Author Archive | Heather Desaulniers

Lessons Learned Pulling Double Duty: In Conversation with Robert Dekkers

Photo courtesy of artist

Running a dance organization is hard enough. Now picture running two. And then imagine that the pair occupy very different spaces in the dance ecosystem – one traditional and one more experimental and avant-garde.

Robert Dekkers knows a thing or two about this scenario. He is currently the Artistic Director of two entities that seem pretty dissimilar: Post:Ballet and Berkeley Ballet Theater. Dekkers founded Post:Ballet in 2009, and for almost ten years now, the dance company has bravely defied categorization. Its repertory is deeply collaborative, uniting artists from a variety of disciplines. Its choreographic vocabulary is bold, cutting edge and wildly unpredictable. And Post:Ballet has captured fans with its commitment to upending boundaries and challenging assumptions about dance, about society, about relationships and about gender. Starting in 2017, Dekkers also took the reins at Berkeley Ballet Theater (BBT), a renowned ballet institution that, for close to four decades, has been a West Coast paragon of classical instruction. Since it opened in 1981, its studios have welcomed students of all ages and all levels, including many on the cusp of a professional career. Alumni have gone on to dance in a variety of companies including New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Twyla Tharp Dance.

Over the last two years, Dekkers has learned much from pulling double leadership duty with Post:Ballet and BBT. Perhaps the most telling lesson is that they are not as divergent as they might appear. In fact, their commonalities far outweigh their differences. The pair is rooted in ballet technique and eager about ballet’s future. They are dedicated to artistic rigor without sacrificing a caring and supportive atmosphere. Their curiosity about how dance can be an impactful force in society is contagious. Dekkers admits he is surprised as anyone that helming both hasn’t been more dichotomous. “I thought it was going to feel like two very different environments, but it doesn’t,” he shares, “because at their core, Post:Ballet and BBT are looking at how art can create a space for people to come together.”

Leading a company and directing a school had long been goals for Dekkers, though he didn’t necessarily expect that he’d be fulfilling them simultaneously. Post:Ballet came into his life first. Its origin story can be traced back to the mid-2000s, when Dekkers was Choreographer-in-Residence at Nova Ballet in Phoenix. “Nova had a collective feel; it was a group of artists coming together to forge creative projects,” describes Dekkers, “when the company folded in 2009, a year after I’d moved to San Francisco, I was really interested in creating a similar space here in the Bay Area.” He did just that with Post:Ballet. After a highly successful first concert in July of 2010, Post:Ballet’s mixed repertory bills became a must-see on the Bay Area’s summer dance calendar – nights of eclectic, multi-discipline performance with abstract pieces and narrative investigations alike. As the group grew and evolved, Dekkers and the Post artists not only continued developing shorter, individual works but also began exploring evening-length compositional structures, where an overarching idea or concept informs an entire performance. This eventually led to the debut of Do:Be in August of 2016, a co-production with innovative sound duo The Living Earth Show (Travis Andrews and Andy Meyerson) and Lavender Country, a collaboration with musician Patrick Haggerty, which premiered in November 2017 and will be returning to Z Space in April 2019 as part of Post’s tenth anniversary season.

BBT came on the scene a little later. It was about five years back that Dekkers joined BBT’s faculty, at first, just teaching once per week. Eventually he took on more classes and in 2017 the Artistic Directorship presented itself. “Teaching has been a part of my life for over fifteen years, and I love the impact that you can have as a teacher on a student, but the impact you can have as a director is even farther reaching,” he explains. Dekkers’ transition into this new role was anything but gradual. Not only had BBT had some AD turnover prior to him accepting the position, but they were also moving from their longtime residence at the historic Julia Morgan Center for the Arts to a new home in the up and coming Gilman District in West Berkeley. “Honestly, Fall 2017 was a bit of madness,” recounts Dekkers, “sometimes challenging situations can bring people down and tear folks apart, but the BBT community really came together because they saw that the new space was all about moving ballet forward, and that my vision and approach to dance was in line with their ethos as an organization.”

Propelling ballet forward is definitely a place where Post:Ballet and BBT converge – the two are all in, invested and excited for ballet’s next chapter. And that means tackling the genre’s complexities head on and asking tough questions, “both Post and BBT believe in confronting ballet’s elitist/stratifying mold, in questioning gender roles, uniformity and structure so that the form can reach and include as many people as possible.” Dekkers is thrilled to be facilitating these kinds of conversations in each setting, though seeing them play out at the school has been particularly poignant. “These students are so mindful, they feel empowered to speak up and contribute – the dialogue with them is meaningful, positive and it’s going to affect change,” he relays, “inclusivity is a big part of why I took the position at BBT – to build on their mission that every body can dance.”

Photo courtesy of artist

Shared goals and shared leadership has also allowed for creative crossover and interdependent support between the two institutions. BBT’s students and faculty have had the unique opportunity to engage with several Post:Ballet collaborators across a variety of disciplines. Enrique Quintero’s paintings (created during Post’s performances of Dekkers’ 2011 work, Colouring) grace the walls at BBT’s new space; musician and composer Daniel Berkman accompanies class in Youth and Adult Divisions; photographer Natalia Perez is transforming the visual landscape from behind the camera; and four Post movement artists have made premiere work on BBT’s Youth Company, including Post’s current Choreographer-in-Residence Vanessa Thiessen. Plans for the next collaboration are already underway. Post:Ballet is presently in the early stages of a new venture with The Living Earth Show and iconic Bay Area composer Samuel Adams. Dancers from the BBT Youth Company will be invited to be part of that work, which is set to premiere in 2020.

BBT is equally influencing Post:Ballet, providing new avenues for outreach and partnership. Advanced students from BBT have been participating in Post’s summer intensives with an eye on deepening their technique and artistic voice. On the infrastructure front, the BBT studios have become a consistent host for Post’s rehearsals. And there is much interest and enthusiasm for Post’s choreographic projects. “Many of the BBT dancers and families have attended Post:Ballet performances, supporting the company’s work and helping us increase our reach into the community,” details Dekkers, “we’ve also had the chance to present several open rehearsals there [at BBT], giving the Post:Ballet team a chance to get feedback during the development of new work and giving BBT the chance to connect with the creative process.”

Certainly an exciting time for Post:Ballet and Berkeley Ballet Theater – new chapters, new milestones and new collaborations! As keen as he is about the future of both, Dekkers is quick to point out that championing two organizations can take its toll if you aren’t careful. After performing at Burning Man this past summer, Dekkers experienced a critical health crisis. While he has been blessed with a speedy and full recovery, it was a wake up call that some patterns needed to be rebuilt, “I love working, but also really need to carve out space to power down – a 10:00am-2:00am schedule every day isn’t feasible for anyone – and I’ve spent the last decade consistently not sleeping enough.” To that end, these past few months have been a season of self-reflection; a renewed search for balance in all aspects of Dekkers’ life. He is learning to let go, lean on people, delegate and identify what projects are workable and which ones might not be, “passion/excitement is a strength but it’s also a weakness that can easily get the best of you; I’m learning that if your goal is to touch lives and make an impact on the community, you can’t put ‘you’ on the backburner – if you don’t care for yourself, you can’t care for others.”

GERALDCASELDANCE at 20

Have you ever looked at those lists that match up gift ideas with specific anniversaries? For every year from one to twenty-four and then every five years from twenty-five to ninety, there are traditional and modern suggestions for what you might present to your significant other. To celebrate three years, the traditional choice is leather, while the modern is crystal; year twenty-four’s recommendations are opal (traditional) or musical instruments (modern). Sometimes the two opinions converge, like with rubies for a fortieth anniversary, or emeralds to mark fifty-five.

What about year twenty? To commemorate two decades, the traditionalists opt for china, and the modernists, platinum. I find this pair particularly striking: china, with its uniqueness and fragility; platinum, with its robust durability and resilience. Sure sounds like the distillation of any twenty-year relationship. Something that is distinctive, that takes strength and perseverance to maintain, that has seasons of vulnerability. And of course, it is rare. Surviving and thriving for twenty years is getting less and less common everyday.

For San Francisco/Bay Area contemporary dance companies, weathering every year seems cause for celebration, especially amidst this region’s stark financial realities. So to make it to twenty years? Wow. GERALDCASELDANCE is excited and thrilled to be marking this significant milestone in 2018. They are commemorating the occasion by looking back at and reflecting on the company’s twenty-year history. By premiering an evening of new work at ODC Theater in June. And by celebrating GERALDCASELDANCE’s commitment to ask penetrating questions about society and the human condition through collaborative contemporary performance.

