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.
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.
Oakland Ballet Performs Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker Paramount Theatre, Thursday, December 23, 2010
A new dance company is like a box of chocolates: You don’t know what to expect, so you have to just give each piece a try and hope it’s a tasty one. So it was with Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker, a bonbon-themed version that marked the eagerly anticipated premiere of the newly reincarnated Oakland Ballet Company. We all showed up and hoped for the best; happily, Lustig and Oakland Ballet delivered a sweet treat for all to enjoy.
Artistic director Lustig sets his Nutcracker in 1915, a time period that lends refinement to the Act I party. Hewing to tradition, the party features pastel Edwardian costumes, formal dances and buttoned-up kids who are required to wait patiently as gifts are stacked before them. Naughty Fritz torments his sister, Clara, with a dead rat and, of course, breaks her Nutcracker doll, laying the groundwork for her dream. And it’s in the dream where Lustig works some very enchanting magic.
Children dressed as rats wield forks and knives against the toy soldiers in a battle that leads not to massive rodent carnage, but culminates in an act of mercy by Clara (beautifully danced and acted by professional ballerina Stephanie Salts), who earns the esteem of all by sparing three mice from the Nutcracker’s sword. Clara’s reward is a handsome cavalier (Connolly Strombeck) and a trip to the Land of Sweets by way of the Frozen Forest, a snowy stand of birches inhabited by Snow Maidens and fluffy dancing snowballs who stole the show (surely to the great pride of the children who leapt around in those impossibly plump costumes).
Rather than a King and Queen of Snow, Lustig has Clara and her cavalier perform the pas de deux in the forest. Because Clara is played by an adult, the dance takes on a romantic sensibility and develops the theme of Clara as a girl on the edge of womanhood, which works very well—it gives Clara an arc that continues through the entire ballet, rather than making her a passive observer of the wonders of Act II.
But Lustig’s Act II is still a girl’s paradise, a brilliant and joyous world inhabited by dancing peppermints, frolicking bonbons, clowns and confectioners. Children play all of those roles, adding their natural, unwitting wit to the performance. Professional adults take on the Spanish, Arabian and Russian dances, as well as an elegant German pas de trois that substitutes for the familiar French/Shepherdess/Marzipan dance.
Complementing the festive mood Lustig has created, Zack Brown’s sets re-create a sunny garden with a stone wall (just right for the little ones to peek over and around), and his ruffled, sparkly costumes surprise and delight the eye as pastels of the party give way to petal pinks, leaf greens and baby blues, vibrant red, turquoise and gold. Music director Michael Morgan led the Oakland East Bay Symphony through a smooth performance of the score.
The party scene would benefit from more dynamic storytelling, but Sarah Bukowski, as Mrs. Stahlbaum, enlivened it with her lyricism and charisma, which were also put to good use in her acrobatic Arabian dance. Jekyns Pelaez squired Rachel Speidel Little as the Sugar Plum Fairy, while Oakland Ballet Company veteran Denise Schmalle was a standout in the Spanish dance and the Waltz of the Flowers.
As Clara, Stephanie Saltz was tasked with carrying the entire story, and she came through with her superb technique and equally fine acting ability. When she was onstage, the eye was drawn to her, and she projected the emotions of her character clearly without miming (which kids without ballet training wouldn’t understand anyway). Thanks to excellent chemistry, she and Strombeck conveyed delight in each other’s company, so vital to making the story fly.
It is something of a logistical miracle that the bicoastal Lustig (who has other projects going in New Jersey as well) was able to pull this production off at such a satisfying level after joining the company only in fall of 2010. As he gets to know the Bay Area dance community, he will be able to develop a company of consistently superb dancers who can bring every aspect of his production fully to life. Judging from the cheers of the audience, the community will be thrilled to see Oakland Ballet Company back on stage soon.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.