The 2017 Fall Smuin Matinee at the Palace of Fine Arts

4 Oct

Smuin’s Fall San Francisco season invariably happens at The Palace of Fine Arts and on October 1 attracted seniors and families in almost equal measure to see a program of three works, two by guest choreographers and a 2004 piece by Smuin to the music of Frank Sinatra. The execution level was high if choreographically one of the selections was questionable. Everything was performed to tape.

As I watched the dancing progress one couldn’t help but glimpse the thought process behind the choreography, classically based, and what it reflects of the maker’s exposure, taste and take on contemporary life. This seems particularly true of Garrett Ammon, choreographer/artistic director of Wonderbound, whose Serenade utilized the Pyotr Ilycih Tchaikovsky music George Balanchine chose for his first choreography in the United States, Serenade.

For one thing Ammon used the sequence as created by Tchaikovsky, while Mr. B. inserted the finale mid-way through his setting for the students of the School of American Ballet. Mr. B emphasized the women, where Ammon made his essay very heterosexual. It should be noted that male dancers in 1934 were in short supply and technically not very strong, beyond Mr. B’s fondness for creating for women.

For a second, the women had extremely bouffant skirts where Mr. B had filmy, floating blue over leotards and tights. The contrast between flirty and nearly total feminine rites and hesitations was hugely emphatic. Ammon’s take, while executed with skill, placed hesitation and gentleness somewhere back stage.

Choreographically, one’s eye waited to see what Ammon would do with all those pregnant signals of pause, tension, mood and evocation. Ammon delivered but with swiftness of gesture, and where Mr. B bobbed forward and backward, Ammon employed hops, face forward, torsos leaning towards the audience. And, of course, male and female were hopping side by side – almost “Let’s Go To The Hop.” And so it went, and particularly in the sequence where Balanchine created the famous trio, the movement grated, not only with the memory, but with the music itself – sustained grand jetes at an ankle showing the woman’s crotch made me squirm and wonder why I should be subjected to weekend sexual high jinks lacking in intimacy. Having grown up in a rural setting with its share of cow country mores, I remember a certain awkwardness and restraint, but none here, thank you.

Ammon’s background indicates exposure to new strands of choreography, including Trey McIntyre’s exhaustive knowledge of life’s frequent awkwardness. McIntyre’s treatment possesses a spareness in gesture, movement and intent. Ammon’s viewpoint seems more of the shotgun variety.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Requiem for a Rose leaned on Franz Schubert, with costumes, primarily voluminous scarlet skirts, loaned by Pennsylvania Ballet where it was premiered in 2009. Almer Kok provided the initial and closing sounds which revealed Erica Felsch in skin-toned leotard, rose in her teeth, moving arts, bending torso with abundant blonde hair tossed as exclamation point to the gestures and shift in the body. Apart from her initial presence, midway through and almost at the end, the tone was classical, augmented by the weighted swirl of the scarlet skirts on both men and women. Ochoa incorporates the contemporary and the classical, and while Erica Felsch was limited to elegant walking, beginning, middle and end, with use of port de bras and extensions, the ensemble swirled around her, their scarlet skirts like the petals they symbolized. I’d like to see it again.

Smuin’s 2004 Fly Me to the Moon seemed to have lost a couple of its nine numbers set to songs rendered by Frank Sinatra with timing and phrases bringing out the Smuin skill in matching song with gesture. Without a doubt Michael deserved the Cobbett Steinberg evaluation “he is popular taste,” and clearly not only skilled at it, but beloved because of it.


William McDermott, 1916-2017

3 Oct

In sorting papers, culling the many unnecessary souvenirs, I have been recording those special to my involvement in the various manifestations of The Ballets Russes and the individuals making its entire history so memorable and exciting. One of the special items is the unpublished memoir of William McDermott, who served as conductor for Colonel de Basil during The Original Ballets Russes treks through Latin America. McDermott graciously allowed me to use parts of it in the draft of Tatiana Stepanova’s memoir, also still unpublished.

Knowing he was in his senior years, I thought to look for an obituary. After two or three attempts via Wikipedia, I found his obituary in a notice from Naples, Florida where he resided in retirement. He died June 26, 2017. With a birthdate of August 20, 1916, that meant he lived to be a centenarian.

