Oakland Ballet “Jangala”

Oakland Ballet Company
March 10,13,16, 17, 2018
Skyline HS, Oakland
(Other sites; Castro Valley HS, San Leandro HS)

Indian Dance: Bharatanatyam and the Oakland Ballet

Graham Lustig, Artistic Director of the Oakland Ballet, grew up in London and learned the Rudyard Kipling’s works, particularly “The Jungle Book.” With movement vocabulary from the south Indian classic dance form, bharatanatyam, Lustig has devised the story of Mowgli, a lost boy who survives in the wild. In this adaptation Mowgli’s life starts in the city, proceeds to the wild animal scenes (is there a difference?), and then, with encouragement and affection, returns to city life.

Jangala” was preceded on the program by the Nava Dance Theatre, a bharatanatyam dance compony based in San Francisco. The six dancers, led by Nadhi Thekkek, and six musicians gave us the story of “The Little Elephant in the Room.” It was a charming work, featuring a dance-conversation between two dancers, one convincing the other that that the elephants home (the forest) is worth saving. The rapport between the dancers and musicians was elegant. The dancers face, hand and footwork conveyed the many emotions registered in the story. Nava can be seen at the SF Ethnic Dance Festival. Their web site is www.navadance.org.

An alumnus of Ailey Dance, Sachit Babbar was the heroic Mowgli in Lustig’s “Jangala.” He is transformed from his city person to the wild child who is beset by the jungles animals, both cruel and kind. Eleven dancers from the Oakland Ballet Company, in splendid costumes, played all the roles. Baloo the Bear and Baghera the Panther (Calvin Thomas and Frankie Lee Peterson III) were particularly charming as those who rescue Mowgli from the power-hungry Tiger, Shere Khan (Tori Jahn). Eventually Mowgli prevails, having gained courage from his animal friends. A village woman, Messua, adopts Mogli and teaches him human ways, but he escapes back to the jungle with his wolf companions, Rasha (Samantha Bell), the mother wolf and her mate, Father Wolf (Christopher Dunn), who welcome him back since he has defeated Shere Kahn.

If you take children to the show, read “The Jungle Book” beforehand. Although the dance sections are clear and delightful, the story moves quickly and its more fun to know the characters and their animal selves. The production is marvelously costumed and scenic design is credited to Howard Siskiwitz, The extraordinary lighting is by JC Moore, ballet master is Bat Abbit and the Bharatanatyam Advisor is Renuka Srinvasan.

All the staff, cast and dancers and especially Graham Lustig are to congratulated for this extraordinary production. It is wonderful to know that Lustig, is including the Oakland community in his outreach and reaching that community where they live, in the various neighborhood high schools. This production however is work bringing to a larger audience at the Paramount or another venue so that many can enjoy it.

Joanna G. Harris

Sanchi Babbar, Mowgli, Nadhi Thekkek, Messua, In Oakland Ballet’s Jangala
Graham Lustig, Choreographer

Wayne McGregor "Autobiography"

Company Wayne McGregor
YBCA San Francisco
March 8-10, 2018

Contemporary Dance

The performance of Company Wayne McGregor’s “Autobiography” demands that we look at contemporary dance, its vocabulary, its technical and theatrical effects, its motivation and of course, its performances. The SF Bay Area is subject to these performances week after week, often to great applause and enthusiastic reception. What is happening on stage nowadays is often a mayhem of politics, techniques, intellectual presumptions (and pretensions) and, thank goodness, great skill in execution. All of this went into McGregor’s scientific sequencing of his own genome to make “Autobiography, “an abstract meditation on aspects of sex, life, writing, refracting both remembered pasts and speculative futures.” (program note)

What then is the dance? And what do we the audience see and know? As in many productions of this kind we learn about abstract, electronic music, about strange sometimes offensive lighting (such as when the lights shine directly into one’s eyes), and a sequence of “moves’ that combines some ballet, much locomotion, standing in place, and physical activities with another dancer that resemble “stunts and tumbling.” Contemporary dance, either through contact improvisation or the study of gymnastics, persists in devoting dance sequences to endless series of lifts, falls, rolls and general physical embrace and contact with one another. Rarely is there a dance phrase that develops without some suggestion that a partner is needed for such contact.

Of course there is no meaning intended in these activities…or is there? They are just movement phrases. Yet, for most people, when physical contact is made, the implication is that it is aggressive, manipulative or responsive to need or desire. Since there is little follow through on such contact, we viewers just assume that these actions are neutral as walking or jumping. Long ago (at least 25 years), choreographers seemed to have given up ‘meaning’ or ‘expression’ in dance. If they have not, why are their intentions not clear?