It was the late 1990s when GERALDCASELDANCE first surfaced on the contemporary dance landscape, founded by dancer, teacher and choreographer Gerald Casel. After seven years performing with Stephen Petronio’s company, Casel was anxious to explore new artistic avenues and he ventured down one of these paths in 1998. “My first choreography concert was in 1998 in New York City, at a studio called Context in the East Village,” Casel recounts, “they asked if I was currently choreographing and if so, they’d love to host an evening of my work.” As it turned out, Casel was making dances at that moment. He decided to go for it and presented a double bill: The Waltz Project for six women and There’s a Place For You Beneath My Pillow, a duet for himself and Chris Bergman, a fellow student he met while at Juilliard earning his BFA in dance. This program signaled the start of something new – the birth of GERALDCASELDANCE. “Back then, the trend was to call your company by your name and put dance at the end,” he says, “we’ve kept it that way because when applying for grants, the consistency matters; but there has always been a tension for me with the company’s name – every artist I work with is a co-creator; GERALDCASELDANCE has never been solely about me and my vision.”

Over the next ten years, Casel enjoyed a full and varied artistic journey. He returned to Stephen Petronio’s company in 2001, and remained there for an additional four years. He completed graduate school, earning an MFA from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2007, after which he began teaching full-time, first at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. All along the way, Casel and many collaborating artists, including composer Edward Ratliff, lighting designer Ben Stanton and costume designer Maile Okamura, continued creating new work that GERALDCASELDANCE debuted at a number of different venues. One particular highlight came in 2008, as the company marked the end of its first decade – Border, their first ever evening-length work, presented at the Joyce/Soho. For Casel, Border was a turning point, both structurally and conceptually. “I had never done an evening-length work before, and this one had eight dancers, live music (by Robert Poss), costume design and lighting design,” he explains, “and it was a response to the Bush administration’s desire to put surveillance along the border; it gave me such a visceral reaction, even in urban, diverse New York City, we still felt the repercussions of such actions.”

Eventually, Casel settled in the Bay Area, and joined the faculty at UC Santa Cruz where he is Associate Professor of Dance in the Theater Arts Department. GERALDCASELDANCE settled here too, and began introducing Northern Californian audiences to their work. While the company has performed throughout the Bay Area, they found a home base of sorts at ODC in 2015, when Casel was named an ODC Theater Resident Artist. During these past three years (the residency ends in 2018), Casel and the company have been developing a triptych of work that investigates racial politics. Part one, Splinters in Our Ankles, premiered in December 2015. “Splinters in Our Ankles takes its inspiration from Tinikling, a historic Philippine dance; it’s about cultural amnesia and omitted forgotten history,” Casel shares. The following year, GERALDCASELDANCE previewed the triptych’s second section, Cover Your Mouth When You Smile, a collaboration with artists Na-ye Kim and Peiling Kao. This work will have its official premiere in the company’s upcoming 2018 home season.

two dancers lying down flat with faces on the floor

Cover Your Mouth When You Smile explores racial melancholia and racial mimicry among Asian immigrants”, describes Casel, “when you are a naturalized immigrant, you assimilate a new culture and mimic that culture where you are now living; when you do that, you forego your original national/ethno-cultural identity and neuter your mother tongue.” Collaborating with Kim and Kao on this dance over the past year has been rewarding for Casel, a chance to delve into their three individual journeys and notice the places where the paths converge. “The three of us have similar experiences – born in Asia, growing up and training in predominantly white spaces – Na-ye is Korean and trained at The Royal Ballet before going onto to earn an MFA from NYU (Tisch) and PhD in Dance Education from Seoul National University; Peiling is from Taiwan and after training at Taiwan National University of the Arts, went on to receive her MFA from Mills College; and I [Casel] was born in the Philippines and trained at Juilliard,” he adds. Cover Your Mouth When You Smile may have moments of abstracted movement, but is not an abstract work. It’s a collage of personal stories, one that the trio hopes will confront assumptions and patterns of thinking. The notion of ‘upending’ is even finding its way into the project’s structure. Casel is taking the opportunity to challenge his own patterns of creation and composition, expanding his movement language and experimenting with theatrical devices like objects, text and song.

The third chapter in GERALDCASELDANCE’s current triptych will also make an appearance on the June program, a preview glimpse of Not About Race Dance. The in-progress ensemble composition considers two major contemporary works from 1994, Neil Greenberg’s Not About AIDS Dance and Bill T. Jones’ Still/Here, both of which premiered just a few years before GERALDCASELDANCE’s first concert. “The two shared vulnerable subject matter around disease, death and AIDS, but they had very different receptions; Arlene Croce’s infamous article [Discussing the Undiscussable, published in The New Yorker] characterized Jones’ work as exploitive victim art,” Casel recalls. With Not About Race Dance, GERALDCASELDANCE contemplates why this happened, and connects that line of inquiry to the present day. “We are examining how racial politics in contemporary dance and the predominance of whiteness in postmodernism underscored these events of decades past, and how today, there is still an urgent need to question the marked and unmarked power structures in dance and critique the normalized hierarchies,” states Casel.

solo asian american male dancerLike any in-progress endeavor, the company is unearthing more and more as they continue to dive in. One discovery is that other parts of the post-modern lineage also have connection to Not About Race Dance, works like Trisha Brown’s Locus Solo (1975). “When I learned Locus last year I felt that it didn’t fit or suit my brown body because in Locus, the ‘white’ body is literally and physically centered,” remembers Casel, “Not About Race Dance calls attention to this invisibility of whiteness in postmodernism.”

With the premiere of Not About Race Dance set for 2019, the next year or so is already planned out for GERALDCASELDANCE. As to what may be in store after that? Stay tuned. But whatever projects arise in the future, you can be sure that they will be driven by GERALDCASELDANCE’s longtime vision: to make art that asks critical and impactful questions.

Dancers Choice Award 2018 – Carla Service

A salute to movement. A glimpse into this region’s rich, diverse dance community. Bay Area Dance Week is back! From April 27-May 6, dance professionals, enthusiasts and fans will gather to participate in and witness a myriad of free events all over the Bay. And 2018 marks a milestone for BADW, its twentieth consecutive year.

Carla Service

During the festivities, some special honors are also announced: the Della Davidson Prize for choreography and the Dancers Choice Award, recognizing longstanding achievement in the Bay Area’s dance landscape. Dancers’ Group solicits nominations for every Dancers Choice Award, and this year, received a record 161. Past honorees include teachers, civic activists, dance companies and artistic directors. This year adds another esteemed individual to the impressive list of recipients: Carla Service, performer, choreographer, teacher, booking agent and, for more than three decades, a mentor to Oakland youth, empowering through dance. In a recent conversation, Service distilled her philosophy on movement to a single, powerful sentence, “if you have a heartbeat, you can dance.”

Writers often turn to phrases like ‘lifelong mover’ or ‘lifelong dancer’ to describe those who began their dance journey at an early age. When you learn about Service’s story, neither seems an adequate enough description. “I’ve always danced, rhythm was naturally in my head and body,” she recalls, “I was that kid, the one people were trying to keep from dancing and moving around.” Throughout childhood, dance and movement was something Service could depend on, for joy, or when she needed healing and escape. “Dance is how I survived a traumatic, abusive homelife; anytime I got fed up, felt alone or unloved, I would start dancing – in the midst of pain and anger, moving through space was something that brought me happiness,” Service shares.

Service never listened to the doubting, negative voices that told her to stop moving. She persevered, honing her dance practice in her community as opposed to a conventional studio setting. “In African American culture, dance is such a big part of the social experience; hip hop/freestyle movement isn’t something we learn in a classroom, it’s part of being together, in casual settings or at more formal gatherings and events,” she explains. Service’s talent was noticed early on and she embarked on a professional career at age seventeen. She began opening and headlining at nightclubs and discos in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, including the famed Studio 54 franchise, which had locations in both cities. This led to numerous movie spots and commercial shoots.

As bookings and gigs increased, Service felt compelled to question the status quo for dancers, “in the entertainment industry during the late 1980s, dancers were on the bottom of the totem pole, they often didn’t get paid and there was no representation.” She wanted to change that. At the same time, Service was feeling a deep call to engage with youth in Oakland (her adopted hometown), kids who were in a variety of challenging circumstances, and connect them with dance and movement. “One of the first young girls I worked with reminded me so much of myself,” Service recounts, “she had a troubling home situation and I wanted dance to be a safe place for her and others who needed it; a place that would start with the mind and go down to the toes, breaking down the lack of self-esteem and instilling appreciation, worth and love.”

