Author Archive | Claudia Bauer

Images as Inspiration

In 2013, choreographers Christy Funsch and Peiling Kao held a performance in the former Meridian Gallery on Powell Street, where they danced in response to new paintings by British postmodernist Abby Leigh. The intimacy of their solos and duets, performed in small rooms and in immediate proximity to the paintings, was emotionally profound and intellectually thrilling.

A year later, choreographic duo Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg began work on what would become the four-part Still Life series, which wraps up this month with the premiere of Still Life No. 4. Inspired by paintings in the de Young Museum’s permanent collection, Simpson and Stulberg use the works’ compositional underpinnings as cues for structure and movement style.

What is it about two-dimensional color and line that can inspire movement? What lasting effect can a danced relationship with visual art have on a choreographer’s process, or on their perception of dance as an art form? With these questions as their prompt, the choreographers met to exchange notes and ideas about working with visual art. The meeting proved more fruitful than any of us expected, and encompassed the experience of performing for a visual-arts audience and the expressive potential of abstraction. Special thanks to ODC for providing their conference room for this interview.

CLAUDIA BAUER: Where did you get the idea to make painting-based dances?

Jenny Stulberg: Lauren had just begun being a companion for a woman named Pauline Schwartz, who is 97 and was a docent for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for about 30 years. Mrs. Schwartz was teaching her all about still-life paintings. We decided to pick a painting and create a piece based on its compositional elements. The first one we did [No. 1] was Raphaelle Peale’s Blackberries (1813). As opposed to creating a piece where we were physicalizing a bowl of blackberries, we were taking compositional elements from it – the size, precision, light. [No. 2 and No. 3, created in 2015, were based on William Harnett’s 1885 After the Hunt and David Ligare’s 1994 Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches, (Xenia); they have not revealed the painting behind No. 4.]

Lauren Simpson: She [Schwartz] would talk about texture, color, light, contrast, and how these still lifes were an opportunity for artists to paint “meaningless” items and experiment with formal elements. Jenny and I thought, these are elements we’d like to see more of in our dancing.

CB: How does that manifest in the choreography?

still life painting of sandwiches leaning against jug of juice

‘Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches, (Xenia)’ by David Ligare, 1994; photo courtesy of

LS: Some of it is intuitive. But the other part is the compositional rules in still life painting; everything is so deliberate. In Grape Juice there’s a corner, and in the middle is the grape juice and sandwiches. So we put the dancers in the upstage corner pretty much the entire time. We decided to stick with that as a compositional score, even though there’s a lot of temptation to do something else.

JS: Blackberries is about 12″ x 18″, and you have to get really close to see the detail. I’m pretty sure it was Lauren who said, let’s take this movement and shrink it. It’s become our signature movement style – small, quick, unified. I don’t think anything in No. 1 looks like blackberries, but we were thinking about the precision and the tininess.

CB: Those paintings were representational. But the Abby Leigh paintings were completely abstract.

Peiling Kao: They’re geometric lines, a chunk of color. The intention we wanted was about the space in the gallery itself: the space between the paintings, between the paintings and us, and between us and the audience. How do I feel about yellow and red, how do I feel about the lines and how do I feel about the space in front of or behind something?

dancer bends in gallery in front of red and yellow painting

Peiling Kao in Meridian Gallery with Abby Leigh’s “Lipstick”

Christy Funsch: I felt a real physical response to the shape of the works, but also of the space. In that tiny room, what’s possible for me to do? Is it possible for the audience to see the artwork and see me?

LS: Christy, it’s an interesting difference in that we don’t care if the audience ever sees the painting. It’s a foundation for the work, but we almost never show the painting itself. As far as gallery space is concerned, I’m drawn to the audience of the visual art world. I think there’s a different kind of rigor in that eld, and a different way of talking about artworks. It’s an opportunity to see dance in the same way we see a painting. On the one hand, that could be dehumanizing – paintings aren’t people. But I do like attempting to abstract dance as much as we can.

CF: I think visual-arts audiences have more comfort with abstraction than concert goers.

LS: I feel really at home in the visual arts world, because we can make abstracted movement and people are really accepting of it. We can entertain the idea that dance can just be about formal elements. It feels like it’s okay to do that, and somehow it’s not okay in the performing arts. I feel free to do this “meaningless” work; I’m trusting that meaning will happen.

PK: It’s a privilege to work in this way, where you feel like you have a painting or a composition that anchors you.

CF: I feel like there are a lot of ways that dance has been asked to “behave” – behave to the music, to the meaning, to content –

PK: – to the count. CF: Absolutely.

CB: A lot of dance is used to make a political point. These dances are wholly different from that.

JS: Not having a specific story or point we were trying to get across, the response I heard from audience members was so vast. By not telling people what to think, it allows them to go anywhere.

PK: If you can feel a moment and feel touched, or feel something you cannot even describe, I think that is enough.

JS: If I don’t tell them that there’s something to get, then I feel like I can’t fail. It’s so vulnerable to put forth what you’re feeling in the piece, and by not saying anything, to me it’s almost a way to hide behind it.

CF: I’ve made all kinds of work and I’ve told stories sometimes, and I really do have my own story for my work. But I feel like it’s my job to allow for multiple readings. There’s no shield, really. When you’re putting work out there, there it is. It’s never felt comfortable.

CB: How have these experiences influenced you as dance makers?

5 dancers lean seated onto left arm in unison

‘Still Life No. 3,’ photo by Kegan Marling

LS: There’s a couple of Richard Diebenkorn still lifes in the de Young; he did around 150 and got really good at it. So we got the idea, what if we just stuck with something and repeated it? That changed the nature of our work – instead of “make something new, make something new.” And there’s so much craft in the still lifes that I had not paid attention to in the way that we are now. That has changed the movement itself. Part of it is being small and subtle in the body; No. 3 had a lot of subtlety of the back.

JS: I have also been making dance films. What I love about film is the ability to shape the frame of the viewer very specifically. [In our choreography], we’ve been able to create frames and focal points for the viewers – like, we want you to just look at our fingers.

CF: I think it’s great you mentioned Diebenkorn, because his trajectory was from the figurative to the completely abstract, sometimes in the same work.

LS: Yeah. And in a gallery there’s this other dimension. We’re very used to the floor as dancers, but the wall is new, and it’s messing us up – in a good way. I want to be in a gallery, using this vertical surface.

CF: One thing I learned was how much the way things are put in a room directs your movement and experience of them. The space was designed so specifically to see those works – the way they were placed, how much space was around them. That was a moment of seeing space differently and knowing how big an effect it has on me. I did my piece in Santa Cruz, New York, Golden Gate Park and in the YBCA Forum. That was like an unspooling study in different contexts. For me, it’s an ongoing interest – looking at the work in different containers.

LS: Working with the still-life paintings has made me think about ephemerality and dancing. These artists are usually painting things that are rotting or decaying, like carcasses or fruit. They can’t paint fast enough before the stuff changes. They are working with ephemeral stuff and making it something static, and we’re turning a static thing into an ephemeral form. It’s nice to feel a part of those cycles.

Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations: Still Life No. 4. Thu-Sat Mar 31-Apr 2. ODC Theater, SF.

Sean Dorsey Reveals the Stories of a Missing Generation

WHEN WE LAST SPOKE with award-winning dance maker Sean Dorsey, in the March 2013 issue, he was about to launch a nationwide tour of his last show, The Secret History of Love. Based on several years of research, residencies, oral-history interviews, composition and choreography, Secret History was about the courage of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning people to live with pride and forge loving relationships against all the odds. It brought hope, insight and contemporary dance to thousands of people, and established Dorsey as an archivist of the LGBTQ experience.

After another two-year odyssey of research and development, Dorsey is about to mark the tenth anniversary of Sean Dorsey Dance with another historically-inspired work, The Missing Generation. To be performed by several of his longtime collaborators, Brian Fisher, ArVejon Jones, Nol Simonse and Dorsey, Missing looks back at the first wave of the AIDS epidemic and bears witness to those who not only survived it, but also those that responded in other ways that led to the founding of organizations that provide needed resources and the activism on which today’s LGBTQ community stands.

Dorsey took a break from rehearsals to share his thoughts on the show and the meaningful community work that has sustained him through a decade of dance.

Claudia Bauer: Congratulations on your tenth anniversary.
Sean Dorsey: Thank you so much. It’s been a really amazing and interesting journey. I feel so, so blessed.

CB: Your works have become so theatrical and research-based. Was that your original vision?
SD: Of course, my deepest drive was to make dances that resonated with audiences and were meaningful to me. But an important part was that I didn’t see anybody like me, as a trans person, in dance, on stage or in theater here. That was a big part of my initial drive, and still is. I certainly hoped and planned to be making work ten years down the road, but the work now is a living creature, and it’s being reinterpreted and reinvigorated by our residencies and teaching.

