writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Suburban/Urban Dance

Moscow Festival Ballet
Marin Community Center Veterans Memorial Auditorium,
San Rafael, CA
February 21, 2004
"Zen, if you don't mind"
Scott Wells and Dancers
848 Community Space,
San Francisco, California
February 19, 2004

by Paul Parish
Copyright ©2004 by Paul Parish
published 2  February 2004

San Francisco Bay is shaped like a wasp; San Francisco is at the waist, facing Berkeley and Oakland to the east (the Bay Bridge crosses that waist like a belt). It is a large bay - San Jose lies at the tail of the wasp, some 50 miles south of the waist. Another bridge goes across the neck of the wasp to San Rafael, county seat of Marin County, where Frank Lloyd Wright's marvelous complex of civic buildings include a handsome blue and gold auditorium where the weekend of February 21 the Moscow Festival Ballet won the hearts of about a thousand prosperous suburbanites with a generous, clear, satisfying production of Rostislav Zakharov's venerable Cinderella.

Until this production, Zakharov was just a name to me; I went to see the company, not the choreography—but as soon as the curtain went up on the Victorian family-album scene, of the mother and 2 daughters, and then the front scrim went up revealing the rest of the picture, including Cinderella and her father off to the side, I knew I was in good hands. After the show was over I've found myself admiring the entire enterprise—Sergei Radchenko, a great character dancer at the Bolshoi who founded and directs this company; Yuri Vetrov who restaged the ballet; and the artists of the company who put it across so well.

Cinderella is a dramballet, I guess, but it is full of neo-classical choreography. It was new in 1945, when Russians had just lost 20 million dead in the war against Hitler, and at the time I've read it was received with delirious joy. (There are a couple of films of Zakharov's version extant, one starring Ulanova, another Struchkova.)

It is still a cause for joy. Zakharov is an inventive choreographer, and tells the story very clearly, in dance terms; the classical dancing is conventional enough, but also elegant enough. Above all, it maintains that consistency of tone which keeps disbelief suspended and sustains the atmosphere of a fairy tale. This is the sort of thing de Valois insisted on and that Walt Disney excelled at. It is crucial to the limpid unfolding of fantasy through dance, and Zakharov has it. It doesn't matter that in terms of virtuosity and smoothness of finish the corps of San Francisco Ballet could out dance his whole company—the Moscow dancers carry their old-fashioned style with such good will and good nature, I wish that everyone at SFB could have been there to see how gracious Cinderella was, how funny the step-sisters were (indeed, they were no less than wonderful), and what a fabulously deluded darling of a horror the wicked step-mother was. It was impossible not to love her; even during the curtain calls, she was horrified to see Cinderella led forward over and over again to take a bow ("HER?!? Why is everybody so interested in HER???") She had a lot in common with Elizabeth Bennett's mother in Pride and Prejudice—she's a foolish vulgar woman who is blind to the merits of the exquisite child, but my oh my, what a joy it was to see her fly into transports about the daughters she DID love.

Whenever a new project occurred to Mama (danced in drag by Maxim Vasiliev), she could not contain herself. You could see the idea take possession of her whole body, she'd spring up in a little temps de poisson (the way a light bulb goes off overhead in a cartoon) and rush in a flurry of very tiny steps to the nearest ugly stepsister and explain herself at length.

This company has about 50 dancers, and they seem to be covering the whole USA (an 88-city tour) playing medium-sized cities and college towns. If they come near you, find a child and take them. Boys will like it, girls will like it. Top price in San Rafael seemed to be 35 dollars.

Zakharov seems to have worked out the libretto with Prokofiev, so there is a marvelous rightness to all the business that advances the plot. But what Zakharov understands is what parts of the story can be simply indicated—since everybody knows the story of Cinderella—and what parts should be dwelt on. (He's like Ashton in that; indeed, I wonder if Ashton knew this version.) He never belabors a point. Indeed, despite what they say about Soviets, he can make a point with delicacy. When Prince Charming falls in love with Cinderella, he offers her his crown, literally. He holds out the crown to her, and it becomes the point of support for a pas de deux of considerable ingenuity and tenderness, and her delicacy of feeling is well-matched by his.

