I’ve been taking small steps into new territory lately–writing about the visual arts–and enjoying it very much. What a pleasure to profile Berkeley painter John Zurier after being entranced by his MATRIX show at the Berkeley Art Museum. That article ran in the SF Chronicle and is online here. I also recently wrote about Oakland’s Compound Art Gallery (online here) and talked with the San Jose Museum of Art’s newest curator about their “City Limits, City Life” show (article online here).

Sunday, December 14th, 2014 · Uncategorized · No Comments »

Mathilde Froustey’s Radiant Sugarplum

Mathilde Froustey, San Francisco Ballet’s recent import from the Paris Opera Ballet, was every little girl’s dream of the ballerina at Friday night’s opening of the Nutcracker. She turned a very-unplum role in Helgi Tomasson’s otherwise resplendent production, the Sugarplum Fairy, into a star turn, and shone as the radiant center of the evening. In Tomasson’s Nutcracker, set in 1915 San Francisco, the Sugarplum Fairy leads the Waltz of the Flowers, though she does so with very un-waltzing phrases of turning combinations. Froustey is the first ballerina I’ve seen make this choreography look lush and musical, her shoulders all sensuous sway and yet her form pristinely classical, her hands adding joyous accents on the cymbal’s clashes. I’d never noticed how much drama Froustey’s feet add to her dancing; they are somewhat long, so that you feel her stepping up onto pointe as though onto a precipice, and yet she floats so freely above. You feel the complex physics of it all, and the feat of Froustey’s freedom becomes all the more miraculous.

The audience last night seemed composed more of children than adults, which was delightful, and the kids were rapt. But for the grown-ups following dancers’ development, it was interesting to see Luke Ingham as the Nutcracker Prince. He is evidently being groomed as the comapny’s prime danseur noble, and with good reason: With his balance of muscularity and elegance, and his large eyes and square jaw, you could understand at once why Clara would swoon for him. I’m guessing he was not completely satisfied with his performance the morning after; he lost control of at least two of his big pirouette moments, and landed them a bit awkwardly. But I’m told the company had to go without an onstage dress rehearsal the previous day because of the winter storm and a power outage in the opera house, which may have contributed to nerves. He does have the technique, and from all indications more experience will bring consistency to match his charisma.

His partner in the Grand Pas de Deux, Yuan Yuan Tan, is less suited to the role than some of the company’s shorter technicians, in my opinion, and she opted for a strangely stop-and-go turning combination on the diagonal. But she was glamorous as always, and adults were as dazzled as the starry eyed kids.

Tomasson’s snow scene is my favorite among Nutcrackers, and last night’s was a blizzard. Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro as the Snow Queen and King smiled brightly with little paper bits of precipitation stuck stubbornly to their cheeks. The corps was all graciousness and polish. We’re so fortunate to have such a spirited production of Nutcracker in San Francisco, and generous dancers who bring their whole hearts to it.

PS: Here is a terrific profile on Froustey. And here‘s an interview Froustey gave just before she began her first season in San Francisco last January.

Saturday, December 13th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »

“San Francisco’s Postmodern Dance Pioneers”: a consideration of ODC and Margaret Jenkins Dance Company’s home seasons, just out in the latest Hudson Review and on the review’s website, with video clips.

Thursday, November 20th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »

I’ve gathered my arts journalism clips into a portfolio here at Contently.

Saturday, November 8th, 2014 · Dance, Misc. · No Comments »

Full Interview with Ohad Naharin

Ohad Naharin is quite simply one of the foremost artists of our time, and for years now I have looked forward to the return of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, which he has helmed since 1990. I was pleasantly astonished that Naharin was willing to give an interview in advance of their San Francisco Performances run of Sadeh21, which opens tonight (November 6th, 2014) at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. The Chronicle had space for only a portion of the interview, which you can read here, and has given me permission to share the rest of the interview, which I thought could be of interest to the dance world. The excised portions, which ran in the SF Chronicle Q and A, are indicated with ellipses. Naharin spoke by phone from Tel Aviv.

OhadNaharin (3) photo by Maxim Waratt
Ohad Naharin. Photo by Maxim Waratt.

Thank you so, so much for your time. I’m curious: What have you been working on today in the studio?