CB: Yes, because along with performing, you do so much outreach. the enthusiastic response must reaffirm your work.
SD: I think it does. I continue to be astounded by the creativity and resiliency, audacity and revolutionary nature of our community. I have the opportunity to see the best in people and the best in humanity. I mean that in a really broad sense, because my audiences are both totally mainstream dance audiences and people deep in the heart of the LGBT community. This journey has allowed me to bring them together to sit or talk side by side. Again and again, we show up for each other and bring our best selves.

CB: You’ve taken on heavy, emotional topics on behalf of the LGBTQ community. It’s different from creating abstract movement for its own sake.
SD: It’s an intense artistic process, because my work is rooted in actual human experience. It is an extraordinary honor and very, very taxing at times. For The Missing Generation, I did residencies in San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, a couple of cities in Maine, and Washington DC, researching the local history about the early epidemic. I also recorded twenty-five oral histories of two to four hours each, about people’s experiences through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, when AIDS first hit, and how we responded, and what we feel today. I think a lot about how to hold someone’s story, how to ask for it and how to receive it, and how to offer support on top of just listening. I heard from many people that the interview was the first time in twenty or thirty years anybody had let them speak openly about their experience, because it’s so painful and people just don’t want to hear about it.

CB: How do you cope with the emotional ripple effect?
SD: I’m still navigating that. I am blessed to have an amazing partner [musician Shawna Virago] of 13 years, and a close circle of friends who have been very supportive. I meditate and start my day at an altar space. And there are just days when I’m totally exhausted, and I need to just crash and have a bubble bath.

Sean holds microphone to interview Deedee

DeeDee Chamblee and Sean Dorsey
Photo courtesy of Sean Dorsey

CB: Bubble baths always help [laughter]. And then you go into the studio and make art about it.
SD: Working with my dancers is such a beautiful support. It’s such a loving collaborative atmosphere. The same is true with my composers. I spend many, many hours sitting with twenty-five oral histories and a foot-tall pile of transcripts to distill an idea for a section and find the right expression to pair with another one. At the end of an eight-hour day, I might have come up with another minute of the score. The sound score is really rich and multi-layered, and features many voices and stories from these oral histories and beautiful music that my composers have created. It’s a fusion of tech and story and movement that is grounded in the melody and the emotional trajectory of the story. It’s still a Sean Dorsey Dance show, so god knows there’s plenty of humor and theatricality [laughter], but there’s also some really hard stuff.

CB: Yes. how does that resonate artistically?
SD: It’s definitely not a literal reenactment of history; it’s not leaning on meaning. Sometimes the story of one of the survivors in so intense that it needs really minimal movement. Sometimes it needs extreme movement to the point of exhaustion. My job as an artist is to reveal to audiences the ways that each person’s experience is relatable. We all know what that feels like to be terrified and looking to lean on the community or a partner. We know what it’s like to feel rage in the face of injustice.

CB: Why is it important to look back to the first generation of survivors? and why now?
SD: There is a sense of urgency about capturing the history while we can. But also the urgency of intergenerational sharing, so that younger people today, who come of age in the era of AIDS cocktails and can’t imagine anything otherwise, can not only know the early history of the epidemic, but also understand that the reason that those cocktails are available now is because there were people who were literally facing the last days of their lives, who knew for a fact that they would die, but who devoted much of their remaining energy and time to being part of drug trials or street action and activism. Even while they were declining, they were taking care of friends who were going to go first. Our community showed up for each other in the most heroic and most human way. Everything that we benefit from now is a direct result of that early mutual care, activism, political strategizing.

CB: Who are some of the people you interviewed for Missing?
SD: Some of them have been living with HIV or AIDS for thirty-plus years. They are very early hospice workers, and people who lost a lover or three lovers or five lovers to AIDS. They were the first people to respond by building resources, like the nation’s first black, gay, HIV/AIDS organizations of any kind, or San Francisco’s first major healthcare response. It is really important for me in this project to bring forward transgender experiences of the early AIDS epidemic, especially trans women’s. Because as limited as our recorded history is of the time, trans women’s experiences of the early AIDS epidemic are completely absent from any mainstream or recorded AIDS narratives—yet they were totally decimated by the early AIDS epidemic. In fact, trans women still have some of the highest rates of new infection, and some of the least access to resources. As a transgender person and a trans activist, this is so important and close to my heart.

CB: It’s also about caring for each other. 
SD: Absolutely. I hope that coming together as an audience for this show will give people an opportunity to share some of that caring. It’s about removing this illusion of separateness and remembering that my struggle, my grief, my happiness are tied [to] your struggle, your grief, your happiness. This is the shared human experience.

CB: Once again, you’ll be touring the show with extensive outreach.
SD: Over the next couple of years we are going to visit 20 cities across the US, starting in San Francisco and then going to Bates Dance Festival and then Boston, Atlanta, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Maui. We’re also going to smaller communities like Whitewater, Wisconsin; when we took Secret History of Love there, we expected forty people and had six hundred people come from across Wisconsin. In all of these places, we’ll do teaching and master classes and movement-based story-sharing workshops, and I’ll record some of those to archive. We’re incredibly excited about the next two years…but first I have to finish the show!

The Missing Generation: May 14-17, Dance Mission Theater, SF,

Modern Mixology: Cocktails and Contemporary Dance Mingle in 8x8x8

“It’s in a bar?” asked my incredulous friend. “And you can drink?” That’s a common double-check when people hear about 8x8x8 for the first time. Relaxed and a little rowdy, the grassroots, DIY showcase has brought dancing and drinking together for over ten years, to intoxicating effect.

The brainchild of Paufve Dance’s Randee Paufve and Rebecca Johnson, 8x8x8 launched in 2003 at Oakland’s Stork Club with a little bit of planning and eight very game local choreographers (more on the significance of “eight” later). That first sold-out audience included friends, family, dance fans and Stork Club regulars who just happened to be at the bar when the dancing began.

After a few years at Berkeley’s Starry Plough, 8x8x8 settled, in 2011, at the Uptown Lounge, where it now accommodates even-larger sellout crowds. Paufve and Johnson still wing it, and it still works—8x8x8 just keeps getting more popular, and this year’s edition has 8pm and 10pm shows that include Amy Seiwert, Anne-Rene Petrarca and hip-hop by Stance Dance.

Shaken, stirred or straight up, 8x8x8 is simply the friendliest, most fun evening of dance around. It’s even fun to talk about, which quickly became apparent during this interview with Johnson and Paufve.

Woman is falling horizontally in front of a man standing in Pin Shape Form.

Amy Lewis / Photo by Lynne Fried

Claudia Bauer: It’s so counterintuitive—dance in a bar. What’s the story?
Randee Paufve: I wanted to create a program in an alternative venue and shine a focus on the East Bay as a center for dance. We were responding to the lack of suitable, affordable venues for dance in the East Bay. I was interested in small stages and in control over a show, over an environment, over work.

CB: Apparently you struck a chord.
RP: Something like 200 people showed up—the line was around the block. We had to figure out where to put them all! The emcee nearly lost his mind trying to get people to take their places and sit. It was one of the most exciting evenings of performance in my life.

CB: And the name…
RP: The name came about because I have absolutely no sense of space. I remember eyeballing the stage and saying, “Oh, that looks like 8×8”—it was actually more like 9×11. And it costs $8 to get in. My father still wants to know why we would name a dance show after the dimensions of a prison cell.

CB: At the Starry Plough you actually taped out an 8×8 square.
Rebecca Johnson: We experimented with it once. And then we decided that the abstraction of the concept was probably better than the audience being right up against the box!

CB: Has the venue situation improved since 2003?
RJ: NO [laughter]. There are studios that you can turn into venues, but when you’re in a space that always has live performance, it has a different energy. I think that’s why the first event was so successful. The energy was so intense. And the dance audience brought people who would not normally go, with the idea that “Hey, we’re going to this punk club.” It was rough, the floor was dirty.
RP: They waxed the floor for us. Usually it’s us scraping the gum off the floor.
RJ: We basically asked our dance audience to go way outside their comfort zone. Half of them were excited, and half of them were petrified. Dance is often site-specific and couched in this intellectual way. The first show had more of a rock-n-roll feeling to it. And we’ve always tried to maintain that.

CB: But right away you needed a bigger space.
RP: We put our feelers out, and the Starry Plough jumped on it. It was really interesting in that it has a bar clientele. Every time  we did it there, there were people at the bar for their Tuesday night drinks, and they’d be peeking out of the corners of their eyes at our rehearsal. When it came time for the show, I just started handing out programs. People were like “What is this?” We got a lot of audience that way.

CB: Do you think you’ll expand even more?
RP: It’s funny. Some people have talked to us about doing it more often, or formalizing it a little bit. Making it grow. I’ve really resisted that. I feel like this thing is really, really special as is, and it doesn’t need to be any more than it is. It has a special place in the Bay Area dance scene.

CB: What’s it like on the night of the show?
RP: We never know what’s going to happen! I’m in the sound booth, Rebecca’s on the floor, people are running the door, and there’s no communication between us all. It’s nuts. That’s what I mean by not trying to control anything. The choreographers are winging it too.

