Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall
Berkeley, CA
May 6, 2006

San Jose Repertory Theatre
Euripides, “Iphigenia at Aulis
San Jose Repertory Theatre
San Jose, CA
May 7, 2006

San Francisco Ballet School
Palace of Fine Arts
San Francisco, CA
May 10, 2006

Cal Performances Centennial Celebration
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall
Berkeley, CA
May 12, 2006

By Rita Felciano
copyright ©2006, Rita Felciano

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is always in search of a repertoire. The idea of having a modern dance repertory company defies the traditional model of choreographer-run dance ensembles is such a good idea. It offers audiences, and the dancers, the prospect of trying on dance cut from many types of cloth. But somewhere Hubbard got the notion that the public wants virtuosity that is physically strong and emotionally weak, preferably presented at top speed. I have always hoped that they are wrong but when Zellerbach’s loudest acclaims went for the evening’s crudest realization of a great piece of music, I wasn’t so sure anymore.

“Strokes Through the Tail” was commissioned by Hubbard from Marguerite Donlon, an Irish-born choreographer working in Germany. She had the unfortunate idea of  trying to interpret Mozart based on the way his score looked on the page. Something to do with the “tails” he attached to his notes. So she took three movements of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, put its dancers into suits and sent them skittering along the top of the music — at times obviously mimicking details — in an array of high octane encounters that challenged every muscle in the dancers’ bodies and none in the viewers’ brains.

No less fierce in its athletic demands, William Forsythe’s enigmatic “Enemy in the Figure” at the very least got one’s head going. A gorgeous production with a large crawling spot light which highlights and shadows seemingly at will and a traveling rope that insists on denying the stability of the floor, the piece seems to explore perception. Performers danced half way in the wings, behind and against a curving wall, sometime in the shadow, sometimes brilliantly lit. Thom Willems' industrial score is unusually spare. There was a wholeness to this piece which remained mysterious but captivating.

Nacho Duato’s “Gnawa”, also created for Hubbard, was emotionally the most easily accessible. Gnawa is a type of Moroccan music, but Duato assembled his score from a variety of sources, making for a richly textured background on which to draw his lush choreography. The piece needs a stronger backbone but is full of lovely individual moments — lifts that soar, lopings that connect, touches of intimacy — and a liquid use of space.

Also included was Susan Marshall’s forgettable 1987 “Kiss” for two dancers on trapeze. Its survival, except for the gimmick of its apparatus, remains a mystery. Its one strong component — much to my surprise, I am no fan — was Arvo Part’s “Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten”.

Judging from what survived of his plays written some 2,400 years ago, Euripides was the first feminist playwright. Most of his heroes, were heroines. So it sounded like a good idea that when Timothy Near, Artistic Director of the San Jose Repertory Theatre decided to stage “Iphigenia at Aulis”, she sought out Dance Brigade, San Francisco’s preeminent feminist dance group. Still lead by the resilient Krissy Keefer, Dance Brigade has been making ritualistic evocations of the world’s ills for over thirty years. They could have made a chorus.

“Iphigenia” is not of the quality of “Medea,” “Electra” or the “The Bacchae” — some of its language verges on the melodramatic — but its note of urgency and despair uncannily resonates to contemporary ears: The ruler and commander-in-chief of a powerful nation wants to go to war for both personal glory and on the flimsiest of excuses; i.e. Agamemnon wants to invade Troy to avenge his brother Menelaus for having been cuckolded by Paris. The fact that Troy is very rich supposedly doesn’t enter into the considerations. But the gods are thwarting the enterprise. Artemis wants a human sacrifice, Agamemnon’s first-born, Iphigenia. Sounds familiar?

This is quite a good production, in an updated translation by Don Taylor; it mixes contemporary elements with quasi Greek ones. Major players were Remi Sandri as the venal Agamemnon, Andy Murray as the take-no-prisoner Menelaus, Craig W. Marker as the stud, Achilles, and Stacy Ross as the much-wronged Clytemnestra. The play’s most wrenching moment came from Sarah Nealis’ Iphigenia’s brave embracing of her role as the sacrificial victim — for the glory of Greece — when she stepped out of her flowing white gown into camouflage gear.

Dance Brigade’s muscular movement style and their ability on taiko drums was put to good use in this production. The choral choreography, increasingly physical as the play progressed, for the most part worked well enough. However, these performers, despite the fact that they use text so frequently in their own works, simply did  not have a nuanced enough vocal technique to deliver the lines convincingly. Taylor’s translation probably didn’t help, but the choice of a sing-songy style — maybe an attempt at chanting — made them sound amateurish.

The annual ritual of end of the year recital of the San Francisco Ballet School is an unalloyed delight even if you are not a flower-bearing parent or grandparent of one of the students. Every year it’s the same. The students start with tendus, pliés, little frappés and tentative ronds de jambe. Then they move those into the air; assemblés and that most magical of all steps, sissonnes, are added. By level four their legs have stretched, and they understand port de bras, épaulement and Chopin. And then, finally, here they are, point shoes and solos for some of them. Astonishing this year was level seven for the boys. Even with the inclusion of trainees, thirty-seven of them went through intricate, fast-moving combinations, sporting considerable elevation and smooth landings. You also could practically smell the incipient testosterone which fuelled the competitive element in their dancing. There was only thing that the girls always did, the boys rarely — smile.

