Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cirque Eloize's Nebbia

First of all, I am embarrassed. I missed half of the Cirque Eloize show last Thursday night because I arrived at the theater at 8pm, the usual start time for performances at the Mondavi Center, only to find out that the show started at 7pm. Lesson: check your tickets before going to the theater, even if you're a regular.

I was really looking forward to this show too! As a former circus performer, I always delight in watching different acts of acrobatic derring do, and Cirque Eloize's last show, Rain, mesmerized me with its poetic imagery and innovative displays of skill. In that show, I fell in love with the juggler, Stephane, who deftly maneuvered various objects with the grace of Fred Astaire. I was excited to see him back in Nebbia, Cirque Eloize's latest production, which enjoyed a three night run at Jackson Hall last week.

I am told missed a good act, full of trapeze, aerial silk, clown work and some narrative exposition which might have elucidated why Stephane was in tremors in a tutu at the end. The second act opened with a playful trampoline piece where only a tight space of air between the trampoline and the ceiling was lit. This allowed the dancers to appear continuously in mid-flight - masking the work done on the bed of trampoline. It also allowed one dancer to go missing from time to time as he bounced out of the frame and clung to a trapeze. Slowly, the frame was widened, allowing us to see more and more of the action, and eventually revealing how this dancer was able to defy gravity.

In another vignette, two performers performed a duet on the xylophone, reminiscent of a Daffy/Donald Looney Toons piano battle. At one point, multi-colored balls started to fall from the sky. Dropping sparsely at first, they eventually became a deluge, until the performers were slipping and tripping on them as they attempted to continue playing. This was probably the most beautiful image of the show – more striking than the final snowfall it foreshadowed. Unfortunately, nothing happened with the balls afterwards – a few characters just came on and swept them away. By contrast, in Rain, after a deluge of rain, the performers slip and slide in merriment and glee across the wet stage.

Several other vignettes were sprinkled into the work, including hula hoops, an aerial apparatus (way too brief), and clowning, but one of the most memorable acts was the contortionist. Now, I’ve seen many contortion acts, but I’ve never seen anything like this. The best way I can describe it is extreme yoga. Rather than bending in half and touching his head to his butt (as most contortionists do), This performer twisted himself into binds I never thought possible. The situations he got himself into were so intense, many audience members were groaning in agony just from watching. I had to laugh.

Overall, the show was beautiful, but it didn’t capture my imagination as much as Rain.

Shameless plug: Come see Oklahoma! This weekend and next at Jackson Hall – I’m coming out of retirement to do a little singing and dancing.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fire and Glass: Contrasting Nights at the Mondavi

Last week I took in Tango Fire and Philip Glass at Jackson Hall. The shows, which couldn’t be more different, both drew full houses and earned deserved standing ovations from the appreciative crowds.

In Tango Fire, five pairs of dancers, a singer and an orchestra recreate a smoky Argentine dance club. The performers slink, strut and twirl their way into and out of relationships in a rough narrative that is secondary to the movement and the energy of the smoldering dance form.

The couples, each with their own flavor, take turns one-upping each other with their impressive technique, intricate footwork, dazzling acrobatic lifts and increasingly entangled displays of affection. Occasionally, the pairs come together for ensemble work, or break up into solo expressions. Singer Javier “Cardenal” Dominguez provides needed breathers between the choreography.

After intermission, things really heat up. If the first act, with its considerable sensual energy, is the mating dance, the second act’s overt sexuality represents a “third date” consummation. There are more musical interludes in this act, as if the directors recognized we would need a break from the visual pyrotechnics provided by the dancers. The music, now dominated by Astor Piazzolla, is richer, more aggressive and drives the bold choreography. The dancers are truly remarkable in some of these duets - displaying exciting phrasing choices and nuances along with their more ambitious “tricks”. However, I did have to laugh and agree when my date for the evening commented, “Tango is such an interesting dance form…the men treat the women like little dolls, throwing them around, but then the women (appear to) keep kicking the men in the balls.” I wonder how an ethnographer would describe our more American dance form of the Lindy Hop.

