Archive | September, 2011

Smuin Ballet at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, September 15, 2011

29 Sep

Smuin Ballet danced two weekends at the Palace of Fine Arts, in San Francisco, September 15-October 1, 2011with three Smuin works and “Dear Miss Cline,” a premiere by Amy Seiwert, the company’s resident choreographer.  The Smuin Ballets included “Eternal Idol,” which Michael Smuin created in 1969 and interpreted by Cynthia Gregory and Ivan Nagy for American Ballet Theater.  The works for Smuin Ballet were “”Tango Palace” and “Stabat Mater,” the latter Smuin’s response to 9/11,  all danced to taped music.


” Tango Palace,” created for the fall 2003 season, was new to me.  Employing six dancers, Smuin gave great attention to the three-quarters view, or efface, as the women sat in three separated chairs up stage, waiting for the men to appear as they did from mid stage right, in somber tones with hats to be discarded at suitable moments. Shannon Hurlburt and Christian Squires danced an interesting pas de deux following Hurlburt’s rejection by Robin Cornwell, only to receive a second rebuff following their beautifully accented execution.  Cornwall and Jonathan Dummar completed this first section with one of Smuin’s sensual and suggestive pas de deux.


After a black out, Smuin followed this absorbing dance with a bland exposition of the women on pointe, their skirts discarded, partnered by the men.  It was an addition one suspects designed to make the ballet  suitably  covering until intermission. What a pity;  it watered down the initial punch and excitement,. another example where Smuin failed to recognize to quit when ahead.


“Stabat Mater,” set to Anton Dvorak’s music, presented a somber theme in a range of brilliant satin hues, striped with black, as if trying to straddle theatrics with the emotion of loss, remembering and disappearance.  Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and John Speed Orr danced the principal roles, Yarbrough-Stewart  conveying the stark theme with her small body as earnestly as she invariably does. Having seen Smuin’s “Mozart Requiem” in his San Francisco Ballet days,  I recognized a number of movement phrases lifted from parts of that earlier work, copied from Jerry Arpino’s “Trinity.”


“The Eternal Idol” provided Robin Cornwell with an excellent vehicle to display her length and sensual fullness, well supported by Jonathan Dummar; his height and partnering skills allowed Cornwell full expression to Chopin. “Dear Miss Cline,” Seiwert’s contribution, relied on the lyrics of the late Patsy Cline’s hit tunes, country music style. The ballet exhibited an innocence and honesty in its approach to corn-pone fare relying on the body and the movement patterns to convey the emotions.


It is the closest Seiwert has come to emulating her mentor , but with  a crispness where Smuin would have leaned on theatrics. The lyrics were adroitly interpreted by the company, particularly Susan Roemer in “She’s Got You,” where Roemer progressively lost her partner while retaining the vocal souvenirs.  Erin Yarbrough-Stewart swung her attention left and right to Christian Squires and John Speed Orr in “Tra le la le la Triangle” just like Oklahoma’s “Cain’t Say No.”  She again was winsome with Orr in “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down.”  In sum, it was a pleasant closer.

Book Review: Knight, Douglas M, Jr., Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life

28 Sep

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is currently installing Maharaja, a magnificent exhibit which was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It will be the second North American  venue  for the 200 objects to be on view from late October  2011 to early April 2012, then to be seen in Richmond, Virginia following  its closing in San Francisco before returning to London.

From what I have learned of the objects, I  doubt that Tamil culture will be given much representation in the Maharaja Exhibit.  The biography reviewed below, however, should do much to give flesh to the performing arts which both flourished and struggled to survive in the years represented by the V& A objects.

Knight, Douglas  M, Jr., Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life

Middletown CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2010, 325 pp, illustrated, $35.00

Written with meticulous care, Knight, who is Bala’s son-in-law, has related not just Bala’s life, but an effective portrait of the trials of traditional artists in late nineteenth- twentieth century India .  The devastation that moral certitude and Christian mores emanating from the British Raj wrecked on their lives and livelihoods is described through the legislative acts and the influence it visited on certain former devasdasi  family members.  That Bala’s family, immediate and extended, have survived is a testimony to courage, dedication and the power of an artistic expression to sustain its practitioners.

