Author Archive | Kathryn Roszak

Ballet Revives in San José: Dalia Rawson’s New San José Nutcracker

Photo by Chris Conroy

In the past, California struck it rich with the Gold Rush; today, the Golden State flourishes with the tech boom. With the rise of the tech industry, the Bay Area finds itself richer than at any time in recent memory, but are the arts benefiting? Looking at San Jose?, one of the fastest-growing cities near Silicon Valley, this does not appear to be the case. In fact, the arts seem to be crumbling with the recent demise of two stalwart arts institutions: the thirty-four-year-old San José Repertory Theatre and the thirty-year-old Ballet San José— which renamed itself Silicon Valley Ballet (SVB) in a last ditch effort to stay a oat and attract Silicon Valley support.

This situation raises troubling questions. Tech has seen a rise in employment and population, but does the industry show support for the arts community, let alone understand its value?

In February of this year the Silicon Valley Ballet seemingly vanished overnight. While the company had been struggling, they managed to rally with tremendous effort to fundraise $640,000 and were able to stay a oat for several more months. Following a successful tour to Spain, I attended what was to be the final performance of the company, though very few realized it at the time. Artistically the company was in top form, albeit a little fatigued from the tour. They danced with excellence in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Prism and gave a superlative performance of Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16.

Two weeks later, the company announced it was folding and suddenly the dancers and administers were jobless. One would think that a valuable art institution in a community that is booming could be rescued or even reorganized to be able to continue.

It is refreshing, despite all odds, to see ballet reviving in San José with the New Ballet School. The school has hundreds of students and a new Studio Company under the artistic direction of former Silicon Valley Ballet School Director and Ballet San José dancer Dalia Rawson. In fact, there are quite a few former SVB employees involved in Rawson’s effort. Some of the teachers are former SVB dancers Ryan Preciado and Francisco Preciado. José Manuel Carreno, now Artistic Director of Ballet of Monterrey in Mexico, has even returned to guest teach.

By far, the most promising news is the Studio Company. The Company will premiere a full-length, two-act San José Nutcracker choreographed by Rawson, paying creative and innovative homage to historical San José. The production will have eight performances at San José’s Hammer Theatre—which Rawson says is perfect for an intimate, up-close view for dance patrons. Rawson also feels it’s important to offer My Very First Nutcracker, a one hour show for families with small children. The Studio Company currently boasts eleven pre-professional dancers and professional guest artists such as Alexsandra Meijer, Ryan Preciado, and Francisco Preciado. Rawson is excited by all the interest expressed by young dancers wanting to join the Company. Dancers who are admitted to the Company receive scholarships for their studies. “We’ve even had a dancer apply from Equador,” says Rawson. Rawson will be one of the only female ballet choreographers in the state—and possibly the nation—to choreograph two full-length ballets within a year, as she plans to follow the San José Nutcracker with Swan Lake in the spring. “I knew that if I were to choreograph a full-length ballet, chances were great that the full-length ballet would be The Nutcracker due to the work’s sheer popularity. So I have been thinking about this all along and preparing. I wanted to tell this story to music I love. It’s such a total joy to work with [the] Studio Company,” says Rawson.

Rawson’s Nutcracker is full of inventions and collaborations for her community. “We’d like this production to be a new holiday tradition for the families of our community. Many local families, including my own, have a great deal of nostalgia for our orchards (in San José), which were a feature in my neighborhood when I was a child. We are recreating our Nutcracker in partnership with History San José. They have a building filled with artifacts and an archive so we will have slide shows with each act and a Pop-up gallery in the lobby with dolls and toys. We’ve had access to dolls from the 1900s for the party scene. We also have sponsorship from Casa de Fruta in Hollister which will donate locally grown treats for purchase that will support the New Ballet School.”

Rawson is also creating other community collaborations with the Tech Museum of Innovation, which will advertise [the New Ballet School] before [it] screen[s] their Imax movies and [she is] partnering with the Children’s Discovery Museum, which will offer special preview performances.”

The marketing image for Rawson’s San José Nutcracker is derived from a lithograph from 1895. The production draws inspiration from the area and includes a skyline of San José from 1905 and the San José Electric Light Tower, a sort of mini Eiffel Tower previously existing in downtown San José. The tower was powered by electricity, which was a novelty at that time, and it grows during the battle scene in place of the Christmas tree. Instead of journeying to the traditional “Land of the Sweets,” Clara and the Prince enter the “Valley of the Heart’s De- light,” which was the original name for the Santa Clara Valley and so the show features dancing walnuts and orchard blossoms. There’s a trio of dancers representing Spanish Bougainvillea for the Spanish variation. Casa de Fruta is also sponsoring “a Mother Ginger type character with dancing cherries,” says Rawson, and “the Arabian music features a diamond backed rattlesnake performing a pas de deux with a Gilroy Garlic Harvester.”

