Archive | November, 2017

IREK – The Tartar

29 Nov

Taylor, Jeffery, Irek Mukhamedov: The Authorized Biography
London, Fourth Estate, Limited, 1994, 257pp., illus.
ISBN: 1-85702-074-X

This biography, provided me by Dan Henry for a recent birthday, is a refreshing account of the spectacular success of a minority-born artist. Asiatic and Muslim, Mukhamedov ascended the pinnacle of classical ballet through will and prolonged, intensive hard work. Thanks to Sir Anthony Dowell, who discerned his unexplored capacities, Mukhamedov was able to dance the range of the classical repertoire, after Yuri Grigorovitch confined him to the intense dramatic roles which Mukhamedov’s physique tended to peg him in Russian assessments.

Mukhamedov is well served by his biographer, a former professional dancer who trained in the Royal Ballet schools. Clearly knowledgeable, not only of the laborious training required of a ballet aspirant, Taylor knows something of school friendships, hazing routines, the backstage undercurrents awaiting a graduate. He also has an empathic comprehension of just how distant and distinct his subject’s physical, mental and emotional journey was. Since the biography was written in 1994, it does not include Mukhamedov’s abrupt dismissal the same season as Dowell’s final year as artistic director of The Royal Ballet, 2001; certainly Ross Stretton did not see fit to retain him – a loss one has to ascribe to the desire to provide greater opportunity to native dancers. Whatever the rationale might have been, it doesn’t excuse the shabby treatment.

One of the many valuable insights this biography provides is the extraordinary care undertaken in the formative training at the Bolshoi School. Once a child has survived the rigors of the application process, with a harrowing demand for an explanation of a small facial scar to avoid a possible ruffian in the class, the assignment of rooms and the definite segregation of Moscow and non-Moscow students makes for further challenge. The additional charges for non-resident students makes a further impression, the charges lessening when it is clear that the student shows promise of completing the full course.

Like most Pacific Coast balletomanes, I was deprived of seeing him during his prime. Since tours to the Western U.S. either need to fly over the pole or leap over the U.S. Midwestern plains to find sufficient and enthusiastic audiences, both the Royal and the Russian companies absented themselves the end of the 20th and the early beginning of the 21st century. Lately, the Seggerstrom Performing Arts Center in California’s Orange County has provided an outlet for such companies, and, as you might guess, at equally necessary prices.

However, thanks to Hae Shik Kim, during her founding directorship of the dance program at the Korean University of the Arts in Seoul, Mukhamedov did dance at a Gala in 2000 where he partnered a young Korean soloist in a definitely not classical balletic pas de deux. It gave me a distinct sense of what a powerful and dramatic dancer he had been.

The biography, written when he was at his height as a resident artist with The Royal Ballet, does convey his character clearly. Subsequent to his dismissal, he has taught both in London and elsewhere; Tamara Rojo contracted his services for the English National Ballet for what seems to have been a three year period. Mukhamedov does not seem to lack for invitations to share his prodigious talents and his Bolshoi training with artistic directors world wide. It would be marvelous if he turned up on the West Coast sometime soon. In the meantime, this biography and footage on YouTube will have to suffice.

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Lorena Feijoo as Lola Montez in The Girls of the Golden West

28 Nov

That heading is my admitted raison d’etre for attending the November 26 matinee of John Adam’s new opera The Girls of The Golden West at San Francisco Opera with libretto and direction provided by Peter Sellars. An infrequent opera attendee due to pocket-book limits, but substantial Lorena Feijoo fan, I wanted to see what she had been given to dance post-San Francisco Ballet. Thanks to Teresa Concepcion for enabling me and Carolyn Carvajal, herself a former dancer with San Francisco’s Opera, I’ll proceed with my caveat and musical ignorance following two conceptual filters.

I took family letters written by Henri Doriot, a great grand maternal uncle, to the third grade when our class studied California history. The letters, now in the Bancroft Library, focused principally on the discrepancy in costs between San Francisco and the mines, a few technical mining observations, physical conditions, his trek across the plains, and his desire to return to up country Virginia via the Panama Isthmus. J. S. Holliday’s masterful The World Rushed In, based on a cache of letters written by William Swain to his family in upstate New York, further influenced my historical understanding of this exciting, turbulent period.

