Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

May 18th, “Dearest Home,” Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion

Before the show began, Abraham offered us a choice: watch the show in silence or with music via earbuds. He warned us to stick with our choice as switching between them can be disruptive to watching. He also mentioned that the dancers rehearsed in silence, which is how they perform the piece. I found this direction distracting (almost annoying) and I ignored it. I started with the music and then at random times throughout the 70-minute piece, I turned the volume off and watched in silence – I could hear the dancers breathing and the sound of their bodies moving.

I did not read the program notes. I don’t think it would have made a difference for me. My expectations were high. I rather enjoyed Pavement  (2015) for its movement quality, and more importantly, for how it didn’t let us off that easy.  I thought I might experience more of the same. The dancing and dancers were exceptional and certain choreographic moments stood out. Yet, Dearest Home seemed to be missing something for me so I did a little research, looking for insight.

The text that accompanies the promotion video (about 1 minute in length) on Vimeo states that:

“DEAREST HOME is an interactive dance work developed in a multi-year process, focused on Loving and Longing, Love and Loss. Comprised primarily of solos and duets generated in conversation and collaboration with a variety of age groups and self-identified subcultures, HOME interweaves movement, in its most vulnerable or intimate state, with cross-cultural conversation and community action.”

I could feel the sentimentally of loving and longing, love and loss. At times the mood was melancholic, even dramatic. Yet, I did not feel the embrace of conversation or community. The stage was set for it; an intimate in-the-round space where you could see others watching at times.  

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Dearest Home is deeply personal. Yet, I also think of home as a concept and social construct that is also deeply political, particularly in San Francisco. Perhaps I was expecting or even needing, the dance to think more critically about home. I did not stay for the talkback after the show. Instead, I stayed out late (for me) with friends to discuss our mutual dissatisfaction. I was thankful for the conversation, for the chance to share reactions and tell stories. And, I was thankful to for a home to go home to.

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December 10th, The Velveteen Rabbit

Choreography by KT Nelson

This was a sweet and magical night. I took my daughter and she gasped when the Velveteen Rabbit jumped on the stage. I spent most of the show watching her watch.  So for me, this dance mattered because it mattered to my daughter. I was reminded that sometimes the best performances are about how they create experiences that linger. This was definitely one of them.

 

 

September 22th, “The Way You Look (at me) Tonight”

Choreographed by Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis

First a little thank you note:

Thank you for moving to a point to tenderness and offering a moment to reflect on how we come to love (each other). Thank you for offering emotional exchanges about bodies, looking, and feeling. Thank you for trying to speak differently about how seeing and not seeing difference matters.

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The program notes frame the piece as a “social sculpture – a sensory journey for two performers and audience…[that asks] important questions about our habits and practices of perceiving each other and the world.” For the most part, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight stays within this frame. Cunningham and Curtis move their bodies and words to confront the sometimes uncomfortable spaces between the perceptions of others and ourselves. They navigate and narrate their own experiences with disability, age, and sexuality, reminding the audience that how we look at others has consequences and that as Diana Taylor says in her book, Performance, looking can be fraught, even risky (79). 

Cunningham dances with remarkable ease (and strength); her crutches are extensions of her body that move with precision and grace. At one point Curtis lies on the floor while Cunningham walks on him with the full weight of her body. During this sequence, Alva Noë’s pre-recorded voice (the philosopher consultant) voice thinks out loud about what he is seeing. I found this to be an unnecessary interruption. Honestly, I don’t really care what Noë saw or what he thought about what he saw, and felt it contradictory to the participatory frame of the piece.

Perception is not just about the eyes and The Way You Look (at me) Tonight examines that by showing us different ways of looking and sensing each other. I think this dance has the potential for genuine learning. I even modified their “game” of peripheral fluctuation, where you keep people in your peripheral vision without directly looking at them, for one of my classes. It really got us talking about how much we are able to see, and how often we chose to not see. I can envision how this dance could be taught alongside texts that aim to explore cultural difference, rhetorical listening, and the politics of perception.  

90 minutes without an intermission is a lot to ask, but I was still happy to go home thinking about love.   

May 5th, “Tacit Consent”

Choreography by Liss Fain 

I didn’t take many notes for this performance; I didn’t need to.  The idea was simple and executed clearly, and I was able to physically and mentally move through the piece without a lot of unnecessary noise.  I don’t mean to imply that the dance was simplistic because it wasn’t.  Rather, it spoke intelligibly and complexly about surveillance and privacy with a felt playful intimacy that carried throughout the 45-minute piece.

