Archive | May, 2019
Link 19 May

Program 8. Ratmansky’s Shostakovitch, May 7, May 12

Alexei Ratmansky’s take on three works of Dmitri Shastakovich enjoyed its second season opening Tuesday, May 7 before an audience warm and responsive. Over on the right aisle, I sat behind Rita Felciano [review available at Dance View Times]and Ingrid, her Swedish friend, and a few seats over, Max and Molly Schardt, long-time subscribers and devotees of Asian art. Molly was a docent at AAM before spending several years as a vital member of AAM’s Education Department where she supervised, among other things a game imitating ancient travelers on The Silk Road, a school activity which the Museum restricted to eighth grade students where the sexes engaged in fierce competition. A wonderful game, now abandoned, although it still could be very relevant.

I also went to the final matinee May 12 on a single, catching a glimpse of the spirit which must pervade the company at season’s end; they now gear up for two weeks at Sadler’s Wells starting May 24.

In Symphony 9, I was fortunate to see Jennifer Stahl and Aaron Robison dance the haunted couple both times. Their impact May 12 testified how they had plumbed the challenge of the roles, no question of haunted, hunted feelings; it made me glad to witness the beginning and end of Program Eight’s performances. They are well matched in size and emphasis, one of the company’s fortunate pairings. The solo figure May 7 was Wei Wang, May 12 Lonnie Weeks, their contrasting physiques giving special personal emphasis, Wang’s one of strong thrust, Weeks aerial and length in his jetes.

Part two, the Chamber Symphony found Sasha de Sola and Matilde Froustey dancing  as in 2014, this time with Ulrich Birkkjaer as the man searching for his ideal woman but suffering from some post-traumatic stress disorder. This was not illogical, given Shastakovich’s struggles with Soviet dictates on taste and conformity, better known as the lowest common denominator, short of vulgarity.
It was hard to forget the emotional focus Davit Kerapetyan brought to the role as mentioned by Paul Parish at intermission.[Read his review in the Bay Area Reporter.] Birkkjaer is the sine qua non interior artist, as evidenced in Ethan Frome. Here, he seemed withdrawn to some mysterious location where he survived by submitting. Yuan Yuan Tan was the third woman who seemed more the semi-remote Mother Superior than tempered compassionate woman.

May 12 Joseph Walsh danced the central male role; his energy flooded the role with emotion; when he slumped, you knew he was despondent; when he was interested in one of the three women Isabella di Vivo, Elizabeth Powell or Sasha de Sola, his slight body responses were clearly generic male. For Powell’s role I found it interesting in her sustained classical port de bras in supported collapse; presumably this was choreographic dictate. I felt collapsed arms would have been appropriate. De Sola danced the third woman with restraint and understanding. The grim faces for the Chamber Symphony backdrop are an ominous ambiance  personified. I wish the program note connection with the George Platt Lyne’s estate was explained.

For the third, the Piano Concerto, I guess there is some symbolic message to be found in the two-toned, front/ back grey-red Milliskin costumes for the supporting dancers, a note on the push-pull of emotions and politics and the handing red objects against the back scrim.

Sophiane Sylve and Carlo di Lanno led the alternate pas de deux, pas de quatre with Wona Park and Angelo Greco dancing the second pair. What a feast of riches, with the Sylve commanding sureness supported by di Lanno’s height, elegance and partnering, followed by the jumps and aerial tours required of Park, her virtuoso demands matched with Greco’s virtuosity.

Park and Greco danced again on May 12 with the Sylve role assumed by Wan Ting Zhao, who will join the ranks of principal dancers July 1. Interesting to see the two Asian women together, a special dynamic.

Zhao was partnered by Vladislav Koslov, in what seemed just his second role this season. He presents with an expansive chest, a crisp elevation in his jetes, attentive to partnering Zhao with apparent rapport.  I suspect this patent grand manner has, until now, limited his use; he is markedly Russian and elegantly so.  Let’s hope the 2020 season will alter this state of affairs., for he is satisfying to witness.

Park and Greco tore into their roles even more easily, a mutual daring and sharing totally engaging, their riveting tosses and turns accomplished with evident relish.

The curtain call started out with its usual ritual, acknowledging the musicians after the initial dancers’ bows, Martin West joining the row of soloists. Gradually other dancers sauntered in from the wings, one or two surprises strongly welcomed, until everyone, including Helgi Tomasson, were on stage to celebrate the formal end of the 2019 spring season.