Philip Glass was a delight in a completely different way. Mostly, it was a treat to see a legend live! I have to admit that when I first heard Glass’s music (about ten years ago), I found it to be inaccessible, repetitive and overly cerebral. I’m not sure if it’s because he’s become more mainstream, more popular, or more copied, (or if my tastes have changed), but on Wednesday, I was engaged and moved by every piece.

Glass was personable and engaging as he introduced each piece. Sometimes he gave us little snippets about the context in which he composed something, and other times he humorously laughed off the fact that he couldn’t remember the details of what he had composed.

The concert was simple – just him at the piano, Wendy Sutter on cello, and Mick Rossi on percussion. But the program was so satisfying because it was basically his “Greatest Hits” from the last few decades. His work, which spans commercial film score work to collaborations with international artists and symphonies, has never felt so honest yet nuanced. In his signature style, the compositions start slowly and repetitively, then evolve gradually into a lush and complicated score. The order of the program mirrors this structure. He first takes the stage alone on piano, then Sutter performs as a solo voice on cello, then Rossi joins Glass, then the three play together. As he moves from his classic “Metamorphoses” towards his more contemporary compositions, the music grows more visceral and evocative.

Glass has been busy creatively in the last year, and he unveiled several new works on stage, but if you didn’t make it to the show, look for his score in Woody Allen’s recent Cassandra’s Dream.

Pretty Pretty Princess

This Friday, I joined dozens of princess-clad little girls at the Mondavi Center for the State Ballet Theatre of Russia's production of Cinderella. As a special treat, the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Michael Morgan, brought Prokofiev's score to life. The house was filled to capacity, with a line of people outside waiting for cancellations.

The company's dancers seemed to be having fun with the familiar fairy tale. The stepsisters had wonderful comedic timing and boldly pushed their technique to the edge to fulfil their bold and irreverent characters. Their mother, performed by a man in drag, also got several laughs with her physical absurdity and antics.

But it was Valeria Antisiferova, as Cinderella, and Ivan Alekseyev, as the Prince, who wowed the audience with their grace and poise.

As expected from a "story ballet," Vladimir Vasliev's choreography drew heavily on pantomime, but he managed to make this sometimes contrived "acting" seem more natural and accessible to today's audiences. And his movement had a wonderful breath and flow. While I am more familiar with the more formal neoclassical ballets of Balanchine (I grew up watching the New York City Ballet), it was great fun to get lost in the elaborate sets, the richly colored costumes and expressive dancing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

D’oh! Sorry for the Delay…Macbeth at the Mondavi…starring Homer Simpson as the lead…Marge Simpson as Lady Macbeth...

...and the rest of the Springfield residents rounding out the cast of MacHomer!

On December 11, I checked out MacHomer at Jackson Hall. As I entered the theater (mid-way through my finals for the quarter) I realized that I recalled very little of the Shakespearian tragedy other than the few iconic lines that have made their way into the collective consciousness of our culture (“Double double boil and trouble…,” “Is this a dagger I see before me?” and “Out out damn spot”). How they connected into a narrative was a little fuzzy. But, I’ve been watching The Simpsons since they first appeared on The Tracy Ullman Show, so I figured I was as well prepared as anyone.

In addition to the typical audience at the Mondavi Center, I noticed a few busloads of high school students making their way to their seats - no doubt lured to the show by their English teachers with the promise of a fun evening of Simpsons jokes.

A voiceover greeted the audience and asked us, “How many of you have watched The Simpsons in the last week?“ Hearty applause. Then , “How many of you have read Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the last week?” A smaller, but still quite impressive applause. To which the booming voice responded with an accusatory, “LIARS!” (Confession: I didn’t clap for either). We then were encouraged to get all of our own Simpsons impressions out of our systems so as not to compete with the star. Loud “D’oh’s!” and “Eat my shorts!” followed for a few minutes (I did participate in this cacophony).