With imagination and tenacity Rawson is ensuring that ballet stays a oat in the South Bay. Beyond the San José Nutcracker and the upcoming Swan Lake, Rawson has additional plans for the Studio Company. They will appear at San José State University in a mixed program of ballets in February. Rawson will also take the Studio Company to New York City next April for “Moving Forward, East and West” featuring women choreographers from both coasts at the 92nd Street Y. Women ballet choreographers are on the rise and Rawson, with her new works in San José, is featured among them.

This growth and opportunity comes at an unprecedented time here in the Bay Area, especially for female ballet choreographers in the field. We anticipate seeing more works by women in 2017. In addition to Rawson’s premieres, Cal Performances’ award-winning Streetcar Named Desire choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa for the Scottish Ballet is on the horizon. Smuin Ballet further champions womens’ choreography by presenting Ochoa’s choreography and a ballet by local favorite Amy Seiwert. During these challenging times for the arts, it’s uplifting to see women in ballet move forward and to see ballet surviving in the South Bay.

Moving Forward: Women Ballet Choreographers

When we look at a Degas painting we are entranced by beautiful ballet dancers, but take a look behind the scenes and a different story is revealed of these women’s 19th century lives – one of disturbing misogyny and of women artists surviving as mistresses of male patrons, in relationships resembling outright prostitution (1).

Fast forward to the present day. The dance scene is filled to the brim with women artists and some are famous: Twyla Tharp, who is equally at home in ballet and on Broadway, and Misty Copeland, the first African American Principal at American Ballet Theatre. But how has the situation changed for women in ballet today? AGMA, the dancers’ union, now guarantees salaries in professional companies, but women choreographers, particularly women ballet choreographers, are far less visible and much less funded than their male counterparts (2). Check the season brochures for San Francisco Ballet and New York City Ballet and decades go by without a woman choreographer in sight. The Royal Ballet (England) announced a discomfiting way they are addressing this issue: instead of selecting an established woman choreographer, they announced that 19-year-old Charlotte Edmonds will be mentored by male choreographer Wayne McGregor. She states, according to the Evening Standard, “there were more girls choreographing as students than boys and they were always encouraged.” Possibly it’s due to Edmond’s youth and inexperience that she can’t explain why that hasn’t translated into choreographic careers or that there is a long tradition of women being held back.

I am a woman ballet choreographer and have been creating dances for 25 years. The truth about my situation hit home when I couldn’t encourage my own teenage daughter to pursue a dance career, as there’s so little opportunity for leadership. I decided my legacy project would be the creation of a Women Ballet Choreographers Residency. I can create a better dance world for my daughter and others like her.

I chose the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California, to hold an in-depth conversation about the issues in ballet of women’s access to leadership. Djerassi has a reputation for supporting a variety of artists and in the 1990’s I was invited to enjoy a two-month residency in this spectacular setting attended by artists from around the world. I’ve also served on the program’s choreography panel.

The idea is to gather women choreographers, giving them space to exchange ideas, and then follow this in the future with public outreach activities and performances, all resulting in greater visibility and hopefully more support and opportunity for women.

Kathryn Roszak with SF Dance Film Festival's Greta Schoenberg & AileyCamp's Priya Shah, photo by Bari Lee

Kathryn Roszak with SF Dance Film Festival’s Greta Schoenberg & AileyCamp’s Priya Shah, photo by Bari Lee

The inaugural residency launched this past May with open rehearsals, screenings, and panels in Djerassi’s rich natural environment in the rolling California hills filled with unique sculptures created by artists attending the program.

Following a brunch, women choreographers fill Djerassi’s Art Barn with new works and films. In the dance studio, Dalia Rawson, formerly of Silicon Valley Ballet and now Director of the New Ballet School, San Jose, experiments with a kinect camera filming the dancer’s movements, which in turn affects sounds, played live. “I am working with programmer Tim Thompson and musicians Cliff Rawson and Matt Davis,” says Rawson. “The camera follows dancers’ height and depth and this affects the music,” so that the piece renders differently each time. Her talented young dancers Mesa Brudick, Aine Chaterjee, Katelynn Hospetalier, Naomi Sailors, Ryan Walker, and Brennan Wall clearly revel in the process.

East Bay choreographer Lissa Resnick delves into the urgencies of living with diabetes in a rehearsal of her newest work. My own company, Danse Lumiere, presented my contemporary ballet performed by the dancers from San Jose. The ballet, Reverse Flow, traces the reversed path of the Amazon River over time.

In the Djerassi composer’s studio, choreographer Julia Adam screens her edgy, bucolic ballets created for boathouses and the woods of West Marin while visual artist Deborah O’Grady shares her stunning photographs designed to make a kind of choreography for orchestral performances.

Choreographer Amy Seiwert, Artistic Director of Imagery, screens her film Barn Dance (created with film-makers John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson). The film is shot entirely at Djerassi featuring a lush dance taking place in a fantastic old barn.

