Tag Archives: Ashley Wheater

The Joffrey Ballet Returns to Zellerbach

5 Apr

The Joffrey Ballet, now under the artistic direction of Ashley Wheater, a former Joffrey Ballet member and lengthy veteran of San Francisco Ballet’s artistic staff, came to Zellerbach March 14 and 15. I saw the matinee on March 15, and have to say I left my glasses at home. The dancers therefore were not very distinct even sitting in Row G, but the music was loud, clear and, mostly lengthy.

The moves clearly impressed themselves on an enthusiastic audience, probably one of the most responsive and willing any theatrical or musical performer has the good luck to enjoy.

There were three ballets and a pas de deux, all from contemporary choreographers; two have strong ties with San Francisco Ballet; Val Caniparoli and Yuri Possokhov. It was canny of Wheater to include them in the local Joffrey appearance. I think he was determined to assert the historic Joffrey profile as being au courant as much as the Joffrey also demonstrates a sense of history with works like Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table. The Chicago repertoire includes Don Quixote;soon Christopher Wheeldon’s interpretation of Swan Lake,. No one can accuse the company of losing sight of or involvement with the classics. Robert Joffrey’s Nutcracker pointed the way as did the very early Conservitoriat of Auguste Bournonville..

Caniparoli’s piece,Incantations, concerned itself with introspection to a very long, arduous score by Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky; there was virtually no way the piece could be cut and remain coherent; Caniparoli
adhered to every phrase, allowing toes to point, legs to lift into attitudes and arabesques, smoothly partnered, reflected the lengthy employment of chimes. I am afraid my attention span wants to edit length.

Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili danced Yuri Possokhov’s Bells, set to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata #2. Murkily lit, beautifully danced, there is
something magnetic when Possokhov’s reliance on Russian composers features two dancers trained in the current Russian teaching tradition who also are husband and wife. San Francisco Ballet possesses at least two such couples, They make clear legal intimacy elsewhere helps to foster a special innerness when dancing in a contemporary work without narrative. Someone remarked “They don’t show relationship.” My take was relationship was so strong obvious manifestations wasn’t needed.

Alexandre Ekman’s Episode 31 possessed a certain zaniness about it which echoed faintly some of the Arpino cheekiness, while still being very different. His screen images at the back, the rushings around the stage made me wonder whether it was his reflection of observing workaday life in Chicago. The Joffrey Ballet is housed in the heart of downtown Chicago, so bustle and the El are routinely present. Chicago dwellers must have loved it, recognizing the stop and start, the energy the dancers poured into the work.

As to Stanton Welch’s ballet to the music of John Adams, I remember little except the pleasure of seeing Rory Hohenstein providing a skillful, substantial contribution.

In Dancetabs.com Aimee T’sao expressed the hope that Cal Performances finds a way to give the Joffrey a yearly slot as it allows for the Ailey and Mark Morris ensembles. While I think it unlikely on a yearly basis, I endorse seeing them every other year. Berkeley was an important place in the Joffrey some forty years ago, thanks to the touring program the Dance Program of the NEA fostered for all too brief a time.

Arpino’s Trinity was premiered at the Zellerbach before the Joffrey began to be sponsored by the San Francisco Symphony whose musicians provided the music the Joffrey danced to. It all vanished when the Symphony moved into Davies Symphony Hall and the Opera and Ballet claimed San Francisco’s Opera House all for themselves. No more American Ballet Theatre in February; no more Joffrey Ballet in June; no more theatre space of 2,000-2,500 seats to entice companies to negotiate dates to appear anywhere West or South of San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Apparently, Mayor Ed Lee and others governing San Francisco’s 49 square miles, have no plans for such a theatre, easily accessed, with sufficient parking space to draw a crowd which loves something in addition to rock, hockey, baseball and football.

Still, I want to see Arpino’s Kettentanz again.

