Ragamala Dance Company

Cal Performances, UC Berkeley
December 2, 2017

“Written in Water”

Ragamala Dance Company brought a vitalized dimension to Cal Performances’ World Dance Series with this event. The choreographers’ work is based in the South Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam.

Within that discipline, Ranee and Aparna Ramaswarmy have built a three part program employing games, mythology and a Sufi text. The dancing was accompanied by a group of brilliant musicians, paintings, scrolls and historical images. “Written in Water” was an absorbing, enlightening show.

The dance form is known for its intricate hand and face gestures that often illustrate stories, in this case “Ksheerabthi Madanam,” a metaphor for a world in chaos. “Vishnu stands for the perfect center towards which humans strive.” Ranee and Apart, mother and daughter, were primary performers of this material. The other three dancers serve as a chorus. They are Ashwini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fail.

Set against this spiritual journey, the first section is built around the board game Paramapadam, known familiarly as Snakes and Ladders, supposedly to represent “the heights of ecstasy and the depths of longing.” The dancers dressed in gorgeous gold costumes, move in expansive patterns across the stage. Their arms, shoulders, heads and legs are in constant motion, except for amazing moments of stillness when then squat deeply and gaze out.

The music ensemble consisted of Amir RlSaffar, trumpet, saunter and vocal; Pretty Mahesh, vocal, Rohan Krishnamurthy, mridangam, Arun Ramamurthy, violin and Kasi Aysola, nattuvangam. Although many of the sounds were unusual to western ears, the synthesis of the whole was beautiful and engaging. I was particularly moved by the tongue-twisting vocalization of dance rhythms.

Original paintings by Keshav, artworks by Ethan Christopher and historian images from the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge provided fascinating decor. The paintings, employing bird images, illustrate the 12th century Sufi text, “The Conference of the Birds.”

This award winner team of family members and distinguished artist have brought great beauty and a new insight into dance to the Berkeley audience.

Joanna G. Harris

Two dance events: Smith/Wymore: Scott Wells

Two Dance Events:

Smith/Wymore “Disappearing Acts” ODC, SF: Nov. 30, 2017
Scott Wells: “Was that good for you” Dance Mission Theater, Dec. 1, 2017

Dance events these days can take almost any form imaginable. Dancers talk, sing, play instruments, move with, on, off and sometimes around one another, show video, use cell phones and generally try to ‘amuse’ or involve the audience. Sometimes real elements of choreography, design, dynamics, thematic material and rhythms are employed, as were evidenced in Scott Wells’ work. Often the performance is a series of well meaning but ineffective theatrical events, as demonstrated in the Smith/Wymore show.

Program notes for “Disappearing Acts” site that its intention was “to create a piece that provokes the audience to consider what is happening to ourselves as our machines become more intelligent”, and that, “the computer system has fallen asleep and begun to dream.” Yet the choices made for the various ‘events’ that comprise the show appear as well-worn works from the past. Yes, the set of white cardboard boxes is used well. The dancers climb in and out of them, carry them and use them as background for projections, but alas, those events are the most intriguing. There is one excellent dance duet by Stephen Buescher and James Graham: all other movement material is fragmented and accompanied by talk, projections, video and other mechanical material that is hardly innovative. Although there was much laughter in the audience, a friend said simply, “I am not amused.” Members of the cast and creative team (beside Buescher and Graham) include Sheldon Smith, Lisa Wymore, and Rami Margron.

“Disappearing Acts” Smith/Wymore






Scot Wells is a master of contact improvisation. He and Kathleen Hermesdorf came to SF in 1991 and into Danceground Keriac in 1992. The opening work bring them together with Virginal Broyles and Sebastian Grubb (two excellent performers) to reconstruct the material they do so well. Initially we see a video of their early work, but thankfully real bodies perform. (Human performances as three-dimensional activity always has greater impact than video.) Their skill is delightful. At one point, Broyeles and Grubb comment, wondering if they will move so well in the fifteen years that separate them from the older performers. The skill is different but not diminished. Here too the dancers talk, rest, sprawl and get silly sometimes, but the integrity of the performance is always maintained. The of several long tape measures used by the dancers provide sound, serve as props and help to define stage dimensions. Skills design and style are fused.

