Archive | July, 2018

Extra Blessings at Stern Grove and an SFB Stellar Surprise.

31 Jul

While I sometimes think I am observant, there were two additions in the meadow next to the Vale parking area at Stern Grove observed on July 29, one gustatory and the other you might call athletic. Then there was a third blessing, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet.

The gustatory phenomenon were three in number: food trucks. I imagine they will be permanent fixtures for Stern Grove summer performances, with permission fees healthy ones to Park and Recreation.

The athletic one was the spectacle of some four score adults in tights, jeans and jackets propped against yoga mats, blankets or large towels, stretching to the postures enunciated by a grey-haired, bearded man moving between the rows of the directed. My relatively quick glance and assessment led me to think most were in fairly good shape. I wondered whether this was a weekly session, like the T’ai Ch’i sessions I experienced near Fulton and 36th Avenue in the 90’s.

San Francisco Ballet’s blessing, however, awaited the second intermission when the back outdoor stage entrance pulled back and the union crew hauled perhaps a dozen black folding chairs out on mid-stage, followed by an equal number of individuals, garbed a variety of garments, reflecting a sprinkling of ages; each claimed a chair.

Cecilia Bream, who teaches adult ballet and whose official title is Audience Engagement Coordinator, announced San Francisco Ballet had cooperated with Kaiser Permanente Hospital in forming a Dance for Parkinson’s program; it is one of a burgeoning list of dance organizations practicing the program started by the Mark Morris company in Brooklyn. I participated in a demonstration at the 2014 X USA IBC Competition in Jackson, saw the touching documentary on PBS and watched the DVD’s.

Cecilia introduced Meaghan M. Lynch, M.D., the Kaiser Hospital physician who specializes in physical rehabilitation. Dr. Lynch briefly described how dance movements counteract and slow the debilitating effects of this neurologically-based malady. Cecilia stated San Francisco Ballet offered these sessions free of charge.

Cecilia then invited the Stern Grove audience to join the seated practitioners on the stage with a routine utterly simple, expansive in gesture and inviting in intent. The audience assembled immediately began a massive demonstration of “monkey see, monkey do” in the most delightful form of group behavior. The audience raised their arms, spread them, swooped them, gestured come, go, goodbye plus some near namaste-like hand gestures.

In conclusion Cecilia told the audience anyone known to have Parkinson’s was welcome to join the classes and please spread the word if attendees knew someone with the malady. Truly, San Francisco Ballet’s joint program with Kaiser is both stellar surprise and definite civic blessing.

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SFB at Stern Grove’s 81st Season, July 29

30 Jul

There apparently was at least one person in the audience July 29 who had seen every San Francisco Ballet appearance at Stern Grove. I can’t qualify for that; but I do remember Mrs. Sigmund Stern in powder blue from hat to shoes being escorted at a performance. Like many another attendee, I’ve watched progressively better floors and entrance alcoves for the dancers from the splittery beginnings. After enjoying the wonderful redesign of the amphiteatre by the late Lawrence Halprin, this year a gradual replacement of the table seating was apparent in the individual black folding chairs at the press table. Bravo! I am sure there are more to complete this beginning.

The sky was grey, but the temperature remained above the minimum union regulations, allowing us to see San Francisco Ballet dance George Balanchine, Edward Liaang, Marius Petipa and Justin Peck choreography, or, two ensembles and three pas de deux; in succession; largely the women, the three pairs of two, and mostly the men.

Serenade received a tribute-like performance at Stern Grove, for it was first seen at Felix Warburg’s estate in White Plains, New York June 10, 1934, not at New York City’s Adelphi Theatre in 1935 as credited in the performance. And what a treat it was, seeing it in full daylight and assessing what it must have meant to those students. I remember seeing a photo of Balanchine at work, arranging a clump of dancers on the open stage with Ruthanna Boris off in one corner figuring out her assignment.

Frances Chung, Jennifer Stahl and Sarah Van Patten were the three women, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Sean Orza the male principals. All well suited to their roles. Chung’s lent fleetness and brio, Stahl her length and timing with Van Patten her dramatic focus for the woman bereft. Birkkjaer’s partnering and gentle reminders were just right and Orza lent a touch of gravitas to the man guided, partnering and parting.

