Tag Archives: Donald McKayle

2016 at Stern Grove: San Francisco Ballet

3 Aug

When you park off Wawona for a Sunday Stern Grove matinee, the path to the
meadow-auditorium as remodeled by the late Lawrence Halprin does three or four turns on its sloping route to the wonderful meadow given to San Francisco by Mrs. Sigmund Stern honoring her husband. You come out near the clubhouse which some decades earlier was a roadhouse and now houses a series of both gender toilets adjoining the original building. A few feet downward and there are a slew of short-order vendors and the Stern Grove Association booths for information and assistance.

As VIP’s [read press affiliates] it was still necessary to trek across the meadow, brimming with multi-cultural humanity, to the VIP tent to get badges and green wrist bands enabling our party of five to imbibe beer and wine as well as claim our share of Table 35, next to the bona fide press table. This year the press has been moved to the lower of three tiers of tables, if off side, so that our view of San Francisco Ballet was decidedly at an angle. It also enabled us to observe Frances Chung stretch her legs and bend her back prior to entering as Odette in Swan Lake, her debut in the role. She doubtless will appear in the ballet during the 2017 spring season at the Opera House.

In addition to Tiit Helimets as Siegfried and Alexander Renoff-Olson as Von Rothpart, the program included Helgi Tomasson’s Fifth Season, music by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins and two pieces appearing semi-regularly on SFB’s programs: Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux to Estonian composer Arvo Part, finishing with George Balanchine’s Rubies with Vanessa Zahorian, Joseph Walsh and Jennifer Stahl.

Before further comment, our party of five included Carlos and Carolyn Carvajal, who have graced performances and mounted works locally both in the earlier San Francisco Ballet days, with Carlos’ Dance Spectrum and Carolyn’s witty performances with Dance Through Time and in the ballet parts of San Francisco Opera seasons. Carlos’ tenure with San Francisco Ballet goes back to Willam Christensen’s years, and two subsequent stints under Lew Christensen with Le Grand Ballet de Marquis de Cuevas, Breman and Bordeaux Opera Ballets in between.

Dennis Nahat and John Gebertz made numbers three and four, both having assignments with Akyumen Technologies since Nahat’s abrupt termination at Ballet San Jose, bringing two Chinese productions to De Anza Auditorium in Cupertino and Southern California, and participating in the affairs of Donald McKayle at U.C. Irvine. Dennis regaled us with stories of ABT’s Swan Lake in the rain at New York’s Delacorte Theater and the ingenuity of Lucia Chase.

Swan Lake
brought swoons of admiration from Carolyn Carvajal for the dancing of the corps de ballet, remarking on the correctness of the staging as she remembered it with Merriem Lanova’s Ballet Celeste. Dennis observed how crisp the angles in the line of foot and leg in Odette’s solo because of short tutus, unlike the knee-length costumes so remarked upon in Ratmansky’s production of Sleeping Beauty. We had to assume Tiit’s interpretation because his back was to us ninety per cent of the time, but Chung’s expression provided the clue of Odette’s concern and wavering. For the first time I could feel a thought process from the progression of Odette’s choreography, as well as the touching moment when she ventures under Siegfried’s arm in the pas de deux, a creature moment for certain.

Wan Ting Zhao and Jennifer Stahl provided the leaping choreography and Isabella DeVivo, Jahna Frantziskonis, Noriko Matsuyama and Emma Rubinowitz, precise, multi-cultural little cygnets, hopping in sync for all their worth.

Tomasson’s Fifth Season was garbed in Sandra Woodall’s sleek tight and top fashion de rigeur with choreographic abstraction, divided into sections titled Waltz, Romance, Tango, Largo and Bits, eight corps in the ensemble with principals Mathilde Froustey, Yuan Yuan Tan, Doris Andre , the men Carlos Quenedit, Tiit Helimets, Aaron Robison in his local San Francisco Ballet debut.

