writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Past and Present

Sonya Delwaide takes a final bow as a dancer—and premieres two exciting new works

Du Passe Au Present
ODC Theater, San Francisco
Saturday Sept 27

By Ann Murphy
Copyright ©2003 by

Forty-four year old Montreal native and Bay Area transplant Sonya Delwaide ended her career as a performer this weekend in San Francisco with one of the few dance quotes apt enough for the occasion: Odette's mournful seated bow, wings folded over one extended leg en face.

The lithe dancer's Gallic features had acquired a Pierrot-like sadness in this last dance of the evening, her signature Du Balcon, the only dance in which she appeared in the concert Du Passe Au Present (from the past to the present). But then that haunting wistfulness found a dignified and logical close when Delwaide linked herself to the famous swan, woman trapped between worlds who, in the end, chooses to put the dangerously enchanted realm behind her.

Delwaide may cease performing, but unlike Odette, she isn't about to disappear from the scene. As though to reassure us, she presented two premieres this weekend, Le Temps, a quirky Diaghilev-esque quintet to live music by the Del Sol Quartet, and Seuls Ensemble, (Alone Together) performed by the Montreal-based Compagnie de Danse L'Astragale, the troupe Delwaide directed from 1992-1999. She also will exert ongoing influence over Bay Area dancemakers from her perch at Mills College, where she is now on the faculty.

While Delwaide's two new works were distinctly and often ingeniously crafted to radically different musical compositions, one a string quartet of exacting modernism by Gabriela Lena Frank, the other a primitive and breathy score of digeridoo by Mattias Ziegler, what was most striking was their ultimate similarity. Both were undergirded and driven by the constant theme that links all of Delwaide's work: desire.

Desire is implicit everywhere in the ruptured intimacies, competitive partnering and barely achieved contact that abounds in each of these new works. It 's embodied by the platinum-haired Caldeira in Temps who is a pan-like god, part faun of L'Apres Midi D'Une Faune, part magician from Petrouchka who mysteriously manipulates the others. Desire fills the space between the bobbing crouching dancers in Seuls and in their lightening-like contact that seem to send shockwaves through their bodies. It is in the titles' double entendres and is there in the music. But in the 1995 Balcon, Delwaide makes her connection to emotional and physical hunger explicit. It is possibly her most raw and poignant expression of yearning to date.

Balcon is a quirky tale of attraction, heat and cold using as its dramatic and metaphoric ploy the eccentric habit of one Canadian who put wet laundry on the line in the dead of winter. Upstage is a clothesline with stiff clothes hanging. A narrator, in stream-of-consciousness, launches into an often witty riff on the significance of the word "hard." Jadson Caldiera looks at his crotch, the voice names rocks, math problems, emotions and socks as some of the candidates for "hard." As the narrator talks about the attraction of opposites, the love affair possible between positive and negative charges given the right nudge, Caldeira and Delwaide twitch, torque and battement with neurotic awkwardness in what often resembles two pawns in a live chess game. The speaker, who seems to be prying open the brain of Brazil-born Caldeira, Delwaide's dance partner since 1992, finally summarizes: "The key is desire." He then asks where desire comes from and admits he doesn't know.

Neither does Delwaide, but she does know what it looks, feels, smells and tastes like with a feral intensity that is an expression of animal hunger reined in by the fractured geometries and implicit disillusionment in postmodern dance. This is a choreographer who works in the poignant gap between desire and what she perceives as its inevitable frustration. For her, relationship transpires here. The figures of Delwaide and Caldeira, for instance, never merge. Initially they move in distinct squares of space the way two puppets would manipulated from above. When they do meet, contact is nearly always jagged, comically unstable, and sometimes, as when Caldeira thrusts the back of his arm through the air as though striking someone, a perceptible air of violence fills the gap between them. The possibility of losing themselves in each other is shattered almost before they can become entangled, but they are still driven to seek each other out. Like one of those sand bag dolls you hit that springs right back, hope never dies and the quest for meeting, union, communication endures as well. It seems the closest the pair can come, though, is by changing clothes—she donning a wet white shirt, he slipping into her grey dress, then stripping and squirming naked in a puddle like a doomed fish. With this superficial sharing Du Balcon becomes a frustrating paen and lament to the touching but lonely endlessness of yearning.

The frustrations springs not so much from the fact that Delwaide doesn't know where desire comes from. Rather it springs from the instinctual sameness of desire as she presents it—it's all hunger and its ultimate insatiability. Her work would have more depth and intention if she were to calibrate desire with greater differentiation. Why, for instance, is a stunning duet in Seuls in which momentary and exquisite communion does seem to take place in the circular flight of two bodies have the same weight and value as the couple that are disrupted by the insertion of another dancer into their duet? Emotionally these are radically different experiences, although both are manifestations of desire.

Delwaide's beautiful, fluid assemblages in both Temps and Seuls in which dancers lurch after a hand or foot, fly into each other's arms, catapault apart, then reform in new pairs or groupings are crafted with ingenuity and care and fill the stage adeptly. But because desire is a chimera everyone seems restlessly to chase, her phrases continually, and predictably, snap to a close, like the jaws of a hungry animal. There were plenty of times desire begged for more langorous or open-ended development and got short-circuited.

Temps was beautifully and committedly danced by Caldeira, Brandon Freeman, Sheetal Gandhi, Erika Johnson and Sarah Kalmar, who seemed to molt with effortless abandon from action to action. (Frank's score, however, seemed to daunt the quartet.) Delwaide also brought a challenging level of theater into the work by giving Caldeira godly powers, beginning as a soloist upstage on a chair, while the dancers rotated in a shuffling circle.

In Seuls, danced exclusively by the Montrealers of L'Astragale, each dancer was a universe unto himself interacting like free radicals looking for a molecular bond. They ricocheted and rebounded in often stunning shapes that went from the cartoonish to the beautiful. But once again, Delwaide seemed to turn her back on wonderful possibilites she herself created-unison patterns that might have gone on longer than 8 seconds, duets that might have become unisons—as though distrustful of the communion and harmony such passages connote. Yet the hunger to move into new, nuanced aspects of desire seems to be present in the work, and to my mind Delwaide ought to grab this new manifestation of desire and see where it takes her. She has no shortage of talent, no limit to her movement invention. With Alex Nichols, her husband, as her inimitable lighting and stage designer, with dancers who are all expressively and technically superb, she has absolutely nothing to lose.

Photo: Jadson Caldeira and Sonya Delwaide. Photo: Michael Slobodian

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 1
September 29, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Ann Murphy




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 7, 2003