Lines Ballet’s Turbulent Deep River

22 May

Yerba Buena Theatre provided the site of Lines’ Ballet’s Spring Season and, like other performing arts groups, the first theater venue since Covid closed theatre attendance in March 2020, May13-22. I saw the work May 18.

Under the title Deep River with singer Lisa Fisher seen prominently, mostly on down stage right, the thirteen Lines dancers put themselves through extra-demanding Alonso King choreography. It seemed as if Covid and the needless and questionable deaths of too many Blacks provided more than passing choreographed turmoil executed by dancers in minimal costume designed by Robert Rosenwasser, [both creative director and the company’s executive director], though the men mostly wore chiffon-like knee-length skirts.

Invariably there is a hushed moment when the curtain rises on a Lines production; here we saw almost a smoky, if murky, stage with rows of round lights overhead as if ranged like cookies on a baking sheet. Throughout the performance, save for a brief central passage, Lisa Fisher could be seen, mike in hand, on downstage right, her left side almost enveloped in layers of black fabric, some gathered, some pleated, while her right shoulder was exposed a black string holding an equally black bodice. There must have been some allusions to the layers behind the title and the choreography, referring to the layers of struggles depicted on stage.

King has long been noted for his usual application of pointe shoe usage – stabbing the floor, trembling forward on full pointe, deep squats with the feet using the shoe in the same manner, and off center rotations with the supporting leg and the extended leg creating a memorable arc in space, quite unlike a fouette if perhaps using the same propulsive dynamics. These methods were entirely present, executed not only to Fisher’s memorable voice, but to music attributed to Pharoah Sanders, Maurice Ravel, James Weldon Johnson and the concluding spiritual “Deep River.”

Devoid of the usual printed program with profiles of the company members, consulting Lines website proved difficult to identifying the artist involved in various passages.

Prior to the work’s conclusion with a memorable pas de deux, the dancers led the audience through almost unbelievable angst, whether wriggling or writhing on the floor, lurching or struggling across solo, in twos or small ensembles. I felt as if our two years of struggle with Covid had unearthed in King’s artistic vision references to the post-1619 history of African Americans, unrelieved effort, emotional despair, the necessity to persist without knowing why or how, but somehow surviving. If so, Deep River was a powerful visualization in which King left no muscle or gesture unexplored in his vision.

Most of the orchestra audience gave the work a standing ovation.

Four Generations in Theatre Arts

17 May

Some of the lasting traditions and legends in ballet derive their source in families. The Taglionis, The Petipas and to a lesser extent, the Bournonvilles, are notable, though I am unsure whether a fourth generation has been identified. Theatre history also records generations of performers.

Here in San Francisco, however, we have an example of such longevity; I am lucky not only to know about such, but to enjoy a lengthy acquaintantship with same.

Sometime following his decade of performing in Europe [Gramd Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, Bremen Opera, Bordeaux Opera] Carlos Carvajal and I struck up a friendship and intermittent written exchange of opinions. Returning to San Francisco Ballet by 1965, Carlos became ballet master and resident choreographer, sharing the practice of the cello with Lew Christensen. He created Tottentanz for San Francisco Ballet with Robert Gladstein as the death figure. That production later saw several performances at Grace Cathedral, Anton Ness and Dudley Brooks reprising the towering role in the production which grew out of Carlos’ years in Europe, forming his Master’s thesis at California State University, San Francisco.

Carlos, half Filipino and half Swedish, derives his theatrical gene through a grandfather who is mentioned in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tagere, a man with his wife specializing in the Filipino version of zarzuelas, the Spanish operetta form. Carloshad an aunt who he never met active in early Filipino movies.

But his gene was reinforced by his father who came to the United States and began earning his living by staging magic shows, in addition to stage related crafts. His father also was a painter, who depicted anti-Church themes in his canvases.

Prior to World War II< Carlos enjoyed the presence of the San Francisco Youth Symphony before becoming involved with the Chang International Folk Dance Group, also providing leadership for a time. A suggestion that he take ballet lessons led to San Francisco Ballet and entry into Guild membership via the San Francisco Opera, a time he recounts with relish, particularly the touring opportunities it provided.

Because the ‘Forties and early ‘Fifties provided few US performing dance opportunities, Carlos sailed to Europe for what became a decade of exile, dancing and touring with the aforementioned artistic organizations. His return to San Francisco Ballet lasted until his ballets aroused the ire of the ballet board for the audience they attracted. A cadre of dancers followed Carlos living communally in what now must be high rise office and residential buildings south of Market Street in the City’s financial district. Moving to the Mission and 22nd Street, Dance Spectrum enjoyed a studio, workshop performances and seasons at the Palace of Fine Arts for at least a decade. Among the memorable productions was Wintermas, performed at the old Commerce High School Auditorium [still underused and lacking earthquake reinforcement] with newly wed Carolyn Houser Carvajal in a central role, soon to give birth of Calliope and later to Celina, now known in performing arts circle as Lena Hall. Wintermas also was adorned with one of Ruth Asawa’s wire sculptures.

