Summer Writing Classes

Registration is now open at Stanford Continuing Studies’ Online Writers Studio, and I have one spot left in my 10-week memoir class. Take a look at all the great Stanford classes here.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto has just posted its summer offerings. I’ll be teaching a 9-week personal essay course, a 3-week arts reviewing course, and a 1-day “Gesture Writing” intensive. Here is the full lineup of Grotto offerings, including two 1-day classes I particularly recommend from Steve Almond.

You can read about my approach to teaching writing and my background here. If you’re interested in any of my classes, or have any questions, please write to me at rachel dot howard (at) gmail dot com.

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Sunday, June 1st, 2014 · Books · No Comments »


Risk and Reward: Mark Dendy in Santa Barbara

Next week I drive to Santa Barbara for the second of three “Friday Clubs” with New York choreographer Mark Dendy and his dancers. This is a new offering from DANCEworks, a residency program that gives choreographers a full month to make new work onstage at the lovely 400-seat Lobero Theater, with full technical support. This allows choreographers the rare luxury of developing the work intensively, and in steady collaboration with lighting designers, musical collaborators, costumers, and set architects. The first five DANCEworks residencies have yielded tremendous successes, from Doug Elkins’ celebrated “Mo(or)town Redux” to Brian Brooks’ daring “Big City.”

The mission of DANCEworks is so important, I feel, and the enthusiasm of executive director Dianne Vapnek is so infectious, that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines as a critic/observer, and 18 months ago I joined the DANCEworks board. (Fortunately, this hasn’t yet created too many conflicts of interest in my reviewing life, since DANCEworks commissions only one choreographer per year, and by invitation only–no application process.) I’m on the edge of my seat about what Mark Dendy will do this year in his fresh work, “Dystopian Distractions!” Dendy, who has seen a resurgence in his career recently with his massive (80-dancer) “Ritual Cyclical” at the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors festival, has chosen to take on the war machine of American culture in a dark satire of dance theater. I have no idea what the new work will have to say about Americans and war, no idea how it might provoke, enlighten, or offend–which is a risk at the heart of the DANCEworks mission.

At the new “Friday Club,” anyone who donates $50 or more to DANCEworks can see the work as it progresses, and talk about it with Mark and his dancers on the Lobero Stage. “Dystopian Distractions!” will have a full work-in-progress performance on April 26th, and I will be giving a short pre-curtain lecture.

Here’s an invitation from Mark and his dancers to the “Friday Club.”

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Saturday, April 5th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »


Shostokovich Trilogy: An Exhortation

I think only a Russian could have choreographed Shostakovich as Alexei Ratmansky has, capturing the music’s inner current so subtly and chillingly. Or perhaps a Czech, because seeing Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy is like being inside the dance equivalent of a Milan Kundera novel. The cast at last night’s west coast premiere with San Francisco Ballet (the production is a co-commission with American Ballet Theatre) was terrific to a one. The ballet feels eerily timely given Putin’s latest maneuvers, and there’s irony indeed in the fact that the stunning set designs which, in “Shostakovich Trilogy,” lightly spoof propaganda are by the same designer who for the Winter Olympics created ceremony scenery that served as actual propaganda. I take my exhortative recommendations very seriously. If you possibly can, you should see this.

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Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 · Books, Dance · No Comments »


Spring Memoir and Essay Classes: Registration Open

I have a few spots left in my spring classes in personal essay and advanced memoir at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, which is located at 2nd and Bryant Streets, in SOMA. If you’re looking for a substantive class that will both nurture and challenge you, that is what I offer. Some unsolicited feedback from my most recent classes:

“I’ll write this feedback on the course evaluation, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve learned so much from you about teaching and giving feedback on writing. You have such a gift of making each individual want to continue writing.”

“I want to let you know how meaningful the course has been to me. It is the first writing course (since my college days!) I have participated in and it has been a revelation. I have learned much about the craft–but I have also learned much about myself and others. I have seen how the process of writing can illuminate, frame and provide context and meaning to life experiences. It can also heal and bring closure. It has helped me in unexpected ways at this time.

Thank you for being a wise guide and insightful and supportive teacher. I will miss your influence and gentle prodding (to get on with the assignment!)–and I will miss learning from my talented classmates. Collective risk taking and giving voice to our stories has forged lasting connections.”

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Sunday, March 16th, 2014 · Misc. · No Comments »


“Six Card Games”

The lovely and intellectually provocative Berfrois has just published one of my newest essays, “Six Card Games.”

An excerpt:

“G– cleared our pizza crusts. The bay lapped the boat and the old pit bull snored as G– dealt. Within fifteen minutes I was down to two cards in my pile, playing every card I could every time, gloating, and G– still had a tall stack. He rose to pour more Beaujolais and I blurted, “So you’re 51, never married. Do you think you’d want a family?”

G– slapped down three cards in a row with a competitor’s smirk. “Interesting question, Canary,” he said. “Probably not.”

I was 34 and we were both well aware of that.
He tapped the cards in his hand on the laminated little table. “So much for your lucky streak,” he said with a cluck.”

