Midway through the new documentary Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie, who danced with the Joffrey from 1974 to 1978, says with barely concealed pique that the Joffrey was always considered the “current events company.” Indeed, the history of the Joffrey Ballet Company reads as a history of midcentury America; along with fine dancing, it’s what makes the company unique and this documentary engaging.
McKenzie’s dismay is understandable. Wedged somewhere between Balanchine’s auteur-driven New York City Ballet and the traditional American Ballet Theatre, both geographically and in critics’ minds, the Joffrey was overshadowed by both. City Ballet and ABT hew to classicism (for all his innovations, Balanchine got no further from the academy than the prefix “neo”); their stock-in-trade is the aspiration to art rather than entertainment. Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, who co-founded the Joffrey in New York City in 1956, paid little heed to that distinction: channeling the zeitgeist, they made and commissioned dances that interpreted the culture outside the studio doors and in the headlines, works that alternately challenged, pleased, shocked or simply delighted.
Some Joffrey/Arpino works were as classically derived as any Ashton piece. Other, Broadway-lite, pieces received audience cheers and critical jeers before quickly disappearing from the repertory. But there were also groundbreaking performances, like that, in 1967, of Kurt Jooss’s 1946 antiwar protest piece The Green Table – Joffrey was the first company to perform it in the United States as well as one of the few major American dance companies (if not the only one) to oppose the Vietnam War from the stage. And then there was Robert Joffrey’s 1968 masterpiece Astarte, an orgiastic fertility-goddess-meets-mortal-man free-love pas des deux, complete with acid-trip film projections, Trinette Singleton in a psychedelic unitard and Max Zomosa stripped to a loincloth. So radically timely was Astarte that it landed Singleton on the cover of Time magazine.
Simply linkin one Joffrey high point to the next, without conveying the depth of feeling underlying each one, would be a monumental achievement in dot connection. But Joffrey is a compelling tale well told, blessed with emotionally generous characters and infused with joy, suspense, tragedy and redemption. This is largely thanks to the storytelling expertise of the production team, led by writer/director Bob Hercules, who also directed the Bill T. Jones documentary A Good Man, and co-producer Harold Ramis, whose own artistic and exceptionally entertaining career includes Animal House, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.
Along with McKenzie, dancers, critics and collaborators like Helgi Tomasson, Lar Lubovitch, Jooss, Twyla Tharp, Anna Kisselgoff and Ashley Wheater, who is now the company’s artistic director, figure in the story via interviews, archival footage and countless photographs. Melissa Sterne deserves kudos for skillfully editing these many elements into a dynamic, yet never manic, collage. Mandy Patinkin lends fine narration.
Dashed more than once on the rocks of poor leadership and worse finances, the Joffrey Ballet has righted itself time and again. The musician Prince once intervened with cash; a series of admittedly kitschy, crowd-pleasing shows rekindled audience interest in the 1980s; and a move to Chicago, in 1995, finally got the company out of the shadows and into its own limelight.
After a generation of relative stability, a labor dispute in 2011 led to a dancer lockout and partial cancellation of that year’s season. But today’s Joffrey also has the financial strength to open and maintain its own building and, under Wheater’s able leadership, it continues to ride the currents.
Joan Lazarus is a hero in the Bay Area dance community, and it’s time for the Bay Area dance community to be a hero to Joan. Partly because she is a delightful person, but mostly because for twenty years (20!) she has provided a stage and a showcase for emerging choreographers and dancers via the annual WestWave Dance festival.
Because of the nasty funding cutbacks that have been going around, WestWave is having a hard time finding funding for the 2012 season. To date, the festival has found none. Zero. Zilch. Perhaps we can all pitch in a little something to show how much we appreciate WestWave – and Joan?
Click the link below to read Joan’s flyer and learn how to join the community of support for this amazing resource. Thanks!
If you’re prepared to get to SF this weekend – in spite of the bridge closure – check out Holly Johnston/Ledges and Bones in Want, a very cool new contemporary piece premiering at ODC. Read all about it in today’s Ovation section.
Robert Dekkers’s Post:Ballet launches its second home season with shows tonight and tomorrow night at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. Should be an adventurous and beautifully danced performance. Sincere thanks to the SF Arts Monthly for publishing my feature story about it:
“If André Malraux was correct, and ‘an artist discovers his genius the day he dares not to please,’ then San Francisco choreographer Robert Dekkers has clearly found his. Supremely talented and trained, he could easily have built a career on conventional movement set to conventional music. Instead, Dekkers followed his quirky muse away from the establishment and toward dance that is meticulously crafted, finely structured, decidedly daring and always beautifully performed by his two-year-old company, Post:Ballet.
