing naturalist screened backdrop offered the verdant or watery glade scenes that recall the mad choreographer’s Afternoon of a Faun and its semi-inscrutable steaminess. Tonight’s choreographer, Sonsherée Giles, took the daring step of positioning her work on the back of Nijinsky’s famously controversial one. She has designed sequences tailored to the acuities of differently-abled dancers by incorporating wheelchairs or stylized stilts to serve as prosthetics, as well as props (in every sense of the word). Some on the stage have gained many years of experience as members of Axis, where Homer Avila, a small, but handsome and powerful dancer, deprived of one of his legs by cancer, executed the full range of ballet and modern dance steps with a thrum of feeling and polish, and sometimes without prosthetics, props or partners, until his death about a decade ago.
Sonsherée’s collaboration with the composer Caroline Penwarden makes the 50-minute piece twinkle with ambition, even if material production values run into limits imposed by insufficient funding. When the raven-haired, creamy-skinned Lisa Bufano, who has no lower legs, enters the stage by rolling onto it from the wings, we see the energy and look of a young, if more lush and supple Liza Minelli. Her duet with Giles, in which both dancers use stilts to place themselves on the same locus, invites us to meet a pair of post-Nijinsky characters, two women who move like languid praying mantises, fluid, deliberate, yet delicate, as they explore a sensuality between women, untested by the choreographers of Nijinsky’s time.
Daria Klimentova as Clara and James Streeter as the Mouse King Photo: Alastair Muir
People knock Johnny Depp for doing movies based on a fairground ride, but Tchaikovsky gets a free pass for a ballet about tableware? It hardly seems fair. Though we must bear in mind he was working in a noble and time-honoured genre: who can forget the romance of Telemann’s opera Saltzeller und Pippepotte? Or Haydn’s majestic Symphony #735: The Cheese-Parer, which caused that unfortunate misunderstanding with his patron? And aficionados of 70s minimalism still rave about the anonymous classic Cocktail Stick (Cheese/Pineapple/Cheese). So maybe we should cut the old Russian some slack on this one.
Whatever its origins, The Nutcracker is firmly ensconced in the seasonal repertoire, and the English National Ballet claim a chunk of the credit for the sconcing.1 Their productions in the 50s, along with those of Balanchine and the New York City ballet in the USA, helped make it as secure a part of our cultural heritage as squealing about the red cups at Starbucks and complaining that the Christmas season starts earlier every year. It’s also endlessly rewarding and re-workable. This is the second year Wayne Eagling’s version has been danced by the ENB and the development of this production was documented in the TV series The Agony and the Ecstasy; a year at the English National Ballet, which gives a fun added element of recognition when the dancers first appear. Personally, I’m still bitter I didn’t see the ENB’s previous version, which was designed by the legendary cartoonist Gerald Scarfe and featured a giant papier-maché bird and characters named Poly Ester and Vi Agra. Though they danced it for eight years, so it’s unclear at this stage exactly whom I blame for me missing it.
Still, Eagling’s production, designed by Peter Farmer, is a terrifically enjoyable show. The programme notes say they sought “a darker vision”, which makes the heart sink slightly, as it aligns the production with just about every lousy warmed-over fairy tale film, classic novel miniseries or “franchise reboot” we’ve sat through in the last five years. Aside from being a tall order for anyone trying to follow Gerald Scarfe. But they managed it. For once the Mouse King is a genuinely compelling villain: his mask is a giant rodent’s skull with red eyes, his costume is murkily tatty and his dancing has a blend of exuberance and creepiness which makes him a joy to watch. James Streeter is the first Mouse King I’ve seen that Clara should be afraid of. The Nutcracker himself is a little more unsettling than I’ve seen in the past: the painted mask Farmer gives him for a face is slightly uncanny, and when he swaps places with Drosselmeyer’s Nephew there’s a hint of the disorientation that we feel in our own dreams. The dances in the puppet theatre are bright and harmless enough, but they’re done with a brio and pace which stops them slipping back into saccharine. My sister’s Facebook status the next morning read “Hope I’m never too old for The Nutcracker”, and artists like Eagling and Farmer work hard to make sure the show grows along with us. That’s worth a bit of gratitude, and a ticket or two.
______________________________________ 1 That is a verb, actually. I’m told they do it in Cambridge, and I’ve never wished to investigate further.
Smuin Ballet dancer Robin Cornwell blows kisses at the audience as the curtain goes down in The Christmas Ballet. Photo by Keith Sutter.
[L]eading companies will succeed not by battling competitors, but by creating “blue oceans” of uncontested market space ripe for growth. — Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim, Blue Ocean Strategy (2005)
Picture this — you just started a new ballet company and Christmas is coming. You also know that in most companies, the annual Nutcracker production pays for much of the year’s repertory performance budget throughout the entire year. But, and this is a big one, you are operating in a town that has put on one of the best Nutcrackers ever — and for years! Added to that, the surrounding region has several other well-respected versions of the holiday classic.