Carla Service

With these goals on her heart, Service founded Dance-A-Vision Entertainment, an arts organization with a broad platform of artist advocacy, dance education and youth mentoring. Thirty-plus years later, Dance-A-Vision has expanded to include event production, entertainment consulting and choreographic commissions for both national and international stages. And the outreach program, which began with just a few youth, has grown into a renowned dance education arm, still going strong today at the Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, formerly the Alice Arts Center, in downtown Oakland.

Officially named Carla Service’s Dance-A-Vision School of Dance, the current program offers three sessions per year (Spring, Summer, Winter), for students aged three and a half up to mid teens. To ensure that every child is met at the place where they need, each class is kept small with around fifteen students (there is always a wait list). Creative Movement, for the youngest students, combines expressive play with pre-ballet instruction, which Service incorporates for structure and posture. As students continue through Dance-A-Vision’s programming, modern and jazz are also introduced, but the heart of the school’s curriculum is the exploration of freestyle. “Freestyle is first and foremost – every human being needs to understand that they can move their body, they should move their body and there is no right or wrong when it comes to movement and rhythm,” Service relays.

At the end of each session, Service hosts a recital at Malonga to showcase what the dancers have been working on during the previous months. But that is just one of the many performance opportunities available to Dance-A-Vision students. In the first few months of 2018, they have performed at Oakland City Hall’s Black History Celebration, at the film opening of Black Panther in Emeryville and as part of the third annual San Francisco Movement Arts Festival at Grace Cathedral. Dance-A-Vision’s students also participate in various events that Service produces, co-produces and helps organize around the Bay Area, like the longrunning Oakland Art and Soul Festival (July 28-29), and the newer Oakland Dance Festival, which she founded, coming up during Bay Area Dance Week (April 28-29) in Jack London Square. “This is the first year that the Oakland Dance Festival [will be] a two-day event, with dance performances, classes, an audience dance party and a children’s dance festival on day two” notes Service, “it makes me very happy to see the audience experiencing so many different dance languages – different styles and different forms from different cultures.”

Carla ServiceBut for Service, Dance-A-Vision’s school is about so much more, and has been from the very beginning. More than steps, technique, choreography and performance; it’s about positive relationships, fostering communication and building confidence and self-reliance. “I want to see that the students are following through, and doing what they need to do to move forward in and out of the studio; I want them to question why they might be falling and to understand what falling is – not just literal falling, but things like grades being down or being too concerned with what someone else is doing or thinking,” she relays, “the kids may see it as just a dance class, but it’s really about life skills.”

Service doesn’t do the word ‘hope’ – “I don’t teach dream, I teach do.” In over thirty years of sessions, Service estimates that thousands of kids have gone through Dance-A-Vision’s school, and have experienced its empowering message of strength and resolve. Many alumni have gone on to successful entertainment careers, forming their own professional dance troupes and film companies, performing on Broadway and in the Cirque de Soleil, and some have even been inspired to open and operate their own dance studios. As Dance-A-Vision moves into its next decade, Service will continue imparting these lessons to yet another generation. “My job is to teach life through dance and the highlight of my existence (and career) is that through dance, I’ve helped raise some very happy and productive human beings,” adds Service, “they love themselves, they love life, and there’s too many people out there that don’t.”

Programming Growth at Chitresh Das Institute

Kathak performer

Chitresh Das Institute students / Photo by Udaan Project

Think about the different studios that have been part of your dance training. What kinds of programs did they offer? Ballet, modern, jazz, “world dance” forms…perhaps there were also classes in folk dance, Labanotation or choreography. Or maybe conditioning/bodywork options like Pilates, barre á terre or Feldenkrais. A percussive dance department might include tap, clogging or Flamenco.

I have never been in a decision-making role in a dance studio, though I can imagine that a number of factors go into programming design. Longevity has to be one piece of the puzzle; the longstanding, well-known curriculum that has always been on the studio schedule. Demand is a major consideration as well. You can’t sustain classes without adequate and thriving student enrollment. Maybe trends even play a part; offering styles and approaches that happen to be gaining popularity at any given time. Also the teaching faculty – where do their strengths lie? What genres and disciplines speak to them? But more than anything else, studio programming should have its gaze fixed on the students, whether children or adults, new dancers or professionals. What collection of classes provides them with comprehensive training? What programming motivates and encourages the pursuit and study of dance and movement? I would bet that studio owners, educators and staff are in constant conversation about the path and development of their programming. The directors at the Chitresh Das Institute (CDI) are definitely engaged in this ongoing dialogue, having recently made the decision to add music classes to their curriculum.  

Dedicated to training students in the Northern Indian Classical dance form of Kathak, the Chitresh Das Institute is a fairly new addition to the Bay Area performing arts landscape. Just one-year old (established in January 2017), the Institute is named for famed, revered Kathak Master, the late Pandit Chitresh Das. “Das died suddenly in 2015 and there was no legacy plan in place,” recounts CDI’s Artistic Director Charlotte Moraga, “at that time, his school had a number of branches and the teachers and his longtime disciples ended up breaking off in many different directions.” A chaotic, grief-filled time to be sure, and yet amidst the chaos, Moraga and Das’ wife Celine Schein Das (CDI’s current Executive Director) knew that moving forward was also part of the healing process. They envisioned a new educational entity, one that would carry the principles that Das had been devoted to his entire life. “We wanted to create a space where there could be innovation within tradition, where Kathak can be elevated and made relevant to our contemporary life while at the same time keeping its history and customs close,” Moraga adds. Chitresh Das Institute is the result of their efforts.

It’s been an exciting inaugural year at CDI. They have four locations (Cupertino, Dublin, San Francisco and San Mateo), where over twenty different beginning to advanced Kathak classes are held each week. An impressive teaching faculty is in place (each of whom trained directly with Das), “all eager to share the historical, mathematical and philosophical aspects of Kathak,” notes School Director Preeti Zalavadia. Students, whose ages range from five to fifty-plus, have enjoyed several different performance opportunities, including CDI’s year-end showcase. And Moraga formed a pre-professional youth company (Chitresh Das Youth Company) made up of twenty-four advanced CDI dancers. The youth company made its debut last summer as part of Moraga’s Art of Kathak show at Z Space and five members of the youth company recently toured to Toronto to perform alongside a professional music ensemble at the Harbourfront Theatre. “CDI’s mission is to build a nerve center for Indian classical arts through innovative education, community building and performance programs,” Zalavadia relays, “we are establishing a cultural institution for children and adults living in the Bay Area which we hope will instill and nurture a life-long passion for Kathak.”

CDI intends to keep this forward momentum going as they enter their second year – looking beyond, looking outward, looking to what’s next. And for Moraga, living into this idea of expanse relates directly back to Das, “Das had a spirit of continual growth; he wanted to touch as many lives as possible by spreading the tremendous joy, beauty and depth of Kathak.” CDI is committed to honoring this spirit by reaching out to new students and by broadening and deepening the curriculum to include other artistic disciplines, like music.

Indian musician

Nilan Chaurdhuri/photo by Stephanie Mohan

Both Moraga and Zalavadia see multi-discipline training as essential for their students because Kathak itself is a multi-discipline artform. “The Kathak performer is equal parts dancer and musician,” Moraga explains, “you must have a strong knowledge of the music in order to fully understand the dance.” Zalavadia agrees, “a Kathak dancer is not just a dancer, but a musician, singer and storyteller; Das trained his students to sing, narrate and recite what they were dancing in class and in performance – training in instrumental and vocal music gives a dancer the opportunity to strengthen their learning and performance and dive deep into the rich Indian classical arts.” To that end, the addition of music classes was an obvious next step in the evolution of CDI’s programming. CDI named Nilan Chaudhuri as the Director of Percussion/Tabla Teacher and launched the new track with two twelve-week music sessions in vocals and tabla, a percussion instrument which Moraga describes as “two drums, one played with the right hand and one with the left, that together can produce many sounds with different types of virtuosic strokes.” 

The response to these first music offerings was overwhelmingly positive, “students are so happy to have the opportunity to study with such a talented young artist like Nilan,” says Moraga. And she notes that, as intended, it is giving them further insight into the comprehensiveness of Kathak, “as they incorporate music into their study, they notice that their practice is changing – they are seeing how much it benefits their dance.” CDI students and youth company members will have a chance to show off this music/dance connection in an upcoming show. Following up on the Art of Kathak performances at Z Space last July, plans are underway for a Fall 2018 home season, which will examine the history and connection between Hindu and Persian cultural traditions. Many artistic disciplines will be part of this new collaborative project, with music having a heavy focus.  

