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.
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.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.