Full essay is here. Many thanks to Berfrois for sharing this work.

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Thursday, March 6th, 2014 · Misc. · No Comments »


More on the New Ballet San Jose

Whether the moneyed tech population of Silicon Valley will support the reinvented Ballet San Jose remains to be seen, but whether Jose Manuel Carreno was the right choice to lead this company’s upgrade was perfectly clear Saturday night at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. The first repertory program of Carreno’s reign was ingenious programming, to be sure: the ageless, elegiac craftsmanship of Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade,” the busy, street-wise energy of Jorma Elo’s 2006 “Glow-Stop;” and the in-your-face angst (mixed with some playful lounge music) of Ohad Naharin’s collage of dances from the ‘90s, “Minus 16,” replete with audience participation finale.

This was a smart slate not only in the range of emotion and physicality it fed the audience, and the balance between crowd pleasing (the Elo) and classic (Balanchine). It was also brilliant in the growth it demanded from Ballet San Jose’s lovable, eager dancers. Everywhere in the ensemble, veteran company members who once stagnated became standouts: Jeremy Kovitch was a muscled wonder of deep presence in “Glow-Stop;” Beth Ann Namey brought an ease of lyricism to “Serenade.” Alexsandra Meijer has long shone as the top technician at Ballet San Jose; now she is joined by the equally elegant and musical Ommi Pipit-Suksun, whom fans will remember from her soloist days at San Francisco Ballet, and the two presided angelically in both the Balanchine and the Elo. There were new men commanding attention, too, especially the slinky Bosnian dancer Damir Emric, and corps member James Kopecky, who had the perfect unnerving intensity required for a company to pull off Naharin.

The audience was robust and raucously appreciative. But recently Ballet San Jose had to cancel Saturday afternoon shows and live music because Carreno’s kick-off gala, last November, did not net major donors. So listen up, Silicon Valley: Aren’t you always looking for the hot new thing? Here’s a tip: Ohad Naharin, danced with fervor by San Jose’s own—that’s a sure bet. Any sensible VC firm would make a sizable Series A investment in Carreno’s Ballet San Jose.

PS: Here’s an informative article from Allan Ulrich about all that Carreno is up to.

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Tuesday, February 18th, 2014 · Dance · 1 Comment »


New Essay in Spring Arroyo Literary Review

I’m delighted to have a new essay, “Frank Black,” just published in the Spring ’14 Arroyo Literary Review. In addition to the print edition, the magazine has made the piece available online here.

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Tuesday, February 18th, 2014 · Misc. · No Comments »


Recent Dance Writing

I’ve been doing a lot of dance/performance writing lately, and thought I would collect it here:

Interview with Korean Shaman-singer Dohee Lee. This was a special encounter for me, and I wish I’d had at least twice the space to profile her. I admire her so much.

Extremely short preview of Robert Moses’ Kin. His solo, “Slow Rise of a Rigid Man,” did turn out to be the best thing about the evening.

Interview with Zimbabwean exile Nora Chipaumire, bringing her choreography to the Black Choreographers Festival. Another subject that deserved more space.

A review of Diablo Ballet. Robert Dekkers was the man of the hour.

An interview with ballet superstar Alina Cojocaru, formerly of the Royal Ballet, in SF with the Hamburg Ballet. Delightful woman and dedicated artist.

A profile of SF Ballet’s prolific Val Caniparoli on the occasion of his world premiere, “Tears.”

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Friday, February 14th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »


Froustey’s First “Giselle”

January 26, 2014
War Memorial Opera House

It was good to discover much more about new San Francisco Ballet principal Mathilde Froustey in her “Giselle” debut here Sunday. She certainly drew instant adoration from the sold-out matinee audience—the standing ovation was overwhelming—and for good reason. She is not only an effortless technician, but a natural actress, and this made her Act One a nailbiter. As a peasant girl, she was all naïve sweetness, but no coyness—and this meant, wonderfully, we worried for her as that rascal Count Albrecht convinced her that the flower petals wouldn’t lead to “he loves me not.”

I especially enjoyed the looseness in Froustey’s neck throughout the group dances as Albrecht swung her side to side—she let go, in a swoon, far too trusting. And yet when it came time for the show-off steps, Froustey was bold, so much so that she almost tottered off pointe in a long balance on her second big arabesque. Soon enough, she was making the toughest feats look like child’s play, just like they should, taking springy hops with those little rond de jambe en l’air (when Giselle bounces on pointe while twirling one leg around in front of her) and lifting her hands high from Albrecht’s arm to show the unsupported attitude before her big penchee plunge. Froustey sailed through the flute solo as though on a continuous breeze, buoyed by the marvelous playing of Principal Flutist Barbara Chaffee.

“Giselle” presents considerable choices to the ballerina: Does Giselle die of a weak heart or emotional trauma or both, and if so, how do the two causes connect? Froustey’s interpretation is a work in progress. Her first gasp of heart-weakness was dramatic, yet within minutes all physical weakness disappeared. Her mental break after Albrecht’s unveiling as a two-timing playboy was sharp—shades of Ophelia as she staggered, but staggering and leaping with strength, as though Froustey forgot to dim her technical power. No ambiguity here: Froustey’s Giselle died from madness, not heart palpitations. (But not before swinging Albrecht’s sword especially wide, and catching Bathilde’s skirt. Froustey stayed in character—riiiipp!—and the most expensive costume in the production got torn in two.)