Knight provides a singular service in the early chapters where he reviews the devadasi system, how it worked, its matrilineal descent ,  the reliance on regal and aristocratic patronage, plus the devastation when the artists were prohibited from following traditional patterns of dedication and performance in the temple.  Bala’s family managed to circumvent those restrictions and she was dedicated at an early age and danced in a small temple, apparently with the aid of rupees passing hands with the temple keepers.

The intensity of Bala’s training, commencing at the cradle, was unremitting.  It was partially dislocated when Uday Shankar lured Kandappa to his short lived artistic colony Almora. Knight  reviews the extraordinary talent and influence of her grandmother Vina Dhanammal.  The movement parallel to her training, that of the rise of Kalekshetra, a multi-classical form theatrical institution, is discussed. Started by Rukmuni  Devi Arundale,  her connection with the Theosophical Society and its influence  is also recorded.  Kalekshetra reflects the transition for many dancers of the shift from individual dedication, disciple to guru and the years of servitude connected with training, to instruction by masters hired by an institution and paid a salary for transmitting their knowledge.

Born with a heart murmur, Bala’s health intermittently provided problems and resulting economic difficulties.  In 1949 Beryl de Zoete managed to get Bala to dance for her.  Recorded in de Zoete’s book, The Other Mind, this fostered a tardy if steady path of recognition.  In 1955 she was honored with other  traditional artists by The Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi, India’s equivalent of the National Endowment of the Arts’ performing division;  in 1957 she was awarded The Padma Bushan by India’s president.

A visa permitting Bala to travel abroad had been periodically denied her;  in 1961 Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan staked her government career on Bala’s appearing in Tokyo at the East-West Conference where the likes of Yahudi Menuin and Margot Fonteyn represented the West and Ali Akbar Khan and Bala and her family represented India.  Dr. Vatsyayan used Bala for a lecture demonstration and following her recital, Fonteyn remarked to Dr. Vatsyayan, “And I thought I was a dancer!”

With this breakthrough, Bala was invited to teach at a six-week residency at Wesleyan University, to be followed by selected performances at universities and non-profit organizations.  She also danced for curry concerts at Wesleyan University. I provided information leading to Bala’s San Francisco appearances under the Welland Lathrop Dance Studio, underwritten by Samuel H. and Luise E. Scripps.  Bala’s dancing was an emotional tsunami and forever stamped my evaluations of dance and dancers.

Bala’s effect on her American students was simply huge.  A reticent, if pithy-spoken woman, she created a coterie of passionate disciples of bharata natam.  Prime among them was Luise Scripps. It was totally intriguing  that  Bala, most traditionally feminine, created such a response in American women at the height of Women’s Liberation,  two approaches to life  at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Because of her influence, The American Society for Eastern Arts (ASEA) was incorporated in 1963; during its comparatively brief history ASEA provided American students of non-Western music, dance and theatre forms with intensive summer training under acknowledged masters. ASEA presented Ali Akbar Khan in his first U.S. tour and musical residency and the Kathakali performances by the Kerala Kalamandalum troupe.

Unfortunately, there are just two known films of Bala; one was recorded during Bala’s residency at Wesleyan and the other by Satyajit Ray, filmed on the beach near Madras  and therefore subject to the vagaries of sea breezes.   Some footage is available through Aniruddin Knight, Bala’s grandson , a dancer trained by his mother, Lakshmi Knight, and appearing in special venues in the United States and  India.

Mark Morris’ Dido and Aeneas at Zellerbach, September 18, 2011

22 Sep

If I were permitted just one word to describe the Morris take on Henry Purcell’s opera, I would say “sublime.”

