Satire and Optimism
ODC has rarely looked better. Between the balletic clarity of dancers Claire Hancock and Andrea Flores, the Tharpish glory of Private Freeman and Brian Fischer, the fierce punkishness of Yukie Fujimoto, Justin Flores' muscley intensity and diva Annie Zivolich's jazzy brilliance (not to mention the sweetness of Yayoi Kambara, Corey Brady, Daniel Santos), the company right now is a 100% blend of high-test personality, intelligence, and sexy, well-oiled virtuosity. Seeing Program A of Ailey in the afternoon as I did, launched into hip-hop heaven by "Love Stories," in no way overshadowed the joy of ODC Saturday night. That's quite an achievement.
K.T. Nelson's first of two premieres, "Shenanigans," was the dance equivalent of a bourbon-filled chocolate. And if the dancing was an intoxicating sweet, the music was a tropical 120 proof drink for the ears—Darius Milhaud's devilish "Scaramouche," which is jazzy, Latinate and liquidy all at once. The Milhaud title refers to the Commedia dell'Arte rapscallion Scaramuccia, an unreliable servant who always extricates himself from trouble, which is exactly what the tipsy couple do, and some of its three movements for two pianos were originally written for the farce "The Love Doctor" by Moliere. It is filled with an array of influences from the composer's time in Brazil, and you can almost hear the warm breezes and lapping water. It's a score that Ginger and Fred ought to have danced to, and sounds like they might have danced to (in "Flying Down to Rio"), but as far as I know never did.
That's just as well, because Anne Zivolich and Private Freeman, she in a sparkly black gown with gold lining, he in a tux, do what Fred and Ginger as the iconic dance couple could never have done: dancing as though on some combo of steroids and ecstasy while fizzed up on mimosas. This drunken pair blast out onto the stage, she hurtling backward as though the distillery in the garage had blown her into the living room. The couple then engage in a slurping, slipping, clownish tete a tete that keeps shifting from boneless ballroom dance, to unconsummated mating, to restless sleep, to fiendish 4 a.m. rumbas. They serve as each other's bartops, chairs and pillows, she lifting him, he hurtling her, they seamlessly moving together in a loopy mutual lostness. These rascals reminded me of a couple I once saw at an Irish wedding: each descent to the next level of inebriation (after a momentary coma-like pause) brought the celebrants a clarity so comically distorted it resembled genius.
Although Nelson handled the break between the first two movements without the grace she might have, the distinct pause between the second and third section (the derlium tremens movement?) oddly worked. "Shenanigans," which deserves a juicier title, could be a great companion to Hans van Manen's "Black Cake" on some future SF Ballet gala evening, one devoted to altered states of dancing. It is always comic relief to have the action on stage mirror the boozy ballet patrons in the audience.
Throughout Nelson's second, moody but not wholly satisfying premiere "Lost At Sea," with a haunting, throbbing electronic string score by Phil Kline, the sheer numbers of fellow wayfarers (9) made me wonder just how lost anyone can be with so many aboard one's wandering ship. The relatedness Nelson established, although often packed with quiet angst and an almost polemical tension as the dancers pulled away and pivoted around one another, was a constant. No one was really adrift, except, perhaps, in the beautiful, almost funereal and more abstracted opening section, when dancers suspended others upside down and walked with elegiac slowness through the milky green blue light (by David Finn). The stunning projections, which ranged from pictures of blocks of ice in water to light that suggested polar emanations from both sea and sky, lent the work a sustained meditative beauty. But as dance it seemed more aptly to describe the ways in which human beings live discordantly in the midst of relationship than the more extreme and solitary experience of being lost and at sea.
There was no one at sea in Way's "Fiendish Variations—Part 1 and 2" from 2004, a witty as well as wily lesson on theme and variation to Bach's "Organ Passacaglia in C Minor" and "Fugue in C Minor," with Part 1 using the Robert Greenberg instructional and Part 2 free of didacticism, except as Greenberg's instruction hung like a ghost over the wilder, more freewheeling reprise. Way has showed off her brilliance at handling Bach before, but what's so salient here is that, amidst the rigors of variation, invention, inversion and so forth she never loses her sassy regard for the rules, and she never forgets how to ornament those rules so that sexuality and freedom have as much play as possible. The result isn't just clever but feminist in a Dionysian fashion in which this younger generation of dancers seems fully at home. Isadora would have approved.
The program ended with Way's 2000 "Crash." Ostensibly referring to the economic bust of 1929 both in costume (including raven and platinum bob wigs for the women) and music (Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, etc.) equally reflects the sudden end of the tech boom that very year, a collapse that continues to affect California deeply and adversely.
While the cheeky happiness of the dancers could use a little Brechtian kick in the pants to underscore the enduring delusion at the core of the American dream (i.e. that everyone can be a millionaire and that there is no end to plenty), Way works up to a brilliant visual moment in which the dancers form parallel lines and, as in a socialist dance project, or a Berlin dance piece from the 30's, their arms become the links of an industrial machine, moving in soulless synchronicity. The choreographer seems to tell us that no matter what the era, greed has a way of leaking the sense out of its brainwashed victims. But not surprisingly, Way accomplishes her social satire with ironically deep optimism of her own. Her dancers may be ravaged by events, end up in tatters and as upside down as they began, but no one breaks a neck in the fall. Even the Uncle Sam-style flagpole sitter, in white tux and top hat, a fellow who reads a paper the entire time, at the end falls sweetly down to earth on a guy wire.
Photo on front page: Anne and Daniel. Photograph by RJ Muna