Naharin: The company has left this morning to Miami. I am flying to join them tomorrow. I’ll meet them in the theater Saturday. Today I was spending time with the junior company to prepare them for a show in Tel Aviv. Since I’m going away for a month, I try to spend as much time as I can with them. I am helping the dancers interpret the work. They join the company for two years, that’s the system of the junior company. For me it’s a great opportunity to take a fresh look at the work, modify.

Sadeh21 is from 2011. Are there things you’re still investigating within Sadeh21 even though it’s been in repertory for two years?

Yes, the process is ongoing. It’s constantly changing. We recognize new ideas that are better than our old ideas, and that happens often. And it connects to something that becomes apparent and physical in the way people perform the work. Sometimes we recognize a weak moment or want to play with what could be a better solution. So this is constantly happening. We just had two shows, and had the chance again to—it’s like a playground. We never try to do it just like it was done. We’re going beyond so that it is new to us.

Batsheva Dance Company in Sadeh21. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

What engaged you this time as you put it back together?

This time it was about helping the dancers interpret it. Also, so much is about the attention to small details. Something to do with the timing of different things. Elimination—erasing what you think is noisy. Not in terms of the sound but in terms of . . . It’s about kind of trying to get to the essence of things and then creating space for the dancers to feel free. Not about minimizing what they do but, about giving them . . . I’m thinking about this particular . . . because they know the work so well now, we are experimenting with how we listen to our body, it has to do with how we play with dynamics, play with texture. A lot of what I like to discover with the dancers right now is echo. In the body, there’s always an echo. Sometimes dancers minimize the echo, or they are managed by the echo. It’s nice to create the texture and the quality of the movement and make them very unique. To be conscious of echoes, this is what we’re working.

We’re talking about the choices of volume. And volume for us is not just how high you can go but how low you can go.

Do you dance? You should join our Gaga class.

I do dance a little, thank you for the invitation. I saw the listing for the Gaga class and am hoping to go.

I’m sorry, I cannot hear you very well. Could you . . .

I’m so sorry. Can you hear me better now? I’ve been thinking about your work and its contasts—there’s a lot of paradox you play with in your work. For instance, the dancers are so highly individual but also so mesmerizingly in unison. Can you talk about being comfortable with paradox?

Maybe because the distance between the things that seem to be extremes, sometimes the distance is not so far, and also sometimes not so important. I think it has to do with what I care for. I don’t care for extremes. I care for how extremes can create range. It’s more about the grey between. It’s not about being at the edge. It’s that the edge clarifies the field and what I can play with. It’s much more about mixing things and abolishing, actually, the clarity of borders. Extremes are black and white and I like shades. Also what I’m really interested in is working with my dancers, watching other people work—in moments where I stop judging it in terms of bad good excellent and much more want to be in a sense of awe. This moment of awe that the dancers can produce will abolish all judgment. It’s very different to approach something by trying to be excellent and by watching something open. It’s about approaching things from an angle where work can be fresh and surprising and can break the rules that we make. And not being embarrassed to laugh at myself, and the dancers, being laughed at by them. And we connect to places where we yield. And then we realize new possibilities.

[ . . . ]

I do have clear intentions sometimes and want people to understand my intentions. Free association interpretation is ok too but when I have a clear intention and mean something, I want to communicate it with you. If you understand something else, fine, but I feel that we have missed something.

But many times what I mean is not in the sense of story or an idea that can be described. For instance, in Minus 16. I mean it was something to do with ritual, accumulation, with things that you need to recognize. Rhythm, acceleration, the relationship between movement and music, the clarity of form that brings some kind of content. If I meant it and someone does not understand it, then I am totally missing that person, and he is missing you.

[ . . . ]

Batsheva Dance Company in Sadeh21. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

I understand “sadeh” means field, as in investigations of a field. Can you talk about the intentions of this work?

We can talk about an idea, these were my intentions. But at the heart of it, it has to do with a sublimation that I try to make of my imagination to my skills, and how I meet my ability to articulate my ideas to these dancers so they can make this sublimation with their own skill. And then how together we come up with a mix of content and form that you cannot even separate between the two. Then you can talk about the structure—how the piece starts with a series of solos in which you meet all the dancers, for example. And it ends also with a series of solos. I’m telling technical things, but it was to do with the spirit of the work.

