San Francisco Letter No. 10

Mark Foehringer Dance Project/SF
ODC/Theater, San Francisco
June 8, 2006

Leyya Tawil’s Dance Elixir
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
June 9, 2006

San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival
Program One
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
June 10, 2006

by Rita Felciano
copyright ©2006, Rita Felciano

Last year, Mark Foehringer created an ambitious, multi-movement story ballet, “Diadorim”, based on Brazilian novelist Joao Guimaraes Rosa’s expansive “Grande Sertao; Veredeas” (danceview times,  volume 3, number 25,  June 27, 2005). This year Foehringer changed directions 180 degrees. He choreographed the fifty-minute “Duettos” as a series of variations for two of his company members, Katherine Wells, who also dances with Robert Moses’ Kin, and Brian Fisher, recently retired from ODC/SF.

“Duettos”, with occasional interludes by four other dancers, had a lot going for itself. The wisp of a story line suggested its protagonists’ unspoken, unrealized wishes and regrets. The piece unspooled streams of phrases with an easy grace, turning the work into a delicate reverie whose painful undertone remained below the surface. Foehringer may not be that much of an original thinker, but it is gives such pleasure to see an artist develop an independent voice and doing work with immense care and respectable skills.    

“Duettos” was much enhanced by live music, capably performed by a string quartet from the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. While the choice of Villa-Lobos was maybe an easy one for a choreographer raised and trained in Brazil, for me Foehringer’s selections from five (of the composer’s 17!) string quartets opened a whole new perspective on an artist primarily known for one or two of his works. This was lovely music, the much vaunted folkloric elements used ever so discretely. Some of it spun its melodic material delicately; some shone with sturdy canons and neo-classical structures; a few were full of skippy danceable rhythms. Foehringer’s arrangement of this material suggested an undulating trajectory, not unlike the wave pattern that bisected Matthew Antaky’s darkly shimmering panels which framed the stage. Susan Douthit designed the costumes, subtly shifting back and forth between street and studio wear.

The program notes describe “Duettos” as an “ode to the choreographer’s teachers and students.” The dance traces the ebb and flow of a relationship between two dance teachers. Fisher probably is the mentor to the probably younger Wells. But it could also be that Wells is the teacher whose pupil is slipping from her grasp. They comfortably move in synch, learning phrases from each other, adding interpretations and responding to cues across space. Yet their connection stops at the studio’s door. Though painful for both,, they can’t work it out. Why? In the opening scene, Wells gives a ballet class to a quartet of students. Fisher ambles in, watches the proceedings and is clearly more interested in the two boys than in the girls.

Several times Wells, the more clearly hurting and confused of the two, almost explodes at Fisher’s pained but firm reticence and rejection. Throughout the choreography makes effective use of discrete gestural language. In the end, before walking out, Fisher brings Wells, a new student (14-year old Judson Emerson), allowing her to go on.
In “Duettos” Fisher, always an elegant, solicitous partner, colors balletic lines with  dramatic shading. His languid developpes and stretched out arabesques speak eloquently about the character’s conflicting emotions. Wells, a lovely nuanced dancer, gives a convincing portrait of a confused, adoring woman who, nevertheless is every bit Fisher’s equal. Some of the choreography’s most intriguing moments came from her taking the initiative in partnering.

Foehringer has a good feeling for space and phrases that knot and uncurl, serpentining to the floor and corkscrewing into the air. Still at times I found myself longing for more of an edge in these balletically flavored encounters. Also some of the lifts—they came often and in every possible permutation—looked like they needed more rehearsal. Though including other dancers (Maya Hey, Amy Mayman, Carlos Venturo and Joseph Copley) made sense to establish motivation and to break what could be the duet form’s monotony, the choreography for these “students”—the men, in particular—needs a lot more attention.

Leyya Tawil’s “Media”, the 45-minute section of what will be a full-evening work, was a big surprise. Announced as having as its core theme “the endurance of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming media messages,” the information suggested an at least implied criticism of the media’s effect on our lives. Little of that was visible in this fast-paced, impressively structured explosion of pure movement. Its six episodes ran into each other but could be performed separately without any loss of meaning. If there was a subtext, it seemed more related to the constancy of the media buzz than with any negative impactx. In fact, the piece seemed to celebrate a fast-paced existence.

 “Media” surrounded a central double movement with four related outer sections. Phil Halbert, Marlena Penney Oden and Isabelle Sjahsam opened and closed the show. The second place solo for Tawil returned as a duet with Deborah Miller right before the final trio. The arrangement suggested double circles surrounding a core.

For the central ‘Model T,’  costume designer Leigh Ann Martin put twelve women in black tops and tights and pink mini-skirts; Tawil engaged them in a riot of accumulating, overlapping patterns. Each of the women became a cog in a wheel that turned the group into a smoothly oiled dancing machine that gradually expanded its reach, picking up speed. Precisely calibrated small scaled movements—hiccupping hips, waggling heads—punctuated larger ones—floor rolls, skipping strolls—and created a vibrantly scintillating pattern of engaged bodies. If there was anything dehumanizing about ‘Model T’, it was the powerfully insistent beat of  Topher Keyes’ electronic score.