Unfortunately, there was nothing more to mark a remarkable career which included the conducting of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Tokyo and arrangements of classical ballet music, particularly the pas de deux from the major 19th century ballets. His arrangement of third act pas de deux from Don Quixote, played by the Cincinnati Symphony was recently heard over a New York City radio station.

It’s a real pity there is such little information about a man “who saw it all.”

San Francisco Ballet’s 202 August 21

24 Aug

Since moving into the Chris Hellman Center for Dance on Franklin Street, San Francisco Ballet has devised various programs to entice and satisfy audience curiosity about the art form and SFB’s company activities. Auxiliaries helping to fund the company also supply volunteers for events like shepherding small children during Nutcracker season, form part of this in addition to curtain talks at 7 p.m with a dancer, a musician or even a crucial artistic staff member. Mary Ruud, a long-time researcher and presenter also has given talks held in the Green Room of Veterans Auditorium.

So it comes as no surprise that the audience gurus have devised a three-part series designed to deepen balletomania and the San Francisco flock of groupies. Getting an e-mail led me to ask to attend session 2 of Ballet 202 where Ricardo Bustamonte and Ulrik Birkkjaer were the featured guests.

For all the certain remoteness of the art form and the glassy facade of the Hellman ground floor, there is a relaxed atmosphere in the circular guest area where perhaps two dozen people sat, waiting to be invited into the William Dollar Room. The genders were roughly equal in number, the age range from young balletomanes, to a robust woman bent over a laptop, a white haired man with cane reading from a book, clearly a couple chatting with familiar individuals. The space is marked from the inner entrance doors to a small bronze of Pascal Molat in rehearsal clothes, the big toe on his supporting foot raised, doubtless pondering some aspect of his characterization.

When Cecilia Beam indicated the room was ready, we filed in to find two rows of seats behind tables, four seats to two tables, behind which the comfortable sea green upholstered chairs created some four rows and three seats in forward diagonals on either side of the room. Just beyond the entrance was a refreshment table: chicken on skewers with satay sauce, brie and small circles of bread, scattered pieces of fruit and glasses for the pitchers of cool water.

On the tables or the chairs were two pieces of paper. One contained a drawing with squares labeled on each side with a letter, and the second had English language verse from Bjork songs; these form the musical inspiration for Arthur Pita, creator of the 2017 premiere of Salome, one of the dozen choreographers invited to create works for the 2018 spring season.

Cecilia led the group in a series of questions regarding ballet preferences, stories vs. abstract, favorite ballet, reaction to Frankenstein, years watching the company, who had seen the Paris Opera Ballet, who saw Nureyev, who has studied ballet, who had attended SF Ballet School [adult or child] among other queries aimed to get an overall view of the audience. Among the audience were Cynthia Pepper, teaching in SFB’s School Outreach and Carrie Geyser Casey, who has taught dance history at the SFB School, the Dance Program at St. Mary’s in Moraga and who led the 8/14 session of Ballet 202.

After a glowing introduction, Ricardo Bustamonte outlined his role as ballet master to Arthur Pita, describing how Pita started working with the dancers, making them roll on the floor, flex their arms and legs in positions unusual for what Bustamonte described as very structured modes of movement. This they did about a week before Pita began setting movement based on the music of Bjork, the Icelandic-born pop singer, the imagery for two songs provided us. Bustamonte quipped, “It’s good Helgi is Islandic and could interpret for us.” He said that Pita would see a movement on a dancer and say, “I like that,” and incorporate it in the work. Sometimes he would remark to Bustamonte, “Do you remember that…” and Bustamonte would either refer to his notes, recall what was seen or ask the dancer what he had done. He remarked the company is more relaxed the second time around with Pita’s imaginative approach.

A paper diagram given us showed the body divided into four boxes with letters ranging up both sides and lines crossing within the individual boxes. Giving us the task of identifying the word ADAM from the diagram gave us immediate understanding of the mental and movement agility Pita requires and encourages.

Bustamonte showed a variation being danced by Maria Kochetkova who he said was thrilled not to be dancing in pointe shoes. She had watched rehearsals of Pita’s Salome and said she wanted to work with him. The segment shown displayed the expanded movement repertoire that Pita has devised and how graceful the angularity and off kilter choreography proved on Kochetkova’s body.