Your company is a lot smaller than the big brother across town, and your new company lacks the foundation funding enjoyed by the other team. So, do you put on your own Nutcracker, one that will be smaller in scope and production values? Or do you start your own tradition; and, if you do, what will that new tradition be?
Fortunately for local Bay Area audiences, Michael Smuin chose not to go into direct competition with all the Nutcrackers in the region. Instead, he took the path that has been recognized in business circles as the Blue Ocean. He chose not to compete.
In a nutshell, the idea is that most businesses are chasing the same prize in the same shark-infested waters, ripping one another into bloody shreds — the Red Ocean. The Blue Ocean Strategy goal is to create something new, something innovative — i.e., swim in the calm Blue Ocean. And that is just what Michael Smuin did. With The Christmas Ballet, he followed his own creative path, and came up with a winner.
The ballet consists of two parts. The first half, “The Classical Christmas,” is devoted to traditional ballet with classical Christmas music, including liturgical works. In the second half, “The Cool Christmas,” pointe shoes are out, stilettos and tap shoes are in, and the music shifts from Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic to Lou Rawls, Eartha Kitt, and Leon Redbone.
In “The Classical Christmas,” the big standout for me this year was the simplest. There is something timeless and charming about the minimalist line dance by the company women to “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.” It reminds us that dance does not always need to be tricky and complicated to be wonderful. Oh, there were masses of tricky solos and partner work, to be sure, but the sheer loveliness of this dance will linger in memory far longer than fancy footwork.
For speed, power, and jaw-dropping lifts and catches, Amy Seiwert’s “Carol of the Bells,” ably led by Jared Hunt and Jane Rehm, offered all the speed and precision anyone could require. And Smuin’s choreography for “Jauchzet Frohlocket,” set to a section of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, filled the stage with its clever entrances and exits, making the seventeen-member company seem twice its size.
However, although Smuin audiences appreciate classical ballet, they absolutely love the sass and cheekiness in “The Cool Christmas.” From Susan Roemer’s saucy turn in “Santa Baby” to Shannon Hurlburt’s infectious tapping in “Bells of Dublin,” this is some serious fun! It all ends on a nostalgic note to the strains of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” as dancers wave to the audience while snow falls on the stage and in the house.
Over the years, The Christmas Ballet has become as much a Bay Area holiday tradition as Nutcracker. Under the able stewardship of Artistic Director Celia Fushille, each year, it is tweaked a bit — new things are added, and some bits are put aside for the moment. But it is always wonderful!
The Christmas Ballet 2011: Smuin Ballet. Through December 24 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For tickets, see www.smuinballet.org or call 415-556-5000.
Robert Dekkers and Hiromi Yamazaki in Val Caniparoli’s Tears from Above. Photo by Aris Bernales.
A great thing about living in the Bay Area is that the local dance world is full of surprises. One day you think you’ve seen pretty much everything there is on offer, and the next you discover something that’s been there for a while but is new to you. It’s kind of like being one of those white cats, some of which tend to be a bit slow on the uptake. All the other household cats are zooming by, the white cat takes no notice, and then, five minutes later, suddenly and quickly turns its head as if to say, “What the heck’s going on here?”
That’s how I felt the weekend I attended the opening of Diablo Ballet’s 18th season out in Walnut Creek, a distant suburb of San Francisco. Admittedly, I’m a bit embarrassed that this company has flown under my radar for so long. But not anymore. This small, talented group is made up of eight dancers who have performed with companies throughout the world, including Ballet de Caracas, Miami City Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet.
Under Artistic Director Lauren Jonas, the company has become noted for its focus on new works by contemporary choreographers, all the while staying true to its classical roots. At their most recent performance weekend, November 18–19, the company presented one world premiere, one West Coast premiere, and revisited a company favorite.
The centerpiece of the program was the world premiere of Val Caniparoli’s Tears from Above, set to a score for two cellos by Elena Kats-Chernin and performed live by Daniel Reiter and Paul Rhodes. An abstract work with a heart, Tears from Above explores the relationships within and between two couples, beautifully danced on opening night by Hiromi Yamazaki, Robert Dekkers, Derek Sakukura, and Mayo Sugano. Although at first glance the dance appears to be a chamber ballet, it is so much more. Through the use of unusual exits and entrances, unexpected direction shifts, and surprising level changes, Caniparoli has created an economical work that could easily expand to fill a larger stage.
Dominic Walsh’s postmodernist take on Fokine’s Spectre de la Rose, opened the program. Set to a quirky arrangement for string trio of Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, the modern choreography seemed to be at war with the romantic music. Instead of flowing organically, the dance moved from one tableau to another, ignoring the possibility that each section could be connected in a more coherent fashion. Although visually stunning, and performed competently by Rosselyn Ramirez and guest artist Domenico Luciana, this was a spare and cold Spectre.
