Author Archive | Heather Desaulniers

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.

Bridge Project 2016: Ten Artists Respond to Trisha Brown’s Locus

Trisha Brown Dance Company. Photo courtesy of TBDC

Trisha Brown Dance Company. Photo courtesy of TBDC

Bridges are a big part of the Bay Area’s landscape. From the spectacular vistas of the Golden Gate to the new Bay Bridge and many more, bridges link this region together. They span; they join; they facilitate the journey from one place to another. Here and everywhere, bridges are about connection and connecting.

Hope Mohr Dance’s aptly named Bridge Project lives fully in this spirit of connection. Conceived by Artistic Director Hope Mohr, the Bridge Project builds an intentional space for artistic connection; an incubator to encourage and foster creative exchange. Since its debut in 2010, each Bridge Project has invited different artists to participate in a unique combination of lectures, workshops, panels, classes and performances, all centered on a particular theme.

While every Bridge Project is distinct, a number of common objectives inform them all. First is the convergence of the past and present. “Lineage and legacy are a through-line for me, and I want to bring notable, iconic dance artists, especially women, to enter into dialogue with the current contemporary dance community,” shares Mohr. To that end, past Bridge Projects have welcomed post-modern powerhouses like Simone Forti, Anna Halprin and Deborah Hay to work with today’s emerging and established choreographic voices. For Mohr, geography is another major consideration, “I feel strongly that Bay Area artmaking be put in a national context and that the community here be in conversation with artists that work in different parts of the country.” And so, Mohr looks outward for inspiration, engaging dance practitioners from other regions, like East Coast-based artists Molissa Fenley and Susan Rethorst (2010 and 2013 Bridge Project, respectively).

Rarity also plays an important part in the Bridge Project, as does education. “I want to present work that wouldn’t otherwise be presented, like non-proscenium work, work from artists that have been flying under the radar or artists that aren’t typically presented by bigger organizations,” Mohr notes, “and I see engagement, through workshops and classes, to be as relevant as the performances themselves, functioning as an educational and historic frame to enter into and experience the work.” Connecting eras, connecting locations, increasing awareness and sharing information — this is Hope Mohr Dance’s Bridge Project.

In October, this groundbreaking curatorial program turns its attention to Locus, a 1975 dance choreographed by Trisha Brown, originally created as a quartet and ultimately performed as a solo (under a new title — Locus Solo). And in turning to this dance, the Bridge Project adds yet another level of connection — a connection between disciplines. For 2016’s edition, which is produced in association with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), ten artists from six different fields have been commissioned to respond to the original Locus. Under the expert guidance of Trisha Brown Dance Company’s (TBDC) Associate Artistic Director Diane Madden, dancers, performance artists, choreographers, visual artists, musicians and literary artists will learn Locus and then craft their own work in response. As well, Hope Mohr Dance (HMD) will host a two-day public workshop, and from its participants, Madden will select four individuals to learn and perform Locus Solo. On October 14th and 15th, the ten responses will come together with the four soloists (two of whom will dance Locus Solo on Friday and two on Saturday) in an evening concert at YBCA’s Forum space. By including Locus Solo alongside the ten multidisciplinary premieres, these performances make it possible to simultaneously witness restaging and responding. “I think there is an important difference between restaging historical works and responding to them; here, I am intentionally creating a container in which both approaches can exist side-by-side,” explains Mohr.

Locus is ideal for the Bridge Project equation. It was choreographed by a post-modern pioneer (lineage), brings New York’s Trisha Brown Dance Company into discussion with Bay Area artists (geography), can be broadly applied (along with the open workshop and performances, there will be a public talk) and it is indeed rare. According to TBDC’s Performance Chronology, the last time Locus was performed on the West Coast was back in 1977 at UC Berkeley.