Once the audience was warmed up, creator/performer Rick Miller launched into his tour-de-force one-man-rendition of Macbeth as performed by the characters of The Simpsons. The script was billed as being 85% Shakespeare (the amount drawn from the actual Macbeth text seemed to be slightly less than that). And I estimate the remaining was comprised of 12% Simpsons citations, 5% nods to other cartoons, 4% general pop culture allusions, 3% Broadway/musical theater renditions, 2% political commentary and current events, and 1% self referential digs (yes, I know there’s more than 100% there - but Miller‘s show was packed so densely, it felt like at least 112%). And the pace was quick. Miller dusted off the 5 act play in a neat 90 minutes without intermission.

Rick Miller’s technical virtuosity was unparalleled. Not only did he nail the subtle inflections and cadence of every Simpson character (the press materials say he does over 50 voices - though I didn’t keep track), but with the slightest posture change or arm gesture, he was also able to encapsulate and embody each character with his physicality as well.

So, did it work? Well, the plot of Macbeth was generally elucidated (prophesies, plotting, murder, deceit, hubris, comeuppance). The multitude of Springfield residents were all impeccably cast and realized. I laughed at the jokes….and I knew that as I laughed, I was probably missing the next 7 references - but I was OK with that. And because of the mile-a-minute ADD-like nature of the script aimed at just about everyone, the show was probably accessible to even those not versed in either Shakespeare or the Simpsons-verse.

Miller’s use of video and multimedia worked to help fill the huge stage, but I kept wishing the show had been produced in the more intimate Studio Theater where I would have really been able to take in all of Miller’s facial expressions. I had the sense that Miller was larger than life, but for me (and, I imagine, anyone else sitting beyond the 10th row), he became swallowed up into the space. I also felt his encore, in which he sang Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the vocal stylings of famous rock stars from Elvis Costello to Bon Jovi, to be irrelevant and a touch egotistical (though admittedly very entertaining).

Nonetheless, it was great to see a young crowd out and about and engaged with the show. It also was a a perfect study break for me between finals!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Young Dancers from ABTII Tackle the Classics

Tonight, New York City-based American Ballet Theatre II (ABII) treated the Mondavi Center audience to some of the most legendary ballet choreography in existence. ABII is a classical company of young dancers (age 16-19) handpicked from around the world. It serves as the training ground for the full ABT company, which has been home to ballet superstars like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova and Robert La Fosse.

First on the program was George Balanchine's classically perky "Allegro Brillante" to the music of Tchaikovsky. The dancers handled Balanchine’s precise construction of pure lines, neoclassic technique and group formations with aplomb.

The jubilant "Interplay" by Jerome Robbins was a perfect vehicle for this young company’s strengths. With flicks of flexed hands and feet, the capable dancers mixed their stunning technique and facility with a jazzy flair and sassy personality.

Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake and the Don Quixote duets provided the highlights of the evening. ABT is known for its interpretations of “story ballets” such as these, and its future looks bright if these dancers are to go on to dance with the full company.

The female soloist in the Swan Lake pas de deux was mature beyond her years. She invested her movements with exquisite emotional weight and had a remarkable sense of musicality and phrasing.

Meaghan Hinkis and Joseph Gorak nailed the virtuosic Don Quixote pas de deux with impressive bravura. Hinkis awed with her confident displays of pirouettes and footwork, while Gorak channeled the athleticism of Baryshnikov in his leaps and turns through the space.

The program concluded with Petipa’s “Carnival of Venice,” a solid display which brought back the full ensemble to enliven the stage.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Momix: Acrobatic Antics and Impossible Illusions

The 2008-2009 Mondavi Center season is officially under way, and I'm thrilled to be back, blogging about the wonderful programs offered this year.