A very well-attended pre-performance talk featuring Peter Sellars provided the historical context for the content of the 3.5 hour exposition of life in a Gold Rush Town in the early 1850’s. He emphasized the international nature of the fortune-seekers with the habits of toil, booze, sex and mob mentality. John Adams based this new opera on the material provided in the Dame Shirley letters, written by Louise Clappe when she spent two years in the mining area. Poems by Chinese immigrants, Mark Twain’s Roughing It and the diary of Chilean miner Ramon Gil Navarro also were included. Sellars spoke with enormous enthusiasm about the production, Adams and some specific parts of the opera.

Page 39 of the Program lists Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley, Ryan McKinny as Clarence, Davone Tines as Ned Peters as making their San Francisco Opera debuts. Kai Brothers as Fayette, Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon, Hye Jung Lee as Ah Sing, Elliot Madore as Ramon, and J’Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia have appeared locally before. Vocally and collectively they created plausibly-aged characters in this compression of Gold Rush events. (Lola Montez didn’t arrive in California until 1853.) Nine pages of historical back story out of the program’s 98 pages, including one by Gary Kamiya, author of The Cool Grey City of Love, follow.

David Gropman’s debut as set designer included a mule on wheels to illustrate Dame Shirley’s means of arrival with her husband, essentially a silent prop, and her main interaction with Ned Peters. The travel by wagon was accompanied by printed scenes continuously scrolled in the background. Trees, sheets of brown, buckled visibly but also served as a door to a home and in the second half huge trunks, presumably of a Sequoia gigantia, one for the stage, the other as a shield or backdrop,was accessed by wooden staircases. Behind, the backdrop glistened golden in hue. Gropman’s use of a bar and the sign Empire Hotel moved up and down according to the scene; throughout stagehands in dark clothing visibly brought chairs, a gaming and an eating table on stage as required.

Rita Ryack, also making her costuming debut, provided a splendid array of subdued and motley hues for the male chorus, making their look, along with their vocal strength, a distinct pleasure in the production. Her costuming of the women by and large was also a hit, particularly for les dames de nuit, and for Dame Shirley and Josefa. Since the production in Act II condenses raucous observation of July 4 with mayhem, the girls dancing in red,white and blue tutus, and the costume for Lola Montez were deliberately over the top, with ribbons and other decorations for Montez like overly-laden tube-decorated, patriotically-hued pastry.

Act I seemed to cohere logically. So close to discovery and statehood, the role of Ah Sing struck me as more historical fiction than fact; she was unlikely to have been shipped anywhere but San Francisco. Symbolically, however, she fits. China Mary, with a parallel historical existence, had yet to make her appearance, but is disqualified within the time frame. Act I also serves to convey the Mexican-Hispanic fortune reversals in the persons of Ramon and Josefa. One opportunity missed in Act I – Dame Shirley’s singing of encountering Indian women and the memory of one in particular could have provided a muted background image.

John Heginbotham’s choreography for Lola Montez provides appropriate grappling with spiders, if not nearly so suggestive as Peter Sellars implied, but far short of the historically sensational reception Montez garnered. Men were virtually absent at the foot of the mammoth tree trunk root used for the stage. Except for an Italian pejorative gesture, the use of the finger and the tossing of a wig, the Feijoo fire was limited to a few steady pirouettes, twinkling entrechats, circling the stage and the swish of the overly decorated skirts. What could a choreographer do with an historical mishegoss?

In a similar vein the production meanders in ActII, using Ah Sing as the focal point for anti-Chinese feeling. Joe Cannon’s repulsing of Ah Sing’s short-lived belief in him permits the expression of racism, fueled of course by liquor and mining conditions. There is little preamble before conflict arises with a Latin American which spreads to Mexicans. Ramon and Josefa exchange yearnings and fear indoors. Joe Cannon staggers on stage to enumerate his short-comings and misdeeds, then crashes inside to drag Josefa outside attempting to rape her, only to die by her self-defense.

Adams seems to use a particular pattern of vocal recitative or song pattern with runs like a one-two-three-four-rise-fall that pervaded the solos, and rat-ta-ta-tat rifle-like delivery for the chorus. I found the latter strong and impressive, the former with some of the explicit descriptions of Dame Shirley disconcerting – couldn’t he have substituted a word or two in the descriptions?
Despite these comments and the peculiarities of sequences in Act II, the stage movement was handsome.

Even with such historical liberties, to use a comment made by one of the matinee goers, The Girls of the Golden West “has legs.”

