Cal Performances Deepens its Commitment to Dance

By Heather Desaulniers

November 1, 2017, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Three dancers jumping
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.”

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.