After thanking Bustamonte, a short break ensued before Ulrik Berkkjaer, the new principal dancer from Denmark, climbed on one of the seats to be questioned by Cecilia Beam. Sandy-haired, lean and close to being tall, Berkkjaer, sporting a substantial, neatly trimmed beard, which doubtless will vanish as the Nutcracker season is upon us, spoke fluent English in an engaging manner. Part of his ease in the language he attributed to his American-born mother, but also to the opportunities he has had to study at The Royal Ballet and School of American Ballet while being thoroughly trained from age six at the Royal Danish Ballet.

Cecilia asked Berkkjaer how he found similarities and differences between his experience with the Royal Danish Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. “In Denmark we could look down at the stage; here the building is separate and devoted entirely to dance. And we start early appearing on stage.”

Asked what drew him to come to San Francisco, Berkkjaer said, “I started at the Royal Danish at 6, and joined the company at 16. I am thirty-one, and a dancing career is a short one. I thought it was time that I tried something new, and when I learned there were openings with the company [San Francisco Ballet has 15 new members], I sent videos to Helgi. He called me and said there was an opening. So here I am.”

Those attending Ballet 202 were shown Youtube footage of Berkkjaer in La Sylphide’s Act I where the petite allegro and the thrilling jetes ending in attitude en arriere are such striking examples of the Bournonville style. Without question, Berkkjaer’s rendition of James, the fated hero, demonstrated what a prize we will be privileged to see, a clarity and classicism to place against David Hallberg; it is not surprising that Berkkjaer was the recipient of the Erik Bruhn prize in 2006.

Asked what kind of reception he has had and Berkkjaer’s face lit in a smile, “Sarah Van Patten, who is fantastic. She danced Juliet in Helgi’s Romeo and Juliet when she was sixteen. I was a page in Act I.”

Here in less than two months, Berkjjaer has been rehearsing with three choreographers, the third starting the Monday of this second session of Ballet 202. Admitting that it’s challenging, he said “I find it stimulating,” which clearly drew him to the company. As we clapped and began to leave, chatting with friends, I remember something Yvette Chauvire mentioned in a memorable New Year’s Eve interview in 1965, “The classics are so agreeable.” Said in French, the concept had a special lilt, an ambiance to it. Like several other European additions to our company, Berkjjaer brings that indefinable pleasure with him.

Amy Seiwart’s Imagery at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater

31 Jul

July 21-22 Amy Seiwart mounted the 7th Sketch season for her ensemble Imagery with a new departure: a full-length work and to the music of Franz Schubert, 1827 The Wanderer song cycle set to the poetry of Welhelm Muller. Utilizing eight dancers from local and distant companies, Seiwart selected a recording of the music by the expressive voice of Dietrich Fisher Dieskau with pianist Gerald Moore. The recording, placed on a stand downstage right, was lifted and set down on the turn table by two dancers placing the necessary needle at the beginning of the two acts in the seventy minute performance. Seiwart’s troupe was scheduled to appear with The Wanderer at New York City’s Joyce Theater the end of July.

A departure balletically and notable in the cast were the three bearded men, giving the work a gravitas not always present in works with clean-shaven males. Another physical impression was, with one exception, the relative uniformity of the dancer’s build and size,.

With her S-Curve label, costume designer Susan Roemer clothed the ballet. She usually builds her costumes around leotards, adding touches which reflect an element in the given work. Here it was strips of black around the waists and also varying strips from the waist to the breast area for the dancers. Also there was a deep plum-dusty red coat, a multi-buttoned Romantic era garment, providing a comment in each song segment, passing from dancer to dancer, not without protest in some instances.

With classicism and sudden approaches to supporting a body or registering some anxiety, Seiwart managed to convey the uncertainty expressed musically as the early 19th century’s material progress conveyed its dawning emotional and intellectual complexity.

Amy Seiwart has been named the next artistic director of Sacramento Ballet, a post she will assume in the 2018-2019 season. Returning to the company which lured her West, one wonders whether Imagery’s Sketch season will survive to its 9th season, and, of course, will she continue to contribute to Smuin Ballet.

