Archive | January, 2014

Laguna Honda, God’s Hotel in the U.S.A.

27 Jan

Sweet, Victoria, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage
to the Heart of Medicine.

Riverhead Books, The Penguin Group, New York, 2912, 416 pp., pbk, $16.00
ISBN 078-1-59448-654-8

Probably unfortunately, I don’t buy many hard cover books. This past year or so I’ve wandered into Browser Books, next to Peet’s at the corner of Sacramento and Fillmore. An independent bookstore , it wraps you in its ambiance for all the hard cover best sellers greeting you on a small stand at hip level as you enter. The website sports a charming watercolor of the Browser store front, informing the reader it has been in business since 1976. The water color, however, places the door in the middle of the footage; perhaps it was changed, because now the entrance is on the extreme right.

I usually head towards the book tables and low shelves, left beyond the recent best-selling paper backs where a title will catch my fancy; a purchase ultimately follows. I particularly want to mention my recent discovery and enthusiasm. It is marvelous and, God Bless It, the story is local, about Laguna Honda. I send it to friends as much as my pocketbook permits.

Laguna Honda is about half way across town from Fillmore and Sacramento, familiar to anyone taking the L, M, or K, Metro Muni street cars or buses, 43, 48 and 39. They all converge at Forest Hill Station; across from the station, Laguna Honda Hospital looms towards the crest of hills separating the bay side of San Francisco from the principally residential part which the tunnel and its street cars largely made possible. Laguna Honda is constructed on one of those hills rising behind the University of California, San Francisco, shrouded by Sutro Forest, cleaved by Clarendon Avenue and flanked to the north by one of the City’s reservoirs.

At various times during my workaday life, Laguna Honda was the butt of comments, whether the comment concerned insolvency, imbecility, or various states in between. I was aware of it soon after going to work for U.C.S.F. or traveling surface past it. Its physical changes also registered tangentially as they were partially recorded in the Chronicle or Examiner; the arguments, the stalemates, the construction. Until I read God’s Hotel, however, what the institution means to San Francisco and what it represents humanly never really penetrated my mental abstractions.

Laguna Honda is the last standing public almshouse in the United States; that it remains a public hospital, like the historic, now vanished Hotel Dieu in Paris, is startling. That Dr. Victoria Sweet chose to remain there, interspersed with her academic and physical adventures, is to credit it with a mysterious alchemy all too neglected in our juvenile 21st century.

Dr. Sweet arranged to work part-time while she studied the life of Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth century num, a mystic, a composer and a healer who as a member of the Benedictine Order, founded her own convent. Interested in knowing the difference between pre-modern and modern medicine, Hildegard became the subject of both her masters and doctoral theses. With the aid of the remarkable records she left behind, Dr. Sweet was open to learning about medicine with the patients in her charge. Along with wonderful characterizations of staff members, Dr. Sweet walks us through the halls, takes us to the bedside of various patients, explaining what she learned from those under her care.

Dr. Sweet, in three stages, undertook the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela following completion of her dissertation and at a time when Laguna Honda’s future was being debated by those in charge of San Francisco’s Public Health Department, the Board of Supervisors, and some persuasive former staff members of the hospital. Accomplishing it in three annual stages, Dr. Sweet also visited Land’s End in Spain, mindful of its significance for pre-Columbian Europe.

Everywhere, Dr. Sweet is mindful, and absolutely delicious discussing changes by committees, investigative teams, modern-trained nurse administrators, making you chuckle before throwing up your hands at the funds wasted in the name of efficiency and modernity.

For certain souls, God’s Hotel is a page turner. I recommend it highly. Thank you, Dr. Sweet.

San Francisco Ballet’s 81st Gala, January 22

26 Jan

Early dinner at Indigo with John Gebertz, Dennis Nahat and Nahat’s cousin Rose preceded a most memorable San Francisco Ballet Gala. It seemed less hyped, more down to the business of dancing. Still,John Osterweis, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, covered the usual list of sponsors and underwriters plus how many years there were repeats of support for the annual Gala. From four to thirteen years of repeat sponsorsship, it was impressive,plus the announcement the event had garnered SFB 2.4 million dollars.

