Smuin Ballet’s “The Christmas Ballet”

Friday, November 26, 2010 at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts, Walnut Creek 

In just about every family, the senior generation passes holiday traditions on to the younger folk, who update here and there to keep the dusty old rituals relevant. The Smuin Ballet family is no exception: In 1995, Michael Smuin created the popular The Christmas Ballet, with its signature mix of classical ballet, jazz and cabaret numbers, and each year the company refreshes the show with a couple of new pieces. The result is consistently joyous, elegant and inviting—though perhaps it’s time for the kids to shake the holiday tree a bit more than usual.

A packed house welcomed The Christmas Ballet to the Lesher Center for its season launch on Friday night. The show began as a holiday show should: With the first strains of the Magnificat, the women doffed their colorful capes, and one immediately felt the comfort that traditions bring and the sense that all would be right with the world, if only for the next two hours.

Act I: Classic Christmas. Photo: Scot Goodman.

Act I: The Classical Christmas, consists of 16 pieces danced to masses, carols and classical instrumentals that will be familiar to Christmas Ballet fans—Mozart’s Domine, the French carol Noël nouvelet, “Sleigh Ride” and “Deck the Halls.” New to the mix is “Carol of the Bells,” a world premiere from Smuin choreographer in residence Amy Seiwert. Jane Rehm and Travis Walker were up to the piece’s fleet footwork, with the company serving as a corps of graceful snowflakes behind their pas de deux. Ably and happily performed in the customary all-white costumes and backdrop of gathered white drapery, this year’s Classical Christmas sets a warm and spirited mood.

The ever-irreverent Act II: The Cool Christmas, rang in with 17 more numbers—all performed in red costumes with red framing around the stage—including favorites like Ryan Camou’s soulful solo “Drummer Boy”; the amusing “Blue Christmas,” in which dancer “groupies” fawn over a hip-swinging Matthew Linzer as Elvis; and “Santa Baby,” danced with sultry élan by Robin Cornwell. Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Jonathan Powell exuded palpable chemistry in their enchanting “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” while Shannon Hurlburt earned the loudest applause of the evening for his self-choreographed solo “Bells of Dublin,” an athletic Irish tap number danced to the Chieftains song. Smuin ballet mistress Amy London created “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” for the 2010 show, adding much-needed asymmetry and energy, although the ensemble becomes a bit chaotic during a sequence that includes rhythmic-gymnastic ribbons trailing after the dancers.

Act II: Cool Christmas. Matthew Linzer as Elvis. Photo: David Allen.

In fact, more asymmetry would do The Christmas Ballet a world of good. Classical’s all-white look and Cool’s all-red (the one exception is the pink prom dress in Seiwert’s delightful “Please Come Home for Christmas”) are here to stay, so varying the choreography is the only way to keep the show full of surprises. To that end, editing each half down a bit and revisiting some of the old choreography would help enliven the pacing.

For example, in the first act, “The Gloucestershire Wassail” is a sweet step dance that demonstrates strength, coordination and speed. But it pales in comparison to the all-out energy of Hurlburt’s “Bells of Dublin,” so perhaps the company could choose one or the other? Some of the Act I pieces overlap in mood and movement; overall, trimming two or three dances from the Classical Christmas would allow each piece to get fuller attention from the audience.

Susan Roemer (left) in Seiwert's "Please Come Home for Christmas." Photo: David Allen.

In Act II, “Christmas in New Orleans” and “Cajun Christmas” are both energetic, location-themed ensemble pieces, and they could appear in alternating years. And in “Sugar Rum Cherry,” a row of women dance a Fosse-style burlesque with chairs, doing the same steps in tandem—why not reamp the vamping with some variations in timing?

Audiences love The Christmas Ballet exactly as it is. They would also be delighted by some exciting updates: At the end of the evening, the whole company comes onstage to dance freestyle, showing off leaps and pirouettes while tossing handfuls of snow into the air. It’s one of the most fun parts of the show and, other than the roaring applause for the “Bells of Dublin,” it garnered the biggest cheers. One wishes for more of that energy, enthusiasm and freshness throughout the whole program, to ensure a tradition that grows ever stronger.

The other fine Smuin dancers performing that night were Darren Anderson, Terez Dean, John Speed Orr, Jane Rehm, Susan Romer, Jean Michelle Sayeg, Erica Shipp, Shane Tice, Jessica Touchet and Travis Walker.