Alonzo King’s Double Delight, YBCA, November 16

19 Nov

In addition to the second night of Lines Contemporary Ballet fall season at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre, titled The Propelled Heart, originally created in November,2015, Alonzo King introduced Muriel Maffre as his company’s new Executive Director, beloved dance figure as San Francisco Ballet’s principal dancer, occasional guest artist with Lines, recently Executive Director for the Museum of Dance and Theatre. King also held a widely-attended evocative post-performance conversation with his guest artist Lisa Fischer.

The Propelled Heart seems to have had some of its impetus in the writings of Sri Yukteswar of India; he describes five states of the human heart and eight impediments to its unfolding. King, noted for his visual and technical courage, here attempts to embody these states and struggles with his marvelous eleven dancers and guest artist Kendall Teague. With Axel Morgenthaler’s superb lighting, the dancers commence King’s commentary on the floor, bodies bent forward over their legs facing stage left; it was a breathtaking vision as if they were delicate brush strokes in an East Asian painting, enhanced by the filmy curtains shading from white to grey to total shadow during the two-part work. The entire work possessed this painterly quality, the struggling patterns of arms, legs and torso like the progression of an apprentice painter or sorcerer.

Accenting the exploration, the women danced minus pointe shoes, their phenomenal stretches, turns and balances losing nothing in quality. Strolling physically through most of the sixteen parts was singer Lisa Fischer supported in sound by J.C. Maillard, multi-instrumentalist musician with his strong affinity for African music. In her fringed, slightly trailing, sleeveless cloak, Fischer was a presence wending her way from upper stage left in serpentine fashion, accent, commentary and complement to the movement, her vocal contribution frequently a full-throated instrument common to Flamenco and Indian music, sound and mood freed from verbal specifics. Never touching the dancers, her empathy and connection to a body moving nearby was like a private discovery, the dancer responding with an arm gesture, a torso ripple, a leg or arm raised as accent. Fischer’s contribution, fully integrated with the dancers, was minimally connected with words, emphasizing mood and feeling, expanding an aural power fully through the course of the sixteen individual pieces. With Maillard’s sounds, the quality and movement range of the dozen bodies were fully displayed, lyric to spasmodic, King’s remarkable gift as a ballet master.

Considering that The Propelled Heart has been “revived” following its 2015 premiere, I held a distinct memory of Fischer’s first collaboration with King. She then seemed relatively static, taking a position here and there at stated intervals. Here she was full participant, making this rendition of The Propelled Heart a thrusting towards an ultimate, mysterious destination, the ending a hoe down by the company before an off balance, fleeting male solo signaled the curtain to fall with a swift whushing sound. The audience erupted in substantial standing approval.

This was the night King gave a post-performance talk with Fischer; the number of post-performance participants lingering was impressive; nearly all the orchestra and a handful in the mezzanine stayed to listen.

King and Fischer were asked to give their versions how they came to collaborate. King gave his metaphysical version and Fischer a more human tribute to her manager who she says take care of her. What followed were words in distinct palpable tones of the value each gives their collaboration, cheering evidence of the joys of working with another artist. Fischer emphasized “trust” with the arm free of a mike swinging wide to underscore the emotion she felt. King was riveted, listening.

Because I was so impressed with the seamless quality of the production, I asked how long it took to bring the work together. Instead of comments on hours, weeks, rehearsal breaks, etc., King provided a metaphysical, emotional grounding of the work, leaving me a bit abashed at the different level of response. It’s clear King knows and has around him individuals who would respond to such nuts and bolts curiosity, one of those eight impediments.

This was the only such question. The other exchanges were emotionally directed. One elicited from Fischer an incident in Brooklyn where she initially trusted and then ignored the feeling in the back of her neck when she and her companions had their car hyjacked. She said she would never again ignore that feeling in the back of her neck.

I came away appreciating the the rapport of the two artists,a warmth in a collaboration indicating a new phase in Alonzo King’s creativity. With Maffre, Fischer brought us and King double delight.

Oakland Ballet’s Dios de la Muerte November 3

12 Nov

Oakland Ballet’s artistic director Gordon Lustig has a canny instinct and a wonderful ability to attune himself to Oakland’s ambiance. He demonstrated this with wonderful clarity Friday November 3 when Oakland Ballet joined forces with the Mexican Community in the form of Luna Mexicana to celebrate a deeply Chicano tradition, Dios de la Muerte, at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre. The audience was near capacity and had been preceded by two daytime presentations for Oakland school children at the Paramount. If you had been there, the audience response let everyone know just how apt was concept and collaboration. A celebration for all ages and a repeat from a year ago. Oakland Ballet had also participated in some six day public school programs the end of October, guaranteeing the interest would be high in this one-night-only Luna Mexicana.