After the dress parade and the seat scramble as the orchestra tuned up for the Star Spangled Banner, the curtain opened to the pas de cinq from Giselle’s Act I, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson. Lauren Parrott substituted for Clara Blanco; Sasha de Sola and Julia Rowe shared the partnering with Daniel Deivison-Oliviera and Hansuke Yamamoto. De Sola’s opening pirouette a la seconde was expansive, held in arabesque just long enough to gladden the eye. I was struck how evenly paired Parrott and Rowe appeared,how distinctive Deivison and Yamamoto were; the former’s muscular punch incisive emphasis, Yamamoto’s presence conveying flowing evenness. It was a sunny commencement, whetting the appetite.

Alberto Iglesias’ music provided Yuri Possokhov with a wonderful vehicle for Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz under the title of Talk to Her, hable con elle. From the costume looks, Luiz in open black shirt and Lorena’s cascading hair and filmy garment implying either boudoir or bed, the couple conversed with intricate lifts, an occasional drop to the floor, each accenting their movement with a heel click or foot stamp at least once, the intricacy mounting as a voice (singer’s name forgotten) erupted into a short series of melismatic sounds preceding flamenco song. There was a lifted embrace and finis. The audience responded enthusiastically; the evening’s ambiance began to build.

Frances Chung made her debut in the role made memorable by Evelyn Cisneros in Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena. As petite and tidy as Cisneros was sturdy and sensual, it was a definite challenge. Chung responded with small, cheeky and delicious, torso undulation and hip wiggle to size, not giggly but clearly enjoyable, a gently infectious joy of music and movement.

The second pas de deux, from Balanchine’s Who Cares featured Simone Messmer and Ruben Martin Cintas. The “Some Day He’ll Come Along” melody floated in front of a New York City backdrop; the rendition was competent, but emotionally neutral. I wonder if Mr. B had choreographed it with like feeling, a filler nod to popularity, even though he had spent nearly a decade stageing dances for Broadway musicals.

Hans Van Manen’s Variations for Two Couples&lt excerpt used four composers, principals Sofiane Sylve and Sarah Van Patten, partnered by Luke Ingham and Anthony Spaulding, a work premiered not quite two years ago in Amsterdam, intensified the evening’s substance.

I want to see it again; stylishly gratifying is my overall take. Two couples together, then each couple with a passage, some in and outs,the quartet together for the finale, fronting a deep blue scrim, a low-drawn concave line of white near the stage floor. The pace shifted from legato to quirky, evidenced by shaking heads. Intriguing was Anthony Spaulding’s response to the music, an easy-moving neck and responsive torso muscles. Then Sofiane Sylve’s majestic port de bras carried through to her sternum – or should it be the other way around? Sarah Van Patten was correct, classic in line, a pool of concentration. My first real exposure to Mark Ingham showed a compactly built dancer capable of energic bursts, a supportive partner, shy of legato line.

Diana and Acteon, the Agrippina Vaganova pas de deux, sandwiched into a full -length ballet, enlivening the Cesare Pugni score I’ve see at competitions enough to know how difficult it is, and how admirably Vanessa Zahorian carried on after slipping in the entry. She carried on apparently unruffled, only to learn her injury necessitates several weeks of rest. Otherwise hops into arabesques, pirouettes and tours were lyric, musically phrased, a typical Zahorian rendition.

Taras Domitro was paired as Acteon, in a phony leopard skin with an initial saute nothing short of phenomenal. One of the Domitro signatures are strong high thrusts finishing in a slightly curved hand that’s a hand, not five fingers. His menages were swift, complicated, clear. Chabukiani would have applauded just as hard as the audience, a rousing finish to the Gala’s first half.

After intermission, guest artist Johan Kobborg lent San Francisco his dramatic chops, partnering Maria Kochetkova in the Manon’s Act I Bedroom Scene, one of the most lyric choreographies Sir Kenneth MacMillan ever devised. A bed upstage right, a desk and chair downstage left, yin and yang positions to meet stage center with low supported turns, the occasional soaring lift and the final ecstatic floor embrace, a simply exquisite portrait of flowering passion.