The Christmas Ballet continues:
♦ Dec. 3-4 at Sunset Center in Carmel. Tickets: 831-620-2048
♦ Dec. 8-12 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
in Mountain View. Tickets: 650-903-6000
♦ Dec. 15-24 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
in San Francisco. Tickets: 415-978-2787

© 2010 Claudia Bauer/

Ready to Fly: ODC School and Theater Present Pilot 57

Normally, when multiple chorographers decide to coproduce a show, it’s because they like each other, or feel a creative synergy, or have harmonious work styles. Their artistic or logistical strengths and weaknesses being complementary, they shoulder different responsibilities to bring their unified show to pass.

But what happens when six up-and-coming dance artists who don’t know one another—and who have varying degrees of experience, vastly different priorities, and potentially conflicting decision-making styles—are given eleven weeks to put together a joint show at one of the Bay Area’s most prominent theaters?

ODC’s Pilot Program, that’s what. This year marks Pilot’s 20th anniversary and 57th “graduating class,” which includes Raisa Punkki of punkkiCo, Nathan Cottam, Daria Kaufman, Elizabeth McSurdy, Charles Slender of FACT/SF and Amy Foley. Their group show, Pilot 57: Pilot Light, takes place Saturday and Sunday, December 4 and 5, in the brand-new ODC Theater—the first and only time a Pilot show will appear in that 170-seat space.

“A lot of times when you start out, you do a piece at this small space here or this small space there, and we’re talking sometimes 10, 15, sometimes 20 people will show up,” said Cottam, a classical ballet dancer who recently earned his MFA in choreography and performance at the University of Arizona. “To put up a piece and have its mettle tested at a place like the ODC Theater—you’re riding some pretty significant coattails on a program like this. So you get to test out your ideas on a stage that really has some draw.”

The portal into ODC’s multilevel mentorship system, which continues with Migrations and House Special, the semiannual Pilot program tutors emerging choreographers in self-production, their most common outlet for showing work. For a minimal $95 fee, which includes application and enrollment, participants learn the basics of marketing, press and publicity, house management, lighting and box office from ODC staff, and then put those lessons to direct use as they develop the show. Participants get half off rehearsal space at the ODC Dance Commons, a useful resource as they create a new piece of up to ten minutes in length, plus the theater—and the production staff—free of charge for the performances.

Charles Slender. Photo: Rob Kunkle. Design: Kat Foley.

More than 290 artists have taken part in Pilot, among them Erika Chong Shuch, Private Freeman, Amy Seiwert and Lizz Roman, who is also Pilot 57’s choreography mentor. Choreography, however, is the smallest slice of the Pilot pie. And in that bit of irony—a choreography mentorship that isn’t really about choreography—lies Pilot’s greatest challenges and most useful lessons. Each Pilot member heads up one area of production, but everyone has to agree on decisions about how the flyer will look, negotiations on staging needs, plans for the post-show reception, and how to publicize the event.

“It is interesting to not only have six cooks in the kitchen, but also to put a show together with anybody else, even just one person,” said Foley, who recently retired from Robert Moses’ Kin after dancing with the company for eleven years. “Because we are sharing the stage, that means we all have to have the same light plot, we all need to decide about the setup of the stage—some people want a cyc and a scrim, and other people are more interested in having a really kind of bare performance space. You have to agree on that, which is a good exercise for everyone. Because when you’re [dancing] in a company, that’s just all taken care of.”

“Often artists aren’t asked to do this, and we think that’s really an important skill because it initiates self-reflection,” said ODC School director Kimi Okada, whose tenure with the organization goes back forty years to its original incarnation as the Oberlin Dance Collective in Ohio. “A lot of inexperienced choreographers don’t know where to begin; they just go in and start making stuff. But communicating is really what art is about, and if you want to take the next step in getting more recognition, you have to get your work out there. And in order to put your work out there, you have to either get presented or have enough production skills that you can figure out how to self-present, or you collaborate with other people. You have to be resourceful. I’d like to think that the Pilot program really gives you resources and certain skills to be able to take that step.”

Unlike the majority of mentorships, grants, and residencies, Pilot doesn’t require a video or DVD submission. Applicants range from recent graduates to more-established artists exploring new ideas, and each one writes a brief proposal for a piece they’d like to put together during the program. “What we’re looking for is a succinct and articulate description of why they want to make a dance, what they want to make it about, how they plan to do it, what are the elements, what is the movement style, what is the music,” Okada continued. “We don’t hold them to it at all, but we just want to hear that they have an articulated vision of what it is they would like to do.”

