The Oakland Dance Festival turned out to be a much more substantial affair than I had expected. Three chamber companies, performing in a funky old theater downtown (in a city with very few theaters to perform in), turned out to be much more than just a low-cost showcase. It's a deeply well-conceived festival. They showed remarkably interesting dances that were very well performed (though the latter is not really surprising; the Bay Area has a great number of strong, committed dancers). The whole evening had a wonderful coherence, showing three distinct visions of dance that had strong family resemblances.
What held it all together is a community of sensibility and an understanding of the debt of our dance culture to African-American dancing. The festival director, Charles Anderson, who danced with New York City Ballet from 1985-93, had returned to the Bay Area around Y2K. When a hole showed up in a summer dance festival, he put together a small contemporary group in 2002. He called it "Company C," they scored a hit, and he's had enough success to keep going. Anderson is particularly interested, from all appearances, in the hip side of Balanchine and Robbins, the neo-classical gobbling-up of the rhythms and inflections, the legginess and cool attitude and pelvic tilts and syncopations and spontaneity of American popular dance—which has been, since the Charleston conquered the polka, of course, African-American music and dance. Anderson's own ballets are angular and moody and flashy and fast, yes, and most of all they are musically spot-on and rhythmically very inventive.
So Anderson's having his festival at the Malonga Casquelourde Center for the Arts, with as his invited guests two gifted African-American choreographers/artistic directors, makes a lot of sense. The Malonga Center (which holds a theater and several floors of dance studios) houses the strongest African-diaspora dance program on the west coast, maybe in the country, with West- and Central-African dance taught by first-rate exponents, and excellent training in hip-hop, jazz, and the African dance traditions of Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, Jamaica, and the rest of Latin America (where the slaves were permitted to keep both their gods and their drums).
Anderson showed only one of his own dances, a world-premiere set to a rhythmically fascinating score by Lazlo Sary, a suite of dances the English name of which is "Pebble Playing in a Pot." Most dances are too long, but I wanted to see this one again as soon as it was over—the stage was blacked out except for small rectangles of light which would pick out a solo dancer here, or a line-up of four up-stage, or a couple, while you could barely see arms spiraling where others were dancing in the dark. I didn't know what had hit me before it was over, but I liked it. Patrick Hajduk gets credit for the intriguing lighting.
Company C's strongest dancers performed in the next piece, a pas de deux nailed to its edgy, brilliant score by James Sewell (former star of the Feld Ballet, who directs a company now in Minneapolis). "Late" looks a little dated—the ballerina keeps looking at her watch, which I remember being used by Victoria Morgan for a workshop piece back in 1989—and this one hails from 1991; but you could date "Apollo" from all its arabesques with arms that swoop up to high fifth, and 'Late" is one of the most musically satisfying uses of high-tension pointe-work I can remember seeing. Its detail is small, which suits it to small-theater presentation, but the dance absolutely gets under the skin of its really annoying music (composed by Paul Schoenfield) and makes it interesting. Ashley Flaner was astonishingly acute—with a vertical axis you could SEE—as the high-strung partner of a laid-back Philip Amer, whose every lineament looked well-slept and -fed and at ease with himself. Ah yes, contemporary relationships— why do people stay together at all? A variation for each, and a pas de deux with them at odds, pulling against each other, heading I thought towards a break-up, but taking an unexpected turn. John Gardner's "Some Assembly Required" (or was it "Nuff Said"?) worked this vein with less wit, and ended center-stage with a handshake. Sewell went them one better and at the last possible second the dancers smack center-stage, mouth-to-mouth in a kiss. The bow was cute. Flaner came out through a slit in the curtains, stood there, looked at her watch, then he showed up.
Anderson's group finished with excerpts from Patrick Corbin's "Psychedelic Six Pack," set to music everybody knows—Grace Slick's amazing apocalyptic voice intoning "White Rabbit," and from "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the credo "Within you and without you" and "A Day in the Life." The ballet intoxicated me. If I remember right, it ended with them all spinning like dervishes —so very Laura Dean, you might say, but it IS totally appropriate—or at least I think it would be if in fact that is what they were doing.