Bay Area choreographers specialize in political statements, personal stories and theater arrangements meant to delight and to amaze. These are often accompanied by lengthy verbal statements. Fortunately, McGregor’s intentions are all in the program notes. Other reviewers of “Autobiography” have noted that the 23 randomized sections have names such as “Nature, Nurture, Aging, Sleep.” For the YBCA program these sections were not named, just proceeded one after another through the “music” by Jin, the strange set design by Ben Cullen Williams, (one set looked like cruel cages), the intrusive lighting by Lucy Carter and the “androgynous” costumes by Actor Throup.

However the event Is saved if one can look beyond and through all the pretensions and watch the wonderful skill of the dancers. Their work, as in most performances, shines through and beyond intentions and decor. All ten of McGregor’s dancers are beautifully clear in their execution of postures, contacts and travel in space. I would wish for more continuity in the movement phrases so that one could follow a dancer through an extended movement statement; but that is not the style. In the darkened stage one event follows another so that the dancers too become part of a fragmented environment. Nevertheless praise is due to McGregor’s “Collaborators” (as he terms his dancers): Rebecca Bassett-Graham, Jordan James bridge, Travis Clausen-Knight, Louis McMiller, Daniela Neurgebauer, Jacob O’Connell, James Pett, Fukiko Takase, Po-Lin Tung and Jessica Wright. They well deserve the enthusiastic applause they earned.

Joanna G. Harris

James Pett and Fukiko Takase in Autobiography.















© Dave Morgan.

Eva Yerbabuena

Eva Yerbabuena Company
Cal Performances: Zellerbach Hall UC Berkeley
March7, 2018 8 PM


Eva Yerbabuena is a one woman powerhouse dancer. She brings to Flamenco a dramatic skill not usual in the folk tradition of Flamenco, at least not usually seen in Bay Area Flamenco. She divides the program into seven parts, all of them solos, except for one section (I guess Nana and Coffee) where she interacts with the singers. That section, for me, was the most pleasant. Yerbabuena must be admired for her dramatic ability, but for me, it grew melodramatic, overly repetitious and emotionally wearing.

Except for two sections when she dons shawls and flings them about, her costuming is always black. Her singers, guitarist, percussionist and violinist are dressed in black also. The stage is lit with various diagonal down spots that barely illuminate the spaces.

For one number she uses a lopsided chair, which could be a torture rack. For another, she spreads herself on a table which ultimately falls apart. It is all very effective but tends to be performed at the same level of muscular intensity and with repetitious gestures.

Yerbabuena begins in the dark walking on crossed diagonal lines, each walk quickly blacked out. Her arm gestures are huge, although she is a small woman, she projects enormous range. Her movements tend to be symmetrical: first one side, then its echo on the other. On the chair, she sits, lies and spreads herself out, legs wide apart. Each section ends, usually, with arms outstretched to the heights. Such gestures call for wide applause.

To this reviewer, she is best when she hauls up her skirts and displays the wonderful foot work so famous to Flamenco. We then accept and enjoy her dance mastery.

The vocals for this program were provided by José Valencia, Enrique Exstremeno and Alfredo Tejada. They are all brilliant is tone and rhythm, although the electronic amplification tends to produce the same pitches. Paco Jarana on the guitar, Antonia Coronel, percussion and Vladimir Dmitrienco, violin, provided fine musical accompaniment.

It was an usual and important dance experience to see this performer who credits both Pina Bausch and Carolyn Carlson for help in the development of her work. It is extraordinary work at the Martha Graham level of emotional projection. A more varied and less dramatic intensity within the program would make it a more enjoyable event.

Joanna G. Harris

photo: Eva Yerbabuena
Courtesy of Cal Performances

Black Choreographers Festival: “Here and Now”

Black Choreographers Festival
Laney College, Oakland
March 3, 2018

“Here and Now”

Kendra Baarnes and Laura E. Ellis, directors of the program, welcomed us to the 14th Annual season of the BCF “Here and Now.” Besides the three weekend performances, two in San Francisco and one in Oakland, the Festival is presenting Panel Discussions and Master Classes. It is particularly relevant in these times of “artistic visibility and activism through arts and culture.” The March 3 program certainly demonstrated  commitment to current events.

There were nine works on the program. Some were devoted to today’s commitments to the women’s movement, the homelessness problem, dependency issues and always, the human condition. In all the dances, there was real artistry, exuberant dancing, fine fluid technique and excellent group interaction. Enthusiasm was visible; some went on too long.

District 6: 3692 Diamond Ave” (2017), choreographed by Ashley Gayle and Noah James was outstanding. A study of homelessness, the piece was dedicated to all “mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunties, cousins and daughters who forget to take deep breaths.” The eight performers portrayed various persons who, often in despair, find and leave each other in the cold of their condition. They were all very effective.