The program closed on a cheerful note with a revival of Septime Webre’s energetic Fluctuating Hemlines (1995). A winsome Erika Johnson, partnered by the charming Edward Stegge, led the ensemble to a satisfying conclusion.
It is worth noting that Diablo Ballet presents each repertory season program over one weekend only. The next performances are in March and May 2012. Be sure to check the Diablo Ballet website for program information and tickets.
Friday–Saturday, November 18–19 Lesher Center for the Arts 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA
Diablo Ballet dancers Robert Dekkers, Mayo Sugano, Derek Sakakura, and Hiromi Yamazaki in rehearsals of Val Caniparoli’s new ballet Tears from Above.
Val Caniparoli is a busy guy these days. In San Francisco alone, he is rehearsing Smuin Ballet’s company premiere of his edgy and challenging Swipe for the company’s spring program and preparing the Diablo Ballet world premiere of Tears from Above. In addition, he is Principal Character Dancer at San Francisco Ballet, so is preparing for both the 2012 season and Nutcracker.
One of the most sought after American choreographers in the United States and abroad, Mr. Caniparoli has contributed to the repertoires of more than thirty-five dance companies, including Pacific Northwest Ballet, Boston Ballet, Northern Ballet Theatre, and San Francisco Ballet, his artistic home for over thirty years. His work ranges from full-length story ballets like the acclaimed Lady of the Camellias to his most performed work, Lambarena, set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach and traditional African rhythms and music, which is in the repertory of nineteen companies and has become an international sensation.
The following is the first part of the interview Mr. Caniparoli shared with California Literary Review. The second part will focus on his work with Smuin Ballet and will appear in conjunction with their spring program.
Dance Vine: Do you visit a dance company to assess its capabilities before you take on a project — especially the creation of a new ballet?
I usually do assess a dance company, especially if I’ve never seen them before or it’s been a while since I’ve observed 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 their work in the rehearsal studio.
Other than the dancers’ technical ability levels, what are your other considerations when agreeing to work with a company?
All of this depends on what kind of work they want. For example is it a story ballet or purely an abstract work, the amount of dancers required, actual time available on the stage, the dancers’ technical abilities, strength of the music department (if there is to be live music), among others. There are so many different considerations, and many of them have to do with the creation they wish to perform.
Diablo Ballet is a small group. Did you have a plan for the work you crafted for this company?
This work has been entirely created on the dancers of Diablo Ballet. I did not come in with any preconceived ideas prior to working in the studio; they have been true collaborators on the creation of the ballet. It has been amazing working with them.
Just curious — have you created any work for modern dance companies?
A Door Is Ajar for the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in Salt Lake City.
You played musical instruments when you were in school. How has this informed your work?
Studying music and knowing how to read a score has been invaluable to me. It makes it easier to know every aspect of a score — not just hearing the obvious. Sometimes the subtle instrumentation is the most interesting; therefore, I am able to hear this and choreograph accordingly.
This weekend, Diablo Ballet will be debuting Mr. Caniparoli’s Tears from Above, set to music for two cellos by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. Fluctuating Hemlines by Septime Webre and the West Coast premiere of Le Spectre de la Rose by Dominic Walsh round out the program.
Friday November 18 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 19 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Lesher Center for the Arts 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek Call 925.943.7469 for tickets or purchase online at Tickets
Mark Morris Dance Group in All Fours. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
The appeal of New York City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival, which engages 20 dance companies over a period of ten days, was perfectly apparent in Lil Buck’s The Swan, a solo dance performed on opening night.
This reimagining of the eponymous variation from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, known best in the dance world as the music for Fokine’s The Dying Swan, is a three-minute illustration of everything that makes the festival so fascinating. Fall for Dance offers a chance to see vastly different dance styles on one stage; Lil Buck’s Swan is a visually arresting confluence of classical ballet and Memphis street dancing (jookin’). While a few of his showier tricks feel a bit jarring against the fluid score, there is a lot to like here: this talented dancer’s liquid flexibility is mesmerizing, and his choreography is filled with moments of surprising musicality. Read more…
(l-r) Smuin Ballet Company in Dear Miss Cline, a world premiere by Amy Seiwert at the Palace of Fine Arts as a part of Smuin Ballet's fall program.
You’ve watched So You Think You Can Dance and other television reality shows configured around dance. But you have never been to a live performance. Well, if I were going to introduce a newbie to the art form, I would definitely choose Smuin Ballet for a first-timer outing. The fall season opener had something for everyone: tangos, Rodin sculpture, a hint of the neoclassic, and Patsy Cline.
The spotlight for this season opener is the world premiere of Dear Miss Cline by Choreographer-in-Residence Amy Seiwert, which she has described as her most “Smuin-esque” piece to date. Set to ten classic Patsy Cline recordings, it is a sometimes comic, often touching, exploration of interpersonal relationships. The company has a real winner with this one. A big plus were the cheerful costumes by Jo Ellen Arntz (with Amy Seiwert). They captured the period of the late 1950s/early 1960s without descending into cliché-ridden “Hee Haw” country kitsch.
