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.
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.
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.
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.
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.