Before the performances started, Graham Lustig, in white face and a dapper jacket, came out to thank supporters, sponsors and announce the impressive number of school children exposed to this annual Mexican tradition.

Oakland’s company didn’t do it alone, however, but engaged the Aztec ensemble, Nahui Ehekati and Co, to open the program with their extravagant and flourishing feathered headdresses,if rather perfunctory choreography. Their performances would benefit from some respectful coaching.

Following feathers and solemnity, Terri Baune played Bach’s Chaconne for unaccompanied violin for dancer Ramona Kelley executing the majestic solo created by Jose Limon in the ‘Forties. While one conjures Limon’s size in the sweep of the port de bras and supple bending of the torso, garbed in black, Kelley’s execution conveyed some of sweet solemnity implicit in the choreography.

The solo was followed by exuberant youngsters of Ballet Folkloric Mexico Danza romping across the stage with energy and spirit before intermission.

Prior to the second half the President of Oakland Ballet’s Board and a Spanish translator spoke briefly.

Graham Lustig’s Luna Mexicana focused on the traditional altar upstage center which found a young girl carefully preparing lights for the altar which had Our Lady of Guadalupe as its centerpiece. In her multi-yard yellow skirt and jacket, [which made you want to consult a seamstress immediately] the girl’s attentiveness drew a variety of ancestors from their resting places. Perhaps the most intriguing were the skeletal couples, she in green behind the white skeletal paint. The Oakland dancers danced simply, effectively. Also noteworthy were the shifting projections around the altar, some of them evoking leafy papel picados.

The audience responded vociferously to the ten-member Mariachi ensemble from Jalisco, Mariachi Mexicanismo with its two horns, a bass guitar, two guitars and a quintet of violinists garbed like their compadres in the silver ornamented trousers and jackets, sporting the wide-brimmed hats one sees in every cliche of the sleepy Chicano. The violinists also sang both solo and with two others, and the collective peppy rhythm and swooping strings were an irresistible invitation to the audience responsiveness.

The ensembles all came on stage for a brief finale and were greeted with warm,
appreciative applause. It’s clear if Lustig wants to repeat the program or a version of it in 2018 and onward, a similar response is very likely. What helps to increase this likelihood is so the dancers can enjoy additional performances; need I repeat that Lustig is one canny gringo?

Korea’s Gugak Kwan at Zellerbach, October 28, 2017

9 Nov

Almost a decade ago the Korean arm of the East Asia Institute at U.C., Berkeley presented a marvelous dance program at Herbst Hall. Since then, there has been precious little presenting of Korean traditional music in the Bay Area that I have known about, excluding the scattered appearances at the annual Ethnic Dance Festival programs at the Palace of Fine Arts. Before The Asian Art Museum closed its doors in Golden Gate Park, Aislin Scofield,in her role as Program Manager for the Museum, used to program West Coast appearances of traditional Korean musicians and dancers. For those beguiled by the special nature of the Hermit Kingdom’s music and dance it’s been quite a desert.

Fortunately, the University of California, Santa Cruz has on its music faculty one of those intrepid Korean women determined that the tradition be seen, heard and appreciated. To this end Hi Kyung Kim, who serves as the artistic director for the Pacific Rim Music Festival, brought the Gugak Kwan from Seoul for at least three performances in the area, two at Zellerbach, and at least two at the Festival. A UC, Santa Cruz organized Festival, active since 1996, it has an impressive record of premieres, and this year fostered several premieres by western composers using traditional Korean instruments.

I was lucky enough to see the tradition in Korea in 1966. While unable to hear the remarkable collaboration in the afternoon, I did witness the traditional Korean court and folk music and dance in the evening. In the sonority of its woodwinds and rumble and thunder of its drumming, combined with the colorful court costumes of the Yi Dynasty, the Korean Government has seen to it that the formal tradition, as well as its folk heritage, is alive and well.