Today I took in "Momix: The Best of Momix" along with an appreciative and packed audience at Jackson Hall. Momix, the brain child of Moses Pendleton, is basically a spin-off of "Pilobolus Dance Theater," another acrobatic, inventive and illusion-based company. You may know Pilobolus from their shadow puppet antics on the Oscars and in the Hyundai car commercials. Momix is no stranger to the commercial scene either - the women of Momix were recently featured in the "Look who we've got our Hanes on Now" campaign.

And that's what's so great about Momix -- they are accessible...and I don't mean accessible in a "it's not really art" way, but rather in a "it's getting a diverse group of people to see and enjoy dance" way.

Case in point: seated next to me was a four year old who was asking the most honest, observant and completely uncensored questions. "How are they doing that?" "Is that real?" "Is she pretending to be dead?". Sitting behind me, a septagenarian couple couldn't hold back the "oohs," the "ahhs," and the "wows!" And as a former professional dancer myself, knowing some of the tricks of the trade, so to speak, leaves me slightly less in wonder, but certainly does not diminish my appreciation of the skill, trust, and coordination needed to accomplish these image-rich feats of acrobatics.

I first saw Momix in 1993 (it was actually my first modern dance experience), so in a way, seeing them again today was nostalgic. The company hasn't changed much since those days of the early 90s - and in fact, several of the pieces on the "Best of..." program were from that era. The company uses large props and structures and fully investigates the movement possible with/in/around/above/below these "toys". With "Moon Beams," 3 women boing, roll, slink, split and handstand around physioballs (those big balls you see people doing sit-ups on in the gym) in the delightfully quirky romp. “Pole Dance” showcases 3 men launching themselves in the air and swirling themselves around the poles with a gazelle-like athleticism. “Tuu,” a male-female duet is like the love child between a Cirque du Soleil hand balancing act and the Arabian duet from “The Nutcracker”.

The classic “Millenium Skiva” features a man and women in skis – leaning impossibly, levitating, and generally using the skis in ways normal people would never think possible. In the elegant “Dream Catcher,” a man and a woman navigate a giant mobius strip, jungle gym, German wheel-like apparatus. The performers’ strong yet fluid movement quality prevents this from looking like another circus stunt. My favorite piece of the evening is probably “Sputnik (Fellow Traveler)” featuring a contraption resembling the Soviet satellite the piece is named for. This prop looks and acts like the space equipment - impossibly allowing the dancers to fly and float in orbit around the woman seated in the center cog. The weightless and apparent effortlessness of this piece is truly hypnotizing. Rounding out the evening are two whirling dervish solos performed by Nicole Loizides, and a few other crowd favorites like “Gila Dance” (a 4-man snake) and “E.C.” (a shadow dance which predates the car commercials).

Can’t wait for the next show! See you there!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Merce @ Mondavi

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company capped its extensive week-long residency at the Mondavi Center with two nights of rich, historical, stunning work last weekend.

At 89, Merce Cunningham is truly a living legend of modern dance. In the 60s Cunningham was a pioneer in shifting the intent of modern dance from meaning to movement. In other words, he wanted to do away with the trappings of symbolic narrative (think: Martha Graham) and focus solely on physical human action. In doing this, he wanted dance to be able to represent nothing and everything - to be determined by the audience. He developed a movement technique specifically focused on the lines and curves in the human body; he rejected traditional compositional forms (A-B-A); he used chance procedures to drive the order of his compositions (to keep things random and free of meaning); and he collaborated with artists who shared his worldview (Cage, Rauschenberg). Forty years later, he still finds ways to mine these ideas to create provocative work.