Especially affecting was “She’s Got You,” cited by Johnny Cash as one of his 100 Essential Country Songs. Susan Roemer, partnered by Jared Hunt, Jonathan Dummar, and Shannon Hurlburt, encapsulated the real-world dilemma of a woman who consistently chooses unavailable men.
But, this is still ballet at the Smuin House, so the dance doesn’t linger on the sad stuff. Back to the party, and a good time is had by all. And the audience leaves the theater humming the choreography.
Dear Miss Cline capped off a program that opened with Michael Smuin’s Tango Palace. For those who have seen documentaries on Buenos Aires street dancers, this will seem a somewhat tame outing. However, in the early part of the twentieth century, the tango migrated from Buenos Aires to Paris, where it was refined into the “salon” version we see today on ballroom dancing shows. Tango Palace is a hybrid of the two — more of a deconstruction than a literal interpretation.
The first part, danced by the women in heeled shoes is reminiscent of dance performances seen in night clubs up through the post-World War II period. In the second section, the women appear en pointe, further distancing itself from the original and moving the production toward the world of classical ballet. Although Tango Palace showcases the charm and wit of the company dancers, it is in the duet for Robin Cornwell and Jonathan Dummar that the ballet sizzles.
After the first intermission, the evening took a more serious tone. A year after the tragic events on September 11, 2001, Michael Smuin choreographed Stabat Mater (Dvorak) as a tribute to the human spirit in times of adversity. To honor the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the company is reprising this beautiful ballet for the fall/winter program.
Artists often are tempted when responding to events of this magnitude to capture the “bigness” of the moment, as seen in the recent opera The Heart of a Soldier. What makes Stabat Mater succeed is that the ballet portrays one family’s loss against the backdrop of the large-scale episode. The emphasis is on the personal tragedy and how people gather themselves together and transcend their grief. It takes a delicate approach to convey these emotions without engaging in serious scenery chewing. Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and John Speed Orr communicated the loss and grief as a community and family tragedy, not a literal interpretation of the World Trade Center calamity — suggesting that these feelings are universal, not specific to one event.
Although their poignant portrayals were the centerpiece, the strength of this ballet is in the work for the corps. No clacking of pointe shoes here — the ballet kept to the reverential and hushed tone by having the dancers performing on demi-pointe. The ensemble handled the deceptively simple-looking choreography beautifully, always maintaining the flow and intent of the work. Everything was in place, nothing jarred. The tight-knit company, without exception, performed with a true unity of purpose and style.
The evening’s second section concluded with Smuin’s sensuous Eternal Idol. The eleven-minute duet, originally created for American Ballet Theatre in 1969, has been popular with audiences since its beginning. Inspired by the work of sculptor Auguste Rodin, and choreographed to the slow movement of Chopin’s F Minor Piano Concerto, the ballet begins with two entwined figures posed on a giant boulder. Robin Cornwell and Jonathan Dummar fluidly embodied the statues as they came to life, closing this section on a life-affirming note.
It is worth noting that the company has succeeded in keeping alive Michael Smuin’s refreshingly theatrical spirit without turning into a frozen-in-time tribute, something that has killed other companies. Under the direction of Celia Fushille, new works and dancers have been integrated seamlessly into the existing company and the Smuin repertoire, honoring the company founder without becoming pale carbon copies of what came before.
Smuin Ballet’s Fall/Winter program, including Dear Miss Cline, Eternal Idol, Stabat Mater, and Tango Palace will be at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre through October 1. If you miss it, have no fear, you can see these ballets in Walnut Creek, Mountain View, and Carmel in February & March 2012.
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon St. at Bay Street, San Francisco Phone: 415.556.5000 www.smuinballet.org
The fall/winter performing arts season is here! And San Francisco audiences are fortunate in the variety on offer, including the fall opera season, new exhibits at the various museums, and many other theater, music, and dance events. Add to this the opening of the 49ers NFL season and the always-tense speculation as to whether the San Francisco Giants will make the MLB playoffs — it makes fall the most exciting time of the year for folks in the Bay Area. One of the first dance entries is the Smuin Ballet fall/winter season, which opens at the Palace of Fine Arts on Friday, September 23.
Whether you’re a sports enthusiast or a ballet fan, it’s always fun when a new player is added to the team roster. Someone new to watch, to see how he or she fits in with the existing team…
Dance Vine caught up with a new Smuin team member, Jared Hunt, former principal dancer with Ballet Idaho, to discuss why he chose this particular company and this city.
Dance Vine: How did you find your way to Smuin Ballet?