The kind of emotional journey that I take the dancers and I take you on, if you join me—it’s for a reason. It’s about creating a universe that belongs to the piece, to the stage. Many times it’s not about how we reflect on life, it’s how the work reflects on itself. In it is its intention. It’s not that I ask you to reflect on your life or your experience even though you try to bring this experience in order to be engaged with the universe I create. I’m sorry if I am not clear.

No, no, I think you’re very clear.

[ . . . ]

I’ve also been thinking about your work and William Forsythe’s—he also working with parameters of the experiment and rules of the playground. I know you two are near contemporaries and you have made work for Ballett Frankfurt. Do you two have a relationship?

I really love Bill’s work. I’ve learned from him a lot. I’ve met him several times; I worked with his company years ago. I try to follow his work; it’s very hard because we are far apart, I don’t see his company much though I try to follow. I think we communicate with each other through the dancers we work with. We’ve tested people with our work and they teach each other, influence each other. I think we feel each other. I hope.

[ . . . ]

I have just one more question, about Gaga—and I can’t wait to take the class. I think to many people the movement vocabulary of Gaga or the result of it at moments may look explosive and violent. But I’ve heard so much testimony that Gaga is healing. Can you speak to that? How is it that a movement practice that can sometimes look so explosive is healing?

First of all, in order to be explosive, the body must collapse. It much let go. It cannot, uh—it should just—try, while you’re talking to snap your fingers. Are you snapping now? Can you tense your fingers? Can you tense your fingers and snap? Now you relax your hand. Can you relax your hand and snap? So you see how much you need to be soft, you need to be soft in order to snap. Now snapping is a very explosive action, actually. So we teach the body to be available for snapping, available to explode. We don’t explode much. We’re much more spending the time to yield and let go. And then we become available to explode. So, this idea of being able to be soft, to be efficient in an animalistic way, efficient, and to connect to gravity and the efficiency of movement is actually when we create balance in the body, awake places of atrophy. And instead of macho power we get longevity and things that are much more healthy and good for our spirit and physiology. Things like that.

Thank you so much, especially for the example of the finger snapping which captures it right away. I appreciate your time. I feel tremendously fortunate to speak to you. Thank you for the work that you do.

Thursday, November 6th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »

In the department of Good News:

–My essay “On Modeling and Mortification” was just accepted by one of my favorite journals, Gulf Coast, for publication next year.

–”San Francisco’s Postmodern Dance Pioneers,” my review contrasting the home seasons of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and ODC/Dance, will appear in the next issue of the Hudson Review, another journal I’ve long venerated.

–I’ve had a short story accepted for publication in February 2015 by the beautifully edited and aesthetically adventurous Waxwing.

A feeling of Progress. Now back to the coal mine.

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 · Uncategorized · No Comments »

Critical Dialogues #2

The Critical Dialogues experiment continues, this month with Pearl Marill:

“WHAT IF, rather than writing a review, a critic sat down with a choreographer to have a two-way conversation about the work? That’s the experiment behind Critical Dialogues. For this second installment, actress and choreographer Pearl Marill, director of Modern on Command, met for coffee with critic Rachel Howard to talk about the August 11, 2014 performance of Marill’s Some Bodies Confessional, which premiered at ODC Theater’s Music Moves Festival.

[At the beginning of Some Bodies Confessional, audience members were directed, via voiceover, to write confessions on slips of paper. Anyone who turned in three confessions was rewarded with a glass of wine. Then another pop song played and the audience had three more minutes to write confessions, and the dancers went through the crowd collecting them.]

Rachel Howard: This was one of my favorite shows that I’ve seen in a long time. You framed it so smartly. Giving us so much time to turn in the confessions and staging that as a game in itself gave us a lot of buy-in. Because by the time that was over we had all turned in several confessions and that gave us enormous suspense, wondering when our confession would come up, and how other people would react. Whether our confession would fly or fall, or actually be touching to people.

And some of the ways you were playing with posturing and authenticity and some of the ideas at the core of the jokes reminded me of Miguel Gutierrez.

Pearl Marill: Oh. I haven’t seen his work in a long time. I went to the American Dance Festival and he was teaching there, maybe more than 10 years ago.

RH: I also haven’t seen his work in quite a while. The last time his company visited—maybe six years ago?—he did that crazy piece in which he used a song by Kate Bush—

PM: And he lip syncs—

RH: Yes, he lip syncs—

PM: With the candle—

RH: He has a candle under his ass!