Once they’re accepted, participants can veer from that proposal as much, or as little, as they’d like. ODC doesn’t meddle in their artistry beyond feedback given during one choreography workshop and two work-in-progress showings.

Everyone Gives, Everyone Gets

As infrequent as the choreographic feedback may be, it has been productive for Slender, whose two-year-old contemporary company, FACT/SF, will debut Pretonically Oriented v.1 in the Pilot shows. “It was totally brilliant. A group of us were thrown into an environment where we had to observe each other and observe our own work but not be too critical of it, and just see what we could make. Since I primarily make my own work, I’m like the little dictator in the studio; what I say goes. When you’re working with other choreographers, everyone has a different idea of what things mean, because we’re all artists. There’s a way that the experience made me relearn how to see things.”

Foley comes from the opposite perspective: that of a dancer accustomed to embodying another person’s vision. “I don’t want to show my work and have someone say, ‘Well, she clearly danced with Robert Moses for ten-plus years.’ I want it to be my voice and my work.” Pilot’s bite-size format offers a safe way to take her first steps as a creator of dance. “There are challenges, of course, in making a ten-minute piece. But it’s definitely been helpful to me, because I say, OK, it’s not an evening of work, it’s not even half an evening of work, it’s just one piece.” Foley ventures into choreography with Nearly/Known, in which she plumbs the nature of happiness—after all, why not start small?

Kaufman, on the other hand, has been presenting her own work since getting her MFA from Mills College in 2008. With her bent toward creating experimental performances, “I’m used to lower-budget venues where it’s more informal, or lower-tier, I guess you would say.” For Kaufman, showing work at ODC is an experiment in itself. “I wanted to see what it would be like to make something being presented by a more mainstream organization that…operates in this very different way than what I’m used to.” The ODC Theater won’t let her throw paint on the walls, so Kaufman will rely on an electronic noise-scape as the backdrop to 11:56 PM, her exploration of city life and city dwellers.

Pilot is a focused program with very specific goals. But like most things in life, it is what one makes of it. Cottam sees Pilot as “a little laboratory that gives you an opportunity to do some choreography, to cooperate with people, to extend your network. Raisa Punkki and I just had a conversation for 5 or 10 minutes, and I’m thinking to myself, I really like this person, and this is a person that I would enjoy working with in the future.”

Relatively new to professional choreography, Cottam has used that laboratory to dream up Aneurotypical, Man, set to Thelonious Monk’s solo piano music. “It’s fun and a real challenge. In the beginning I wanted it to be kind of contemporary ballet, but it’s kind of a mixed bag of really random movements. Some of it looks almost like soft-shoe-y tap dance, even though I don’t have any background in tap—it was just like, well, this seems like something we would do to this music!” Pilot’s creative freedom is also part of the appeal for the audience, which gets to see fresh ideas from up-and-coming artists—Pilot shows consistently sell out.

That ready audience makes Pilot a superb vehicle for McSurdy, a recent transplant from Boise, Idaho, to introduce herself to the Bay Area dance community. “I have more of a background as a designer and a dancer, not as a choreographer. So this is not only a debut piece for me in San Francisco, but one of the first pieces I’ve ever created.” Quite a coup for someone who applied to the program on a whim.

 “I told myself that when I moved to San Francisco I would just be a dancer—show up and stretch and be told what to do. And I was really looking forward to doing that!” she said. Of course, we all know what happens to the best-laid plans: “This process really taught me that making stuff is way more enjoyable than I thought it was all of that time.” McSurdy’s recent life transitions—from Boise to San Francisco, from creator to dancer and back to creator—figure in her reflective piece on being a newcomer, Not just passing through. The title suggests that her new direction has staying power.

Punkki came all the way from Finland, moving to the United States in 2003 and founding her company, punkkiCo, two years later. The translation from life in Europe has been met with grants, awards and successful shows, but it hasn’t always been easy. “It’s a totally different way to maneuver things—funding, everything, is different. Some things I already knew; [Pilot] is kind of just confirming those things. What has been new to me is how you have to approach the press. It’s really hard to get a critic to come see you; if somebody comes, it’s so huge. In Europe I used to get critics every time I did something.” She connects with her roots in Polar Night, inspired by the darkness of the Northern Hemisphere in winter and set to a shamanic score by Finnish composer Kimmo Pohjonen.