Yuan Yuan Tan seemed to have cornered the feminine role in After The Rain
pas de deux, her sinuous,willowy length adapting to Luke Ingham, a second
Australian to partner her in Christopher Wheeldon’s protracted study of langeur
and emotional connection, minimally costumed in flesh tones by Holly Hynes. Ingham made an effective foil to Tan, clearly an excellent partner.

Rubies is, to me, a very urban ballet, brash, out there with a neat dash of Broadway. Jennifer Stahl danced the figure manipulated by the four corps men Max Cauthorn , Blake Kessler, Francisco Mungamba and John-Paul Simoens. From a distance it seemed effective, given location reservations and the vivid memory of Muriel Maffre in that role. Vanessa Zahorian and Joseph Walsh danced the leads with aplomb and good humor.

San Francisco Ballet annually draws some of Stern Grove Festival’s biggest audiences. Halprin’s design gives the public an amazing series of alcoves where they can stash their bodies and their lunches. Halprin’s vision reinforced that fact Stern Grove Festival, at the threshold of celebrating its 80th annual summer, continues to be one of the crown jewels of San Francisco’s cultural and recreation diversions.

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Silicon Valley Ballet Has Problems

8 Mar

Teri McCollum, whose Odette’s Ordeal manages to “scoop” news in the best
Hedda Hopper fashion, has reported an indefinite layoff of dancers and administrative staff at Silicon Valley Ballet. Announcements in the San Jose Mercury or San Francisco Chronicle are yet to appear. Apparently the Silicon Valley Ballet School continues at the spacious studio on First Street in San Jose.

McCollum spoke with Millicent Powers who has headed both the Board of
Directors and assumed the executive directorship last year; she was informed that a search for funding to complete the 2016 season was not forthcoming from the Santa Clara Valley art patrons. Clearly, the renaming of the company is a model in wishful thinking.

The angst felt by the dancers started in 2012 when Dennis Nahat’s contract with the company was terminated following The Nutcracker season. Nahat,
who brought the nucleus of the company with him when the joint-city arrangement with Cleveland was terminated, stated the company’s coffers held a million dollars at the time of his departure. It also had a history of interesting productions ranging from Donald McKayle and Martha Graham revivals [Rainbow Round My Shoulder, Appalachian Spring] to David Lichine’s Graduation Ball, the Bouronville Toreador, along with Swan Lake, Giselle and his own production of The Nutcracker, Lew Christensen’s Il Distratto and Michael Smuin’s Tempest.

Wes Chapman was brought in as an interim artistic advisor, and the company
direction began to align itself with productions first seen with American Ballet Theatre. The school also became infused with the certificate program started by ABT. After two such seasons, it was announced that Jose Manuel Carreno was contracted for three years as artistic director.  Carreno was able to call upon his ABT colleagues for an interesting Gala in 2014, but funding remained slim and, after a tardy salary settlement for both orchestra and conductor, performances were danced to recorded music.

In 2015, there was a flurry of fund-raising towards the retirement of a 3.5 million dollar debt; enough funds were raised to complete the season. Following the Nutcracker season, sixteen dancers toured Spain under the auspices of a Spanish impresario, according to Teri McCollum, the same program presented to San Jose audiences in February.

While company was in Spain, Karen Gabay, Artistic Associate and 36-year veteran and sometime principal dancer with the company, was abruptly terminated, with the statement Gabay had resigned. Following the February performances, the administrative staff was also abruptly laid off;  the management was dickering with the union to permit a three week lay-off for the dancers while fund raising was being pursued.

Based on McCollum’s report, the fund raising was not successful; dancers and administrative staff now are confronted with seeking employment elsewhere. Those of us who have enjoyed the company’s performances; in particular, some of the dancers, pray for ready alternate options for each and every one dancers, administrators and artistic directors.

Interesting and ironic is that both Nahat and Carreno were members of American Ballet Theatre, over two decades apart. Nahat was also active with the USA IBC in Jackson, Mississippi in 1990 when Carreno won the Prix de Jackson medal.