I went online to the Smuin Ballet website and found the address where I could submit my video and resume. I wanted to move to San Francisco anyway, and I had planned a visit, so before I left Boise, I checked the website again and discovered that the ballet had posted an audition date that almost coincided with my visit. So I changed my plane ticket.
I took the audition, and I guess it went pretty well, as the company asked me to stay and take company class the following week. So I changed my plane ticket again and stayed for the class. It did take them a couple of months to make a decision, though, which was understandable, as the company had other dancers to see and evaluate.
There are many other cities and many other companies out there. What made you choose to concentrate on San Francisco?
Whether or not the Smuin Ballet position was in my future, I had decided that I would move to the City. I have always loved it here. The weather is great, and the cultural offerings in this town are amazing. A big plus for me, too, is that there is a huge dance community. Whatever kind of dance you want to see or do — it’s pretty much all here.
At Ballet Idaho, you were a principal dancer. Smuin Ballet does not have a hierarchical structure, and all the dancers are part of an ensemble. How has this affected you?
It is wonderful to be dancing in an ensemble again. The company is tremendously talented, and we all feed off each other’s energy and abilities. The familial atmosphere works. All the dancers seek to make their fellow company members look their best. There is a sense of common good — a sense of community.
And Amy London is the best ballet mistress I’ve ever worked with. She is incredible!
What’s been the most fun and/or interesting aspect of being part of Smuin Ballet?
The choreography we are working with is a combination of classic Smuin ballets and new pieces by choreographers whose works integrate nicely into the existing mix. The ballets are exciting, expressive, and unique in that they base their aesthetic on classical movement, but do so in a manner that conveys the intent of the work. It allows me as a dancer to explore more of the choreographic intent instead of always just striving for the perfect line.
The classes are excellent — mostly classically based — and the teachers rotate assignments so that each day brings a different energy and emphasis. It definitely helps the dancers grow and develop. One of the classes that I find intriguing is the one with Laura Bernasconi,who emphasizes how we can feel our own energy within the scope of the technique — almost a Tai Chi feel to the work.
Is there any one event, so far, that stands out?
One really cool thing that has happened is the Tango Party we had in preparation for the fall/winter program. Christy Cote, a knowledgeable instructor and amazing Tango dancer, who teaches classes at the Verdi Club here in the City, conducted the afternoon Milonga, a type of Tango party where you dance the Argentinean Tango.
The Smuin dancers had the opportunity to dance with the Bay Area’s most accomplished tango dancers (compliments of Christy) in our own studios. They joined us at the City Ballet School and we had our own Milonga. It was intimidating, but it ended up being a great learning experience. The ballet men had to lead the Tango women plus the ballet girls, and had to follow the Tango men. It was such a blast! They also did a round of dancing without the company members so we could watch! They were amazing!
The Smuin Ballet fall/winter program can be seen throughout the Bay Area from September 23 to March 3, 2012. For information and tickets, see www.smuinballet.org. And for a sneak preview of the new Amy Seiwart ballet (vocals by Patsy Cline) debuting on this program, check out the video below.
Smuin Ballet Fall/Winter Program
World Premiere, Amy Seiwert, Choreographer (music by Patsy Cline) Stabat Mater, Michael Smuin, Choreographer (Dvorak) Tango Palace, Michael Smuin, Choreographer The Eternal Idol, Michael Smuin, Choreographer (Chopin)
The New York International Fringe Festival ended abruptly, as Hurricane Irene unfortunately shuttered the last weekend of performances. The good news though, is that audiences will still have a chance to catch some of the fine work that appeared in this year’s festival. Many of the participants plan to reprise their Fringe performances at other venues and some (after catching their breath) will soon set about creating new work. Two of this year’s most impressive pieces came from companies specializing in narrative dance, and their energy, discipline and passion bodes well for the future. SWARUPA and CHIEN DE MOI vary widely in terms of subject matter and approach, but both showcase the work of visionary choreographers and use the hypnotic power of dance to pull the audience into their respective worlds.
Though the tradition of Bharatanatyam dance goes back to ancient times, there is a potent modernity to the polyrhythmic soundtrack and psycho-spiritual intensity that animates SWARUPA. This timeless quality befits the show’s central theme: the many facets of the eternal dancer Shiva. Through a series of short pieces, the Jiva Performing Arts troupe shows us the preparation of the temple of Shiva, the accelerating dance of universal creation, a sensual ritual of beautification, and the journey of a warrior turning the tide of battle as his being is imbued with the destructive / creative powers of the deity. Choreographer Sonali Skandan pays close attention to the details (wherein God resides, according to the old adage). Small, subtle movements are as much a part of the story as the large angular and sinuous shapes created by colorfully clad limbs in motion. Eye gestures, smiles of irony, and wistful tilts of the head make the movements of the cosmos visible on a human scale.