Please Note:  Dwelling Problems Interfered with completion of my comments.Better known as  …. [ugh]!


Ginny at Seventy, Dance Mission, May 12

17 May

Virginia Matthews spent the first two weeks of May, 2019 performing Approaching 70 – Fifty Years of Life in Dance, first in Rohnert Park’s Spreckels Center for the Performing Arts and then at San Francisco’s Dance Mission. I saw her final performance May 12 at Dance Mission.

Ginny’s hour-long program combined her speaking with the aid of a microphone, dancing an evocative solo to Bach and explaining its multi use over many decades. If I remember correctly, it was the first solo she made. It was stately, textured as the baroque music she chose, utilizing slowly developing arabesques, sustained lateral stretches, hand and arm gestures winding and unwinding as she faced the audience. To this member of the audience, it was “good old modern” and “hail tradition,” firmly grounded in a rigorous technique.

Ginny came to the Bay Area in 1972, and starting dance with Margie Jenkins. Both had studied with Merce Cunningham, and Ginny became one of the first members of Jenkins’ company. She married, and she and her husband elected to move to Sebastapol, a town in Napa County noted for its apples and for its humanity. In the latter category, Sebasatpol was one of the extremely few cities whose citizens protected the properties of Japanese-Americans who were forced into the barbed-wire enclosures in some of the Rocky Mountain’s most desolates areas for the duration of World War II. Their action thus enabled those lucky few to return to their homes and resume businesses after 1945 without further undue hardship.

In this semi-sequestered location, Ginny and her husband raised three sons and Ginny taught dance to high school students. After the performance Ginny said she picked up her dancing three months after giving birth to all three.

Back, however, to that solo, it also turned out to be versatile. She taught it to her students in high school, and when news arrived of the September 2001 attack on the Twin Towers, she and her class elected to continue dancing it, clearly sanity in the midst of panic, chaos and devastation. Visuals also showed students performing the work successfully magnified by perhaps twenty young bodies in scarlet.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Ginny also undertook the study and practice of Zen and has been duly inducted into the Rinzei sect of this remarkable branch of the Buddhist faith. She has continued to participate and support the Isadora Duncan Dance Award Committee,[the Izzies], serving at least twice as Chair or Co-Chair, involving the necessary commute to the minimum twenty-per-viewing-year Bay Area Dance Events to qualify for the annual awards. Translated that means a round-trip commute from Sebastapol [no overnight stays with friends with a family of four at home, please] for every one of those and the toll increases over the Golden Gate Bridge. Clearly, Ginny qualifies for that special circle: woman for all seasons.

Finally, another gem in the hour-long program was the complement of the spectators, dancers whose age and careers paralleled Ginny’s. Present were June Watanabe, Helen Dannenberg, Joanna Harris, along with others who had danced with her in the ‘70’s who I did not know. All of them enlivened the post-performance congratulations gathered around this remarkable woman, making Approaching Seventy a special finish for Mother’s Day.

Never Published: The 1982 USA IBC Competition and Ben Stevenson

15 May

In 1982 the USA IBC enjoyed a banner year. Mississippi politicos got it named the Official USA Ballet Competition, and was recorded for PBS. I wrote at least one summary for a Houston, Texas performing arts journal, and I even wrote for The Houston Post, as well as for a New York-based journal connected with the release of the documentary, all heady stuff for someone whose day job was in low-level administration at the University of California, San Francisco.

After the Competition, I submitted a profile on Ben Stevenson to the late Robert Commanday for The San Francisco Chronicle. Never published, I post it now on Woollywesterneye for at least two salient reasons, aside from my own desire to see prose long buried see print. The two reasons: Li Cun Xin and Carlos Acosta. Ben hired the two men at formative stages in their respective careers and nurtured them. I have every reason to believe Stevenson provided not only mentor ship, but a model in artistic direction for a going ballet ensemble. Perhaps what I set forth now will help illustrate this evaluation.

July 3, Jackson, Mississippi

For all that San Francisco’s entrants in the Second International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi did not make the crucial step between finalist and medal winner, the competition here June 20-July 4 has evidenced some salient growth in American and International ballet life. Perhaps Richard Freis of Mississippi Ballet International’s Executive Committee summarized it best. “To have winners here from regional ballet companies, judged for the excellence by nineteen jurors who lead academies and companies in their home country, says that talent is to be found outside New York City and that talent is recognized on an international level.”