From the evocative to the declarative in dance, the non-stop pace making it a particularly bravura showpiece, Tarantella is a prime example. The Balanchine pas de deux, fashioned upon the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the American southerner, providing a touch of Italian merriment, was interpreted by Sasha de Sola and Esteban Hernandez.

Of note is that de Sola and Hernandez both competed at different USA IBC competitions where I first saw them both, assuming the roles YouTube displays with Patricia McBride and Edward Villella. In the afternoon rendering, Hernandez came off as more polished and elegant and de Sola as more lyrical, if possible, in their mutual dancing.

The Edward Liaang pas de deux from The Infinite Ocean provided a complete change of pace, interpreted by Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in diagonal silver stripes on bathing suit tunics, each bringing a distinct phrasing to a sustained farewell.

Finishing off the trio of pas de deux was the old reliable from Act III of Don Quixote, danced Ann Sophia Scheller and the Bolshoi-trained newcomer, Vladislav Kozlov, who proved to be an excellent partner and possessor of elegant legs. Scheller sparkled in the solo, but this war horse of innumerable competitions does better in a proscenium arch setting.

The Justin Peck interpretation of Aaron Copland’s Rodeo music, comprised of four episodes, closed the program and showed some vigorous male ensemble dancing with the principal trio Max Cauthorn, Wei Wang and Hansuke Yamamoto. The costume design featured essentially two varying shades of brown, a grey and a light blue for Ulrich Birkkjaer with bright blue and red assigned to Dores Andre.

Foregoing the hitching movements and shifting weights of cowhands, there were three ensembles lifting, jumping and traveling in classical jetes horizontally and diagonally across space, and, briefly, a quartet dangling their legs over the stage edge. Elegant, athletic and well schooled, the men devoured the space with elan, all fourteen of them. Andre wafted through early on, an anomaly and fairly ignored.

The third episode, between Dores Andre and Ulrich Birkkjaer, I found a little disturbing, though beautifully danced by both. While the original plot was alluded to in Andre’s initial appearance, the success of her quest – a partner – struck an off note by the readiness of her hands to be grasped by Birkkjaer. The quality conveyed was all so pre-ordained, doubtless the way it was created.

That said, the overall arc of the program was splendid and the dancers clearly exemplified that adjective.

ODC’s Second Summer Sampler 2108

30 Jul

July 28 I witnessed the ‘with it’ audience ODC manages to entice with its programs, diverse, lively, providing a sense of optimism. We came to see K.T. Nelson’s 2015 creation Dead Reckoning, fragments exposed frequently over KQED, and Brenda Way’s Triangulating Euclid, created in 2013.

Perhaps one of the reasons these two works were chosen was because they strongly involved Jeremy Smith, who was leaving the ensemble after eleven years. But also the works included the strong presence of Daniel Santos and Brandon Freeman, both returning after a hiatus and pursuit of other interests. Their combined presence speaks not only to ODC’s willingness to welcome the return of strong dancers, but the absolute need of the technical strength such artists bring to the “workout” requirements of the choreography.

The men are not alone in virtuosic requirements. The women of this ten-person ensemble are asked to hold or carry briefly their athletic confreres, attesting to the equity balance ODC advocates and exemplifies. Supported by Matthew Antaky’s evocative lighting and choice of music and costumers, ODC exudes both an adventurous outlook, interesting productions and gifted dancing.

Looking at both pieces on Saturday night, and seeing Santos both hurtling himself in space and serving as a coach-like figure turning the faces of his fellow dancers, was testimony to the physical and interpretive demands on an ODC dancer. To see Jeremy Smith, downstage front, use his hands to finish a movement requiring physical force followed by floor work, solidified the strength and commitment to choreographic design.

I do not exclude the women in this recitation. Natasha Adorlee Johnson’s expiration in Dead Reckoning’s finale in the close setting of ODC’s Theatre, the vibrato in hand and the slow body collapse, was particularly impressive. Rachel Furst brought balletic fluidity to the simplest of stretches and to the sustained application of chalk to the floor in Triangulating Euclid. I don’t know whether it was Lani Yamanaka or Mai J. Chong shedding the first cascades of snow in Dead Reckoning but their solemnity of feature and bamboo-like resilience was the source of visual pleasure. Kendall Teague’s body shudders spoke to singular capacities of concentration.