CB: Let’s talk more about control.
RP: Of course we have to have some rules, like dancers have to keep their clothes on [laughter]. I’m serious! It’s problematic in a bar. But basically we tell the choreographers what they’re getting themselves into as much as possible. We ask them to visit the space, but beyond that, we don’t know what they’re going to do until they get there. And the audience is going to go where they go. When choreographers ask how big the space is, I say, “Well, it’s usually about 9×17, but that depends on what the audience does.” It’s a trip. The choreographers have to be able to hang with that—and they do.

Fog Beast emcees for 8x8x8 performance

Emcees: Fog Beast / Photo by Jessica Swanson

CB: With the ticket price so low, what
is your financial commitment?
RP: We usually break even, but it’s always touch and go. We pay a little bit to the venue for some of the overhead.
RJ: We have to pay for the sound guy to come early. Usually his show would be at 10; our show starts at 8, and we meet him there at 4. We pay for printing the postcards and press materials, which is minimal.
RP: We used to split the door between the choreographers, and then I realized we couldn’t do that anymore. We don’t pay the choreographers anymore; we’re up front about that in the original email.

CB: Surely you apply some control in the planning stages?
RP: The way we do it would drive most organizational people nuts! About six months out, emails go back and forth between me and Rebecca about choreographers. We call the Uptown and try to get the date settled. I draw up a letter and start contacting people. We don’t do a contract; it’s all verbal.

CB: How do you choose the choreographers?
RP: We emphasize modern dance because that’s what we are and that’s what we most want to see, but we try to mix it up. I get emails a lot from people wanting to do it—a couple a month.
RJ: We’ve tried each time to bring in one or two different voices or styles, and that creates audience crossover, which is worth its weight in gold for everyone participating.

CB: This year you have an even wider mix than usual.
RP: We have MoToR, Amy Lewis, Stance Dance doing hiphop, Amy Seiwert, Anne-Rene Petrarca, Deborah Slater and Bandelion, who always close the show. And Fog Beast—they did a piece a few years ago that brought down the house; it was like a religious revival. They’re coming back to emcee as well.
RJ: Them emceeing…who knows what to expect? [laughter all around]

CB: Sounds like another can’t-miss show! But really, dance in a bar—why does it work?
RJ: I just think this kind of event has the capacity to flip that switch about modern-dance stereotypes. This thing we do is very beautiful and it’s very compelling, it can be very dark and very funny. Modern dance is like a poem; things smash up together that might not make logical sense. I want this event to give that opportunity to people who don’t normally see dance. Plus, it’s like a pre-decompression party before the holidays. One year I did the postcard with a picture of Marilyn Monroe with a turkey and a gun [laughter].

CB: Finally, what do the two of you get out of doing it?
RP: It’s always a little stressful, but the show is magical. At the end of the night it’s the best high of the year. This is one of our ways of giving back to the community and other choreographers
RJ: It’s a fun, celebratory experience. Something magical happens to the performers, and I swear it’s not the drinks [laughter]. It feels edgy, and that ends up feeling really good. There are not too many experiences like that.
RP: It’s a labor of love, and it’s a great party.

You can drink from the well yourself on Tuesday, November 18, at the Uptown Lounge (1928 Telegraph Ave, Oakland). Get there early, because 8x8x8 always sells out, there are no advance tickets and at just $8, it’s the best bargain in Bay Area dance.

A Promising New Partnership: José Manuel Carreño Takes the Lead at Ballet San Jose

Ballet partnerships are the stuff of legend: Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryishnikov and Natalia Makarova, José Manuel Carreño and Susan Jaffe…and Julie Kent…and Gillian Murphy. Carreño, one of the world’s most celebrated danseurs nobles for more than twenty years, now has a new partner: Ballet San Jose (BSJ), which he is squiring into a revitalized era as its artistic director.

Born in Havana and trained under the guidance of Alicia Alonso at Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Carreño burst onto the American scene in 1987, when he won the gold medal at the New York International Ballet Competition. After three years with the English National Ballet in London, he moved across town to join the Royal Ballet as a principal, and began collecting the classical canon’s premier roles, starting with Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty and Basilio in Don Quixote, which would become a signature.

Jose Manuel Carreño demonstrating in ballet class.

Ballet San Jose Artistic Director José Manuel Carreño
Photo by Alejandro Gomez

American Ballet Theatre (ABT) snapped him up in 1995, and with his charisma, athleticism and chivalrous partnering, he became a marquee name and an audience magnet. His rep expanded to Solor in La Bayadère, Albrecht in Giselle, the Diana and Acteon pas de deux, and roles in the then-nascent arena of contemporary dance—Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort, Twyla Tharp’s Rabbit and Rogue, Stanton Welch’s Clear. The shorter list is what he didn’t dance. Carreño retired from ABT in 2011, and when the curtain fell on his final performance, as Siegfried in Swan Lake (partnering Kent as Odette and Murphy as Odile), the New York Times reported that audience members “screamed, threw flowers… and sobbed.”

Warm, soft-spoken and unassuming, Carreño, now 45, is as charismatic as ever. But he steps into his role at Ballet San Jose somewhat less sure-footedly than is his wont: his management experience is limited to running the Carreño Dance Festival, an annual summer intensive held in Sarasota, Florida, so he is learning everything—from running meetings to navigating union legalities—on the job.

When we spoke, in November 2013, he was also days away from hosting the company’s first event under his leadership: a star-studded fund-raising gala with performances by San Francisco Ballet’s Maria Kochetkova and Taras Domitro; New York City Ballet’s Joaquin De Luz and Megan Fairchild; ABT’s Kent and Murphy as well as Misty Copeland and Marcelo Gomes; and Boston Ballet’s Lorna Feijoo and Nelson Madrigal…and that’s a partial roster. The tension showed on his usually relaxed face. “When I was dancing, I was thinking about just myself,” he said. “Now I am thinking about so many people—dancers, musicians, staff, production—and I have to be on top of that.”

Attended by donors, socialites and balletomanes alike, and well received by the press, the gala was by any measure a success. Nevertheless, it was only the first step toward Carreño’s ultimate goal, which could only be described as Herculean: reviving Ballet San Jose from a near-flatline state and elevating it to regional significance, national recognition and international presence.

Dennis Nahat founded the company as Cleveland San Jose Ballet, a dual-residency endeavor shared by the two cities (it formally became Ballet San Jose in 2006). The company thrived under Nahat’s direction, dancing both classical and contemporary work, including about 80 pieces choreographed by Nahat. But the dot-com bust hit the company hard, and its budget shriveled while internal tensions escalated. In 2003 then board chairman John Fry, founder of Fry’s Electronics, began providing life support with cash infusions (estimates of his total contributions range from $14 million to $20 million), while behind the scenes the conflict came to a head. Nahat was forced out in January 2011, and Fry departed the board at about the same time. Sharing the interim directorship, principal ballet master Raymond Rodriguez and artistic advisor Wes Chapman steered the company through the rocky waters of 2011 and 2012, and refreshed the rep with Bay Area premieres like Jorma Elo’s Glow-Stop, Jessica Lang’s Splendid Isolation III and Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto. A strategic relationship with ABT, which continues today, granted BSJ access to ABT’s rep, costumes and guidance; the BSJ School also adopted the ABT Curriculum.

Chapman and Rodriguez continued the BSJ’s tradition of presenting full-length classics, and it was their 2012 production of Don Quixote that brought Carreño to their attention. Hired to perform Basilio in place of an injured dancer, Carreño had such rapport with the dancers and staff that executive director Stephanie Ziesel and Rodriguez, now the company’s associate artistic director, approached him about becoming artistic director. Carreño often says that he likes a challenge, and that sense of adventure will serve him well: he likens his first months on the job to learning to drive in a car that’s already moving. At full speed. “My whole life, my whole career, has been defined by one word: discipline. I need it now even more than ever,” he said.

What Carreño lacks in traditional qualifications, he makes up for in intangibles that no experience can hone and no MBA can confer: a headline-grabbing name, a sterling reputation as a teacher and a performer, and seemingly universal good will. In one masterstroke, Ballet San Jose got an artistic director, coast-to-coast press and enviable connections. The mere announcement of Carreño’s appointment was like a shot of adrenaline: high-profile Silicon Valley names joined the board, donations skyrocketed and suddenly everyone wanted to know whether BSJ would deliver on its promising new start. And for all the pressures attendant on raised expectations and closer scrutiny, the company now has a realistic hope of achieving on a high level.
Carreño has danced on the world’s biggest stages, and he wants his company to do the same. “I had an amazing experience as a dancer,” he recalled. “It was an evolution. I was learning—I was busy, I was being challenged. That is what I want them to experience; the idea of, ‘My god, this is so good.’ Being in love with what you are doing.” He takes the careers of his thirty-six young dancers very seriously, and sees their success as intertwined with his own. “Let us just be together; let us drive this company up there.”

Ballet San Jose dancers taking class.