Another gripping work was Natalya Shoaf’s premiere of “Complicated.” Five performers worked effectively with one another to give us a presentation of brutality to women. Without actually coming to blows in any way, they were able to demonstrate the cruelty inflicted and the emotional consequences of such situations. Brava to all!

Another such work was “experts from existence” (a work in progress) by Dazaun Soleyn. We are told that “existence is a visceral exploration of the dancers, artist, experience with code switching.” Three dancers made this a viable number.

There were pleasant, joyful hip-hop numbers to cool the tensions. “Skywod” was one (choreographed by Phylicia Stroud and Tzylon Sims) and Frankie Lee Peterson III gave us a solo finale that was wild and lively.

Congratulations to all the choreographers, dancers, designers and leaders who make the Black Choreographers Festival such a success. We are always moved and delighted by their efforts.

Joanna G. Harris

Liss Fain Dance

Liss Fain Dance
“I Don’t Know and Never Will “
ODC Theater, San Francisco
March 1-3, 2018

Liss Fain’s work for “I Don’t Know…” is a collaborative effort with the dancers who “merged their voices with mine.” She began the work by reading old letters and “re-experiencing the deeply personal contact that my friends and I created.” It was a truly sentimental journey for her. She found the vocabulary with her dancers. For the most part, that consisted of multiple embraces and highly emotional lifts and floor falls. The percussion music by John Glenn, Nava Dunkkelman and Jacob Felix Heute was beautifully played on selected instruments. Nevertheless, with all good intentions and the participation of fine artists, the dynamics of the work did not fully come across to the audience.

The stage space was imaginatively constructed as a series of garden fences and live branches, brilliantly achieved by Matthew Antaky. The dancers move through and around these, sometimes making contact with the real planting dirt on the ground.

A narrator, Val Sinkler, is always present on the set, telling the story in a low commanding voice that was mostly audible but not always clear. The dancers, Sonja Dale, Megan Kurashige, Sharon Kuashige and Sara Dionee Woods-LaDue performed their remarkable copoiera like dance moves with ease but somehow without the excitement of strong interactive energy that is intrinsic in that dance form. Megan and Sharon were the outstanding dance artists, though all performed with devotion and clarity.

Fain asked the audience to stand and move through the set. Most people just stood still blocking those who were seated. Some audience members moved up into the house. This adventurous perspective was intriguing but often made the much used floor movements difficult to see over the show’s 90 minutes.

For this reviewer, the sentimental aspects dominated both the movement and the words. Dynamics in dance nor music were rarely varied and watching Fain combing the dirt on the floor at the end did  not bring resolution to the experience. There are good intentions in “I Don’t Know …” but under these circumstances they were not achieved.

Mary Domenico gets credit for the handsome black costumes.

Joanna G. Harris


Company Wang Ramirez “Borderline”
Cal Performances Zellerbach Hall
Sunday February 25, 2018


Borderline” is an international enterprise with support from institutes and theaters in France and Germany. Honji Wang, dancer, choreographer and artistic director, was born and raised in Germany by Korean parents. Her training includes hip-hop dance, martial arts and ballet. Her partner, Sebastien Ramirez, dancer, choreographer and artistic director, comes from the south of France and “specializes in the use of aerial work as well as the development and use of choreographic rigging”. These two, accompanied by performers Louis Becker, Johanna Faye, Said Lehlouh and assisted by Alister Mazzotti gave the “Radical” audience a startling new look at a new dimension of multi-disciplinary dance.

The rigging is unique. A large cage like structure first attracts and then repels two dancers who swing, balance, elude and mount the structure. The action becomes an attract-repulse statement; the cage, manned by their rigger, is alive to their responses.

The company’s style is based in hip-hop, but several forms of dance and flying actives are employed. The five dancers and an aerial rigger, who performs with them, keeps us aware of his active role. He can give the dancers freedom from gravity; he keeps them safe. But he also restrains and restricts them. In the beginning, two women in harnesses, led to separate lines, struggle and surge toward an open steel construction. Every image of safety or freedom is complemented with one of danger or confinement.

The rigging allows not only flight but dramatic effects at stage level. This reaches a breathtaking finale with Wang and Ramirez in a tender duet, with Wang sometimes  pulled rapidly back across the stage, in a wonderful white dress. She whirls in large and small arcs and, held in one hand by Ramirez, seems to float alongside him.

Company Ramirez offers a unique introduction to their skills. They are all fine dancers. “Borderline,” a performance combining multiple skills, gave Berkeley audiences a taste of a new international, inter-discipline experience.The rigging allows not only flight but dramatic effects at stage level. This reaches a breathtaking finale with

Joanna G. Harris