Letter from San Francisco, No. 7

Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
San Jose
April 23, 2006

Eiko and Koma
The Reyum Project: Cambodian Stories
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco
April 14, 2006

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
Ferocious Beauty: GenomeYerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco
April 29, 2006

By Rita Felciano
copyright ©2006, Rital Felciano

You have to wonder about a company’s future if the best piece on the program is almost a hundred years old and the least inspired ones are the newest. Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley’s season closer was a real hodgepodge, more miss than hit.

The only completely satisfying dancing came from Fokine’s “Les Sylphides,” which received received a refined and stylistically convincing performance. The company augmented the corps with advanced students from its school; they were the most encouraging news all evening. The five young women—Emily Fourie, Amy Chen, Tess Rickert, Sarah Stein and Jessica Haganey—comported themselves more then honorably. They are at home in the delicacies of Fokine floating port de bras and softe point work. (The school is run by former Royal Danish Ballet dancer Lise la Cour).
The airy woodland setting (scenery and costumes by David Guthrie) of this 1983 production still looked enchanting, particularly given Kenneth Keith’s nuanced and dappled lighting design. Musically, the performance was somewhat of a surprise. Wanting live music but unable to afford an orchestra, the company went for the original piano settings, fortunately performed in the pit by the formidable Roy Bogas, joined by company Artistic Director Dennis Nahat as the “conductor.” The result was a little thin, but overall worked well enough. With the “overture” played in the dark, the audience for once didn’t chatter through it but got caught up in the mood. When the curtain went up, a gasp could be heard.

The performance had a lovely wholeness to it, with the tableaux looking as if the dancers arms were caressed by gentle breezes. Transitions between the sections flowed easily; soloists and corps equally contributing to the work’s delicate grace. In the low-skimming ‘Valse.’ Maria Jacob lacily stitched her point work to her port de bras; the under-the-chin hand gestures suggested the pulling back diaphanous curtains. Former Dance Theatre of Harlem Tiffany Glenn’s  spacious jetés had a pleasing expansiveness to them in the ‘Mazurka’ though her descents from points looked a little too abrupt. However, the epaulement was inspired. Karen Gabay, now in her 26th year with the company (with Stephane Dalle) hardly seemed to touch the ground in the pas de deux, such was the airiness of those billowing, leisurely lifts and ever so soft landings. Dalle has pleasing lines and is a good partner for Gabay. But it’s in this duet that I really missed the lushness of the Glazounov orchestration.

Bringing back Oscar Hawkins’ solo “Strange Fruit”, to the Billie Holiday recording, showed a lapse of taste. Hawkins, a former company member who joined the Cirque du Soleil, is a strong athlete with a hyper flexible body. But the contortions, dives and extreme bodily manipulations he inflicted on himself had precious little to do with this famous ballad despite the fact that at in a few instances Hawkins’ gestures tried to literally respond the text. Ironically, he couldn’t accept the audience’s enthusiastic applause;  he tore a muscle and couldn’t get up.
The evening’s sole premiere “Moon Reflection on Crystal Spring” by Yong Yao, Artistic Director of the South Bay’s Chinese Performing Artists of America, was exceedingly thin.  The story concerned a popular 19th century Chinese musician, Ah Bing who, upon becoming blind became a street musician. His songs, some of them heard on tape in orchestrated versions, apparently are still played today.