Members of Ballet San Jose
Photo by Alejandro Gomez

His initial influence on the roster includes promoting Ommi (Nutnaree) Pipit-Suksun from soloist to principal; promoting Damir Emric from corps to soloist, and boosting the corps with Grace-Anne Powers of La La La Human Steps, former ABT Studio Company dancer Alison Stroming and Cuban-trained men Ihosvany Rodriguez and Walter Garcia. (One dancer from last year was not renewed, and eight elected not to return.) “It is a very young company, and I feel everybody has the drive of learning, that hunger,” he said. Carreño puts a premium on that passion for growth, and he will reward it by working as hard, or harder, than any of the dancers to help them succeed.

“All this rep that I am bringing this year is so different. I think that is going to be amazing for them. What can be better for a dancer than to have that experiment, trying different things?” he mused. Following hallowed ballet tradition, he is bringing in three world-class coaches to hone their technique and performance quality: his personal coach, Loipa Araújo of the English National Ballet; former Balanchine dancer Willie Berman; and former Bolshoi dancer Azari Plisetsky, the brother of prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya.

Carreño’s three-year contract (generously underwritten by trustees Steve Luczo, CEO of Seagate Technologies, and his wife, Agatha—further evidence of the company’s reversal of fortune) officially started in September 2013, but as of June he was working his Rolodex to whip up the 2014 rep. His coup includes seven company premieres, with works and choreographers that are new to BSJ: Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, Dwight Rhoden’s Evermore, Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. The season also reflects a new Latin emphasis in works by the late Venezuelan Vicente Nebrada and Argentinean Jorge Amarante, plus tango-inspired pieces like Paul Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera. Carreño has no choreographic ambitions, so he will commission new works as soon as time and budget allow.

His vision also extends to touring. “You can be really amazing, but if you want to be known, you have to travel,” he insisted. Without signed contracts, he was not able to divulge any details, but the International Ballet Festival of Havana is on his wish list, as are trips to Southern California and the East Coast. (Personally, he divides his residency between San Jose; New York, where his fiancée, ABT corps dancer Melanie Hamrick, lives; and summers in Sarasota with his festival.)

Only time will tell how far Carreño and Ballet San Jose will go together. All the pieces are in place, including the moral support of ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie and San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson, both guests of honor at November’s gala. When asked if the Bay Area has room for two high-profile ballet companies, Carreño replied, “For me, it is not either San Francisco or San Jose, it should be San Francisco and San Jose. It is amazing for the whole community.” As always, the soul of chivalry.

See Ballet San Jose this season:
PROGRAM 1: Neoclassical to Now
Fri-Sun, Feb 14–16: Serenade (George Balanchine, 1949), Glow-Stop (Jorma Elo, 2006), Minus 16 (Ohad Naharin, 1999)

PROGRAM 2: Popular Music, Transcendent Dancing
Fri-Sun, Mar 21–23: Nuestros Valses (Vicente Nebrada, 1976), Grapa Tango (Jorge Amarante, 2007), Infinity (Igal Perry, 2013), Evermore (Dwight Rhoden, 2013), Piazzolla Caldera (Paul Taylor, 1997)

PROGRAM 3: Masterworks of Movement and Theatre
Fri-Sun, May 9–11: Carmen (Roland Petit, 1949), In the Upper Room (Twyla Tharp, 1986)

Stretching the Limits: Managing Hypermobile Joints

Proper care of a hypermobile body can mean the difference between a fulfilling career and sidelined dreams.

We know it when we see it: the hyperextended line of an arabesque, the back arched fluidly over a partner’s arm, the ankle raised behind the head during a stretch. Such acrobatic flexibility seems perfectly normal to many dancers; for some, it’s a basic job requirement. But often dancers are unaware that the flexibility we prize isn’t normal—it signals the presence of joint hypermobility, a systemic connective-tissue condition with worrisome risks and lifelong implications. Fortunately, with awareness and active self-care, we can protect our hypermobile bodies, and dance longer and stronger.

The Flip-Side of Flexibility
Joint hypermobility is a relatively new area of research, and scientists and practitioners only recently began consolidating their knowledge. Consequently, descriptions of the condition vary and names for it range from “hypermobile joint disorder” to “benign hypermobility syndrome”; in keeping with common, if imprecise, parlance, this article uses “joint hypermobility syndrome” (JHS). Thought the science is in flux, what’s certain is that JHS affects slightly more women than men, tends to decline with age, and is benign only in that it has no effect on vital functions like breathing or metabolism. It affects people from all walks of life, but is such an asset to dancers that it is much more prevalent among them than in the general population. “Many [dancers] think hypermobility is a blessing,” says Dr. Selina Shah, a physician at St. Francis Memorial Hospital’s Centers for Sports Medicine in San Francisco and Walnut Creek. “But the word of caution is that it is not, necessarily.”

A dancer and competitive athlete herself, Dr. Shah is the company physician for Liss Fain Dance, San Francisco Ballet School and Diablo Ballet. She understands the catch-22 that JHS represents. “There is the ideal to have 180 degrees of turnout, to développé a leg to 180 degrees, whether it is front, side or arabesque position,” she says. “Dancers that are hypermobile often have a capability to do so, but…pushing those limits continuously without adequately strengthening can lead to injury.” Indeed, the trade-off for that effortless, ethereal flexibility is an increased risk of strains, sprains, tears, cartilage wear and chronic joint pain.

“[JHS] is basically an abnormality in the collagen fibers,” she explains. Because collagen is found in cartilage as well as in every muscle, tendon and ligament, JHS affects the entire body, including the jaw, shoulders, arches, vertebrae—any point of flexion, large or small. In extreme cases, the effects of JHS can be devastating. According to a 2011 study published in the British Medical Journal, complications may include hernias, organ prolapse, premature osteoarthritis and severe immobility (BMJ 2011; 342:c7167). And we thought we were just stretching.

Savvy Diagnosis, Strategic Management
Practitioners use a simple test called the Beighton score (see sidebar) to diagnose joint hypermobility. If a patient meets the criteria, Shah’s next step is a thorough evaluation to exclude other arthralgic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, or potentially life-threatening disorders that have joint hypermobility as a sign, such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Marfan syndrome.

It’s worth seeking out a practitioner who is familiar with hypermobility. Even experienced orthopedists can misdiagnose it, and some take the term “benign” literally and downplay the potential outcomes. While it’s true that some people with JHS will experience no negative symptoms, the heavy demands on a dancer’s body mean that the elevated risks of injury, repeated injuries at the same site and slowed healing can have far-reaching effects. “When you have a hypermobile dancer that continues to overstretch, they sometimes worsen the problem, leading to more weakness,” Shah observed, “and you combine that with overuse, with constantly pushing the limits of range of motion.” Proper care of a hypermobile body can mean the difference between a fulfilling career and sidelined dreams.

Once she makes diagnosis of JHS, absent of other diseases or conditions, Shah prescribes any needed dietary changes to ensure balanced nutrition, plus physical therapy, strengthening exercises…and lifetime maintenance. Unfortunately, JHS doesn’t go away with treatment; it can only be managed. Here again, practitioners who understand JHS, and are familiar with dancers’ special needs, can create a safer, more efficient recovery and maintenance plan.

Alameda physical therapist Dr. Suzanne Martin treats hypermobile patients using a range of modalities, from Pilates and Floor Barre to TheraBand and Yamuna balls. A dancer, teacher and choreographer, as well as a master Pilates instructor, she is the lead physical therapist with Smuin Ballet and has presented papers on hypermobility at International Association for Dance Medicine and Science conferences.

Dr. Martin emphasizes strengthening the core and deep skeletal muscles to create a stable foundation for all movement. “You want to learn how to hold your muscles while you’re stretching so that you’re not just pulling your joints apart,” she cautions. “If you can learn how to hold yourself inside yourself, then you get a more accurate muscular stretch.” Normal, non-lax joints are protected by their own relative stiffness, which prevents the extreme range of motion that hypermobile people can achieve. Properly supported stretching helps compensate for those bendy but inherently dangerous biomechanics.

She is also a proponent of compression tools like Yamuna balls and foam rollers to help loosen the fascia, a connective tissue that surrounds many body structures, including the muscles. “Lots of times the fascia will tighten up on a hypermobile person, because something has got to hold you together,” she says. “The more you jump, the more your fascia is going to tighten up against the impact, especially if your joints can’t hold you.” Rolling is especially helpful for gluteal muscles and hamstrings, while the compact Yamuna ball allows gentle but deep access to hip rotators.

Both doctors recommend weight training to further stabilize the joints. “You can continue to stay lean and have the dancer’s ideal physique without bulking,” Shah says, “and get that additional assistance that you can’t really get from Pilates.” When patients worry that lifting weights might reduce their range of motion, Dr. Shah reminds them that their predisposition to hypermobility means they can maintain that extreme flexibility and have strong joints. It’s up to every hypermobile person, as Dr. Martin puts it, to “know that this is my body type, this is a dancer body type, and come to terms with that. It’s not going to just go away if I don’t pay attention to it.”