The children were part of Dance Spectrum life until the ensemble ceased, Carolyn joined the dance ensemble of San Francisco Opera and seasons with Dance Through Time. Carlos went on to guest with his choreography, provide the artistic leadership of Peninsula Ballet Theatre and a dozen years sharing similar guidance with T.K. Ladzekpo for the Ethnic Dance Festival. Honored with June Watanabe by the Museum of Performance and Design in 2021, Carlos still teaches enjoying his role as pater familias.

Calliope, usually called Calli, enjoyed a sojourn in the Girls Chorus, opting for a GED rather than conventional high school, spending close to a decade practicing belly dancing in local restaurants and at least once in the Ethnic Dance Festival. I remember the auditions at SF State’s auditorium where one woman swooned over Callie’s capacity with “isolations,” a superior ability in the danse du ventre, the name also applied to this dance form.

But when Callie decided to try New York for size, she quickly decided that her route was not with belly dancing but with hair, becoming adept with coiffures, dressing and creating wigs. Until she became the mother of Rosalie, it included far flung travel. When Covid came upon us, Callie had already added a son, Dorian. Covid show business unemployment eventually initiated return to the family home.

Within the week, I received this ecstatic e-mail from Carlos:

“Callie just got accepted to work in the make up,wig dept at the SF Opera House! For next season!! She will be joining the union as a result. What a completion of our lives associated with this institution–a full circle! Carolyn danced there for 29 years and young Calli was there all of the time in this wondrous place.

Indeed, she developed a fine voice and a subsequent career in lyric theater, dance and theater arts. That she should return to her source brings me great joy!

Seventy years ago, at the age of 19, I also signed my first professional contract and was able to join the AGMA union at this very opera house where I have had my adventure as dancer and choreographer! “

With two youngsters in the household, it seems likely the theatrical generations may number five.

The Tomasson Summation April 24

13 May

Assisted by brief video tributes provided of other artistic directors – Kevin MacKenzie, American Ballet Theatre; Virginia Johnson, Dance Theatre of Harlem; Peter Boal, Pacific Northwest Ballet; Mikko Nissenen, Boston Ballet, local dancers also commented on their sojourn with Helgi. It commenced with Elizabeth Loscavio, who joined the Hamburg Ballet; Julia Adam, choreographing and providing special summer programs in Marin; Joanna Berman; Katita Waldo, Anita Paciotti, Tina Le Blanc, Patricia McBride who was his partner in New York City Ballet; Mark Morris; Cathryn Marston; Dwight Rhoden; Justin Peck, company assistants like Felipe Diaz, musical director Martin West, Pascal Molat.

Behind a podium on stage right Ashley Wheater and John Neumeier delivered their view of what Helgi has accomplished in his role as artistic director, Wheater likening the position to an oak tree growing gradually to nurture what lies beneath his bows. Near his last sentences, Wheater, now artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet [an organization Tomasson had belonged to before its name change to the Harkness and his joining the New York City Ballet], almost allowed his emotion to surface, perhaps the most touching element in his comments.

The seven-selection program choices included two early favorites, Concerto Grosso being preceded by the lovely pairing of Frances Chung and Wei Wang in the Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers, the Handel music played by Roy Bogas, whose musical contributions to San Francisco Ballet goes back to the company’s State Department-sponsored south American tour. The two brought a warm, lovely felicity to the tribute.

The Corelli-based Concerto Grosso introducing Pascal Molat to his San Francisco audience was next. Here Lucas Erni assumed Molat’s assignment, his aerial capacity and joy in movement marking the contrast and complement to the other four dancers: Lonnie Weeks, Diego Cruz, Minguan Wang and Jean-Paul Simeons. I remember the originals as smaller; these dancers are taller, slender and very conscious of what a gem they were dancing.

Two Bits, the Aaon Jay Kernis guitar music providing the pas de deux which Gennadi Nedvigiin and Vanessa Zahorian danced with a mischievous air ranked number three in the program. Isabella de Vivo and Esteban Hernandez brought their sass, apparent ease and Latin-based spirit that one hopes to see in a future Gala.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets repeated their remarkable reading of the pas de deux from The Fifth Season and the cast of Harmony, to Jean-Pierre Rameau’s music outdid themselves as the final dance of tribute.

Before Harmony, however Sasha de Sola and Joseph Walsh flirted their way through Blue Rose, a 2006 premiere to Elena Katz-Chernin music; it had skipped my memory, but its revived dancing with syncopated accents in costumes reminding me somehow of late ‘Thirties, tickled my nostalgia nerve.

Completing the selections was this year’s premiere Harmony the nine-part essay in virtuosic classicism to the music of Jean-Pierre Rameau, who has been credited with the foundation of the ballet’s title.

If I had not consciously registered it before, the selections reminded me of Helgi Tomasson’s interest in and use of highly diverse music to challenge San Francisco Ballet’s dancers. These selections testified to an acuity of vision and movement, sometimes forgotten. I think Paul Parish put it succinctly when he evaluated Tomasson as a miniaturist. I would add to that evaluation that, like the skill of a Faberge, the results demonstrated here should be classified as exquisite.