Madden describes Locus as “the epitome of Brown’s masterful layered choreography and playful dynamic movement; as one watches the precise lyrical momentum of this dance, a fascinating spatial logic, lying just beneath its fluid surface, emerges.” Mohr agrees, adding that Locus is “a distillation of Brown’s movement vocabulary; a sculptural expression of how the body relates to space and the environment.” Over the past forty years, the dance has evolved and taken on different forms, yet every version has one thing in common. They all follow the same fundamental blueprint: Locus’ detailed written score. “With Locus, Brown wanted to take herself out of the decision-making process and so she devised a score, mapping her movement spatially, making it possible to teach the dance and transfer it to other bodies,” relays Madden. Brown’s score provides the directions and parameters for Locus. It designates the geometric and architectural dimensions of an invisible cube within which the dance takes place. It lays out twenty-seven points of articulation in space (twenty-six for each letter of the alphabet and one acting as a space bar). It outlines tasks, cues and movement phrases. And Locus’ score also affirms Brown’s commitment to cross-pollinating artistic practices and fields, “Locus is multi-disciplinary,” details Mohr, “its score holds a text-based autobiographical statement, a strong visual art aspect and clear, accessible choreography.”

With the multi-genre nature of the source material, “it made sense to commission artists to respond to the dance from a variety of disciplines,” says Mohr. And she wanted that multi-disciplinary character to also be present in the selection process. Rather than choosing all ten contributors herself, Mohr reached out for insight, “we democratized the nominating procedure so that the pool of commissioned artists came from a broad swath of the Bay Area artistic community.” Here are the phenomenal artists selected to respond to Brown’s Locus: Xandra Ibarra (performance art / nominated by Keith Hennessy), Affinity Project (theater / nominated by Erika Chong Shuch), Cheryl Leonard (new music / nominated by Pamela Z), Amy Foote (new music / nominated by Adam Fong), Peiling Kao (choreography / nominated by Dohee Lee), Gerald Casel (choreography / nominated by HMD), Tracy Taylor Grubbs (visual arts / nominated by HMD), Frances Richard (poetry / nominated by HMD), Gregory Dawson (choreography / nominated by YBCA) and Larry Arrington (choreography / nominated by HMD).

Madden is excited to get into the studio with this eclectic group and delve into Locus, “we will be looking deeply at this composition, with a desire to understand it and Brown’s work more fully; my wish is that there is something in Locus that speaks to each of [the participating artists], whether it is the choreography, the bare physicality or something else entirely, something that I would never see or think of.” And yet, Madden knows that these studio sessions will not be typical. For starters, dancers and non-dancers alike will be entering into this repertory, and so Madden’s pedagogy will be about adapting and pulling information from a variety of angles, “I want everyone to have a physical experience of the choreography, in whatever way they can; I want to bring each person to the dance and the dance to each person, so that they can take that understanding into their own medium.” In addition, Madden notes that this is the first time that Locus is being taught with the intention and purpose of inspiring original responses. Which provokes some penetrating artistic questions. What does it mean to respond to a dance? How does one approach such a challenge? How is the important line between Brown’s creative property and each artists’ own work maintained? Both Mohr and Madden are keen for everyone involved to investigate and consider these complex ideas during this Bridge Project residency and beyond.

Over the next few weeks, this ambitious, grand experiment will unfold. And experimentation is inherently risky; no one can predict what the outcome will be. But taking a bold chance also brings the possibility for transformation — innovative discoveries, unexpected revelations, new connections. Mohr is eager to see what arises, “for artists, I hope that the Bridge Project enriches their practice; for audiences, that it gives them a unique chance to encounter dance history and see how it still resonates today; and for the arts community, that it keeps impactful, iconic works relevant and on people’s radar.”

The Next Chapter of Live Performance at SFMOMA: A Conversation with Megan Brian and Frank Smigiel

An open space bathed in bright white. White walls and window shades; an industrial white light grid. An expansive, double height room where the ceiling feels far away. Smooth maple floors give a bit of natural color and contrast. Through a window, lush greenery is visible. Clear glass at the top invites a gaze from outside. There is no designated stage or seating. No pre-set parameters. This is a site that, with each unique project, will become something different. A clean canvas, primed with potential.

Housed on the fourth floor of the SFMOMA, the Gina and Stuart Peterson White Box is where viewers will encounter live theatrical art at the recently re-opened museum. Soon, this space will be bustling with creative passion; abounding with cutting-edge commissions; surging with a multitude of artistic fields and genres. A new venue for new programming—this is the future of live performance at SFMOMA.

