writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

An Ambitious Evening

ODC/San Francisco
Dancing Downtown
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
February 12, 2004

by Rita Felciano
Copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano
published 16 February 2004

Dancing and music trumped choreography on the opening night of ODC/San Francisco’s 33rd season. Yet with four world premieres, two commissioned scores and a masterpiece of Western music, Bach’s Passacaglia in C Minor, used in an intriguingly fresh manner, the first of two programs certainly didn’t lack ambition. (Two other world premieres are scheduled for the second program which opens later this week)

ODC’s undisputed star is still Brandon ("Private") Freeman, now the company’s second most senior dancer. The charm and the velvety ease with which he clothes his every move whether descending from dizzying corkscrew turns or hoisting a partner overhead as if she was a flag, make it near impossible to take one’s eyes off this remarkable artist.

With six of its nine dancers-- Justin Flores, Daniel Santos, Yayoi Kambara, Anne Zivolich, Corey Brady and Jane Sato—having joined within the last two years, ODC’s look is changing. Understandably, these newcomers, while certainly not lacking technique or energy, have not yet developed the distinct personalities within a full-bodied team, which has always so distinctive of the ODC look.

Maybe that’s why the new works all had a “yes-but” quality to them. Either the two choreographers, KT Nelson and Brenda Way, have not yet figured out how to best use the newcomers or the performers need more time to develop within ODC’s idiom. My suspicion is that the former is the case.

With the smart and intellectually fun Fiendish Variations 1 and 2, Way was plugging into the musical games and puzzle traditions that Bach and other composers have always enjoyed playing. She set the Passacaglia in C Minor twice. The first time for three women (Yukie Fujimoto, Kambara and Sato) and Brian Fisher; the second time for three men (Santos, Freeman and Flores) and Anne Zivolich.

For Fiendish 1, she used a recording which included Robert Greenberg’s count down of the twenty variations as they occurred. The choreography is developed much the way the music is. Fujimoto dances the theme, which includes easily recognizable gestural material—a wipe of the mouth, grabbing the throat, wafting fingers—as well as distinct steps. As the musical variations build, the physical movement opens into space, changes levels and introduces other dancers, culminating in a dramatic pas de deux for Fisher and Fujimoto. While the base material evolves and grows, the seeds of the original idea remain visible much as the original theme can be heard through the permutations and layers with which Bach clothes his extraordinary structure.

The problem with the Greenberg recording is that it exaggerates periodicity and diminishes the composition’s real genius which lies in the complexity with which it pursues its trajectory. It also seems to belabor the obvious. No matter where Bach puts it, the theme is pretty difficult to miss. To Way’s credit she countermands the recording’s clock rhythm by trying to build an independent through composition.

For Fiendish 2, performed after the intermission, Way used probably not precisely the same vocabulary, but enough of it to make it a recognizable mirror image—a favorite device in a lot of Baroque art--of part one. Theme dancer Santos, for instance, is short, focused and muscular while his counterpart Fujimoto sports sharp attacks and has fiercely flingy tenor to her energy. While it is intriguing to observe how the same movement looks different depending on who performs it, the idea is not exactly novel.

The second time around, Way also set the Passacaglia’s culminating Fugue by bringing the two ensembles together and having the soloists—Fisher and Zivolich—in a dizzying pas de deux. Choreographically, this section, with its unconvincing groupings, made the least sense; it looked almost like an afterthought.

Fabulously performed, Fiendish is a well-wrought experiment, worthwhile doing but ultimately the choreography was not involving enough to stand against the score. This piece might benefit from having both parts—maybe on a split screen film—be performed simultaneously and next to each other. Without Greenberg.

Nelson’s engaging, non-stop Ringroundrozi opened the evening with a power blast which made you wonder whether the dancers would have enough stamina to make it through the rest of program. Athletic and danced so full out that even as an audience member you barely had time to catch your breath. Suggestions of games—tag, London Bridge, hop scotch, tug of war—abounded but if this was a playground, these kids were serious candidates for Ritalin. The game that counted here was the mating game, and it had little to do with Valentine Day sentiments.

Ringroundrozi started out innocently enough with the dancers, back to us, sitting along the apron, waiting for something to begin. The quiet didn’t last. From the moment of the first slide into base, this was a piece of pumped up energy which only flagged when dancers collapsed, sometimes piled on top of each other. Nelson packs her pieces with good, athletic moves but does not always build convincing wholes. Here for the most part she disciplined her invention, channeling it into distinct and related episodes. Whatever disjointedness there was, and there was plenty, seemed part of the overall design.

Individual duets predominated. One between Brady and Kambara started gently with the dancers facing each other and burst into a momentary confrontation with the appearance of an intruder. Freeman and Fujimoto’s was fierce with the dancers tearing each other until she yanked him upside down, and he simply sauntered off. Dancers dove through partner’s arms, bodies turned rigid as steel, only to melt away. Still there were moments where one wondered about the rational for all that fierce physicality. Is that maybe enough of a reason?

Ringroundrozi was effectively lit—blindingly bright from the side with a inky darkness in the middle section--by David Finn. The work’s biggest asset, however, was Linda Bouchard’s fresh-sounding and nicely structured score. It started with children’s voices and evolved into electronic textures from which acoustical instruments, most notably two violins, emerged like beacons from the fog. At the end the voices returned, and a vaguely perceived canon, Frere Jacques, rounded off the composition.

Jay Cloidt’s jazzy score, for both acoustic—a fabulous clarinetist--and synthesized sounds, included snippets of Humphrey Bogart-style movie dialogue. Performed live at the back of the stage, it spoke with a dry wit and a nuanced give and take that the choreography for Way’s Noir attempted but couldn’t quite sustain.

Program notes explained Noir’s premise as having grown out of a perceived mismatch between the pretenses and realities of contemporary life, what Way calls “the chasm between form and meaning that afflicts our public life today.” A piece, unfortunately, doesn’t fly on the basis of intent.

In the past, Way has made repeated excursions into popular culture. It’s a terrain she is comfortable exploring. Here she seems to have run out of ideas on how to create that uninflected shadowy, gangster/moll environment, most prominently found in post-war French movies.

She clearly wanted atmosphere over narrative. There is a slinky, slithering quality to all of Noir with a Mata Hari (a hilarious Fujimoto) character who lights a cigarette in the same move with which she shoots. Her counter part is the Fedora-hatted private detective (Freeman, he of the cat-pawed feet)with something of a lowly side kick (Santos).

When dealing genres, such as film noir, artists face the difficulty of needing to pay attention to it but they must present it from a fresh perspective. The tone for the most part felt right, but to often the invention dragged. There are iconic moments in Noir—Fujimoto twisting her way into getting her man, Freeman picking off his women, one by one—that almost work but for the most part this is a slithery, slinky excursion into urban shadows that needs some sharp edges.

Private Freeman in Noir. Photo: RJ Muna

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 7
February 16, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano




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