City Ballet’s Spring Recital at the Palace

10 May

City Ballet’s Spring Recital at the Palace

Saturday, May 7, City Ballet presented what was probably its first recital since Covid prevented public performances It happened to coincide with City Ballet’s temporary removal from Otis Street while its building was being thoroughly overhauled. The organization took refuge in the ground level of a Fillmore district church, continuing to train young San Franciscans in the Vaganova style pedagogy which has its heart in St. Petersburg in the academy bearing Agrippina’s name, feeding young aspirants into the ranks of the Maryinsky Ballet. It now has returned to Otis Street, and, on May 13, will host a benefit opening [$100/head] in its new Champagne Room, clearly an addition to its studios and class schedules..

One such Vaganova Academy graduate, Nikolai Kabaniaev, is in charge of the men’s division and the results of his training and subsequent teaching was on proud display as I attended the recital with Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo-American Ballet Theatre-Ballet San Jose veteran Roni Mahler. Mahler, moving to San Francisco in early 2020; her practiced eye; hearing her murmur ‘brava’ in a low voice added to awareness of what I was watching.

Kabaniaev came out on stage between Acts I and II to recognize four students headed elsewhere; one young man has been accepted in the Joffrey School trainee program; a young woman has been given a full scholarship at the Princess Grace Academy in Monte Carlo; another is joining State Ballet, Santa Barbara [I may not have the correct name of the company but accurate location] and the fourth will start college at Syracuse University.

The handsome glossy program featured two young dancers under the title of La Fille Mal Gardee and the labels, Spring Show and CBSF. The printed program sported an insert, however which mostly obliterated the roster and order of the variations. What was retained and commenced Act I was the Santanella pas de deux with Katita Kratz and Kyawzwa Lwin, both long and slim of limb, very correct in execution, promising much when the technical demands are firmly solidified. Their striving was touching and visually pleasant to watch, thought there was a tendency to drop stage posture following the customary bows.

Next came the Act III Black Swan variation essayed by Michelle Lim, working from a pokey recording. Again accuracy was dominant, rather difficult to observe with the tempo obscuring the dazzle in the variation.

Samuel Morris’ take on Siegfried’s variation, Swan Lake, Act III, displayed the ballon inherent in the choreography, and while accurate, he almost nailed the overall effect. I want to see his progress a year from now. The same can be said of Henry Lichtmacher’s rendition of a Coppelia variation.

Variations from Paquita, male and female, followed. Lim, seen at the beginning, danced well. Like most of the young men dancing, his legs looked like efficient pencils delivering an aerial message, quite a tribute to Kobaniev’s training. Kailin Kratz’ Paquita variation elicited the same impression. The second appearance of the two found them more relaxed.

With due respect to the individuals who clearly labor to help produce the program, an observation regarding tutus. While the skirts flare nicely, the placement is so high that the under pants are revealed when the dancer stands still. The flare should begin lower on the hip, so that only an arabesque or a turning attitude reveals the dancer’s crotch. Decades ago, an English balletomane commented on the ability of Russian dressmakers to fashion tutu skirts to the dancer’s advantage, even if the torso design might not meet current standards.

Michelle Lin completed this portion of the program with a Raymonda Variation, its quality and tempo providing her more expression and dynamics.

A charmer, “Chicks”, with music from La Fille Mal Gardee found a painted country set with an array of white egg shells mid stage back, out of which a dozen young fledgling emerged, eliciting an audience murmur. Led by Emma Johnson, the dozen proceeded to do their bit. Roni leaned over to me and said, “The fourth girl from the right shows ballerina material.”

The remainder of Act 2 was truncated with several changes.

Following intermission Act 3 ;provided contemporary choreography by Nikolai Kabaniaev for the eveniing’s inaugural dancers Kratz and Lwin, gaining in expression and confidence.

Morris enjoyed his stint with Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Fly Me to The Moon”, the audience agreeing with warm applause.

To Kiri Te Kanawa’s singing Michelle Lin danced “Innamorat.

Henry Lichmacher relished Jacques Brel’s rendition of “Mon Enfance” as did the audience.

To Philip Glass music. Brett Conway’s “Onward” closed the program, with eighteen young adolescents engaged earnestly with shifting patterns, forward movements, testimony to their enjoyment and commitment to dance, and to dance well.

Completing the evening while waiting for our taxi, Roni and I observed the dancers departing, those long limbed young men rather smaller than their stage appearance. The mufti, totes, and footwear of the young dancers departing with family members lent a memorable before and after note to their display of evident talent.

Two More Asian Swans

9 May

Single tickets May 4 and May 5 enabled me to see Wona Park and Misa Kuranaga as Odette-Odile with Wei Wang and Angelo Greco as their respective Siegfrieds, Katita Waldo and Anita Paciotti as Queen Mother, Val Caniparolli and Tiit Helimets as Tutors, and, importantly Nathaniel Remez and Alexander Renoff-Olson as Von Rothbart. Assignments for these two corps members presage a growing set of dramatic dancers in the company,. Based on the deliberation and menace they convey in these assignments, they relish the opportunities.

