Word for Word

“Lucia Berlin: Stories”
February 14-March 11, 2018
Z below, 470 Florida St. SF

Eleven years after her death, a volume of selected stories by Lucia Brown Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women, was published and applauded. Now, Word for Word, the story telling theater company has brought those stories to the stage.

The company is at its best when the scripts are said, not enacted. But in these stories, “Her First Detox”, ”Emergency Room Notebook 1977”, “Unmanageable”, and “502” the group tended toward more dramatic presentation than usual. Only in the last offering, “Here it is Saturday,” did the straightforward presentation prevail to great effectiveness.

All the stories center on the autobiographical episodes that Berlin experienced or created. We see a women in the hospital during “Detox” and her continued trials and struggles through the other stories. Jerri Lyn Cohen handled the lead character admirably for the most part, but, this being opening night, sometimes stumbled on lines and delivery.

The supporting cast, Cassidy Brown, Ryan Willams French, Norman Gee, Gendeli Hernandez, Delia MacDougali, Indila Wilmoff and Phil Wong supported Cohen admirably.

The last offering, “Here it is Saturday,” was the most effective. Cohen plays a teacher offering writing classes to prisoners. Each prisoner has something valuable to say and does so, to persistent encouragement.

The stories are described, not told, so we the audience can imagine the details. There is real drama thus offered both for the cast and us.

The plays are nicely directed by Nancy Shelby and JoAnne Winter. Following the “Word for Word” tradition, they would make a more effective mark, for this reviewer, if the presentation were in the old tradition … storytelling prevailing over drama.

Joanna G. Harris

SF Ballet Program 2

San Francisco Ballet
Program 2 February 13, 2018
Bright Fast Cool Blue

The title above was chosen for Program 2 of the SF Ballet’s 2018 season.

The program includes Balanchine’s 1948 NYC Ballet “Serenade”, Millepied’s 2017 “The Chairman Dances”, and Julian Peck’s (recently seen at the Gala) “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes.” All were delightfully danced.

Seranade” was made for Balanchine’s earliest company. It was begun in 1934 and developed as the NYC Ballet came into being. Danced to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra,” it is a tribute to the art of ballet, its learning process, its ballerinas and (though not always clear) a drama that develops late in the work, a drama of fall and redemption.

Mathilde Froustey, Jennifer Star, and Yuan Yuan Tan took the major women’s roles partnered by Carlo Di Lanno and Luke Ingram.Costumed in blue by the famous Karinska, the ballet proceeds through the opening basic ballet foot and arm gestures, to brilliant group work and at least two quiet beautiful duets. It is a work to teach audiences how to see ballet.

Millepied’s “The Chairman Dances-Quartet for Two” offers a very different challenge. This work is in three parts; the first seems not quite related to the other two. Local composer John Adams expanded the music for this 2018 offering. Millepied has added two duets to the original “foxtrot” variation that starts the show. That section danced by principals Maria Kochetova and Carlo Di Lanno is a Broadway-like number, lively, fast, syncopated, jazzy and spectacular. Two duets change the mood. Two men, Ulrik Birkjaer and Benjamin Freemantle dance an intimate romantic duet accompanied by a spoken voice, tell of Jesus in Jerusalem. That Adams work is entitled “Christian Zeal and Activity.” The next duet is for Yuan Yuan Tan and Jennifer Stahl. It too is quiet and intimate. Millipied is this expanding and commenting on sexuality in ballet and its varied sensuality. The whole work is thought provoking and sometimes puzzling.

Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” takes the Copland score well beyond what De Mille did to make it famous. The boys dominate here. DeMille made it a cowboy ballet. These fifteen dancers are divided into teams and all show great prowess and skill with their athleticism. The 3rd episode allows a pas de duex for Dores André and Ulrick Birkkjaer. Other than that time it’s all for the guys. They are superlative in their jumps, falls, amazing leaps and turns. There is an informality about the work that reflects its recent composition, 2015 in NYC and 2018 in San Francisco.

SF Ballet is off to a great season’s start. The company is proud too announce the ‘Unbound” season featuring 12 new choreographers at the end of April.

Joanna G. Harris

Benjamin Freemantle and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied’s The Chairman Dances–Quartet For Two. (© Erik Tomasson)

Spectrum Dance Theater “Rap on Race”

Spectrum Dance Theater
“A Rap on Race”
Metro Opera House, Oakland
February 10, 2018

Great Promise/Bad Show

Donald Byrd choreographed and directed the show. Ann Devere Smith joined him to develop the script which was developed as a conversation between Margaret Mead, anthropologist and James Baldwin, author. In the production Byrd was Baldwin: Kathryn Van Meter was Mead. There were thirteen dancers. Two were African-American. The rest, but one, were white. Fortunately the music was “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” by Charles Mingus. The music was the best.

In the ‘new’ venue for Cal Performances, the Metro Opera House, on 2nd Street in Oakland, the dancers, who are skilled in the jazz-ballet style that Byrd has choreographed, alas, could not been seen. Much of their dance consists of large swinging, jumping, lifting moves which then land on the floor. Given the sight lines of the house, no floor work was visible. This reviewer was sitting in the fourth row. The dances also follow very consistent beats in the music; the patterns grow repetitious and dull.

On a high platform Van Meter and Byrd delivered the “Rap.” The electronic settings for the voices were loud and shrill and, although the arguments were good (and sometimes hard to follow), it became unpleasant to pay attention to the shrill sound. The dancers and the Mingus music provided relief from the arguments that went back and forth, round and round.