Morris, collaborating with the splendid Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, interpreted the late seventeenth century Baroque opera with an austere stage production, rendering the mythological destiny of two royal creatures in stark but glorious relief.  Robert Bardo has worked on set designs frequently with Morris as James F. Ingalls with lighting; this particular  venture  premiered in 1989 at the Theatre Royal de La Monnaie, Theatre Varia, Brussels, Belgium.

Morris has yielded the dual role of Dido/Sorceress to  Amber Star Merkens, proportioned like a winning track star. Guillermo Bravo has been replaced by Domingo Estrada, Jr.; he appears to have an ongoing relationship with weight-lifting.  Morris has moved to the orchestra pit where he surveyed musicians and dancers with a steady grasp on the conductor’s baton.

Christine Van Loon garbed the company in modest black, the design adapting itself from skirt to trouser when warranted. It accented the frequent use of profile movement, torso at three-quarters, head in profile  reinforcing the antique quality, further emphasized by the straightly held hands, thumbs out, whether at hip length or at the waist. As the women moved, one thought  Tanagra and the men from scenes on Attic amphorae.  Even when moving face forward such reticence was dominant. One felt transported to the shores of the Mediterranean some three thousand years ago as Merkens’ Dido debated lovemaking with Aeneas.

Having seen Morris in 2000 as Dido, there was the fascinating task of measuring choreography to interpreter; Merkens filled the postures with ease and authority though the dimensions of the gestures still bore the phantom size of Morris. In arm movements like semaphores held shoulder high and then flipped down, the square dimensions unerring in their evocation of antiquity, the ghost of Morris flitted briefly before being vanquished by Merkens’ athletic sureness and ease.

With her jaunty assignment as one of Aeneas’ sailors, Lauren Grant danced hints of the horn pipe and Irish clogging with a swagger in her torso, an inflection of the shoulders, a glint of eye as her feet illuminated the passage.

Maile Okamura as Dido’s sister Belinda danced impressively, her size providing a songbird quality of  hope and happiness, in a fated setting. After the chorus had melted one by one, behind the central curtain back of low railing where most of the action was set, Belinda alone remained. Her final movement, coming to droop sorrowfully over the prone Dido down stage left, remains etched in my mind’.

When the curtain closed, the satisfaction was so complete I couldn’t move, didn’t want to nor speak;  the audience response around me exploded, none
more vociferously than acknowledging Morris, arms outspread, at the conductor’s podium.

Evangel King at The Garage, September 14, 2011

19 Sep

With Rita Felciano of the S.F. Bay Guardian, Evangel King’s ”Bare Bones Crow” lured me to  The Garage, 975 Howard Street, San Francisco September 14. Her remarkable solo was supported by Brenda Hutchinson’s inventive sound and the harvest-like ancestral trio created by Gillian Garro.

The Garage announces itself with  a red door in an area still seedy and awaiting several subsidized housing projects.  During the daytime, the living space above it proclaims the building is post Earthquake vintage, painted a cheerful white with blue trim.  From the Website there is reference to a third summer festival in 2008. Little else tells the curious its head honcho, Joe Landini, has operated this venue  at least five years, providing space for an incredible spectrum of theater arts.  Two slogans accentuate this: RAW for Resident Artist Workshop  and SAFE for Saving Art From Extinction.

Evangel King’s body was draped in black lace-like formations, emulating the layers of crow feathers, serving her movements well.  The stage was punctuated with three totemic constructions with large end-of-growing season, time-to-harvest approximations of corn stalks, two sticks peeping out near the floor to convey  ancestral connection. The sounds were equally evocative of harvest, scavenging,  nature at its loneliest.  King’s movements emulated the pecking, stroking and exploratory movements of a bird, facially and with her arms, torso and sustained balances on one leg.  She allowed her face to distort, the tongue to loll out of  her open mouth, reinforcing the bird image.

