OMG, what a year (for dance)!
by Paul Parish
By the time you see this essay, the country may well have run off the fiscal cliff. Will we recover, like Wile E. Coyote always does? If we hit bottom, will we know? Is this it? It's a spectral feeling, and it's been a spectral year. The Republicans could not and will not believe we beat them, and we can hardly believe we did it, either. Rents are rising, cranes hover all over SF, Twitter is building, but the "holidays" were spooky, with scenes we did not want to see, like crazed gunmen shooting up the common good. New York City was battered almost as badly as New Orleans, just in time to win the election for Obama.
There have been dark times before, and during them, the theater has sometimes held the mirror up to Nature and showed us the image of what we were feeling: Martha Graham's Lamentation reflected the horrors of the Spanish Civil War; Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free showed us the boys standing between us and Hitler; George Balanchine showed modern urban life in the Age of Anxiety. In the central pas de deux of Agon , Balanchine showed us the end of segregation: a black man and a white woman danced together intimately, in terrifying balance, with ultimate respect and trust.
This past year the big-time dance companies presented welcome distractions, and sometimes hovered about the edges of our concerns, but some of the experimental artists went right to the question, "Are we a society in free fall?" and held onto it for a whole evening's work. Best of these was a tiny show, Departing Things, which could have been titled Free Fall, presented by Joe Landini at his hole-in-the-wall The Garage, a converted space on Howard St. that held 50 people at most. (Landini has since moved The Garage to Bryant, but it's very much still going.) The brilliant young performance artist Jorge Rodolfo de Hoyos used the long, skinny Garage space like the fuselage of an airplane, and created an expressionist atmosphere of mingled preposterousness and dread. He made us wait sometimes for anything to happen. Then suddenly someone would dash for the back door and fall off into space. There was a drop back there of about six feet, with a mattress at the bottom.
You never knew what was coming next. They split us, the audience, into halves facing each other, with the action happening between us. It often began in your peripheral vision, and required a 90-degree turn of the head to see what was going on. The whole evening, they terrorized and soothed us by turns. Half the small cast would regress into the kind of emotion you feel when the plane's lights have gone out and you're getting buffeted all over the sky. Some climbed into the rafters, gibbering like monkeys. Another crammed herself into the bottom of the desk the ticket-takers had used. Next, those who had taken our tickets changed into airline stewards, rolled out that desk (which doubled as a cart), and practiced their calming gestures. They poured out little glasses of water, rolled down the aisle, passed them amongst us (along with little Reese's cups and plane-sized bottles of Jack Daniels), and got us talking to each other nervously, as if the lights had come back on and the plane had settled down.
De Hoyos is a protege of Keith Hennessy, who made a huge mess of a dance last year called Turbulence, a dance about the economy. It played the Forum at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, attracted a big crowd, and adopted many of the tropes of the Occupy movement. It had wonderfully anarchic moments, including the apparition of a gigantic golden angel on the grid overhead, a glorious moment. But it died of a surfeit of earnestness, a noble failure. De Hoyos and many other fine performers were in the show, but only the magnificent drag artist Jupiter could transcend the show's internal contradictions. Many progressive artists came, everybody wished Hennessy well, and many left early.
Issues dear to gay men came to the fore at San Francisco Ballet and at ODC. Mark Morris' extremely controversial ballet Beaux featured eight male dancers dressed in pink camo unitards, moving to the sort of tinkling harpsichord music featured in Nadia Boulanger's "At Homes." It generated the most violent hostility I've ever seen at the Opera House. Nothing on the scale of the Rite of Spring riot, but still, respectable ladies and gentlemen turned to each other as soon as they were free to, and screamed at each other. Some saw it as an attack on masculinity; some I heard considered it an attack on queers (!); and many thought it gave the men so little to do – no big virtuoso steps. And of this there can be no question: Morris avoided anything resembling Big Male Dance Steps.
Me, I loved Beaux. It was like blueberries – it had a fugitive taste, one you have to pursue. You have to eat a whole pint of them before you're sure you know what blueberries taste like. Beaux is intimate, subtle, quiet, like the dance depicted on a Grecian Urn. It has gestures as simple as one man brushing his hand across the chest of another, which made me swoon. One might dance a silly little solo for his friend in order to make him smile; or they'd all dance in a line, holding hands like Balkan soldiers. SFB took this dance with them on their tour to London, where none of the critics mentioned it. They'll dance it again here next year. I cannot wait to see it again.
Meantime, KT Nelson made a beautiful dance, Cut-out Guy, for the five men of our splendid modern-dance company ODC/SF, that also studies the feelings men have for each other. In this case as teammates, in competition with each other for higher rank on the team, but also in close cooperation with each other – and also as friends, sensitive to the wounds and tender feelings of each other. Nelson used wrestling and other sports moves, dance moves, and "guy moves" in equal measure to make truly beautiful dance phrases, some of them very poignant, to surround her star Daniel Santos in his farewell appearances for the company. Cut-out Guy was sincere and beautiful, and I saw no false gesture in it anywhere. It is not gay, but it is deeply homoerotic.
Among the best news I can think of was the appearance of a real fairy at SF Ballet. Yuan Yuan Tan's performance at the heart of Balanchine's Scotch Symphony – a ballet he created in the mid-1950s to give his wife, the formidable powerhouse Maria Tallchief, a new delicacy – was a festival of lightness. She gave to airy nothing a local habitation and a figura. We saw it and were amazed, and so grateful.
Perhaps even better is the way Cal Performances has turned Zellerbach Hall into a place where live music sounds better than you can hear over headphones. They presented two big productions of Tchaikovsky ballets last year, the Kirov/Maryinsky Swan Lake from St. Petersburg, and Mark Morris' The Hard Nut, for which you could have happily sat there with your eyes closed and just listened to the music. Clarinets, flutes, bassoons, horns, cellos, violas, all the inner voicings and all the leading melodies sound clearer and more wonderful than you've ever heard them before. The dances were also supremely well-worth seeing.