Jeremy Bannon Neches and James Gilmer evidenced balletic deportment but also the ability of good dancers’ ability to dance anything required.

Altogether, these ten humans are something else to watch, executing Nelson’s vision of devastating climate change and Way’s innate penchant for instilling structure

Volunteers and the Visual Crew at USA IBC XI

21 Jul

While I am sure readers and participants have moved on since the intense and interesting days of the XI USA IBC Competition in Jackson, several things and individuals linger in my mind I want to mention, salute and thank. So indulge me.

Brenda Trigg, the even-tempered public relations and marketing manager for USA IBC, reassured me that the practice of host families continued for competitors as well as for the jurors, teachers and other VIPs to the competition. They had seemed much more present at earlier competitions so it was reassuring to know the practice, initially unique to Jackson’s competitions, has continued. Host families undertake to run errands for their charges, sometimes serving as unofficial chauffeurs and source of treats not available in the buffet lines at Millsaps Cafeterua where the competitors were housed.

High on this list of attentiveness is the physical comfort Olga Smoak and I enjoyed at a bed and breakfast cottage in the Bellhaven section of Jackson, perhaps the most completely appointed a visitor could enjoy; cook and historical books, both U.S. and Mississippi,were in ample supply with a small image of St. Francis over the kitchen sink, plus an ample kitchen stove, washer/dryer and the full battery of pots, pans and equipment for a life well beyond a mere two weeks. Mona Nicholas, USA IBC’s executive director, responded to my enthused exclamations, smiling. “He’s a friend of mine.”

The host, Hilary Zimmerman, a retired financier, saw to it I understood how the Wi-Fi worked, the hazards of the backdoor, and supplied the living room, dining room and even the kitchen counter with fresh flowers both weeks, as well as seeing that the weekly garbage sack was disposed of, clearly is a man for all seasons, a contemporary version of the Southern gentleman.

My high twin bed sported a drawer at its foot, and beyond the curtains was a screened porch; alas, it remained unused because of the strenuous schedule of observing competitors’ classes, attending their sessions and the lectures offered by USA IBC. Before the end of the competition a step stool was added to aid climbing into bed.

Our transportation could not have been better. Olga Smoak arranged to have
Arkady Orohovsky, director of the South Mississippi Ballet Theatre, and one of the two evaluators for the Competition, to pick us up in the morning in time to observe competitors’ classes, and several evenings drove us back to the cottage. When he was unavailable with evaluating appointments with eliminated contestants, Jennifer Wilkinson, in charge of USA IBC’s transportation volunteers, left her post in the Mississippi Arts building, to drive us to the Convention Center where the competitors’ classes and rehearsals were scheduled. More than one evening following the Round II and III sessions, she arranged to have me driven home by Terry Johnson, a musician who plays the organ, and is aretired high school teacher,living in a nearby town. Other nights, she pulled up at the sidewalk outside Thalia Mara Auditorium while students were being whisked back to Bellhaven University by one of the chartered yellow school buses.

Jennifer teaches art in a nearby high school; her manner reflected some of the serenity that such a visual occupation can supply. She’s the kind of person willing to listen to small verbal bursts about discoveries of Mississippi’s natural existence.

One early afternoon I came in before a ride back to the Laurel Street cottage, full of news that I had heard my first mocking bird caroling away in the space between the Arts Building and the Mississippi Arts Museum. She smiled and said, “There is one in the same spot every time I walk my dog.” Before I left Jackson I swear I heard the same bird do its vocal equivalent of “pretty.”

Mentioning that the wonderful living arrangements lacked immediate access to breakfast grits at a hotel or dormitory buffet, on his last trip to pick me up following the Gala, Terry Johnson brought a box of instant grits and also took me to an all night café where I enjoyed a serving of the ubiquitous Southern starch, great with butter, salt and something additional.