SFMOMA White Box, rendering by MIR/Snohetta

SFMOMA White Box, rendering by MIR/Snohetta

Looking ahead is exhilarating. But it also reminds us to look back; to remember what came before. And live performance has a long history at SFMOMA. It is a reflection of the institution’s commitment to innovation and audience engagement as well as its desire to challenge norms within the artistic community. SFMOMA Associate Curator for Performance and Film Frank Smigiel traces this thread back to Founding Director Grace McCann Morley’s progressive views on museums and their relationship to the public. “[McCann Morley] believed that a museum shouldn’t be a static conservator of treasures, but an extension of art in people’s lives,” he conveys, “and so, from the beginning SFMOMA has never been wedded to a ‘stewardship of objects only’ model, it had broader ideas on art and its eye on the audience.”

When it comes to live performance, SFMOMA has leaned into this pioneering spirit. Over the past eight decades, patrons have been exposed to a diverse range of movement arts—from circus exhibitions in the early days to avant-garde performance in the 1960s-1970s, including the choreographic partnership of Eiko and Koma. Radical movement-based and physical-theater happenings spiked in the early 2000s, by multi-disciplinary artists like Matthew Barney. And just this past April, Alonzo King LINES Ballet performed Faith in the Roman Steps at SFMOMA’s Art Bash, a gala event that unveiled the newly expanded building in the heart of downtown San Francisco. Choreographed by King, the world premiere contemporary dance unfolded on and around the stunning architectural staircase in the new museum’s Roberts Family Gallery. “At SFMOMA, there is a legacy around being at the frontier of artforms, and that endures with mediums like performance,” notes Megan Brian, Assistant Director for Education and Public Practice at SFMOMA.

SFMOMA’s current Performance and Film team are eager to propel this rich dialogue into the future. “Performance and Film was resurrected in 2007, with an aim to think more deeply and broadly about the living, collaborative nature of both lm and performance,” Brian explains. With that objective in mind, there are big plans for the next chapter of live performance at SFMOMA.

Like a tree structure, Performance and Film at SFMOMA is divided into separate branches for each discipline. Then, within the curatorial area of Performance, Smigiel outlines another subdivision, “this arm holds two different programs—Performance In Progress and Performance All Ages—with three artists commissioned to design new works in each track.”

True to its title, Performance In Progress is all about the process of creation. Each of the three artists will have their own mini-residency in the Fall—a time to conceive, shape, and construct his or her work. And then in March, there will be a combined final program, where they will come together to premiere their finished commissions. For 2016, Performance In Progress welcomes Jacolby Satterwhite, Naomi Rincón-Gallardo and Oakland-based Desirée Holman. “While all three are working on distinct projects, there are thematic fibers linking them,” says Smigiel, “each of these artists explore multiple disciplines in performance and they are all working with eccentric ideas of the future—how visions of the future can be used to sort out problems of the present.” In terms of movement and choreography, expect many voices and approaches from Performance In Progress. In this particular group, Smigiel describes an array of physicality, “processional models—parading and moving through landscapes—are strong for these artists, as is a more inclusive notion of the performative body; movement that is vernacular and egalitarian, movement generated and performed by non-trained dancers.”

As its name suggests, Performance All Ages is for everyone, from the youngest museum patron to those who are more ‘young at heart.’ This year, Lucky Dragons, Cloud Eye Control and LA-based musician Chris Kallmyer will be crafting original work in this track. Like Performance In Progress, each of these projects is unique, and yet there is connective tissue weaving them together. All are focused on immersive art experiences; where the space between the performer and viewer becomes porous, where the audience becomes an active contributor. “These three multi-genre artists are investigating and experimenting with the convergence of participation and public performance,” shares Smigiel, “to that end, each Performance All Ages residency will last for an entire month and will include workshops, drop-in activities and a special museum ‘takeover.’”

Brian and Smigiel are excited to see these live performances emerge over the next year. In addition to the commissions themselves, they are also eager to see how audiences engage with the material. How the programming lends itself to different lenses of viewership. How planned viewing and random chance exist in both strands. “Performance In Progress is more destination-based—an audience will arrive for a showing at a particular time in a specific place,” details Brian, “but of course, as folks are visiting the museum, they may also discover the live performance completely by accident.” The same can be said for Performance All Ages. There will be those who come especially to attend or participate in one of the events, as well as viewers who happen upon the action. For Smigiel, this attention to and consideration of viewership circles directly back to McCann Morley’s intent for patron engagement at SFMOMA.