When it came to the pas de trois , Lucas Erni, Isabella de Vivo and Megan Amanda Erlich were featured May 4; on May 5 Joshua Jack Price and Leili Rackow shared trio duties with Isabella de Vivo, whose ballon and phrasing always are spot on, regardless of the assignment.

Erni and Price share gifts for elevation, correctness and finish of gesture, each adapted to their physical size; Erni is small and compact, Price, not overly tall, quite slender, his looser muscle structure making phrasing and finish notable on the beat.

The aristocrats dance, Siegfried briefly engaging with the women, then the children with the Tutor followed by the peasants; Siegfried necessarily paid attention, but is distracted by the Queen Mother’s demand that he marry. Tomasson has provided a solo to convey Siegfried’s dilemma. Here cultural traditions underscore his responses: Wang’s is elegant, polite, but understated, Greco more emotional as was his engagement throughout the dances to entertain him. Both made it clear, that while enjoying the attention, they are quite uninvolved in the mating game. Asian or European, both grasp the cross bow in relief and anticipation of the hunt.

Then it is Act II where Von Rothbart makes his appearance, impressive in size by both Remez and Renoff-Olson, the former’s menace by controlled tension, the latter by a certain sweep of his winged tunic, both picture book villains. The two Siegfrieds aim their bows, then lower them at the approach of Swan Queens Wona Park and Lisa Kuranaga.

These monarchs are petite, intense, ever so correct, their bird-like accents applied sparingly. They lack nothing in timing, phrasing, providing visual pleasure as they tell Siegfried why they are birds, why Siegfried must not kill any of her flock, their distress in being torn between human possibility and feathered imprisonment convincing. In the solo variation of the three Asian swan queens, Kuranaga visibly moved through passe position in the solo ending in arabesque. Chung and Park moved wide of this nicety, doubtless due to coaching. In the pas de deux, invariably there is the moment when Siegfried has turned away toward stage right in reverie, Odette crosses from mid-stage left, to move under Siegfried’s arm, signaling belief in having found a love, a champion, the possibility of freedom.

The corps. the four small cygnets, the two lead swans all conspired to reinforce the pristine nature of Act II, credited historically to Lev Ivanov. What a tradition and how beautifully realized. The Siegfrieds were suitably enchanted, equally aware of their beloved’s bewitchment.

Act III is, of course, the razzle dazzle of the ballet – the vamp supreme, and Park and Kuranaga did themselves proud, double fouettes et al, despite a slight stumble by Kuranaga and traveling with her fouettes. [Those fouettes are the subject of a TED vignette created by Arleen Sugano regarding their impetus, the movement introduced to Russian ballet by the Italian ballerina Pieria Legnani.] The interplay with Von Rothbart was appropriately knowing, the soaring of Siegfried’s variation indicative of his increasing excitement, desire and triumph in achieving the selection that Mother had demanded. The audience was ready to applaud and roar at every successful feat. Then, the crushing deception revealed with Von Rothbart and Odile laughing and vanishing, leaving Siegfried distraught, rushing to the lake.
The transition is handled by water marked curtains swung forward and back while the palace scenery yields to the lake and the fateful boulder.

I personally find the variations representing potential princesses an anomaly in regal protocol, the variations are lively. [I guess my Anglo-Saxon heritage has fallen into the sanitized camp when it comes to comme il faut behavior] However, the variations capture the spirit of the music skillfully and the dancers interpret the choreography with zest. May 4, Isabella da Vivo and Diego Cruz danced the Neopolitan princess variation with gusto. Daniel Devison Oliveira held up the Russian tradition with his characteristic vigor and sense of what is needed. Gabriela Gonzales, who has been sharing pre-curtain instructions with Devison-Oliveira, danced the Spanish princess May 5 with a warm authority. Act III also enables the viewer to gauge the deportment of the Master of Ceremonies. Two impressing me were Nathaniel Remez and a surprise from amongst the apprentices, Andris Kundzins.

Act IV possesses some of the simplest, yet most beautiful music of the ballet, ditto the movements, measures of sorrow, apology, forgiveness and acceptance before the the necessary fight between Siefried and Von Rothbart and the flight of Odette to her fatal fall from the cliff; Siegfried startled, echoes his vow, running to follow her as Von Rothbart struggles in his death throes before his enchanted flock.

The audience was warm in its responses both evenings, many standing along with the vigorous applause. Of particular charm was Wona Park’s acknowledgment of Wei Wang’s partnership, her head resting on Wang’s shoulder following her initial bow, the best possible compliment.

May 5 I shared the two aisle seats with Jamie Wright, one of the stalwarts in the Lines Ballet administration, as well as being a member of the Isadora Duncan Dance Award Committee. It was an opportunity to share memories of former Swan Lake casts and lasting impressions, May 5 being one to join that bank of balletic pleasure. Tomasson has given San Francisco’s ballet public a final singular pleasure.

