Smiles on a Summer Night
Midway through this year’s West Wave Festival, the dancers moved to the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center, the thinking being that the featured choreographers would attract larger audiences than the small ODC Theater can accommodate. Presenting at the Cowell is always a calculated risk.
Spectacularly located in a former military basis with views of the North Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, the Cowell is also one of least accessible venues. Public transportation is poor and if there is big event on the premises—as was on Thursday night—parking is just about impossible. Still a sizable crowd braved the trek to the edge of the City. They were rewarded with two works by two masters, two brave attempts at something and the requisite cheery closer.
Let’s take the masters first. Joanna Haigood of Zaccho Dance Theater has threatened retirement as a performer. One dreads the idea of other dancers trying to keep her works alive. Her choreography is so intimately tied to her performing persona—maybe not all that unlike her person—that it is difficult to conceive that someone else could capture the wispy presence of the dances she has made on herself. Immaculately timed, they are stripped down to their essence, and all you can do is hold your breath. Otherwise they might blow away.
“Hey” was a solo for herself, a chair and a four-paneled suspended window frame. Sitting on that chair, the tiny shifts of weight showed her contemplating and being attracted to that window and what it represents. Engaging it then in trapeze-like fashion—climbing, swinging, embracing, relaxing—Haigood brought to life a vision of what she had seen when first peering through those empty panes. “Hey” could have been an Emily Dickinson poem.
Brenda Way’s “something about a nightingale” premiered earlier this year. At that time I couldn’t keep up with the sheer quantity of its bursts of kineticism. I still couldn’t. It’s a piece that is exuberant, fiendishly fast and full of quick silvery changes. Little finger gestures got you wondering, so did nuzzling moves, an arm shooting up out of nowhere, or two women tiptoeing like flamingos surveying new territory. “something” just may be the kind of work where you have to sit back and go along for the ride. But what a ride it was. Set on four male dancers—Daniel Santos, Brian Fisher, Justin Flores and Corey Brady as the latecomer—and Yukie Fujimoto and Andrea Flores, this quintet kept you coming and going at a breathless pace. At times the women, and their male partners were clearly foregrounded. At other times you didn’t know where to focus your attention because of three simultaneous actions.
The piece started out as a suave male trio, with the dancers in elegant gray high waisted flamenco pants. In burst Corey—in a white top and tiny shorts—exploding across the stage as if shot in from another world. At one point he seemed to be initiated into the trio’s brotherhood. But the heat really went up on with the women showing up in gray tutus with ruffles and bustles that slithered and shimmered in satiny glory (costumes by Cassandra). If there is such a thing as a post-modern Varga girl, Andrea Santos would be it. Looking as if she had stepped out of a calendar, she would flirt—with no one in particular. In this piece she was pert, sexy and incredibly athletic. In the central duet, Fisher flipped, turned and wrapped Fujimoto around himself. Then she had her way with him. A couple of times he literally carried her in his hands, hoisting her up in stages like a weight lifter at the Olympics. But the nonchalant triumph was hers, smiling impishly at us from on high as if this was where she belonged. At least for the moment.
So is “something” about something? Sure. It’s about for-the-heck-of-it. And the joy of it.
Austin Forbord’s “2008 is too late” and Anne Bluethenthal’s “Unsing the Song” were more involving for what they were trying to do than for what was seen on stage. Forbord, also a film maker and videographer who has taped the San Francisco Ballet for the last two seasons, recently confessed that he has fallen in love with ballet. As a choreographer he has created ambitious dance theater pieces grounded in their physical and or video environment. For “2008” he exclusively relied only on the capabilities of a motley group of dancers to whom he also gives choreographic credit.
“2008” looks like an attempt to bring different styles of dancing unto some kind of common denominator. To highlight their individuality, Forbord costumed each group in separate colors. The gray trio’s (Todd Eckert, Amy Foley and Rachel Halladay) grounded weightedness and momentum based athleticism nicely constrasted with Kai Maderios and Kallipe Kalombratsos’s (in black and white) sharper, assertively paced duet work. But the real charmer was in pairing 15-year old Ramona Kelley, on glistening pointes, with powerhouse former Bill T. Jones dancer Bliss Kholmeyer (both in pristine white). Kholmeyer tore around Kelley as a fierce eagle might, egging her chick out of the nest while protecting it from predators. To watch “2008’s” contrasting physicalities within the same piece was fresh and inviting. But integrating these discrete units—some kind of initiation ritual involving much slapping and throwing around of Kelley—became problematic. The piece began to look haphazard. Not only did details get blurred but the trajectory—if there was one—seemed to go off target. Also quite serious, to these ears at least, was that only Kholmeyer seemed even minimally aware of the taped excerpts of the Brandenburg concertos. Why use music, especially well known scores as these, if it is irrelevant to the dance?
Bluethenthal’s “Unsing” was not announced as a work in progress. According to the program, the premiere “in its entirety” will take place next March. To be choreographically successful, the piece needs to be rethought and, at the very least, severely pruned and refocused. In addition to her own sextet of fine dancers, Bluethenthal employed three children and a dozen extras in a, no doubt, heartfelt but quite muddled meditation on suffering. In an acting role Shakiri, in a welcome return to the stage—she also served as assistant to the choreographer—took on the part of something like a soothsayer. The extras no doubt were meant to be seen along the lines of huddled masses and a valiantly striding forward humanity. But the expression of these noble concepts was just too simpleminded. It doesn’t make sense to put all these people onto a professional stage unless they have a choreographically essential function. It might feel good to do so but it also has to feel good for an audience to see it.
However, the choreography for Bluethenthal’s own dancers—of what could be seen in all that milling around—looked promising. The edge in Laura Elaine Ellis and Frances Sedayao dancing, in particular, expressed more than all those running and crawling community performers put together. There just might be a chamber dance in there somewhere.
New Style Motherlode Dance Company may have started out as a hip hop company. But these days their mix of jazz, cabaret and club dancing, stirred with a hefty embracing of theatrical stances, definitely has put them into a place where they belong. And that place is the stage. “The Juke Joint”, which seems to exist in several versions depending on the venue, has been performed with more panache than it was in this performance. Still it sent the crowd out into the dark smiling.