The Beighton Score
Score one point for each yes answer, up to a total of 9 (one for each task or right/left side). A score of at least 4 is required for a preliminary diagnosis of hypermobility. See a medical professional for additional tests to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other conditions.
1.  Can you bend your pinky fingers backwards beyond 90 degrees?
2.  Do your elbows hyperextend when you straighten your arms?
3.  Do your knees hyperextend when you straighten your legs?
4.  Can you bend your thumbs down to touch your forearms?
5.  Can you place your palms on the ground when bending over with your legs straight?

JHS is a complex condition, and this article touches on the basics. Here are resources for learning more and getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

For further reading
Most reputable medical websites have useful basic information about JHS.
The Hypermobility Syndromes Association:
British physician Dr. Rodney Grahame has written extensively on hypermobility; his books can be found on

Suzanne Martin, DPT:
Dr. Selina Shah / Center for Sports Medicine: (San Francisco: 415-353-6400, Walnut Creek: 925-934-3536)

Wellness tools

WAVES OF CHANGE: West Wave Dance Festival Returns With Joe Landini at the Helm

It was a sad day for Bay Area dance when the West Wave Dance Festival folded in 2012. The annual showcase began as Summerfest under the direction of Cathleen McCarthy and Joan Lazarus, who turned it into West Wave in 2003. Then, after twenty-two years of presenting some of the Bay Area’s most talented emerging and established dance artists, Lazarus left the Bay Area, and it seemed that West Wave was gone too. But the festival has risen again (really, for the brainchild of someone named Lazarus, it’s the only fitting outcome) under the enthusiastic leadership of Joe Landini, who spoke with Claudia Bauer about its new incarnation.

Claudia Bauer: How did this come about?
Joe Landini: Grants for the Arts [San Francisco’s arts and culture funding program] did not want the festival to fold. The city believes in it and approached us about keeping it going. It’s great that they had confidence in us. Part of the city’s reasoning was it’s the last independent dance festival in the Bay Area.

CB: Why is that important?
JL: Every space has its own agenda; every organization has its own agenda. The programming becomes so focused on that agenda that they lose the idea of being inclusive. That’s not a bad thing; it totally makes sense. But the beauty of West Wave is that it doesn’t have that agenda.

CB: So, what is West Wave’s agenda?
JL: The important thing was that we have a festival that represents the broadest spectrum of what San Francisco and Bay Area dance is. I wanted the Bay Area to have a festival that represented what’s happening on a national and international level in some way. The contemporary dance field is growing amazingly fast, and I wanted a festival that spoke to that. And on a local level, it was important to me that there are all these pockets of dance happening in San Francisco, so I made sure that they were represented.

CB: Three of the performances are curated by Krissy Keefer, Jesse Hewit and Amy Seiwert. How do they fit in to the agenda?
JL: One of the trends happening on the national and international level is the focus on developing contemporary dance in communities, and incorporating communities into dance. I think Krissy Keefer is an incredible representation of that, of going out into other communities and inviting them into her space to make work. You see the taiko community, hip-hop, Cuba Caribe, queer—you can see the efforts that Krissy has made to invite those communities into her space to make work.

Artists are having other kinds of conversations about dance, and exploring ideas of how dance can be sustainable. In San Francisco we have a long history of that. Sara Shelton Mann has been making that kind of work for thirty years, and now we see emerging choreographers like Jesse Hewit and Laura Arrington doing that. These kinds of conversations are happening in a lot of other places right now, so I wanted to make sure those artists were represented in the festival. That’s the reason we invited Jesse to curate one of the programs.

CB: And how about Amy Seiwert?
JL: Ballet has been really struggling to grow. There have been some successes in that community, and I think that Amy is really looking forward to what ballet has the capacity to be. I wanted to honor the work that Amy is doing. Also, Amy has a long relationship with West Wave, and I really wanted to make sure there was an acknowledgement of West Wave’s history.

CB: The October 5th show is not curated. How is it different from the others?
JL: The one thing Joan asked was that there would be some form of an open call. That was a really big part of West Wave in the past. But I didn’t want to do just a traditional open call, so I came up with the idea of doing commissions. It’s something I feel very passionate about, because in the Bay Area we don’t commission a lot of work. The Garage is able to offer rehearsal space, and West Wave is able to offer some modest stipends, so we decided to make the open call a commissioning program.

CB: How did you choose the people to commission?
JL: We didn’t really tell the artists what we wanted; we didn’t give them a form to fill out. We wanted it to be really DIY, and we wanted them to be very proactive. They had to post everything on Google Drive and give us links to their video. We had twenty one applicants. The West Wave advisory board evaluated the applications and scored them on a scale of 1 to 10. And what was really exciting was the four highest scores were all brand-new, emerging choreographers that almost none of us had heard of.

CB: Why didn’t you curate them yourself?
JL: It was really important that it not be perceived as a Garage event, and I would have probably curated Garage artists! To the detriment of my artists, probably, I didn’t feel a need to curate West Wave.

CB: And how is all of it working logistically?
JL: For the shows at Z Space, all of the companies are showing up at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. That’s it. We’re all getting there at 2, and we’ll build the show from 2 to 8. The one thing that we know for sure is that people are going to show up at 8 o’clock. It’s very DIY. There is no lighting designer; there will probably be no stage directors.

CB: What are you most excited about?
JL: I’m pretty stoked about going as a viewer! I mean, you give Krissy Keefer all the toys—I can’t wait to see what she does! I’m more excited as an audience member than as a producer.

CB: Where do you see West Wave going from here…or do you have any idea?
JL: I actually don’t! We’re going to evaluate how this year went. I’m sure there will be a lot of feedback [laughs]. I feel like this is a pretty good model; I like the idea of bringing curators in, and I like the idea of commissioning, so I hope all of that is received well. I’m really open to new ideas. And the city has pledged to support the festival next year, which makes me really happy. This field is changing so fast, and it’s important to embrace that. People are interested in seeing new ideas. Hopefully, as a working artist I bring some of that energy to the table.

CB: It’s like a big experiment, and you’re going to see what comes of it.
JL: I think it’s really important if we’re going to push the field forward.

Program 1: The Beat of 24th and Mission
Mon, Sep 16, 8pm, Z Space
Curated by Krissy Keefer, featuring Dance Mission’s resident artists, teachers and students: Dance Brigade, Grrrl Brigade, Allan Frias / Mind Over Matter, Anna Sullivan / Anna and the Annadroids, Sean Dorsey / Sean Dorsey Dance, Nicole Klaymoon’s Embodiment Project, Joti Singh / Duniya Drum and Dance, Susana Arenas / Arenas Dance Company, Ramon Ramos Alayo / Alayo Dance Company, Nol Simonse, Juan de la Rosa.

Program 2: Four Commissions
Sat, Oct 5, 8pm, ODC Commons
Anne-René Petraca investigates the idea of community and connection in the last of light, a quartet for four women. Anandha Ray fuses modern dance and Odissi Temple Dance in The Quimera Project, performed by Laura Rae Bernasconi. Choreographer Holly Shaw and composer/multi-instrumentalist Laura Inserra explore the idea of the renegade through contemporary flamenco in The Outlaw. Casey Lee Thorne and interactive lighting designer Mark Janes collaborate on The Shadow of a Doubt, a contemporary ballet inspired by Rumi.

Program 3: We Have This
Mon, Oct 21, 8pm, Z Space
Curator Jesse Hewit pairs diverse artists for one-on one encounters: Hewit himself and Sara Shelton Mann, Monique Jenkinson and Liz Tenuto, Keith Hennessy and Mica Sigourney, Jose Navarette and Amara Tabor-Smith, Laura Arrington and Brontez Purnell.

Program 4: Make.Believe
Mon, Oct 28, 8pm, Z Space
Amy Seiwert invites Bay Area dance makers Melissa Payne, Robert Dekkers, Maurya Kerr and Julia Adam to create new works based on fairy tales and myths.

Tickets for all performances are $15 advance / $20 at the door. For more information, visit, and

Expect the Unexpected: Subverting the Ballet Paradigm with Amy Seiwert and SKETCH 3

“When I started making work, no one was paying any attention whatsoever,” Amy Seiwert recalls. After nineteen years spent dancing for Sacramento Ballet and Smuin Ballet, she launched her choreographic career in 1999. In retrospect, the first ten years, when “no one had any expectation on if I was good or bad,” was a time of freedom, joy and growth. “I got to take a lot of risks. I got to really try what worked, and what didn’t.” While no one was looking, without pressure to produce a salable product or connect dots set out for her by commissioning companies, Seiwert followed her muse and developed a unique contemporary voice.

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery Photo by David DeSilva

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery
Photo by David DeSilva

When people finally did take notice, those halcyon days came to an end. “As you get more successful, more people pay attention, which is awesome and terrible at the same time. Suddenly, any risk you take, everyone’s putting under a microscope.” We dream of achieving our definition of success, but we rarely anticipate the trade-offs. For ballet-based choreographers like Seiwert, ever-more-mainstream commissions mean that “it gets scarier and scarier to risk. And if we don’t risk, as choreographers, our role in furthering the art form will stagnate.”