The women mix and mingle in the Art Barn discussing their latest projects while soaking in the atmospheric views. It is rare to have women artistic directors of ballet companies. We are able to pay honor to two. Choreographer Myles Thatcher (San Francisco Ballet/New York City Ballet) presents honors to Celia Fushille, Artistic Director of Smuin Ballet and Lauren Jonas, Artistic Director of Diablo Ballet. Both directors are recognized for presenting works by women while keeping their respective small chamber companies alive. “We are all so busy working on our own projects that it is great to gather together like this and realize that we are a community,” says Fushille.

Women ballet choreographers represent a fairly specialized niche, so the afternoon multi-disciplinary panels are presented to allow conversations across disciplines about challenges faced by women artists.

AileyCamp instructor Priya Shah speaks of approaching the teaching of choreography in the educational setting, while filmmakers Greta Schoenberg (Founder of San Francisco Dance Film Festival) and Kate Duhamel point to new platforms for women through the creation of dance lms. Former Royal Swedish Ballet dancer Katja Björner reports on the advantages available to dancers in Sweden where generous family leave is provided to both men and women.

The panel discussions question how each artist can effect change. For my part, I vow to have honoraria for women participating in this gathering next year and to focus on documenting womens’ dances by involving talented young women filmmakers from Berkeley High School.

Choreographer Myles Thatcher joins the conversation as a male ally. “I am a feminist and we should all be feminists,” says Thatcher. “There is a lack of female choreographers and I am happy that we are finally acknowledging this. It’s the responsibility of our generation to be aware of how we are treating women in ballet. Balanchine said, ‘Ballet is Woman,’ but then a woman is being admired and this takes attention away from her having a voice. We are asking girls to become smaller and fit the corps de ballet mode. I am wondering if we could be more empowering to people individually in ballet.” Thatcher would like to see choreography classes included in ballet schools to encourage girls, and to have grown-up male and female dancers no longer be called boys and girls by directors. As for his own steps toward creating change he says that he avoids creating “victim” roles in his dances.

Rawson asks: “How do we inspire young women to see themselves as choreographers?” Even as a child, Rawson was always making dances and she had notebooks full of choreography. “There is no time in ballet school for girls to make dances due to the perfection required of females,” says Rawson. “Opportunities to learn skills like improvisation are very important.” At the New Ballet School, Rawson hired Seiwert to teach choreography. Seiwert asks, “If we aren’t hearing from 50% of the population, then we should ask ourselves what are we missing?”

The panels reveal that women choreographers’ needs are diverse. While one woman requires space and dancers, another needs childcare; while Seiwert hopes to be commissioned for a full-length ballet, this is something other women choreographers might only fantasize about.

As the day comes to a close. Djerassi Director Margot Knight guides some of the participants on a walk. Sculptured faces gaze out from inside giant redwoods and unusual forms carved from nature appear in bends on the trail. Djerassi has a special magic and it’s easy here to imagine utopia with women and girls (younger and older) finally finding a way to leadership in dance.

Danse Lumiere’s Women Ballet Choreographers Residency will return May 6-7, 2017 at Djerassi Resident Artists Program with public outreach performances one week prior: April 28 and 29 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.


(1) This history is well-documented by several recent art exhibits (including Edgar Degas, A Strange New Beauty, Museum of Modern Art, NYC), by scholars, and by feminist writer Germaine Greer.

(2) nytimes.com/2007/08/05/arts/dance/05laroc.html

Reinventing Emily: A Choreographer

With my company, Danse Lumiere (formerly Anima Mundi), a small-scale dance-theater group, I delve into large themed projects that lead me into deeper engagement with the subjects: I create unique repertory pieces, which are performed extensively in multiple venues, over a period of many years, for an audience different than usual.

I choose a collaborative way of working that takes an intense commitment on my part, and the benefit is in the long term. My projects don’t necessarily fit the usual funding time-lines and I have been frustrated by guidelines forcing artists to tailor their works to fit. I’ve steered clear of dreaming up pieces to obtain funding but have instead focused on taking time to deepen the work, relying on the “buzz” around the piece itself to produce intriguing partners and venues. I made a conscious decision to move away from producing an annual dance season, eliminating the constant need to create new pieces. Rather my pieces are like books–they necessitate an in-depth gestation period and then a longer time in the public eye. This requires patience. Recognition often comes from outside the dance sphere.

The longest running piece of Dance Lumiere’s is the exploration Pensive Spring; A Portrait of Emily Dickinson. In its twelfth year since creation, it returns this May to the place of its inception in 1998, the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club.

The piece, involves three different artists, a dancer, a singer, and an actress portraying Emily Dickinson, the much-misunderstood enigmatic poet. I’m focusing on something we’ve lost touch with these days–the intimacy of the written word and what it reveals about relationships, nature, death, even madness. For Pensive Spring I edited the poet’s letters and selected poetry to reflect the natural seasons as well as the poet’s states of mind. I chose music by composer Gordon Getty that embodies the poetry, so that the choreography is shaped by songs revealing Dickinson’s psyche and imagery. Perhaps it is this “Rashomon”-like perspective, offering different windows into the poetry, and letting the viewer feel that the whole piece takes place in Emily Dickinson’s mind, that has led to the piece’s longevity. Dickinson’s poetry is a paradox–she is of her time, and outside of it, very radical and psychological in her view. I wanted the choreography and staging to echo this paradox with a seemingly traditional presentation, balletic choreography that gets fractured and reassembled. Dickinson is always a master–a poet/scientist whose psychic eruptions are observed with a surgeon’s skill. In her hands a domestic metaphor can turn to madness.

