Archive | April, 2019

SF Ballet’s Version Three of The Little Mermaid Debut, April 25

29 Apr

Yes, that’s correct, except that Nathaniel Remez didn’t rate a bouquet at the curtain calls April 25, when he acknowledged applause along with Matilde Froustey as the creature from the deep [and in the deep] and Madison Keeler at Henriette, the Princess. The performance also marked Carlo Di Lanno’s appearance as Edvard, the Prince with Benjamin Freemantle as The Sea Witch.

Once again, Neumeier’s production design is to be admired, from the cardboard-like ships that sail or get upturned progressing along the top of the set to provide context, to the levels where the tree is lowered and the convent walls briefly appear, and that wonderful ship’s stove pipe; the ballet master from Wisconsin creates a memorable setting.

I just wish I could say the same of the music.

Freemantle has gained appreciably in authority – his ferocity, lolling his tongue, swiveling his hips, swinging and gripping his fists in whatever the passage requires. His ability to stalk from stage left to stage right during the ball room/wedding reception scene is marked.

Forgive me for mentioning Remez first, but he created an anorexic poet to be well remembered, Tall, lanky, with an aquiline face El Greco would have enjoyed, he inhabited the role of the poet who conjured the creature, sharing her explorations, agonies and ultimate elevation in the starry history of fairy tales, never missing a beat. Remez, like Benjamin Freemantle, is scheduled to appear in the final Mermaid performances, perhaps due to injury or indisposition, but still an accolade to a memorable emergence from the corps.

Madison Keesler as Henriette, the Princess, gave a portrait straight from ‘Thirties country club gloss recorded in the Ladies Home Journal, echoing the physical setting of the ship where she has a second, major encounter with the golf rod-addicted Prince. And, of course, di Lanno brought a special tenderness both to his princely infatuation and puzzlement regarding the Mermaid.

Now to Froustey as the Mermaid. Like Sarah Van Patten earlier, she does not bring Asian sensibility to her role, but a European cast to the Danish-penned fairy tale. The muscular quality of her undulating arms is evident, the struggle walking less spidery. Dramatically, however, Froustey holds her own, with the demands of the role – rolling, being tilted upside down she met as the trouper she is.

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Abhinaya’s Dream, Asian Cultural Center, Oakland, April 27

28 Apr

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon emerging from Oakland’s 12th Street BART Station en route to see Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose in their new production “I Have A Dream” at Oakland’s Asian Cultural Center. Not a long walk, past some glass-dominated facades, I found myself in Old Oakland with its beautifully kept facades of late 19th century buildings where you could stare through the windows to the back wall. On the side streets intersecting Broadway, a few of the edifices had shops below street level, some already occupied. These handsome relics of history ache for occupancy.

Cheek by jowl and opposite a Marriott Hotel, Oakland’s Chinatown starts its buildings and enterprises; two blocks eastward in this East Bay pocket stands the Asian Renaissance Building with Oakland’s Asian Cultural Center, adjoining a substantial apartment building. An escalator takes you to the second floor with the Center [Suite 200] in the middle of the second floor construction, its circular architecture featuring a plaza and fountain on the ground floor. Upon asking, I was told the complex was constructed in 1994.

That was not the end of the surprises. To the left of the Center’s entrance along the corridor leading to the rest rooms are exhibits of children’s accomplishments in the Korean art of bojagi, the Korean wrapping cloth on view until June, the result of San Francisco’s Claire Lillenthal School’s Korean immersion program. The fliers in the lobby also invite one to learn Mongolian Traditional Dances at the Ger Academy, their results Carlos Carvajal said made such an impression at the Ethnic Dance Festival auditions.

The auditorium itself uses black and chromium movable chairs for its seating. One can imagine dances and banquets as regular offerings at the Center. But on this particular afternoon it was the remarkable Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose dancing “I Have a Dream.”