CDI’s next music series begins in March, and regular sessions will continue throughout the year. But again with their eye on growth, CDI’s directors are not satisfied with music settling in as a static part of their class schedule. Moraga is already thinking of ways to expand the program as it gains traction, “we are so excited about this new endeavor; it has so much potential.” One idea on the horizon is bringing guest teachers and artists like London-based singer Ranjana Ghatak and Toronto Tabla Ensemble Artistic Director Ritesh Das to work with CDI students. “Families have been very supportive of the music program and we sure hope to grow it even more, so that the students of Chitresh Das Institute can engage and connect with the experts in the field of Indian classical arts,” Zalavadia shares.  

Cal Performances Deepens its Commitment to Dance

Three dancers jumping

Camille A Brown Dance photo by Matt Karas

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, Flyaway Productions, ODC/Dance, Dorrance Dance – such an astounding collection of dance artists recently hosted at Cal Performances. And that was just during the months of September and October! These early season performance engagements represent only a fraction of what the longtime Bay Area presenter has in store with its 2017/2018 dance programming. Between November and mid-April, Cal Performances will welcome ten more companies to Zellerbach Hall, the Zellerbach Playhouse and the Oakland Metro Operahouse. Saying this current season is jam-packed with dance offerings feels like an understatement. In fact, it’s one of the fullest schedules that I can recall over the past decade and a half. And it is steeped in diversity – diversity of style, diversity of genre and with both returning audience favorites and many first timers making their Cal Performances debuts, incredible diversity of choreographic voice and perspective.

“The dance season shows our commitment to an aesthetically broad point of view, to bringing innovative creation into our midst and inviting new voices into the dialogue,” says Cal Performances Associate Director Rob Bailis, “it’s not just more dance programming – dance is becoming more pervasive in popular culture again, and so we are responding with our targeted effort to provide bridges and greater context for what’s happening in concert dance.” Broad, indeed. Rhythm tap to contemporary ballet, narrative-based work to abstract musings, mixed discipline compositions to surprising collaborations, the trove of material is deep and varied. But one should not confuse breadth with randomness. To the contrary, every 2017/2018 dance engagement is the result of careful selection and thoughtful rigor, each speaking to the investment that Cal Performances is making in choreography, movement and physicality.

Group of men standing on stage with gumboots on

South African Dance photo curtesy of Cal Performances

There are a number of factors that are informing Cal Performances’ continued investment in dance, one of which is a re-thinking of an existing performance track. “Our World Stage series has, in the past, been primarily a world music platform,” Bailis explains, “now we are broadening that platform and taking more of an interdisciplinary approach, shifting World Stage to be as inclusive with dance as it is with music.” Living directly into this intention and vision, four world dance forms will be showcased this season. Tango Buenos Aires’ The Spirit of Argentina and the Festival of South African Dance will appear back-to-back in a single weekend mid-November. Ragamala Dance Company brings South Indian dance to the Zellerbach Playhouse in December followed by Eva Yerbabuena Company’s Flamenco concert in the Spring. In addition to these four dance performances, puppetry, acrobatics, theater and of course, music are all part of this year’s World Stage programming. Certainly a reflection of Cal Performances’ move toward a more expansive swath and scope of World Stage performing arts.

Another major lifeforce running through the current season’s dance programming is Berkeley RADICAL, Research and Development Initiative in Creativity, Arts and Learning. Launched in 2015, the initiative signaled a tremendous shift at Cal Performances, “Berkeley RADICAL is a change agent we introduced, enabling us to become more specifically focused on a particular line of artistic inquiry – through RADICAL, we make a commitment to works of excellence, diverse origin and deep relevance,” relays Bailis. RADICAL is organized into what Cal Performances calls ‘strands of curation’ or curatorial threads, which seek to provide audiences multiple opportunities to encounter creative work. Within the RADICAL frames, one will certainly find performances, but also an array of other events like community dance classes, lectures, panels, workshops and open rehearsals, all combining together towards a goal of increased artistic literacy, access and engagement.

Transcending Borders is the canopy title for 2017/2018’s Berkeley RADICAL season at Cal Performances, holding three distinct strands. Vaulting Walls joins music and theater works that are rooted in one geographical place and which simultaneously push audiences with challenging material and narratives. Another RADICAL throughline, Blurring Boundaries, invites a range of artists to confront perceived expectations and assumptions in their genres and fields. Two dance troupes, Ragamala Dance Company and Company Wang Ramirez, are part of this latter RADICAL strand. Artistic intersections are at the heart of Ragamala Dance Company’s full-length collaborative work Written in Water. Not only are ancient traditions placed within a contemporary container, there is an unexpected synthesis of movement vocabulary and music – classical Indian dance paired with Amir ElSaffar’s score, a composition that marries 21st century jazz and traditional Iraqi maqam. Then in February, Blurring Boundaries welcomes Company Wang Ramirez’s Borderline, a troupe and a piece that has innovative spirit in its bloodstream, continually testing limits and thinking beyond anticipated norms. “Company Wang Ramirez is inventing new vocabulary for concert dance. In this work they are drawing on elements of hip hop and social dance, infused with the physical properties inherent in flying; they are pioneering a new form,” Bailis shares.

Four couples each in a different Tango pose

Tango Buenos Aires Spirit of Argentina photo by Lucrecia Laurel

But for the dance community, it is the remaining Berkeley RADICAL strand, Joining Generations that may be of particular interest. A strand that is all dance, uniting four iconic African American choreographers: Reggie Wilson (Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group), Camille A. Brown (Camille A. Brown & Dancers), Donald Byrd (Spectrum Dance Theater) and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), under the Artistic Direction of Robert Battle. 2018 marks a very significant year for AAADT and Cal Performances – fifty years as residency partners, AAADT having made their first visit to campus in the late 1960s. Not only did Cal Performances want to commemorate and celebrate this golden anniversary, they also wanted to take the opportunity to mine and explore what has happened in and with dance over this five-decade period. It seemed fitting to do so with a dedicated Berkeley RADICAL strand, and so Joining Generations was born. “Joining Generations looks at the evolution of American Dance from the 1960s to the present, and does so through an African American lens – the arrival of post-modernism, the emergence of Dance Theater and the inclusion of pure pedestrian movement and even social dance on the concert stage,” Bailis describes, “and in the spirit of that first Ailey appearance at Zellerbach, we wanted to include new voices, artists making their Cal Performances debut.” If you missed Reggie Wilson in September, you can still catch the next three Joining Generations’ performances, as well as attend the myriad of related events. Camille A. Brown arrives at Zellerbach Playhouse in early December with BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, Spectrum Dance Theater’s A Rap on Race comes to Oakland Metro Operahouse in February, and AAADT’s annual Cal Performances’ residency begins April 10, 2018.

One dancer sitting while the other makes a exaggerated running shape

Donald Byrds Spectrum Dance photo by Tino Tran

Annual residencies have long been instrumental to Cal Performances’ dance season, and this year that tradition continues and intensifies. There are two major cornerstones, two long-term bi-coastal artistic exchanges: AAADT and Mark Morris Dance Group, who this December, is back at Zellerbach Hall with the fanciful, retro holiday fete, The Hard Nut. “We are deeply invested in both relationships; when they are here, the Hall is packed, people are coming to see dance,” notes Bailis. While the residencies are rich, voracious and incredibly successful in their own right, they are also catalysts that lead viewers to crave more dance, thus making them a driving force to the whole of Cal Performances’ dance programming. “One of the extraordinary benefits of having companies return every year is that the audience becomes fluent in the ideas of these artists and choreographers,” he furthers, “then, audiences start seeking out other works that bring context and reference, and the understanding of the form deepens – this fluency makes it possible to grow the dance platform.”

In addition to these longstanding partnerships, a new residency begins this Fall with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, led by Artistic Director Ashley Wheater, who, having had a lengthy career with the San Francisco Ballet is well known to Bay Area dance enthusiasts. Joffrey and Cal Performances have gone ‘all in’ on this endeavor, designing and forging a creative conversation that will unfold over the next five years. Three out of those five years, the Joffrey will be coming to Berkeley for a two-part residency, consisting of performances at Zellerbach Hall along with several days of open workshops. During these workshops, the company will be crafting new work, work commissioned by Cal Performances as part of the residency. And instead of an in-progress performance or rehearsal of the new work, the community is invited to share in a much deeper experience – the in-the-moment exercise of choreographic composition – and witness a dance being built. “This five year project is actually the rekindling of an old relationship, harkening back to the 1970s when the Joffrey used to come here every summer for six weeks, creating their works now known as The Berkeley Ballets,” Bailis adds. In November, Cal Performances and the Joffrey embark on this half-decade artistic discussion. Onstage, the company offers three performances of a mixed repertory bill – Mammatus by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, In Creases by Justin Peck and the West Coast premiere of Alexander Ekman’s Joy. And for 2017’s workshop component, the Joffrey will be working on a new contemporary dance by Nicolas Blanc, and again, the community is encouraged to come and get a first-hand look inside the creative process.