Living with a piece over time gives me the chance to work with new casts, who each lend wildly different interpretations to the material. The nature of this piece in particular is that three different artists work in solitude, not unlike the poet, in their respective disciplines, and then are brought together for ensemble rehearsals. I danced the role, then I both acted and danced, and now, I act the role. Incredible performers have changed the texture of the piece along the way: the power of San Francisco Opera soprano Elza van den Heever, the humor of Berkeley Repertory actress Lorri Holt, and former San Francisco Ballet dancer Nicole Starbuck brought out dramatic intensity. In our current cast, soprano Kristin Clayton draws out Emily’s passionate humanity while dancer Hally Bellah-Guther brings angular drama.

The settings for the piece, as with much of Danse Lumiere’s work, have played a central part in the creative process. The piece resonates differently in its various venues: the intimate drawing rooms of the Falkirk Mansion Cultural Center, San Rafael, gave a feeling of the house’s claustrophobic, period interior with the natural world looming ever-present outside the windows. The larger, 500 seat theatre at the University of San Francisco contained

Dickinson’s world in a sparse black-box with lighting playing a key role. Pensive Spring has an ongoing relationship with the Berkeley City Club, having been performed there originally in conjunction with the Aurora Theatre’s production of The Belle of Amherst in 1998, and subsequently being presented there last fall by Berkeley Chamber Performances. This spring the Club will present the work in the light-filled ballroom.

Turning Point: Re-Defining Bay Area Ballet

BALLET IS DEAD, bemoans dance historian Jennifer Homans in her latest opus, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. Homans grew up in the Balanchine era and now finds the contemporary ballet scene to be an arid desert, bereft of choreographic vitality. Many argue that Homan’s 600-page tome declares the opposite—that ballet is alive and well—and in some ways she’s right. Ballet companies abound, offering accessible fare for audiences whose main experience of ballet has become the annual ritual of The Nutcracker and enrolling their tutu-clad three year olds in toddler ballet classes. Ballet traditionally held attraction through the teen years for what it offered, mainly girls (and a few boys) in form and poise; this has been replaced by a smorgasbord of activities like soccer, karate, kids yoga, girl’s empowerment classes, and technological distractions like computer games and instant messaging.

Programs like Dancing with the Stars, Glee, and So You Think You Can Dance bring dance to the masses. There is seemingly more dance than ever, but its orientation has shifted dramatically, and so has the perception of ballet. Ballet is more popular but less artistic. Part of the reason may be its accessibility. People are not necessarily attending live performances but rather, are grabbing their information about dance and ballet from mass culture, the media, and the internet. Major ballet companies are investing their energy in slick websites and marketing strategies, such as developing an online presence through Facebook and blogs. Yet the ballet world is sadly lacking in artistic innovation. The major academies have not given themselves a mandate to innovate and break new ground in how dance is taught and how choreography is created. Dancers have achieved the pinnacle of technique, can dance almost anything, and yet, some would argue, have very little of substance to dance. Can this culture produce another Diaghilev—someone not only in touch with, but also ahead of the zeitgeist, and who can forge the creation of new aesthetics? Much contemporary ballet choreography seems intent on the virtuosic contorting of conventional ballet technique in the guise of innovation. And is this type of kinetic innovation really relevant in today’s fragmented world where people are longing for meaning? The arts, including ballet, can provide meaningful dialogue about today’s changing roles for men and women, the tyrannical glut of technology, and yes, even topics like war. Renowned international ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon claimed he could not imagine creating a ballet about the war in Iraq. Too bad for the world of ballet, and the world in general, that he is so limited.

With their identity in turmoil, Bay Area ballet companies continue to proliferate and many are the incubators for new work. While we have yet to see any ballet company, locally or nationally, truly grab the challenge of re-envisioning the ballet paradigm, both aesthetically, institutionally, and thematically, it may be a good time to check out the local ballet scene’s barometer.

The Bay Area’s major company, San Francisco Ballet, continues to receive worldwide acclaim, placing San Francisco firmly on the international ballet map. Under Tomasson’s lengthy leadership, one of the most innovative programming initiatives was United We Dance, bringing a host of international companies to San Francisco to celebrate the historic signing of the U.N. charter. Tomasson has produced several successful full-length contemporary ballets such as Mark Morris’ Sylvia, Lar Lubovitch’s Othello, and John Neumeier’s controversial version of The Little Mermaid. However, much of the company’s other repertory while distinguished, rarely takes a chance.