A post-script is in order regarding The Cowell Theater. For the better part of a year Cowell’s audience has had to brave the sea breezes/blasts along the west side of the pier where the Cowell was erected. This misfortune was occasioned by the remodeling of Pier Two to accommodate the graduate program of the San Francisco Art Institute; it frankly was a distinct hazard to the body temperature.

The Fort Mason management has now provided an entry on the east side of the pier. Shortly after the close of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, the new entry began receiving audiences in a spacious entry opening to the theater right near the lavatories. In the Foyer large sepia photographs of prior pier experiences are on display -a nice touch and reminder of days of yore. If the Fort Mason management will remember to hang the multi-disciplinary framed flyers we used to walk past, the cavernous new opening will be complete.

ODC’s 2017 Summer Sampler

31 Jul

There are few San Francisco Bay Area dance enthusiasts and observers who don’t privately or publicly stand with respect and varying degrees of awe at the achievement of O.C./SF’s three Graces: Brenda Way, K.T. Nelson and Kimi Okada. With a series of five-year plans, they bought a building on `17th Street off South Van Ness, while teaching and running a company whose dancers I have been told are on year-long salaries and are allowed to dance elsewhere when O.C. rehearsals, performances and seasons are not required. Then came the O.C. Commons, a facility housing the administrative offices, some half dozen studios, a Pilates clinic and the capacity to host studio performances. Under Brenda Way’s guidance and with the aid of Lori Laqua, O.C.’s first building was rehabbed with its ceiling lifted, a studio, a green room added and a café very much in action when the July 27th evening started this year’s Summer Sampler in the B. Way Theater.

We were introduced to a collaboration between K.T. Nelson and Park Na Hoon [Korean style name placement] Of Seoul, Korea involving three dancers: Jeremy Smith, Rachel Furst and Mia J. Chong, the latter an impressive apprentice with the company. The title was written in Hang-gul, the Korean method devised early in the Choson Dynasty, just before or at the same time Christopher Columbus ventured forth. The longest piece in the four-part program, the trio was standing together as the audience filed in to take their seats. The piece, to music by Joon Yang Yong [again Korean style] and Johann Paul Van Westhoff, concerned the human dilemma of closeness, almost to the point of claustrophobia, to divergence to the point of chaos.

Chong I found impressive for her ability to convey almost the opposite of the Asian feminine stereotype, besides being a very good dancer. Jeremy Smith and Rachel Furst somehow conveyed a more conventional cohesion and rebellion.

This collaboration was followed by a 1974 visual plot by Brenda Way, titled Format II with notes and explanations printed in the program. Private Freeman and Daniel Santos undertook the challenge of performing with Tegan Schwab and Lani Yamanaka as time keepers. Translated, that means complicated with minute signals being conveyed to either dancer by their designated time keeper. Freeman and Santos were garbed in white shirts, black ties, twill trousers and sneakers, and, incidentally, were scheduled on Saturday to reverse the roles with their respective timekeepers. There were A, B and C sections with the time keepers dominating the sequence and the 12 minute material. For virtuosity, Format II qualified in spades.

Kimi Okada’s work, Head in the Sand, followed intermission, featuring Natasha Adorlee Johnson, Alex Guthrie, Jeremy Bannon-Neches and Keon Saghari. A premiere, Okada used So Percussion/Matmos, Uakti, Brian Eno to explore the phenomenon of loss. What do we do ?

Okada explored highly individualized responses, frenetic and manic before the quartet began to acknowledge loss for other human beings and to attempt, with visibly touching movement and rapport, the attempt to bridge the self concern and supply comfort to others.

From 1995, Excerpt: Part of a Longer Story, Brenda Way chose Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto for a gorgeous pas de deux for Private Freeman and Tegan Schwab. The eleven-minute push-pull, connection-retreat, passionate embrace-frightened withdrawal was breath-taking enough to linger in my mind for most of the following day.

The O.C. trio has begun to work towards a cohesive program celebrating fifty years in San Francisco. Now, I think at year 46, these three Fates have the situation well in hand, And lucky enough to have superb dancers for their subjects.