From high emotions to equally high jinks, Les Lutins or The Imps, Kobborg’s 2009 trio created for the Royal Ballet was reprised by Gennadi Nedvigin, Esteban Hernandez and Dores Andre as Roy Bogas at the piano and violinist Kurt Nikkaren played, Nikkaren announcing the numbers. Beginning with Nedvigin, It was an “I dare you” allegro exposition with Nedvigin giving sporadic gestures to Nikkaren. Hernandez entered, the maneuvers veered dancer to dancer, with the occasional nod to the violinist, until Dores Andre appeared, black tights, suspenders over white shirt. You guessed it, the expected rivalry is danced out. more allegro, more body language. Enlivening the usual cliche, Kobborg created 95 per cent delight.

Numbers nine, ten,eleven displayed pas de deux, classic glacial, classic bravura, classic elegiac: Sarah Van Patten with Tiit Helimets, Mathilde Froustey and Davit Karapetyan; Yuan Yuan Tan partnered by Damian Smith for number eleven

Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography to Dmitri Shostakovich’s music, provided another glimpse of Van Patten’s cool absorption, displayed by Tiit Helimets; the image of traditional classical dancers. Six corps members accented the movement; Isabella DeVivo, Koto Ishihara, Elizabeth Power with Diego Cruz, Francisco Mungamba and Myles Thatcher. Perhaps seeing the entire work would satisfy me; this glimpse was vaguely dissatisfying.

Grand Pas Classique, music by Francois Auber, staged by Patrick Armand, is a 20th century bravura pas de deux staple at international ballet competitions. Mathilde Froustey and Davit Karapetyan, made it easy to see why. Incredible strength and balance from the woman, flash from the man, Froustey was required to balance several times at the beginning, sustained releves with developpes an avant. Karapetyan’s partnering was the usual exemplary; his variation seemed hampered by excessive costume details. Victor Gsovsky created a fascinating challenge.

Edward Liang’s pas de deux “Finding Light” to Antonio Vivaldi’s Andante from his Violin Concerto in B flat was a peculiar title for Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith’s admirable dancing, unless one believes one comes to recognition with another in twilight. There were the usual lovely lines, considerate partnering, Tan’s long line in developpes, arabesques, and the almost geometric qualities when lifted in some variation of an attitude. Most touching was Tan’s spontaneous embrace of Smith during the bow his kissing of her hand, a signal of Smith’s impending retirement later this spring.

From this exquisite emotion, the finale was the second Balanchine of the evening, the 4th movement from Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, featuring Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham again, with members of the company decked in white with gold and red accents, an effect fluffy, decorative, regrettable. Ingham wasn’t comfortable in his assignment; Sylve managed to make a balloon-like skirt an accessory to her spirited attack. If the work is mounted again for the full company, I hope it rates different costuming. It’s my least favorite work created by this son of the Georgian Caucasus, a work dished up for the 1966 season, forty-eight years ago.

The audience provided the dancers with enormous, deserved applause, shouts and a standing ovation at the end, topping costume parade, decibel levels before the Gala and at Intermission, making one feel there’s nothing better than participating in a finely-conceived Gala. I don’t remember seeing a Tomasson-selected Gala failing to enchant; this year’s seemed the best yet.

John Dobson, 98

22 Jan

Most nights after 9 p.m. I consult the New York Times on the Web, paying a small monthly fee for the privilege. Certain columns always intrigue me; dance, of course and the arts in general, but there’s Home and Garden and Real Estate, Books and World. And of course, the Obituary column informs me of the great, the celebrated, the scientist, the politician and noted odd balls.

This New York Times habit dates from childhood. Thursdays the mail man’s car stopped at the mail box; into the flat bottom with curved cover he shoved the Sunday edition of the “Norick” Times, so labeled by my mother. In the years before World War II, the wonderful Rotogravure section with images from near and far intrigued me. I gradually became aware of the Theater section, looking forward to the Herschfeld cartoon.

Tonight I scrolled down to the Obituaries. The top of the column held an entry for John Dobson, 98, streetside astronomer with self-made telescopes. A San Francisco dweller, he set up his telescope one summer twilight at the corner of Broderick and McAllister as I was coming home from work. Several individuals were clustered around him. I didn’t pause long enough to take my turn, but I remember his telescope was aimed southeast at the southwest corner of the intersection. I simply was intrigued by the phenomenon of the man sharing his passion to any passerby curious enough to stop and gaze through the lens. I have no memory of the astronomical event he was facilitating for the curious.