How does the ballet nurture new choreographers? In the past, choreography workshops and showcases gave new talent a chance to develop. Now many of San Francisco Ballet’s new choreographers must deliver a new work at the Opera House in a high stakes game of sink or swim. The result is a series of promising works, but none of them are thematically groundbreaking, or reinvent movement language to the extent of the Balanchine repertoire.

Without the burden of filling the Opera House, the smaller Bay Area ensemble ballet companies can take more risk and lead the way. In order to survive these companies must innovate, and this season provides an opportunity to check out exactly what these companies are offering.

The Oakland Ballet Company, under Artistic Director Graham Lustig, had to find a new space this past year and is entering into a partnership with Mills College in Oakland. “The way forward is collaboration,” says Lustig, who danced for the Royal and Dutch National Ballets, and ran American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey for over a decade. Mills College has a renowned history in modern dance—choreographers Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham both taught there. Oakland Ballet will rehearse at Mills, and is commissioning Dance Department Chair Sonya Delwaide to create a new work. The company will offer classical ballet training to Mills students, who may take on small roles in Oakland’s productions. Oakland Ballet’s founding director Ronn Guidi built Oakland’s reputation on revivals of rare ballets, many from the Diaghilev era. Lustig says that those productions’ sets and costumes languish in a warehouse, so he intends to focus his spring season on new works by west coast choreographers, particularly ballets by women.

Space is not the issue for Peninsula Ballet Theatre, with its facility including five huge dance studios. New Artistic Director Bruce Stieval says the dancers love the new space. Stieval, former director of Nevada Dance Theater, has built a reputation both as a choreographer and as a commissioner of new works. Next season brings Stieval’s Peter Pan and a repertory program to the South Bay.

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet has always been guided by the idiosyncratic choreographer. King, who has an international career choreographing for companies such as the Frankfurt and Monte Carlo Ballets, set up a dance laboratory for himself and his dancers when he created the LINES Ballet in San Francisco. The company survives by touring and is eagerly followed in Europe. Many of King’s works rely on collaboration with composers and designers. Interestingly, one of LINES’ most acclaimed productions was Scheharazade, created to celebrate the Ballets Russes’ centennial in Monte Carlo. Composer Zakir Hussein was commissioned to re-envision the Rimsky-Korsakov score. King’s latest foray for LINES will be a collaboration with architect Christopher Haas. The company recently entered into collaboration with the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, spending an afternoon in the studio with dancers from both companies, experimenting with King’s quirky rendition of ballet language.

Smuin Ballet seems to have successfully made the transition from a company showcasing Tony-Award winning choreographer Michael Smuin’s work, to being a repertory company premiering new works. The company is very popular with audiences and lately has set ballets to music by the indie-rock group The Shins, and bluegrass artist Bela Fleck with bassist Edgar Meyer. These ballets will be performed this spring in Carmel, Mountain View and Walnut Creek. Smuin Ballet has come under fire from critics for its populist approach. “We are not a museum,“ says artistic director Celia Fushille Burke. “We do not possess a classical ballet cookie-cutter mold. It was never Michael’s intent. We are the athletically-intense multi-abled dance company based in the beauty, strength and timelessness of our daily classical ballet class, but that is merely a launching point for us. Michael Smuin was a maverick artist and he knew he couldn’t use his artistry to please everyone. He always believed that the choreographer should have freedom. I nurture choreographers by giving them a safe platform from which to fearlessly create. We are funding creativity here at Smuin Ballet. I give opportunity to Amy Seiwert, but also to other rising talents across the country.”

Two East Bay ballet companies offer their own distinct approaches to presenting repertory works. Lauren Jonas’ Diablo Ballet performs repertory works in intimate settings in their home community of Walnut Creek, while Charles Anderson’s Company C Contemporary Ballet tours to large presenting arenas in the Bay Area with mixed repertory programs featuring world premieres.

Diablo Ballet has found success with its innovative up-close and personal way of presenting programming. Inside the Dancer’s Studio presents performances followed by a reception and Q & A with artists. This spring the company will perform at Shadelands and the program’s highlights include dances mainly created by company members: Kelly Teo’s Dancing Miles, Tina Kay Bohnstedt’s Tango Tchak, and Victor Kabaniev’s Carmen. Jonas’ programs are meant to appeal to all ages and offer the chance for the audiences to actually meet the dancers.

Charles Anderson’s Company C focuses on world premieres. Gamelan music is the inspiration for a new work by James Sewell, a choreographer often seen in New York, and Joffrey Ballet’s Jodie Gates creates Slip-Ring, a sleek, athletic premiere. Charles Anderson hopes to redefine ballet for a new generation of audiences. “Ballet is no more dead than classical music is dead,” says Anderson. “There’s always the belief that the age of the giants is past, that’s it’s always the era just before you. Robbins, Balanchine, Kylian, are all geniuses, but that doesn’t mean we’ll never have another genius. But trying to reinvent Balnchine—even a work that is super crafty—that time is over.” Anderson sums up what a small Bay Area ballet ensemble can do: “Contemporary ballet takes from modern dance and is more off-balance; it redefines the body types being used. It’s not the idealization of the male or female body. We’re more interested in the complexities of relationships. There are lots of fabulous choreographers out there. I can bring the ones that aren’t being presented by San Francisco Ballet. I can be riskier, still present quality, and present the adventure that is life in San Francisco.”