The lighting in the Garage prevented me from reading the program prior to its non-stop exposition.  Not knowing it was a connection to the deep feminine which became apparent in masturbating gestures, I felt King delved into an anthropological study of the Ohlone Indians and their multiple triblets, long ago native to the San Francisco Bay Area,.  Whether  individual evocation or tribute to tribal custom to mimic surrounding creature life in a life style long vanished, King’s solo and her collaborators presented a fascinating portrait. Thanks to Joe Landini’s generosity for space given a work otherwise unlikely to enjoy a venue.

West Wave Dance 2011 – ODC Theater, September 12, 2011

17 Sep

To an SRO in ODC’s new Theater the September 12 offering of West Wave Dance’s twentieth season possessed eight duets, two coming from San Diego, somebodied dance theater and Jean Isaacs, with Los Angeles represented by Rande Dorn;  Amy Seiwert and Nikki and Ethan White upheld the expressive side of classical ballet.  Dana Lawton and Mary Carbonara presented the case for modern dance while Pearl Marill reminded us that dialogue with dance can be genuinely funny.  The eight pieces made for an absorbing evening.


Dana Lawton’s piece, an excerpt from “Inside,”  featured Jennifer Smith and Michael Armstrong, .  Smith, long of line and gifted with a profile like a Roman cameo, was a contrast to Armstrong, tidy, muscular form, so that the meeting and antagonisms appeared as rooted in the impulses each body produced as the rocky emotions of male-female relationships. There were movements of delicate hand gestures, sweeping the hand across the face in disgust, stroking the arms in narcissistic reinforcement, as well as lifts, ballroom-dance phrases and body stances.


Randy Dorn titled her piece “While the Babies are Sleeping”, setting the choreography first to a music-box tiny tune, making the garments and objects possessed by Monica Pack and Maggie Jones disconcerting.  Both dancers were tall, skilled and covered stage space easily.


Dorn’s choreography veered between stark moments of eye contact, sweeping leg movements of  protest, and in rare moments actions which belonged in spoken theater unsuited and stilted as dance  development.  A chair upstage left was utilized only towards the end as an object useful for dumping the detritus-like clothing miscellany and a brief seating by one of the dancers.


Whether these were two women with babies, raging about their married life was not apparent;  one seemed to be seeking and demanding connection, emotional response, the other avoiding it. The exposition required a goodly number of grand ronde de jambes, darting diagonals and rushes around the stage to music apparently impossible to edit.


From this frustration, the program continued with an excerpt from “Trust to Fall” a 2011 work by Amy Seiwert, employing the talents of Andrea Basile, a former ODC dancer, and Brendan Barthel, whose wide performing experience includes martial and healing arts components. The pair rose and fell to Bjork’s rendition of “Unravel”, Basile supported in lifts with her legs in a grand second position plie, feet firmly in said position in the air.  This lift occurred both in front and on Barthel’s back, also to the side, the emotion registering like curled toes in a baby’s utter satisfaction.  The dancers and piece elicited a similar sensation from the audience.


Just before intermission Gina Bolles and Kyle Sorensen, the San Diego couple dancing as somebodied dance theater, performed “Field,”  registering to me as Parvati trying to make contact with Shiva in a self- absorbed mood.  Downstage left Gina Bolles moved arms, swung  legs, pivoted and turned in her off green shirt and capri- length trousers. Kyle moved  like the early stages of Nijinsky’s  Faun, arms semi-folded over the chest, hands drooping, listening and aware, gazing largely inward.


Gina Bolles executed wide swooping movements across, up and around Kyle, circling, trying to attract his attention.  Kyle made some delicate finger gestures, like feelers into an environment needing testing, minuscule in contrast to the sweep of Gina Bolles dancing.


Some body contact occurred, yes; a tad of physical support, but ending inconclusively; Intermission provided definite relief.

Nikki and Ethan White used a body-encasing ball with their pas de deux, initially housing Ethan White; Nikki pushed, shoved and pricked so  Ethan could be ejected.  They garnered chuckles and admiration for their  lifts, and intricate feats of balance,  partnering to a mix of Mozart, Arvo Part, Bjork and Gavin Bryars.