Clearly, the past three years at SFMOMA have been a time of construction, a season of planning for what is to be. And now it is time to launch. The museum is open to the public; Performance and Film’s 2016-2017 programming is set; the White Box space is prepped. Smigiel hopes that this next chapter of live performance at SFMOMA will “provide opportunities for local and non-local artists to collaborate with the Bay Area arts community, continue to foreground a vital exchange with the audience and encourage a deep dive into the art.”

Visit sfmoma.org for information on all ongoing and upcoming programs, exhibits and performances, including live performance, at the new SFMOMA.

Questioning Assumptions, Challenging Expectations: A Conversation with Lucia August

Writing about today’s dance scene, I notice that I use certain phrases pretty often. Things like ‘questioning assumptions’ or ‘challenging expectations’. Sometimes these words are a response to innovative physical vocabulary; sometimes to a structural departure. A piece’s subject matter may strike, confront or even shock. A dance may use collaborative elements in an experimental way. Maybe the site is atypical. Or the relationship between performer and viewer is being investigated. Whatever the case, much of twenty-first century performance (at least what I’ve been seeing lately) is committed to being original, different and unconventional.

So how does this outside the box thinking apply to age and body type in dance performance? Do we see the same variety and diversity when it comes to a dancer’s age and size? Are these barriers slower to be broken down? And if so, why?

Choreographer and dancer Lucia August is tackling these questions head on, dispelling stereotypes around age and body type in performance. Over sixty years old and with a non-traditional dancer’s body, August has gone all in, living her dream of creating and performing in the contemporary dance field. To understand her vision, just look to the platform phrase she has chosen for her solo work – “Everybody Can Dance.”

August began formal dance training at a very young age and in it, found what she describes as “a sense of freedom and joy, as well as a deep connection to myself and my body.” Creative movement, ballet, modern, jazz and composition were all subjects of intense study throughout childhood and adolescence. But as she reached her late teens, messages (both subtle and pointed) started coming her way, communicating that a career in a professional company was not in the cards. “If anyone had asked me then what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said ‘a dancer,’ but my body type seemed to be an obstacle on that path” shares August, “it got to me and I stopped dancing for a while.” In the decades that followed, August’s relationship with dance would be informed by a strange dualism – pure love for movement alongside painful negativity. Not surprising, this led to a repetitive pattern. Periods of taking class and limited performing would be interspersed with extended time away from the studio.

Then in the early 2000’s, a number of events changed August’s trajectory. The first catalyst was when she attended a performance by a touring company made up entirely of large dancers. During the show, there was a moment of realization, “I should be up there, and I can be up there, why I am not?” Soon after, she found a thriving organization in the Bay Area dedicated to dance for all bodies, Marina Wolf Ahmad’s Big Moves. Through them, she met Eric Kupers, co-director of Dandelion Dancetheater, whose work was also grounded in the philosophy that all can dance – all ages, all sizes, all abilities. After witnessing that diverseness firsthand in Dandelion’s The Undressed Project, August returned to performance at the age of fifty, and danced with Dandelion from 2003 to 2010. This was a time of positive artistic collaborations, where differences in age and body type weren’t impediments, they were welcomed and celebrated.

Photo by Lynne Fried

Photo by Lynne Fried

During this rich period, August began sensing a new creative pull. A desire to delve into yet another aspect of dance and performance. “I became interested in the prospect of solo work that spoke from the body, my body,” she explains, “telling stories through movement; stories on a variety of themes, stories about freeing the self from ingrained notions and overcoming negative beliefs.” August leaned into this new chapter of composition, making it her primary focus, and it remains so to this day. Since 2010, she has presented nine world premieres, including several submissions in the long-running Works in the Works program and a solo show in the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

From fall 2015 through this spring, August also went through SAFEhouse Arts’ Resident Artist Workshop (RAW), a choreographic incubator designed to support emerging dancemakers. Under the guidance of SAFEhouse Executive Director Joe Landini, RAW provides its artists with rehearsal space, technical resources, publicity, mentoring, teaching gigs and a chance to show newly developed work. RAW began in 2007 at The Garage and has been a beacon in San Francisco’s contemporary dance community ever since. Just this year alone, approximately sixty groups took part in the RAW program.

For a number of RAW participants, the opportunities extend even beyond the residency itself. Some are selected each year to be part of SAFEhouse’s annual summer performance festival (SPF), a multi-day, multi-program showcase of contemporary performance. This year’s festival, in its ninth edition, runs from July 6th to the 10th at ODC Theater and features sixteen different contributors (soloists and groups). Lucia August/Everybody Can Dance is one of the RAW artists to be offered a spot for SPF9.

