Tag Archives: Counterpulse

Jess Curtis Celebrates Gravity’s 15th Birthday

24 Jan

Counterpulse and Jess Curtis are joined at the hip, but the new location is not yet ready to celebrate this association, so Rita Felciano and I watched Curtis and four associates Friday evening December 11 at The Grand Theater on Mission.  The ground has been denuded of its seats;, it possesses a good bar at the lobby’s right lobby with adequate toilet facilities up some steep stairs. The flat space behind a voluminous curtain had seats in a circle,  along the sides, and the performance was marked by a photographer constantly loping in and out of the action, with screens both on the upper left wall as well in the expected place, smack in front of us.

Curtis performed with his frequent colleagues, Claire Cunningham from Scotland and Jorg Muller from Germany.  As always they did themselves proud, Cunningham in a dialogue with Curtis in the opener, then Curtis and Muller in their white-coated, pseudo-scientific experiments with tennis balls, a section where both men progressively shed their clothing with Curtis winding up nude in a  dialogue with a fully-clothed young woman.

Curtis finished the program with a mesmerizing display of varying aluminum pipes being swung into orbit by Jorg Muller, the light glinting on them, inviting the sensation of swinging with one or another of the safely-secured hanging metalics . [One could imagine how deadly one might be if the securing line broke!].  About mid-way in the slowing swings, Cunningham’s voice raised majestically,with the pipes still gleaming in diminishing circles, the atmosphere suddenly seemed transcendent. It was another one of Curtis’ magical capacities.

Scott Wells & Dancers: A Collaboration, Studio B, ODC

19 Jan

Counterpulse has collaborated with ODC to present some of its fall program at ODC. the January 14-16 program Take This Dance and Shove.  It is certainly one of the accommodations afforded Counterpulse while its new theatre at 80 Turk Street is being completed.  ODC, it should be mentioned, is one of the front and center responders to the San Francisco dance community needs.

Three distinctive Bay Area choreographers, Scott Wells, Amy Seiwart and Sinichi Koga were involved;  with them a host of dancers from their three distinctive disciplines; contact improve, ballet and butoh.  While not totally successful, it was absorbing, entertaining with a near constant ripple of laughter or occasional guffaw following this unusual trio of movement styles.

For openers, Amy Seiwart was coaching the partnering of Sarah Griffin and Scott Marlowe in classical ballet with a contemporary twist. It was almost the last coherent phrases of movement, as the other six dancers and collaborators came out to tasks and directions ranging from the forceful to the sustained and minimal.  Scott Wells asked the dancers at one point to walk blindly from one wall to another; most marched confidently until they calculated they were near the opposite wall – hands went up, pace slackened, becoming tentative until the barre and the wall were touched; a visual sigh and  body relief were obvious.

Amy Seiwart mimed the gist of the Swan Lake dilemma, which came up later when Scott Marlowe started to undertake the same tale, only to have Miriam Wolodarski launch herself forcibly at him, requiring him to clutch and toss her off several times.  Quite a scene, he ended up miming she was an evil queen.  Woloedarski also had her moment requiring the group to imitate her
while she was explaining the necessary movements and balance in Swedish.

Shinichi Iova- Koga, wearing traditional Japanese trousers, ballooning on the sides and drawn together at the ankles, was called upon to move in and around a yellow box.  However impossible, he was elegant and eloquent, particularly in the final section with Dana Iova-Koga, returned  from early motherhood days; her slow movement  is still utterly mesmerizing.

Sarah Griffin demonstrated a portion of the Act III Don Quixote Pas de Deux with elan and style.  Her training may have limited some of the quirkier requests, but she was game and adaptable at all times.  Little wonder that Seiwart likes to work with her.

This set of recollections in snatches is pretty much like the work itself.  Take This Dance and Shove It seemed like colleagues just horsing around with deceptive randomness.  Judging on the laughter, more  of such skillful improvisation would be quite welcome locally, and, even beyond  San Francisco Bay Area confines.

Courage as Understood by Rasika Kumar

22 Jul

Despite its location and  tiered seat arrangement, Counterpulse is an ideal venue for artists who are interested in detail and whose art form flowers in close proximity to the audience. This is particularly true for soloists and especially for the conventional solo concert in Indian classical dance forms. So with Rasika Kumar’s striking theme of Courage, Counterpulse as a venue July 12-13 was ideal.  Perhaps the Indian members of the audience were aware of the premise of their viewing, but I doubt whether much of the audience was aware they were receiving an object lesson of being a sahrdaya.

Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan wrote many years ago about the sahrdaya, the informed member of the audience, and how such an attuned observer completes the circle or artistic expression rising from the perceptions of the performing artist.  Her essay appeared in Impulse magazine, the twenty-year annual production of the late Marian van Tuyl Campbell, assisted by Eleanor Lauer, Joanna Gewertz Harris, Crystal Mann [then Miller] and doubtless others.  I carried the essay to this formidable quartet, and felt utterly privileged by the trust.  In the process of reading the essay, I was introduced to a way of looking at dance which began to influence my perspective at any performance, to experience the premise within the year like a tsunami when Balasaraswati appeared in San Francisco for the first time.

Mythili Kumar supplied the narrative,  mentioning  all the musicians as well as Rasika were Indo-Americans, Indians born in the United States.  These included Malavika Kumar as nattuvangam; Sindhu Natarajan, vocalist; Ganesh Ramanarayanan, mridangam; Sruti Sarathy, violin and Prasant Radhakrishnan, saxophone.  The latter instrument, unusual for a Bharata Natyam concert was included because Rasika felt it crucial for “Rosa Parks – ‘Tired, tired of giving in.’”

Opening with a brief exposition titled “Awakening the Kundalini Shakti,” Rasika presented herself as an eloquent practitioner of abhinaya, the gesture language common to all classical Indian dance forms, but most highly developed in the South Indian forms of Bharata Natyam and Kathakali. Possessing long fingers to frame the gestures, there was never a trace of hesitation as she described with one or two salient gestures the energy in each of the shaktis.

This was followed by Mythili Kumar’s “Legend of Savitri” which Rasika had adapted, derived from a poem by Sri Aurobidino.  Savitri is considered the ideal Hindu wife; she marries her husband knowing that he is doomed to death a year following their nuptials. Rasika’s interpretation of a young woman totally absorbed by her passion for her spouse was tender and persuasive, utterly distraught as she confronts the ebbing of her beloved’s life.  In the Indian tradition, the abhinaya switches from Savitri to Yama, the Hindu deity of death whom Savitri follows ‘into the forest’ defying Yama’s possession of her husband’s spirit.

Savitri succeeds and at the conclusion of the sketch Rasika brings water in her cupped hands as her beloved stirs back amongst the living.  There was no question of her ability to depict a woman utterly engulfed by her wifely passionate devotion.

“Courage of the Devadasis” is Kumar’s take on the humiliating laws of 1947 which prohibited women of the devasdasi caste to practice their art and devotion in Hindu temples. The degradation of these traditional artists started long before 1947, thanks to the presence of British missionaries brought to the sub-continent by the East India Company and later by the Raj.  The situation was perhaps less dire in those states still ruled by Maharajas. Even in Tamil Nadu, however, where the Tanjore Court had been a noted source of patronage and from which four Pillai brothers began to formulate what is now known as Bharata Natyam, the proscription took its toll.  Douglas Knight’s biography of  Balasaraswati [Wesleyan University Press] chronicles the fight the devasdasis made to preserve their lifestyle.  Beyond prostitution, the salvation lay with instruction, teaching young women the eloquent art form.

Kumar’s portrayal of rejection, closed doors and other forms of prohibition conveys much of that historical dilemma.

“Rosa Parks – “Tired, tired of giving in” was for me the high point of Kumar;s concert.  With four white folding chairs and a sign printed in black letters on white cardboard, “Colored,” Kumar took us through the education of a young Rosa, her work as a secretary for the NAACP, listening to the horror stories of summary judgment against blacks accused of raping white women, of
lynching or killing, of boarding buses and moving to the back seats.  Kumar’s posture, the body language in movement was telling, down to the final moment when she shakes her head after being asked to move.

“In the Wake of a Tsunami” was Kumar’s tribute to the quiet order and heroism of the Japanese following the horrendous earthquake and tsunami in northeastern coastal Japan in the provinces of Sendai and Fukushima.  Her body and gestures assumed the quake and the devastating waves of the tsunami, conveying the overwhelming awe and force of this quake-induced flood of sea water. Within seconds Kumar became stricken humanity, rushing to escape the torrential sheets of water, grasping a nearby person – child, adult or elder.  She climaxed the portrait with a man, one of the fifty, volunteering to enter the Fukushima plant, bidding farewell to his child and wife, as he grasped his kit.  This had been created a year earlier as part of a benefit for the surviving tsunami victims.

Rasika’s finale was a tribute to Hanuman, the Monkey devoted to Lord Rama, depicting him as derring, can do, pert, smart, playful, ever ready to accomplish something for his lord.  Here, to locate a wound-healing plant on a distant mountain, he resorted to carrying the entire mountain to the wounded Lakshman, fighting off the minions of Ravanna along the way.