Ballistic 2” is dance, a circus, a playground, an event and a celebration. The dancers, besides Broyles and Grubb, are Zack Bernstein, Kyle Her, Aaron Jessup, Megon Lowe, David Weichenberger and Shira Yaziv. All are skilled in contact but also in juggling, throwing and catching balls of all sizes and colors and maintaining marvelous rapport with one another. Accompanied by mad music “Muzsikas” and Lemon Jelly, the dancers handle all the physical activity simply, smoothly and with superb skill.

For this reviewer, the joy in the piece is not only the endless skills demonstrated but most pleasing of all, the way Wells has choreographed. Thematic material is repeated so that we the audience can actually see the material unfolding. The rhythms change but are repeated so we are satisfied with dynamic phases. The space is shaped and reshaped so the viewer can retain events. “Ballistic 2” is an satisfying and joyful event.

Lighting design credit goes to Harry Rubeck. Scott Wells and Dancers will repeat the program at Dance Mission Theater the weekend of Dec. 8 & 9. GO!

Ballistic 2: Scott Wells and Dancers









Joanna G. Harris

Joffrey Ballet

Joffrey Ballet – November 17-19, 2017
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

Contemporary Diversions

Joffrey Ballet, the resident company from Chicago, has had a lively week in Berkeley, presenting community events and classes, showcasing forthcoming choreography and being ‘in residence.’ Best of all was the variety of works presented on the evening programs. This ‘ain’t ‘classical ballet as we have seen and expect.

Of the four works on the program “Joy,” by choreographer Alexander Ekman is the most unusual. The dancers (almost 27 of them) fill the stage doing their favorite activities. The narrative voice says, “Are they joyful? Are they bringing you, the audience, JOY?” After a pleasant interlude watching dancers, jump, exercise on the floor, stand on their heads and hands, the stage is cleared. All the ballerinas enter and after an active episode, they hold up their shoes and do a ‘shoe drop.’ (The shoes are toe shoes: hard to take off, hard to put on.) The men follow and the entire company dons ‘high heels’, walks and struts and shows off. Alas no soft shoe, no tap dancing, just dance fun. A classical duet performed by Christine Rocas and Dylan Gutierrez concludes “Joy,” to remind us that that dance form can also be joyous.

Victoria Jaiani and Alberto Velazquez dance “Encounter” choreographed by Nicolas Blanc, who was a well-known San Francisco Ballet principal. To music by Berkeley composer John Adams, “Encounter” is a lamentation for the male dancer who is dominated by female. In their lifts and locomotion both appear equal, but the woman leaves the man. It is sweet work, choreographically employing more lyric arm and torso gesture than is usually seen in “pas de deux.”

To the two piano score by Philip Glass, Grace Kim and Mathew Long played for “In Creases,” choreography by Julian Peck. Peck has received much notice in the last few years as an important emerging choreographer, whose works have been seen with many companies including SF Ballet. “In Creases” danced all in white (though the men wear black socks) has many interesting geometric space shapes and patterns, but for the most part they dissolve into mundane designs and do not develop. The company is very skilled in all technical matters and carried it off well.

Finally the program ended with “Mammatus.” The word, according to the woman choreographer (Yea!) Annabelle Lopez Ochoa is derived in reference to a cloud formation. She says she intended, “To create an organic chaos … animal nature …the energy in nature.” Accordingly, a huge light design like a lighting bolt lights upper stage right and inevitably descend.

The dancers, in back leotards, knee high socks and long black gloves, present an endless series of complex moves, jagged, quick, changing direction often and generally capturing the restless energy. There is a trio, three duets and finally a ‘white duet,’ that evening by Victoria Jaiani and Dylan Gutierrez. The frenetic score is by Michael Gordon. For this reviewer, although the dancers (at least 27 of them) all perform brilliantly, the constant beat and drive of both the sound and movement became tiresome.

The program pictures forty-two dancers in the company. They all deserved applause and bravos for their strength, skill, performance ingenuity and general accomplishment. Joffrey Ballet makes us look at ballet with new eyes.

Joanna G. Harris

Photo courtesy of Cal Performances

World Dance

“Tango Buenos Aires” Saturday, Nov 11, 2017
“Festival of South African Dance” Sunday, Nov 12, 2017

Cal Performances Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

Two Dimensions on “World Dance

It’s a wonder that the human body responds with so much variety and complexity to rhythm, costuming, environment and social conditions. All of this and more was brought to viewing in Cal Performance’s World Dance this past weekend. The “Festival of South African Dance” succeeded: the “Tango Buenos Aires,” though ‘sensational’ in its way, failed. In both cases, the adaptation to the contemporary stage brought problems.