The space at YBCA was divided into four “rooms” by hung walls crafted out of various materials that despite having gaps and slits were illuminated by various projections.  Matthew Antaky and Frédéric Boulay created an impressive physical, visual, and sonic installation.  

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The program notes pointed out that Tacit Consent is an immersive performance installation.  To see and hear everything you must walk about.”  I rather enjoyed the freedom of moving about and within the performance even if it was impossible to see the whole dance.  It was voyeuristic, playful, and intimate.  And the dancing amplified this experience.  The choreography embodied different kinds of desire for isolation, contact, curiosity, etc. by creating purposeful movement that could be felt from the feet of the dancers to the tops of their heads.  Nothing seemed to be wasted.  This dance was satisfyingly fun.

As the title suggests, there is something to consider about how easily we seem to allow ourselves to be watched and how easy it is to watch others.  What power do we “give up”?   To whom? For what purpose?  Even in all the fun of this dance there is a seriousness that lingers –  in the story of Edward Snowden – in the technology of drones – in the security cameras in our hallways.

 

April 16th, “echo::system – treadmill dreamtime; running in place”

Choreography by Grisha Coleman

I’m used to going to performances that don’t adhere to traditional or formal performance orientations.  I’m used to walking into a theater space with the performance already happening.  I’m used to sitting on the side of a stage instead of in front of it.  I’m used to not knowing where to fix my gaze while watching.  

However, I am not used to seeing treadmills on stage.

I attended this performance as a singular event, but each afternoon before the show  YBCA offered an interactive installation for people to reflect on their impact on the natural world.  I also  learned, that echo::system – treadmill dreamtime; running in place is the second installment of a “five-part epic.”  The first, “Abyss,” was performed in 2003.  This kind of extended thinking was evident as well as a density that resonated between various aspects of the performance, which included 3D animation, composed music, fragmented screens, and a metal ramp.  Coleman’s team included performers as well as multiple designers and researchers perhaps reflecting her orientation as a Professor of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State Univeristy.  As I watched, I could sense this weight of thinking and making.

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It’s taken me a while to figure out a response to this dance.  I’ve been sitting with the program notes alongside the scribbles in my notebook.  I think the weight and density of the piece make it difficult for me write as the dance seems to demand some weight in response.  Hence, I start with a question: where is the human?

In the context of echo::system – treadmill dreamtime; running in place, the answer might be found in walking.  Coleman uses walking as her aesthetic impulse: “The choreography depicts an ambulatory narrative that explores the transitional space between urban and “country”environments by following a tribe as they embark on a journey into a mythic desert.”  The human practice of walking is explored in the dance as a technique and ritual.   The grid-like movements reference urban movement that is layered with various groupings, pilings, and processions.  “The human” seems to be located within practices of mobility that have carved out the earth and segmented society.   While I know there is more happening in this piece I just can’t seem to find my way into its density – could Coleman be thinking too hard?

March 10th, “Analogy/Dora:Tramontane”

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, choreography by Bill T. Jones with Janet Wong and the Company

Bill and I have been seeing each other for a while.

I first saw the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 2006 when they performed Blind Date in Madison, WI.  I was in graduate school, and eventually, the dance became a central feature in one chapter of my dissertation.  Since then, I’ve also seen Chapel/Chapter, Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray, A Rite, and Story/Time.   I’m did not read any reviews before seeing this piece, but I did take the time to listen to this interview with Jones on KQED’s Forum with Michael Kransy.  In it, Jones claims that this piece is a departure for the company.  I am not sure how much of  a departure this piece is from the others I’ve seen – abstraction of storytelling, text, and movement all seem to be at play in this work too.  This work is a story and a telling of that story via Jones (with Janet Wong and the Company).   There is no doubt that Jones is telling this story.


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First, some orientation (thanks to the program notes).  Analogy/Dora; Tramontane is based on the oral history conducted by Bill T. Jones with Dora Amelan, “a ninety-five-year-old-French-Jewish women” recently “awarded the French legion of Honor of her World War II activities as part of O.S.E., a Jewish organization dedicated to saving children that was first established in 1917 and went underground in France during the war’s occupation.”  

