While attending the California Presenters’ Artist Information Exchange Conference in San Francisco last week, I pieced together my own mini dance festival by pairing together some very different dance performances that happened to be taking place at the time.
Wednesday found me at Fort Mason on the harbor to catch Sasha Walz & Guests from Germany as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Five dancers inhabited a domestic space complete with dining room table, fold-down bed, and a variety of doors and windows which served as clever choreographic tools. The relationship between the characters was unclear but suggested at times complete strangers, volatile lovers, and ultimately one big dysfunctional family. Throughout, they struggled to coexist in this apartment, alternating between harmony and discord until eventually the accumulating rhythms of the score propelled them into an individual chaos that seemed to hint that cohabitation may not in fact be possible. Though the overall tone felt playful and humorous, one could see that this work – created in 1993 by the German choreographer – in darker tones: society’s inability to live together and instead our tendency to retreat into our own spheres of comfort and personal issues.
On Thursday, also part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, Scott Wells & Dancers, a San Francisco-based company, performed at CounterPulse, a very small, intimate space where the bathrooms are inaccessible to audience members during the show because you basically have to walk across the stage to get to them. The work “What Men Want” focused on the range of peculiar behavior men exhibit – from tender and genuine to cartoonish displays of strength and machismo. The extreme physicality of his dancers and his aesthetic provided a series of impressive lifts and tumbles. Yet it all seemed to amount to not much more than the acrobatics on display. In the end, it was unclear what exactly men want. Maybe that was the point.
From international guest to hometown favorite and now onto American Icon. Friday night at Zellerbach Hall, Cal Performances, the presenting organization for UC Berkeley brought back Mark Marris’ 1988 celebrated L’Allegro il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a sweeping epic of a dance complete with full orchestra and chorus. It is of a scale one rarely sees these days and in a format (nearly two and a half hours with intermission) that is also uncommon these days when one-hour evening-length works are the (welcome) trend.
Similarly, I couldn’t help but find the work itself dated. Were this presented to me as a premiere work by an unknown choreographer, I would simply dismiss the cliched choreography as at least twenty years behind the times. And moments, such as a man prancing around in pink unitard felt downright like a Saturday Night Live skit. But this work has been vetted by audiences and critics alike and seems to have a secure place in the modern dance canon as a masterwork. So how to approach a work with that title?
I found the sets – constantly moving and mixing colors to create ever-changing palettes reflecting the music – beautiful and effective. Yet I just wasn’t pulled into the abstract world that Morris created. The choreography simply wasn’t that exciting, sometimes falling into mere silliness. Of course, Morris is known for his humor and I do appreciate some of the clever moments found throughout. And he does have an wonderful ability to layer simple phrases on top of each other to arrive at unexpected complexity and brilliance.
Overall, however, I was disappointed by the experience and left wondering how we as a dance community bestow “genius” onto certain people and certain works. When, if ever, are we allowed to reevaluate if such distinction holds up over time?