Unfortunately, this touching story was given a very threadbare coating though it started out well enough. Er-hu player Yong-Ping Tian tapped his way across the stage and then beautifully played one of the composer’s songs on his instrument. A  frolicking duet — for Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriguez — was packed with  leaps, lifts and dainty turns but didn’t go anywhere. After a rather simple pattern dance with eight women bobbing heads and red lanterns, the two lovers returned in another duet in which had Rodriguez had become the blind, tapping composer and Gabay his faithful support. I doubt if anyone could have figured out who these people were if not for the program notes. A full-evening, four act collaboration between Nahat and Yao has been announced for the next season.
For Nahat’s 1978 “Slavonic  and Hungarian Dances”, pianist Maja Mutru joined Bogas and the choreographer in the pit for the Dvorak and Brahms. Since both scores were originally written for four hands, and Dvorak wrote his in imitation of Brahms’, on one level it made sense to choreograph both of them as a unit.  Yet at close to an hour, the work, despite its moments of charm, became an endurance test. The two pieces stand independently of each other; they should be programmed separately.
Guthrie’s costumes for ‘Slavonic’ were luxurious: fur hats, brocaded jackets and long split skirts with bejeweled hip belts for the women; velvet tights, jackets and flouncy cuffs for the men. His décor—big antlers and heraldic symbols--suggested a party at an East European hunting lodge.
Nahat’s choreographs with an easy flowing grace, never more so than when he can work with textures that have a popular flair to them. The music’s regionalism inspired a balletic take—the women were on point — on East European folk dancing with its double circles, couple dances, courting steps with hands on hips or on the back.  But too many of these Slavonic dances looked alike, and several times this first section seemed to run out of steam. Zuri Goldman and Beth Ann Namey — elegant, suave and exuberant — were one of the featured couples. Catharine Grow, however, lucked out with partner Maximo Califano who danced with grim determination.
For the ‘Hungarian Dances’ Guthrie dressed the men in vests,  tights and red boots, the women in banded white skirts, matching vests and white blouses. With a drooping flower garland overhead, they made for a pretty picture, Here  Nahat developed something of a proto narrative along the lines of the courting stories so popular in traditional community dancing. It tied the musical selections together.  So the women skipped and posed, the men clicked their heels, kicked their legs and fell onto their knees. Girls flirted with boys, boys chased girls. Double round dances separated the sexes only to bring them together into waltzing couples and finally into a whirling circle in which the women were horizontally supported in the air. Nahat even included a simple Maypole dance.

Eiko and Koma’s “The Reyum Project: Cambodian Stories” was presented in Yerba Buena Center’s open space multi-use Forum. With a floor to ceiling frontice piece, about two feet in front of the first row of seating, one could almost have imagined this being an outdoor setting used by some traveling theater group making do with what was available. With charming young performers, some promising ideas and the involvement of two respected artists, “Cambodian”, however, should have been better than it was.
Eiko and Koma’s concentrated and internally focused language has produced highly original dance theater pieces which always reminded me of composer Pauline Oliveros’ description of her own music as “deep listening.” There is not much to the surface but the more you open yourself, the more you perceive. “Cambodian”, however, proved to be Eiko and Koma light. The work didn’t have that essential distillation that elevates the simple above the simplistic. Much of the imagery and the underlying proto narrative about death and resurrection was clear  enough but “Cambodian” didn’t satisfy beyond surface appeal.
A series of painted female busts — bare breasted on one side, clothed on the other — ringed the larger performance space. The stage area on either side was defined by long panels of similar, though full body female figures which at one point came crashing down. The choreography tried to translate the visual art into movement. It was not done all that successfully.
Twice the ensemble’s male artists climbed scaffolds — one horizontal, one vertical — to paint goddess pictures. To observe these action painters at work was great fun. They were skilled, none more than Chakreya So, the group’s sole female, who in one stroke added a full moon. It was just about a perfect circle.

The young painter/dancers had absorbed some of the senior artists’ approach to dance, moving in slow staggered lines from the wings, leaving their traces in the yellow sand that covered the performance space. Often they moved in quasi-two dimensional silhouettes in imitation of the décor. At times they also sang along with the score’s Cambodian (most awful) pop tunes. In one of the more telling sections, they seemed to float through their own dreams, slowly dropping into what looked like an internal sleep. The reference was impossible to miss. The very fact that one of these young men, Setpheap Sorn,” was so expressive and so delicate a mover, made just about everyone else, look light weight. When, head upraised, his feet felt their way across the prone bodies of his colleagues, it became a live-giving gesture. Dancer So moved in stiffly held single pose silhouettes, at one point leading the men in procession. Maybe in imitation of the female figures. She probably she supposed to be some kind of incarnation of Cambodia. But when she “died” on a mound of sand with Eiko  cradling her, “Cambodian” stepped into sentimentality.