Pittsburgh’s In The Basement Theater Company offers one of this year’s most erotically charged entries. CHIEN DE MOI contains no nudity and very little spoken language. But the primal pounding and sensuous swirling of Marquis Wood and Sophia Schrank’s bold choreography is hauntingly seductive. Clad in virginal white, a young woman lies alone in her bed, neither quite dreaming nor fully awake. As she hovers in this in-between state, suppressed energies bubble up from her subconscious and are made flesh through fantasy. Her world is suddenly populated by moonlit sprites, a macabre timekeeper, and a virile man-creature with both canine and human features. Fearful of being devoured, the protagonist tries to run away, only to find herself more deeply lost in the dangerous but alluring forest. The monster is the unspoken seething of her own volatile libido. Still awash with the storybook imagery of childhood, her psyche is racing toward womanhood faster than her intellect can cope. The result is a kaleidoscopic blend of innocence and wickedness for which the ensemble’s athletic, graceful dancers and eclectic, throbbing soundtrack are ideally suited. CHIEN DE MOI’s only flaw is that, at about 45 minutes, the show feels like something of a tease. A full evening of In The Basement’s work would have been welcome.
As a prelude to this weekend’s edition of the annual Dance in the Desert Festival in Las Vegas, our interview is with Kelly Roth who, with co-founder Kyla Quintero, designed the festival to offer a broad spectrum of choreographic visions and approaches, from expressionism to postmodernism to neoromanticism, and to present a diverse selection of genres drawing on traditions from Africa and Europe along with American original and hybrid forms. Now known as a venue for the introduction of innovative work, Dance in the Desert showcases companies from around the world, across the United States, and from the neighboring states of California, Utah, and Arizona, as well as highlighting Nevada’s own talent.
Dance Vine: Every edition of Dance in the Desert has its own personality. What would you say is this year’s?
Kelly Roth: This year we are celebrating the official designation of National Dance Day, occurring on the last Saturday of July. It was so nice of the government to honor our festival by coordinating the observance of the art form in America with the annual recurrence of Dance in the Desert!
Any new companies this year? Who are they, and what is their point of view/style?
We are excited to be presenting Dance Source from Provo, Utah. This is their first time at the Festival and also the first time in a few years we’ve had dancers coming from Utah. If their freshness and enthusiasm survive the Las Vegas culture shock, we should be in for a treat.
We are also happy to again be welcoming Lynn Needle, former soloist with the Nikolais Dance Theatre. Making the trek from New York, Lynn will be offering a series of master classes in addition to performing her polished collection of imaginative solo works in tandem with a very special accompanist, Uli Geissendoerfer, former music director for Cirque du Soleil.
What effect has the current reduction in Las Vegas performing venues had on Dance in the Desert?
We are lucky and have been very blessed to have as a home base the Nicholas J. Horn Performing Arts Center at the College of Southern Nevada. With an excellent front office and technical staff intact, we are managing to weather the economic storm while continuing to assist local performing artists and organizations by offering them the most reasonably priced venue of its kind in Las Vegas.
One of the things that impressed us the most when we came to town sixteen years ago was the unexpected situation local performers enjoyed. At that time, the city had combined many of its libraries with good quality, fully staffed theater facilities. These venues, in addition to producing various performance series, allowed performance space access to local groups at affordable rates.
Unfortunately, those days are fading quickly, as the city has raised fees for these smaller theaters as much as ten times their normal rates — and overnight! Groups such as the fledgling Las Vegas Ballet Company and Nevada Repertory Dance Theatre, as well as a plethora of dance studios and theater companies are finding the Horn Theatre a refuge from these inflationary trends.
Of course, the possibility exists we’ll all be joining the hip-hoppers on the street before long, but at least we’ll be dancing. Dancers survive. If Darwin was right, we may be the next link in the evolutionary chain.
Dance in the Desert Festival
July 29, 7:00 p.m. July 30, 2:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m.
College of Southern Nevada, Charleston Campus Nicholas J. Horn Theatre 3200 E. Cheyenne Avenue, North Las Vegas For tickets: 702-651-LIVE (5483)
In many cities and towns across the U.S., once the local ballet company completes its schedule, local fans have to pretty much wait until next season to get their dance fix. Not so in the San Francisco Bay Area. This dance-rich corner of the country fields a large number of companies that populate the regular fall/spring seasons and encompass everything from classical ballet to contact improvisation. Additionally, during the off-season, while some take a well-deserved break, other dancers and choreographers reconfigure, creating fascinating new companies.
Post:Ballet, led by Artistic Director and Choreographer Robert Dekkers, is one of the most exciting to appear in the last couple of years. Well received in its first outing in 2010, the local dance community recently filled the Herbst Theater for the company’s sophomore outing — Seconds. The program included two premieres, as well as two works from its inaugural performance.
The two reprises, Flutter and Happiness of Pursuit, were well worth a revisit. Happiness of Pursuit provided a joyous exploration of pure movement, as its seven dancers grouped and regrouped in various configurations. Lots going on in this one — so much so that it will require more than one viewing to sort out all the details — looking forward to it.
