Best of the year in Bay Area dance

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday December 29, 2009
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Jerome Bel and Pichet Klunchun. Photo: Jerome Bel
Jerome Bel and Pichet Klunchun. Photo: Jerome Bel

Last year, looking back was bizarre, since the consumerist bubble had broken and we were traumatized. This past year's been weird as well, since nothing decisive has happened. To me it's felt like the "phony war" of 1914 must have, before the real thing got rolling. But even in the midst of uncertainty, many wonderful events occurred.

In a dance culture as rich and varied as ours, no single person can actually catch everything worthy. Let me start my 10-best list with the great thing I missed: Pichet Klunchun and myself, by Jerome Bel, which has been touring the world and was presented locally at Yerba Buena. Bel is the dernier cri in French avant-garde. His typical piece has a crowd of dancers onstage apparently listening to their own iPods and moving each to her own music. In the debate/conversation/lecture-demo with the great Thai dancer Klunchun, there's a deeply sincere attempt of two cultures to meet and find out about each other without either giving up, in any way, the way they see their own art. Each is an astonishing mover, according to all reports, and I must have heard from a couple dozen dancers that they were charmed beyond anything else they'd seen in a long time.

The most charming thing I saw all year was the Bolshoi Ballet's production of Marius Petipa's Ballet a grand spectacle, La Bayadere, in Zellerbach Hall. This show was part of the retirement celebrations for Robert Cole, who's headed Cal Performances for decades. His supporters on the board had raised enough money to bring both the great Russian companies in massive, grand shows, the likes of which we may not see again for a long time. Of these, the brilliant Bolshoi was the most glorious. That company shows no signs of age: the most difficult steps were danced as if they could just be tossed off with ease. The 100-year-old choreography looked as fresh as the first good breath of the day, and the famous "Shades" scene (an opium dream, in which the hero sees a fractionated vision of the woman who died for him, multiplied over and over as the stage fills up with ghostly figures moving in uncanny unison) swept like waves towards a shattering climax.

Hippo in a Tutu is that rarity, a book of reliable, intensely readable dance reference that covers a popular subject – the dancing in the great Disney cartoons – in truly satisfying detail. Author Mindy Aloff is a serious scholar at Barnard College, a fine critic, and a real lover of Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and the early Silly Symphonies (so, by the way, is Mark Morris, who wrote the prologue to the book). Each film gets serious coverage and cross-referenced to what was happening both in Hollywood and in the world of "art dance," especially Balanchine. There's an especially valuable interview with Marge Champion, who became a famous Broadway choreographer but was trained by her father in ballet, and was not only the original model for Snow White, the rotoscoping of her dancing image makes her (in the scene where she dances with the dwarves) plainly visible through the cartoon.

Another instance of popular art that's also great was the hula version, performed at the Ethnic Dance Festival , of Roberta Flack's big hit, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (which I recall as the gay anthem of 1972, at least in New Orleans, where I heard it nightly at Lafitte's or the Caverns). Flack made a ballad out of a neo-folk song, written by Ewan MacColl for Peggy Seeger (who became his wife), and Patrick Makuakane's contemporary hula mua setting of this song was the most romantic dance I saw all year. He set MacColl's lyrics in all seriousness, and the women's flowing, melodious arms gave each word ("I thought the sun rose in your eyes, and the moon and stars were the gifts you gave to the dark and endless sky") total commitment, and the whole audience felt it.

There was the astonishing performance by Oakland Ballet's ballerina/artistic director Jenna McClintock, dancing in a stripped-down version of the classic French ballet Coppelia with another company (Diablo Ballet), where she evoked the Ballets Russes diva Alexandra Danilova, and probably danced even better than the great Choura herself. Her transitions through the various modes of storytelling, from mime to pure dancing, were dead-on target, and at all times created the fairy-tale world that made all the rest of the ballet make sense. She had excellent support from the rest of the company, especially Erika Johnson and Jekyns Pelaez, but the level of McClintock's understanding of this difficult style, which ranges from the human to the extremely artificial, was extraordinary.

The single best news in ballet was the emergence of Sarah van Patten as a great communicator, who danced the whole season through in every style, from Swan Lake to contemporary to Futurist, with conviction, deep artistry, and the kind of elegance that makes you feel that the thing was inevitable, like sunrise. She has been for years a dancer's dancer, the one whom dancers in the audience look to for revelation of the hidden wonders of the choreography. But it's grown to the point now where everyone can see this, and she's won the audience without pushing herself on us or pandering in any way.

Christy Funsch, choreographer and dancer, excels at the dance put on in a small space for a small audience. She puts me in mind of Marian McPartland's jazz piano playing, the artistry is exquisite, first-class, but the effects are most telling when they are most subtle. Insidious Hope, danced in one of the small studios in Project Artaud, was the most intimate dancing I saw all year. Her stage mask is like the classic actress Jean Arthur's, and like Arthur, she uses her privacy to great purpose. Her tiniest move has outsized significance.

The radical performance artist Keith Hennessy 's revival of Saliva gave some idea of what it was like at the height of the AIDS terrors without recreating the apocalyptic atmosphere which surrounded events like his. It did involve hanging out under the freeway down where the bridge latches onto solid ground. I've never before been to a show where the star told us he'd been arrested that afternoon, then sketched out a plan for what we should do if the cops broke up the show again. "Those of you with priors might want to fade back down the hill." The dancing gave some idea of what it was like to dance as if there were no tomorrow, though he's 20 years older now, thrashing against concrete pillars, hanging mid-air in straps and fighting for purchase.