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Review Journal, 5-26: Belly of the Beast
Playing 'Wolf' with Zhukov; Process of Illumination with Kunst-Stoff
By Aimee Tsao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Tsao
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Choreographing
a ballet to be performed by very young dancers for an audience of
families with children is not a simple task. Anyone who has ever
spent substantial amounts of time with kids knows that they have
little tolerance for things that are not interesting, and they can
be very vocal in their displeasure. To successfully produce this
type of dance theater piece requires engaging children on both sides
of the footlights. Yuri Zhukov has just very skillfully choreographed
and designed sets and costumes for his own version of "Peter and
the Wolf" to the Prokofiev score for City Ballet School's Spring
Concert at the Cowell Theater, seen this past Saturday. After a
career as a dancer with the then-Kirov, San Francisco, and Birmingham
Royal Ballets, Zhukov currently teaches at the San Francisco Ballet
School and choreographs for City Ballet School while spreading his
wings further afield as a stage designer, most recently for Yuri
Possokhov's "Firebird" with Oregon Ballet Theatre in Portland.
As the introduction
of the main characters of the story begins, the curtains part revealing
a screen topped with the banner "Peter and the Wolf." The narrator
explains that each role is identified with a different instrument
of the orchestra, as the shadow of that character dances onto the
screen and performs a few signature steps of that role. The story
proper starts as the curtain opens all the way and the screen disappears.
All the characters now have the opportunity to show themselves in
greater detail, developing those motif steps and adding some new
ones as well. Peter, portrayed by Dylan Murphy, enters through the
gate and cavorts in the meadow, which is alive with giant flowers,
bumblebees, butterflies and ladybugs, who all have a chance to perform
their own dances. The costumes here are very colorful -- simple
yet very effective. The Bird, Jeraldine Mendoza, flits about and
alights in the massive tree upstage left. The Duck, Simone MacNeil,
waddles around and jumps into the pond with water formed by two
blue lengths of fabric held and rippled by the Flower girls. When
the Cat, Alex Schneider, slithers through the grass, the Ladybugs
hold up green metallic poles to represent the blades swaying in
the breeze. There are many more inventive touches to come.
The Wolf is played by
a young boy, Sasha Patsel, on stilts covered from head to toe in
gray fur, wearing a mask with sharp teeth bared in a snarl. When
he seizes the Duck and swallows her there is a blackout, followed
by the Duck alone in a small pool of light, shivering and frightened
in the Wolf's stomach, doing a very short parody of the "Dying Swan."
Peter really does lasso the Wolf by the tail and that villainous
beast is so ashamed at being caught that he tucks his fifth appendage
between his legs.
At last the hunters
arrive with their blunderbusses. They're portrayed by four girls
(there generally aren't enough boys in this age group) of medium
height, the last is a head shorter than the rest. As a running gag,
this pint-sized stalker has the last word in every movement phrase,
either coming out late from the wings, turning in the opposite direction
from everyone else, or taking the last shots in an outburst of gunfire.
A trip to the thesaurus
(a prehistoric reptile) is hardly helpful in suggesting any alternative
vocabulary options that avoid the tendency toward sounding saccharine.
But, in the best sense of all these adjectives, this production
really is charming, delightful, enchanting, inventive and inspired.
You don't need to ask any kids in the audience what they thought.
Besides the laughter and applause, the feeling of profound enjoyment
When you think about it, choreographing for an adult audience isn't
any easier. The difference is that grownups have been socialized
and have learned to have discussions about the value and meaning
of works of art, not limited to dance, in a "civilized" manner.
Tongue-in-cheekily I add that that is why we have critics, though
as a critic I often find myself trying to recapture the fresh and
unpolluted mind of a child, while maintaining the complex frames
of reference I have developed about dance and life. Here I will
try to sort through my reactions to and then reflections on Kunst-Stoff's
sixth annual home season at ODC Theater. On Sunday, May 15, I saw
Program 1 and this past Sunday, May 23 caught Program 2.
