Maelstrom of classic& modern dance

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 15, 2014
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Oh, for a lookout point from which the important dance events of the last two weeks could be seen, assessed, and described! It's easy, looking down on the Bay from, say, Grizzly Peak, to take in the fantastic dance of cars feeding off the freeways onto the bridges, of sail- and tugboats and ocean liners carving out their paths, planes taking off from the south and wheeling overhead before they head out east and west, with the sun completing its arc descending through the Golden Gate.

OK, that's a little overheated, but seriously, it's all been rich: dance performances at the ballet and in the modern-dance world have been really starry. Most wonderful for me was a revisit to Mark Morris' Maelstrom at the San Francisco Ballet, where the second movement of that dance created a counterpoint of movement almost as complex and beautiful as the view down onto the Bay I described. It was a whole stage teeming with life, dancers going through their rounds for their own reasons, oblivious to the rest of us, and for once completely intelligible to behold.

But that was only one high point. Simultaneously in Berkeley, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, presented by Cal Performances at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, had revived the great AIDS-era ballet D-Man in the Waters by Bill T. Jones, which was first presented in the Bay Area by Cal Performances, danced by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. It is not only of interest to the whole gay community as a document from the era of the big die-off �" when dancers were dancing as if there were no tomorrow, and all over the country they were presenting their whole lives in their performances �" here in SF among many other memorable dances, the High-Risk Group threw themselves against cyclone fences, and Tracy Rhoades danced his own Requiem �" but also as an amazingly heartfelt and joyous revival of a dance that was immensely life-affirming and supportive for the dancer (Demian Acquavella) who created the role and presented himself to us whole-heartedly even as his light was going out. It's fitting that the new director of Ailey's company (Ailey died in the closet of AIDS in 1989) is presenting this great work on the same program as Ailey's classic Revelations.

And also that week, the gay community was honored with a Special Isadora Duncan Dance Award for The Secret History of Love, a piece depicting the pre-Stonewall life in the gay bars by the transsexual choreographer Sean Dorsey, based on extensive interviews and archival research with the still-living denizens of that world. Look for Dorsey's next performances of the work, coming soon. On the same program, a Sustained Achievement award went to the out lesbian Judith Smith, Artistic Director of AXIS Dance Company, who this past weekend had a triumph of a show in Oakland at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, of which more below. Not to mention that Margaret Jenkins, who might well be called the mother of Bay Area Modern Dance, gave her 40th anniversary season that week, and also presented a Sustained Achievement award to her former student Dr. Janice Ross, now director of the Dance program at Stanford, for outstanding scholarship that is the first systematic, thoroughly thought-through book-length work to put the dance achievements of our West Coast dancers, especially Anna Halprin, onto the map of international dance scholarship.

Meanwhile, the world's foremost scholar of the relation of music to dance, Stephanie Jordan (Roehampton University, London), gave four brilliant lectures in SF on the ballets of Balanchine, Ratmansky, and Morris. Jordan is in the tradition of Joseph Kerman, the late great British musicologist who settled in Berkeley and whose Opera as Drama contains much that applies to the classic ballets of Bournonville and Petipa, since the relationship of rezitativ to aria in opera, which he explained so cogently, is largely the same as that of mime to the solo and pas d'action in ballet.

AXIS Dance Company dancers Joel Brown and Marc Brew rehearsing choreographer Yvonne Rainer's Trio A Pressured #X. Photo: Ren Dodge

Lastly, AXIS: they performed the revolutionary postmodern Trio A, created in 1966 by Yvonne Rainer as a rebellion against the histrionics and "sell-out" aspects of modern dance, in a version sanctioned and highly praised by the choreographer. Trio A is one of the ground-breaking works that created the experimentalist aesthetic that made mixed-ability dance able to hold its head up in the first place. AXIS has gone on to dance at the White House and on So You Think You Can Dance, and enjoys huge respect in the dance community. It was fascinating and moving to see two male dancers in wheelchairs, and two female dancers on foot, dance this canonic ballet in canon.

But the great thing was the monumental new ballet Divide by Marc Brew, guest artistic director, which set five dancers along the hypotenuse of the stage in moves that created the kind of drama one associates with Martha Graham (the power, not the histrionics), a hugely dramatic work about human fate that I wanted to see again as soon as it was over. The five dancers were Sonsheree Giles, Juliana Monin, Joel Brown (who looked like Superman in a wheelchair), and Sebastian Grubb. The credits do not list Marc Brew as a dancer, but it is hard to believe he was not in it, so powerfully do the dancers evoke his extraordinary energy and presence in his solos that preceded the new work.