Raisa Punkki. Photo: Rob Kunkle.

In addition to better navigating the American arts world, “what I needed now is just to talk, to be able to share the artistic part of it,” Punkki said. “Working with Lizz Roman and talking with everybody, it’s wonderful. And we have been staying afterwards and talking about where the pieces are going, so it’s been really, really good for me.”

It’s not Yalta, But Still…

Merging six perspectives on art and business, meeting six people’s needs and negotiating compromises requires maturity. If one doesn’t bring it to the table, one learns it along the way.

“You throw these six artists together, and they have to come up with how to become a cohesive whole,” Okada said. “You have to figure out, OK, how do we intersect, what do we share, what are we interested in. It’s a way also of getting people to articulate what their artistic and aesthetic sensibility is.”

For Slender, the exercise has strengthened some underused muscles. “I’m gonna sit in this meeting at 8:30 in the morning with five other choreographers who are all at different places in their careers, and we’re all going to find some common ground. And we’re not going to find it because I’m gonna tell them what the common ground is, which is how I run my company, but because we’re going to figure it out.”

He also sees the bigger picture of how this experience can help a dance company grow. “The skills of learning and listening and observing are immediately applicable when you need to identify what other people can contribute. Maybe they have this other skill set that I don’t have, or they are making work that is just so different from what I would consider making, so maybe there’s a collaboration that can happen.” It’s not the easiest skill to master, but it’s a powerful tool to employ in art, in business and in life.

So from the crucible of Pilot, artists emerge with potent skills and practice using them. “One of the real beliefs of the Pilot program is that you should know how to do this yourself and take it on,” Okada said. “Don’t wait around for the opportunity and cry because you didn’t get picked. It happens to everybody—carry on! You gotta have a thick skin, but you have to have the chops behind it to survive. That’s what we hope this will give them.”

ODC School & ODC Theater Present
Pilot’s 20th Anniversary
Pilot 57: Pilot Light

Saturday and Sunday, December 4-5, 8 p.m.
Tickets $12

ODC Theater, 3153 17th Street (@ Shotwell), San Francisco

© 2010 Claudia Bauer/

AXIS and inkBoat Redefine Dance

AXIS and inkBoat in ODD. Photo: Michele Clement

ODD integrates dancers in wheelchairs and on foot.What’s in a name? AXIS, the name of Oakland’s renowned physically integrated contemporary dance company, plays on the turning axes of wheels and on accessibility; before it formed in 1987, world-class opportunities for dancers with disabilities were few. For choreographers like Joe Goode, Margaret Jenkins, Sonya Delwaide, and now Shinichi Iova-Koga, AXIS Dance Company also means access to uncharted dimensions of creativity. “We realized early on that instead of having disabled dancers in the company being a limitation, it actually opened up this huge potential for movement and partnering and ensemble work,” said artistic director Judith Smith. Combining dancers in wheelchairs and dancers on foot, AXIS achieves speed, fluidity, inventiveness, and freedom that other companies can’t match.

AXIS “presents a completely different body than I’ve been working with, and that gives us a whole new series of investigations that we can get into,” said Iova-Koga, choreographer of ODD, a new evening-length piece inspired by the moody, figurative paintings of Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum and performed by an ensemble of dancers from AXIS and Iova-Koga’s award-winning company inkBoat.

Read the rest of this preview in the East Bay Express.

Sailing Away: Joanna Haigood choreographs San Francisco history

In Dance, October 2010

Flooded with Gold Rush lucre and teeming with the adventurers who hunted for it, San Francisco in the 1850s was a rootin’-tootin’, quick-shootin’, prostitutin’ Wild West boomtown. Halloween in the Castro has nothing on the Barbary Coast.

As choreographer Joanna Haigood describes it, “The energy was very chaotic, wild, violent, excessive. The city was being burned down on a regular basis, people were shooting each other in the street, there was a tremendous amount of crime and mayhem. There was so much money, it was absurd; rents were comparable to today.” That kind of drama holds obvious appeal to an artist whose métier is performance, and it provides the inspiration for Haigood’s latest site-specific contemporary piece, Sailing Away, which her company, Zaccho Dance Theatre, will premiere October 7-10 on Market St.

Read the entire article here.

Center Stage

East Bay Express Fall Arts Preview, September 1, 2010

A stellar East Bay dance season is waiting in the wings.

