Savagely Beautiful Dancing
Reginald Ray Savage’s latest program leaves you breathless. Breathless because his eleven dancers are so beautifully trained that you feel that they could handle just about anything that their choreographer throws at them. But breathless also, because too much of the choreography is so hard hitting that you long for a moment of lyricism, a ritardando, a speck of quiet. After a while the supersonic speed, the stratospheric extensions and the full-out attacks begin to blend into each other, and one wants to see other aspects of these magnificent dancers. The fact that the audience, which hooted and hollered at every pirouette, overhead lift and split, seems to be satisfied with the most spectacular aspects of the choreography is no reason why Mr. Savage shouldn’t give his dancers more varied fare. They more than deserve it. So does the audience.
Despite reservations about choreographic choices, the program offered rich satisfactions. Watching these dancers commit themselves to every detail of their tasks was seeing performers in love what they were asked to do and having the tools to accomplish it. This kind of presence is only possible through superb training. Here discipline has not suppressed but enhanced individuality. To watch Selena Chau hurl herself through multiple, seemingly unprepared turns and a split in the air, or Antoine Hunter hug himself into a spiral as a stream of electricity courses down his torso, was breathtaking. Even apprentice Christine Kahlil’s small confidently performed solo in the Marsalis exuded the kind of infectious exuberance that is the hallmark of the Savage company.
The program’s musical choices were varied and sophisticated. The evening started with “Buhaina Chant” to Art Blakey and finshed with a premiere, “All Rise,” to Wynton Marsalis who used to play with Blakey and has always acknowledged his debt to the older musician. In between there were fascinating selections from The Bejing Trio and Max Roach—a connection there too—Abdullah Ibrahim and a delectable track by Prince. All music was recorded.
The San Francisco premiere of “Buhaina Chant” had an attractively fierce and wild playfulness to it. Tiny little accent kicks had an improvisatory “oh, why not” spontaneity about them. The women took to the air with total assurance only to be on all fours in the next second instanct. In barrel turns, with their backs to us, they looked like they might be part of an endless chain. Keiron Bone, a tall, lanky dancer, kept hopping vertically; you wondered whether he was using an invisible pogo stick. Mr. Bone paired Tracy Chan in a smoothly athletic duet which sent Ms. Chan from floating on this back to his lap to curling over him. “Buhaina” also featured the company power couple, Emily Butts and Mr. Hunter. Their magnetism ranged from a drop dead deer-in-the-headlight inevitability to hotly contested games between each other.
Ms. Butts is a gorgeously long-limbed performer who can stretch and hold an extension with Amazonian regalness only to fold herself into a predatory cat ready to pounce on whoever gets to close. Paired again with Mr. Hunter, their mesmerizing duet opened and closed the somewhat ceremonial “Flowing Stream”. Theirs is a “catch me if you can, don’t you dare” relationship that kept sizzling even when intervening dancers separated them physically. For the second couple, Mr. Bone lightly put this hand on Ms. Chau’s shoulder blade. she melted as if touched by a flame. It was the kind of quiet, intensely evocative moment that one wishes to be more prominent in Mr. Savage’s work. It suggested, it didn’t spell out. Mr. Bone again got to cradle his partner, but he also turned her upside down in a split that made her look like she was a plank glued to his side.
The work also featured a rather awkward trio for Alison Hurley, Tracy Chan and the company’s third male dancer, Ethan Kirschbaum, a still very young primarily ballet trained performer. The trio, which features angled wrists and quasi praying poses by the women with Mr. Kirschbaum cavorting in the center, may have been an attempt to acknowledge the music’s subtle Asian flavors.
“Temptation” (to Prince) showed Ms. Hurley at her most sensually evocative. She made her solo both a reminder of ancient female sexuality and fertility and its modern descent the strip tease. Somehow her slow hip rolls, the twitching butt, rolling head, and over the shoulder glances were both ritualistic and just a little self-mocking. It was an unbeatable combination.
“Survivors” was a piece in which Roach’s score—what use of string writing!—was not really met by equally strong choreography. The work again featured two couples with each of the men rolling his partner between his legs. At one point both couples inhabited the stage simultaneously. Gratifyingly each performed with a different level of intensity, a rare moment in Mr. Savage’s choreography. “Survivors” most interesting section juxtaposed Ms. Butts with Ms. Hurley, both of them technically superb dancers, both of them viscerally strong. Here Ms. Butts seemed to have more notes to her register which ranged from the smouldering to the aggressive. The piece ended with a sea of writhing bodies working itself backward across the stage as Mr. Kirschbaum desperately swam towards them. Was he the survivor of the piece’s title?
“Ritus” opened on a fresh note of choreography. The women, bent at the waist and flat backs, slowly stretched their paces into an unknown territory. Otherwise the worked seemed a continuation of “Survivors” in which Ms. Butts, the focus in a group of female whirl winds, faced Ms. Hurley in a more amicable face to face encounter.
Mr. Marsalis’ score provided the inspiration for Mr. Savage’s lovely “All Rise.” The piece celebrated community in choreography in which social dancing includes both the more demure line and circle formations and the shimmies and Charlestons from the clubs. Some even seemed religiously inspired in the upraised arms and heavenward glances and candelabra twirls. These distinctions, Mr. Savage seemed to say, are immaterial. It’s all dancing, what we do together.
A slightly disheveled Mr. Kirschbaum stumbled into this community, at first unsure of which direction to go. The choreography for “All Rise” was refreshingly multi-layered with lovely touches of humor—a wafting duet to a choral section, hip shifts to Mr. Marsalis’ trumpet. In this work Mr. Savage’s choreography struck a fuller and more richer note. More please.
2, No. 47