With “Ferocious Beauty: Genome” choreographer Liz Lerman bravely tried to meld the beauty of science with the rigor of art. While she didn’t quite meet the challenge of creating a consistently convincing work for the stage, major sections will keep you mesmerized. The  choreography is not the work’s strongest buttress, yet it flows nicely and, as a whole, serves its purpose and the mixed ability dancers well enough. What intrigues and keeps interest from flagging is the conceptual integrity of the project itself.

Two years in the making, Lerman’s many collaborators have to be given much credit for this intelligent, humane and lucid piece of dance theater. Foremost among them are video artists and designers John Boesche and Logan Kibens who played with space through the use of full size and smaller screens. They gave us gorgeous landscapes man made and not. They floated the talking heads of the interviewed scientists into kaleidoscopic patterns  that popped into vision like snapshots.  Darron L. West composed a rich and varied soundscape.

 And then there were the scientists themselves. Smart, enthusiastic and so clearly energized by  what one called “the instruction book for life”, they came up with different—yet related—answers about the nature of the genome, the definition of DNA and the mysteries of heredity. If there ever was a question on whether science has an esthetic dimension to it, no better proof would be needed than what was demonstrated in those animated faces. “Without evolution,” one of them said, “genes are like characters without a plot.”

“Ferocious” is somewhat episodically structured, with the first part presenting movement responses to scientific concepts and the second part addressing the conundrums of the knowledge gained. The piece opened with a portrait of the father of genetics, 19th century scientist/monk Gregor Mendel,  quietly working his experiments with peas.  He returned toward the end of “Ferocious,” joining the then all white-clad dancers for a joyous celebration of oneness in difference. The dancers integrate his note-taking gestures into their movement vocabulary where it becomes a recurring motive. In one hilarious episode a scientist choreographs DNA by lining up the dancers “head to toe, head to toe” — not an easy task as a male duet shows. In another, somewhat silly section, a dominatrix, Ms Tata, demonstrates on her own curvaceous body what she has inherited from whom. “Ferocious” completely changed tone in a gentle trio which enacted the well known fable, variations of which appear in many cultures,  in which Jack “defeats” death by sticking him into a bag. 

After intermission a solo for senior dancer Thomas Dwyer addressed the ambiguity surrounding extended life spans--sky-diving at 90, swimming with sharks at 120. Facing a corner in a sterilized environment (gorgeous staircases to nowhere by the design team), Dwyer desperately pumped out his push ups — much to the envy and applause of many audience members. The other senior dancer, Martha Wittman, then reminisced about the lack of taste in standardized fruit as she carved an apple peel into a helix. This episode most dramatically demonstrated principles of selection and mutation. The dancers realized — on screen and on stage — the perfection and symmetry of an apple core. Out of one seed, new life emerges. In this case the spotlight fell on tiny Suzanne Richards, her foreshortened body the result of brittle bone disease. For a moment, she just sat in her wheelchair and looked at us. And we at her. And then she went into action, rigorous in her swinging arms and articulate hands, fast as anything on her tiny feet when on crutches. For the exuberant finale,  Richards  joined the mutations, chains, couplings and recombinations of her fellow dancers. Mendel plopped himself at her feet, in awe and admiration. 

Photo credits:
Photos 1, 2 and 3, all by Robert Shomler.
Photo of Eiko and Koma's "The Reyum Project: Cambodian Stories," courtesy of the artists.
Photos of Liz Lerman's "Ferocious Beauty: Genome" by Kevin Kennefick.

Volume 4, No. 17
May 1, 2006

copyright ©2006 Rita Felciano



©2006 DanceView