2017 and SFB at Stern Grove July 30

31 Jul

The next step San Francisco Recreation and Parks needs to accomplish are new
benches and tables at Stern Grove. The quantity of same has been reduced to make way for more non-paying pinickers, but none the less Leonard Halprin’s design, full or devoid of bodies, is wonderfully impressive; the overcast was not so chill as to prevent San Francisco Ballet dancing the same program it performed July 21 for the Napa Valley Festival. The roster included Tomasson’s Haffner Symphony, the Balanchine-Stravinsky Agon pas de deux, Tomasson’s Concerto Grosso, Paul Taylor’s Company B’s Boogie-Woogie Boy, Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour.

Casting proved to repeat earlier assignments, particularly with the Haffner and the Wheeldon works. The former included Sasha de Solo and Angelo Greco in the principal roles; while both are musical, the former is given to a legato contrasted to the dynamic attention Greco pays to partnering and to the pirouettes and double tours he accomplishes so nimbly. When I first saw him dance the role I wrote that Greco loves dancing, a truism repeated under the eucalyptus.

Intermission was followed by Sofiane Sylve and Carlo de Lanno in the pas de deux made famous by Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell. Both skilled collaborators, de Lanno’s lengthy limbs contrasted with Sylve’s more compact physique; they carried the piece with admirable focus.

Tomasson’s Concerto Grosso, the all-male quintet, has been memorable to me for introducing a red-clad Pascal Molat to San Francisco’s audience. Here that assignment was given to Esteban Hernandez, whose jumps and pleasure were
evident. As a skilled soloist himself, Tomasson has an innate sensibility when it comes to male variations, and Concerto Grosso displayed his felicity for the remaining four soloists: Max Cauthorn, Jaime Garcia Castilla , Wei Wang, Lonnie Weeks. It’s good to have that memory periodically.

Joseph Walsh possesses just about the right amount of sass for Paul Taylor’s incredibly energetic solo from Company B: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. It’s non stop, one of Taylor’s amazing creations; Walsh conveyed all its elements.

Following the second intermission, the program closed with Christopher Wheeldon’s Within The Golden Hour where Martin Packledinaz garbed the women in muted chiffon skirts over tights with headbands, the men in harmonious colors, dancing to the combined score of Edo Bosso and Antonio Vivaldi. The principals, Mathilde Froustey and Myles Thatcher, Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham, Maria Kotchetkova and Victor Luiz, all well-matched and harmonious in this lyric, twilight infused work, carrying a very pleasant afternoon to a close. It made the preparation, the logistics and ultimate packing for the on-lookers well worth the trek out Sloat Boulevard and Nineteenth Avenue.

2017 Week Two of EDF’s Thirty-Ninth Festival

23 Jul

Readers probably know by now that EDF stands for Ethnic Dance Festival, and week two, July 15-16, commenced with Ballet Afsaneh. It ia an intriguing ensemble dedicated to the dance traditions of the Middle East, an area little represented for its movement forms, if associated with the 1001 Nights, sloe-eyed beauties with enticing glances behind gauzy veils,sequestered from the average male.

Organized by Sharlyn Sawyer in 1986, the ensemble’s dances have melded traditions and fairy tales with modern dance and theater. This year’s performance was no exception with the all female performers appearing in one-shoulder asymmetrical or shoestring straps of iridescent silver-black; below the ankle skirts tights covered the entire leg in an appearance crediting its inspiration with Persia, titled the Persepolis Project. Commencing with a soloist and gradually adding three or four dancers and then the full ensemble appearing in circular and interweaving patterns with particularly fluid arm movements, all in half light to heighten the movement qualities.

From this gentle evocation, the Yao Yong Dance from San Jose, bright bluish-turquoise skirts manipulated freely over scarlet boots, swept on to the stage with full stage illumination, moving to the tricky accents of Chinese melodies, rendered in symphonic sound. This orchestration is a particular by product of Chinese dependence upon Soviet examples during the early portion of the People’s Republic of China.

While I doubt whether Song of the Nomads ever witnessed such diaphanous costumes, the head-dresses and buoyant quality of the movement evoked a people used to the horse and a certain exuberant enjoyment of space. The dozen dancers made it seem a large contingent had dropped by to entertain us.