Somehow it might have worked had the dancers been up on a platform, the speakers down close to the audience so as to provide a sense of conversation, not lecture, and…the dancers work might have been well seen. The ideas are good; the dancers are skilled; the music is great, but the show did not work.

Joanna G. Harris

“Rap on Race

James Graham Dance Theatre

Dance Lovers James Graham Dance Theatre Counterpulse
San Francisco February 8,9,10 2018

“…duets by couples, crushes and comrades”

Of the seven ‘duet’s presented at the 7th Annual Dance Theater, three were outstanding as ‘dance’, one was on a trapeze, one was pregnant with possibility and one was the best voguing around. What a variety of skill, fashion and execution!

Amy and Hannah Wasielewski’s sister act consisted of much hugging followed by lively floor rolling, all neatly recovered. It was earnest but dull.

Jacquese Whitefield is the master ‘voguer’ of SF. He and Spider delighted us with their wild shenanigans. The Wolordarski-Lundberg family, with Frida yet-to-come cuddled up in “The Dad Joke at the End of the World.”

Colin Creveling and Maomi Aeva are fine trapeze artists. Their performance was smooth, charming and daring. Bravo to both.

James Graham and his mother Sheila Graham Price took first prize in their dance event, “Do More of That.” To a mixed bag of musical selections and some conversation, mother and son dance together…and then she made the choices. Graham moves beautifully whatever assignment given. He is adapt at small hand/feet gesture as well as swooping locomotion. It was one of the more satisfying dance events of the evening.

Christy Funsch and Nol Simonse need no introduction to Bay Area audiences. They have been active together and on their own for the past 18 years. Here, they excerpted the recently seen “the beauty and run of friends, of bodies.” In this work, Christy in a red dress, assumes domination of a seemingly dependent creature, Nol, complete with horns. They face each other at the end, he naked, she composed and strong. As in other works they have done, the movement vocabulary is varied and wonderful to observe and remember.

The evening closed with a sweet duet between Melecio Estrella and Andrew Jones, limited in movement, but charming in relationship and contact. Dressed in jackets and shirts, but with bare legs, the two men shared their affection and skill in portraying their gay relationship.

Graham is to be congratulated on this adventurous programming.

Joanna G. Harris

Il Ritorno

Circa Ensemble
February 3,4, 2018
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

A Juxtaposition of Wonders

To four arias from “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria”(Ulysses returns to his homeland), music director Aaron Lifschitz has created a score for mezzo-soprano, Kate Howden, and baritone, Benedict Nelson, accompanied by keyboard, cello, violin, viola, harp and electronics, directed by Natalie Murray-Beale. Program notes tell us that the tale as presented here is heavily influenced by Primo Levi’s description of returning from Auschwitz. The 1640 music is exquisite; and to add to its dimension, seven extraordinary acrobats perform along side the musicians, thus “pioneering how extreme physicality can create powerful and moving performances.”

The event demands close attention from the audience. Not only does the delicate score (in Italian), the singers and the instrumentalists perform with exquisite skill requiring close attention to the musical nuance, but the acrobats, who tumble, climb, roll, swing and soar are present throughout. For the most part, their actions underscore and support the painful and dramatic storyline. Sometimes however, the feats of skill are so overwhelming in scope as to be detracting. The event is dramatic on both sides of the stage, amplifying but sometimes obscuring the music.

The most dramatic moments, outside of the thrilling balances, spins and lifts, are when a single performer throws herself across the stage to illustrate Penelope’s lament. The stage set (by Jason Organ) is dark; the most scenic element is a black fence against which all the acrobats lean before they exit. If Lifschitz intends a image of world wide refuge crisis, he and they have succeeded in “Il Ritorno.”


Joanna G. Harris

Circa acrobats in “Il Ritorno

Peking Acrobats

Peking Acrobats
Cal Performances

Zellerbach Auditorium
Saturday, January 27, 2018

Remarkable People: Great Show

It is a wonder to behold the Peking Acrobats.

Although their numbers and names are not listed, the remarkable men and women who comprise this troupe are all to be applauded and regarded with amazement. The sixteen acts which comprised their performance each demand extraordinary balance, coordination, ensemble and yes, a great sense of humor. Skilled as they are, the errors and mishaps are also delightful.

It is impossible to describe all the acts, but a few demand special attention. The Lion Dance is close to Bay Area memory, since Chinese New Year is celebrated with the famous Market Street parade. Here three lions (arrayed in fabulous costumes each enclosing two men), climb poles, do flips, somersault over one another and generally “play” with the audience.

The “Five-Girl Contortion” is only one of the several unbelievable acrobatic displays that the women, always in splendid colorful costumes, enact. Wushu Kungfu is a demonstration of combat with sword and spear and the Flag Act /Human Pyramid sets new challenges to building balance. A young man (noted for his haircut of cute bangs) was able to stack eight or nine chairs high on a small table and then balance, right side up, up side down and sideways. The audience was amazed and delighted throughout especially when the master of ceremonies brought attention to each set of skills.

The evening finale included the sounding of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” My early memories of singing the ode included the words, “Rise all nations, rise together, work for universal peace…” The words may not be accurate but the feeling of joy and skill brought by the Peking Acrobats strengthened the message.

Joanna G. Harris