The obligatory Bournonville this year was the classroom section of “Konservatoriet”. Coached by Peter Brandendorff and Helgi Tomasson, this was a brave attempt at that inimical style with its decorously welcoming port de bras, luxurious penchées and ankle wrapping pirouettes. With blue ribbons in their hair and around their necks and diaphanous white skirts, the image was there, but the spirit and details would need a lot more work than what realistically can be expected even from student performers. A blond and devilishly handsome Diego Cruz Alvarez, however, as the Ballet Master, showed an already refined technique — beautiful epaulement, elegant elevation. He sailed into his audience — facing grand jetes with a smile that told us that he is ready to be embraced by the world. San Francisco Ballet has; he has been offered a contract.

“Amplitude Goldberg” was a sextet, commissioned by Tomasson from Principal Nicolas Blanc. Set to a selection of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the piece featured trainees Ashley Muangmaithong with Ilan Kav, Kate Oderkirk with Gaetano Amico and Alissa Halpin with Christopher Mondoux. Preoccupied as it was with the duet form, the choreography didn’t particularly stress these young dancers’ individuality, yet Muangmaithong and Kav impressed with the self-assuredness of their performance.

The piece started out with formal walking steps, men and women approaching and receding similar to line dancing. It then opened into canons and individualized duets. Somewhere along the middle, after a shadowy section performed in silence, I could no longer figure out where  “Amplitude” was heading. Maybe it lost direction, maybe I did.

With the complete “Western Symphony” these dancers were on solid ground. The training showed, the speed of this popular piece of Americana presented no problems. Hershey Kay’s score based on popular songs, particularly when over-amplified as they were, are hard to take, but the piece still charms because of the wit and the skill with which Balanchine mixes traditional popular and classical dancing.

In the Rondo Suzy Spaulding as Kevin Yee-Chan’s music box dream vision had a charming insouciance about her leg work, and she was fearless throwing herself halfway across the stage into his arms. The Finale’s Kazuki Ichihashi impressed with the pyrotechnical jumps but he also bobbed around Muangmaithong like a half-drunk cowboy.

Cal Performances celebrated its 100th birthday (and Robert Cole’s 20th anniversary as its Director) with a gala performance that was simultaneously grand and relaxed. This was a very congenial an evening, in part because of the charm and generosity of its star presenters Mark Morris, John Adams and Michael Tilson Thomas.

The evening’s festivities opened on a high note with the Chancellor’s announcement that Cal Performances had already raised eleven of its fifteen million dollars endowment fund. Spirits immediately dropped when Assembly member Mark Leno — here to present an official declaration — reminded the audience that California ranks 50th in the country in terms of its support for the arts. “New York spends $2.25 per capita, California $.03.”

The program showcased artists connected closely with Cal Performances. Mark Morris Dance Group offered a splendid performance of “V” which had its unofficial premiere here in October of 2001. Morris acknowledged Cal’s longtime support, considering the place a second home because we are “appreciated and attended.” What struck me in this viewing of “V” was how the much talked about “crawling” section is not really crawling. The dancers are on their hands and half toes. They look more like sprinters about to take off, or — if the movement was vertical — bugs or climbers going up a wall.

Alarm Will Sound offered excerpts from Adams ’ 1995 “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky”, commissioned by Cal Performances. An odd mix of styles — minimalist and pop music — some of its musical comedy elements reminded me of Sondheim. It was an experiment with styles — as Adams admitted — which, however, didn’t really convince.

Tilson Thomas was there because he got his first chance to conduct in high school under Cole and because, until the early 80’s when the San Francisco Symphony got its own hall, it regularly played in Berkeley. The conductor proved to be a wonderful raconteur and witty entertainer, performing — with soprano and tambourine player Lisa Vroman — outrageously schmaltzy early 19th music, in addition to Cole Porter, “arranged by Rachmaninoff.

After intermission and the obligatory history on video — Sarah Bernhardt opened Cal Performances in 1906 with a free performance for victims of the Earthquake, housed in tents on the campus — Cole pulled out all the stops. He’ll probably never have another opportunity to conduct the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, brass players on rear balconies and four combined choruses, numbering 196  and a children’s chorus of 46. The excerpts from Boito’s “Mefistofele” confirmed that composer’s reputation as a “mad man”; after that Wagner (selections from “Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg) sounded positively tame.

Photos, both by Paul Kolnik:
First: Maria Kowroski and Jason Fowler.
Second (l to r): Maria Kowroski, Jonathan Stafford, Teresa Reichlen, Robert Fairchild and Saskia Beskow in "In Vento."

Volume 4, No. 19
May 15, 2006

copyright ©2006 Rita Felciano



©2006 DanceView