What a pity Jean Isaacs and her dancers Blythe Barton and Trystan Loucado are not based in San Francisco! The excerpt from “When Strangers Meet” to Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble formed  a wonderfully subtle, evocative, skillful pas de deux.  Barton, blonde and willowy, and Loucado, sinewy and lithe, partnered each other like second skins. Loucado’s background, including Cirque de Soleil, brought a special tension which that theatrical and acrobatic enterprise demands of its performers.


“Missed Connections,” with Meatloaf as music presented Pearl Marill and Cason McBride with the right mixture of sound for Marill’s dialogue;  her choreography was liberally laced with comic acuity.  She, a tiny, packed energy was a wild mop of curly hair; he was tallish, lean, wide, blue-eyed,  just “au shucks” dude.


Did they meet first on the street or through Craig’s List?   Anyhow, they passed on Valencia, looking good, attracted, but wary.  Aided by Marill’s dialogue, a theatrical expertise with Traveling Jewish Theatre credits, laughter and guffaws almost sunk the music.  She circled,  he nearly  static.  Finally, collison, sparked and entwined them in awkward, intricate embrace.  The coupling subsided; they stood, subdued, stared, and ran in opposite directions.  Marill may some day be set next to Jerome Robbins as comic choreographer.


The evening concluded with Kerry Demme and Laura Sharp, in identical red dresses  passable as street wear, dancing to the music of John Adams and Philip Glass in Mary Carbonara’s  “The Morphology of Rain.”

The beautifully muscled women, tidy bodied, moving in extensions, contractions, pivots, swinging arcs, dancing solo sequentially, sharing the stage briefly, were a joy.  Morphology’s relation to rain was uncertain, but their weighted fluidity and ability to move to specialized music made a gratifying finale.

Parallel #20

5 Sep

Parallel is a Hungarian annual journal on contemporary dance. It came to my attention through the network which has established itself  via the Dance Critics Association, and in particular through G.E. Dunn, Sandy Kurtz and Leland Windreich.

What makes issue #20 so important is that it features photos of the Nijinsky-Markus connection, and with it, photographs not only of Emilia Markus as a beautiful and formidable theatrical personage, but also as the grandmother of Vaslav Nijinsky’s two daughters by Markus’ daughter Romola.  There are photographs of Tamara Nijinsky as a young girl, a teenager and a young actress, as well as a recent one with her daughter Gingka Gaspers.

It is well worth looking for, even if you can’t read Hungarian.

Yuri Zhukov’s Product 4, ZSpace, San Francisco, September 1

4 Sep

Z Space was the vessel of Yuri Zhukov’s Project 4  debuting September 1               for a three-performance run utilizing seven dancers; five men, two women,          some peopling the Zhukov annual productions before.   Prodigiously talented,     Zhukov’s offerings included not only the choreography for the single piece, Dreams Recycled, but also costume design with Tilly Amundson, part of the video work, and five handsome photographs on sale in the lobby afterwards via silent auction. Zhukov’s inventions were seconded by videographer Austin Forbord and Lighting Designer Matthew Antaky.

Project 4 featured third year returnees Christopher Bordenave and Sergio Junior Benvindo de Sousa; second year veterans Kaja Bjorner, Allie Papazian and Darren Devaney.  New to the Zhukov Project series this year were Douglas Scott Baum and Martyn Garside.

Zhukov’s choreography has a generous concept ruling it: making his dancers look good and displaying  their amazing techniques.  What’s not for a dancer to like?  On the flat performing space, the dancers performed in sock like foot coverings, enabling them to execute dazzling turns a la seconde emerging from a pivot, frequently with a contracted torso with arms twined around the head, twisted against each other, clasped behind the back.

In dream-like terms, the men were trussed up, manacled, abused, shot, dying. Yet, for all the extremist positions, no one position was maintained too long; it was as if Zhukov’s classical training at the Vaganova Institute did not allow him to dwell on gore or the grotesque over long; it’s neither good manners nor certainly is not classical.  Therefore, what was seen were sketches, occasional use of males in quartet motion, and the sequences with the spoken word, nothing cohering, more of a troubled mind than a semblance of coherence or narrative.

