Power shifts 

Power shifts

Mixed Up

Over the past few years, expressions such as “fusion cuisine” have made their way into our cultural vocabulary. In this vein, the ODC/San Francisco dance company choreographs and performs its own distinctive version of what might be called “fusion ballet.” Founded in 1971 by Brenda Way, the company moved five years later from Oberlin College to the Bay Area, where Way now shares the position of artistic director with K.T. Nelson, one of the group’s members from its days in Ohio. Along with Kimi Okada, another of ODC/San Francisco’s charter members, Way and Nelson are the company’s choreographers; all three strive in their individual works to create those syntheses that characterize the postmodern vision.

The choreographic vocabulary shared by these three women is enriched through a wide range of cultural references, and through a number of collaborative projects that place Way, Nelson and Okada in the dance vanguard. For example, not only has Way found inspiration from classical music, she has also used the Krazy Kat cartoons of George Herriman as source material. Mixtures of “high” and “low” culture are likewise found in the work of Nelson, whose full-length ballet The Velveteen Rabbit adapts Margery Williams’ 1922 book for children and sets it to a selection of early work by Benjamin Britten. Okada’s corpus is notable for her collaborations with actors Bill Irwin and Robin Williams.

At its best, ODC/San Francisco is set apart from other companies attempting to cash in on the current trend toward cultural eclecticism by its ability to distinguish fusion from fuzziness. One reviewer describes Way’s aesthetic position as being “about midway between the cerebralisms of modern dance and the virtuosic leanings of ballet”; the reviewer further credits the organization’s artistic successes to its members’ thorough grounding in ballet. This technical patina shines to its greatest advantage in works such as Way’s “Part of a Longer Story,” in which athletic and clean-edged choreography, performed with edgy attitude, effectively counterpoints a Mozart clarinet concerto. The racial mix of the dancers, underscored by black-and-white costumes, heightens the contrapuntal tension of Way’s choreography. Indeed, the few flagging moments in this work result from allowing the tension to lapse into muddle, as when the female dancers’ movements become so independent of each other that no principle of parallelism or even syncopation can be discerned.

The edginess of “Part of a Longer Story” is carried over into “Dirt,” the third section of Way’s in which the story of our country’s westward expansion is brought up to date with a shift into urban ethnicity. The women’s tough-looking black sneakers and latex costumes—designed by Eleanor Coppola, wife of Francis—are compellingly representative of another ODC/San Francisco piece, which the New York Times called “kinetic, physically freewheeling and aggressive.” While Barbara Gifford, the reviewer, aptly characterized the dancers’ movements as portraying “connection without communion,” at times the choreography succumbs to the mimetic fallacy and seems merely scattershot. This scattershot quality also plagues Nelson’s “River,” which at other moments works with terrific eerieness to evoke the power shifts and struggles in male-female relationships.

“River” represents one of the most interesting aspects of ODC/San Francisco: its exploration of “literary” subjects. Even more unusual, the company has choreographed pieces in collaboration with writers such as Leslie Scalapino. While the repertory of most ballet companies includes 19th-century standards based on fairy tales, what other choreographer has based a full-length work on Virginia Woolf and her Bloomsbury coterie, as Way does in Loose the ThreadTo Kill a Mockingbird. Local dance-goers who have enjoyed Tennessee Dance Theatre’s efforts in such directions won’t want to miss ODC/San Francisco’s appearance in town this weekend. Nor will those who are interested in the postmodernist blurrings and meldings between artistic genres and subgenres—even if their only previous encounter with fusion has been on a jazz CD or on a dinner plate at Faison’s.

ODC/San Francisco performs at Vanderbilt’s Langford Auditorium Friday, Oct. 13.

Stomping and Galloping

The British-based performance company STOMP shook, rattled and rolled its way into the hearts of Nashvillians during its recent sold-out week at TPAC. The 90-minute program featured a combination of dance, percussion and visual comedy to which some members of the audience had been previously introduced through STOMP’s appearances on The Tonight Show and Late Night With David Letterman. Other people were perhaps familiar with the group through their rambunctious opener on the Tank Girl soundtrack.

Listening to STOMP without seeing them perform, however, is like hearing movie dialogue without viewing the film. The troupe makes its extraordinary sounds not with conventional instruments but with janitorial tools and workshop junk. The infectiously rhythmic banging interweaves with the sounds produced by the performers’ clapping hands and snapping fingers. Their bodies become a source of music, obviously, but they also become a visual means of emphasizing or counterpointing the percussive melody lines. Indeed, STOMP’s members go far beyond hand-clapping and finger-snapping: They throw their arms and legs and torsos into the adrenaline-charged and seemingly improvisational choreography that arises from the natural motions of making music.