Berkeley's Jyoti Kala Mandir

Along with venues that draw dance talent from around the globe, the East Bay boasts world-class choreographers and dancers (who are sometimes better known on other continents than in their own neighborhoods). Whether your taste runs to the classical, the contemporary, or the avant-garde, the 2010-11 season offers something to satisfy your appetite. And with so many shows, festivals, and special events to choose from, it’s easy to fill your dance card.

Read the complete article at

Bridging Borders: Nina Haft & Co. in the Middle East

In Dance, July 2010

Nina Haft visited the Middle East in 2007 to experience the culture and see firsthand how people there use dance to address the immense challenges in their lives, from restricted travel to conflicts that last for generations (In Dance, September 2009). Choreographing her latest work, SKIN: One Becomes Two, was Nina’s way of processing the experience and exploring “what happens when boundaries are crossed during times of love and conflict.” This May, she and dancers Lisa Bush, Becky Chun, Rebecca Johnson, Edmer Lazaro, Mo Miner and Frances Sedayao, accompanied by Frank Shawl, performed the piece at the Ramallah Dance Festival and at a refugee camp in Bethlehem, a dance school in Jerusalem and in Amman, Jordan. Claudia Bauer sat down with Nina and Rebecca before and after their trip.

Read the interview at

AileyCamp’s “Ambassador Bridges”

Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, July 29, 2010


Sometimes dance is the least important part of a dance performance. For the kids who performed in Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp’s season finale at Zellerbach Hall, dance, to paraphrase Robert Louis Stephenson, was about being what they are and becoming what they are capable of becoming.

“I Been ’Buked,” an excerpt from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, opened the show. The kids stretched their arms skyward, leaned and pliéd, evoking the quiet intensity of the original in their own sincerely felt, imperfectly synchronized way. But technique and precision were unimportant on this night: developing the discipline to put the show together, and allowing themselves to perform from the heart, is the essence of the performance, and of AileyCamp.

“Movement is so connected to our emotions and our understanding of the world. We’ve made this arbitrary separation of physicality and mental ability,” said camp director David McCauley. “When [campers] have breakdowns and meltdowns, we’ll take a moment, and the guidance counselor or group leader will take a minute, stop, talk, work out what happened. Why did it happen? How can you work that out so it doesn’t happen next time? Or when that happens, what choices can you make? And then it’s like, how are you feeling? Have we worked it out? OK, let’s get back to class.”

Photo by Bob Adler

Fifty students ages 11 to 14 attended this year’s camp. For six weeks, they took daily master classes in modern, ballet, jazz, and African dance and participated in daily workshops on personal development and conflict resolution. Many of the kids come from families with straitened finances, and camp is free to all, down to dancewear, breakfast and lunch, backpacks and transportation to and from Zellerbach Hall.

Group interaction and personal guidance teach them important skills, but the dancing opens them up in ways that listening to a teacher never could. “Dance is complete exposure,” ballet instructor Priya Shah said. “Physically it’s exposing because your body is exposed, people are looking at you; you can’t build a wall around yourself because you’re already completely exposed. For a lot of the students, they’ve masked themselves in different ways to fit into the communities they need to fit into and be who they need to be in those places. But when they come here, all of that’s stripped down.”

More than a place for young dancers to have fun all summer, AileyCamp is also an intervention for at-risk youth, and no dance experience is required. Some of the kids come from intact families while others live in foster homes. Camp is the first experience many of them have with consistent, reassuring guidance—and firm boundaries.

Group leader Yejide Najee-Ullah attended Berkeley’s first AileyCamp, in 2002, and it changed her life. “I’m so hard on them because I needed that at that age,” she said. “I’ve seen some of my kids in my group, first week not be able to string a sentence together in front of four people who were looking at them, and not be able to follow a [dance] combination, and now they’re featured in pieces, and their focus is there, and their drive is there, and they’ve completely grown in just a couple of weeks.”

As they practice technique that will improve their dancing in any genre, campers learn life skills that will help them achieve their dreams and goals. “There’s a lot of new ways to solve problems,” said 13-year-old Jolisa of Oakland. “Before, I would just go off, and it would be a big old fight. But now I know, other than ignore them because they’re just messing with me, I could just change the subject.”

Most of the campers grudgingly took ballet class, and in interviews they consistently complained about having to point their toes. But their comedic ballet, “Alley Ensemble,” was a hit with the audience, especially when the magician character used a giant rubber ball to knock down the white-clad ballerinas like bowling balls.

