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Flash Review Journal, 2-20: I Woke up and I was a Dance Company
Stuck in the Middle of the Road with ODC; Bouncing off the Walls with Wells

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Ts’ao

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SAN FRANCISCO -- It has been a long, cold (for this town) winter and the dance scene has been equally dreary. Dark December had almost nothing but "Nutcracker"s and January was its usual bleak self until the third or fourth week. I had been looking forward to some terpsichorean stimulation to lift my spirits, but alas, with the exception of Yuri Possokhov's new "Study in Motion" (review to come in the near future) for San Francisco Ballet and an entire program by Scott Wells and Dancers, I have been left shivering out in the cold. Or more precisely I feel like a bear coming out of hibernation, ravenous, and finding hardly anything substantial to eat.

Oakland Ballet made an appearance at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the first time in many years the company has crossed the Bay to perform in San Francisco. Dimensions Dance Theater followed closely on OB's heels in the same venue, also from the place that Gertrude Stein described as having no there there. Stephen Petronio strut and fret his hour upon the same stage the next weekend. And ODC/San Francisco opened its three-week season on Thursday, February 12 with three premieres, two by Brenda Way and one by KT Nelson. The disheartening commonality among all these companies is that the dancers are the strongest element and they rarely are seen in work that shows them off to best advantage or helps develop or challenge them more fully as artists.

I doubt that my opinion of ODC/SF's gala opening performance would have been any different irrespective of the treatment I received from its publicist. Months in advance the Dance Insider received a request from a not-to-be-named employee of a major San Francisco public relations firm to send a reviewer. My editor eventually decided to cover the opening night and I e-mailed the PR person to confirm that I would be in attendance. I received a reply stating that my tickets would be held at the press table and that I was invited to the reception afterwards. Not only were there no tickets, a situation easily solved, but there were no press kits either and I asked to have one sent via e-mail. Later I was to find that my name was not on the list of invitees to the reception, a problem that took a little more time to fix, but at least was solved with profuse apologies from the head of the PR firm for the negligence on the part of his employee. By the end of the next day, I still had not received the promised press info and had to e-mail a reminder. Fortunately, I don't take these things personally, but I do take them seriously and so should the company. When ODC/SF did its promotion in-house there were never problems like that, possibly because whoever was doing the job knew what they were about and had a vested interest in doing a good job. Now that the budget allows for a larger scale campaign, it's not clear that the money has been well spent. Has this company become so successful that it is beginning to take some things for granted?

The evening begins with KT Nelson's "Ringroundrozi," to an original score by Linda Bouchard. The unrelenting pace becomes tiring very quickly, what with everyone running from one partner to another, or into groups of three. The small bits of choreography are often interesting in themselves, but the larger context lacks cohesiveness and apparent motivation as to why anyone is doing those specific movements. The intensity of the athleticism doesn't let up enough to give any breathing room to contemplate or savor the action even when the music slows down. It might be nice to echo that feeling. Cramming a dance full of steps is a mistake that less experienced choreographers frequently make as the old adage that "less is more" is often not taken to heart, and attempted in practice, until a certain level of artistic maturity is reached. I should note that the company is in transition. For years there was always a solid core of dancers who had worked together long enough that a strong esprit de corps was practically a given. Recent turnovers in personnel have left the company searching for a group identity. Of nine dancers, only three have been with ODC/SF for more than two seasons, two are marking their second anniversary, and four, or nearly half, are in their debut season with the troupe. All are strong dancers as individuals and with time will eventually metaphorically fall into step with each other.

In the interest of a smoother running program, a redistribution of intermissions might have made more sense. "Ringroundrozi" could have had a regular intermission after it rather than a 10-minute pause. Then Way's "Fiendish Variations 1" and "Fiendish Variations 2" could have been danced back to back, with her "Noir" following the second intermission instead of an overly long pause.

Perhaps I am letting my own great reverence and admiration for J.S. Bach get in my way when considering two of Brenda Way's latest creations, "Fiendish Variations 1" and "Fiendish Variations 2." For me, the tremendous delicacy, intricacy and power of the Passacalia and Fugue in C minor sing out for choreography which matches it in all those ways. Somehow I envision the movements intertwining with the notes in a multi-dimensional sensorial filigree. Way's choreography did, in fact, show variations on a movement phrase. "Fiendish Variations 1" begins first with a solo dancer, Yukie Fujimoto, then expands to two female dancers, then three and finishes with a pas de deux for Fujimoto and Brian Fisher. I find the movements rather arbitrary, a bit a la Twyla Tharp in the odd embellishments, and feel almost as if the music could have been anything, not necessarily the Bach. Sometimes choreography can illuminate the structure of the music and bring out qualities that would otherwise remain in the background, but in this case the steps seemed to distract from, rather than add to the music. The voice-over announcing the beginning of each musical variation is unnecessary and even annoying. The second part, "Fiendish Variations 2," reverses the male/female pattern, starting out with one man, joined by a second and third, and then a pas de deux. This time, however, the cast of the first part joins in for the fugue, as does the remainder of the company.