Indian classical dance provides great dramatic opportunities for its exponents, especially those with excellent training.  American-born exponents add a certain energy and drive to the depth of emotion one finds in those exponents born in India.  When a dancer here chooses to study further in Chennai as Rasika did, with Kalanidi Narayan, herself also schooled by Balasaraswati’s master, the results are striking, the portrayals convincing.  I found myself lost in the telling, absorbed and convinced by Rasika’s choices in movement patterns supporting her dramatic development with clean, articulate abhinaya.

Bharata Natyam, traditionally a solo form, has seen considerable development as an ensemble form in the San Francisco area by the Abhinaya Company directed by Mythili Kumar.  We westerners frequently forget what a challenge a traditional recital is for the artist, not the least being the difficulties of frequent performances.  Touring perhaps is the most extensive demand made on the artist; I imagine in India concert presenters must charge sufficient sums to compensate the dancer for the comparatively small number of annual performances.  Here  Rasika is doubly remarkable for her academic and professional training; her position co-existing with her admirable level artistically and choreographically.  Such dual engagements are not for anyone, but San Francisco area audiences are lucky to witness how well art and technological commitment can be so well combined in Rasika Kumar.  It also is courage of a special kind.

Jess Curtis Latest at Counter Pulse, May 26, 2013

8 Jun

Jess Curtis and Counterpulse are joined at the hip and in history;  the performing venue on Mission near Ninth got its start with Curtis and found its current location when programming new work out spaced the upstairs location on Divisadero Street.  Somewhere along the line, Jess Curtis discovered support could be had in Berlin and now he divides most of his time between San Francisco and that location reached by direct flight over the pole.

He’s a really interesting figure, not just because he has a shock of totally white hair and a matter of fact persona which his ideas totally subvert. The Berlin connection has enabled him to undertake projects with equally singular European performers. While the resulting collaborations are mostly theater, dance does make itself known somewhere during the episodes. His 2007 production Under the Radar earned three Izzie citations from the San Francisco Bay Area Isadora Duncan Dance Award Committee.

What was seen this year, May 24-26 at Counterpulse was a two-man enterprise with Jorg Muller titled Research Experiment #2.  Curtis and Muller, a compact, medium-sized man with shaved head and eloquent hands, appeared in white lab coats, soliciting audience members to be part of the experiment-devices were applied to register pulse, breathing and emotional responses to
24 exercises which Curtis said were shuffled each performance to help maintain spontaneity.

Dennis Nahat, showman extraordinaire, offered himself as one of the individuals receiving mechanisms in the ear and taped to a hand. On the white walls of the space, six lines of pulse registered their reaction.

Two or three of the twenty-four lodged themselves in my mind.  One included running, but the second included the two men exchanging blows from the cat of nine tails, or multiple leather strips held together at the handle, designed to beat an individual and to wound the flesh.This instrument, perhaps popular amongst sado-masochistic circles, was rendered against first Curtis’ back and then Muller’s, something like twenty increasingly strong strokes requiring the deliverer to brace himself before swinging and striking the recipient’s back.  Curtis’ responses were remarkably stoical facially, and Moller’s visually responsive.  The pulses of the six vaulted proportionately.  For myself, I suddenly felt myself witness to victims and descendants of The Middle Passage from Africa, and to the horrors of concentration camps anywhere.  It was also clear why the performance was limited to one weekend.

Those of us in the front row were given slips of paper from which to choose.  My lot was “Stillness,” which Curtis and Moller then interpreted.  There were four others and in turn the men gave the quality their vision.  Here the two men displayed distinct characteristics.  For Curtis it was movement, generalized and space covering, as if he was the ideator  relying on others to assist in specifics.  With Moller, it was form, near precision, tidiness, together providing an interesting package of execution.

The final movement involved a roving light set on the floor at the back wall, against which both men moved, their pace and attack increasingly frantic while that damned light flashed intermittently across the floor.  In the first row I felt sporadically attacked by the light;  with Curtis and Moller increasing their activity, I found myself closing my eyes in an effort to spare myself the onslaught.  The audience one step above probably didn’t have that difficulty, but if cringing was the aim of that final exercise, give Curtis and Moller 4.5 on the SAT.

Scott Wells & Dancers at Counterpulse, June 3, 2012

9 Jun

Scott Wells and Dancers appeared at Counterpulse over two weekends, with the last performance on June 3.  Wells has been presenting seasons in San Francisco since 1992 using small settings where the extreme  physicality and athleticism of the ensemble impacts the viewer most strongly.  On a typical proscenium stage with a larger audience space, response would be diminished.