Changes, en L’air: Dekkers debuts his new company, Post:Ballet

In these times, it’s hard to know with any certainty what the future holds for the ballet world. While there still seems to be plenty of room for the status quo, with big ballet companies staying afloat, it’s a challenge for new, small dance companies to emerge. The audiences for smaller troupes, particularly the younger audiences, are being drawn further into art that engages with technology. To answer that call, Post:Ballet Artistic Director Robert Dekkers, a 25-year-old choreographer, explores the quick changes his generation experiences within a fractured world when his company’s debut at the Cowell Theater this July.

Dekkers, a strong, sensual dancer, known to the Bay Area for his former dancing days with ODC Dance, now performs with Company C Contemporary Ballet. His new company, Post:Ballet appeals to a younger generation who don’t go to concert dance, a generation who Dekkers says can be made to cry by television shows like So You Think You Can Dance. He sees his generation of 20-30 somethings, caught up in technology and how it’s changed the world in the last five to ten years. “This is a generation who texts and doesn’t talk,” says Dekkers. “Dating is like that now. However, I believe that people respond to seeing people.” Company events with food and wine give dance-goers a chance to mingle. Post:Ballet’s slick, state-of-the art website features gorgeous photographs of the dancers all taken during performances. As Dekkers navigates the multiple avenues of communication available today, he sees live performance as essential. The Cowell concerts bring especially composed live music to the stage. “Dance a primal, instinctual thing like singing,” Dekkers says.

His team of eight dancers is largely imported for the upcoming concerts, with dancers coming from such troupes as Ballet Idaho, North Carolina Dance Theater, Oregon Ballet Theater, and Ballet Arizona. Dekkers’ choreography has been presented in Vienna, New York, and most recently he directed Novaballet, a contemporary dance company in Arizona. Dekkers has a strong musical background having played the cello for ten years. His intense interest in creating Post:Ballet centers on collaborating with visual artists and musicians. He’s engaged Marin composer Daniel Berkman for Milieu, a work about evolution. Berkman’s scores combine New Age, electronic, jazz influences, and the stringed gravikord instrument, which will be played live at the Cowell Theater. “The work begins with the energy of creation, then moves towards the animal realm,” says Dekkers. “The pas de deux deals with our abilities as humans to reason and care, and then the work asks where do we go next? The use of technology expressed in the score has vocals set to technological sounds and we’re using a grid-like lighting design. The work returns at the ending to a sense of one-on-one connection.” On an initial viewing Milieu’s vocabulary reveals Dekkers’ fascination with contemporary ballet technique emphasizing partnering, floorwork, and lifts.

Point shoes are not a feature of Dekkers’ choreography and many of his works focus on duet work for a central male/female couple. His vocabulary incorporates contractions, parallel-oriented positions, and pedestrian walks across the stage.

Flutter, is a work for three women struggling to find sexual self-expression, and is set to a clapping score by Steve Reich, which Dekkers says expresses society’s relentless expectation of conformity. The second part of Flutter is set to J.S.Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin, which Dekker says, provides the context for each dancer’s vulnerability and individual expression. Dekkers’ process involves talking to the dancers about issues in their lives and then interpreting that discussion through the creative process. “What I found here was a double standard surrounding female sexuality. That something so natural is stigmatized in different ways at different times. How does a woman in 2010 experience growing up? Some are partying. Some are getting married. There are still the worries about pregnancy—the women continue to provide and pay for birth control. So we looked at individuals developing within a rigid social structure.” The movement for Flutter moves from restricted with lifted shoulders in turned-in positions to what Dekker terms as ‘silky phrases and suggestive rawness.”

Berkeley composer Jacob Wolkenhauer provides the score for Dekkers’ latest piece bearing the working title I Was Born Free. Again Dekkers sees our worlds’ frazzled times. “We hold onto fear, doubt, desires,” says Dekkers. “My yoga instructor says, “There is nothing to hold onto and everything to let go of.” So I’m working with the dancers on movements that deal with looking at different aspects of ‘holding.’”

“We’re experiencing such quick changes and technology can be a wall to hide behind,’ says Dekkers. Despite some wariness, Dekker sees distinct advantages to technology. “A lot of people feel that the internet is not for small companies. But the internet can be a way for artists and small businesses to survive, giving them access to a world community.” Dekkers is working on a short film especially composed for YouTube, which will be comprised of a series of eight short clips, lasting from thirty seconds to a minute in length.

At the Cowell, inner struggle is portrayed in the duet B-Sides staged to music by Grizzly Bear. Department of Eagles provides the score for No One Does It Like You, an erotic love story that two dancers perform on a ladder.