August brings standingOUTstanding to SPF9, a program of three distinct solo dances: They Never Really Leave, Parallel Lives and Consistent Paradox. All three have movement, all three have text and all three have a narrative component, though each piece is a unique journey.

Crafted during the RAW residency, They Never Really Leave is the newest dance on the standingOUTstanding program, having had its world premiere at SAFEhouse in January of this year. An autobiographical solo, They Never Really Leave is steeped in raw emotion. A passionate relationship burns between two young women. Suddenly and mysteriously, one of them is gone. Forty years later, relics from their time together are discovered. These are the penetrating events driving a work that August calls “an act of closure but also an opening.” In this intensely personal piece, August dances onstage with her imaginary, silent partner – absent but present, lost but found.

Joining They Never Really Leave on the program are two solos that August took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Parallel Lives and Consistent Paradox. Parallel Lives follows another true story – August’s own life journey. In this vulnerable, exposed solo, she reveals and tracks the various pathways that she has traversed during her lifetime. The dance shows how time and direction are linked; how routes can run in parallel or in opposition, and reveals the places where they may converge. Featuring music composed by Kupers, August’s mentor from Dandelion Dancetheater, Consistent Paradox ventures into a different narrative world – a fictional one. August introduces a man with a secret; someone hiding from reality, masking his true self and constructing a fac?ade. While not based on true events, these themes are real, relatable and can speak broadly. “It’s very exciting for me to revisit these dances, give them a second life and share them with a new audience,” relays August.

As SPF9 draws nearer, August is eager to see in what ways standingOUTstanding may resonate with viewers. How will they connect to the material? Will they notice their own story at play? Perhaps they will find joy and pleasure in the movement itself.

But on a deeper level, she hopes viewers will tap into the statement she is making about conscious and subconscious presumption; “a dancer can express her truth through movement with whatever size body she may be inhabiting at any given time.” Questioning assumptions; challenging expectations; opposing restrictions and celebrating inclusiveness. These are the principles at work in Lucia August/Everybody Can Dance, “my wish is for people to take away an appreciation for movement that is sourced from a non-traditional dancer’s body, re-evaluate what constitutes beautiful and compelling dance and step away from limited thinking about what is an appropriate aged and sized dancer.”

For more information about these performances and the entire SPF festival lineup, please visit safehousearts.org

Sharing the Artistic Journey

Erin, Eric and Kat in in a bath tub

Photo by Kegan Marling

LET’S CONSIDER today’s contemporary dance performance in terms of what is ‘shared.’ Phrase material often comes from a shared process between choreographers and dancers. A collaboration requires shared contributions from different fields. Performances themselves are an opportunity to share an artistic experience with an audience. Then, there are shared evenings. Companies and artists joining together, to co-present a program with different choreographic voices. When a shared program is done well, it’s possible that these individual voices may speak even louder.

For two weekends this December, EmSpace Dance and detour dance are teaming up for one such endeavor at NOHspace in the Mission (SF). This double bill introduces a world premiere from each group: EmSpace Dance’s Whether to Weather, conceived/directed by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and detour dance’s Beckon, co-created by Kat Cole and Eric Garcia. While Stuart, Cole and Garcia have worked together in the past, this is the first time they are partnering as co-presenters of a shared program. The project is filled with the spirit of newness – new cooperation, new logistic possibilities, new artistic avenues and of course, brand new dance.

Sharing a program definitely has benefits. By working together, groups can split financial demands, dole out organizational duties and maybe even reach a larger audience base. This pragmatism was certainly part of EmSpace and detour’s decision to team up. “From a practical perspective, I’m always looking to do shows in a way that is sustainable for my company,” says Stuart. A joint show can open doors and put options on the table that otherwise might not be feasible. In the case of EmSpace and detour, Cole has seen that “being together has allowed us to take production risks, like doing a longer run.” Sharing a bill is a smart move. It’s no surprise that it is a common model with emerging and established dance artists alike.