A robust platform full of inspired choreography – world dance, curated collections, residencies and so much more. Join Cal Performances this season to experience this striking artistic ingenuity, something that today, is so necessary and so important. For Bailis, as for countless others, this is a time to cling to the performing arts and look to them for questioning and discovery, for inspiration and healing, and for joy, “I hope Bay Area audiences will come out and see what’s in store. In these days that are filled with such loud and uninteresting provocateurs, it is ever more so the province of live art to be genuinely provocative, expressing through the body in real time what words cannot capture.”

Beyond the Stage: In Conversation with La Tania

Flamenco dancer in black & white polkadots

La Tania / photo by Adrian Arias

Under the warm glow of the stage lights, two guitarists and a vocalist offer the opening musical motifs, their lively, impassioned sound penetrating the air. A soloist approaches them, costumed in a long white gown with a ruffled train. She begins swirling a white lace shawl in a serpentine symphony, her torso reacting to the broad movement. As the dance and music crescendo, her arms stretch out from the shoulder in large circles, sculpting the expanse. Intricate footwork patterns, body percussion and luscious turns unfold with incomparable control, speed and precision. Wrists sinuate and the upper body spirals in moments of sustained flow. Every second informed by a palpable, emotive drama.

The piece: Alas al Viento – a Flamenco dance in the traditional Alegrías style and twelve-beat structure. The event: the 39th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, held this past summer at the War Memorial Opera House. The soloist and choreographer: La Tania. A four-time contributor to the Festival, La Tania’s bold and dynamic performances have always been memorable for attendees, Festival staff and fellow participants. Yet, this year’s engagement was particularly special. It celebrated technical depth and formidable artistry. It was steeped in the lineage of Flamenco as well as in the artform’s present-day identity. And this mid-July performance marked an occasion of weight and note, a milestone – La Tania’s retirement from the stage.

Retirement certainly signals the end of a chapter, or perhaps the close of a specific narrative. But by no means is it the end of the story. Especially not one like La Tania’s that has been coupled with dance and movement for as long as she can remember. “Dancing, as a form of release, expression and therapy, has been a huge part of my life, and will continue to be – I’m still a dancer, still a choreographer and still a teacher,” she says, “this is a farewell to only one specific part, that of on-stage performer.” For La Tania, a repertory selection like Alas al Viento (which translates as ‘Wings to the Wind’) was the perfect way to say this goodbye, “when you are ending something, it’s very easy to want to replace it, but I’m not trying to replace anything; I want to be open to possibilities and allow for freedom – this dance captures that expansive and carefree spirit.” Yes, La Tania’s recent appearance at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival was a time to say farewell. It was also a time to take flight, to see what comes next, and to continue an artistic journey that was birthed decades earlier.

La Tania’s journey with Flamenco dance began at the young age of two, when she relocated with her family to Southern Spain, to an area with a very strong Flamenco tradition. “My mother fell in love with Flamenco, took it up and became a professional, so I grew up in that community, where Flamenco was an everyday part of life, families getting together to sing and dance,” La Tania shares. This creative, collaborative environment served as La Tania’s early training ground. Instead of an academic studio setting, she learned through an intense immersion in movement and music, by watching and participating with the master dancers and artists around her. She continued this immersive study throughout childhood and at seventeen had the opportunity through a family friend to audition for Joaquin Quintero & Alicia Diaz Spanish Dance Company in Mallorca, Spain. After a successful audition, La Tania was accepted into the company as an apprentice – her own professional career had officially been launched.

Fast-forward a number of years. After performing non-stop with numerous companies across the globe and honing her craft with mentors like Cristodal Reyes and Ciro, La Tania found herself in California taking a well-earned sabbatical and visiting family and friends. Many of them had not seen her dance since she was a child, so she decided to put together an informal evening at Crown Hall in Mendocino. Little did she know that this one performance would be a jumping off point for a new chapter in her journey, the start of the California years. “Rhoda Teplow, an arts advocate and organizer, saw the show and liked my work, so she invited me to participate in a dance series she oversaw in Mendocino,” recalls La Tania, “from there, she became my first booking agent and manager, and truly helped me get a new company started.” That new endeavor was La Tania Flamenco Music & Dance, and the group toured extensively throughout California between 1994-1999.

Flamenco dancers with manton

La Tania / photo by RJ Muna

Then came a time of pivoting, a year bringing both change and opportunity. As La Tania Flamenco Music & Dance was coming to a natural ending point, La Tania was awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation to create Passage of the Muse, a project that she characterizes as a highlight of her lengthy career. Passage of the Muse saw its premiere in 1999 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts – an interdisciplinary, multi-generational and very personal full-length work, “this was a significant and special piece involving four generations of my family – me, my niece, my uncle and my Grandmother,” she describes, “my Grandmother’s paintings were used as projections, there was poetry, a beautiful light/scenic design and of course, dance; and the financial support meant that I could really do what I envisioned.”

Various performance opportunities and guest solo appearances were ongoing during the early 2000s, including a tour in Hawaii in 2003. Though during this part of her artistic journey, it was teaching that began to take center stage. In the past decade, La Tania taught regularly at Mission Cultural Center, Alonzo King LINES Dance Center, City Dance as well as at her own studio in Oakland, sharing Flamenco with all ages and all levels. Today, she remains part of the teaching faculty at City Dance and offers regular classes at Oakland’s In the Groove studio.

A continued dive into teaching is something La Tania is looking forward to in this next leg of her creative journey. Guiding students as they master steps and technique, choreographing dances for them to perform and most important, being a mentor. By sharing her personal experiences, La Tania hopes that her students will be encouraged to pursue whatever path they may desire, “I want to impart that if you have a passion for something and work towards it, even if you are pretty much on your own, as I was, you can do it.” With this focus on instruction, mentorship and choreographing for her students, it’s even possible that another company may blossom and develop sometime down the road. “I would love to start a company with a larger ensemble, maybe with a trainee-type program, though I’m still thinking about what that might look like,” she explains. In the shorter term, her students will be performing two pieces in City Dance’s showcase this December at the Palace of Fine Arts. La Tania is also working on new choreographic material for a quartet of dance artists to audition for next year’s SF Ethnic Dance Festival. And she is currently collaborating on a film entitled Finding Compás, taking her dancing and acting skills to the screen.

New projects and long-term goals require time, energy and space. And for La Tania, retirement from performing has afforded this needed space. Not only to bring these present and future artistic endeavors to fruition but also space for the soul. Space for personal development. Space to re-energize. Space to breathe. “Taking the steps to retire from the stage was difficult, I was fearful, it was emotional, but I knew it was time,” La Tania notes, “and I’m excited to choreograph and teach, try different things, and see if I can have some fun in between.”

Approaching a Quarter Century at Smuin

Ensemble of dancers lunge upwards on stage under colored ropes

Smuin’s Oasis / Photo by Keith Sutter

“How does it feel to be on the cusp of Smuin’s 24th season?”

This was the first question I posed to Artistic Director Celia Fushille during a recent conversation about the ballet company’s upcoming 2017/2018 programming. And what an amazing season they have planned! Between September and June, Smuin will bring a glorious marriage of classical and contemporary movement to audiences all over the Bay Area. Two triple bill programs (Dance Series 01 in the Fall/Winter, Dance Series 02 in the Spring) featuring regional firsts, world premieres and returning repertory favorites and then, in December, their yearly festive holiday revue, The Christmas Ballet. “It’s pretty incredible,” Fushille responded, “when I look back at what we’ve been able to achieve as a company, I have a tremendous amount of joy and satisfaction, and I know how happy Michael would be.”

Fushille is of course referring to Michael Smuin, the highly revered and incomparably talented dancer/choreographer/director who founded Smuin Ballet back in 1994 (the company has since changed its official name to Smuin, Contemporary American Ballet). “I had always thought that today, I would be at Michael’s right hand as his Associate Director,” Fushille said. But tragically and suddenly, Smuin passed away in 2007, leaving the group without its beloved leader. Fushille, a founding ballerina with the company, stepped up to take the reins. And for the past decade, she has managed to achieve an intricate balance, one that can be very elusive – moving and guiding Smuin into the future while simultaneously honoring the importance of the past.