Hayward is the home of Ballet Folklorico Compana Mexico Danza. It startled us with rifle-bearing women in somber striped costumes, paying tribute to the women’s role in the Revolution, celebrating Pancho Villa and Juana Galio. The dances themselves, the waltz and the zapateado,were adapted from Amalia Hernandez’ original choreography by Martin Romero. The company was formed in 1991 by Rene Gonzalez as an after-school activity to keep children safe from gang activities.

Aditya Patel founded Gurus of Dance as a vehicle of Bollywood dance for student participation and production. This number just before intermission was centered around The Lord Ganesha, the elephant=headed god and cause for an annual celebration in Maharashtra State where Mumbai and the Bollywood industry are situated. The spectacle was large, noisy, cheerful, and carried a healthy share of symbolism, a bit overwhelming but all clearly enjoyed by the student dancers.

After intermission came my principal reason for attending the matinee: the farewell performance of La Tania, appearing a white bota de cola. She held the ruffled train at moments like a beloved child or an unexpected bouquet; at others she stretched or reached with her eloquent port de bras in the joyous tempo of the alegrias. Tall for a flamenco exponent, originally from France but raised in Andalusia, Tania couldn’t make a false move if she tried, turning on the usual flamenco dime, the bota de cola swirling around her, the taconeo erupting at moments, clear, staccato, all delivered to the audience with warmth, knowledge, a farewell for the history books. I felt a tear roll down my right cheek, and I just let it drop.

In a memorable, inventive transition, one of the dancers from Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco moved on stage with two fans, one white one which given to La Tania. The two exchanged a few moments of taconeo while gradually La Tania with her white fan moved deliberately off stage left, at which point I heard myself sigh.

Four exponents, dressed in striped skirts and somber by comparison, danced in flamenco style in a Carola Zertuche composition for Rondanas Compas. Zertuche is the current artistic director of Theatre Flamenco, started in San Francisco in 1966 by Adela Clara and for many years under the direction of Miguel Santos.

Bharata Natyam was historically a solo performance performed in front of the deity in a South Indian temple, or before one of the monarchs of the court of Tanjore; then the British proclaimed the practitioners of the dance form prostitutes, devastating a lengthy tradition of matrilineal families. When it began to be revived in the late ‘20’s and 30’s, the possibilities of earning a livelihood dancing Bharata Natyam were vastly proscribed because the patronage system had been devastated. From the teachers came a procession of younger dancers who, married and immigrating to the United States, started teaching but, instead of solo performances, they formed ensembles.

Natya in Berkeley is one such group; the number of dancers in white silk, bordered in gold and scarlet, laden with the traditional cosmetics and headdresses, was quite staggering. My dim eyes counted at least two dozen energetic exponents, maneuvering like a field division, recounting the descent of the River Goddess Ganga to earth via the tangled locks and supreme strength of The Lord Shiva.

Bitezo Bia Kongo brought three tall, well muscled drummers on stage with riotous rhythms, clearly enjoying themselves. The dancers, carrying brooms, were engaged in highly individualized prayer.

A quiet interlude followed with Mahealani Uchiyama and Zena Carlota, moving quietly across the stage, Carlota playing a 21 stringed instrument and Uchiyama a karimba, improvising. I very much wish that they had been placed before or after La Tania, because the quality of their presentation would have harmonized with La Tania’s elegiac presentation for all the form’s declarative emphasis.

Te Mana O Te Ra, with yellow tiers of nylon undulating madly with its tidy young figures demonstrating their skill and expressing the frustrations of our contemporary society. Formed in 1997, the ensemble usually completes a program as it did on the second EDF weekend with an enthusiastic audience response.

As on all EDF programs, starting with the last presentation, each group is acknowledged, dancing a tad, following by the earlier number. When La Tania came on stage, she was presented with a bouquet in recognition for three decades of dance in the Bay Area. She visibly teared as she asked that the bouquet be taken off stage. And, like all EDF programs, the dancers exited off stage, main and side aisles, to end the 39th season.

World Arts West is to be congratulated for its evident success. It is also evident that some of the warmth and intimacy possible in the Palace of Fine Arts was lost in the Opera House. I would hope that The Palace could continue as a venue, with the Opera House utilized for major anniversaries, although number 40 happens in 2018. Maybe 45 in 2022?