Below is a selection of some of what I think are my better dance reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Hudson Review.
Ohad Naharin in San Francisco, essay on Batsheva Dance Company in Naharin’s Sadeh21: The Hudson Review, Spring 2015:
As usual, after Sadeh21 the lobby was abuzz about the dancers. What fierceness! What wildness! Most dance critics who would normally dissect a dance’s themes, musicality, or structure are reduced to a physical play-by-play of Naharin’s mysteriously compelling episodes. This is not because Naharin’s works fail, in the way of so much physically spectacular but vapid contemporary choreography, to be “about” something. It is because the “internal strength” of Naharin’s style is so intensely considered and particular as to give the lie to that “mere” in Flaubert’s ideal. Watching Batsheva last fall, I thought of a passage from another triumph of style, Edward St. Aubyn’s autobiographical novel Some Hope. In it a character proclaims, “Everything in life is a symbol of itself.”
“A symbol of itself”: That’s what every passage of Naharin’s Sadeh21 creates.
San Francisco’s Postmodern Dance Pioneers: essay on ODC/Dance and Margaret Jenkins Dance Company: The Hudson Review, Fall 2014:
Two dance troupes, ODC/Dance and the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, are the indisputable pioneers of postmodern dance in the Wild West of San Francisco, where avant-gardism once struggled to take hold. Staking a claim for such art may be the most vulnerable kind of homesteading, and anyone who undertakes leadership of this kind deserves commendation for strength of character. Yet months after these companies’ celebratory home seasons, I am haunted by a contrast that seems, to me, a cautionary tale about credit-taking in art.
Margaret Jenkins is a regal woman with a lion’s mane of waist-length red curls and a perpetually up-tilted chin. ODC/Dance is also female led, though by a trio of choreographers rather than a single matron figure. Both Jenkins and the women of ODC share a forebear in Anna Halprin, who came to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s with her radical yet highly structured breakthroughs: “task-based” dances made up of ordinary actions like pushing a broom across her Marin County dance deck and rituals that shocked viewers with their anti-theatrical intimacies, like undressing to the pop song “Downtown” in Halprin’s infamous Parades and Changes.
Astonishing “Shostakovich Trilogy Returns to SF Ballet: KQED Arts Online, April 2015:
When San Francisco Ballet first danced Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy last April, artistic director Helgi Tomasson didn’t expect it to be a hit. A plotless three-act ballet set to the grating dissonances of Shostakovich? Tomasson slated the ballet for only one season. But after opening-night, word spread of the ballet’s brilliance and the crowds poured in. So the Shostakovich Trilogy will return to San Francisco next week.
One might think the Russian-born Ratmansky would have inspired more confidence on Tomasson’s part. Trained at the Bolshoi, the choreographer is artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant.” In recent years he has made commissions for the New York City Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, La Scala and the Bolshoi Ballet, among many others. And he is only 46.
His Shostakovich Trilogy is, simply put, a contemporary masterpiece, an astonishing and quite possibly perfect whole. Ratmansky catches the inner current of the music, with its oscillation between sweet melodies and grotesque parodies, so that, in watching the dancers, we live inside Shostakovich’s emotional dissonance. Only a Russian choreographer with Ratmansky’s narrative leanings could have teased out this music’s true drama.
William Forsythe’s “Three Atmospheric Studies”: San Francisco Chronicle, 2/24/2007:
Much fuss has been made over William Forsythe’s decision to tackle the Iraq war in his “Three Atmospheric Studies,” which had its keenly anticipated U.S. premiere at UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances on Thursday. The issue isn’t whether choreographers should make dances about the war, but whether William Forsythe should.
Forsythe has long attracted such scrutiny: He’s an American who left for the headier intellectual climate of Germany, where the Forsythe Company, which rose last year from the ashes of his celebrated Ballett Frankfurt, is based; and he’s a former savior-apparent of the ballet world who instead forsook classroom steps for relentless experimentation. He’s also the only dance artist I can think of capable of evoking war with such visceral devastation. “Three Atmospheric Studies” is sobering and deeply disturbing. It is incredibly difficult to watch, which is exactly why it ought to be seen.
There is much that is striking about “Three Atmospheric Studies,” but most important is this: It unfolds entirely from the innocent civilian’s point of view.