Over the years, John Dobson traveled on buses at the same time I was riding to work, his son Lauren in tow, lunch transmitted to him as they left the bus. His matter-of-fact fatherhood was both plain to me and warming emotionally. “How lucky that child is,” I invariably thought. Within the last ten years, I was on the same bus with him, and said to him, “I remember seeing you take your son to school. How is he?” “Off playing in some punk band in Southern California,” I remember him saying.

It wasn’t clear whether he was disappointed or philosophical. Reading the obituary, no entry found on S.F. Gate, made me realize just how unusual John Dobson was. I found a clear visual memory of him, his slight concave posture, keen eyes and ear-length head of white hair. I recommend the New York Times obituary to you. Thank you, NYT, for triggering the tribute of such a
memory.

Another Jacques D’Amboise Appearance

21 Jan

Channel 32.5 screened another of the 1955 glimpses of a young Jacques D’Amboise. Again the hue was sepia, images fuzzy, foreshortened with camera’s limited capacities Again, the footage credits were Canadian.

It was thrilling because it was Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun to that evocative music by Claude Debussy with the girl/woman being Tanaquil Le Clerq. The camera made her legs look heavy, so that her spiky thin quality was almost totally lost. But not her dancing and the thrill of having a record of one of her signature roles, created by Robbins with Le Clerq in mind.

1955 was achingly close to Le Clerq’s falling prey to polio in Copenhagen, making
the footage poignant, the record precious.

Shadowlight Productions Stars with Poro Onya:The Myth of the Aynu

21 Jan

ShadowLight Productions presented the last six performances of the hour-long Poro Oyna: The Myth of the Aynu, at at Fort Mason’s Southside Theater, Building D, January 16-19,2014. Developed and performed over a three-year period in Hokkaido, a Dartmouth College appearance preceded San Francisco, the only two venues in the United States. Who gutted the Asia Society’s Performing Arts Program?

Larry Reed, guiding light, director and puppet master behind ShadowLight Productions, has produced a formidable series of productions mingling the wayang kulit tradition of Bali with other Asian and native American artists and material. In Xanadu, concerning Kublai Khan and his wife Chabui,was one; another was The Good-for-Nothing Lover, Chinese tale in which Wan Chao Chang appeared. Reed has presented at least ten productions, models of cross-cultural collaboration of story, collaborators, music and decor.

Poro Oyna is most unusual, concerning the Aynu myth of creation. There seem to be cultural similarities to the Pacific Northwest Indian traditions in the rounded square patterns, handsome as all get out. With the movement style of Balinese puppets moving in profile, how Aynu Rakkur rescues the Sun Goddess from the Evil Monster unfolded in a fascinating mixture of Balinese style, Japanese and English narration, profile faces heavily outlined in black. The Evil Monster was huge, with more than one eye and hand-claws like a crab or lobster. He battled Aynu Rakkur, snub-nosed, a pint-sized hero by comparison, affording the puppeteer full opportunity to swish the puppets across the screen, up, down, around, somehow gleeful, while still being distinctly scary. Of course Aynu Rakkur triumphs in the end, but not before those huge swishes forward and back found their way across the illuminated screen. For suspense and adrenalin rushes, swash buckling is never out of style.

Reed’s colleagues included Koyano Tetsuro, a traditional Balinese mask dancer, preserving and promoting Indonesia’s traditional arts. He has studied both at Japan’s Tokai University and at Indonesia’s National University of Arts.

Kawamura Kohesai is another exponent of Balinese traditional arts of music and shadow puppetry.

From Japan, the collaborators included the Marewrew, a female singing group reviving, preserving and promoting traditional Ainu musical forms. Appearing before the performance in traditional costume, the indigo cloth of their full length garments marked with white curving yet geometrical shapes They
almost sculptural. Traditional tattoos on around the mouth adorned one of the ensemble.

Further collaborators included Watanabe Takashi and Uehara Aki, both credited with international artistic projects.