Utilizing images and texts on a screen at vital moments, Abhinaya covered the early life of Martin Luther King in the context of African-American experience of segregation, violence and the historic Montgomery bus strike. Rasika Kumar essayed the role of Rosa Parks with eloquence, Mythili Kumar, M.L. King, and five young skilled exponents of Bharata Natyam undertook with gestures, bell-emphasized footwork and their eyes, outlined in black, the roles of African Americans, members of the Klu Lux Klan, and the police.

This is not the first time Abhinaya has undertaken social commentary using the South Indian classical dance form Bharata Natyam as its expressive vehicle. It has portrayed women in history and the life of Gandhi. It is logical that King’s life and career, inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent campaign against the British, be another subject for artistic comment.

Rasika Kumar was responsible for the choreography and the application of abhinaya, the gesture language, in conveying the story. While many gestures were self-explanatory, the few not understood did not deter from the strength and understanding of the exposition, reinforced with the bells and the eloquence of the eyes. The timing of the gestures, the movements and the expressiveness of eyes and face to the historic progression of the civil rights struggle were amazing, the caliber of dancing simply first rate.

Abhinaya Dance Company and the Kumar trio occupy a special place in the San
Francisco Bay Area’s artistic life, reinforced by the skilled devotion of Mr. Kumar’s technical support. Several dozen Bravos are in order.

SF Ballet’s Little Mermaid, Version 2, April 24, 2019

26 Apr

A different cast for The Little Mermaid enabled me not only to see new exponents but greater awareness of production elements. Seeing a work for the first time my reaction is mainly emotional; a second view picks up more details, other qualities with different artists and determine how another audience responds to the work seen. It goes without saying it’s a feast to savor, and/or pick apart.

One of the great pluses in the Tiit Helimets, Wanting Zhao, Luke Ingham, Benjamin Freemantle casting April 24 is how well they danced together; coherence which may well have existed April 19, but eluded me because I was so dazzled by the principals. If I was seeing April 24’s cast for the first time, I might well have reacted in the same spirit. The audience, not quite so full, rose almost as a body to cheer the performers, and one usher said to me as I waited for the side door to open that Wanting Zhao was dynamite.

Seated next to me was Lawrence Tsui, recent master’s graduate of Berklee’s
School of Music, traveling back to Hong Kong where he is involved in music for film. This was his second master’s, the earlier one from Shanghai after his initial degree in music from Hong Kong University, his instruments the piano and the Chinese two-stringed instrument, the erhu.

We picked up from Lera Auerbach’s score bits and pieces from other composers:
the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth roughed up, and clear strains from Prokofiev’s Cinderella, along with renditions of bombastic chords.

From being lured into the emotions of the fated sea creature, I found myself being impressed with the drama conveyed by the dancers.

Tiit Helimets is new to the poet’s role, though in prior performances he danced the Prince Edvard role. Here he is less story book frailty, but human; alternately consternated, apprehensive and ultimately resigned to his mutual fate with the pathetic Mermaid. In Prince Edvard’s role, Luke Ingham’s casting evoked my memory of Robert Lindgren of the old Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo: a solid participant, perplexed if amused, clueless. Semi-lifeless under the sea provided admirable ground for the Mermaid’s fatal attraction.

Hard to think of Dores Andre as Henriette as she morphs from simple curiosity into dawning flirtatiousness and the realization she could reel in a genuine marriage catch. Even in small possessive maneuvers, twitches of excitement, Andre is a superb actress, fascinating in this transformation.

Zhao’s enchantment with the drowning Prince was a delightful range of surprise, investigation, awe and beguiling, cementing one’s impression of male emotional thickness, if good natured. For some strange reason, Zhao’s interpretation reminded me of images of the late Sono Osato and the impression she made in the ‘Thirties salad days of the Ballets Russes.

My greatest interest, however, lay with Benjamin Freemantle’s Sea Witch and Wan Ting Zhao in their mutual struggles. In what were the ballet’s most intense scenes they scored magnificently; the transformation of the Mermaid into a two-legged creature and the Witch’s delivery of the knife. Freemantle’s handling of the latter, minus the support of the Kabuki-style Shadows, was totally menacing while Zhao’s desperation,loss of the Prince and fear of revenge made their tangled pas de deux one of the genuinely gripping passages in the ballet.