“I’m saddened that it’s harder for people to open up now. After all, our real connections are with people,” says Dekkers. In an increasingly confusing world, it will be up to the next generation of creators to make dance relevant. And it will be even more important to answer the question of how to attract new audiences to ballet. Clearly through the creation of Post:Ballet, Robert Dekkers attempts to answer that question.

Bay Area Ballet Makes a Comeback

SAN FRANCISCO, HAS ALWAYS BEEN A DANCE TOWN. The mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, was born here; dozens of choreographers and dancers have gotten their start here or decided to stay, making the Bay Area their artistic home. The nation’s first ballet company, founded in 1933, is San Francisco Ballet which is now the biggest game in town under the leadership of former Balanchine dancer Helgi Tomasson. With 67 dancers on a 42-week contract, SFB has a worldwide touring schedule and constantly gathers international acclaim. Some would argue that its success has put San Francisco on the dance map, but others would say that it’s the unique nature of the Bay Area, with its diversity, great natural beauty, and alternative lifestyles, that provides fertile ground for a dance community.

As the Bay Area population has grown in recent decades, the ballet scene here has exploded with new companies and witnessed half a dozen professional troupes’ sustained growth. To trace the history, SFB made great strides in the 1960’s with Ford Foundation funding, emerging as one of the nation’s leading regional ballet groups in a time when the dance world was centered in New York. In SFB’s wake came several chamber companies: Carlos Carvajal’s San Francisco Dance Spectrum, Ronn Guidi’s Oakland Ballet, and John Pasqualetti’s Pacific Ballet. Of those, Oakland survives making a reputation for its excellent mounting of classics from the Diaghilev Ballets Russes era. In the 1980’s former Dance Spectrum member Alonzo King formed the LINES Ballet Company to pursue his own idiosyncratic movement style. Meanwhile, internationally acclaimed ballet and Broadway choreographer Michael Smuin’s directorship of SFB went awry, and some years after his infamous fight with the board, he formed his own company. The growing East Bay dance audience became reluctant to drive through the Caldecott tunnel to get it’s ballet fix, and so two companies were formed: Diablo Ballet founded by former SFB dancer Lawrence Pech, and more recently Company C Contemporary Ballet under the direction of Charles Anderson, a New York choreographer trained by his dance parents Zola Dishong and Richard Cammack (former directors of the SFB School).

Two of these companies in particular are comeback stories: Smuin Ballet and Oakland Ballet.

Having tragically lost their founder in 2007, Smuin Ballet is maintaining Michael Smuin’s legacy while experiencing new growth with their first ballet by european master choreographer Jiri Kylian.

Born in Montana, Michael Smuin’s western, try-something-new attitude, and cowboy spirit carried him through the revival of the then languishing SFB, through his own struggle with heart disease, and then to the creation of his own free wheeling ballet company. After his untimely death in 2007 (a heart attack while doing what he loved best—teaching and choreographing) the company has emerged triumphant.

This year the company maintains 16 dancers on a 34-week contract. “Michael’s vision was always lean and mean,“ says current director Celia Fushille Burke who was Smuin’s dance muse. “Because we’re a chamber ballet, the audience follows individual dancer’s personalities. The dancers feel that they touch people through their dancing.”

Burke describes, “It was profound for the dancers watching Michael die in the studio. We relived that day every time we had to do something without him. That year, the board was already looking into a post-Michael scenario and had created a licensing process for Michael’s work. In March, Michael had an angioplasty but in April, during petite allegro in class, his heart gave out. But we’ve made it through a challenging transition.“

To continue the legacy of this company, Burke is looking to newer choreographic voices to enrich an impressive repertoire. She continues, “Michael’s work is the foundation, but we are not a museum.” In the 1980’s Smuin brought Kylian’s ballets to SFB and so Burke pursued acquiring Kylian’s Petite Mort. Smuin Ballet had to be vetted as to their ability to dance this work by Netherlands Dance Theatre. “Our dancers need to be versatile, dancing everything from social dance to modern to ballet. We’re also bringing choreographer Ma Cong from Tulsa Ballet to mount French Twist. I hope in-house choreographer Amy Siewert creates a narrative work and we plan on choreography workshops incubating works by company members.”

Across the bay, Oakland Ballet faces another transition: it has struggled in recent years with a procession of directors and financial woes, and in 2010 will designate a new director. After founding director Ronn Guidi stepped down several years ago, former Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerina Karen Brown was brought in to help the ailing company. But once again Oakland folded. There was a feeling that Oakland was searching for its identity. Resurrected again last fall with several former company members at the helm, Executive Director Nicole Levine says that Oakland will continue to perform historical ballets and new works, and also provide outreach performances for the Oakland community. The new Artistic Director will be announced in February. In the meantime, veteran Oakland dancer and choreographer Michael Lowe muses on Oakland’s past and future. “Oakland’s original mission included reconstructing Diaghilev ballets. I have a fond memory of all that I’ve done. When I saw the film Ballets Russes I said that’s me-I’ve worked with Massine, Freddie Franklin, and danced Train Blue and Gaite Parisienne. I come from a theatrical, narrative background.” Lowe’s latest work Double Happiness with music by Melody of China was performed last fall as part of Oakland’s Jewels of the Bay, a program directed by Lowe and fellow Oakland dancer Jenna McClintock. But now Lowe embarks on a new venture, as the Artistic Director of The Black Diamond Ballet Theater in Eastern Contra Costa County. With a promising start including 18 dancers performing for 16 weeks they will perform Lowe’s work. Interestingly, another company that Lowe was associated with, Peninsula Ballet Theatre, has reorganized under Bruce Steival’s direction and will now have additional offices in Antioch.