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A Program Change for The Joffrey Ballet

7 Feb

When Cal Performances issued its program brochure for the 2014-2016 season, the Joffrey Ballet’s March appearance at Zellerbach listed Gerald Arpino’s Round of Angels in its roster of ballets. The folder for Programs I and II of San Francisco Ballet has Round of Angels replaced by Val Caniparoli’s Incantations, I believe created on and for the Joffrey Ballet, commissioned by artistic director Ashley Wheater.

I can’t say I am sorry; I know a little about the back story of the Arpino work which I mention now. Though I don’t believe it explicitly stated, Arpino’s use of the Gustav Mahler’s music was a tribute to James Howell, his musical collaborator, who died of AIDS before Arpino started to set the work. Arpino came to San Francisco where Howell had settled, and stayed through Howell’s final days. Following his departure from the Joffrey staff, Howell studied physical therapy and eventually worked as a practitioner of Alexander technique, though he still advised Arpino musically, and may well have chosen the music Arpino used for his silver-Milliskin clad men and the single woman who is manipulated in swooping, bird-like patterns to Mahler’s elegaic themes.

In two events related to the Joffrey Ballet’s local seasons
under San Francisco Symphony auspices, Howell remarked he chose music for Arpino by stacking records to listen to while he was vacuuming. If anything stood out while thus occupied, Howell made a note of it, joining his suggestions to Arpino.

Together Howell and Arpino renovated a building on Sanchez; the basement provided space for a handsome studio and the upstairs housed Howell’s Joffrey materials. Arpino retained the building following Howell’s death, visiting periodically.

I was informed that the building has vast problems with termites; the guardians of the Howell legacy were forced
to move the material elsewhere. It is not the first time that rare artistic material languishes, despite the efforts of the guardians to place material safely in a public institution.

So perhaps it’s just as well Round of Angelsawaits a different tour to be seen again. Lets hope Howell’s collection eventually finds an appreciative, public home where the dance world can enjoy Howell’s remarkable eye.

2014 USAIBC Results, June 27, 2014

20 Aug

These comments will see the website not quire two months following the announcement of winners for the 2014 USAIBC Competition. In thirty-five years technology has devastated “scoops”, Facebook and YouTube almost decreeing “sayonara” to ritual and decorum.

The IBC Staff, Jurors, finalists, seeded dancers, coaches, press, family, friends and IBC volunteers gathered on the Mezzanine to learn the results of 8 sessions of Round I, 3 sessions each of Rounds II and III. Vicki Blake Harper, a six- competition press and public relations veteran, had managed to print the three page announcement to supply the press with the data.

The third page was nearly full listing scholarships and positions with junior companies of U.S. companies before the perfunctory notice of the Gala, and statements by Edward Villella, Jury Chair, and Sue Lobrano, Executive Director.

Ashley Wheater, Artistic Director of The Joffrey Ballet offered full scholarships for 2015 Summer Intensive to Blake Kessler, Matthew Griffin; from the People’s Republic of China Taiyu He and Yue Shi plus Gustavo Carvalho from Brasil. Griffin, He, Shi and Carvalho are also designated to continue into the Joffrey Studio Company.

The Joffrey also offered positions in the Joffrey Company for the 2015-2016 season to the Koreans Dae Han Na and Jeong Hansol. The two Koreans are still students, Dae Han Na of Korea National University of Art, Jeong Hansol of Sejong University.

Trainee and company contracts, 2014-2015, have been offered by Ballet West to semi-finalist Anita Sineral-Scott, U.S.A; Makenzie Richter, U.S.A. with Houston Ballet’s Second Company; Texas Ballet Theater to semi-finalist Paula Alves, Brazil; Memphis Ballet offered Matthew Griffin, U.S. a trainee position for 2014-2015.

Matthew Griffin also garnered a full tuition scholarship for Colorado Ballet’s 2015 Summer intensive and a one-season contract with Columbia City Ballet.

Gisele Bethea, U.S.A., has been offered a full scholarship and stipend for the fall 2014 and a Studio Company position, Spring 2015 with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre.

Finally, Olga Marchenkova and Ilya Artamonov, Bolshoi Ballet dancers from Russia, are invited to dance leading roles in South Mississippi Ballet’s 2014-2015 production of The Sleeping Beauty.