After the dark, moody “Chosen Voices,” which combined martial-arts moves and modern dance, some of the girls segued into a Gullah stick-pounding sequence, and the boys, shirtless and draped in bright sarongs, stomped and chanted through a chest-pounding Maori haka. One had to think the kids were getting mighty tired by this point, but they were about to take things to a whole new level.

Thrumming hypnotically on his djembe drum, Madiou Sao Diouf led a group of five musicians in a brief intro as kids in brilliant African clothing and headdresses ran in from the wings. Suddenly Zellerbach Hall exploded with color, movement and sound. The dancers leaped and kicked and threw themselves into traditional dances of Ivory Coast (Bolowee), Guinea (Liberté) and Senegal (Mandiani) while the band pounded furiously behind them.

Photo by Bob Adler

It’s easy to think that kids today are only into hip-hop…but I’ve never seen hip-hop danced with more focus and passion than these kids unleashed. Channeled through those ancient steps, their energy could have powered the Berkeley campus for a week. The standing ovation went on for minutes, and the kids sparkled with pride.

Surely much of the credit for that wondrous performance belongs to Naomi Gedo Diouf, artistic director of Diamano Coura West African Dance Company and AileyCamp’s African dance teacher. The kids call her Mama.

Twelve-year-old Toni of Oakland summed up her impact: “Mama is nice; she tells you straightforward, she tells you the truth. She tells you don’t stick your stomach out, and she tells you life lessons. Like, she teaches us to be grateful; she tells us about Ghana, and the children who have to get in the war. When we’re bad she tells us we should be grateful. Like if we’re talking too much, or we’re not paying attention.”

It’s a different kind of learning for lots of the campers—consistent rules meant to strengthen their wings rather than clip them. “They’re constantly being told what they can and can’t do, and what their limits are,” Najee-Ullah continued. “And seeing that lightbulb go off when they realize that they can exceed the limits that people have set for them, that’s why I do it. That healing that they get, and that look on their face, that’s all I need.”

After the African showstopper, the Ailey-tribute final was practically an afterthought, but quite a nice one. Three girls reinterpreted Judith Jamison’s classic Cry as a sweet trio. An ensemble re-created “Wade in the Water,” another excerpt from Revelations, down to the swaths of fabric waving over the floor like a purifying river. And the entire camp came together to finish the show with the somber Hymn, which finished with McCauley and all the camp staff joining in the final steps. Only the most cynical eyes were dry at this point.

On the surface, AileyCamp is about dance, but it’s really about being, and becoming, and expressing yourself. And learning to be a member of a community. McCauley told the kids, “’We all stand on the shoulders of someone else.’ That got a laugh. I said, ‘You might think it’s funny, but it’s not. If people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King did not come and do certain things, where would we be?’ And by we, I mean all of us. It goes across the board to anyone who’s done something for the human race. Where would we be?”

AileyCamp can accommodate up to 80 students, but budget constraints limited this year’s camp to 50. If you or your company would like to support the program, please contact Cal Performances at

Copyright © 2010

AXIS Dance Open Rehearsal & Silent Auction

Sneak a peek at AXIS Dance Company’s latest work, “ODD,” choreographed by Shinichi Iova-Koga/inkBoat and performed with guest dancers from inkBoat, at the company’s August 26 open rehearsal and fund-raising reception. Meet the artists and bid on an array of good stuff like jewelry, art, theater tickets and much more (preview the auction items)—proceeds support AXIS’s award-winning integrated dance and classes for dancers of all abilities.

AXIS Open Rehearsal/Reception & Silent Auction
Thursday, August 26th, 6:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice Street, Oakland
It’s easy to get there by BART, and there’s ample street parking. Click here for directions.

Please RSVP by e-mail to

Don’t forget to mark your calendar for the AXIS fall home season and premiere of “ODD”:
November 5-7 at ODC in San Francisco
November 12-14 at the Malonga Casquelourd Center in Oakland

Upper photo courtesy of Andy Moog, 2003.

Post:Ballet “Concert One”

Cowell Theatre, San Francisco, Saturday, July 17, 2010

Few choreographers can create plotless contemporary dance that engages the audience with movement and music alone; all too often, dancing for its own sake devolves into moody self-indulgence. More unusual is a young choreographer with the maturity and self-discipline to create sophisticated work that means something to him personally, yet is accessible and entertaining to viewers who have no knowledge of his inspiration.