The mini ensembles, the Naval Officers, the Magic Shadows supported ambiance and action admirably. One might also clap for the undulating lighting; Neumeier knows how to create visual impact.

A Tardy Report: San Francisco Ballet’s Tribute to Jocelyn Vollmar

25 Apr

Pictures in the San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 Program One included images of Jocelyn Vollmar and Nancy Johnson, both principal dancers during the rise of San Francisco Ballet’s fortunes with the three State Department tours it undertook in the late ‘50’s. The tours led to the company’s first spring season in 1960 at the Alcazar Theatre on O’Farrell Street, now a Handlery Hotel.

On its stages, Lew Christensen created Lady of Shallott for Jocelyn with Kent Stowell as one of the figures influential in the Lady’s mirror. Lew also created a jazz version of the Creation for Sally Bailey, Roderick Drew with Michael Smuin as the slimy serpent. I remember also Jocelyn appearing in a suite of dances to Glazunov music, excerpted from Raymonda; she danced the famous czardas, striking her hands in several places, executing marching steps en pointe.

Always meticulous, if usually matter-of-fact, Jocelyn self-published some seven or eight slender volumes of poetry, in addition to that same quality she brought to her dancing. San Francisco Ballet’s organization recognized her thoroughness by first awarding her the Lew Christensen medal, the first company principal to be so honored, and, thus far, the only one. Her contribution is now further cemented by naming the company’s legacy program in her honor.

Last November, the company arranged a program to honor Jocelyn in the Lew Christensen Room of San Francisco Ballet’s Chris Hellman Center for Dance. Utilizing the talents of Mary Wood, responsible for the Museum of Performance and Design’s oral history of Jocelyn, Henry Berg, Joanna Berman, Anita Paciotti and Jocelyn’s niece, plus a seven-piece musical ensemble, she was gently, warmly, remembered in a gathering I am now tardily noting. The program included one of Jocelyn’s poems, indicative of her steady desire to share her knowledge to others.

Two items were particularly touching and revealing of Jocelyn’s individuality. One was Henry Berg’s relating her visit to the Pyramids at Gaza when the company toured North Africa and the Middle East under State Department auspices. She went alone, entered the great edifice, apparently, and took from it a small amount of sand which, Henry reported, she wore in a vial around her neck for some time.

The second was that fact that from the remodeling of San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, she salvaged a large square of the curtain, had it framed and directed that it be given to the San Francisco company.

Personal and collective-minded, Jocelyn was quite special and definitely to be saluted.

Tan’s Triumph as Little Mermaid San Francisco Ballet, April 19

24 Apr

If she dances no other role, Yuan Yuan Tan will be celebrated for her inhabiting the production John Neumeier premiered in 2005 in Denmark of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, The Little Mermaid. It came to San Francisco Ballet after it was performed in Hamburg where Neumeier has been artistic director of the ballet or some 47 years and clearly has anything he desires at his disposal.

Tan’s portrayal of the sea sprite is playful, fey, and to break one’s heart as she sacrifices her tail for agonizing two feet, all for a nice enough guy who simply finds her amusing. If I am correct, Tan received the English Olivier Award for this embodiment of the adage “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

As the poet who observes, records and empathizes, Tan had at her disposal Ulrich Birkkjaer, a Dane to whom the story may well have been toddler’s food. In his stove pipe hat and nervous references to the little black book, Birkkjaer demonstrates not only what an artist he is, but the justly famed Danish capacity for theatre dance. It also is a sly reminder that San Francisco owes its company to Mormon descendants of Danish ancestry.

Neumeier designed the set, costumes and lighting but relied on Lera Auerbach for the music in this two act ballet which could have made its point more succinctly. He has gone all out with clear references to Kabuki traditions in the facial make up for the Sea Witch with its stark white with red streaks and the filmy trousers for the Mermaid, evoking the formal attire of Japanese daimyo in Tokugawa Japan. Kabuki evidence is furthered by the trio in black lifting the Little Mermaid, enabling the playful and swimming motions in her watery homeland.