Caryl Kientz was the production’s tour manager, Gregor T. Kuhn and Robert Collins shared sound design and operation credits. Urotsutenoyako Bayagan produced Poro Oyna in Japan. The Japanese producers share the shadow theater tradition with museums, schools and local cultural halls in rural Japan, using the medium to mount local stories.

Larry Reed’s takes ShadowLight Productions on unique, exciting theatrical adventures with captivating results, energizing doers and viewers.

Culture on the Web: Classical Arts Station

18 Jan

Channel 32.5 provides San Franciscans with 24/7 doses of culture: opera, symphony, drama, the occasional interview, and dance. Marc Platt, the venerable centenarian, first told me about it but it took me a while before I could say, “Me, too.” My exposure is sporadic – usually it’s The PBS Newshour, the BBC, NHK and occasionally the German-based news broadcaster – most saying the same things, but in varying order of importance and amount of coverage.

But 32.5 in the Bay Area can be a real treat – I recently saw Manuel Legris whirling through some palace in Vienna; every time he moved to a palatial hall with a differing dominant color, the patterns on his tights were color-coded to match.Dancing down the staircase to his final pose, the tights matched the opening footage. For the perfectionist part of one’s taste, it could not have been bested.

Last night, however, I turned it on after the witching hour and was treated to the dancing image of a very young Jacques d’Amboise, Janet Reed and Todd Bolender in a sequence from Lew Christensen’s Filling Station, that beloved precedent-setting ballet piece and the initial tour of Ballet Caravan, libretto by Lincoln Kirstein, music by Virgil Thompson, the first all American piece by an American ballet ensemble, premiered in Hartford, Connecticut, November 1937.

The visual tone was a varied shade of sepia with the setting rendered far more minimal than the traditional one, telephone poles trailing off into the distance, the lone gas pump. Otherwise the costumes were the same, the choreography adapted to the needs of television, some skillfully. D’Amboise was Mac, the filling station attendant, young, cheerful, wings on his heels metaphorically speaking, his sautes and pirouettes dazzling, a worthy exponent in the role. Janet Reed was the drunk socialite and Todd Bolender her equally smashed escort.

Pint-sized, Reed had worked with Lew Christensen during the painful period as he waited the call to military service during World War II. She was the original tight-rope walker in Christensen’s Jinx. After a period with Ballet Theatre, she moved over to New York City Ballet where she was filmed in the socialite role originally danced by Gisela Caccialanza. The closeups showed Reed raucously comic, Bolender, off center, but still standing. The pas de deux, then the pas de cinq where the socialite is tossed or hoisted by all four men, after the two mechanics show up, hints broadly how boundlessly innocent pre-World War II behavior could be, an insular innocence which competed with Helen Hokinson’s fading middle-aged luncheon goers for gentle humor.

The bandit also appeared and a tad of the search scene, much too truncated, minus the excitement of the darkness happening in a stage production with the socialite’s cortege too close for the best visual effect, her last gesture much too broad. I could spin a visual litany of the dancers I’ve seen in the role, particularly at San Francisco Ballet- Jocelyn Vollmar, Paula Tracy, Anita Paciotti.
It’s a stellar role.

Still I was delighted to see one of Lew’s signature ballets available to today’s viewers, a vignette of a bygone era. The Philippines still has its gas station attendants. It’s a pity there is no angel to supply the funds to see it stages by Ballet Philippines, with son Chris Christensen conducting the orchestra. What a treat that might be.

A New Principal Dancer for Ballet San Jose

11 Jan

Scott Horton announced this week Ballet San Jose will have a new principal dancer selected by artistic director Jose Manuel Carreno and Associate Artistic Director Raymond Rodriguez. Starting Monday January 13 Nathan Chaney will assume principal dancer duties in preparation for the company’s February 14-16 performances of works by George Balanchine, Jorma Elo and Ohad Naharin.

Chaney is an American dancer who started his training in Virginia, then Pompano Beach, Florida before attending the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. and spending time at the Vaganova Academy in
St. Petersburg, Russia. He worked with Peter Stark at Orlando Ballet, Orlando, Florida prior to joining the Zurich Ballet in Switzerland for four seasons.