On Friday, the company opened with MinEvent with the Kronos Quartet (2008). Don’t let that 2008 fool you: this is old school Cunningham. A MinEvent is a piece created specifically for a “particular performance and place” but consists entirely of older material. The newness comes in the arrangement of the activities. The Kronos Quartet, sprinkled strategically in the audience, played John Cage’s equally non-sequitur Thirty Pieces for String Quartet. The music is “a series of very short contrasting solos for each instrument, unrelated to the other instruments’ parts.” The random collage of movement and sound strips both of any meaning and allows the audience to simply view the lines, shapes and formations in space. A duet need not represent a relationship, just the intermingling of two bodies on stage. The interpretation is up to each member of the audience.

Split Sides (2003)begins with a bit of tongue-in-cheek pomp and circumstance. An announcer introduces five VIPs who, in turn, roll some dice to determine the order of the music (Radiohead before Sigur Rós); the dance sequence (A before B); the costumes (color before black and white); the décor (Catherine Yaas before Robert Heishman) and the lighting cues (300 before 200). If you do the math, there are 2^5 or 32 possible combinations for this dance.

Cunningham has been using procedures of chance to compose his work for years. He has also experimented with changing up scenic elements and music on the night of the performance for years. The fact that he highlights and theatricalizes these choices so intentionally now is what interests me. Perhaps he wants to unveil his intentions, perhaps he wants to educate his audience, perhaps after all these years he does actually care whether or not people “get” his work.

Legend has it that in his attempt to appeal more to a younger generation, Cunningham approached both Radiohead and Sigur Rós, thinking one would decline. When they both accepted, he ordered two 20-minute works instead of one 40-minute work, then decided to do the same for the other elements. And thus, the piece was born. In any case, the dice rolling ceremony and the involvement of Radiohead and Sigur Rós certainly make the piece more accessible to a younger generation of dance viewers who are more removed from the tradition Cunningham was trying to break with in the 60s.

The hip bands, it seems, composed their pieces with almost too much reverence to Merce. They departed from their signature voices to create works which are beat-less, lyric-less and have a fair amount of sound experimentation to them. They certainly did their homework, but it’s almost as if they created something that they thought Merce would like (something in the spirit of Cage). I, for one, would be more interested in seeing Cunningham’s work juxtaposed with some of their less consciously composed works.

The dance, which Cunningham creates without regard to how it will fit the music, again highlights the superb technique of the dancers who, with machine-like precision carve out lines in space as they tilt, balance, and leap with remarkable artistry.

Biped (1999), which opened the Saturday performance, was, for me, the highlight of both shows. Projections of vertical and horizontal lines, frame, shape and enliven the space, while digital images of dancers (created through the motion capture animation process) complement and enrich the movement of the live dancers. The motion capture images are simple and stark – sometimes a body is represented with skeletal trace lines, sometimes as lively dots (this was no LOTR Gollum-like situation), but remarkably these abstracted images accurately portray the essence of Cunningham’s vocabulary and allow us to experience it from various perspectives. They put us over, under, above, and inside the action, and their sheer size viscerally envelop us in the movement.

At the start of eyeSpace (2006), a head pops out of the orchestra pit with instructions to “take out your iPods” (pre-loaded with 5 songs by Mikel Rouse), “set them to shuffle,” and “press ‘play’…. ‘NOW!’” My date had a very hard time with this concept. “Why do we have to have our own iPods? Why don’t they just play the music?” After trying to explain Cunningham’s abstract ideas of “randomness,” “chance,” and “personal experience,” I think the epiphany came when I likened the experience to playing Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to The Wizard of Oz (being sure to hit "play" on the third roar of the MGM lion). These are two works of art that were created entirely independently of each other, but have some sublime synchronicity when experienced together. The meaning was “found” and created by those first stoners who happened to play their favorite anthem while Dorothy was singing about rainbows. Here Cunningham challenges us to see synchronicities between the music and the movement, and to know that they are entirely invented in our mind.

The dance, itself, has the most playful air of all those on the program. The dancers seem to romp about in groups and in duets - almost breaking their stoic gaze every now and then. It’s as if they can’t help but reveal that they are truly taking pleasure in what they are doing – dancing with each other. Shhh don’t tell Merce.