July 12, 2003
by Paul Parish
most interesting thing about the four-choreographer
showcase that was this weekend's installment of our
long-running modern-dance festival Summerfest was the
LIVE NEW MUSIC, composed for the works presented. The
choreographers had met with composers back in February
at a "speed-date" party, where they swapped
cards and paired off to develop collaborations.
what we saw were works still in progress, which was
not as hard on us as that might sound. It was ALL interesting,
but none of it fascinating, at least, not to me. Each
was quite different from the others, but none had a
powerful rhythmic organization, which meant that none
of them felt finished.
First up was a series of a dozen short vignettes, Janice
Garrett's Seeds, starring the very, very tall
Benjamin Pierce (who in real life partners the very,
very tall Muriel Maffre at his regular gig at San Francisco
Ballet). He danced with a corps of three women a head
shorter than he. Pierce's movements, like his body,
are much more angular, more thrusting, than theirs.
But there's a big range of emotions, or maybe I should
say textures, in the piece. Sometimes the other dancers
are like wraiths he can't see, and whose movements afflict
him without his knowing where the energy came from.
Another charming episode had him catch them lined up
like bowling pins, they'd topple, singly, occasionally
in pairs, and finally stacked up against each other:
the woman in back put her knees into the one in front
of her and they all fell over backward, as he caught
them and lowered them gently to the ground.
uses release, ballet, and modern, excellently mixed,
though Pierce is not nearly as comfortable with the
silky, 'released' use of the shoulders as the corps
are (especially Kara Davis). The women are all familiar
with this rapidly changing sculpture for the arms, which
many modern choreographers around here are exploring—indeed
they dance year-round in this manner; Pierce does not,
and his trapezius and deltoids tense up, his neck shortens,
his arms get stuck. But then, one remembers that his
day job is lifting and supporting ballerinas and doing
the heroic men's work which requires great strength
under the shoulder-blade. I give him full credit, he
was committed to the choreography, going for the movement;
he wasn't whining about it.
some reason, the dancers all wore aprons over T-shirts
and trousers, gold for the women, charcoal grey for
him, in front of a very good looking cyclorama-projection
(by Brian Jones, who designed the lighting for the whole
evening) in roughly the same colors, wheat on grey.
The projection looked like a sheet of faint graph paper,
with a crenellated outline; it focused the action admirably,
while suggesting the idea of drafting (rough drafts,
sketches, first drafts, ideas to be developed) which
was very much the choreographer's intent. In a helpful
program note, Garrett asked us to regard the pieces
as "seeds," movement studies for a more integrated
work to come.
worth noting that not only is the composer, Matthew
Pierce, the lead dancer's brother, but that they have
worked together before. Julia Adam used the Pierce brothers
in Night (for which Ben, the tallest man at
SFB, partnered Tina leBlanc, the shortest woman in the
company, and ALSO designed the dreamy, almost phosphorescent
costumes). I could wish that Pierce the composer would
use real dance forms—chaconne, tango, cha-cha, sarabande,
jig, polka, take your pick, but not something where
all you do is count and inflect the odd accent, after
Philip Glass. Perhaps he does, but disguises them; if
so, he does it so well, it takes the swing out of it.
I'd just remind him that "Jingle Bells" is
a polka, "Stand by me" is a cha-cha, "Glowworm"
is a gavotte: hardly anybody "knows" this,
but we all know they're infectious. Pierce's textures,
orchestration, gift for mood are very fine.
second piece, Leviticus (by Summerfest co-founder
Kathleen McCarthy), began with an orchestral overture
so tempestuous it seemed like Exodus in disguise; and
then, when the lights came up, it featured a snake that
crawled portentously, dragging a really ugly tail across
the whole sleeping tribe. Later came a light winged
creature in brown that might have been an angel, or
maybe a locust, but further on seemed perhaps to have
metamorphosed into Isaac, given the sacrifice that the
man in the blue cassock made of her (after a truly heroic
solo; Michael Kruzich danced the role). So you wondered
if maybe the in-crowd knew it was really "Genesis"
but the choreographer feared that was too obvious. Many
of the dancers moved well. The winged creature had fantastic
elevation, and the tribe's floor-work showed style,
but the kind of strong posturing the piece seemed to
call for, to clarify and elevate the performers into
protagonists, was not built into the choreography. But
maybe I've missed the point.
show took place in the capacious McKenna Theater of
San Francisco State University, which has an important
dance department and has provided rehearsal time and
space and other resources to Summerfest since February.
It's a healthy and promising collaboration between practicing
artists and an institution with congruent concerns.
Mr. Jones, who lit the show, is assistant to the marvelous
designer Sara Linnie Slocum at Smuin Ballets/SF. I noticed
Slocum in the audience—which was a sizeable crowd, and
Theater seats probably 500-600. Its barrel-vaulted roof
squats on the audience like the roof of a cave, and
I always feel the curtain is going to go up and reveal
an aquarium; a man who knows it better says he always
thinks he's at Disneyland, and that the show will start
with sci-fi effects hurling you into the arena like
made it very refreshing that the second half (the "Amy"
show, for reasons which will be revealed) opened with
Spiraling Ahead: a group of very fine Cunninghamesque
dancers dressed in sherbet colors, stalking about like
popsicles, doing quirky things at odd times against
a cyclorama that was loveliest when it was purple, to
music that had the effect of shimmering vibraphone.
Choreography by Amy Helmstetter, music by Nurit Jugend.
ambitious finale was by Amy Seiwert, who dances for
Michael Smuin but choreographs like Alonzo King. Mind
Games (set to Jonathan Norton's "Phobic Phases")
was one of those hyper-ballets that owes a lot to Bugaku.
Anyone who can work their joints like that must have
sex on the mind. Dancers in pointe shoes, preening magnificently
in all-over tights (designed by Mario Alonzo, a very
important dancer with Oakland Ballet, recently retired)
that made them look like statues made of some fascinating
variant of bronze, where the verdigris goes red and
the north side grows chiffon-like moss, made majestically
sculptural use of the whole body. Their shoulders were
truly marvelous; the torso often featured African plastique,
bent way forward at the hips, swayed slightly at the
waist to amplify the curve of the buttocks.
made importunate use of a step I've never seen before,
a sort of pas de chat/gargouillade that landed in second
position to indicate the readiness of the royal pair
to mate. Their pas de deux was a silken affair, featuring
many suave supported pirouettes in marvelously torqued
positions; nothing new exactly, but then, neither is
sex. It was certainly sexy, and beautiful.Maurya Kerr
is an elegant dancer, and James Strong did nothing embarrassing,
which, given the difficulty of the transitions between
his steps, is higher praise than you might think. He
might have been more interesting if the music had been.
I can't remember anything about it.
musicians were splendid throughout. They were Phyllis
Kamrin, Violin; Jeff Watson, cello; Christopher Jones,
piano; Chris Froh, percussion; Matt Ingalls, clarinet:
Richard Worn, double bass. Rob Bailis, who's the new
director of ODC THeater, conducted for both Matthew
Pierce's and Daniel Feinsmith's scores; Chris Jones
conducted Mr. Norton's score, and Nathan Breitling,
2003 by Paul Parish
revised July 14, 2003