This recitation would be incomplete if I failed to mention the photographers who have returned each competition since the mid ‘80’s, leaving their professional connections at universities, medical centers and businesses from locations as diverse as Virginia, California and Colorado, to record the scene and the dancing for USA IBC. Richard Finkelstein, Todd Lechtick and David Andrews looked busy 24/7. Like Claudia Shaw of Video Masters and her gifted assistant, Quintin Lowe and Claudia’s cousin Connie, we gathered for an initial seafood feast at The Mayflower on West Capitol where some of us gorged on soft-shell crabs. On the Competition’s one dark night we also gathered at The Manship for a group dinner. The group doesn’t keep in regular touch except for these intense two weeks every four years, but it feels like just yesterday when we do. There is some particular elixir in the dance world that conspires to accomplish this ease, this connection, an appealing quality of USA IBC.

Ryo Munakata, American-born USA IBC Finalist

19 Jul

Deciding to participate in a ballet competition, whatever its magnitude or reputation, is no mean feat. It encompasses not only the hours devoted to refining classical variations, but the procurement of scores of CDs of the particular classical music. Where contemporary work is included, the cost of enlisting a choreographer in creating a work where the competitor’s skills are shown to advantage with music to support that aim adds to the outlay. Costume choices are also required to enhance the presentation.

In competing solo at the USA IBC in Jackson, Mississippi, two classical solos are necessary in the opening round and a contemporary piece in the second round. When reaching the finals, two more classical solos and yet another contemporary work are mandatory, making a total of four classical solos and two contemporary pieces to perfect. It is an Olympian decision and execution, regardless of outcome.

In the rarified world of classical ballet, it’s therefore difficult for dancers not directly affiliated with a school attached to a company to make their way successfully. Exposure at competitions is a way to make up for this difficulty. The reputation of the school/teacher/coach also plays its part, supporting observation of competitors’ daily class and performance. Invariably, it is the delicate balance between the talent and physique of a prospective company member with the current needs of the ensemble determining selection and a contract.

My initial desire to interview Ryo Munakata stemmed from the fact he and Chisako Oga were listed as USA competitors at the recently completed USA IBC Competition [6/10-23/18]. The name Munakata also relates to Shiko Munakata, the woodblock print artist who was given the Order of Culture in 1970, Japan’s highest award to artists. The two men I learned, are not at all related. I also confess to a particular interest in dancers of Asian heritage.

Munakata’s interview was essentially too late for me to draft and post it from Jackson and during a brief visit to Washington, D.C. July has enabled me to pick up the thread by e-mail and contact Ryo once more.

Like Chisako, Ryo was born in the United States while his father, a doctor, was studying at Harvard University, automatically bestowing on the young man dual citizenship and providing an ease in entry to the United States for study. Unlike Oga’s family, however, the Munakas returned to Japan permanently, the family settling in northern Japan, in Sendai. There Ryo started ballet training and began entering competitions when he was ten. He also commenced modern dance study; in the list of competitions he supplied, Munakata consistently achieved higher marks in the contemporary category.

This picture began to change when Ryo started to work in Tokyo with Sergei
Saveschenko. How did he manage? “I took the bullet train from Sendai to Tokyo,” was his answer. Knowing students were driven from San Jose to San Francisco to attend classes, I asked how long the commute was. “Two hours each way.” This fact quietly floored me, both for time expended and for the focus and dedication towards Ryo’s desire to become a finished classical dancer.

In 2010, Ryo began to spend summers in the United States, clearly enabled by his Boston birthplace. “I took summer intensive courses at ABT for four years.” In 2014 to 2016, Ryo studied at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the affiliate school of American Ballet Theatre. At level 7 in the school, he also appeared in the Manhattan Youth Ballet.

Ryo Munakata was hired by Minnesota Ballet Company’s artistic director Robert Gardner at 19, spending winters in Duluth, Minnesota plus guesting in such roles as the Prince in Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Augmenting company performances, Ryo also danced as a guest artist in such ballets as Raymonda, Giselle and La Sylphide, roles where his demeanor was an advantage.

In Round I, Munakata elected the Act III Don Quixote variation, and then the male variation from The Talisman. In my memory, he was the only contestant to elect this variation; it commences on a diagonal from upper stage right to down stage left in a traveling tour with one leg in an open passe position, a burst of bravura typical of good male variations. The choreography continues with a menage up and around to the mid stage reinforcing the impression of buoyancy, a selection of distinction. My scribbled notes says “v.v. good,” and proved a canny, memorable choice.