Wei Wang’s Witch is suitably menacing, but I also remember Davit Kerapetyan’s lusty portrait. When it comes to the sailors, the passengers and witnesses to the wedding, Neumeier scores with costumes, postures, the social pretensions which the dancers fulfill adroitly. Even with disdain for the music I found myself admiring the company’s ability with characters enunciating “tripingly on the tongue” behavior.

None of these devices are tale deterrents. It is the length of passages,the cacophonous music which turn this haunting tale into over extension. This complaint aside, one can admire the biting edge of the mortals, including Prince Edvard, the Mermaid’s object of desire, with his golf club, as well as his selection of the Princess as his rescuer, love interest and bride. Both these mortals are wonderfully portrayed, danced by Aaron Robison and Sasha de Sola. The latter has a full-fledged talent for conveying the flirtation arts added to superior dancing. while Robison provides SFB with robustness accenting classical chops.

The Continuum Festival, April 20-21, Z Space

23 Apr

The Indo-Pakistani population in the United States is still relatively small, but their presence and contributions are huge in the professions and technology. Silicon Valley has blessed the San Francisco Bay Area with an appreciable share of these individuals, many of whom have brought their cultural proclivities with them, to the benefit of the U.S., for sure.

Back in the ‘90’s, Katherine Kunhiraman informed me fourteen Bharata Natyam teachers were active in the Bay Area, some the result of arranged marriages. I remember in my one foray in presentation that one of the Bay Area supporters had a sister in the troupe; the father came to the performance from Madras to look over a possible/potential son-in-law. It was an unexpected bit of cultural contrast to process in the welter of details.

With the establishment of Ali Akbar Khan’s School of Music in San Rafael, Chitresh Das was invited to become its Kathak instructor in 1971, where he taught before establishing his own school, Chhandam, in 1978. With perhaps Annuradha Nag’s Tarangini on the San Francisco Peninsula and Antonia Minnecola, most all the Kathak exponents, actively practicing around the Bay today, received their training from Chhandam instruction.

With Das’ untimely death in 2016, Celine Shein, his widow, and Charlotte Moraga, one of his chief exponents and teachers, formed the Chitresh Das Institute and Chhandam passed into other hands forming the Chhandam School of Kathak. Chhandam’s senior disciples Seibi Lee and Rachna Nivas affiliated themselves with the Leela Dance Collective and the larger nascent Leela Endowment, presenting musical exponents as well as dancers. Four performances, two each on April 20 and 21 were their initial presentation, co-sponsored by Z Space, where I saw the April 21 matinee with Carlos Carvajal.

The program opened with a Bansuri solo [horizontal flute] by Jay Gandhi, accompanied by Satyaprakash Mishra on tabla. The flute, fashioned from bamboo, seemed longer than its South Indian counterpart, with the result of its sounding more reflective and dreamy, its tone quite penetrating to the emotions.

The two dancers, Shefali Jain and Seema Mehta, following, provided a Mutt and Jeff contrast in height and size, both displaying the sharp-edged Das choreographic style, its bombastic tendencies muted by their feminine sensibility.

Jain, clothed in brilliant green silk bordered in gold, acknowledged the supporting musicians with traditional gestures, as well as exchanging a recitation of bols which the tabla player then performed and Jain executed. This is one of the spices of this Mughal-Hindu dance form, noted for its manipulation of bells, frequent turns, and slightly terse abhinaya used to tell the tale. From Boston, Jain studied with Gretchen Hayden who had moved to Massachusetts when her husband secured a position with M.I.T. An artist not only small in size, but sweet and almost nun-like in her devotion to the form, she has achieved an appreciable mastery of the dance form. Her account of the Brindavan villagers struggles with Indra and his floods of rain, the ultimate intervention of Krishna lifting a mountain on his little finger for protection, was definite, precise and memorable.

Seema Mehta, who followed Jain, is definitely statuesque, receiving her training from Chitresh Das while attending San Francisco’s Academy of Art University.
Her interest in Kathak was intense enough that she established the Chhandam Nritya Bharata branch of the Das style in Mumbai where it continues to flourish. Mehta also pursues the study of the thumri style of singing.

