San Francisco Letter No. 20

“Remains of Shadow”
Naoko Maeshiba & Tatsuya Aoyagi
NOHspace, San Francisco
January 12, 2007

“Hungarian Concerto: Hommage à Bela Bartok”
Hungarian State Folk Ensemble
Marin Civic Center Auditorium, San Rafael
January 13, 2007

“Romeo and Juliet – A Fire Ballet”
The Crucible, Oakland
January 17, 2007

by Rita Felciano
copyright 2007, Rita Felciano

The first two weeks in January always remind me of  “dead week” that odd period in college when classes were finished and the freneticism of exams had not yet begun. So it was a relatively empty calendar and mild curiosity about unfamiliar ensembles that prompted my going to see Naoko Maeshiba at NOHspace, the Hungarian Stage Folk Ensemble at the Marin Civic Center and The Crucible production of “Romeo and Juliet”. All three programs opened new doors by defying preconceptions, always a pleasant surprise.

Maeshiba, the Japan-born and Baltimore-resident dancer and theater artist, based her two-part “Remains of Shadow” on an incident in 1927 when, as a gesture of friendship, blue-eyed celluloid dolls were donated to Japan from the United States.

‘Blue-Eyed Doll’, the first half of “Shadows,” explores the ambivalence, accommodation with, and rejection and conflicting emotions about the West’s intrusion into Japanese culture in the shape of this harmless looking toy, which, at the end, produces a catastrophic conflagration. Presented alternatively from a male (Tatsuya Aoyagi) and female perspective (Maeshiba) not all of ‘Doll’s’ eight scenes work equally well. Some spoke with great urgency and a macabre sense of beauty, but blander ones skirted the surface so that the whole did not quite amount to more than its parts. Also transitions between the scenes sometimes hiccupped as if they had been prematurely cut off.

Still the piece contains finely detailed recurring movement motives and a good sound track (also by Maeshiba) of wind and other nature sounds; it enhances the dances’ blown about and sometimes dream-like quality. In an early segment, Aoyagi dreamily attempts, and fails, to waltz with the doll to the soft strains of  “Over the Waves.” During his wanderings a red doll’s chair on his back looks like an incubus. An arm-wrestling contest with Maeshiba — who at one point becomes the doll-- suggests conflict and comfort, attraction and repulsion.

Choreographically telling is the opposition of the Western — and the doll’s — stiff vertical with torso with the bent over Japanese one. At one point, the Butoh-trained Maeshiba, dressed in a blond wig and the doll’s white lace dress, advances in tiny steps, her fingers daintily holding her skirt. As she blankly stares ahead, an invisible force starts pulling her torso sideways until she almost topples. The scene’s mirror image returns when, in Western clothes and with her back to us, that side bent causes her cloche hat to fall off. ‘Doll’ culminates in a rather crude confrontation between the two dancers that plays itself out against an expanding fireball in the background.

“Shadows’” second part, the simple but beautifully realized ’49 Days’ is less obviously metaphor-driven. The title refers to the time, according to some Japanese customs, that it takes a person to transit from this world. Aoyagi, in hat and street clothes wanders among transparent panels, his arms reaching and searching, until he softly falls to the ground. At that point, Maeshiba in a white Kimono, her head covered with a veil, begins her journey until she shrivels and trembles when Aoyagi’s strips her of her kimono to don a short gray shirt. Before the quiet mirror-image finale, Aoyagi bursts into a moment of wonderful theatrical absurdity. Laughing wildly he pulls out of is pockets crumbled sheets of paper, imprinted with the name of his entrails. He is eviscerating himself.

Fast, furious and fun is what I expected at the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble premiere appearance at the Marin Civic Center. The eighty-member company, one of dozens that must be roaming the globe in an attempt to both preserve and romanticize indigenous cultures, delivered on three all accounts. The men were athletically masculine, the women demurely feminine, and the string players turned up the heat in what we commonly call gypsy music. But the company’s “Hungarian Concerto; Hommage a Bela Bartok” delivered a lot more: an uncommonly sophisticated showcasing of traditional material within a contemporary frame. The evening flowed easily with dances transitioning into each other; dream-like dances punctuated highly athletic ones; community celebrations set off moments of solitude.

Hungarian dance, whatever regional differences may exist, is primarily male dancing with considerable room for improvisatory takes on the obligatory high jumps, cross stepping and body percussion. Some of the unisons, often started by a leader, suggested quasi environment. Circles of every size and groupings created multi-ring patterns that tightened like a lenses closing. A shepherds’ dance from the Zólyom region, with the dancers in rare soft slippers, seemed inspired by leaping goats; the confrontations in a male pole dance looked a little like capoeira.

