writers on dancing

The Wave Crests
Cowell Theater
, San Francisco
July 24-25, 2003

reviewed by Paul Parish

The last weekend of Summerfest was an embarrassment of riches—what a feast of brilliant performances. It's left me feeling kind of glutted though. It's set up that way—with so many pieces crammed together in so many programs, with the best saved for last, so that the undeniably best dancing is set on a program where the pieces don't have time to set up their premises before they're over.... and then the next one takes you someplace else. Of course, part of the purpose of a festival like this is to allow modern-dance choreographers the chance to try new things, work with dancers they normally would not, experiment. Yet, the results can be still-in-process, or austere, or idiosyncratic, with the puzzling impact of leaving you—or at least me—feeling disturbed with a wish that I'd understood more of what I saw.

For example, a cryptic ritual interrupted Shadows, Whispers and Sighs about two-thirds of the way through a spectacle of remarkably fluent dancing: one of the dancers approached another and began unravelling her bracelet, which now hung nearly to the ground. (It was made of raffia or straw or pampas grass? or some such). Where did this come from? It left me baffled as one after another underwent this ritual, and left me wondering why I hadn't seen this coming. The dance is by the marvellous African-American dancer-choreographer Laura Elaine Ellis, with an all-star cast: Robert Henry Johnson, one of the area's most accomplished dancers, who's developed his own version of William Forsythe's fusion of ballet, modern, and African-American idioms, was only one of the four (who also included Ms. Ellis herself, Frances Sedayo, and the statuesque Nora Chipaumire). The program offered a note, but it explained nothing, only thanked the sponsors. Perhaps when we see the whole evening from which it is an excerpt, its meaning will open up.

It was followed immediately by the piece I'd been most looking forward to, a male duet by KT Nelson, starring two of the area's most personable and attractive dancers, ODC's Brian Fisher and Shannon Hurlburt (of SmuinBallets/SF)- which similarly left me at a loss as to what they were up to. Hurlburt's sunny, boyish demeanor and his infectious aim-to-please manner is one of SmuinBallet's greatest assets, but Ms. Nelson had no use for it in Floating Ridge. This is a sincere and serious piece, dedicated "to my mother" and set to a melodyless but harmonicially affecting score by Arvo Pärt—"the Trisagion"—a string quartet in the grip of deep emotions. The men wore dark-purple trunks and were barefoot. Hurlburt looked out-of-shape, uncomfortably sweaty, and like he wanted to run into the wings and dry off, but meantime the dance required him to project an unfamiliar personality and maintain a postmodern logic he admired but did not have the key to. Fisher DOES understand this idiom—he has worked with Nelson at ODC for at least a decade—but had to resist his own moxie and fight back an urge to "sell it" that was inappropriate for the piece but is a core component of his talent. I want to see the piece again, though given the way these things work, I doubt that I ever will.

For its last weekend, the showcase had moved to its first fully professional house, the Cowell Theater at the ex-army base, Fort Mason. (San Francisco, being the oldest port on the west coast, has had a lot of fortifications converted to peaceable uses in the last couple of decades). The comfortable, charming space seats several hundred and is built out on a pier overlooking the Golden Gate—which is mysteriously and hauntingly visible, through fog or mist or moonlight as you hang out during intermissions).

The stage is sizeable, and its grid is packed with lights—Sara Linnie Slocum, who lit both evenings admirably, can do almost anything she wants to here. And the pieces were very very different—from Vegas-y Peter-Martins-ish ballet by Charles Anderson to neo-Duncanism from Janice Garrett to the sisterly moods required for dances by Annie Rosenthal Parr and Mary Carbonara.

Anderson's ballet did not appeal to me, but his star Sharon Booth has a physical courage that no-one can fail to admire. She has been also the star of Reginald Ray-Savage's Oakland-based jazz dance company, and her ability to go all the way through the cheesiness of this idiom and bring up real sexual honesty is borderline heroic—she puts me in mind of Sophie Tucker. On pointe. Awful costumes, by Vincent.

Chamber-ballet made several appearances in Summerfest. The problems with ballet in spaces like this are several. First, there's not enough room for the scale on which ballet projects, so they almost always feel cramped, or like they're grandstanding. Related problems come from the heroic postural idiom; it looks pretentious or stilted. And the potential for bathos is almost always fulfilled (i.e, it takes only a tiny misstep, or lapse in choreographic logic, for the sublime to be revealed as ridiculous). When chamber ballet works, though, it can be really refreshing, and the middle section of Michael Kruzich's tantric-flavored Samsara, allowed a half-dozen women on pointe to show dazzlingly syncopated footwork, moving at great velocity with exhilarating abandon and control to dizzying music ("Le Genneyya," by Hosam Ramzy). Very bright, tiny distinctions can really tell. The smallest steps on pointe can read suddenly huge, and multiple pirouettes, fouettées in fantastically morphed shapes, can make a small stage feel like a god has invaded the house. Verna Carter astonished me the most, but Rika Onizuka, Kavita Master, Laura Rutledge, Maricar Medina, Yumi Watanabe, and Jamie Duggan all had moments of heart-stopping glory. Samsara seemed to be inspired by a Hindu-Buddhist idea of the world in transience, the flux of the atoms in the cosmic wind—and ballet seemed well-tuned to interpret such an idea.