Froustey’s Act Two appears even more under construction. Again with the wonderful head and neck, and the impressive penchees—but she has not yet carved her own phrasings into this much-trod choreography. And she seems to be figuring out what she wants to achieve by way of optical illusions. Some ballerinas can make those odd feet-tucked under jumps look less like steps and more like some gust is eerily batting them about the stage like a cottonball. For Froustey, at this early juncture, the steps still look like steps.

It was also good to see new soloist Simone Messmer in her first Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis at SF Ballet (she has previously danced the role at American Ballet Theatre). Like Froustey, Messmer seems technically infallible, and she projected Myrtha’s brittle resolve in her decisive head and neck. But she does not yet create the pathos of Sofiane Sylve, the best Myrtha I’ve seen at SF Ballet. How she accomplishes it I’m not quite sure, but in Sylve’s rendering you see not just Myrtha’s angry strength, but the hurt that drives it. It’s heartbreaking.

Which goes to prove: Though Froustey and Messmer repeat their roles on Friday, you really can’t go wrong with any cast in this “Giselle” run. Lorena Feijoo dances it in the rounder Romantic style she learned at the National Ballet of Cuba, while Yuan Yuan Tan’s willowy lines make for an otherworldly second act. Vanessa Zahorian imbues the role with unmatched clarity, and Sarah Van Patten gives it unparalleled naturalism, while Maria Kochetkova may remain the most fully realized Giselle in the company. And among the Albrechts, too, there are varying strengths to be savored. Allan Ulrich reports that Davit Karapetyan builds a fully fleshed character, something Tiit Helimets did not do on Sunday—but oh what a thrill to see those trembling feet on his terrified entrechats!

The corps looks superb, especially in Act Two. And there’s always a revelation or two to behold in the Act One peasant pas de cinq. On Sunday, it was corps member Wei Wang landing double tours with air time to spare, and using a juicy plié to power the most perfect pirouettes I can imagine.

PS: Here’s a great interview with Froustey, freshly arrived in SF.

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Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »


San Francisco Ballet’s 81st Season Opening Gala

War Memorial Opera House
January 22, 2014

A wonderfully substantive, often serious, season-opening gala at the San Francisco Ballet last night. I appreciate the risk artistic director Helgi Tomasson took in the full U.S. premiere of Hans van Manen’s “Variations for Two Couples,” and a lengthy excerpt from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Concerto.” These were both ballets with shadowy lighting, stark costuming, and tense relationships playing out to challenging music: a peculiar potpourri of Britten, Piazzolla, Rautavaara, and Tickmayer in “Two Couples;” the adagio from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in “Concerto.” Sarah Van Patten commanded both of these ballets, growing into a stately simplicity of stage presence in this prime of her career.

For crowd-pleasers, we were treated to Taras Domitro slashing his way like Tarzan (well, Tarzan with unfailing turn-out) through that old Russian bonbon, the “Diana and Acteon” pas de deux. And Gennadi Nedvigin offered charm and virtuosity with equal ease in Johan Kobborg’s “Les Lutins,” a little romp of rivalry with Esteban Hernandez and the gymnastic Dores Andre. Kobborg himself, a Royal Ballet star, also danced in the gala, with Maria Kochetkova, in the odd central boudoir scene from MacMillan’s “Manon.”

The major discoveries of the evening for me were two. One, the new principal Mathilde Froustey with her matchstick limbs and freakishly perfect mechanics in Victor Gsovsky’s regal-yet-flirty “Grand Pas Classique”—she reminds me of Gelsey Kirkland. And two: the new soloist Simone Messmer finding a juicy partnership with Ruben Martin Cintas in “The Man I Love” pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” The loose, almost tap-dancer arms, the filly-like speed, the jazzy hips—I don’t know when I’ve seen such a seemingly effortless exemplar of the Balanchine style on the War Memorial stage. Messmer’s repertoire at her first company, American Ballet Theatre, suggests she is a stylistic shape-shifter; I can’t wait to see her range this season.

And as for rediscoveries: Sasha de Sola in the Act 1 pas de cinq from “Giselle.” What hands! Her lines are always moving—she’s like a skywriter of calligraphy—and yet her lines are always classical. There were so many other pleasures of the evening: the live flamenco singing and clapping in Yuri Possokhov’s “Talk to Her,” the strong arms of Frances Chung in a solo from Val Caniparoli’s “Lambarena,” the slashing gypsy freedom of Sofiane Sylve in the fourth movement of Balanchine’s “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.” But de Sola’s hands keep trailing through my memory.

PS: Froustey has been cast as Giselle and Messmer as Myrtha in the Sunday 1/26 matinee and the Friday 1/31 evening performances. Casting here.

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Thursday, January 23rd, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »


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