I can't remember many times enjoying a ballet set to music I really already loved. Joanna Haigood's "Dance for Y'all" (set to a Piaf war-horse), Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs" don't count, though they're close—that was music I liked, but not music that had changed my life.
I can't really remember what they did—but whatever it was, I loved it. The movement entered the floor (in away that contrasted nicely with the preceding ballet), the geometry was right, the counterpoint was right, the play of men and women right, the men's naked torsos twisting with a non-specifically yearning movement seemed especially right. There was a mix of postures and steps that put me in mind of temple-dancing, yoga and yogis without seeming very studied.
After the intermission, Robert Moses danced two solos of his own making—two movements called "Doscongio," set very sensitively to a violin sonata by Chopin, and in silence, a spooky, hallucinatory piece called "Lone."
Moses is one of the greatest virtuosi I have seen dance in this area. An African-American man (from Philadelphia, I believe), he told me once that where he came from it would have been strange for a man not to dance. He is a native-speaker of the African-American dance, with added to that a full panoply of training in ballet and modern. Even in his middle-age, he still dances like smoke. He was one of the stars of ODC/SF before starting his own much-awarded company, and he's managed to hold a group of dancers together long enough to learn his highly inflected, much-released style.
If you hadn't read the program, it might have looked like Moses danced a theme with two variations. The Chopin was an intensely personal response to the music, but the third, danced to some inner music of his own, was the most interesting. His hip isolations, which shook like a dog trying to dry off, the occasional swirling spins or light cabrioles, the little ripples and shudders up his spine, the sotto-voce Bobby-McFerrin-ish sounds he started to make made you think he was so lost to the world, he might be in some ecstasy, out of his senses, stoned, maybe, or talking back to the blues, or channeling some unhoused spirit with no place to hide. Incredibly intimate.
Savage Jazz Dance Company has shared a ballerina with Company C, and the directors have a mutual respect. Alas, the Bay Area has lost Ms. Booth to Montreal, and Mr. Savage is not fielding his best team ever. But his new young company is game, they are learning his style, and his ballerina, Alison Hurley, understands his line, atmosphere, mood, and way of hearing the music.
Reginald Ray-Savage, who's also African-American, comes from Saint Louis and got his start with a Dunham company Alumnus, Archie Savage, whose name he has taken. He moved to Chicago and became a protégé of Ruth Page. Unlike that of Moses, his style is less based on isolations and release and more on a hard-hitting attack, which can be explosively exciting. He has the gift of inspiring dancers, who will hurl themselves against the up-beat for him—and to perform his dances, which have wonderful challenges in them. He is the only teacher/choreographer I know who trains his dancers musically, so they can go onstage and improvise to jazz when live jazz musicians are playing and improvising - his collaborations with the Marcus Shelby Quintet have given us all a great deal of pleasure.
THe Festival's opening night concluded with the world premiere of Savage's "Bru's Brew"—a suite of dances to music by Dave Brubeck, including the very popular "Unsquare Dance" (in 5) and "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (in 7). Some of his young dancers lack the plastique to make his imagery come to flower, which dulled things a bit. But the corps is strong, all of them have generosity of spirit, and Hurley could pull it out, hit the syncopations, and put the dance across. The group finale built to a smashing climax and made a spirited end to the festival.
Company C is comprised of Adam Aicher, Philip Amer, Alexis Drabek, Ashley Flaner, Charlene Hannibal, Jacob Kreamer, Kate M. Lieberth, Jenna Maule, Katherine Orloff, Laura Rutledge, Lizabeth Saenz, and James Wallace. Savage Jazz dancers were Keiron Bone, Tracy Chan, Elizabeth Chandler, Selena Chau, Alison Hurley, Antoine Hunter, Christine Khalil, and Mia Aiko Yamada.
The Oakland Dance Festival has one more weekend, June 24-25, also at the Malonga.