The only all-female dance proved to be the evening’s highlight. From the Abaúj region, it featured tiny perfectly synchronized side and cross steps. Two different size-circles fused into one large one that kept twirling ever faster until it began to stretch like a cell about to divide until to return to the perfection of the round. Performed a cappella, the dancers also showcased beautiful intonation in the vibrato-less tight harmonies common to East European women’s songs.

The ubiquitous czardas showed up in many different incarnations, always starting slowly to speed into dizzying turns, skirts and male limps flying, As a couple dance the women spun like tops with men the shooting off high jumps in all directions. In some versions partner changes looked like those at a country festival. In others orderly formations atomized only to coalesce again.

In the program’s first half, designers Rita Furik and Edit Szucs dressed the dancers in black and white. The women costumes were cut along traditional lines but in bold geometric patterns. They looked like something by Emanuel Ungaro or maybe even Mondrian. The men wore white shirts and black pants. After intermission the dancers returned in traditional folkloric get-ups; they seemed all the more colorful for the contrast with the first half costumes.

The set design of proscenium-size video images — graphic patterns, a snowy road into nowhere and a hand tracing designs in sand (by Ferenc Cakó) — followed a similar mix of abstraction and pictorialness. Quite stunning was a wall of bobbing animations of silhouetted dancers — each in an individual frame — suggesting both folk art and Saturday morning cartoons. The live music, bravura violin playing of course, included an exceptional cimbalom player who brought the house down in one of his jazzy improvisations.

Promoting “Romeo and Juliet” as a hot story may not be exactly original. But when The Crucible, a non-profit industrial and arts education center in Oakland, announced a production of the ballet which would include fire arts, alarm bells went off. That sounded suspiciously like a marketing gimmick. I needn’t have worried.

Directed and designed  by Michael Sturtz, choreographed by former SFB dancer Corinne Blum and music-directed by Mark Jan Wlodarkiewicz, this “Romeo and Juliet” turned out to be roaringly successful and theatrically convincing interpretation of Shakespeare’s moon-struck lovers. Despite all the spectacle — and there was plenty — the directors kept the focus on the narrative and kept it moving at a clipped pace. A few bumpy transitions and some tech problems the night I attended not withstanding, Wlodarkiewicz’s intelligent condensation of the Prokofiev score—with emendations where necessary—put down a solid carpet on which Blum built her musically grounded choreography. Ballet dancers Easton Smith (formerly a Michael Smuin dancer) and Maurya Kerr (an ex-ballerina of Lines Ballet) were beautifully matched, filling the balcony scene’s soaring lifts and floating jetés with a mix of excitement and red-hot passion. Kerr’s delicate blossoming into womanhood was lovely to behold. The two dancers also proved to be rather good sports with Kerr setting the balcony railing on fire, Smith fighting with a burning sword and both of them drinking flaming poison.

Hip Hop dancers from Flavor Group represented he Montague boys; Shawn Hallman’s boisterous and top-spinning Mercutio proved that he could act as well as dance. Romeo’s splits in the air fit right in. Small but lightening quick Prem Kumpta danced Benvolio. Wushu West from Berkeley brought a mix of martial arts and spectacular aerial acrobatics to the Capulets. Neither of these groups had probably ever performed to Prokofiev but Blum orchestrated the confrontations with a sure hand. The fights included spark shooting and flaming swords.

Of the major characters Tybalt (Brendan Barthel) seemed the least-dance trained. Former ODC dancer Brian Fisher’s Paris had a hardedge not unlike that of Noé Serrano-Estrada’s implacable Lord Capulet. Aziz Abbatiello, a practitioner of whirling dervish dancing — in a turban with the edge of his skirt aflame — played Prince Escalus. This casting was one of very few missteps in this amiable production. The other one was the confusing party scene in which ballroom couples had to share the space with torch-twirling fire dancers.

The aerial dancers of Jo Kreiters’ Flyaway Productions made their own, rather intriguing contribution. In the program they were listed as “the Montague Girls.” but they functioned as more than that. In the fight scenes, a trio of them laughed silently and doubled over in sync; they reminded me of Shakespeare’s witches. When they contorted themselves on the flaming chandelier in the ballroom scene, my seatmate described them as gargoyles. Hanging upside down, their bodies ghoulishly magnified the implications of Mercutio and Tybalt’s. Theirs became commentary on a world about to be destroyed by senseless violence.

Volume 5, No. 4
January 22, 2007

copyright ©2007 Rita Felciano

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