In Round II, Alchemist, Munakata’s contemporary solo to Yann Tiersen’s Le Jour d’avant, was co-created with Yuko Takahashi, his contemporary teacher. Aside from the obligatory displays of virtuosity, there was a thoughtfulness behind his delivery, advancing him to Round III.

In Round III, dancing one of two obligatory solos, Olga Smoak remarked on Ryo’s rendition of Siegfried’s variation in Swan Lake’s ballroom scene, “very clean, accurate, no additions. He was very pure.” The second classical variation was from Le Corsaire, the chest-baring part of the pas de deux Rudolf Nureyev introduced to Western balletomanes. Quite competent, but not spectacular, it did not particularly display Munakata’s classical qualities, which while correct, are under-stated, suggesting an ideal partner in a pas de deux.

Meredith Monk’s Dawn provided the music for the collaborative solo created by Munakata with his teacher Yuko Takahashi, titled Sacred Ice Wall. The solo included floor work and stretches, jumps and turns with atmospheric lighting ranging from grey to black with a pool of light beginning and at the end. Munakata’s skill and intelligence in adapting classicism to contemporary expression was clearly evident.

While enjoying the $1,500 stipend given to all USA IBC finalists, Munakata did not garner any special citation or a prize. However, his quality attracted the attention of Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West. When I e-mailed Ryo asking for his resume, he replied, saying he had signed a contract with Ballet West. Minus photograph, his name already appears on the company’s Website.

Fortunate Ballet West.

Addendum to EDF’s 40th on July 14

16 Jul

Ye Feng is clearly a seasoned performer, the program supplying Chinese Government recognition of her abilities. I found myself skeptical about her dances.

The before intermission slot was allotted to the Cuban-inspired Arenas Dance Company, an all-woman ensemble dancing to rhumba rhythms provided by eight musicians and displaying wonderful swaying and swiveling. Two groups were featured: woman depicting washerwomen in tee-shirts and short bright skirts, handling their necessary livelihood with warmth and spirit, and two Yoruba figures with short conical hats and double layers skirts swirling and asserting the African roots of many Cubans.

This year The Malonga Casquelord Lifetime Achievement Award was bestowed on Lily Cai, Chuna McIntyre, Jamila Salimpour, Roberto Hernandez and Patty Ann Farrell, the lighting designer who has directed the illumination of the Festival for three decades. Three of the honorees appeared briefly before the start of the second half of the program.

Filipino culture from Mindanao followed intermission as interpreted by Parangal Dance Company, with the traditional malong worn by the women, and a skimpy story of a high born woman kidnapped a la the Ramayana and the hero martialling forces to bring her back, waging warfare in the process. Color was prevalent in the male costumes as well as the women’s, but I have never seen so many sequins in my life and on fans! A form of Tinikling also was featured. World Arts West has a book on Mindanao garments that Parangal should take a look at.

Bolivia Corazon de America was new to me, and again, one could see the effects of climate and altitude. Twirling and hopping was evident and a riot of color, both in solid streaks and apparent traditional embroidery.

Ensembles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco provided us with smiling Mexicanas and their voluminous skirts flirtatiously whisked, men in blue blouses, white trousers and peaked hats. Suddenly, the idea height helps to ventilate the straw hats on hot days seemed sensible. Stamping and swaying, the ensemble delivered another dose of Latin cheer.

Having written about the final group, despite the new venue. let me comment again that the groups seemed chosen to fill the opera house stage, with the Palace of Fine Arts intimacy lost in transition.

Typically, the Ethnic Dance Festival Program is handsome, four colored and several shades of print. When asked why World Arts West does not charge for these elaborate souvenirs, Executive Director Julie Mushet stated,

“The Festival is designed for the range of San Francisco citizens, many of whom could not afford an $8 or $10 price for a program memory beyond the cost of admission. This is our gift to them for coming and supporting the Festival.”

Hear! Hear!

If I have one major complaint it is trying to read white text against a blue or green background – hard on senior eyes, even with glasses, specially in 11 point. It is the principal reason I have failed to give some musicians their due and for this I apologize.