Next came ‘Looking through’ in which Alexis Mian systematically penetrated the now passive ensemble to carve out an ever larger space for herself. Finally her decisive dancing pushed the other performers to the stage’s perimeter. As much an athlete as a dancer, Mian’s every power-propelled gesture—precisely placed cartwheels, rebounding drops and stiff-legged stalkings—broke up the existing order. Though not particularly aggressive, her presence became a matter of physics; a superior force sucked up a lesser one.

The framing sections featured flingy, individualized trajectories of loping runs, leaps and kicks for the trio. Initially the dancers seemed propelled by a common impetus but had little contact with each other. The second time around Tawil introduced lifts and contacts into  a similar vocabulary, suggesting  maybe that this section  had evolved from the first one.

She fashioned similar parallels with the solo for herself some of whose material returned in a duet with Deborah Miller.  In other hands repeated piston-like rockings or  insistent unisons could look oppressive but these two dancers just appeared propelled by a high blast of energy, and they had a ball riding it.

Going to the San Francisco Ethnic Festival by now is a comfortable, always enjoyable June ritual. It marks the end of the dance season. This year was not any different, starting with a one more overly-long program. With ten companies and the bestowing of the Malonga Casqueourd  Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Ethnic Dance to Patrick Makuakane, the evening came in just short of three hours. And yet it was the women of Makuakane’s ensemble, Na Lei Julu I Ka Wekiu, making an unscheduled appearance, who offered the evening’s highlight. They presented a shining example of how ethnic dance can evolve, stay true to its original intention and yet become a thoroughly contemporary form of dance expression.

The piece, to Celine Dion's sweetly intimate "The First Time I saw your Face," (as sung by Roberta Flack) featured fourteen of Nai Lei's women in simple yet eloquent unisons. Dressed in darkly lit, form-fitting red evening gowns with spaghetti straps and white hibiscus flowers in their pulled back hair, the dancers looked elegant, formal, even severe. The choreography distilled the essence of female hula into port de bras. Perfectly placed arms organically flowed out of erect and vibrantly alive torsos: overhead, on the diagonal, open forward, and in counter point with each other. Dion's music can be incredibly saccharine, but these dancers gave the simple sentiments, dignity, truth and strength.

The evening was full examples of how ethnic dance is evolving. Ensambles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco’s “Danza de Los Negritos,” a ritual-inspired dance performed during Corpus Christi celebrations in the Vera Cruz area of Mexico, was performed in a gender-neutral manner. Women and men executed identical line dance steps, dressed in the same outfits: embroidered black velvet pants and capes, with golden fringes and eye-shading Olmec-inspired head dresses.
The Egyptian Hahbi’Ru Dance Ensemble’s “Ya Ain Muleiyatein (The Life of My Eyes) had two men join women in the raqs baladi  (folk dancing) form of belly dancing. In the late 19th century, men apparently replaced the newly  “cloistered” women in popular entertainment but they didn’t commonly perform together.  Here the guys proved that you don’t need big hips to realize the requisite shimmies and hip rolls. 

Yong Yao’s “Feng, Sui” (Wind, Water) for Chinese Performing Artists almost looked like a modern dance piece, dressed up in yellow “pajamas” with huge fluttering fans. The choreography freely integrated acrobatics, balletic extensions and martial arts. This was fresh, thoroughly contemporary and yet unquestionably Chinese dance.

While Ballet Afasaneh Art and Culture Society didn’t attempt to change the traditional style of its dances, their staging was decidedly contemporary. “Safar-e-Zamaan” (Time’s Journey) interlaced two unique Tajikistan dances, coming from geographically separated cultures. The dance from the Kolyabi tribe featured strong women with what could have been rapid fire Russian-inspired foot work and angular in front of the torso arm work. The dancers wore deep red, richly embroidered pants, caftans and head dresses. Quite a contrast was a selectin from the Pamiri people, with the women in flowing skirts and white blouses. Their dancing, delicate precise and very “feminine”; it looked related to Asian or Middle Eastern cousins. Attractive, this was a fresh use of passed-down material.

The most traditional presentation came from the Minoan Dancers with a medley of selections from Crete. With the men in white boots—acrobatic, assertive and boisterous—and the women in heeled shoes—demure but flirtatious—theirs was a feast of folkloric community celebrations. The women’s dances were wonderfully elegant and yet exuberant. With arms held shoulder high out, an erectly held torso, the action was in the tightly held together feet: swaying on half toes, shifting weight between inside and outside of the foot, quicksilvery side and crossing steps almost on point.  Ballet aficionados would have loved it.

Also included in this abundant feast of Bay Area ethnic dance was Japanese Bharata Natyam dancer Iziumi Sato’s “Tillana” which included dainty little hops; the Libertango Dancers’ three tango style and the Karikatan Dance Company’s  relative of “The Firebird” story,  “The Legend of Sarmanok.” It featured a spectacularly limber corps of black-clad women with large red fans. Disappointing were the messy staging of their work by the Korean Youth Cultural Center and De Rompe Y Raja’s Afro-Peruvian “Mama Nangue”, in which the music outclassed the choreography.

Brian Fisher and Katherine Wells of the MFDP/SF. Photo by Marty Sohl.
Phil Halbert and Isabelle Sjahsam of Leyya Tawil's Dance Elixir. Photo by Liz Payne.
Halau o Keikiali'i. Photo by RJ Muna.

Volume 4, No. 23
June 12, 2006

copyright ©2006 Rita Felciano



©2006 DanceView