In its original outing, Flutter was performed by three women. This time, however, Dekkers assigned the work to three men. The staccato and intricate first movement, set to Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, missed the crispness needed to take the material from effective to dazzling. The second movement, set to a Bach partita, was more successful. Flowing movements, including a floor sequence reminiscent of an underwater ballet, gave Daniel Marshalsay, Jonathan Mangosing, and Christian Squires an opportunity to display an appealing lyricism.
Beginning with Jonathan Mangosing’s spectacular opening solo, Interference Pattern is an absorbing examination of how seemingly random encounters influence and control one another. Here Dekkers provided Daniel Marshalsay and Christian Squires with one of the evening’s most memorable duets. An unusual and effective combination of strength and tenderness overlaid with a subtle eroticism, it completely captured an exquisite moment. The only issue I have with this ballet is that it stopped, rather than concluded, causing the audience to hesitate in confusion before beginning its applause.
Although all of the works on this program were entertaining, the opening work, Colouring, made the most cohesive statement. An investigation of the creative process, the dance used choreography, music, visual art, and photography to illustrate how an artistic work is built, demonstrating that what appears as a fleeting moment on stage can take a vast amount of time and detail to construct.
Daniel Berkman performed his original score, while Enrique Quintero created a painting behind the two dancers, and photographer Natalia Perez documented the scene. Throughout the piece, the dancers incrementally added steps and positions as the pas de deux developed. Although deceptively simple to the viewer, the dancers’ static starts and stops required a high degree of strength and technique; the appealing couple, Jared Hunt and Beau Campbell, were up to the task. At the end, all the pieces fit together, as Perez’s images concluded the ballet.
Special kudos to Lighting Designer David Robertson, who gave each work its own energy, yet managed to keep the evening visually integrated.
Post:Ballet is an example of everything that is good about the Bay Area dance scene — inventive choreography, intriguing music, and top-notch dancers. It seems a shame that we have to wait a year for the next show.
In addition to its annual performance, Post:Ballet also participates in various events around town. For information, see Post:Ballet at www.postballet.org.
The Las Vegas Contemporary Dance Theater, a popular company scheduled to perform the weekend of July 29/30 at the College of Southern Nevada’s annual Dance in the Desert Festival, is relatively new to the Las Vegas dance scene. Founded in 2007 by Bernard H. Gaddis and Charmaine Hunter, LVCDT is Las Vegas’ first professional contemporary dance company. Best known for its passionate and relatable repertoire, the company blends classical and modern styles with a high degree of athleticism.
In between the company’s annual festival appearances, touring, and local performances and workshops, LVCDT Founder/Artistic Director participated in The International Association of Blacks in Dance conference, an event founded twenty-three years ago by Joan Myers Brown, founder of the Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco). This year, the event was held in Los Angeles and featured LVCDT, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Philadelphia Dance Company “Philadanco,” Donald McKayle, and Donald Byrd/Spectrum Dance, among others.
In 2014, the event will be held in Bernard Gaddis’ Las Vegas location. We asked him to tell Dance Vine readers more about the event.
Dance Vine: How deep is your involvement with the conference?
Bernard Gaddis: I was a principal dancer at Philadanco for eight years, so as a dancer I have been involved since its inception. The conference has grown, adding more members and participants over time. Each year a different organization presents the annual IABD; the 2011 conference was held in Los Angeles, and the 2012 conference is set for January 26–29, 2012, in Toronto, Canada. I am honored to be the 2014 host in Las Vegas.
In Los Angeles, I participated in The Next Generation of Leaders panel discussion and moderated the Conversation panel for young dancers and choreographers. Additionally, I taught master classes in the Horton technique.
Were you able to choose the work you presented, or did the conference select from your repertoire?
I selected the work I presented and chose my new ballet “Sacrifus” (Latin for sacrifice.) Each of the participating companies chooses its own material. To accommodate all the groups, the performances were scheduled over three evening concerts.
It is clear that the conference has high value for the African-American dance community. What would you say is its importance beyond its target demographic — to the dance audience at large? Are the performances open to the public or are they for the conference attendees only?
The biggest misconception is that the conference is for African-Americans only, but the conference is for everyone. Naturally, it is geared toward celebrating the achievement of African-Americans in dance; however, many different cultures participate. This is important to me, as my own company is composed of diverse culture and races.
I am pleased to say that all performances are open to the public. It’s the one time where you can see over fifteen different companies in one city, and participation keeps growing every year.
Dance in the Desert Festival
July 29, 7:00 p.m. July 30, 2:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m.