PM: So, I was just in a piece by Erin Mei-Ling, Stolen Moments, Borrowed Memories, that made reference to that work, and I had to talk about it for Erin’s piece—but I had never seen it. I had to talk about Miguel Gutierrez lip syncing Kate Bush with a candle under his ass.

RH: I guess a lot of people never forget that! Well, some of the moments in your show—like the woman in the dinosaur costume, and she’s holding a plank while singing to the stuffed dinosaur—and you’re over on the side in a backbend.”

The full dialogue is here.

Monday, October 13th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »

Critical Dialogues

The first installment of “Critical Dialogues,” a series I’ve created for In Dance, is now in print and online. Here’s an excerpt:

“What if, rather than writing a review, a critic sat down with a choreographer to have a two-way conversation about the work? That’s the experiment behind Critical Dialogues. For this first installment, LEVYdance associate director Scott Marlowe met for coffee with critic Rachel Howard to talk about the June 26, 2014 performance of his first work, Soar.

RACHEL HOWARD: I’ll start with things that appealed to me about Soar, and then you can share the things that you were happy with. And then I’ll share my reservations, and you can tell me where I’m off the mark and what your intentions were. And then, I have this burning curiosity about what a choreographer wants in a review. I think, of course, they want publicity, but . . .

SCOTT MARLOWE: Right. It’s always interesting to me to see that some choreographers will not share the negative reviews. And other choreographers will share every review that comes in.

RH: I liked the wholeness of the work—an evening-length work with one clear structural concept. You had a complete commissioned score [by Ben Juodvalkis]—

SM: I’m so happy with the score. I listen to it on repeat on my iPod.

RH: And I thought you did a great job making the theater in Z Space into an alternate reality. The costumes were great. LEVYdance costumes always seem to be hip clothes you could find at H&M or Forever 21, and for Soar they had a nice soft palette. And I thought the dancers were strong and loved their diversity. Interesting personalities.

SM: Which side of the theater were you on? [Note: For Soar, audience members sat on stools arranged on the floor, with the dancers first performing in the center and running through the rows of seats. Audience members were then asked individually by the dancers to choose “red” or “blue.” A curtain was drawn to divide the stage space in half, and each audience member was led to one side of the other.]

RH: I chose blue, so I was on the north side.

SM: With the coffee table.

RH: Yes. And the woman in that duet—Angela [Rollins]—she was out there in her connection with her partner, no inhibitions. So what about the work were you happy with?

SM: I was happy and shocked that everything we were trying to do in giving the audience agency seemed to transpire without hiccups. We thought, what if everyone in the room chooses blue? We had backup plans, but every night was about 50/50. The feedback was that people found personal investment. They said, I wanted to vault off the table with you guys.

RH: So here’s where I am going to admit something that will make you hate me. It’s embarrassing.


RH: (curling into a ball of shame) I decided to leave the theater at about the 45-minute mark. Obviously if I were reviewing, I would never, never leave before the end of the show. But now I’m relying on you to tell me what happened.

SM: (remarkably gracious) So at the end of the piece, we invited the audience to move to the sides and they created a corridor. And we then launched into really dancey material. Then we took tables and nested them against each other and one by one the dancers ran up the tables and took a big belly fl op into the air, and the other cast members caught them. They did it over and over and over—that was the crescendo. And what I loved was that so many audience members said that they wanted to hop up there and do that with us. So I knew that they felt connected, that we reached them as humans and not as performers separate from the audience.

RH: What time mark did that happen at?

SM: Around 45 minutes—

RH: About right after I left. OK. Let’s say your dream review came out. What specifi cally would you like to hear the critic say?

SM: I would love to hear the critic fi nd a personal relationship to the work, and to put that out there, to expose themselves.

RH: Hmm. I always walk into a work wanting that to happen. But if doesn’t, it doesn’t always mean it was a failure of my openness.

SM: No, but if and when that happens, it points to the success of the work.

RH: Right. But let’s say—the critic’s job is also to analyze the aesthetics of the dance, and how it works. What piece of analysis would you hope for?

SM: Hmm. I would hope they would point to the honesty and the vulnerability in the performers. That human connection is why LEVYdance produces work. So to think about how it would be analyzed is hard—because ideally I wouldn’t want someone to be sitting outside of it to analyze it. Even a critic.