The program concludes with Way's "Noir," to a commissioned score by Jay Cloidt, with lighting and stage designs by Alex Nichols and costumes by Cassandra Carpenter. "In 'Noir,' says the choreographer in program notes, "with its playful discontinuity, character archetypes and de-contextualized or exaggerated gesture, I mean to entertain but also to invoke the chasm between form and meaning that afflicts our public life today." I suppose that if it's not part of the solution, it's part of the problem. What I mean by that is, the dancers need to push their roles more to make them larger than life, so that the piece becomes a parody of itself. As it is, "Noir" comes off as merely hackneyed. Both Daniel Santos and Corey Brady manage to ooze with slimy machismo, but the rest of the company needs to inhabit the roles with more over-the-top conviction, not just go through the motions. Having live music is always a treat, though the composition itself didn't make a strong impression.

ODC/SF, in its 33rd year, is a clear example of Darwinism, proving that you can evolve survival strategies without relying on aesthetics, much like (with apologies to Kafka) the cockroach, blattodea periplaneta, which has existed for more than 300 million years and is still going strong. At the other end of the evolutionary spectrum I found Scott Wells and Dancers. These performers specialize in quickly mutating to keep up with changes in the environment, physical, artistic and otherwise. I saw the company on Saturday, its second night at 848 Community Space in a program entitled "Zen if you don't mind." I was so engrossed I forgot to take notes.

"Improv; if you don't mind" starts off the very satisfying evening with Christine Cali, Katarina Eriksson, Melecio Estrella, Gabriel Forestieri, Frieda Kipar, Gitta Sivander and Andrew Wass winging it. Utilizing a lot of contact improvisation and whatever else they can pull out of their hats and sleeves, these dancers create the piece in front of your eyes. This is no random outpouring of self-indulgence; you can actually see it in their eyes as they assess what is happening and how they are going to complement the current action or subvert it to take the flow in a new direction. The rhythms constantly shift, playing off each other or contrasting in the extreme. Like experienced jazz musicians they know how to take the given structure of the piece and turn it into an exploration that makes the "limitations" disappear. Wass is particularly adept at shaping material from the others, whether joining them with the same movements or introducing new themes to play with that enhance what has gone before.

Jesselito Bie and Scott Wells are both intense and playful in Wells's "Your Move." A major theme that runs through Wells's body of work is athletic forms. From "On the Rebound," which uses the bouncing and tossing balls of various sizes from different team sports to "Rocky vs. Baryshnikov," which compares boxing with dancing, to the skateboarding piece "One Fell Swoop," he has examined both the physical demands and the psychological engagement that are part of competitive sports and uses them as metaphors for other aspects of life. "Your Move" is really a further distillation of this process. Bie and Wells are seated at a table and move small pieces around, arranging them, contemplating, then changing them, in a manner that suggests chess. They quickly expand the interplay into major movement strategies and confrontations. Wells even takes a running leap at the table, slides its entire length on his belly, clearing it of everything, and knocks Bie and his chair over backwards as he flies off the other end. There isn't a moment when either loses sight of the other, or stops trying to outsmart him. And as a result, there isn't a split second when my attention to the action falters or fades.

Three women, Cali, Kipar and Sivander, and three men, Estrella, Forestieri and Wells, make up the cast for "@848." To an eclectic mix of J.S. Bach, Brahms, Chopin and Stimmhorn, Wells utilizes the two openings on the back wall of the performing space for the many entrances and exits of the dancers. A wide space on the left is covered with a curtain allowing occasional glimpses into the real kitchen behind and the door on the right gets opened and closed constantly, knocked on, and even slammed. Essentially this piece is about the relationship between men and women, both between individuals in the different pairings into couples and in the general sense. Executed with a light touch, with lots of humor and tenderness, any insights it delivers are not achieved through heavy-handedness. Mostly you are gently reminded about what you already know. There are some pretty impressive contact improv-derived sections, including slamming bodies to the wall and having them in suspended in splayed positions by the extended leg of someone else lying on the floor and propping them up with a foot to the hip of the slamee. For the first time at a performance in months I felt like jumping out of my seat and joining them. The dancers' infectious energy convinced me that I would be welcome to cavort along.

The rhetorical question is: How can a small, very low budget dance company deliver so much more in terms of choreography and performance than a larger, established, financially stable one? Don't even bother looking for an answer, just go see Scott Wells and Dancers.


Scott Wells and Dancers continues at 848 Community Space, 848 Divisadero Street, tonight through Sunday at 8 p.m. For more information, please call 415-931-8648.

ODC/San Francisco repeats the program reviewed here February 27 and 29 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, Third and Howard Streets. Program 2 is performed tonight through Sunday and February 26 & 28. For more information, please call 415-978-2787.

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