An Asian Triumphs in Russian Classic

6 May

Yes, indeed; Canadian-born Frances Chung, joining San Francisco Ballet after training with the Goh Academy in Vancouver, has risen gradually from the corps de ballet to principal dancer. April 29 with only a slight stumble, Chung triumphed as Odette-Odile in the Tomasson staging of Swan Lake which closes the 2022 season and Helgi Tomasson’s 37 years as San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director.

Rachel Howard’s review in San Francisco Chronicle’s Date Book was exemplary in its overall survey. I recommend it.

Chung enjoyed Joseph Walsh as Siegfried, instead of Wei Wang, announced earlier, but she also had a slinky Von Rothbart in Daniel Deivison-Oliveiera, given, unfortunately, limited in opportunities to display his slime chops, but what connivance in Act III! Those sinister qualities first surfaced in the pre-curtain prelude where an demure Odette meets a dark stranger; he abducts her and a struggle behind the curtain displays a transformation into a swan.

Before the gates of a formidable grey stone Palace, class statement was immediately registered where elsewhere Act I has been confined to a garden. In the elegant imperious black of the Queen Mother whisking out of the gates, that impression deepened as Anita Paciotti knows how well to convey. But the spare setting reminds me more like a tailgate gathering than a coming-of-age celebration.

Joseph Walsh’s Siegfried struck me as remarkably casual and understated; basically a nice, well-meaning aristocrat, hisl demeanor akin to the Duke of Cambridge. This seemed particuarly clear in an exchange with Hernandez, where the exchange was nearly one of equals, not special courtiers present because of dancing chops. Ricardo Bustamonte as Siegfried’s tutor provided a mildly jovial note, reinforcing the pleasure of the moment, avoiding opinion regarding the Queen Mother’s decree.

The pas de trois featured Esteban Hernandez, Julia Rowe and Isabella de Vivo, Hernandez executing double tours and covering space with characteristic understated nuance, and Isabella de Vivo exhibiting her line and distinct brio. Julia Rowe, while leading the variations, seemed lost in her Empire-style costume, obscuring her delicacy. There was the charming note of school children with the Tutor, allowing the School’s students performance exposure, and the clearly costumed peasant hopping and circling as the afternoon faded and the festivities wind down with Siegfried’s marital challenge obscuring the afternoon, to be mollified with the gift of the cross bow.

Act II provided the rising conflict with Von Rothbart’s awareness of Siegfried’s arrival. There are gestures of shooting, soon abandoned as Odette arrives, head and hands moving with fluid delicacy. Chung immediately registered bird, status and apprehension with the approach of Siegfried. Mime was clear, if minimal, but one could feel the audience genuinely engaged with the stage exchange.

The arrival of the swans was equally gratifying – as the lot of them bourreed in place the overall sight of beautifully proportioned legs below crisp white tutus reaffirmed one of the reasons these birds provide such a consistent draw, sheer elegance in formation.

Act III gave us the Black Swan pas de deux after the eligible princesses in entourages appear, representing cultures with strong dance traditions. Sasha Mukhamadev was featured in the Spanish with two bailerins, her lush, dramatic qualities confined in a too short music episode. [I’d love to see what she does with that famous pas de deux.] As it was, it seemed odd that these eligible members of royalty were cavorting with partners with such familiarity – not quite the typical take on regal negotiations.

As it was, Chung and Oliveira made their lightning-like entrance after the candidates’ rejection, and proceeded to enthrall Siegfried and his mother. The looks the black pair exchanged, and Von Rothbart’s postures sigalled to the audience what was about to occur. Chung was up to every nuance and come hither, supple, slink and shine. Except for a slight tumble at the beginning of the requisite thirty-two, many included doubles and until the last three or four sur la place, the result of the whipping fouette movement commencing at a 45 degree angle instead of a 90 degree whip, which makes the dancer travel.

Walsh’s elevation was exemplary in jete height, speed and placement, consistently clear and well-phrased.

The audience, ready to be wowed all the way through, roared with approval.

Then the mistaken pledge and chaos, with the Queen Mother abandoning her wayward son for his poor choice, sobbing in the deserted palace chamber.

On to the finale with its brooding, coaxing, plaintiff, then soaring musical elements, and Odette’s rush up the cliff, followed by Siegfried’s vow and following her, while Von R lay in final convulsions.

It must be the union’s timing contract that limited the curtain calls, because it was clear the audinece was ready to cheer Chung, Walsh and Oliveira for several more bows; Chung’s quiet triumph and relief plus her graciousness was a joy to behold

Presidio Theatre Venue for First Voice’s Songs for J-Town

30 Apr

Pursuing its aim to showcase the artists of the San Francisco Bay Area, Presidio Theatre sponsored “Songs for J-Town”, a premiere for Mark Izu’s music April 23.
It would be an understatement to comment that the event was a community gathering, for it was that and then some, handsomely supported by San Francisco and Bay Area interested foundations and San Francisco Japan Town support organizations. The six-part program also checked all the boxes of San Francisco Japan Town participants and historical neighbors, African American and Filipino.