Underscoring this observation was the surprise silver medalist in the senior division for women: Kathy Thibodeaux, 26, of Jackson Ballet. Perhaps most of all, beyond the bronze medal awarded to Mark Lanham, one-time member of San Francisco Ballet and now with the El Paso Ballet Company, the quality was exemplified by the medal sweep enjoyed by Houston Ballet. Four members of this Texas-based company of 45 walked away with an equal number of senior division prizes: silver medals in the men’s division for William Pizzuto and Li Cun Xin; gold medal in the women’s division for Janie Parker and a bronze for Rachel Beard who celebrated her 21st birthday during the competition. Additionally, Janie Parker and William Pizzuto were awarded the $1000 prize for the Competition’s best couple and Houston’s artistic director, Ben Stevenson was given the gold medal for choreography.

Stevenson trained in England and won the Adeline Genee Gold Medal of the Royal Academy of Dancing [RAD] before joining the Royal Ballet. He danced as principal with the London Festival Ballet [now English National Ballet] and also served it as ballet master. In 1968, Stevenson came to the United States and directed the Harkness Youth Dancers, then the National Ballet [Washington, D.C.] and spent two seasons with Ruth Page’s Chicago Ballet before going to Houston in 1976. A winner of a choreography first prize in Varna, Jackson has provided perhaps one of the first major U.S. recognitions of his choreographic versatility.

Talent the Houston dancers enjoy. Like the junior division gold medalist from West Germany, Gina Gail Hyatt, 18, however, coaching made the difference. And coaching, as a whole, is something that American dance teachers and company artistic directors, because of economics, have comparatively little time for.

Among the international jurors, with figures well remembered from the best of The Royal Ballet touring days among them, there is a strong belief that one refines talent by the labor-intensive, time-honored practice of teaching by phase, gesture, placement as much as by repeated technical run thought. The cost-effectiveness of this practice pays off only in the results. It is up to the artistic administration of a company just how much they are willing to invest in supporting dancers wanting to enter a competition.

The Houston path started with an informal letter from a Peking Academy teacher suggesting the Li Cun Xin might represent the People’s Republic of China and that Houston Ballet principal Janie Parker might be his partner. Stevenson evaluated the suggestion. “Janie is a wonderful dancer who works very hard and she has danced with Li. But they need different partners to display each other. So from the suggestion, I asked Bill Pizzuto to enter as Janie’s partner. Rachel, who is just emerging from the corps, wanted to come along.

“We had only two weeks after the company season was completed to prepare. Fortunately, the dancers were in shape, but we had to work very intensively. This was all after Janie and Li had danced in a London Gala just at the close of our European tour.

“This was my first competition as well as the dancers. For this sort of thing, it’s very important to have numbers to display the dancers’ versatility. So I did the Esmeralda Pas de Deux for Janie and Bill and Rachmaninoff’s Romance. Then for Li Cun Xin and Rachel Beard, I did a kid-type thing, Just for Fun. I’m more interested in displaying them well than in showing off my own choreography. The fact that I got a prize for it is very nice, indeed, even though I thought the Jiri Kylian pas de deux for Gina Gail Hyatt was simply gorgeous. I think if prizes are to be given at events like this, it’s best that it be works created for the dancers for the event. That’s a stimulus for everyone.”

What the audience did not see in this marathon of muscle, nerves and resolution, was the devotion of the coaches. Coaches waited with their dancers at the International Village for the results in each round. Richard Cammack, director of San Francisco Ballet School, and Yvonne Mounsey, coaches for Christina Fagundes and Marcia Ryken-Lewis, were there; Betty Oliphant, director at the National Ballet School of Canada (and a juror at the 1981 Moscow International Ballet Competition) was in the press room to telephone the results to her charges. When Stevenson read that his four dancers had qualified, he cancelled his original plan to leave for Houston on Sunday. “I’m staying through with the dancers. It’s important to them.”

In 1979 The Jackson Competition enjoyed a strong roster of masculine talent. That list included David McNaughtron and Dennis Marshall of San Francisco Ballet, along with Lubomir Kafka of Czechoslovakia and Koen Onze of Belgium gold medalists in the senior and junior men’s divisions. In 1982 the feminine half rose to that standard and a bit higher. Robert Joffrey, chairman of the competitions jury, remarked early. “There are some absolutely excellent dancers I think should never enter a competition. Just because they don’t have the temperament for competitions doesn’t mean they are not winners, nor any the less great dancers or excellent artists. It is the same with the awards. They are not given because they are there, but because they are deserved.”