In all, these opportunities count as much as the following awards:
Robert Joffrey Award of Merit: Daniel Alejandro McCormick-Quintero, representing Mexico, but a student at San Francisco Ballet School,$1,000.

Jury Award of Encouragement, Female: Romina Contreras from Chile, $500.

Jury Award of Encouragement, Male: Yue Shi, People’s Republic of China, $500.

The Choreographic Award went to Nicholas Blanc for Rendez-vous, danced by finalist Aaron Smyth, Australia. Both Blanc and Smyth are affiliated with the Joffrey Ballet, Blanc a former principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet, then ballet master with the Royal Scottish Ballet before assuming the same position with the Joffrey Ballet. The Award brings with it $2,500.00

For the Best Couple Awards, the Junior went to Yasmin Lomondo and Gustavo Carvalho of Brazil; scarcely surprising since they were the sole couple participating throughout in the junior division, courteous and attentive as well as exact and musical. Both receive $1,000 each. The Senior Best Couple were
from Korea, Ji-Seok Ha and Ga-yeon Jung.

Announcement of Medals start with the Bronzes. The Jury is permitted to award two Bronzes and two Silvers for either men or women and this occurred amongst the Junior Women’s Bronze, the Men’s Bronze, the Women’s Senior Silver. The list went as follows:

Junior Women Bronze: Yasmin Lomondo, Brazil and Paulina Guraieb Abella, Mexico, each $1,500.

Junior Men’s Bronze, Gustavo Carvalho, Brazil, $1,000.

Junior Women’s Silver, MacKenzie Richter, U.S.A., $3,000.

Junior Women’s Gold, Gisela Bethea, U.S.A., $5,000.

In the Senior Division, the Awards lined up as follows:

Senior Women Bronze: Ga-Yeong Jung, Korea, $3,000

Senior Men’s Bronze: Aaron Smyth, Australia and Ivan Duarte, Brazil, each $3,000.

Senior Women’s Silver: Irina Sapozhnikova, Russia, and Tamako Miyazaki, Japan, each $5,000.

Senior Men’s Silver: Byul Yun, Korea, $5,000.

Senior Women’s Gold: Shiori Kase, Japan, $8,000

Senior Men’s Gold: Jeong Hansol, Korea, $8,000.

Missing from this roster were some dancers I liked enormously but who apparently took too much liberty in their classical variations. Jurors, enjoying coaching lineages stretching back almost to the time the classical repertoire was being established at the Maryinsky and Bolshoi Theatres in St. Petersburg and Moscow, or managed to acquire similar guidelines through migrating teachers or lengthy observation, pick up on such deviations. Generalized performances may permit such liberties; competitions do not and should not. As a result, one or two riveting dancers remained in the finalist category and the anguish was apparent
on their faces as the press conference terminated.

Adding my own opinion, there were several dancers already dancing with ensembles or companies. Beyond the requirements in classical variations, the professional rigors gave those competitors an edge in sheer performing skills; in the instance of the senior women it definitely showed. One or two other dancers revealed growing pains amongst the jurors manifesting such physical adjustments in degrees of reticence.

At the Gala, the medalists achieving gold status will dance twice, one classical variation and their contemporary selection.

Joffrey Ballet at Zellerbach, January 26-27

9 Feb

When the Joffrey Ballet danced last at the Zellerbach, Ashley Wheater had just been named as its new artistic director, former associate artistic director Adam Sklute had been named as Ballet West’s new artistic head, Mark Goldweber had joined Sklute and Cameron Badsen  waited to see what would happen.  Charthel Arthur would remain for at least another two seasons.

Seven years later, Ashley Wheater is definitely in charge with a string of commissions for the company to his credit.  He brought Age of Innocence, a company commission to the Zellerbach along with the full version of Christopher Wheeldon’s After The Rain and Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, long one of the Joffrey signature revivals of 20th century dance classics.  The overall impression drew enthusiastic applause at the two performances.  Joffrey’s  forty-four dancers are on target,  with several rare, sensitive interpreters.