Forsythe builds his triptych of scenes around four images. Two are 16th century crucifixion paintings, one by Lucas Cranach the Younger, and one by Cranach the Elder; Forsythe’s interest in each is the bereaved Mary mourning her slain son. The other two images are recent photographs of mayhem on the streets of Iraq. The analogy is not subtle: Mary as an Iraqi civilian grieving over her child; the Roman Empire as — no, this is not a new idea — the American occupation. But even if one takes issue politically with the comparison, there is no arguing with the realities of carnage and suffering Forsythe puts on stage.
In the first scene, we’re in the street with the crowd, running from explosions and cowering from helicopters. And I do mean “we”: Forsythe’s company of 12 wear Western street clothes — they look like us, and we are forced to identify. The music is the sound of the dancers’ sharp exhales, and the silences between; the movement starts out ragged and unstylized but grows dancier and more virtuosic. Arms seem to dislocate from shoulders, while deep backbends rise from the floor as though someone pressed rewind on nightly news footage.
In scene two, a mother (Jone San Martin) tries to explain to a bureaucrat translator (Amancio Gonzalez) that her son has been arrested. Meanwhile, David Kern weaves between, giving verbal descriptions of Forsythe’s four key images. Dissertations could be written about the complex ideas in play here about communication, but Forsythe makes one immediately affecting choice: We learn with the mother that her son is dead; we feel the shock. In the midst of cerebral conceptualism comes sudden unabated pain.
In the final scene, we’re back in the mayhem, but now the horror is compounded, those sharp exhales amplified to a monstrous roar as Thom Willems’ music threads creepily through. The mother watches numbly, which is all she can do. Dana Caspersen arrives, her voice electronically manipulated to a man’s Southern drawl. She is the Great Decider, and her most chilling platitude is this: “I need to go, can’t be hanging around here forever.” It’s the moment, I think, that elevates “Three Atmospheric Studies” above the naivete that plagues political art: An acknowledgment that if we leave, as eventually we must, we will be failing an awesome responsibility that we had no right to claim in the first place.
Caspersen’s authority figure captures the essence of President Bush without lapsing into imitation, while Forsythe’s visual designs — fluorescent overhead lights, strings that create three-dimensional vectors — are constantly stimulating. “Three Atmospheric Studies” has been called Forsythe’s “Guernica,” and though the comparison may sound facile, it’s apt. In these dancers’ twisted physicality, one can see Picasso’s destruction set in motion — heads snapped back, limbs reconfigured to a corpse’s fractured rest. Rarely have I seen anything on stage as startling as San Martin’s throes of grief — her face and body blown apart in slow-motion, her voice spasming like some George Crumb outtake.
Earlier this month we saw a very different Forsythe in his “Artifact Suite,” danced by the San Francisco Ballet. It’s ballet, and it’s beautiful, but to those Forsythe detractors who bemoan his departure from pure dance, you can only say: Would you really rather that Forsythe had never made this? At a time when the world so badly needs to see it?
San Francisco Ballet in an All-Mark Morris program: San Francisco Chronicle, 3/16/09:
Next to Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, has anyone other than Mark Morris played a more obvious role in making San Francisco Ballet the company it is today? Since 1994, he’s given the Ballet seven commissioned works – more than any other ballet company. And he’s been happy to serve as its mouthpiece, blithely proclaiming San Francisco Ballet the best troupe in North America. That statement is Morris at his most blustery and contentious. But on Friday at the opening of the Ballet’s all-Morris program, there was no arguing San Francisco’s dancers are among his foremost interpreters.
Which of the three pieces you feel most passionately about may depend on your mood. For silly, there’s “Sandpaper Ballet,” Morris’ green-fingered mass romp to Leroy Anderson ditties. For sexy, there’s “Joyride,” a sleek metallic cruise through John Adams’ “Son of Chamber Symphony” (in which Isaac Mizrahi’s witty costumes strike again). Both were in fine form Friday, especially with James Sofranko and Tina LeBlanc lending down-home charm to “Sandpaper” and stately Elana Altman shape-shifting like Grecian statuary in “Joyride.”
The latter ballet, with its whirl of motifs and sudden strides offstage, calls for repeated viewings: I thought I grasped the structure of Morris’ response to Adams’ fiendishly meter-changing music then lost my grasp this go-round (and wondered if the often-tentative orchestra wasn’t hanging on to this “Joyride” for dear life). But I was surprised to find myself pleasantly distracted, because I had been so taken by the program opener, 2001′s “A Garden.”