The Presidio Theatre has a courtyard where a tree grows [I think] in the center of the small lawn ; on this occasion titled a Wish Tree. attendees were invited to write wishes in black marking pens on oblong strips of paper attached to rough string to hang on the tree. The supply table was well attended; guests, many in various degrees of traditional Japanese clothing, clustered at the edge writing their messages before crossing the lawn to post their hopes. I noted some noble desires written as well as personal wishes.

Executive Director Robert Martin made opening comments before a representitve of Supervisor Dean Preston read and presented a Board of Supervisor’s citation offered to Kai Kane Aoki Izu, whose great grandfather Reverend Chojiro Aoki founded the oldest U.S. Japan Town community in 1897. It’s the commentary’s most obvious statement to declare “That’s quite a legacy.”

Mark and Brenda made sure to touch all the bases related to J-town’s history. In the six musical episodes, Filipinos were represented by vocalist Carolyn Carading and African-Americans by poetess Devorah Major, each with their own program section. With musical instruments guitar, trap drums and taiko, woodwinds, saxophones, shakuhachi, trumpet and sheng, plus Izu’s own sheng, bass, and sho. Along side the western string instruments, it made the sound varied and, on occasion, haunting, spare and evocative. Mostly, however, the music reflected the influence of living in the U.S. of A. Izu’s collaborating musicians were Mas Koga, Karl Evangelista, Jimi Nakagawa, Jim Norton [the sole gaijin] and Sara Sithi Amnaui.

The six-part Songs for J-Town commenced with a video of Brenda Wong Aoki in “Return of the Sun,” recorded on a sandy strip just west of the Golden Gate Bridge, Aoki was arrayed in golden trousers and a traditional jacket evoking Amiteratsu, Japan’s Sun Goddess, who sequestered herself in a cave following a quarrel with her brother, the Storm King, who disappeared over Korea. There she remained until lured out by curiosity over the sounds of music and dancing. Aoki’s voice and adroit use of the fan, closed and snapped open, displayed her ability to convey life’s perennial revitalization. Hard to believe a U.C., Santa Cruz drama instructor lacked the insight to see Aoki’s formidable accomplishments.

Reverend Masata Kawahatsu provided Shinto purification rites closing the Intro, before Mark Izu introduced his associate musicians and with Brenda rendered the Sea Horse Waltz in the section titled Home. Troubled followed, including Caroline Cabading’s rendered of the Gershwin classic, “Someone to watch Over Me.” Izu’s introduction also included a tribute to Jeff Adachi, Kevin King, Janice Mirikitani, Bob Rusky and George Yamasaki.

Each episode was designed to reflect the uneven fate of the Japanese-American enclave, its resiliance and connection with its neighbors. Outside of the performance, I can remember two parallels to this history told me. One was by a Filipina-american who said her family had an eaterie on the south side of Geary Boulevard prior to the A-1 bull-dozing of the blocks to create the Longshoremen’s financed apartments now covering the area between Webster and Laguna, Geary and Ellis Streets, with an exception of Victorian buildings, [possibly others.].

The second observation was made by the late Yoko Tahara who said that the African-Americans, occupying former Japanese buildings, provided the returning internees with a wonderfully warm welcome.

Songs for J-Town finished its saga with a rousing “We’re Still Here.” and a reception, again in the courtyard.

I neglected to mention the artefacts placed in the entrance to the courtyard, clearly cherished souvenirs from the Relocation Camps. I remember two vividly; one, a violin in an open case, strings loose and lying across the body of the instrument. The second was an arm chair with its evidence of a skilled craftsman; it was made from the slats from a peach carton.

Songs is a special tribute, and might well be repeated. It is, however, so site specific that it would tend to lose relevance outside of a venue like Presidio Theatre. But there it could easily flourish annually and provide the relevant communities with a warm and wonderful evening.

Sarah’s Send Off, April 16

26 Apr

Among his other gifts to San Francisco Ballet, Helgi Tomasson shows how to say farewell to its soloists and principal dancers. While some have elected to depart quietly, and others just to go, I think I have witnessed most of them, Muriel Maffre, Joanna Berman, the trio of Joan Boada, Pascal Molat and Gennadi Nedvigin come to mind. Special performances are scheduled and following the final curtain, a parade of fellow dancers emerges, all bearing flowers, ceremoniously strolling out from stage right to curtsy, bow and hug the departing dancer.

So it was for Sarah Van Patten, Saturday April 16, with a press room feeling particularly clubby as well as the ambiance in the audience. What was new, of course, is the orchestra seat configuration with those wonderful pairs of two besides the area intended for the handicapped. Also new was the use of video clips, quite prominent this year. Celebrating Helgi’s 37-year tenure as artistic director; they have included not only some of the artistic staff stalwarts, but choreographers past and present, commenting on working with the company. Here, however, it mainly was dancers extolling Van Patten’s quality as a dancer, friend, moral support and team players along with sections of Sarah herself and a glimpse of her husband. It is a warm expansion, worthy of Van Patten’s two decades of company membership. I wish the same protocol of celebration had been evolved for Joanna Berman’s and Muriel Maffre’s departures.