As Artistic Director of a sixteen-dancer company with a ten-month performance season, Fushille has an array of roles and responsibilities to juggle. But all of them, whether administrative or creative, onstage or in the studio, are informed by one core principle: maintaining Michael Smuin’s legacy. A key component is restaging pieces from his extensive choreographic canon. “I always enjoy revisiting Michael’s work and telling his stories, it makes the dancers feel like they know him and the tradition of the company continues,” notes Fushille, “and his movement, while very demanding, is so organic and has such an ease to it.” 2017’s Dance Series 01, which has its first run from September 22-October 7, features one of these pieces—Smuin’s 2004 salute to the music of Frank Sinatra, Fly Me to the Moon. Timeless elegance and graceful beauty abound in this dance suite set to cherished Sinatra treasures; from the lyrical, youthful Moonlight Serenade duet to the potent, raucous That’s Life solo. “The Sinatra Ballet is so fun, and we are very excited to share it with this year’s audience, some of whom may be encountering it for the first time,” Fushille adds.

But choreography is not the only part of Smuin’s lineage that Fushille wants to sustain and cultivate. “Michael established such a special, incredible culture in the studio – a lack of fear, an attitude of respect, a place where the dancers are supported by the artistic leadership and by one another,” she explains. Fushille is deeply committed to facilitating this nourishing, inspirational environment for the entire Smuin family, today and for years to come, “I want the dancers to feel that their time at Smuin was well-spent, that they were able to grow artistically and have the satisfaction of an artistic journey well-traveled.”

Couple dancing, female dancer in a side lift

Smuin’s Serenade for Strings /
photo by Keith Sutter

Fushille also knows that legacy is more than just looking back, and that ensuring one is equally about being in the present and advancing forward. One essential piece of that puzzle is seeking new repertory that is in line with Michael Smuin’s style and vision. “I strive to bring in works that emulate, complement or include elements of Michael’s choreography, whether entertaining, whimsical, daring or passionate,” Fushille describes. Over the past ten years, the company has amassed an impressive repertoire from a varied and distinguished group of choreographers, or as Fushille calls it, “a wealth of artistic riches.” From new commissions to existing repertoire, there are so many exceptional examples to point to – work by Ji?í Kylián, Trey McIntyre, Val Caniparoli, Helen Pickett and Smuin’s current Choreographer-in-Residence Amy Seiwert. Dances from Caniparoli, Pickett and Seiwert will make up Spring 2018’s Dance Series 02 (running April 20 to June 2) with Caniparoli creating a new world premiere along with the return of Pickett’s Oasis (2016) and Seiwert’s Falling Up (2007).

Another favorite creative presence is Garrett Ammon, whose Serenade for Strings joins Fly Me to the Moon on the Dance Series 01 program. “Everyone at Smuin really loves Garrett’s movement quality, but we also just so enjoy working with him; the thoughtfulness and sensitivity in how he coaches ballet is remarkable,” Fushille relays. Originally choreographed in 2013 for his Denver-based company Wonderbound and last performed by Smuin during their “Untamed” program in Fall of 2014, Serenade for Strings employs ten dancers and is set to a highly memorable Tchaikovsky score. With its dramatic descending and ascending scalic motif, ballet enthusiasts will instantly recognize the piece as the same music George Balanchine used for his 1935 masterwork, Serenade. For Fushille, Ammon’s bold choice to choreograph to this iconic score immediately caught her attention, “it is so daring to use this music, but Serenade for Strings has really carved out its own identity – it certainly utilizes ballet-based movement but there is also subtlety, quirkiness, speed, precision as well as exchanges between dancers that are genuine and authentic, moments where you get to see two people that are truly being charmed by each other.”

Smuin will soon welcome yet another esteemed choreographic voice to its table, that of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whose ensemble composition Requiem for a Rose (2009) will have its West Coast premiere on Dance Series 01. A longtime fan of Lopez Ochoa, Fushille recently had the chance to meet up with her in New York, “I loved our connection and her fiery spiciness; I immediately knew that she was going to be fun to work with.” Created on the Pennsylvania Ballet, Requiem for a Rose places romance and love into a theatrical container, challenging the audience to see a conversation between the two states, consider their relationship to each other and explore their very different journeys. As such, contrast is a huge part of the ballet. “So many aspects drew me to Requiem for a Rose – how the contrast of the opening solo shows real love versus romantic love, how the piece beautifully captures both the emotion and the tension of the music, and that it is very representative of the work Smuin is doing right now where classical [ballet] technique is juxtaposed against contemporary [dance] technique,” recalls Fushille, “and the lyricism and passion of each duet is stunning, something which Michael so excelled at too.”

The coming 24th season, a growing choreographic library and the continuation of an integral artistic legacy—Smuin has much to celebrate. And running alongside these significant achievements are even more aspirations and plans. One longer-term goal is infrastructure. “We’ve never had our own space, so hopefully a new building may be in the near future, where we can have control over the schedule and grow the organization; not necessarily into a bigger company, but perhaps with additional tracks like a trainee program,” Fushille outlines. In the shorter-term, there is next year, the 2018/2019 Smuin season and the commemoration of the company’s 25th anniversary. “As with every season, we always look forward to creating programs that the dancers love to dance, because when they have a sense of drive and joy, it extends to the audience and they in turn, feel that joy and integrity,” shares Fushille, “but the 25th anniversary will definitely be momentous – it will represent Michael, showcase what we’ve done to foster a new generation of dancemakers and highlight how Smuin is constantly working and striving to be a permanent fixture in the arts culture of San Francisco and the Bay Area.”

Wandering into New Terrain: Amy Seiwert’s Imagery – SKETCH 7

two dancers facing one another sprinkling dark matter mid-air

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery / photo by David DeSilva

Haunting D minor chords echo and repeat, evoking a sustained, steady, poignant walk. A descending scalic motif emerges, signaling the lowering of the sun and the onset of nightfall. Soon, the music modulates to the related major, F, and there is accompanying change of mood—a little more hopeful, more optimistic. A significant crescendo at the midpoint ushers in a sense of urgency. And in the final minute of the musical selection, another tonal area is explored, a different key entirely. Hinting at a new path maybe, a new discovery or perhaps a new realization.

These were just a few of my observations after listening to Gute Nacht, a five-minute duet for piano and voice, and the first song from Winterreise (D.911, Op. 89), by Franz Schubert. Composed near the end of Schubert’s life, Winterreise, translated as Winter Journey, takes the form of a song cycle, a compositional structure centuries old. While scholars are keen to point out that the song cycle is not a ‘one size fits all’ entity, a general search of the term yields a number of similar definitions, most describing it as a series of separate pieces woven together as one longer work. A few go a step further adding that selections in a song cycle often have some relational thread. Winterreise fits both criteria. First, it is made up of two dozen individual songs. And second, it has connective tissue. Twenty-four poems (in German) by Wilhelm Müller serve as the source material. Müller’s poetry tells of a journey, through space and time, of one who is experiencing loss, is contemplating the fragility of human existence and is struggling with the porousness between joy and sorrow. Schubert composed Winterreise in such a way to mirror and reveal these themes. The score of solo piano and a single male vocal line equally contributes to the mood and setting; the emotions and the narrative oozing from the music. I definitely could hear them as I experienced part one of Winterreise.

Dancer in plie holds dancer with outstretched limbs

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery / photo by David DeSilva

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery also finds themselves on a journey right now, traversing new territory for the upcoming SKETCH 7: Wandering. A convergence of contemporary ballet and Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, Wandering marks a creative departure for Artistic Director Amy Seiwert, who has typically been pulled more towards the abstract side of dancemaking. Instead, Wandering sojourns into narrative choreography. Daring to take bold chances – a core tenet of Imagery’s annual SKETCH series.

“SKETCH is about risk and trying to move outside comfort zones,” explains Seiwert. Since its inception in 2011, each iteration of SKETCH has been built around a theme—a particular choreographic challenge posed to the participating dance artists. With their artistic puzzle in hand, the SKETCH artists then set out to craft new work, incubating ideas and pushing their compositional practice. Past years have delved into collaborative processes, the relationship between movement and text as well as the choreographic interpretation of music and sound. The trend continues with 2017’s SKETCH program. For the seventh iteration of this artistic laboratory, Seiwert is challenging herself to create an evening-length narrative work.