For the past half dozen
years, under artistic co-directors Yannis Adoniou and Tomi Paasonen,
Kunst-Stoff has presented some of the most unusual and innovative
dance and multi-media performance/theater in the Bay Area. This
season is no exception, but surprisingly, despite very different
styles and formats, the essence or intent of all four pieces of
the two programs is nearly the same. And oddly, I would not have
realized this had I not read the choreographers' statements in the
press kit. If they had been successful in putting across their ideas
it would have been immediately evident that all the pieces were
dealing with the same themes, despite the contrasting means of conveying
The first two pieces
of Program 1 were shown last summer in slightly different versions.
Amy Raymond, who dances with William Forsythe's Ballett Frankfurt,
officially premiered "Self-Seeking-Self" for five women, previously
presented, as a " work-in-progress," under the title "Self Multiplied."
(My pet peeve -- inaccuracy in printed programs -- raises its vacant
head.) To music by Ekkehard Ehlers and Stephan Mathieu (or Eckhardt
Ehlers and Stephan Mathiew according to last year's program), Nicole
Bonadonna, Kara Davis, Juliann Rhodes, Leslie Schickel and Evann
Siebens unleash their considerable joint intensity, in solos or
duets against the remaining dancers. They are possessed and never
let up. The opening two sections have a dense quality, with a driving
rhythm that wears heavily. I could use more breathing room, a few
moments of interspersed stillness. Somewhere in the middle the rhythms
begin to shift, there is more give and take and some genuinely emotional
moments emerge. The dancers fall or lie down with great frequency,
only to get up and do it all over again. The final effect for me
is Sisyphusian, leaving me wondering when will the cycle ever end,
especially as Rhodes repeats over and over, "Don't fall."
is an installation utilizing video projections by Siebens with choreography
by Adoniou and Paasonen danced by Adoniou. In a contemporary homage
to the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte, both creators attempt
to layer the surface appearance of things with their deeper meanings.
In a smaller performance space upstairs from the main theater, Adoniou,
in bowler hat and dark overcoat, sometimes wielding an umbrella,
dances among audience members as they wander between video screens
showing Adoniou performing the same steps on busy intersections
downtown and on the beach and against a blue cloud-filled sky. Moving
the audience up to the other space, and down again, in small groups
ruins the integrity of the evening.
The premiere of Adoniou's
"In-Sight" concludes the program. In collaboration with photographer
Cara Judea Alhadeff, Adoniou has choreographed another multi-media
work for six performers. A sensuous curved fabric tube hovers above
the floor with a pair of legs coming out from the bottom, rubbing
and scratching each other, and fidgeting. Along the front of the
stage four dancers lie behind small cubes of fabric with projections
on them. After some dancing by Bonadonna, Davis, Julian DeLeon,
Rhodes and Schickel, Nol Simonse emerges naked from the bottom of
the tube. Then some rather lyrical dancing is mixed in with more
bizarre movements, until Davis takes her turn at being born naked
out of the tube. She stands in a photo projection and gestures with
her hands. Unfortunately, most of the photos are too blurry and
broken up by being projected onto uneven surfaces. It's a real pity
because I later saw prints of some of them and found them compelling.
There is a particularly memorable and humorous section with all
the dancers lying down in a line, their legs pointing upward and
dancing against a picture of windows. One dancer stands up and is
supported by the legs, but ends up fighting with the very things
that were holding him up. In the very end, four dancers stand up
inside the tube, and the surface is distorted by arms and torsos
pressing against it. Davis and Simonse dance until Davis makes her
retreat to the tube/womb, leaving him alone. While there are striking
moments, I never have the feeling that I am being lead on a journey
and I feel that some of the technical aspects detract and distract
from rather than enhance the dancing.
The following week,
just before I arrive at the theater for Program 2 I read a quote
from Picasso: "Art is the elimination of the unnecessary." As it
turns out, this is a very accurate description of "Super Vision,"
directed by Paasonen and for which he designed the costumes and
sets. Created in 2002, it is reprised here with some minor changes.