Liss Fain's River at the end of the Land, to Hamza el Din's Escalay, was also "about" the flow of life; Escalay means "waterwheel," and Fain's dancers used an idiom that reminded me of Limón's to suspend and sustain themselves in a slow, exquisitely sensuous flow of shapes across the floor. (Jennifer Gorman and Sarah Claggett were particularly gleaming performers.) It was a muscled, sinuous sort of continuity, that suggested a trance-like state. Difficult, gorgeous, peaceful.

Even more gorgeous was Janice Garrett's Laulu Palju, which premiered on the final program, and seemed to take old-fashioned modern dance as a theme on which to work many sumptuous variations. My companion thought it was too pretty, and I would admit, it's probably too long (Doris Humphrey:  "all dances are too long"), but Jesus, it was beautiful. It's set to an unnamed score that sounds like a Mass, by Veljo Tormis, performed in a language that's probably Estonian by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and its mode is melting, heavenly.

Garrett's movement is intricate, wave-like (including the partnering)—and as with waves, the movement is never over; the phrases have what versifiers call feminine endings, and THOSE turn out to have another sigh to them before they subside altogether. Garrett used to confine her dancer's bodies—say to a spot on a bench—and give them vivid things to do with torso, head, and hands, particularly the fingers. For the last few years, though, she's been sweeping her forces around the stage, bringing back folk-dance forms, moving her dancers FAST—and alternating that with little interactions that remind me of "all of Hamlet in 90 seconds." In this piece she seems to be reaching all the way back to Isadora Duncan for breath and surge and sweep and musicality—and her dancers, who are very released, seem to be naturally inclined to move in Duncanesque arcs, especially Heidi Schweiker, the most fluent of a remarkable group (which includes Kara Davis, Bliss Dowman, Brian Grannan, Dana Lawton, Nol Simonse, and Heather Tietsort Lasky).

Schweiker is a wonderful dancer, and fantastically stage-worthy— a little round girl with a large beautiful face, with huge wide-spaced eyes like the poster-child for Les Miserables. Every joint is supple, and her quality of movement reminds one of the famously soft dancers, like Barbara Dilley. Along with Steffany Toto, Schweiker was the star of the weekend, performing in her own premiere, Shadows of Tiny Things (with Erin Gottwald, Deborah Miller, and Ms. Toto), and also in Mary Carbonara's Little Girl Lost (which was despite its diminutive title, a large-scale work emotionally, and for me the most powerful of all the dances in the series).

Schweiker's own piece seemed dwarfed by its music; Carbonara's had a clear and unmisunderstandable relation to the sound score which Peter Swendsen made for it, a musical compilation of many voices (all women's), speaking in many tones, sometimes distinct, sometimes so overlapped as to make the kind of buzz you hear when you're half-asleep, the perpetual life-long oceanic voices of your family criticizing you and each other. Some complaints came in a Brooklyn accent, some in Valley Girl, the bland, the kvetching, the soothing, the upsetting; I myself am very familiar with such a chorus of Erinyes, who seem at times unplacatable, at others surprisingly softened—so Carbonara's piece speaks to me directly.

Carbonara commissioned the score, which is layered so as to work like a choral ode. There are lines which make literal sense, and establish the theme (discovering parts of your mother in your own movements, your expressions, the face reflected in the mirror, the life choices you find yourself making) and other confused voices that build up an almost symphonic, oceanic heightening of the emotion—so that the feeling has no name but its urgency is overpowering. In these situations, it was Ms. Toto who became an incandescent interpreter of the material. At one emotional peak near the end she came down from a near-vertical split into a releve in the lowest possible second position—a drastic change of balance with a complete loss of composure for a split second, followed by an absolute assertion of her existence—that is burned upon my memory forever. Why it is so significant I can't tell you, but I'm convinced I'll be thinking about it for the rest of my life. I am told, and I'm not surprised, that THAT section is comprised of Toto's own voice and her own words about her mother, but I don't think anybody would need the insider information to feel the congruity between that imagery and the intensity of her performance in that climactic moment in that dance.

What Annie Rosenthal Parr's dazzling, windmilling duet (In this Life We Will Be...), which she made for herself and Patricia Jiron, was about I couldn't tell you, but the two dancers certainly were characters of some kind: perhaps energetic disturbances within the same field: such abandon, such control! It was like you could see both the Northern and Southern lights at the same time. To put it another way, their relationship seemed like sleepers in the same bed, the kind of awareness they had of each other seemed so intimate, so intense, and yet so unconscious. Set to Beth Custer's "I will be sad in this life."

amended August 13, 2003 by Paul Parish

copyright Paul Parish 2003

Photos: Top: Mary Carbonara (backround) and Steffany Toto (foreground .
Middle: Two dancers of Janice Garrett and dancers,: on the left, Heather-Tietsort-Lasky and on the right, Kara Davis. Photo by RJ Muna.
Annie Rosenthal Parr and Patricia Jiron in In this Life We Will Be...  Photo: photo by David Fischer.






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page last updated: August 13, 2003