That’s why Robert Dekkers and his new company, Post:Ballet, are much-needed in the Bay Area dance scene. Just 25 years old, the Atlanta Ballet–trained Dekkers is a veteran of Ballet Arizona, ODC/Dance and Company C Contemporary Ballet, and already has nine years of critically acclaimed choreography to his name. His promise was evident during Concert One, Post:Ballet’s two-night premiere at the Cowell Theatre.

Milieu opened amid atmospheric lighting that drifted through smoke-machine fog. As Daniel Berkman played his original score live on the gravikord (an electric metal harp that sounds curiously like a mandolin crossed with a kettle drum) and digital effects, all seven company dancers unfurled from the floor, stretching and reaching upward like newborn creatures. Utilizing the full width and depth of the stage, they merged and separated, stopped and slowed, and tumbled back down to the floor, with one dancer or the other periodically spinning off in a dynamic solo only to rejoin the group for movement in unison. Alessandra Ball and David Ligon broke away into a pas de deux that beautifully contrasted force and release. Between the raw movement, the swampy lighting and the costuming (the women in pale-green leotards and the men in burnt-orange shorts), the effect was primordial.

Milieu. Post:Ballet, Choreography of Robert Dekkers, Photography by Natalia Perez.

The mood changed considerably with B-Sides, a pas de deux performed by Jared Hunt and Christian Squires to a plaintive, operatic vocal recording by indie darlings Grizzly Bear. Like a Calder mobile in an unreliable breeze, the men leaned on one another, rolled together on the floor, segued into backwards balances, then burst into pirouettes en attitude. Sensuous and physical but far from languorous, they seemed driven by an unspoken emotional conflict, as though there were unanswered questions between them. Minimal costumes (green shorts and blue shorts, respectively) only highlighted the intimate contact between Hunt’s groundedness and Squires’s chiseled youth.

Beau Campbell, Ashley Flanner and Beth Kaczmarek took the stage for Flutter, which is divided into two halves by Steve Reich’s energetic clapping soundtrack and J.S. Bach’s mournful Partita for Solo Violin. Dancing largely in unison and wearing dark-gray Grecian tunics over black shorts, they called to mind the Three Graces as they swooped from rondes de jambes on the floor to rhythmic turning accented by hand and arm inflections that hinted at Indian dance. Inventive bourrees—on bent legs, even on the knees—winked at classical ballet and added a fluttering effect. Dekkers says that Flutter is about society’s insistence on conformity, and though each dancer attempts to separate from the group, she is ultimately reeled back in.

Milieu. Post:Ballet, Choreography of Robert Dekkers, Photography by Natalia Perez.

The entire company reconvened for The Happiness of Pursuit, a world-premiere collaboration between Dekkers and San Francisco composer Jacob Wolkenhauer, who performed the guitar-based score live with Joe Hickey. The soundtrack ranged from dynamic to moody, prompting movement that alternated between dropping and rolling and joyous leaping. The performers interwove in every possible combination, from full ensemble to solos—and was that a smile on Ligon’s face during his fleet-footed solo? It was a welcome ray of sunshine during an evening of intense dance. Ball donned the only pointe shoes of the night for a dynamic, beautifully synchronized pas de deux with Squires, though he seemed a bit overmatched by her height and momentum.

Dekkers’s choice of music is superb: edgy enough to keep you listening, yet harmonious enough to make listening a pleasure. However, a bit more variety of vocabulary—whether in the steps, costuming or lighting—would add even more surprises and ensure lively pacing. In some pieces, particularly Milieu, a lack of unison lessened the impact.

All of Dekkers’s dancers have classical ballet training, which was evident in their lines. Yet, unlike many ballet dancers, they can turn on the loose, down-to-the-ground movement required for contemporary work and Dekkers’s inventive interpretations. The women are especially well chosen; their similarity in proportions, strength and technique—even their hair is the same below-the-shoulders length—results in a visual consistency that pleases the eye and never distracts from the dance.

The audience granted Post:Ballet a standing ovation, which is to be expected at a company’s debut, when the seats are filled with friends, family and other ringers. But the applause was well earned—a talented new voice deserves a warm welcome. Dekkers has faced down the challenge of starting a new dance company; now his task is to continue challenging his creativity. He is up to it.

© 2010