Edward Liang has a most unenviable position; like most post-Balanchine choreographers working in the abstract mode, he has to take classical choreography beyond the man who trimmed excess from the technique while supported by many sublime choices from the Western musical repertoire.  As a person who enjoys story ballets, particularly on what it brings forward in a dancer’s expressiveness, I don’t envy the challenge he and others face.  Liang’s  choice, however,did hang around an intriguing notion: the tension and emotions in Jane Austen’s novels and the society she inhabited.

Aided by Maria Pinto’s white ball gowns and white-toned tunics for the men, perhaps ironically underscoredwith the music of Philip Glass and Thomas Newman, two lines, eight men and eight women, face each other to approximate an old-fashioned quadrille.  The arms, however, like suspended wings not fully stretched, signal the tension.  The girls are stiff, demure, non-committal, the men are not thoroughly restrained bucks.

A pas de deux ensues, followed by a male quartet and a second pas de deux before the final ensemble.  The quartet provides ample opportunity to exhibit male testosterone, the men short, almost stocky, given jetes, multiple pirouettes, an odd crossing of the legs on the floor from which they rise and fall, a clear exhibition of frustration.  In the two pas de deux, the women are hoisted and lowered in unusual angles; in one or two moments the women gently touch their partners, initiating the subsequent actions.  The couples on the 26th were Jeraldine Mendoza and Mauro Villanueva, Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels; Kara Zimmerman and Rory Hohenstein, April Daly and Dylan Gutierrez on the 27th.  While I didn’t particularly appreciate the amazing variety of positions, I was quite impressed with the care and intimacy the partners share, a quality evident in both performances.

The full version of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain provided the middle work for the two performances. It seemed a trifle odd to see a work with  two rather than three sections, but it may have been dictated by the Arvo Part selections or by Wheeldon himself; the result contained two couples in the first  section, danced to Tabula Rosa while the second to Part’s ubiquitous slow composition, Spiegel im Spiegel.  The Joffrey is just the second company to have the full rights to the work, created originally for New York City Ballet.

What stunned me in both performances was the quality in the pas de deux, first by Victoria Jaiani, the highly, justly praised soloist originally from Russian Georgia, and Fabrice Culmels. Where San Francisco Ballet’s version is famously danced by Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith and becomes the essence of clarity, cool classicism, the Joffrey dances it for warmth and tenderness within the classical vocabulary. The result was overheard at intermission uttered by a middle-aged woman standing in the aisle, “Thank France for producing Fabrice Culmels!” On Sunday Kara Zimmerman and Mauro Villanueva repeated the same emphasis.

Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table continued to make its chilling impact, a ballet  Ronn Guidi once mounted for Oakland Ballet.  The Joffrey was noted for its first revival, including it in its first Dance in America appearance over PBS. It apparently has been danced by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, lending the costumes and sets.

The ballet’s force lies in the brooding nature of Death and the masked, polished figures of the diplomats draping themselves around the green table opening and closing the work  to music played by two pianists, unfortunately not credited  in the program and I have no press notes.  Eight sets of characters are drawn inexorably into Death’s maw and ghoulish domain in separate variations: The Standard Bearer, The Old  Soldier, The Young Soldier, The Young Girl, The Old Mother, The Women, The Partisan, The Soldiers.  Were it not for the overall strength of the work and the dancers the piece could be accused of being  composed of stock  characters.  But, like  Jose Limon’s  The Moor’s Pavanne, the work’s sheer economy contributes to  its iconic stature.

Having seen Christian Holder, Gary Chryst, Charlene Gehm and Charthel Arthur in some roles, some of whom had worked with Jooss but all with Joffrey, I couldn’t help but be viscerally alert to the strength and poignancy of the portrayals.  Rita Felciano was struck by the essence of the period and evidence of the Jooss influence on Pina Bausch.