One can speculate how such a roster of medalists might affect the U.S. bookings of Houston Ballet. Stevenson remarked, “I hope it helps. We have toured Europe successfully and will be at the Bergen Festival in Norway in June, 1983. We have a South American tour in th works. With the NEA cutbacks this year, we were told we lacked the standard to qualify for the NEA sponsorship subsidy. I hope Houston’s record at Jackson will help the American decision makers re-evaluate Houston Ballet’s strengths and accomplishments.”

Remembering Ruth Beckford

12 May

Dennis Mullen e-mailed the news of Ruth Beckford’s death, May 8, age 93.

What a memorable force Ruth was! The East Bay Times printed a lengthy summary of her life as a dancer, teacher, company director, civic activist and who knows what else she methodically included in her nine plus decades.

I don’t know if my first encounter with her was seeing her company perform in the fledgling version of Cal Performances, but somewhere in my numerous piles of programs I must have that memorable occasion which may have occurred prior to the opening of Zellerbach Hall. On an historical note, said auditorium had been slated to open as the Martin Luther King Auditorium. However, perhaps a quarter million dollars short of its completion funding, U.C.’s administration turned to Harold Zellerbach for the balance. He agreed to donate the balance on the condition that auditorium bear the Zellerbach name. U.C.,’s administration conceded.

Although we saw each other sporadically at dance events, I interviewed her twice during Ruth’s active dance life; once for the late Oakland Tribune during the two years I wrote profiles of East Bay Dancers, 1964-66, and some time during 1973 for the short-lived West Coast Dance, Vol 1, number 4, when San Francisco Ballet dancers had managed to galvanize ballet patrons to continue SFB’s life, now enjoying one of the country’s most stable endowments for a performing arts organization.

I am quoting from that memorable exchange in West Coast Dance:

“Ruth Beckford carried her natural hairdo long before it became fashionable. I say carried because of her posture; I also suspect she chose the style simply because she liked it. That about sums up Ruth’s direct, definitive way of living.

“When I talked with her over the phone at 7:30 in the morning, Ruth had just arrived from her morning jogging ritual,’Three-and-one-half miles round Lake Merritt, and, honey, I am so proud of me each time I make it.’

“Ruth… is also the first member of the Dance Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts from Northern California.

‘I was elected to the panel in July of 1972. You can spend up to a maximum of three years as a panelist and one as a consultant, or a total of four years. But you are assessed every year on your performance to make sure you’re doing what they want you to.

‘The panelists number 16 when we’re full up, and we meet four to six times a year. Our expenses are paid and we get an honorarium. We review all the proposals which are submitted to the Endowment from the dance field. There are so many it takes us two different sessions. This takes place in March, with the announcements coming later. And, honey, we work!’ Ruth’s voice loaded on the emphasis. ‘The dance panelists have a reputation for work at the Endowment. After all, when you get to the place where you’re considered panelist material, you take the profession pretty seriously, and you want the profession to look good.’

What about visits made to companies in the area? ‘Those are on our own time. When the panel or NEA hears of a promising company, they turn to the panelists in the area for an appraisal. We then are expected to inform NEA about the company and its degree of professionalism.’

If this were not enough, Ruth has taken on another job. ‘I’m chairperson of the Western Regional Division of AADC, one of the hats which Marian von Tuyl used to fill. That covers 11 states and three territories. I keep trying to find a way for us to meet in Hawaii or Puerto Rico!’ Ruth chucked, ‘You know how I love to party, girl! The Executive Committee meets twice a year and some day we’re going to make it.’

In the welter of jogging, meeting and arranging, Ruth has taken on additional tasks. She made her debut as an actress this summer with the Oakland Ensemble Theatre, rehearsing daily from 9 until noon. ‘And this fall I’m writing a biography on Katherine Dunham. Honey, me a writer, but Katherine says she’s tired fo articles and books about her that sound like texts. Since we’ve been very tight ever since I was in her company, she wants me to do it. When she gets back from Brazil, I expect to have a nice tidy box of tapes marked Ruth Beckford on it, and I’ll hole up somewhere for a month and just write!’