But pragmatic concerns were only one part of this co-venture. EmSpace and detour were also interested in the creative puzzle that is ‘the shared program.’ How do you maintain the artistic integrity and distinctness of each piece while still crafting a cohesive evening? How can the entire program, as a whole, translate to audiences and not feel like a random juxtaposition of work? Early on, EmSpace and detour found that the pairing of Whether to Weather and Beckon had some interesting things to say in response to these artistic questions. Each dance was following its own path while broad through lines (in form and in content) were also emerging. And these through lines were becoming connective tissue for the show.

“Esthetically, it [the program] is Dance Theater, but we are representing two versions of what Dance Theater can be,” explains Garcia, “and relationships have been surfacing as a common theme, but again from different directions.” A shared program, speaking of independence and interdependence. “Though the work is different with different viewpoints, there is something kindred about its blend of dance and theater, abstraction and pedestrian movement,” describes Stuart, “and the whole evening explores how we relate to people as romantic partners or potential romantic partners, whether long-term, short-term or even, unwanted.”

detour’s Beckon tackles the latter case–the unwanted relationship. With such a big concept, Cole and Garcia decided to mine their own lived experience, and focus on two phenomena, catcalling and cruising. They asked the hard and vulnerable questions. How do you feel when you receive unsolicited attention? Have you ever perpetrated unwelcome advances towards another? How is it different when a queer person of color is catcalled or cruised? While very personal, these situations are also shared by so many in their daily lives. As detour continued to examine this tricky subject matter, a larger narrative began to crystallize. In Garcia’s words, at its core, Beckon is about the complicated world of desire, “it looks at how race, sexuality and gender relate to the power dynamics of desire, whether wanted or unwanted, savory or unsavory.” Four story threads bring this narrative to life, told through an abstract interdisciplinary mix of text, vocals, soundscores, characters and non-linear vignettes. And the movement and choreography is a diverse tapestry, mixing pedestrian gestures, primal, aggressive impulses and balanced, tender supports.

For Cole and Garcia, Beckon is not only a new performance piece, it also signals a new chapter in detour dance’s greater journey, a move away from the more light-hearted and quirky. While Beckon still has some of these elements, Garcia shares the significant shift that this dance has forged, “in doing this piece, we have re-focused the model of our company towards our identity as queer people of color, and it feels right to be making art with this intention.” detour is poised, ready and excited for what this new artistic season may bring. “This [Beckon] is the start of finding what that will look like; the bridge to that new space,” adds Cole.

Stuart is also navigating a new artistic path with EmSpace’s Whether to Weather, experimenting with structure, form and discipline. Two world premieres, both revealing new creative directions. Yet another example of how December’s program is steeped in shared-ness.

When Stuart began this work, she made a conscious choice to move outside her creative comfort zone, “often I work in abstract vignette-based forms and I wanted to challenge myself with a different approach.” So for Whether to Weather, Stuart wanted a set structure to work in, a narrative container to fill up, “I collaborated with a playwright [Brian Thorstenson] to create interlinked stories, two romantic relationships with consistent characters and a narrative arc.” The first storyline reveals a long-term ride of connection and disconnection, while the second captures passion and companionship in the shorter term. And as the title suggests, changing images of climate and season frame the various periods in each relationship. Stuart opted to communicate one of the stories with theater and dialogue and the other, through dance.

With choreography and theater playing these equal parts, EmSpace’s Whether to Weather is what Stuart refers to as a “dance play,” with the theater aspects being “the most ‘theater’ thing that I’ve done – actors playing characters, speaking dialogue written by a playwright” and the dance portions “even more dance-y than usual, with modern release movement and a lot of partnering.”

Both fields hold great importance for EmSpace Dance and for Stuart. Over the past five years, she has noticed that as a choreographer/dance director, there’s been a shift, a move further and further into the theater arena. Whether to Weather has provided a platform for her to expand skill, exercise vision and share in both disciplines simultaneously.

After spending the past year developing these two dances, EmSpace and detour are prepping for the final leg of this shared artistic journey. With the December show just around the corner, Cole and Garcia hope that audiences enjoy the interdisciplinary flavor in Beckon. But at a deeper level, their wish is that the work may provoke a moment of self-reflection, where the viewer can personally identify with and recognize themselves in the narrative themes. Likewise, Stuart hopes that viewers find pleasure in Whether to Weather’s movement and words. She is eager to see how the piece connects with people’s emotions and what kind of thinking/feeling response it might draw, “how we relate is complicated and watching something about a relationship helps us to exercise our empathy – this shared evening hints at that.”

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