Two numbers were performed: At Ease and Parkour Deux, both listed as 2012 creations, six dancers in the first and nine in the second.  Both pieces were utterly reliant on trust amongst the performers, a clear understanding of individual impulse with accompanying  acute response and timing.  The women were frequently called upon to catch and balance each other and the men,
usually in transit over a shoulder, the arc of movement,  pause and balance before bounding  on ward a wonder to observe.

Parkour Deux exhibited elements of classical ballet broadened to guffaw status, the ballet barres consisting of various forms of acrobatic equipment.  This equipment was  later used as obstacles in somersaults, balancing points, and barricades against possible injury because the performers hurled themselves against the unadorned walls of Counterpulse’s compact little performance space.  Whether a solitary figure in motion, two in contact or multiple actions , the spectacle was mesmerizing watching participants whose physiques ranged from the willowy to the short and tightly knit.

Miriam Wolodarski’s command of  French, accent and cadence added to the sarcasm of Parkour Deux, particularly with her evident awareness of classical technique , a proficiency not shared by all the ensemble members.  Long time member Rajendra Serber lent a subtle insouciant timing to his assignment in both pieces.

As someone who loves classical ballet technique, I  have a hard time classifying contact improvisation as a dance genre.  With Parkour Deux and the timing of Scott Wells’ ensembles, such reservations usually vanish in the face of fascination and the ensemble’s timing.

Counterpulse Schedules Diversity September 9-11

10 Oct

Counterpulse with its modest quarters near the corner of Ninth on Mission
is an outgrowth of a free-wheeling improvisational location on Divisadero Street
which outgrew it second story location and its limited range of performance offerings.  On Mission Street it has fostered diversity with a fierce capital D,
multi-ethnic, multi-gender, multi-dance form.While the personalities responsible for 848 Divisadero still perform in the converted storefront theatre,  Jessica Robinson Love can be credited with much of the current range in the programming.  She has been the artistic director of Counterpulse since 2006.


So it’s scarcely surprising that it should offer a shared program featuring Charles Slender’s Pretonically Oriented V.3 and Lenora Lee’s Reflections.  Both groups have enjoyed a residency period at Counterpulse, enabling them to produce the pieces seen  September 9-11.

Pretonically Oriented V.3 and Reflections, translated, means cerebral exposition on Caucasian bodies and Chinese martial arts blended with modern dance aided by traditional Chinese lion masks.

I had to query Rita Felciano for a definition of “pretonically” since  my routine
dictionaries gave me no clue. Her response was that it refers to that part of a word just before the emphasized syllable.  Now, that’s truly cerebral.  For me  that was the problem.  I watched, I admired the three principal performers and observed their intricate movement and body patterns.  But felt nothing, NADA.

doubtless I am  antedelluvian, but that is what theater and art is about – to evoke, and, perhaps, in the process make one a better human being.

Erin Kraemer and Catherine Newman are well-trained, nicely-moving modern
dancers called upon to contort their faces and their bodies both in solo and partnering sequences.  It must be an interesting contrast to working with the San Francisco Opera, listed in both dancers’ credits.

James Graham is a beautifully muscled, nicely proportioned man with substantial academic and performing credits.  This month he departs for Israel to be come a certified Gaga instructor.  I hope he gets  to dance there.

Among credits listed for choreographer Charles Slender is a two-year stint in Yekaterinburg, Russia.  Isn’t this location the site of the Romanov family murders? I wonder what and if the location influenced Slender’s subject matter.

Following intermission Lenora Lee Dance’s Reflections commenced with
the prominent placement of Chinese Lion masks, and a video of a Chinese
reflecting on his background and familial influences.  Lee was aided in her
exploration by the Kei Lun Martial Arts, and Enshin Karate from the South
San Francisco Dojo as she explored traditional North Asian themes in
the context of Western society.  The latter came into play only as the Asian
individual found himself in a struggle between traditional and individual

Lenora Lee and Dr. Raymond Fong engaged in a moving duet, characterized by destructive impulse and the staying, comforting, reassuring restraints of the feminine.  There also were episodes of high level testosterone conflict, swiftly and expertly depicted by the members of the two martial arts group.  The masks came into play at various times, including some skeletal forms which someday may see full trappings.

I responded to Reflections, not just because it was visually engaging and
familiar, but because it dealt with emotion in some form.  A Volte Face from its predecessor on the program, both choreographers  need to work on transitions in their pieces. Dance happens there as much as in actual movement.