STOMP was formed in 1991 by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, who had worked together for a decade in British street bands and street theater groups. After earning a cult following in Europe, Cresswell and McNicholas’ street band crossed over into the mainstream with its “Bins” commercial for Heineken, which provided the basis for STOMP’s grand finale in its Nashville performances.

The American touring company, while directed by the two founders, consists of five men and three women from various parts of California and New York. They’re a racially mixed group, which underscores STOMP’s origins and ethos. Cresswell and McNicholas began their careers during the height of Margaret Thatcher’s power. STOMP’s “costumes”—torn, paint-smeared overalls and work clothes—and instruments bespeak an Orphean joy in making music out of society’s throwaways, human or manufactured. The two standing ovations the company received at its packed last performance in town testify to the troupe’s integrity and broadly human appeal. Indeed, some of the audience’s most enthusiastic members were children, who likely went home and began ransacking the kitchen cabinets for pots and pans, determined to raise a joyful noise of their own.

A Step in the Right Direction

Much is different at Nashville Ballet these days. Since last spring, three principal dancers have retired. In addition, nine of the 14 performers listed in last weekend’s Fall Series program are in their first or second seasons as full company members. While change is necessary for growth, it can wreak short-term havoc on a dance troupe. Happily, the ragged moments in last Saturday’s matinee were few and, most importantly, bespoke not failures but a natural, even promising, process of adjustment.

This raggedness was most apparent in the opener at last Saturday’s matinee, Rossini Variations, an ensemble piece choreographed by Bruce Wells. The ballet, which premiered three years ago in Pittsburgh, has a frothily quaint feel, and Kristin Hakala and Elizabeth McCoyd were well suited both to the principal female roles and to the choreography. Wells makes good use of repetition and delay, with many of the dancers’ movements echoing each other after a lapse of a count or two. McCoyd, announced as a last-minute substitute for Nicole Johnson, danced the pas de trois with classical delicacy and articulation. The elegant partnering of Eric Thome, while at times out of synch with that of Brian Murphy, was a good counterpart to McCoyd’s winsome presence.

Kathryn Beasley Gager and Noel Dupuis performed the Black Swan Pas de Deux with energy and with developing chemistry as partners. Taken from Act III of Petipa’s Swan Lake, the piece allows for more drama than many other such repertorial standards performed out of context, for this pas de deux relies on seduction and enchantment. Gager was both sensuous and regal in the role of Odile, who entrances Prince Siegfried into believing that she is truly Odette, his affianced; the phrasing of her movements worked beautifully with the phrasing of the music. One of the piece’s highlights was the long succession of bourrées Gager made upstage toward the prince, and her interweaving footwork was seamless. Despite Dupuis’ occasional uncertainty with the handwork that partnering requires, and a slip at the end of his solo, his dancing overall presented a compelling combination of upper-body athleticism and delicate footwork.

“Remnants of Light,” a world-premiere choreographed by the company’s ballet master, Paul Vasterling, packed a powerful punch—both emotionally and technically. Karen Burns, dancing better than ever these days, appeared ghostly in her pastel-blue dress. Was she an apparition of someone lost and mourned, as her moving pas de deux with Nicole Johnson suggested? Or was she representative of the estrangement felt by those who don’t fit into a world composed primarily of couples? Some of the most effective choreography and dancing in Vasterling’s richly complex new work came in a pas de trois Burns danced with Gager and Dupuis. The unevenness that marred the men’s dancing in recurred in larger movements.

The delightful romp of the acclaimed Lynne Taylor-Corbett piece, closed the program. The company members seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly in the six sections of the ballet, and this enjoyment was communicated through dancing of verve and accomplishment. The sprightly exactitude of Burns and McCoyd in “Souvenirs de Puerto Rico” gave way to “The Dying Poet,” danced by Thom Yzaguirre and Gager, who, both here and in the Vasterling ballet, apparently relished her return to more contemporary times.

In “Manchega,” the finale, the dancers again appeared to be having an enormous amount of fun with Taylor-Corbett’s choreography. And why not? New company members, new partnerings and new dances bring with them certain expected hitches and bobbles, but they also bring opportunities for growth. In addition to offering a well balanced program, Saturday’s matinee offered proof that Nashville Ballet is taking best advantage of those opportunities.


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