RH: Even a critic. That’s interesting. I feel that analysis is still an important role. The critic has to think about how art works, why art has its effects. I think, speaking also as a writer, that sincerity can get you a long way. But there’s something beyond the sincerity that is the artfulness that channels the sincerity so it can cross the divide. And has to do with how the work is structured, and the form—

SM: That creates the access—

RH: Right—and so I feel that the critic’s job does need to be thinking about how the art is working, because otherwise . . .

SM: Well, then in this case it would be amazing to hear the description of the audience around the critic as well, because the audience interaction was so much a part of what we were doing.

RH: So that sounds to me like pure descriptive criticism of the kind that Jill Johnston and a generation of writers in the sixties advocated. No aesthetic judgments.

SM: And actually reviews in that vein really do irk me. I don’t care to read a beautiful description of what a person saw. I want to know what they felt.

RH: So then, if a critic—me, for instance . . . well, in Soar I appreciated the dancers, but I didn’t feel emotionally moved. So if that’s the case—If I had ended up reviewing for the Chronicle, it would have been a very tough review to write. Because I like you, I think your dancers did an excellent job—and my honest reaction was that I was disappointed. It couldn’t have been a positive review.

SM: And I think that’s what a review is supposed to do.

RH: So in that case, a critic can’t be purely descriptive. So here are my reservations.”

You can read the rest here. Going out on a limb with this new form–candid feedback much appreciated. The next critical dialogue, with Pear Marill, will be out next month. For future installments, I’ll invite other critics to conduct dialogues. The experiment continues. Great thanks to Wayne Hazzard and the In Dance staff for making it possible.

Thursday, September 4th, 2014 · Uncategorized · No Comments »

Fall Dance

What a pleasure to talk up my top ten dance picks in this fall arts preview for KQED’s website. I’m particularly eager to see Batsheva and Sasha Waltz. Click here for enticing photos and video. Hope to see you at some of these shows.

Thursday, August 28th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »

Summer ’14 Update

Busy spring/summer of writing and reading!

–I finished an extensive revision of my novel-in-progress thanks to a deep reading from the ever-wise Ethel Rohan.

–I joined a writing group with marvelous Bridget Quinn and Kate Folk. Workshopped and revised two new stories and one new essay thanks to their comments (with the not inconsiderable bonus of getting to read their inspiring work).

–I taught personal essay writing at the SF Writers’ Grotto and memoir at Stanford Continuing Studies’ Online Writers Studio. This fall I’ll be teaching a ten-week course on crafting a strong book proposal for OWS. Registration opens August 18th. Check out all the great Stanford OWS classes here.

–I signed a contract to publish an e-chapbook of five of my personal essays, “Losing Things,” with the new ebook publisher Shebooks. Read all about their mission to equitably publish and pay women writers for their work here. The title of my collection comes from this essay published at Berfrois. The mini-collection will also include this essay which appeared in the Arroyo Literary Review, and will be released later this year.

–A few months after accepting my essay mini-collection, Shebooks editorial director Laura Fraser asked me to join the editing team. I’ve since had a thrilling time acquiring and editing exquisitely written nonfiction and fiction by Brenda Miller, Kathy Flann, and Anne Kaier. The first of my acquisitions for Shebooks, Brenda Miller’s moving essay collection Who You Will Become, will be published later this month.

–Finally, I’ve been fortunate to see and think about some great dance here on the Bay Area dance scene. What a pleasure to interview and profile RAWdance’s smart co-directors Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith for the SF Chronicle.

–And, after seeing LevyDance’s world premiere Soar, I had an idea: What if, rather than writing a review, a critic sat down with the choreographer to have a two-way conversation about the work? So I pitched that idea to In Dance, and got the greenlight to launch a new series, “Critical Dialogues.” The first “Critical Dialogue,” between me and Soar’s choreographer, LevyDance associate director Scott Marlowe, will appear next month.

–Oh! And in non-writing life, I finished my tenure as cantor at St. Augustine’s Episcopal, where I was blessed to serve for six months. I’ve now joined the choir at St. Paul’s, and start rehearsals with their incredible singers in September. The music director assures me I will sight-read much better in six months, thanks to the wealth of challenging music they take on. Gulp. I’m grateful for this new adventure.

Phew. Now back to work.

Monday, August 4th, 2014 · Books, Dance, Misc. · No Comments »

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