There are two sizeable divertissements in the ballet: the Four Seasons, Spring Summer Winter and Fall, each bestow their virtues on Cinderella before she goes to the ball; and likewise after intermission the four corners of the earth represent the Prince's travels in search of her after the ball. China, Mauritania, Spain, and Russia are each personified in couples, each of whose dances end in a supported pose attitude devant—which gives the Prince a chance to compare the lady's shoes with the one in his hand that Cinderella left behind as she fled. At the end of the futile "search," the Prince's jester (a very clean technician named Alexander Rupyshev) tosses off a battery of fancy turns, and an air tour, ending on his knees with his chin in his hand, in the ages-old posture signifying, "What'll we do?" Any child can understand that—and at the same time it makes a powerful formal device for getting the story across in dance terms.

This company can not dance these divertissements up to the standard of the Bolshoi (for whom Zakharov made the ballet originally), but the dancers move well, they present their story from the heart, and they glow with a steady light: their appeal is natural, they have great stage-presence, they belong onstage. They may not be first-rank dancers, but they come from a first-rank school. Their head-positions are clear, the carriage of the arms is handsomely supported, they know who they are: it all adds up to an argument of considerable power.

The Prince, Mikhail Bessmertnov, may look a little too much like Robin Williams to be elegant, but his dancing had greatness of heart. Though his elevation is not great, he executes all the heroic Soviet steps with a majestic amplitude: there's a beautiful roundness in his arms, his gestures are grandly supported, he reads as a prince. And Cinderella, Olga Sizikh, seems to wear the mantle of Ulanova lightly, as a proud responsibility, without feeling she can not measure up. I liked her a lot; she is an exquisite creature, beautifully proportioned, with a light easy arabesque (wonderful cabrioles!), and great sweetness of manner. (At the end of he show, when two very little girls were lifted out of the audience up onto the stage and each took Cinderella a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums, she seemed utterly surprised and charmed beyond anything; she bent down to kiss them, and actually had to work to get to the second, who was shy, but she was Cinderella, and she had to kiss that child, who'd remember this the rest of her life. She had already won me, but that made it perfect.)

The major players were Maxim Vasiliev as the hilarious stepmother, Alexandra Zenkovich and Anna Nekhlyudova as the ugly sisters (Affected and Furious), Tatiana Smirnova as the Fairy Godmother, Grigory Ustansev as the Dancing Master, Sofia Tomilina as Summer/Mauritanian, Gaukhar Ussina as Spring and excellent as Chinese, Marina Rzannikova as Autumn/Spanish, and Maharyata Yelisieva, majestic as Winter and the Russian dancer.

There was dance activity all around the bay that weekend—too much for any one person to get to see, even in a week when San Francisco Ballet was dark. For something completely different, but in its own way wonderful, you could have driven into the middle of the city, not far from the old hippie district, where upstairs in a converted flat over a storefront at 848 Divisadero, Scott Wells was working out something theatrically interesting to do with contact improvisation.

The problem with contact improv has always been how to make A) what's fascinating about doing it B) interesting to an audience who're not themselves "into contact." The form is one of the most anarchic products of the social revolution of the sixties: to a casual eye contact improv looks like half-stoned people rolling around on the floor, and riding each others' bodies like grown children playing advanced horsie, with no rhyme nor reason, though anyone can see that the great adepts seem to melt and flow fearlessly, like waves, up and down each others' bodies, and to be having a very good time. The form was invented by the great Cunningham dancer, Steve Paxton, because he wasn't having enough fun performing, and its basic principle is to use the initial point of contact a body makes (whether with finger, toe, elbow, head, whatever, whether with a wall, the floor, or another's body) to soften perpendicular impact into a sideways roll.

The scandal is that no "notice" is taken of the forbidden zones—head may contact crotch, hand touch breast or butt—though in practice, of course, dancers respect each others' modesty, still, the etiquette is elaborately casual, "whatever." And what Wells has done in his latest piece is to make social comedy, a kind of postmodern farce, out of that "whatever."