Sound amplification is very useful and appropriate when needed, but acoustics in Zellerbach Hall are good. Think of all the splendid music concerts, un-miked, that are played there. No matter what the choice of performers might be, sound engineers might test the sound in the house.

Tango Buenos Aires” beside deteriorating into a set of ‘night-club’ acts, had the misfortune of blasting its music during all numbers. In addition, the piano, bandoneon(s), violin and bass seemed not to be in balance. The dancing, enthusiastically performed, consisted of repetitive patterns for couples, (tango steps, dips, backward falls, leg extensions) and pseudo tap steps for solo men. There was also a phony soccer game, Broadway divertissements and other entertainments. The heart of tango was missing.

Very different in intention and performance was the Festival of South African Dance. Although fully staged for contemporary audiences, the program made vivid both the stories and the ‘moves’ of these South Africans. The ‘Gumboots Dance Company’ consists of four young dancers who wear gumboots to work in the damp gold mines. Their tasks are hard, the fatigue endless, but the dancing is fast, furious and delightful. The choreography consists of intricate footwork accompanied by clapping and slapping on the body, as well as general locomotion, acrobatics, falls and tumbles, almost always facing downstage. They were accompanied by good singing, lead vocalist Siyabonga Hilatswayo and fine drumming. The many scenes of “The Gumboot” Musical tells their story: the work, the pay, the family, the return home … even the celebration of drinking beer.

The Real Actions Pantsula Dance Company took over after intermission. These five, including choreographer Sibusiso Mthembu, are taller and their dance depicts a more urban scene. They mime daily life in Johannesburg and the show the hustles of a car wash, a social club, hunting memories, and their individual styles. Theirs is a continual series of dance inventions, social interactions and skill display. For this viewer, my only longing was for more rhythmic variation in the drums (one tempo prevailed) and more variation in the “down front” focus that the dancers took in line.

All dancers joined together for long, but delightful finale. Praises for the Festival of South African Dance. The dancers, musicians and all participants brought us something to learn, to enjoy and to praise.

Joanna G. Harris

Luna Mexicana

Luna Mexicana” Oakland Ballet Company
November 3, 2017 Paramount Theater, Oakland, CA

Ballet “Folklorico

Graham Lustig, Artistic Director of the Oakland Ballet, has developed an enthusiastic audience with his production of “Luna Mexicana.” To supplement his own ballet entitled “Luna Mexicana,” he has invited various local groups to celebrate “Dia de los Muertos,” the Day of the Dead. Included in the program was “Nahui-Ehekatil” a blessing ceremony dedicated to Mother Earth, Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza, and the Mariachi Mexicanismo, an instrumental and singing group. There was one outstanding dance event: Ramona Kelley danced José Limon’s “Chaconne,” expertly played by violinist Terrie Baune.

The Blessing Ceremony was truly evocative of ritual, dancers and drummers dressed in gorgeous costumes and honored the four elements that gives us life. It would have been even more satisfactory had the blessing words been heard over the lively drumbeats and chants.

Ballet Folklorico celebrated Amalia Hernandez’s 100th Birthday with the Revolution suite, remembering the men, women and children who fought in 1910 for freedom and equality. With nine parts of the story, we witnessed lovers, devils, a death figure and all those who participated “in the eternal dance of life.” It was a lively event, truly a celebration.

Lustig’s “Luna Mexicana” is a ceremony that summons the dead to celebrate with the living. Ramona Kelley again portrayed Luna, who, in a worship ceremony, recalls the dead ancestors. They appear as skeletons and other eerie forms, dancing a bride and groom duet, a deer solo, a quintet and the famous “Hat Dance.” It is a beautifully executed event, although a bit overshadowed by all that came before.

The “Chaconne” deserves special mention. Kelley has mastered the gestures that the Mexican dancer Limon styled for this Bach piece. Her hands as they encircled her head, her stretched legs, her fall and rise from the floor, captured his style and the elegance of the dance. Alas, in the midst of all the costuming and celebration, her simple black figure, though brilliant, almost disappeared in the range of lively costumed evening’s events.

For this reviewer the Mariachi Mexicanisimo group could have cut its program by half. The material presented was more appropriate for a night club event, not an evening of dance/theater. Each number was a treat, but there were too many and it was too much.

Congratulation to Lustig, all the dancers and groups and guests for an enthusiastic celebration.

Joanna G. Harris

Luna Mexicana: Photo credit: Steven Texiers


Ramona Kelley, dancer: Terri Baune, violin