A woman of great creative integrity, Seiwert responded by founding the SKETCH choreographic festival, now in its third year, designed to push the boundaries of ballet-based dance. Last year’s theme was women choreographers, who are vastly underrepresented in the ballet world, and garnered Izzie nominations for choreographer Gina Patterson and dancer Sarah Griffin. SKETCH has also been covered nationally by Pointe and Dance magazines—clearly Seiwert is on to something.

This year’s theme is “challenging expectations,” and the point, ironically enough, is to offer choreographers a safe place to take creative risks. Seiwert, Val Caniparoli and Marc Brew will contribute world premieres for Seiwert’s company, Imagery, to perform at ODC Theater July 25–28. “I encourage them to really take a personal risk,” Seiwert says of the choreographers she invites to participate. “And if it fails miserably, only 800 people saw it by the end of the weekend. It wasn’t on the Opera House stage; it wasn’t viewed by thousands of people.”

But why bother? Seiwert’s slate is full with nationwide commissions as well as her Smuin Ballet residency. When Caniparoli is not dancing with San Francisco Ballet, where he has been a company member for over 40 years, he travels the world creating new works and staging from his rep. UK-based Brew, who made the spectacular contemporary piece Full of Words for Oakland’s AXIS in 2011, has created work for the Australian Ballet, Scottish Dance Theatre and the Beijing Olympics. All have been nominated for, and won, numerous awards.

“I want to keep growing,” Caniparoli says, and growing creatively is not what choreographers get paid for. “Even though companies say, ‘No, no do what you want,’ you always know—there’s that pressure there. That’s why I said yes [to doing SKETCH], to go out of my comfort zone.” It is a sign of his own artistic integrity that he wants to shake off the traces. As Seiwert says, “This is Val Caniparoli doing something that he doesn’t know will work. Which could be awesome!”

Caniparoli is making the most of the opportunity. “I’m gonna do things that I’m afraid to try in some major companies. Who knows? I do very little floorwork, so maybe I can incorporate that into my choreography. Or even picking music…how do you get around something with words? How do you work that out in choreography? Do you ignore it? Do you use it?” For his score, he is considering a
John Tavener choral piece sung by Bjork…no stagnation here.

As for Brew, he was Seiwert’s inspiration for the theme. Trained as a classical ballet dancer in Australia, he continued his dance and choreographic career after becoming paralyzed in a car accident over fifteen years ago, at age twenty. “I feel like with SKETCH 3, we can start changing the preconception of how ballet is made,” Seiwert says. “Marc is a brilliant example of that. Full of Words—when I first saw that, I was blown away. It was so beautiful. As I realized that this was created by a man in a wheelchair—how did he get to this place in making it? It really shattered a paradigm for me on who gets to make what, and how, and why. Where else can this go?”

As a disabled artist, Brew knows that he inherently defies others’ expectations. He sees SKETCH as an opportunity to challenge his own. “A creative risk for me is to make myself go to the unfamiliar places of a different creative process,” he says. He’ll have to go there quickly: to accommodate overseas travel, he’s shortening his normal six-week process and allowing just two weeks to create his piece, which will be focused on partnering “through the use of attachments that create different structures of an ever-changing landscape…how once they are created, how do they disassemble?”

Brew is especially excited to work with Seiwert’s dancers, who were hand-picked for the project, among them Katherine Wells (Robert Moses’ KIN), Susan Roemer (Smuin Ballet), Sarah Griffin (Dance Theater of Harlem Ensemble) and Brandon “Private” Freeman (ODC/Dance). Unlike Seiwert and Caniparoli, Brew has not worked with any of them previously, so he will be sketching from scratch. But the dancers were chosen as much for their individuality as for their technical mastery, so they will be active players in the creative process—another way that SKETCH subverts the ballet paradigm.

“I’m really into dancers being thinking artists,” she says. “In the modern-dance community, that is absolutely always true. In old-school ballet, that wasn’t really cared about. If I go to a traditional ballet company, if I ask dancers to improvise and manipulate material, it will often be met with a lot of resistance. ‘This is just not the way it’s done.’” Seiwert cannot recall a single time, over her entire tenure as a dancer, when a choreographer asked her for creative input.

The audience is asked to come along for the ride, too. At works-in-process Q&As, they can give feedback and gain insight into the experience of the choreographers and the performers. “No one ever asked me what I thought,” Seiwert recalls of her dancing days. “To have the dancers add an intelligent voice to the conversation is fantastic.”

Seiwert describes last year’s Q&As as “really interesting,” an assessment that Caniparoli may or may not agree with. Despite his best effort to keep a low profile during a session about male dominance of the classical-ballet world, “all of a sudden I got drawn into the conversation. It was like, ‘Yeah, Val, why is that?’” He admits he is more anxious about speaking to the audience than he is of showing them a different side of his creativity. Nonetheless, he agrees with Seiwert that that a direct connection with the audience really matters. As she says, “Ballet can get a bad rap because it’s just about being entertaining. Our goal is to use our art form as a container for serious discourse. [Last year], it went into a whole worldview of how this affects the population in different ways and forms and shapes and sizes.”

Dancers’ Group is helping to bring more people into the discussion via the New Stages for Dance grant. Created to support artists in presenting work in new or larger venues, the grant made it easier for Seiwert to manage the financial risks as well as the creative ones. “What if we add another show and we don’t sell it?” was her biggest quandary, as SKETCH 3 has expanded to four evenings. “If we do this and it works, it puts us on firm footing to go forward. If we do this and it fails, will SKETCH 4 happen? The New Stages grant just gives us that cushion to take the risk—we’re back to that risk word, which is so important.”

The potential rewards for choreographers, dancers and audience alike are many. Brew wants to push the dancers to “physically uncomfortable places” and challenge their own beliefs about what they can do—and what they can’t. “I love to question their decisions and push them to unexpected places of unfamiliarity with moments of awkward beauty.” Caniparoli is going for the brass ring: “If I’m going to go out on a limb, I’m going to go a hundred percent,” he says.

As for Seiwert, she will reconnect with the joy of creativity on her own terms, free of any and all expectations. “As a choreographer, you’re making a gift and you give it to someone,” she says. “They will receive this gift however they want, and you have to give it with an open heart.”

SKETCH 3 will perform July 25-28 at ODC Theater, SF. Find more information at
Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer in the Bay Area.

Pas de Deux: San Francisco and Dutch National Ballets Partner to Produce a Spellbinding New Cinderella

If only ballet had a fairy godmother. With a wave of her magic wand, she could summon bewigged coachmen to deliver the buckets of money required to produce spectacular new story ballets. Alas, no such godmother is forthcoming.

To make up for her absence, ballet companies are teaming up to share the costs of producing original works. For a financial investment of roughly two-thirds the cost of a solo production, both companies get a premiere, custom costumes, sets adaptable to their theater space, expanded creative connections, and the higher profile that comes with trying something new.

At the frontier is San Francisco Ballet, which presents its first full co-production with Cinderella, which receives its U.S. debut Friday, May 3. (SFB’s 2011 Coppélia was a shared production in certain ways, but it was not made from scratch.) Created in partnership with the Dutch National Ballet and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, Cinderella had its world premiere in Amsterdam last December.

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Wheeldon’s Cinderella (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Wheeldon’s Cinderella (© Erik Tomasson)

Evocative of the grim Grimm story rather than the sanitized Disney version, this Cinderella has sets and costumes designed by Broadway and Met Opera vet Julian Crouch, puppets by Obie Award–winning puppeteer Basil Twist, snarky stepsisters, a mystical tree, video projections and Prokofiev’s beloved original score. In her review of the world premiere in London’s Financial Times, critic Laura Cappelle said it “may well be the most dramatically convincing Cinderella in ballet” and described it as “a triumph of storytelling and stage design firmly in touch with the 21st century.”

Wheeldon was actually the catalyst for the co-production. “We had spoken with Christopher about producing a full-length ballet for us, and it hadn’t panned out,” said SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson. “He ended up calling us when he began working with Dutch National on Cinderella, because the company needed a partner.” What began as a Dutch production became a joint effort, with Wheeldon creating different parts of the choreography on each company’s dancers, then traveling between Amsterdam and San Francisco to set the sections on the others.

A highly experienced choreographer like Wheeldon, who was already familiar with both companies, can integrate the dancers’ differences in the work he creates. The logistical side of the equation—sets, costumes and technical aspects—entails its own complications, according to SFB technical director Chris Dennis, who traveled to Amsterdam to see the performance and plan its transition to San Francisco. The Amsterdam Music Theatre has a larger stage and proscenium than War Memorial Opera House, so Dennis kept a close eye on every minute detail during the design process (and triple-checked the metric–U.S. conversions).