Like most pieces I’ve seen by Jones, I found myself watching with my ears and listening with eyes.  There is a distinct abstraction between what is being spoken or sung and what is happening on stage.  The text, Amelan’s oral history, is spoken out loud by different dancers as they move about the stage – her story has more than one voice – it moves.   Amelan’s history unfolds as a series of vignettes accented by the mobile set pieces that are rearranged by the dancers.  Perhaps invoking the labor of history/memory making.  I don’t remember much about the dancing; it seemed to get eclipsed by the abstract storytelling and striking music (performed live by Nick Hallett and Emily Manzo).  Jones, it seems, likes to make his audiences work and because of that, the lovely dancing doesn’t always get noticed.  Brian Siebert’s review of Analogy/Dora; Tramontane in the New York Times only devotes 4 sentences to the dancing.  I am still trying to figure out if this is ok.

Since seeing this piece, I can’t help but think about my German grandparents; they survived WWII along with my mother.  They never liked to talk much about their experiences.  So much of their histories were willfully lost.  I wonder – there must be countless untold stories.  Is history ever complete?  Who gets to tell history’s stories?  Who owns history?

In many ways, this is what Jones does best – he provokes questions.  More accurately, he brings audiences to questions by re-making and abstracting stories, histories, and politics.  For now, this is enough to keep me coming back to his work.

November 10th, “Kaash”

By Akram Khan Company

I took my brother; I think he enjoyed it more than me.

I was interested, and also a little disappointed.  I think I was expecting something a little “more” and I’m not sure that I mean by that yet.  The dancers were strong and I liked the movement aesthetic, overall, but something was missing for me.  There was a stunning solo in purple light – her body moved with such precision and abandon.  I just can’t put my finger on it.  Maybe I was distracted by learning that Anish Kapoor had designed the set.  I saw his piece, Leviathan, in Paris 2011 so my expectations might have been (too) high.  Even so, I still wanted more – a message, question, or statement.  

 

August 19th, “Observations of Predation in Humans”

By Coco Fusco 

This was not a dance: It was a performative lecture.

Disclaimer: I didn’t know anything about this event except that several of my colleagues were excited to go.  And one more –  I didn’t google anything before going.  I just went.  The full title: “Observations of Predation in Humans: A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist.”

This performance was all about language in both form and content.  It was a retelling of a story, a narrative of the (human) present moment that is overwrought by domination and without much empathy.  It was told in the language of a non-human from the future, looking back.  

I enjoyed not knowing, took delight in the bits of surprise, and left not really knowing more, but knowing it a little differently.

March 13th and 20th, “ODC/Dance Downtown”

Choreography by Brenda Way and KT Nelson

I saw both programs.  In the program notes, Marie Tollon (ODC Theater Writer-in-Residence) suggests that the dances presented in this series respond to social and political issues (6).  So I took this as my starting point, or rather, my point of contact.  The first, “Boulder and Bones.  I saw the premier of this piece last year and loved it.  The relationships between the choreography, music, staging, and video work to produce a high level of art.  It was beautiful.  I am not sure that it responds to a social or political issue, however.  I don’t think it really “speaks” in that way.  The other two pieces, “The Invention of wings” and “Dead Reckoning,” seem attempts at speech, but for me they failed to generate much thinking about social or political issues.  Tollon’s program notes indicate that “The Invention of Wings” (originally a site-specific work at the Ai Weiwei exhibit on Alcatraz) is a reflection on the freedom of expression and Dead Reckoning considers the “careless impact of humans on the natural world” (6).  Neither are fully realized.  There are stunning moments in both pieces, and the dancers move beautifully.  But there was something missing.  The SF Gate review by Allan Ulrich couldn’t get past the choreography – he seemed unable to engage with the messages of these two dances were attempting to articulate.

As the person sitting next to me said, “just because you have dancers that can do anything doesn’t mean they have to.”  I couldn’t agree more.  These two pieces seemed too caught up choreographic techniques to fully bring forth messages political or otherwise.

February 19th, “Pavement”

Choreographed by Kyle Abraham

Abraham doesn’t let us off that easy and I’m glad.

I was captivated.  The technical precision and freshness of form was divine. And then there was the music, Bach and Vivaldi – I didn’t see that coming and it was treat.  I felt a sense of deep satisfaction in the bringing together of classical rhythm and Abraham’s hip hop aesthetic. The dance told a history and asked questions about our present moment.  This is a present struggling to make sense of what has happened to our streets and the “law and order” that keeps repeating.