The piece begins while the audience is still in the lobby. Performers,
wearing dark suits covered with large photos of naked body parts,
wander among the spectators, telling stories while ignoring us.
By the time we are seated, the stage is filled with nine jabbering
bodies. In the center is a blue velveteen couch, the seat burned
out on its left end, with a ripped lampshade hanging over it. David
Jude Thomas's music provides a backdrop of cows mooing and crickets
chirping. A man in a white suit, Thomas, enters and the chatter
ceases. He gives an annoying sales pitch, the voice of capitalistic
single-mindedness. He continues his spiel with animated gesticulating
while sitting on the couch. The talking builds to a deafening pitch
again and a naked man, Adoniou, walks in, wanders about and disappears
into the audience, reappearing in a pair of jockey briefs. The dancers
form small groups, then reform them with different people, while
the talking rises and falls in intensity or suddenly stops and starts
again. A bizarrely-clad woman, in a costume of colorful paper scraps
from head to toe, enters from the left and walks at a glacially
slow pace. The dancers are still grouping and regrouping. They start
walking around the stage forcefully, and Adoniou walks in the opposite
direction until some defect and join him. One man is pushed down
and when he gets up to run, a woman jumps on his back and they join
everyone in running, circling the stage faster and faster. The piggybacking
woman falls off and is pushed and kicked as the others run by. The
violence and chaos mounts, dancers run from the front of the stage
to the back wall. They execute recognizable fragments of movement
-- frisking each other with hands on the wall, cheer-leading, hip-hop
dancing, aerobics exercising, you name it. Then they start taking
off their suits and falling to the floor, all topless, wearing skirts
made from men's dress shirts, buttoned around their waists, complete
with ties as waistbands.
The trash-covered woman
has reached the other side of the stage and picks up a video camera.
She starts shooting the dancers as they lie calmly, with the resulting
video images projected on the back wall.
Next,Thomas stands and
slowly exits while his video image shadows him. Adoniou begins removing
the suits that are lying on the floor, or that are still partially
on some of the dancers. He unties shoes and gently removes them
from others, then returns to the back left corner and sits at a
table, where he fingerprints the dancers one at a time and issues
them black boxes. The first man finger-printed draws back a curtain
that covers the left wall, revealing a mirror. He talks about his
performance training and experience while looking at his own image.
One by one the others join him and he pulls back the curtain further
as he moves upstage. They each have a story to tell about themselves
or comments to make about the piece they are in the midst of performing.
These are by turns hilarious and poignant. Thomas, at the microphone
downstage right announces, "And the winner is...," then proceeds
to video-tape the audience, which is projected onto the back wall.
The trash woman crawls out and dances until the other dancers all
attack her, pulling off her costume, handfuls at a time, exposing
Schickel in a red, tattered dress underneath. Suddenly water showers
down from the lampshade. All, except Schickel, fall and writhe on
the floor. Thomas sits on the couch, now upstage right, and laughs.
The drenched dancers
are lined up downstage facing the audience. Adoniou slowly removes
their costumes. They stand completely naked and recite the familiar
pledge of allegiance to the flag. They turn and walk to the growing
puddle of water, slipping and falling, eventually crossing and recrossing
the stage as they skim, spin and tumble in a variety of contorted
positions to a soundtrack describing the physiological functioning
of skin. Schickel stands at the mike with a large envelope and declares,
"And the winner is...," pulling out a small envelope. She repeats
the process over and over as her voice grows fainter and the envelopes
grow smaller till the final fade to blackout.
I usually don't describe
a performance in such great detail, nor do I refrain from commenting
on it in the process. I hope that the strength of the images is
sufficient that you can imagine the devastating impact this work
has on the audience. The work is deeply affecting, and sends one
away nearly shell-shocked. There are so many layers, so many details
that it almost demands a second viewing. And yet, our lives are
already filled with the same violence, conflict, deceit and vulnerability
that are shown here and you only have to open your eyes to what
is already there on a daily basis.
(Editor's Note: To read Aimee Ts'ao's review of an evening of
work presented by Tomi Paasonen in Berlin in 2003, please click here.)
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