I say “surprised” because “A Garden” is one of Morris’ most subtle and peculiar ballets. The music is both baroque and romantic: Richard Strauss’ adaptation of keyboard pieces by Couperin. The postures are odd: back leaning forward, head slightly bowed, hands held out thoughtfully, one palm occasionally turning up as though to present the page of a book.
San Francisco Ballet in “Eden/Eden”: San Francisco Chronicle, 3/15/07
If you want to know where the San Francisco Ballet is headed, talk to the younger dancers. For months, they’ve been buzzing about “Eden/Eden,” the futuristic work by British choreographer Wayne McGregor that had its U.S. premiere on the company’s Program 4 Tuesday night. Such bizarre, crazy movement! Like nothing we’ve ever danced! And indeed they danced it with obvious relish.
But what may feel cutting-edge and exciting to dancers brought up in the relatively artistically isolated world of ballet is not always a thrill for the audience. “Eden/Eden” is relentless. It’s designed to be. It’s about cloning, and it uses music by the minimalist composer Steve Reich — fast repeating xylophone rhythms intercut with robotic voices, and audio clips of scientists talking about genetic engineering. The nine dancers start out in flesh-colored underwear and bald caps, looking like eerie mannequins; Ursula Bombshell’s costumes really do succeed at making them look identical. Later, apparently as they begin to take over the human race, they put on clothes; there’s also a tree hovering in the background, and it disappears along with our last shred of humanity. Think Philip K. Dick for the Opera House stage.
The movement would indeed be novel for a ballet dancer. Limbs hyperextend; arms look as if they want to pop out of their joints. Much of it is quite inventive: hips and ribs shimmying upward from deep grand plies; a leg extended with a flexed foot rocking side to side, boom-boom-boom. Muriel Maffre is the high priestess of this kind of style, but the whole cast — including corps members Dana Genshaft and Hayley Farr — clearly take to it, and the young soloist Jaime Garcia Castilla has a whip-crack solo that may be his finest moment yet.
Ron K. Brown/EVIDENCE : San Francisco Chronicle, 1/31/06
Imagine if heaven were a New York City nightclub, where the angels danced their way toward salvation to bass-thumping house music. Now imagine their steps seamlessly blend the earth-consecrating stampings of African tribal forms, the rhythmic fierceness of hip-hop, the polish and expansiveness of modern technique, and the ecstatic throes of gospel. Can’t picture it? Then you know why Brown is such a phenomenon. The problem is that even the most arresting new aesthetic, if rolled out by the yard and not anchored to ideas or shaped by formalism, becomes mind-numbing after a while.
Paul Taylor’s “Lines of Loss”: San Francisco Chronicle, 3/29/07
The Paul Taylor Dance Company’s annual San Francisco Performances engagement is one of the happier harbingers of spring, but this year the troupe’s visit to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts arrives with twinges of sadness. For one thing, after this week’s three programs close, the Taylor dancers won’t come our way until 2009, so see them while you can. For another, it’s impossible to watch Taylor’s newest work and not be moved to mourning. “Lines of Loss,” the centerpiece of Tuesday’s opening program, is gut-wrenching, and gorgeous. It leaves a weight in the heart. And it leaves no doubt that, at 76, Taylor is far from coasting.
Like many of the best Taylor works, the subject of “Lines of Loss” seems so evanescent, and the staging is so deceptively simple that you wonder how the dance can seem so distinct from all the other wonderful Taylor dances that have preceded it. The answer is the music — an assemblage of elegiac selections by Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Part, John Cage and others, all on a recording by the Kronos Quartet — and Taylor’s responsiveness to it. Santo Loquasto contributed the white costumes and striking set, a backdrop of charcoal lines that evoke water, or striations of stone; Jennifer Tipton created the shadowed lighting. As usual, they considerably enhance the whole. But the emotional depth is in the movement.
It is sometimes monklike, as the 11 dancers pace the stage with meditatively folded hands, and sometimes ragged. Lisa Viola’s hinges into deep backbends become swifter and lower until, upon rising, she is clutching her abdomen as though stabbed. Michael Trusnovec’s solo is the beating heart of the piece, as he stretches his arms like a mole groping through darkness.