Mehta’s skill with bol recitation was formidable, cascading from her lips with nuance and authority. As with Jain, the particular sharpness of Das’ choreography was evident in her solo. Garbed in white, with red bodice stripes as accent, she provided us with a no-nonsense account of Shiva’s destruction of Kamadeva, in the efforts to awaken him to the charms of Parvati. Her facial expressions left no doubts in the story’s progression.

Though not having seen the other three concerts, Continuum represents a healthy investment in the classical Indian performing arts, a logical outcome of a group of immigrants wishing to solidify their heritage in the United States. Having the means to accomplish this measure of their extraordinarily rich and venerable culture is wonderful.

I have been lucky enough to acquire a thumb-nail amount of knowledge and hope for the day when many, many others share that smidgen with me.

Lines’ Spring Season, April 18, 2019

20 Apr

Lines Contemporary Ballet manages two short seasons a year and then spends a goodly part of its performance schedule touring. And it tours to amazing places, like Reunion Island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Reunion is a part of France, sending delegates to the National Assembly in Paris. Reunion provided the scenery for Pole Star, Alonso King’s latest work, and for the images in the program.

The oldest Lines member joined in 2010 with infusions of three in 2013 and 2014, two in 2016, with the most recent in 2018. Some of the women have arrived from Europe, several unusually tall, a phenomenon inaugurated in the Bay Area with Muriel Maffre, now Lines’ Executive Director, following her spectacular career with San Francisco Ballet, graduate degree in museum practice and executive directorship of the Museum of Performance and Design.

That said, my reason for mentioning Reunion resulted from the Q&A following the performance Thursday, April 18 at Yerba Buena’s Theatre. YBC’s special location now has a new sponsor; it seems a contractual arrangement bringing funds to the Center and cache to the fiscal donor. [Can a donor be anything but fiscal these days?]

The two-part spring program included Art Songs, a revival of a November 2016 work and Pole Star, music for the latter supplied by Vu-Anh Vanessa Vo, a Vietnamese artist and composer celebrated for her skills of the 16-string zither called Dan Tranh; she immigrated to the U.S. in 1991, now residing and teaching in Framont.

While I am unfamiliar with the selection of Art Songs, the beauty of the vocals by baroque era composers elicit a definite body response to the soaring sounds despite virtually no knowledge of German. I very much wish King would concede the value of translations. Nonetheless, King’s choreography seems to echo the highs, lows and tremolos of the music; he amplifies with a stuttering foot, frequently female, arms raised from the shoulder blades in contrast to the arm socket, barrels turns for men, supported corkscrew-like turns in pas de deux, collapses and crawls. King emphasizes more how the movement gets there, the process, than what it looks like when it arrives, all speaking to King’s fascination and devotion to the journey of the human soul.

Pole Star
, on the other hand, started with the group recumbent, ending also to the strains of Dvorak’s adaptation of the Negro Spiritual “Goin’ Home”, rendered in eerie, plaintive, haunting fashion by Vo Anh’s Dan Tranh. While there was no visible Middle Passage, I felt it chronicled struggle in far more collective terms, group movement on stage, than King has previously devised. Indeed, the casting listed The Company is the first eight of the nine parts of the work, VII accented by Michael Montgomery covering the stage perimeter, base chested and in yellow trousers. In the IX and final number Madeline De Vries and Shuaib Elhassan danced a particularly strong, yet tender pas de deux, accented by Elhassan’s height, dexterity and tenderness.

Following the audience’s standing, enthusiastic response, the company’s bow,
acknowledgment by Van-Anh, [dressed in lengthy red tassels from her ears and the slits in her black ao-dai], the audience was invited to remain for comments.
King sat on the stage with observations on the search through dance for perfection of the human being, of the soul, of life’s journey. Perhaps foremost in his summary was his comment that whatever the dance gave to you was not only valid, but was just one, repeat just one, of what was witnessed and what the work meant.