San Francisco’s Ethnic Dance Festival, Number 40, July 14

16 Jul

San Francisco’s Ethnic Dance Festival has made it not only to the War Memorial Opera House, but also to its fortieth season July 14-15, 21-22. In so doing, from the looks of it, the intimacy of the Palace of Fine Arts has been sacrificed for the larger space of the Opera House stage, the seating, from 1500 to 3200.

What it has retained, however, is a popularity reflected in the diverse audience which crowded the foyer and seats inside, with a buzz that was long on pleasant tones rather than shrill, with sartorial evidence of everything from the Mission to the upper end of Masonic Avenue.

Walking to the Opera House, with Van Ness Avenue torn in the midst of a massive upgrading, I saw a bobbed poison green wig over a slender magenta shift, while inside the opera house Indian women garbed in saris: one in grey with small white patterns on a woman whose height was short enough for me to see a white crown spreading against her dyed back hair and a younger woman in a sari imitating the stone carved flowers on the walls of the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Sartorial evidence caught my eye almost as much as the dancing in the 11 item program with its fifteen-minute intermission. What was distinctive about the traditions represented primarily was how climate influenced the style of dancing and the movement emphasis in the body.

At one end of the spectrum was the near other-worldly opening dance of the Alaskan Yu’pik dancers, principally in white, celebrating the moon, the dance commencing in darkness. Feathers attached to the sleeves of one performer beyond elaborately embroidered cuffs; two tiers of white balls rising from wires tucked into the furry collar of another performer whose arms also finished in feathers tipped in black. The outer parka is elaborately marked, and in this performance not removed. The accompanying drums seem to be flat parchment-hued disks, their music is augmented by shouting refrains. Led by Bay Area resident Chuna McIntyre, the performers, no more than six, are from Alaska who have collaborated in nation wide performances. For EDF’s fortieth anniversary, presented a two century’s old dance in public for the first time.

Now switch to the opposite climate, Tahiti, with the closing number by the Te Pura O Te Rahhura’a dancers, credited in the souvenir program as numbering 56, and a number titled Curiosity in English, relating a Swan Like like tale of birds becoming women at night, one, Maruao, being singled out by the young hero, Oroono. Having been created by a sorcerer, the Tahitian god of war, Oro, has condemned them never to touch a human. So, of course, the inevitable, fatal battle ensues.

The entire tale is told by incessant circular hip movements and almost battle-like formations of young women in ice blue-green skirts of some synthetic material matched by head circles of the same material. What a world away from the seated shouts and arm gestures of the Yu’Pik of Alaska!

For the nine other numbers in between, how to characterize them? I would suggest foot-stamping, extravagantly colored attire, with equally generous use of material.

Carrying on the Kathak dance tradition promoted so successfully by the late Chitresh Das, were what seemed to be three dozen members of the Chitresh Das Youth Company garbed in scarlet-hued costumes with voluminous skirts, trousers and long-sleeved tunics trimmed in gold, plus the ankle bells accenting graceful turns and sur la place rhythms. The formations and changes were impeccable, as were the sounds of the bells and the pleasure in dancing evident in the young dancers, all directed by Charlotte Moraga, one of the late Das’ principal disciples.

The next intriguing costumes must be credited to Agua Clara Flamenco, or Clear Water Flamenco, an ensemble of what I counted as fourteen young women sporting enormous white fans and wearing white princess-line costumes with a hemline ruffle and two additional ruffles on half the dress. Disciplined in formation, they looked like they were having a great time, and one proved adept in manipulating her white mantilla.

From Sunny Spain Leung’s White Crane Lion and Dragon Dance Association made its yellow-headed appearance on the right side of the boxes nearest the stage, a happy solution for a very limited stage view. This nice, giant-sized touch never made it to the stage, but was followed by a junior sized version, its sunny-toned fur short and bristly. What followed was near purple in hue, long and twisting in length as it pursued a small disk, the manipulators in shadow, looping down, around and up. It was followed by Ye Feng, a tall, handsome young woman, dramatically dressed.

I had problems with the computer and had to complete the comments in a separate draft. Coming up.