Sarah chose four works, Balanchine’s Diamonds pas de deux, Gabriele Chanel, the final encounter in Wooden Dimes, Danielle Rowe’s work mounted during the Covid lock down, previously seen only through Zoom, ending in the balcony pas de deux from the Tomasson reading of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. An intermission and short video commentaries provided the space for costume changes, breathing and switching focus.. Ulrich Birkjjaer, Max Cauthorn and Luke Ingham partnered, Birkjjaer first and last, a tribute perhaps to Sarah’s professional beginnings with the Royal Danish Ballet. Birkjjaer remarked his remembering Van Patten’s arrival in Copenhagen while still enrolled in the Royal Danish school.

For the two middle works, Max Cauthorn danced in the Yuri Possokhov Gabriele Chanel, premiered at the Bolshoi in 2019 and danced here for the first time. Sarah, black-wigged, clasped, clung, was roughly handled and ultimately abandoned by one clearly callous male. Cauthorn’s partnering was strong, his characterization apt to convey the desolate posture Van Patten demonstrated at the curtain. Not knowing whether this was merely a pas de deux or an evening’s occupation, it was difficult to know whether Cauthorn encapsulated Chancel’s entire history with men. It certainly did not convey the French occupation years when Chancel consorted with a German officer and retreated to Switzerland close to the liberation of France.

Luke Ingham and Sarah, with the aid of a few props, danced Wooden Dimes‘ final pas de deux where the once-lovers [spouses?] dance a strong farewell with characteristic adeptness. Ingham seems to be fated to portray losers, but he does so remarkably well, and his partnering in losing lacks nothing in support and adroitness. Sarah’s shoulders and torso at the mirror signaled resolve as Ingham came through the door, and after he left, her grasp and donning of the Joseph-like coat was everything one could imagine of the flatness of a love gone sour, a relationship awry. It’s a good ballet and one I hope will receive billing on a company program shortly with an equally dramatic ballerina.

Birkjjaer and Van Patten danced pitch perfect in both Diamonds pas de deux and the R&J balcony encounter. He is a superb actor, keenly attuned to partnering and to Van Patten, both deferential and still quite distinctly the danseur noble, his focus keen yet relaxed,; in the balcony scene his jetes and attitudes ardent, swift and musical.

Of course, the final curtain was raised and the parade of fellow dancers commenced. A bouquet was tossed from the right orchestra aisle, the official bouquet presented, an embrace with Tomasson, and then, each bearing a flower, male or female, streamed on stage. Sarah graciously bowed several times to audience and dancers, arms crossed on her chest. Her husband brought on the two sons, one about four, the other a toddler and Patten instantly became a mother, even trying to have the heirs acknowledge the audience. {Fat Luck!] It helped to bring the warm, dramatic evening to a close.

ODC’s Downtown 50+Second Program, April 10

24 Apr

With Carlos Carvajal, the April 10 matinee of ODC at Yerba Buena Theater was a remarkable testimony to feminine imagination, imagery and accomplishment. Brenda Way, K.T. Nelson and Kimi Okada drove out from Oberlin to establish a dance center in San Francisco and Boy Did They! Off South Van Ness on 17th Street, they commenced with classes cum performances and a theater space they cannily purchased before establishing a school/performance center, called the Commons, around the corner on one of San Francisco’s numerous alleys which combine businesses and domiciles, there offering a full range of classes [except perhaps classic forms from India, Japan and Korea] but also providing lounge space, lockers and physical therapy space for dancers. The ODC inclusiveness provided the naming of one studio honoring Pearl Argyle, one of the early balletic gems in England’s ballet development. It also lent its boardroom and kitchen space for dance-related committee meetings.

I could continue for several paragraphs, even pages, of the inclusive practices of ODC, along to residencies for choreographers, ODC’s original performing space remodeled, which has been the site of many guest appearances from Mark Morris’ early ensemble, Locas Hoving’s “Growing Up in Public,” SF Dance works, and, for a time, monthly Flamenco evenings. The record is one of major achievements and a San Francisco dance jewel.

Way’s astute program contrasting contemporary and classic musical settings and choreography was evident in the two works of ODC’s second program for Dance DownTown 50+ – Amy Seiwert’s No Alibi to the songs of gravel-voiced Leonard Cohen and rigor of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” which Way choreographed in 1999. I also add Brandon “Private: Freeman appeared in both works which lent added dimension. Seiwert scampered and tumbled around Freeman, and he and Rachel Furst danced to Robert Flack’s rendition of “No Way to Say Goodbye,” beautifully matched with Freeman giving Furst unusual lifts. Earlier Mia Cong led the ensemble circling and tumbling to Cohen’s own rendition of “Dance Me to the End of Time.” Cora Cliburn was featured in “Chelsea Hotel”, managing to convey the raffish quality of that storied artists’ enclave before remodeling, while Christian Squires provided a distinctive off-balance portrayal in “Bird on a Wire.” Clearly undergirded with classical chops, Seiwert and the dancers softened the technical extremities into probable daily moves and gestures, so wonder-filled I asked myself whether I was seeing sstraight. Next to me, Claros muttered, ” yes,” , “Oh yes”, every so often.

