writers on dancing


Speed-date a composer

July 12, 2003
McKenna Theate

reviewed by Paul Parish

The 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.

So 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.

Garrett 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.

For 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.

It's 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.

The 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.

The 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 very dance-savvy.

McKenna 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 "Fantastic Voyage."

Which 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.

The 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.

Seiwert 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.

The 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, Mr. Jugend's.

copyright 2003 by Paul Parish
revised July 14, 2003







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page last updated: July 19, 2003