Dylan Gutierrez as Death stalked heavily throughout the ballet, a menace in his attack. At the matinee Fabrice Culmels glided through some horizontal floor patterns, leaving the inexorable force and heaviness to crucial contact moments.  I was particularly struck by Christine Rocas’ Young Girl, there was a pliancy and desperation with the rigidity of protest, the contrasts particularly appealing.  Joanna Wozniak’s Old Mother held a degree of fragility; both Death figures held this victim with tenderness.  The Profiteer had to compete with my memory of Gary Chryst.  Derrick Agnoletti conveyed the cunning and final desperation with understanding.  Rory Hohenstein’s Old Soldier reminded me just how totally he gives to any assignment and how good it is to see him once more and given a range of roles to challenge him.

The audience response  delighted the Cal Performances staff, making the press hope for an early return.  Given that memorable residency where Gerry Arpino’s Trinity was premiered, the Bay Area understandably harbors a proprietary interest in The Joffrey Ballet.

Documentary: Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance

19 Mar

Seeing this documentary March 18, the closing night of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, in the intimate setting the San Francisco Film Festival Theater on Post Street resurrected the intensity and immediacy seeing the Joffrey always evoked in me.  It’s a fine documentary, even when showing early ballets as later ones for thematic argument.

I saw the Joffrey when it first appeared in San Francisco at the old Veterans’ Auditorium and at the Commerce High School Auditorium, through their Stanford and U.C., Berkeley residencies and during its affiliation with the San Francisco Symphony.  Sitting next to Joanna Harris exchanging identities as the individuals appeared on the screen was like a special reunion.

Director Bob Hercules included  interviews of the original dancers in the station wagon for six touring the United States in a series of one-night stands: Francoise Martinet; Brunhilde Ruiz, then others who came shortly after: Paul Sutherland; Diane Consoer plus those from the in-between years and the brief affiliation with Rebekah Harness, principally Helgi Tomasson.  Two of the crop arriving during the rejuvenation of the company, Trinette Singleton and Charthel Arthur, speak with candor as do Christian Holder, Gary Cryst and Dermot Burke, all augmented by Sacha Anawalt whose history of the company is unsurpassed. The dancers especially are wonderfully animated.

Among the close associates speaking are Alex Ewing, an early executive director and son of American Ballet Theatre legend Lucia Chase, and Herbert Migdoll, for years the company’s official photographer. Now American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie, a four-year company member, also provided salient observations.

Hercules has included not only early Joffrey pictures and an image of Mary Ann Wells, but photos of Jerry Arpino, and footage parallel to American history influencing choices of ballet subject matter, plus Joffrey’s famous revivals of Kurt Jooss’s  Green Table and Leonide Massine’s Parade.  These sections include footage of the choreographers themselves, and, with Leonide Massine, a glimpse of his directorial style.  Jerry Arpino provided wonderful commentary, his style peppering the memories of many interviewed.  A good perspective is provided by Anna Kisselgoff, former chief critic for the New York Times and Heidi Weiss, critic from Chicago.

There is an inaccuracy which I picked up on, an entirely understandable one.  I wish I  remembered the source, but it eludes me.  However,it comes from the late Jeannot Cerrone, who toured the Joffrey for Rebekah Harkness, then managed the Harkness Ballet for two years and ended his life managing Harid Conserevatory in Boca Raton, Florida.  He was credited as saying the following: the Internal Revenue Service was responsible for telling Mrs. Harkness that to continue to use ballet as a tax deduction she had to have a company bearing her name, instead of one with the Joffrey title.  Whether this statement is accurate can only be determined via written records, if such still exist.  It’s unlikely any dance historian wants to spend time on such minutiae.

The hour and twenty-seven minutes sped by, followed by a question and answer period featuring Helgi Tomasson, artistic director, San Francisco Ballet; Ashley Wheater, artistic director, The Joffrey Ballet; Tina le Blanc, former principal, San Francisco Ballet, now a member of the San Francisco Ballet School faculty; and Henry Berg, not only teaching but also working with San Francisco Ballet’s dancers getting back into shape after injury.

There is a DVD available for sale,  Buy it – it’s a history to cherish.