His company of six, three men, three women, all virtuosi, have training in gymnastics, wrestling, ballet, modern dance, tumbling, capoiera, not to mention music (Wells himself once did a contact duet rolling around on the floor; while messing with his partner, he was also playing little dances of Dowland on a guitar, without missing a note or even marring a phrase).

Wells made great use of the door in the back wall of the space. A dancer would throw himself at a wall, bounce off and roll over another dancer, both then roll up into a lift with (say) her bare legs upside down in the air and her taffeta ballroom-gown skirt cascading down, the door would open, a head pop in, and "clock" the scene. The piece is called @848, but it could as well have been called "The Surmises;" over and over a virtuosic passage would end up with two dances in a compromising position, and another head pop up and "register" a thought like "I didn't know Scott was gay." A running gag was to expose the look on the extremely handsome face of Gabriel Forestieri, who'd end up some sequence of aerials lying on the floor with his hands on the hips of a woman, whose pelvis was on his face: up she'd come, and he'd be frozen in place like a prehistoric man found in a 10,000 year-old glacier, his hands beside his ears, his face the mask of hysteria. It was funny every time.

"848" is the name everyone knows the place by, and it has been the home of the most interesting experimental dancing in the Bay Area for at least ten years. The building has been sold, and soon its dimensions will pass into legend, like the odd corner of some boarding-school chapel where some racquetball game like Squash began. 848 has been a very congenial, though a confining space for dancers; Wells has used it so much, that dances of his have the shape of that room built into them. Often the dancers use the walls as a partner, and a phrase that begins with a saute in the middle of the floor will conclude with a handstand against the wall, or a plie against the wall initiating a rebound into the center. (As a ballet dancer rebounds off the floor like a ball, contacters will use the walls as if it were another floor.)

There were three pieces on the show: the first was a structured improv with a shrewd voice-over soundtrack that made you realize what seemed improvised has in fact been planned. Clever, but more fun for them than for us. The second was a brilliant Dadaist duet for Wells and the veteran contacter Jesselito Bie, which resembled a little DV8's famous "Enter Achilles." The piece, called Your Move, was absurdist in its logic but extremely successful theatrically, like a casual encounter between two dogs who realize they don't like each other. It involved a library table, a chess set, a couple of chairs, an atmosphere of violence, and many explosive moves—at one magnificently timed moment, Bie brought his fist down on a bag of pretzels with a noise that made me jump out of my chair; who knows what happened next, but the big move was a diagonal where Wells hurled himself headlong from across the room down the length of the table.

The piece ended with them somehow taking shelter, all passion spent, under the table, which became a whole new cozy little theater and happened to be fitted (as in a bomb shelter?) with little lights, where as they wrapped their arms round each other—can I be remembering this right?—when they pulled the chains the lights went out all around.

In all the commotion Bie had ruptured a muscle in his calf and had to limp off stage. Forestieri learned his role and danced it the next night. Wells' excellent dancers deserve mention by name: they are Gitta Sivander, Melecio Estrella, Gabriel Forestieri, Frieda Kipar, Christine Cali, and himself.

"848 Community Space"— to give it its official title—has been a haven for every kind of counter-cultural art and has been (with Theatre Artaud, ODC, the Jon Sims Center, and Brady Street) to the dancers who've moved here for the art, what the coffee-houses of North Beach were to the Beats. Remy Charlip has shown his pictures there, neo-shamanist rituals have taken place, dancers have wrestled in the flooded basement there, just to name a few things. They are being forced to move and are putting the best face on that by staging a month-long art exhibition and three performance weekends: an opening night performance installation this Friday, March 5th, 7 PM-midnight; a performance Extravaganza March 12-14 (headliners are Remy Charlip, Krissy Keefer, Peggy L'Eggs, Scott wells, Rachel Shaw and Leslie Seiters, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Fakir and Cleo, among others); and a Feast and Festival on closing night, March 27th. All events aare at 848 Divisadero Steet (x McAllister). Info/Reservatinos 415 922-2385 or

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 9
March 1, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Paul Parish




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