“To be sure, Post:Ballet is pleasing; the widely hailed troupe was named San Francisco’s ‘Best New Dance’ of 2010 by 7×7 Magazine, and Dekkers made Dance Magazine‘s coveted ’25 to Watch’ list this year, a nod to his distinctive mix of impeccable technique and boundless imagination. His unique signature stamps all four pieces that Post:Ballet will perform during its sophomore home season, Seconds, in July.”
Check out the complete article at SFArts.org. Best wishes to Robert and Post:Ballet for continued success!
Surprise Attack: FACT/SF’s Home Season 3.0
The Garage, San Francisco, April 8-10 & 13-15, 2011
Brave is the person who sits in the front row at a FACT/SF show. One has to be prepared for unsettling touched-by-a-stranger encounters, like when dancer Maggie Stack put her hand on my shoulder, then on my hand—and then on my note-taking pen!—during Entertaining Victoria, which had its world premiere during the company’s recent two-weekend run of Home Season 3.0, a retrospective on the company’s first three years, at The Garage in San Francisco.
That’s the thing about FACT/SF: they don’t let you relax in your seat watch the show; they draft you into it. The dancers might get on the floor and slither closer and closer to you, and just when you’re thinking that it’s time for them to stop or they will slide right under your seat, they indeed slide under your seat and out the other side. If you aren’t paying attention, well, who knows? No word on whether the company has a contingency plan in the event that someone doesn’t get their feet out of the way.
Artistic director Charles Slender had to get creative to adapt the in-your-face mood of the original Consumption Series, a site-specific work created for the intimate, decidedly non-proscenium (and, sadly, defunct) Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory, to the Garage’s boxy space and bleacher seating. The Frog Pocket/Arvo Pärt soundrack, aggressive movement and decadent post–Marie Antoinette corset-and-tube-socks costumes remain, but this time nobody danced with a bucket on their head; instead, they caravanned down the aisle and into the lobby, and danced there for a few minutes, mostly out of sight. Was anyone wondering if the piece was over? Will those of us who couldn’t see them never understand the work because we missed that part? A few front-row sitters got the extreme-close-up treatment from dancers Erin Kraemer and Catherine Newman; was it awkward or were they into it?
And that’s what makes FACT/SF so intriguing (beyond the high quality of the balletic contemporary dance—let’s not forget that, by all means): the answers don’t matter. Resolution is boring. Wondering if the dancers are ever going to come back and, if they make it back, whether they’ll do anything but wiggle their toes (the punch line of the ultraminimalist Pretonically Oriented v.1, a work in progress that premiered earlier this year through ODC’s Pilot Program), or if they will touch you—again—now that will put you on the edge of your seat, and make you giggle, and keep you guessing.
So when the lights dim for the next piece, you say to yourself, During this one, I will be ready. And then the mood turns. In an update to his 2007 solo …is all that an(n)a sees.09 & .10, Slender dances to one of Bach’s partitas for solo violin. Slender has an intellectual bent and a sardonic wit, so one naturally anticipates unalloyed assertiveness when he’s free to have his way with a captive audience. But in …is all, he taps a vein of vulnerability, revealing something raw and guileless, such that I wanted to look away but couldn’t. Slender, like all his dancers, moves fluidly, bending and extending, twisting and falling to the floor with precision and deliberateness…but that’s not the point, either. It is simply moving when an artist trusts his audience to watch him dance, lit by only a single uplight, no makeup and no façade, to music that touches him.
The show closed with Entertaining Victoria, inspired by the waltzes of yore and set to Strauss’ Blue Danube, which Slender illustrates by interlacing all five dancers (Daniel Arizmendi and Jona Mercer, along with the three women) in arcs that trace the rise and fall of the music. Slender can’t resist inverting the contemporary vocabulary, so arms are thrown, dress hems are tugged, dancers hop hither and yon and whip out 180-degree penchées, and then crowd into each other blankly, like the band that goes up the alley at the end of Animal House. As Strauss’ iconic melody streams overhead, Mark Morris’s Waltz of the Flowers comes to mind, and at the same time one fears end is nigh. How they pull it off with straight faces, I’ll never know.
Home Season 3.0 also included the ironic Before this we weren’t here and Eine Kleine Kitschen, Nein? In the first, Slender and dancer/manager Jeanne Pfeffer slouch stock-still in chairs while Peggy Lee wonders “why don’t we just end it all?” in “Is That All There Is?” (Lee’s version was a Top 40 hit in 1969; evidently mainstream America was into existential inquiry back then.) Kitschen sends up modern-dance self-seriousness in choreography, spoken word and snotty attitude. These two pieces were amusing, but with FACT/SF’s potential for multilayered work, they could take a backseat to new challenges and new surprises.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
East Bay Express Fall Arts Preview, September 1, 2010
A stellar East Bay dance season is waiting in the wings.
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.