Before the auditorium performance, a large ensemble, dressed in the white garments traditional to Korean peasants, paraded into the Plaza between the UC student buildings and the steps of Zellerbach. Gongs, horns, and the hourglass changgo were played by the musicians who wound around in serpentine and circular patterns to the delight of the audience headed inside.

Once the preliminary remarks were delivered by Mathias Tarnopolsky and Kim Hi Kyung [Korean name arrangement], the raised curtain revealed horizontal lines of musicians with the kayageum sanjos [koto-like] in front bowed by women in brilliant silk, their heads adorned by black hats with ear flaps and gold-trimmed black square, a headdress repeated throughout the formal ensembles. Throughout the program the musicians were seated, tailor fashion, on the floor, with the music director, garbed in green, appearing from stage left with a clapper to commence and conclude the music, the sole standing musician.

Sujecheon was the first of four numbers performed before intermission, and one of three requiring the full orchestra. The deliberate tempo and irregular rhythms formed the accompaniment of the king’s departure from the palace in the 19th century. The main melody is played by the piri, and then is picked up by other instruments.

Geomungo Sanjo followed, the koto-like, six-stringed instrument played with a bamboo stick, with one of two types of drums as accompaniment. Unlike the koto, the sound seems lower and more gutsy, and is reinforced by the accents of the drum. The exposition starts slow at what seems like a deliberate pace, taking what seems a terribly long time to gain in speed and liveliness. The interplay between the sanjo and drum musicians seemed like a private chat. The program noted the length of the piece can vary from ten minutes to an hour.

Gagok, Taepyeonggo, the one vocal number employing singers. Here both a male and female singerwere seated in the center front of the orchestra, the man in a rich golden garment, the woman in a blue skirt with a white top. They sat throughout their assignment like traditional portraits while the orchestra went through their paces just behind them.

A quartet of percussive instrumentalists preceded intermission with Samulsori – Smdogarak, featuring a small gong, the changgo or hour-glass drum, the bok or barrel drum and the jing or hand held gong. The music reflected the tastes of farmers’
music making which has subsequently been adopted nationally.

Following intermission. Seungmu or Monk’s Dance, provided the only tradition of Korean dance on the program. The dance, named 27 of the Intangible Cultural Heritages by UNESCO, is performed by a soloist, male or female, shrouded in a lengthy-sleeved over blouse, in this instance black, head covered by a white cone-shaped cap, feet encased in the pristine white Korean shoes with upturned tips, and here, the exponent sported as under garments electric teal blue pajamas. Byong-Jae Choi was male, slender and gifted in the production of sustained pauses, enhanced by the length of torso, legs and arms. I rarely have seen such a sensuous use of feet, angled, stretched or slowly placed, quite accented by his white retrousse-tipped shoes. The length of black sleeves and the serpentine floor pattern accented the rise and fall of Choi’s shoulders and the alternate rise and fall of left and right sides of his torso. The exposition was slow enough to rivet focus and admiration for dance and dancer, the tension rising to the emergence of the drumming sticks, followed by the ceremonial striking of the drum. The movement forward and back beside the drum preceded the frontal percussive attack. This phase of drumming hit on the top, sides and center of the drum hung from a sturdy wooden frame, added to the impression, the rythyms enhanced by the location of the strikes. Then the sticks were withdrawn into the flowing sleeves and Choi’s hands clasped together in obeisance. Seungmu was accompanied by a sextet of wind instruments.

UNESCO’s Important Intangible Cultural Property Number Five of Korea is the folk opera form called pan-sori, a standing solo singing form usually accompanied by the hourglass drum, the changgo. My prior exposures to this gutsy narrative has been with women singers, including the late Kim So-Hee, herself named a Cultural Treasure. Here the exponent, Heo jeong-sung, male and garbed in pale lemon, was young and somewhat reticent, but still effective in the timing and style with which he accented passages with a fan. Heo, a handsome young man, seemed more the drawing room ethnomusicologist than the traditional professional exponent I was fortunate enough to experience.

The concluding orchestral number, Pyeongjhoesong appeared to pull out all the stops, both in the array of musicians and instruments, strings and winds, with an inevitable accent by drums. The program notes indicate the notes have been transposed down a fourth from the first version. Whatever the explanation and audience unfamiliarity, the impact of these grave-faced tailor-seated young musicians was masterful. I am afraid the Gugak Kwan’s visit may not be very frequent, but for gravity, sonority and visual splendor it ranks among the very special treats Cal Performances has made possible to its audiences.