“[Julian] Crouch would lay the plans for the two theaters on top of one another so he could see how things fit between the venues, and both companies were given the drawings,” Dennis said. “We’re finding that when we transfer the show from Amsterdam to SF, there are some areas that there’s not enough clearance. So if two pieces of scenery are hanging 8 inches apart, there’s more room for the two pieces to pass by one another; if they’re 6 inches apart, there’s a little less room.” Too much rearrangement of scenery, set decoration, and props would require changes to the choreography, so Dennis and his team ensure that “by the time the dancers get on stage, technically, everything that was marked out in the studio is in the same relationship.”

Christopher Wheeldon rehearsing his production of Cinderella (© Erik Tomasson)

Christopher Wheeldon rehearsing his production of Cinderella (© Erik Tomasson)

There are countless challenges in co-producing a work, Tomasson said, from scheduling and shipping (in this case, overseas) to costuming. For Cinderella, the measurements of every participating dancer in both companies were taken, and costumers created garments in as many shareable sizes as possible, with the usual extra fabric allowed for tailoring; additional versions were made for very petite and very tall dancers. Cinderella was also created with an eye to touring; DNB holds the European performance rights, and SFB holds the North American ones, and the entire production will be shipped hither and yon as they travel. “If the work is popular and performed often in a company’s repertory, you have to consider wear and tear on the production, too. There’s quite a lot to think about,” Tomasson said.

Lest it all seem like wicked drudgery, the process was leavened by artistic wonder. One day, Dennis recalled, “Basil said, ‘I want some cardboard, I want some tape, I want some paper, I need scissors, box cutters, wire.’ With all that stuff he created props for Cinderella’s carriage. All that information was sent to Amsterdam, and then they built exactly what he created from the cardboard. That was a really interesting process, seeing the final product of what started on one continent and ended on another continent.” So perhaps there was a little magic involved, after all.

Cinderella runs Friday, May 3 through Sunday, May 12, at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave, SF.  Tickets $36–350. 415-865-2000 or

AXIS Dance Company Celebrates 25 Years of Innovative, Integrated Dance

Photo By Amy Synder

Photo By Amy Synder

“We stopped doing pieces about disability fifteen years ago,” said Judith Smith, founding member and creative director of AXIS Dance Company. This month, the internationally renowned physically integrated dance company celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary home season at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, its home base near Lake Merritt in Oakland.

AXIS formed as a contemporary dance company in 1996, emerging from its first incarnation as a movement practice for women who used wheelchairs, taught by founding artistic director Thais Mazur. A member of the founding group, Smith, who uses a power wheelchair, felt that the possibilities for physically integrated dance would be vast. She sought to get well-known choreographers interested, and over the past fifteen years AXIS has amassed an enviable list of collaborators: Stephen Petronio, Alex Ketley, Bill T. Jones, Joe Goode, Joanna Haigood, Shinichi Iova-Koga, David Dorfman, Margaret Jenkins, Sonya Delwaide.

The company has won seven Izzies and received nine additional nominations. It has toured the nation and the world, from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Novosibirsk, Russia. AXIS has twice performed on So You Think You Can Dance, arguably the most salient nod of mainstream approval at the moment. And yet, Smith said, in spite of a history of commissioning and performing leading-edge contemporary dance, some people are still perplexed by the company’s combination of dance and disability.

“It’s impossible to separate,” she acknowledged. “It’s made us who we are, and in some ways it’s been an obstacle for people.” For choreographers who don’t see disability as an obstacle to dance, exciting creative vistas open when working with AXIS. Among those are Delwaide and Amy Seiwert, who along with Victoria Marks have created world premiers for the April shows.

Uncharted Territory
“I can safely say I’ve never been more terrified for a rehearsal day (to start) in my life,” Seiwert said. “Just having so many variables that I haven’t trained for, that I don’t know.” Like Seiwert, nearly every choreographer who works with AXIS goes through a flummoxed early stage when it dawns on them that the potential angles, momentum, speed and partnering are endless.

Photo by Matt Haber

Photo by Matt Haber

The next stage is realizing that before they start choreography, they’ll have to whittle infinity into a cohesive vocabulary. Seiwert plumbed the possibilities during class with the five company dancers: Joel Brown, Emily Eifler, Sonsherée Giles, Sebastian Grubb and Juliana Monin. “I did a phrase, and it was interpreted by each dancer to suit their body and their physicality, and what they could do with it. [For example], what does a pirouette mean to Joel?”

To create The Reflective Surface on Brown, Eifler, Giles and Grubb, Seiwert coached the dancers on her inventive ballet-based style. She also gained insight into her own creative methods as she developed partnering that incorporated Brown’s manual wheelchair and Eifler’s crutches. The process entailed extensive contact improv, experimentation, trial, error and at least one bloody nose.

“At one point I was like, ‘Just move.’ I taped them doing three minutes of improv and just stared at it for the longest time,” she said, marveling at the dancers’ bloodied-but-unbowed willingness to do everything she asked and more. “This is the toughest company I’ve ever worked with. These guys are hard core.”

Delwaide agrees. “They’ll never say no,” she said. She has created eight works on the company, including its first-ever commission, in 1998, and this season’s duet, Dix minutes plus tard (Ten Minutes Later). “I’ll say, ‘Can you do this?’ And they’ll look at me like, ‘OK, I’ll try.’ They’re so open to try different things and to look at what the choreographer has to offer and see how they can adapt it for their body.”

Kinesthetic awareness is at a premium when partnering entails widely varying centers of gravity, balance and momentum. So is trust. “If Sonsherée’s gonna run and dive on Joel’s chair, you’re going to see her do this little check to see that the casters of the chair are in line. How they interact with each other is just so nuanced,” Seiwert says.

According to Giles, “You find out where the point of balance is. I can just look and I know, and I can feel when [Joel’s] gonna pitch, when it’s got just a little bit too much torque on it. I relate it a lot to contact improv; it has the same principles, but it’s on wheels.” For Brown’s part, “I’m incredibly strong from the chest up, but I don’t have abs. So when I’m partnering, I have to think about where am I going to hold my balance, and where I am going to be strong enough to hold their balance as well.”

Delwaide has returned to the company so many times in part because of the physical and emotional depth the performers bring. “I think part of it is because my work is so based on human relationships,” she said. “I observe people and how we function as humans. So it’s still about humans, and how is it for this human to be on this wheelchair.” The results have been intriguing, thrilling and entertaining for choreographers, dancers, audiences and critics alike.

Changing Times
It wasn’t always that way; in the early days it was a challenge simply to get critics in the house, and wholly another to get serious, rather than sympathetic, reviews. AXIS’ artistic intent is no longer a question, but challenges still exist. Finding experienced disabled dancers is one of the biggest. “You still can’t get training the way any other dancer would, and there are no advanced degree programs,” Smith says.

Even when a new dancer is a superb fit in terms of skills, Smith explained, when dancers join AXIS “we have to learn how to not only partner with each other’s bodies, but we have to learn about each other’s equipment. You have to develop a whole new kind of kinesthetic knowledge of each other, and a whole new rapport with each other.” So, unlike most companies, when AXIS loses a dancer, it potentially loses all of the rep that they helped create as well. That’s why the twenty-fifth anniversary season features world premieres rather than restagings. “A lot of companies are able to do a retrospective. That’s pretty much impossible for us,” Smith said.

Funding has been especially hard to come by in the recent economy, but prudent budgeting has allowed Smith to maintain excellent compensation for the dancers, who get fifty-two weeks of salary, four weeks’ paid vacation, health benefits, a professional development stipend, use of the studio and more.

And then there are the logistics that few other companies ever have to consider. When touring, “most people don’t have to worry that their legs are going to get broken when they get off the plane. We don’t know if our wheelchairs are going to come back to us in one piece or not. And then you’re out on the road and there’s no wheelchair repair, and your type of chair doesn’t even exist.” In spite of promoters’ assurances, venues don’t always have accessible bathrooms, or even an accessible stage, and wheelchair seating is often insufficient to meet audience demand. And although viewer response is overwhelmingly enthusiastic, “We once had someone who left because it was too hard for them to watch disabled people onstage.”

Lesser hearts would have broken long ago. “It’s been a huge job,” Smith said. “It’s been way bigger than I thought it would be.” Indeed, Seiwert’s description of this group as “hard core” applies to far more than the dancing.

Looking Forward
Twenty-five years later, Smith is still motivated by the same clear mission she started with: “I just really want to make a lasting impression on dance, to keep doing good work that people want to see and want to present.”

Photo by David DeSilva

Photo by David DeSilva

To that end, education is at the top of the AXIS agenda for the future. This October the company will be in residence at Mills College, and AXIS has been working with Eric Kupers to develop an associate’s or certificate program in physically integrated dance at CSU East Bay. AXIS will continue its extensive outreach in schools—each year, the company reaches 15,000 students nationwide—plus preprofessional summer intensives and master classes. AXIS engages the community through disability awareness days and corporate and special events; a recent highlight was a performance for NASA astronauts. “People get to stare at us for ninety minutes, and they stop seeing just the disability,” she says. “Not that it’s not there, but they stop seeing that as the main identifier, the main way they would describe us or define us.”