“I’ve never done a full evening work or a full narrative work,” Seiwert relays, “I’ve always had a fascination with how to speak choreographically, with ballet language and where I could take it, but I never felt a big pull to be a story-teller.” That is until recently, when Seiwert began to notice a shift, “of late, I have felt a need for narrative stories and a desire to say something more linear.” Schubert’s emotive, plot-based score seemed an ideal musical collaborator. Seiwert first encountered excerpts of the music back in 2015, when she and KT Nelson were building Starting Over at the End for SKETCH 5, “I fell in love with the songs and the sense of mystery they can hold; exploring an entire song cycle felt like a natural next step.” And then there was also the space inherent in the song cycle form that appealed to Seiwert, the room for another creative voice, “I think there is something fantastic about the song cycle with the piano and the voice–when you create to highly orchestrated music, it’s so huge and can leave you wondering where, how or does the dance fit in. In this, there is so much space for the dance.”

Seiwert dove into this artistic experiment and began work on Wandering, an apt title considering both the text of Schubert’s song cycle and that she is venturing out in this new direction. A number of different aspects have been part of the early process: digging into the storytelling form in dance, researching/seeing narrative work, studying the Winterreise song cycle and considering how to get a message across with movement. “This is definitely where I am less comfortable and it feels like a massive undertaking,” admits Seiwert, “but I want to try this different aspect and see if I can generate a narrative thread that engages the viewer for an entire evening.”

Choreographically, Wandering furthers Seiwert’s lifelong exploration of ballet language, “I am constantly looking for unexpected ways to use what we know, and see what the body can do when we look past a habitual kinetic response.” At the same time, the narrative-based phrase material is in deep conversation with Schubert’s emotionally charged score. Seiwert is excited to see that relationship intensify as the construction of Wandering continues, “Winterreise starts with rejection and a loss of place, the protagonist is out and lost and wandering in the world.” Some of the choreographic motifs that the company is currently working on in rehearsal reflect a similar sense of searching and seeking, for something or someone. Hands reach longingly outward into space; big extensions unfold in the legs and arms, in lifts and balances; running and walking motifs are investigated on the floor and in the air.

The seventy-minute contemporary ballet will be danced by a cast of eight and features two Acts. “I appreciate time to step away from a performance and come back after a brief rest,” Seiwert says, “so I was curious to think about whether there could be a break or intermission in the evening, and after listening to the music, there felt like an obvious moment of pause.” Collaborating with Seiwert for the project are costume designer Susan Roemer and visual designer Brian Jones, whose work for Wandering is supported by a Dancers’ Group Lighting Artists in Dance Award.

Wandering also has an interesting bi-coastal element to it. The dance will see its San Francisco premiere (and world premiere) on July 21st at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason, and then the following week, will head to New York City for the Joyce Theater’s 2017 Ballet Festival. The Joyce Theater Foundation has been instrumental in the development of Wandering, providing financial backing for studio space and artistic personnel. “We [are] one of two creative residencies that the Joyce offers each year, which means that the stress of ‘can we afford to do this’ has been lifted and I’m able to complete the creative vision that I set out in the first place,” adds Seiwert.

Part one of that vision has definitely been realized, as Wandering has taken Seiwert outside of her usual creative space and into a new choreographic realm, “I’ve had to trust myself to go there with my risks and be bold enough in my choices so as to try and make a connection with the audience – that’s the scary part.” Scary indeed, but also ripe with possibility. And very soon, it will be time to see what Wandering brings, what those possibilities and revelations might be. Time to launch part two of the experiment—presenting the ballet in front of an audience. Seiwert’s main metric is that the piece elicits a reaction. “This work has been in the pipeline for over a year and a half, but I’ve been able to see parallels in the poem – loss of love, loss of home, the feeling of being unmoored – that speak very much to now,” Seiwert shares, “I hope that the audience feels something, that Wandering resonates with them and generates an emotional response; indifference is the biggest failure.”

Building Sisterhood Through Movement

women stand around teepee holding hands

Nava Dance Collective, photo by Laura Soriano

A cooperative with multiple contributors. An array of artistic perspectives and voices. A desire for an alternative, more egalitarian structure. A common passion for sharing the transformative potential of dance and performance. A spirit of togetherness and kinship. Any idea what I am trying to describe?

The ‘dance collective.’

Now, the thoughts offered above are by no means meant to be a complete definition. Actually, trying to define a term like ‘dance collective’ is challenging. The dance collective isn’t a static or fixed entity. There is no one model for what a dance collective should look like nor one formula determining how it should function. Every new iteration constructs its own vision and carves its own path. Just look to a few past and present examples of dance collectives and notice the range and breadth among them.

In the 1960s, collectivity met with post-modernism at Judson Dance Theater, and, in the 1970s with improvisation at Grand Union. In that same decade at Dartmouth College, innovators forged a new project with collective collaboration as a central tenet—that spirit, that impulse, continues to drive Pilobolus today. In New
York, Troy Schumacher’s BalletCollective and Columbia Ballet Collaborative (out of Columbia University) are
present day examples of collectivity in ballet. Numerous contemporary dance collectives call the San Francisco Bay Area home—from the longstanding and established, like ODC, to newer, emerging endeavors like LV Dance Collective, SALTA, Mid to West Dance Collective and Stranger Lover Dreamer. And then, there is a sisterhood of creative souls exploring international world dance in performance, empowering women through movement and unlocking dance as a healing art. This is Nava Dance Collective.

A relatively new presence, Nava Dance Collective came onto the scene three years ago under the guidance and direction of lifelong dancer and choreographer Miriam Peretz. Specializing in a number of different movement genres including contemporary dance and dances of the Silk Road (Central Asian dance), Peretz has had and continues to enjoy a rich and varied professional career. Previously, she was a member of notable world dance companies like Ballet Afsaneh, Wan-Chao Dance Company and Inbal Ethnic Dance Theater. Today, Peretz tours nationally and internationally as a solo dance artist. Her newest collaboration Madre – The Ladino Project just had its world premiere in January at the Freight & Salvage in the East Bay and later this year she will be touring to Spain, Portugal, Germany, Russia, Greece, and Israel.

Alongside performing, Peretz is a much sought after teacher and dance practitioner, instructing in numerous cities around the world. Here in Berkeley, she has been active at the 8th Street Studio and is currently on the faculty of Mahea Uchiyama Center for International Dance, which coincidentally, is the studio where she began her dance studies as a teenager. It was in these classes at the Center for International Dance where the idea for Nava Dance Collective began percolating. “During our dance sessions, deep levels of connection and sisterhood were organically growing and blossoming between all of the women,” Peretz recalls, “a community of support and care was forming both on and off the dance floor–it was turning into something bigger for all of us, something beyond technique, rehearsal and performance.” And so Peretz took the next step and began the process of founding Nava Dance Collective.

Which, of course, led to important and penetrating questions. What kind of dance collective would this new group be? What values and principles would it embody? How best to honor and foster the specialness that they were encountering together in the studio and in performance?

Women in white dance in tree grove

Nava Dance Collective, photo by Robert Bengston

First and foremost was and is a holistic approach to dance. “So often, there is a gap between the performative aspect of dance and the healing, therapeutic nature of dance; with Nava, as with any of my dance sessions, I strive to always offer something for the body, the heart and the mind,” says Peretz. To that end, Nava Dance Collective places an emphasis on dance’s duality. Certainly as a technical performance art but equally as a means to facilitate healing, be it physical healing, emotional healing or spiritual healing. A safe place for women where the whole being can be nurtured. “Our hope was and is to create something impactful with dance as an all-encompassing practice,” Peretz shares, “an intentional space to hone our craft, refine our character, experience personal healing through movement and work on soul traits like compassion, humility and generosity.”

In addition, Nava seeks layers of diversity. The collective is multi-generational, multi- cultural and international, with members in Spain, Italy, Israel and California. While Peretz acknowledges that having a dance collective spread across the globe can be challenging, it also affords a unique opportunity to “connect a larger community web for dance and promote cross-cultural exchange.” In terms of physical vocabulary, Nava’s scope is similarly vast, ranging from traditional Central Asian dance to devotional, ritual dance theater to what Peretz calls ethno- contemporary movement, “contemporary language and approaches infused with world dance forms.” Even the collective’s name reflects their commitment to diversity, “I wanted a name that would mirror inclusivity, bridging cultures and traditions – in Farsi/Turkish, Nava means melody or tune; in Hindi, new and innovative; in Hebrew, it is a common name for girls, meaning pleasant; and it is one of the traditional Persian music modes,” relays Peretz.

With this foundation in hand, Nava Dance Collective was ready to get going. And these first few years have been busy for the group with several different endeavors, including The Bustan Project – Garden of Roses. Peretz describes this piece as “a weaving of classical, contemporary and devotional interpretations of Persian Dance, with live music and poetry; it is an ode to motherhood, a call for women to remember their strength, and is dedicated to the beautiful and strong women of Iran.” After presenting the work throughout Israel, Spain and Italy, Nava recently brought The Bustan Project to the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco for its Bay Area debut and will be taking it to various California locations later this spring.