In fact, the lion’s share of ballet companies is in the East Bay: in addition to Oakland Ballet, Walnut Creek is home to both Diablo Ballet and Company C Contemporary Ballet.

Diablo Ballet was formed from the idea that audiences prefer not to travel to see first-class ballet. Currently Lauren Jonas serves as Artistic Director of the 8-member company with a 20-week contract. Like Smuin Ballet, Diablo wants “the audience to feel the connection and know the dancers through our up-close programming, sponsored by the city of Walnut Creek in the intimate Shadowlands.” Jonas values mature dancers: ”Our dancers are international artists from ages 29-40. They stay with us for a long time. ”Diablo’s’ repertory includes rare Balanchine works (they preceded SFB with their production of Apollo), new works, and condensed versions of classics. They also have a special education program, PEEK (Performing Arts, Education and Enrichment Program for Kids) that mentors to the underserved Contra Costa schools. Jonas takes pride in this program and says, ‘I’d love to collaborate with other art forms and organizations. We did a program with ODC with the rest of the cast from Diablo Ballet and the synergy was phenomenal.”

More recently Charles Anderson’s Company C Contemporary Ballet, based in Walnut Creek, has followed in Diablo’s footsteps with 12 dancers on a 35-week contract. Anderson danced in New York and his repertory emphasizes works by Tharp, Taylor, Tudor, and Lubovitch. “We’re a repertory company. It’s not just based on my work,” says Anderson. “My parents were in ABT and the days of three trucks and dozens of stagehands are over. I invest in a handful of dancers and bring repertory affordably to audiences. The repertory is the star and the building of this company is my greatest creation.” This spring Anderson adds the mid-90’s Tharp work Surfer at the River Styx to the program. As with the other smaller Bay Area companies Anderson says, “Every one must hold the stage on their own. I need great artists with great technique, not necessarily body types. The dancers need to really move if they are going to make a Lubovitch work authentic.”

All of the Bay Area ballet companies are repertory companies performing works by an array of choreographers. By contrast, Alonzo King is the sole choreographic force behind LINES Contemporary Ballet, still going strong after 20 years with 10 dancers on an enviable 40-week contract. King, a popular teacher, evolved his own signature contemporary ballet style with a devoted troupe of dancers. Now his works are performed by the Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey, and the Ballets de Monte Carlo. LINES performs two seasons in San Francisco and they are regularly seen in New York and France. While touring this past January, LINES dancer Brett Conway told me of the rewards of working with Lines. “Alonzo puts dancers in uncomfortable situations and the dancer finds the answers. Like a good parent, he keeps an eye on us but allows us our own journey. It’s challenging as we’re on every night, there are no understudies. With injuries there’s pain and Alonzo allows us to work through that, still making the choreography work for you. A LINES dancer has to have a strong sense of self. We’re asked to participate in the process and Alonzo sparks creativity in the dancers. We’re not just there to do what the choreographer says.”

After a good 15 year-run, the partnership collapsed in 2000, but Ballet San Jose continues with 44 dancers on a 32-week contract and a flourishing school, all under the directorship of choreographer Dennis Nahat. Nahat’s ballets are featured alongside contemporary ballets and full-length classics by choreographers not often seen in the Bay Area such as Flemming Flindt, Martha Graham, Louis Falco, Donald McKayle and Murray Louis. Last year the company produced Hidden Talents, new choreography by company members and the company visited China in a 5-week tour. “We are a community oriented organization,” emphasizes Nahat, “The artists of the company reflect our community, with diverse dancers from Vietnam, China, Cuba. We check the temperature of what’s going on in the world. We’re doing Romeo and Juliet because after thousands of years we’re still not understanding, we’re still not getting it together.”

The Bay Area terrain is clearly rich with many ballet companies. Even though SFB has been around the longest and has the most prominent national appeal, each company offers an array of talented performers showcasing choreography not always seen at the Opera House. These companies have come to be neighborhood favorites, with dancers who grace the stage more often and repertoires that please their intimate and repeatedly adoring patrons. They all have their own style, but Ballet San Jose’s Dennis Nahat sums it up best: “We want to reach a wider audience so they can understand what ballet can be: that it’s totally human; nothing artificial; it’s rare, exquisite moments. A live performance is a once in a lifetime experience-the images are never forgotten. If everyone could see ballets, there would be very few wars going on.”

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