Along with more world premieres, the AXIS bucket list also includes a restaging of iconic modern works, making a Dance on Camera piece with Alex Ketley, a proposed tour of Australia in 2014, and hopefully someday an American Dance Festival appearance and a New York season. And, according to Smith, “We still have a lot of work to make AXIS the best place to work that it can be.”

Nonetheless, AXIS is in a good place. It has a well-defined point of view, talented and dedicated dancers, a sense of humor and heaps of moxie. “AXIS is a dance company that goes where no other dance companies go,” says Smith. “We do work that changes people minds, and sometimes changes people’s lives. And I don’t think very many people get to say that.”

AXIS Dance Company’s 25th-anniversary home season takes place Friday–Sunday, April 12–14, at Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice Street, Oakland. Fri.–Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets $10–25. 1-800-838-3006 or

Revealing the Secret History: A Conversation with Sean Dorsey

San Francisco’s Sean Dorsey Dance has racked up a nice trophy case: a Goldie, a pair of Izzies, a “Best Dance-Performance Company” nod from SF Weekly, a 2010 Dance Magazine “25 to Watch,” and major national commissions for The Secret History of Love, a groundbreaking dance-theater production about the life experiences of LGBT people in decades past, and how those courageous elders found love against sometimes terrifying odds.

But the secret of Secret History is that it’s about all of us: our vulnerability, our deep need to connect and the risks we take to do so, how we’re all in the same rickety little boat, hoping to navigate to safe harbor. It’s also about well-constructed dance, compelling storytelling and laugh-out-loud humor.

Pictured: Sean Dorsey Photo by Lydia Daniller

Pictured: Sean Dorsey
Photo by Lydia Daniller

Dorsey spent two years interviewing elders across the U.S. and perusing archives to garner material for the show, which incorporates contemporary dance, spoken word, voiceovers and live music. Performed by Dorsey, Juan de la Rosa, Brian Fisher, Nol Simonse and Shawna Virago, Secret History premiered at Dance Mission Theater in March 2012. Then the company piled into the Sean Dorsey Dance Family Van for a nine-city tour that succeeded far beyond their expectations.

The show returns to Dance Mission March 28–31 before heading out on a fifteen-city tour. It turns out that America can really relate to Secret History . Dorsey sat down with Claudia Bauer to talk about how queer, and how wonderful, that is.

CB: Secret History is not the typical dance performance. How were you received?
SD: We visited an incredible range of cities, from downtown Miami to rural Wisconsin. We were so blessed to visit a real range of communities, some of whom are steeped in amazing access to dance and art and culture and LGBT community, and some of whom have literally no access to LGBT arts and very little community support.

CB: Did you feel in danger at all?
SD: We were definitely aware of our safety. Everyone in the company is LGBT, and so we were conscious of ourselves as pretty visible. But it was also amazing—walking into a small-town restaurant where the flamboyant gay waiter came to our table. It made me so mindful of how, despite the daily threats of violence and economic marginalization so many trans people still live with in the Bay Area, how much of a beautiful pink bubble we live in here. In Whitewater, which is in rural Wisconsin—Romney signs everywhere—when we got to the theater I said to the company, “We may have forty or fifty people show up, and that is okay because this work is important and beautiful. Know that those forty or fifty people in this thousand-seat theater are going to really connect with the work and take it home with them.” And then we had 500 people come, which was absolutely mind-blowing.

CB: Do you think they were drawn by contemporary dance or by the LGBT theme?
SD: Both. There were young queer people, young trans students, there were middle-aged straight dance enthusiasts. After the show all kinds of people lined up to talk to us, including a young straight couple who came up to me, and the guy, kind of a jock, said, “My girlfriend is interested in dance, and this was the first dance show I’ve ever seen. Thank you, this was really cool and interesting and powerful.” That’s so beautiful, to have people who I would never expect to wait in line to give us feedback and love.

CB: My sense is that anyone who is in touch with that vulnerable part of themselves can relate to Secret History.
SD: I think that’s why the young transgender person who has never seen dance before will respond to the work just as strongly as the person who doesn’t know any trans people at all. My ultimate goal is for the work to be really human and universal—about our fears of being different or of isolation or taking risks, the vulnerability of relationships. We all feel that.

CB: Boston was a huge moment for you, because that’s where this all began.
SD: I’d worked with Boston elders’ life stories and voices for two years by the time we returned for the East Coast premiere last May. Many of those elders attended the show, and for us there was a great anticipation and excitement, and also some anxiety: Did we do these people’s stories and lives justice? It’s such an incredible responsibility to first witness and hold someone’s life story, struggles and joys and pains, survival—and then to embody it on stage.
The theater sat about 200 people, and all four shows sold out. At every show there was at least one elder who was a part of the oral history project, and we would invite them up for the bows. They were all in tears, and every single elder expressed that they felt that their story and their voice was so deeply honored; I am proud of that. These elders are the ones who opened the doors, endured police harassment, sexual assault and beatings and bar raids, lost custody of their children, survived horrors…but they also fell in love, organized, started the bathhouse scene, sparked the sexual revolution, accomplished so much. Our culture dismisses our elders, desexualizes them, stops listening to them and taking them seriously. So these elders felt that their struggles and victories were finally being seen. The core theme of the show is that despite all the struggle and pain, human beings still have a capacity for joy, love, beauty, healing, resilience, adventure.

CB: That strength to keep trying is profoundly moving. I don’t know where that courage comes from.
SD: Even though there are more school-based support groups in larger cities than ever before, in every single city that we toured to, we still heard LGBT youth say, “This is the first time I’ve seen someone like me onstage.”

CB: Why is it important to see ourselves reflected in culture?
SD: Art allows us to dream and imagine our futures. It feeds us and sparks our hunger for beauty and justice. Seeing ourselves in culture is affirmation that we exist, that we matter; when we’re excluded from it, it sends us a very strong message that we don’t matter and that our bodies aren’t beautiful.

Pictured: Sean Dorsey Dance Photo by Lydia Daniller

Pictured: Sean Dorsey Dance
Photo by Lydia Daniller

CB: How does Secret History address that?
SD: Showing LGBT people that they are part of a lineage of powerful, strong, daring, loving people and ancestors who made our lives possible is a very powerful thing. Most of the time, transgender and queer people never, never, never get to see themselves reflected in culture. And if we ever are represented, we are pathologized. Much of the country hasn’t thought about that reality.

CB: You did a lot of outreach on the tour as well.
SD: Whenever we tour we do a residency, which might include teaching dance classes or leading a community conversation or a panel on arts and social justice. One of my favorite things to do in these residencies is a dance workshop that welcomes absolutely terrified beginners and that is transgender-friendly and queer-friendly. Almost all transgender people will never set foot in a gym or a yoga studio or a dance studio because it is profoundly unsafe and unwelcoming for them, so being in a room full of people who are able to access physical expression for the first time, and then dancing my choreography together, always brings me to tears. It feels absolutely, spectacularly amazing.

CB: So now Secret History returns to San Francisco. Is it the same show, after all these experiences?
SD: I feel like the work is inhabited now by so many more people who the work touched over the past year. It feels like this jam-packed, buzzing room full of voices now in the work. Brian, Nol, Juan and Shawna are all such brilliantly gifted performers, and we all had such profound experiences on tour this year. The emotional response that the work has gotten is going to inhabit and charge the work and its gesture and touch and partnering in a new way…all those things get embodied in the dance, and the show evolves.

CB: What has this meant to you as an artist, as a person?
SD: Getting to sit across a table from transgender and queer elders across the country and experiencing their generous vulnerability and openness about their life histories, and to have such amazing dancer-performer collaborators, is such a gift. When I researched in the archives, I put my hands on people’s real love letters, even love notes on cocktail napkins. What inspiration! The project also kicked my ass and pushed me in a lot of ways, and absolutely changed my life and my career. It brought national visibility and acclaim for my work. We have tours booked through 2014! It has been a life-changing blessing.

CB: What’s next?
SD: I’m launching my new project, The Missing Generation and the Source of Joy. What became painfully clear in my last process were all the voices that were absent, all the people we lost to AIDS who would have been my elders, my teachers, our friends and peers and lovers. To create the show I will jump back into archival research, and I am launching an LGBT Intergenerational Oral History Project in which I will bring youth and elders in conversation with each other.

Starting in the 1950s, Drag Mothers, Butch Dads and the Ball scene’s House Mothers played such an important familial role for youth and provided mentorship, support, housing, lifesaving relationships…and all this changed so radically when we lost much of an entire generation to AIDS. We’ll premiere part one of the show in March 2014. I’m very excited about this project.

So get ready, rural Wisconsin… here they come.

The Secret History of Love performs Thu-Sun, March 28-31 at Dance Mission Theater, SF.

44 Gough St, Suite 201
San Francisco, CA 94103
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