Donald McKayle’s Premiere at UC Irvine, CA.

22 Feb

When Dennis Nahat attended Juilliard School of Music prior to  joining The Joffrey Ballet as it was being reformed the fall of 1965, he had Donald McKayle as one of his teachers. A bond was formed which has lasted these many years. Recently Nahat helped McKayle with administrative papers relating to the McKayle works, some of which were staged at Ballet San Jose when Nahat was the company’s artistic director.

This fall McKayle, at the age of 84 and following a severe illness, choreographed a new work for the dancers at U.C., Irvine where he has been teaching. PERO REPLANTADO (Uprooted) was premiered in mid-February2015. Nahat wrote the following comments about the work.

“From the moment the curtain is lifted onto an empty stage, the dancers enter in such an arresting manner that one dare not breathe until the final moment when the dancers freeze at the foot lights, almost in our lap. The work is an affirmation of humanity in America and is the breath of life in Americans. The finale is especially startling; in a medley written by Woody Guthrie, Pastures of Plenty / This Land is Your Land, which is not the original but a newly composed version that is wonderful, and Land, with lyrics by Lila Downs. The last tableau with the full ensemble running forward, looking directly at the audience, jumping into secondé position ecarté in a deep plié with their arms lifted above their heads in unison, on the last note and word of the song “We will work to keep it (America) FREE”, is a dare to anyone who would try to take that freedom away. Make no mistake here, McKayle tells us in direct, clear and asserted choreography that Americans have worked hard for freedom.

“The entire large ensemble of 18 dancers is terrific, especially well-danced is the solo girl with two casts called La Niña, the girl, danced on Wednesday by Emma Walsh and Thursday’s official opening night by Caitlin Hicks. An arresting solo and a difficult one, you will not see danced this way by many. Both dancers give different interpretations, a McKayle treat; artists can fly in many directions in his works. But it was Ms. Hicks who simply took the show by storm with her intensely beautiful dark features and her ability to isolate movement and direct the viewer to her intended purpose. So well constructed is this solo that by the time both interpreters ran off the stage with hands on their backs in a slight back bend, the audience almost ran off with them, bursting into spontaneous applause.

“The 5-part ballet has a large ensemble. Costumes by Kathryn Wilson were simple, colorful and American/Mexican in flavor, all dancers in different costumes,still remarkably similar. The lighting by Brady Jan King had moments but needed a little more to emphasize the atmosphere and occasional pathos. It is a deeper work than surface light. A little more time and work and possibly more contemporary lighting instruments to sharpen focus might be helpful. Still, we could see what we came to see, the work. For that we are thankful. If the ballet weren’t so strong McKayle would have needed help… There was no help needed, just seeing the dance was a marvel… Another lighting designer could supply a dimension of magic to the international heights this masterpiece is.

“The music sung on records by Lila Downs, excerpts from her album “Border”. A beautifully sung array of songs that are rarely heard and sung in a Spanish dialect. Many of her songs are sung in indigenous languages such as Mixtec, Zapotec, Mayan, Nahuatl and P’urhepecha (Tarascan). In Mr. McKayle’s UPROOTED, Ms. Downs sings in Spanish and English. The second movement for a trio of men, El Feo, the ugly one, the song is sung in Mayan, Spanish and English. They even sound Portuguese at times. Here Ms. Downs is simply sensational and as a singer/songwriter no matter what anyone says… she can only be referred to as extraordinary.

“Donald McKayle hits home and to the heart of the matter, a grand master of innovation. In each work he has created, he is honest in content and the structure is always pure. A lesson for all choreographers…content, structure, original, musical and finally choreography… His voice in movement is again unique in this piece. Its humanity is unmistakable, remarkable. No other choreographer I have seen has created so vast a body of works, each an individual work unto its own. McKayle is a National Treasure and is recognized as such,”originality” his middle name. The more you see the work, the more you want to see it again and again. Like all great artists, McKayle is always surprising, deeply rooted truth, and forever memorable.”