No Alibi is a work companies should line up to add to their repertoire. It’s a runaway classic.

Brenda Ways 1999 Investigating Grace, created to Glenn Gould’s record of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations was thesecond work. Intricate yet simple, Freeman again dominated the work with his full-fledged maturity. I remember a discussion at an Isadora Duncan Dance Award Committee Meeting where Paul Parish declared, “Investigating Grace is a work where Private Freeman has gone from being a fine dancer to an artist.” Both a challenge and an endurance work, Freeman remains more than up to it, surrounded by ODC’s highly individual dancer.

SFB#6 – Classic, Quirky, Organized Chaos

8 Apr

With Katy Warner, Dance Spectrum alumna and among the initial participants in Alonso King’s Lines Ballet, San Francisco Ballet’s Program Six drew mixed responses, some entirely unrelated to the music or the dancing itself.

Tomasson chose Beethoven for Prism, implying that music could be refracted not only by light, but also by classical dance performed by special ballet dancers. I think he pretty nearly was right for the principal soloists comprised three for the first movement, two for the second and a soloist for the bulk of the third movement, music which also can be enjoyed in Possokhov’s Magrittomania finale. Prism was premiered in 2000 at New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project.

Beethoven challenges the listener in the first movement and Helgi adroitly selected Sasha de Sola to exemplify that dare, supported by Max Cauthorn and Lonnie Weeks. De Sola has the capacity to devour complexity, exuding sunny blondeness. It is her strength, while slowly she explores emotion and its exposition in shades and shadows. Her effective foils were Max Cauthorn and Lonnie Weeks, who banked their special qualities to support the pas de trois. My notes mark the presence of a corps, six in number

The second movement exhibited two of the company’s supreme classicists, Yuan Yuan Tan partnered by Tiit Helimets, her distinctive extensions supported by Helimets’ remarkable empathic partnering. It’s not the first time I’ve wanted to see such a pas de deux captured in sculpture.

The finale presented Julian MacKay with one of the first major solos I’ve seen since he partnered Katisha Fogo in The Nutcracker’s pas de deux. Tidy-sized, MacKay’s traveling jetes were speedy, correct and satisfying to behold. Montana-raised, but Bolshoi Academy-trained, his presence bears kinship with Gennadi Nedvigin, matter-of-fact, but impressive. His credits include several story ballets, so it will be interesting to see how Tamara Rojo will utilize his range.

The second work, Finale Finale, is a new choreographic take by Christopher Wheeldon with multi-pastel-hued body suits and head coverings by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. The music choice was Darius Milhaud’s Le Beouf sur le Toit, music influenced by a sojourn in Brasil as secretary to Paul Claudel during the latter’s position as France’s Ambassador. It is perhaps one of the more widely known of some 450 Milhaud works. As a side note, because of his Sephardic Jewish background, Milhaud refuged to the United States during World War II and taught music at Mills College during World War II. The reviewer met him briefly in 1947, Mills College’s last summer session where Dave Brubeck was one of his graduate students.

The cast for this indescribably zany work included Dores Andre, Joseph Walsh, Isabella de Vivo, Benjamin Freemantle who I remember partnering and accenting the maneuver with hip swivels. There was a moment when Andre was lifted to near parallel position while she drew up her feet in an airborne plie position. I think the word scampering is an apt term for what Esteban Hernandez executed. Wheeldon clearly embraced the nonsensical, and, because of its constant quirks and the skill of these artists delivered a diversion one wants to see again just to try to figure out what it amounted to.

Dwight Rhoden’s premiere The Promised Land, drew on the talents of five composers, Christine Darch’s costume designs, a multi-spot light design at the back of the stage by Michael Korsch, beginning and end and the talents of SFB’s 17 dancers, including Frances Chung, Angelo Greco, Wan Ting Zhao, Benjamin Freemantle, Isabella de Vivo, Joseph Walsh, Sasha de Sola, Wei Wang and Esteban Hernandez

As I recall there were about seven episodes, with Frances Chung struggling magnificently in the beginning, gestures of pushing and shoving, and Hernandez bare to the waist emerging from behind with heightened energy. For once, Angelo Greco wasn’t called upon to display his prodigious technique though he and Chung engaged in a prolonged push-pull type pas de deux.

The episodes each had a name, though I wasn’t certain what The Promised Land exactly was; certainly not the U.S. continent, but perhaps more a state of mind. The dancers gave Rhoden full stop energy, owning the piece in one of those “Save Our Ballet” type attitudes for which our local artists are capable. I would have to see it at least a second time to form a coherent opinion.

My appraisal was not shared by the audience. A good part of the orchestra was standing to register their enthusiasm.