At the same time, Nava is actively expanding their repertoire, prepping and building additional choreographic material. One of these works, Transcendence-Charkh e Falak (turning of the cosmos) will be premiering as part of the Rotunda Dance Series, presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West. On Friday, March 24th at noon in San Francisco City Hall (admission is free), audiences will have the opportunity to see the first showing of Nava Dance Collective’s newest ensemble dance. “Transcendence honors Nowruz, a celebration of the Spring equinox observed across the Middle East and Central Asia,” explains Peretz. “It also honors the ancient Zoroastrian sun deity, Mithra, and marks the sun’s passage across the celestial equator, equalizing night and day, the alignment of the cosmos and the constant turning towards center.” For this premiere performance, Nava is also thrilled to welcome some special guests – Abbos Kosimov (master Doira player from Uzbekistan), Amir Etemadzadeh (Persian percussion) and dance artist Aliah Najmabadi.

Nava Dance Collective, photo by Shulamit Bushinsky

If 2017 is any indication, Nava Dance Collective is on a fast moving trajectory, full speed ahead. They are excited to see what the future holds, what may come next and what legacy they might help to establish. With an eye towards profound narrative themes like the power of sisterhood and healing from trauma, continuing to create new performance projects is definitely part of the picture, as is making space for others to choreograph and construct dances. But the longer-term, high level goal for Peretz with the collective is outreach: “we hope that Nava dancers will be able to go into communities that maybe don’t have the resources to attend dance classes or performances, because the larger vision of Nava Dance Collective is to be able to offer the healing power of dance to a greater population of women.”

To learn more about Nava Dance Collective, visit miriamdance.com

Building Rainbow Logic: Arm in Arm with Remy Charlip

Eye Zen Presents

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Have you ever heard the term ‘polymath’? Recently I took an informal poll of twelve close friends and asked if they could define it. Some couldn’t. Some thought it must be connected to arithmetic or equations. Only a few were familiar with the word, correctly defining it as ‘someone who is skilled in many fields.’

In the performing arts, we encounter polymaths all the time—choreographers who are also arts administrators, sound engineers and photographers; performers who excel at dance, music and storytelling. Versatility comes with the territory. But there are a select few who take the term to a whole other level. Remy Charlip (1929-2012) was one of these quintessential polymaths, an artist with far reaching talent and diverse creative pursuits. He was a writer, theater practitioner, set designer, poet, children’s book illustrator, costume designer and visual artist. He was a gifted dancer and choreographer – a founding member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company, a multidisciplinary contributor to Judson Dance Theater and director of his own troupe, the Remy Charlip Dance Company. He was a pioneer of innovative compositional methods, like his ‘Air Mail Dances,’ where he mailed original illustrations and images to movement artists as the inspiration and foundation for new work. And he was a queer Jewish man who spent much of his life and career in a time that is very different than today.

This November, Eye Zen Presents turns its attention to this extraordinary individual with the premiere of Rainbow Logic: Arm in Arm with Remy Charlip, the fourth installation in their current series on LGBTQ lineage. Conceived by Founder/Artistic Director Seth Eisen and produced in association with CounterPulse and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Rainbow Logic delves deeply into Charlip’s personal and professional story, and in doing so, continues Eye Zen’s long-standing commitment to exploring LGBTQ lineage and sharing it with today’s audiences.

“This is our tenth year making work about queer history and ancestry, celebrating the passion and consciousness of queer artists,” notes Eisen. Charlip is one of these descendants, a transcendent LGBTQ ancestor who made a rich artistic contribution, “Remy was a master at turning ordinary, simple things into something magical; a queer artist who could intuitively bridge worlds, balance masculine/feminine energies and bring a queer sensibility to whatever he was doing.” In thinking about the canon of queer ancestry, Eisen is also especially drawn to the obscure – the less familiar narratives; the remote biographies. For him, Charlip also fits this intention. “I feel like he was a little in the shadow of some of his more famous peers,” Eisen says, “and so, I’m hopeful that Rainbow Logic can help pass his legacy onto the next generation.”

Eisen is perhaps the ideal candidate to usher this particular story to the stage. He knew Charlip well; the two had a longtime connection, first meeting at Naropa University back in 1990. During Eisen’s freshman year, he enrolled in a class that Charlip was teaching and recalls “immediately falling in love with his embodied, interdisciplinary approach as well as his fluidity – how he dressed, how he held class, how he was in the world.” Over the next three decades, they became friends, colleagues and even neighbors after Charlip relocated from New York to San Francisco. Sadly, Charlip was the victim of a stroke in 2005, and in the face of that tragedy, Eisen transitioned into the role of caregiver. It was in the final years of Charlip’s life (he passed away in 2012) that Eisen encountered the artist’s own archive collection as he was packing up some of his personal effects. “This archive of Remy’s life’s work was more expansive than I could have ever imagined and I knew that someone needed to do something with it, it needed to be shared,” explains Eisen. With the help of an archivist, he became intensely involved with organizing and cataloging Charlip’s voluminous anthology. And in that process, the seed for what was to become Rainbow Logic was being planted.

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

With the idea for a piece about Charlip percolating, Eisen went into an extensive time of research and information gathering. He spent more than a year combing through Charlip’s archives along with supplementary source material. He interviewed close to three-dozen family members, lovers and collaborators in order to build an oral history. He held a series of performative artist talks to investigate different pathways in which to enter the work. How do you approach such a titanic life and career? How do you pay tribute to Charlip’s eighty-three years in a single performance work? What gets left out? What stays? Where is the line between Charlip’s voice and the voice of the new work? With these and other questions in mind, Eisen headed into a series of artist residencies—at Joshua Tree, Montalvo Arts Center, the Dresher Ensemble Artist Residency and most recently, CounterPulse—to begin construction on Rainbow Logic. And while deep in this creative process, Eisen was simultaneously assembling an all-star team of collaborators to bring this endeavor to life: performers Emily Butter fly, Colin Creveling and Paul Loper, composer Miguel Frasconi, scenic designer Terrance Graven, visual designers Diego Gomez and Rich Hutchison, lighting designer Jim Cave, video designer Ian Winters, costume designer Keriann Egeland and choreographer James Graham.

Graham came on board with the project early on, joining Eisen for the Joshua Tree residency, “Remy was a dancer/choreographer in his own right, so it follows that movement would be significant in Rainbow Logic,” Graham shares. As the two began experimenting with ideas, motifs and narrative material, Graham began contemplating artistic questions similar to those that Eisen was grappling with. How would the choreography inform and serve Rainbow Logic? Would reconstruction and restaging be part of the picture? Or would all the movement be entirely original? “We needed to respect Remy as the heart of the work, but also balance that with the reality that we are making something in the now, something new,” relays Graham, “what felt successful was to try and suss out Remy’s essence, keeping him in the room and touching base with him, while simultaneously creating new movement and dance.” What emerged through this exploration were phrases that inspect gesture and physical states of being; cultural ritualistic dances filled with emotional extremes and personal narratives; and sequences inspired by ‘Air Mail Dances,’ Charlip’s compositional technique.

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

This choreography blends together with text, puppetry, scenework, a toy theater (which Eisen likens to a theater maquette), object arranging, video, props, costume, and an original score in what Eisen describes as, “a transdisciplinary work about inventiveness, intuition and creativity told in a two-part narrative arc.” With a polymath like Charlip as its subject, it made sense to employ a vast array of theatrical devices and artistic components. And Eisen is specific about using the word transdisciplinary to describe how they are woven together, “all of the various elements and strategies in Rainbow Logic are layered, crossing and interacting with each other.” And it is through them that the narrative is unpacked. “First we introduce Remy as a young, queer, Jewish boy born into poverty, who early on discovers a love for art and dance, and then we fast forward to the latter part of his life,” describes Eisen, “the heart of the piece is the conversation between these two selves; what happens when the younger self and the much older self are in a position to engage with each other.”

As the premiere nears and Rainbow Logic enters its final phase of rehearsals, the excitement and anticipation is stirring for everyone at Eye Zen Presents. Eisen is keen for audiences to experience the life and work of this remarkable polymath, “I hope Rainbow Logic sparks curiosity about Remy, a man who perfected the art of being an artist and who teaches us that every moment has creative potential.”


Rainbow Logic: Arm in Arm with Remy CharlipWeaving dance, text, puppetry, video and music, Rainbow Logic celebrates Remy Charlip’s exceptional life in dance, theater and children’s literature. Fri-Sat, Nov 4-5, 11-12, & 18-19, 8p & Sun, Nov 6, 13, & 20, 7p, $20-35.

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