For program notes, a narrative would appear on the left, followed by one on the  right, six of them, before the unwritten denouement, printed against images of two male performers, some shades of grey almost too dark to read with ease. The spoken narratives were delivered low key, almost thrown away – Katja Bjorner’s was about Seeking, being propelled forward, then an encounter with a man, not clearly perceived, but felt in the body,  a perfect description of the Jungian shadow concept.

Chris Bordenave’s Remembering imagery was a visit to his mother’s room only to discover her face was covered with all seeing eyes, a fascinating cross between the Goddess Tara image and sexual prohibition.

Martyn Garside’s passage held elements of madness in its description of Killing with a cheese-wire, very narrow, very sharp with the fascination of the resulting long, thin red line.

Dream number four was de Souza’s Running, using an extended video of his running along nameless concrete buildings, before Baum’s Petit Prince-like recitation regarding Skiing.

Devaney’s Hallucinating incorporated images of jelly fish projected floating across the large screen.

Somewhere  Garside unrolled a swath of white paper across stage front, scribbling as it unfurled, outlining his body, doodling madly before abruptly tearing it into bits.

Allie Papazian was not given a particular solo, emerging in a short black dress; with its swinging skirt, she moved laterally from stage left to  right with slow, exaggerated developpes  thrusting her hips forward with torso and shoulders almost parallel to the floor.

In a nod perhaps to his native landscape, Zhukov included a woodland scene with Bjorner framed and moving through it, repeating the image of her earlier narrative. There was an encounter with Papazian ending in a kiss; a sudden blackout, again never exploring such an intimacy. Near this  all seven dancers appeared briefly together.

This is Zhukov’s first work to depart from some semblance of narrative; the  rehearsal period  may have left appropriate developments unrealized.  Zhukov repeated visual elements seen before in a new context.  Despite the superb performances given by the dancers, Dreams Recycled needed another two or three go arounds.

Even unfinished, however, Zhukov’s ideas and imagery are something to

Stepology’s Bay Area Rhythm Exchange, Herbst Theatre, August 19

4 Sep

Stepology’s August Bay Area tap festival drew fans of various ages, shapes and ethnicities to Herbst Theatre in the Civic Center Veterans Building August 19 for the Eighth Bay Area Rhymn Exchange.  Naturally, the performance roster included the regulars  Channing Cook Holmes, John Kloss and once again Sam Weber, following his performing hiatus due to a hip replacement. To this tight little trio was added  Mark  Mendonca and Jason Rogers, plus Maya Kronfeld, a miraculous piano/keyboard artist, and bassist Lamont Keller. Besides these individual artists  San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Cloggers were featured for the second year, this year sporting an unidentified feminine performer. Missing was Melinda Sullivan who received a last minute call for a TV Taping.

The format didn’t change too much, but entertaining variations and the would- be clowning,  probably carefully outlined, if not actually rehearsed, helped to disguise the hole Sullivan’s absence created.  Pity that the TV producers didn’t
include the Exchange in their taping plans. It’s among the best of late summer diversions, bravura all the way.

There were the initial introductions with Kloss as the first soloist, followed by
Jason Rodgers with his engaging demeanor evoking old time tap entertainer style.  Sam Weber’s welcome reappearance demonstrated little diminution of his grace and elegance despite a slightly visible stiffness; artistry, however, remains unimpaired.

Mark Mendonca and Channing Cook Holmes gave us post intermission bravura,
charm and touches of clowning.  The Barbara Coast Cloggers provided the dancers with some fine pointers for clogging and with white protection suits over their garments beat out rhythms with sticks to open the second half of the program. Maya Kronfeld joined the lineup, giving them the benefit of her amazing rhythmic skills; a pity she can’t play the keyboards and dance at the same time.

At the end the tap devotees put on their shoes, joined the performers and a number of them executed brief riffs of their own, everyone finishing off with the shim-sham.