One can imagine whomever she plays or whatever she goes will have a touch of that special Beckford clarity, purpose and relish of life, to say nothing of that mock dismay.”

The last time I saw Ruth was at a performance at the Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts in Oakland, a performance of Deborah Vaughan’s Dimensions Dance Theatre, Down the Congo Line, with a haunting performance by Latanya d Tigner about a rite of passage.

Deborah was one of the young women whom Ruth mentored. Even though she was seated in a wheel chair, Ruth Beckford exuded her own brand of majesty. I suspect that steadfast quality is a memory I share with anyone who had the privilege to meet and know Ruth Beckford.

Smuin Ballet’s Quarter Century May 3

5 May

May 3 wasn’t the start of the Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s 25th season, but it was the evening Brooke Byrne, Carlos Carvajal, Lawrence Tsui and I sat in Yerba Buena Center’s Theatre to watch the Season Two of that auspicious milestone. The orchestra was nearly full, the audience quite responsive – especially in the second half – and the screened commentary appropriately laudatory. The overall aura was one of confidence.

For the screening, there were comments by Amy Seiwert, whose ballet Renaissance comprised the first half of the program, Erin Yarbrough-Powell who has danced with the company since 2003; Shannon Hurlburt one-time member whose tap capacities are warmly remembered; Amy London, company ballet master; Michael Oesch, Lighting Designer; Patti Hume, the founding president, and finally, Celia Fushille, early company member, Smuin muse and now artistic director. As you can imagine, their comments were laudatory, focused on the troupe’s repertoire variety and Michael’s penchant for dancer’s individuality. Finally, the screening included images of the Smuin new building out in the Mission, spacious and somewhat cosy for an artistic enterprise with 18 dancers, and just short the same number of staff. It is a definite accomplishment.

The video part of the production was accomplished by Paul Swensen, its editing by William Meese, with the writer Steve Siegelman and the wonderful, familiar voice of Peter Coyote.

Amy Seiwert’s Renaissance provided us with the wonderful sound of the Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble, cream-hued tunics and tights designed by Kaori Higashiyama, lighting and design by Brian Jones. The design comprised three gold-patterned panels glistening up stage right, as the ensemble, duets, and small groupings danced with semaphore port de bras, cocked feet, bent knees on occasion and the forward strides one associates with Eastern European folk dances. There were circles with the entire ensemble, the women alone, and a tender pas de deux. The joy, energy and thrust of the music visually propelled the dancers in a work any company would be pleased to include in their season’s roster. I hope to see it in the Smuin schedule again soon.

The second half of the program progressed under the title of The Best of Smuin; let me say my memory of Michael goes back to the first San Francisco Ballet spring season at the Alcazar Theatre on O’Farrell [now the Handlery Hotel] and his invigorating sharing with Fiona Fuerstner in leading the third movement of George Balanchine’s Symphony in C. During his decade-long co-directing of San Francisco Ballet, Michael enlisted Bay Area dance writers to write essays for the company’s programs; I was the beneficiary three times in said practice, along with Gay Morris, Stephanie Von Buchau and Stephen Steinberg. He also had me ghost a salute to Ben Sommers in one of the programs.

In the program I saw, Ben Needham-Wood and Mengjun Chen made the strongest impression; the former for his partnering and the latter for his dancing to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana excerpt. Nicole Haskins, her head encased in a white wig, body in red swimsuit like garment gave the audience the wink, surrounded by the men with white ostrich feathers to Marilyn Monroe’s rendition of “Do It Again,” reminding me Zizi Jeanmaire had received a similar display by Roland Petit.

There was very little musically which escaped Michael’s interest: traditional Italian Opera – Giuseppe Verdi, Carl Orff, W. A. Mozart, J.S. Bach, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and then the range of popular tunes along with George Gershwin. It was clear in his movement phrasing that he heard the music, even when the costuming or his conception could make one’s purist’s streak wince, while the results made for a consistent whole within Smuin’s idea. One has to give Michael high marks for that curiosity, invention and the Sherwin-Williams cover-the-earth to choreograph it all.

A final note regarding the company’s eighteen dancer roster; dancers, only six have been with the company six years; two came in 2015; four joined in 2016 and six, mostly men, in 2018. Perhaps the acquisition of the company’s physical home will encourage personnel longevity.