College of Southern Nevada, Charleston Campus Nicholas J. Horn Theatre 3200 E. Cheyenne Avenue, North Las Vegas For tickets: 702-651-LIVE (5483)
Long Beach Opera's Akhnaten. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
Each year at the end of July, Las Vegas’ College of Southern Nevada presents its annual Dance in the Desert Festival. The three mixed-repertory programs cover a lot of dance territory — from various forms of modern dance and ballet to tap, from bordering on the trite to the profound, from the technically amazing to the likeable and earnestly amateur. The performances generally offer a broad range of dance experiences so important to a city that is seeing its performance venues rapidly disappearing.
The Festival presents favorite dancers and companies and introduces new artists to Festival attendees. Professional modern dance company, Nannette Brodie Dance Theatre, is a perennial favorite and can be counted on to showcase new works, along with presenting at least one past audience favorite. This year, the company is bringing a new work by Stephanie Maxim set to music by Vivaldi (untitled at this time), Part 1 of Émigré (2000), and the popular duet, A La Fosse (a tribute to Bob Fosse).
In between their annual festival appearances, the Brodie company, like most of the other Festival participants, presents its own season, conducts classes, and explores new choreographic approaches. However, this past spring, Company Director Nannette Brodie was presented with a new challenge — to choreograph dance material for the Long Beach Opera production of the Philip Glass opera, Akhnaten. In addition to the singing, acting, and orchestral components, the production also included cutting-edge video work.
I thought Dance Vine readers would like a glimpse into the challenges inherent in this type of collaboration.
Dance Vine: You are usually the person in charge of the direction of your choreography. How did you adapt to working in an environment where the choreography is a part of a larger production?
Nannette Brodie: In the 1980s, I choreographed and danced in many musical theater productions in Southern California, so the idea of working in a larger production under a director was familiar. It was also a bit like working on a film, considering all the use of video and live camera projection in the production. The most important thing to remember is that you have to step back as a choreographer and try your best to understand and interpret the vision of the director.
Akhnaten director, Andreas Mitsiek, thought in a strongly visual manner for this project, which was familiar for me as I am also a visual artist as well as a choreographer. We spent a lot of time together looking at books on Egypt, full of photos and drawings from which we could abstract ideas. This is the way I work on my own choreographic works — a lot of research from the artist renderings, cultural history, anthropology, etc. Andreas’ vision was to render this opera with a strong contemporary feel, achieving a style unlike any earlier productions of the work — movement, costume, scenery, visual effects, lighting — all different. And we did accomplish this.
In Akhnaten, what role did the choreography play? Is it an integral part of the storytelling?
The choreography was very important to the production as it created the ongoing design of the place and time. The dancers were designed to be like sculpture or bas relief with gesture carrying out the storytelling. Yet we were not signing the story. It was more about imagery, in that I did not create long sequences for the opera. Instead, I created images, moments that could be interchangeable and used in various places throughout the opera to further the story.
The dancers had to be able to improvise and change from a chosen list of visuals or movement shapes. So, in essence, many parts of the choreography was designed to always be slightly different from performance to performance. After the last night’s performance, people said that the dancers carried the imagery and story, helping the audience feel the place and time of the events.
How was the rehearsal process structured? When did you bring the dance material into the opera rehearsals?
Months before we began any choreographic work, the artistic staff began with meetings to discuss stage design and to lay out each scene. Our audition for the opera was in October. As we needed 12 dancers for the production, I brought in additional dancers, ones who could keep the more rigorous schedule needed.
We rehearsed by ourselves at the dance studio for a few weeks; the last four weeks, we met with the singers and opera staff at the Opera’s facilities in Long Beach. Andreas visited our rehearsals and gave us ideas and feedback about what he liked and whether we were going in the right direction.
Some musicians and dancers have found Philip Glass’s music to be challenging to perform. Did you find it so? If yes, why; if not, why not?
I love Phillip Glass’s music and find the ongoing flow of it so beautiful and inviting for dance. I have one piece in my company’s repertoire that uses two of his compositions; it has become a classic with the company. I know from the point of view of the singers and orchestra, that this opera is difficult due to the repetitions and the changes in meter. There is one section in the opera, where I have to count a steady beat of 4/4 over the music for the dancers to follow, because the meter changes so often. We needed to do something opposing the music for the visual effect we needed.
Had you ever worked on an opera before this? Would you do it again?
This is my first opera, and the process has been great. I liked all the preplanning and being part of a production team. Of course to have my first opera to be one by Phillip Glass truly was inviting for me. And then, when I watched the inventive work of our video artist engineer, Frieder Weiss, I couldn’t wait to work alongside his amazing artistry. The production team from Director Andreas Mitsiek, to Frieder and all the talented singers, musicians, designers and my dancers, made this opera a great experience for me and the company.
We hope that he asks us to work with them again many times. I think the Long Beach Opera and the Nannette Brodie Dance Theatre are a great match!
Dance in the Desert Festival
July 29, 7:00 p.m. July 30, 2:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m.
College of Southern Nevada, Charleston Campus Nicholas J. Horn Theatre 3200 E. Cheyenne Avenue, North Las Vegas 702-651-LIVE (5483)