The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“You got to spend like you don’t need the money/
Love like you’ll never get hurt/
You got to dance like nobody’s watching/
It’s got to come from the heart if you want it to work”
– “Come from the Heart”, written by Susanna Clark & Richard Leigh
(origin of the phrase “dance like nobody’s watching”)
If there’s one thing I’ve learned nearly a decade of working as a copywriter, it’s that coming up with titles is one of the toughest things to do. I revel in my ability to put a client’s product and/or business intentions into prose, to say nothing of how I get to become a student sharing his new knowledge with a wide audience. But titles are tricky buggers: some writers come up with them easily (I’ve frequently done it before coming up with the bulk text), but that doesn’t dissipate the title’s ability to make or break a work. If you don’t believe me, read how long it took for Apple Computers to figure out their name.
I bring this up because there’s something very unexciting about seeing “Digital Program 2” on a company’s season roster. The SF Ballet has a history of using similar nondescript titles, but it still comes off as a placeholder, a “TBA” the company was using before they were ready to announce the proper title.
I know we theatre folk of all stripes are still getting used to this whole streaming thing a full year into lockdown, but as we continue to adapt, it’s a perfect time to reassess which habits deserve to stay and which one can be parted with. Parting with a title like “Digital Program 2” in favor of one more evocative of the program’s content – which, in turn, works better in advertising – is one of those new steps. (Unless the title were suggesting a provocative artist commentary and deconstruction of the medium? This does, after all, include a collaboration with the SF MoMA.)
Fortunately, the anthology itself has more going on than its rote title would suggest.
There isn’t much of a through line for the anthology, at least none that I could find. The pieces – two archival recordings and the world premiere of a new short film – occasionally share motifs and dancers, but there’s no apparent unifying theme illuminating as to why these three particular pieces were chosen for the same program.
We begin with… well, Let’s Begin at the End, the company’s 2018 show choreographed by Dwight Rhoden. It’s set in an environment of cold cement walls (designed by Alexander Nichols) suggesting a prison or fortress, yet there are doors through which the characters regularly enter and exit. In the midst of the near-uniform movement of most of our ensemble, an apparent romance blossoms between two of them (Frances Chung, Angelo Greco), which a third member (Esteban Hernandez) seems determined to disrupt.
It’s an intriguing piece accentuated well by David Briskin and his orchestra’s effective use of Bach, Michael Nyman, and the instantly-noticeable minimalism of Philip Glass – an extended sequence featuring a single violin playing over the dance was a particular highlight. So, too, was the presentation giving Chung’s character some sense of agency despite being a woman caught in the cliché of being fought over by two men.
It’s easy to see why this relatively short show was something the company wanted to show again for an audience that can’t be in the opera house. In fact, it ends with one of the classic live-audience inconveniences: since the camera was positioned close to the audience (I’m guessing near the rear doors?), the applause at the end features several heads blocking the camera, making it difficult to see the dancers bow. It’s as if you’re really there to scream “Down in front!”.
The archival video is followed with the world premiere of Colorforms, the Myles Thatcher-choreographed fantasy short film. As directed by Ezra Hurwitz, the film imagines a time in an era long-since-past, when people could visit the SF MoMA and Golden Gate Park without masks (although, I’m guessing the film was shot last year?).
It begins with a woman (Chung) standing in the MoMA itself reading a book titled The Art of Modern Art. She then begins to dance around the museum, which I think may be against the rules, but I haven’t been to the museum lately. This behavior is spreads, well, virally amongst other patrons: two men making paper airplanes; one man sketching (actual sketches by John-Paul Simoens) the trees outside the museum; and two patrons who have an instant attraction to one another. Horwitz also edited the film and the museum visuals are cross-cut with the dancers performing the same choreography on a redecorated opera house stage.
And yes: as the title suggests, color is abundant. Chung’s first appearance makes her look like an adult Red Riding Hood in her floor-length primary-red jacket, solid black sweater & pants, and pastel-blue shoes. Similar pastels are used for fellow dancers’ costumes, all designed by Susan Roemer. With the artwork of the museum providing no shortage of colorful works against the white walls and daylight, the opera house sequences step up by turning the dancers into silhouettes against blank wall screens colorfully illuminated by Jim French. And, of course, Golden Gate Park has no shortage of green on hand.
Colorforms is as much a feast for the eyes as it is a showcase for the dancers. It begins with a molting its yellow autumn leaves against the gray stone of the Douglas Family Sculpture Garden, and it ends looking up from amongst the trees of Golden Gate Park. In-between, it has dancers embracing the diversity of color (which, admittedly, could still improve amongst the corps’s roster) and the freedom of the outside world – both things most of us have missed out on lately.
The program concludes with another archival video: the 1999 production of the Tina Fehlandt-staged Sandpaper Ballet, featuring costumes by Isaac Mizrahi. Its story, such as it is, revolves around several unidentified creatures of nature whose dress represents both the green grass and the blue sky at once. They take an almost military-like default stance of rows, occasionally breaking away for a pair to have a romantic interlude, a group of ladies having a jazzy-scored battle of the sexes with their male counterparts, and additional explorations of individuality before they all fall back into formation.
Admittedly, this piece is the least-strong of the three. Some of its interludes drag on and the inexplicable use of Christmas music for a piece seemingly set in the spring (indeed, it premiered in April of 1999), was head-scratching. It works better as a time capsule for the company as it looks 22 years ago. (Surprisingly, the official information for the show lists only two company members – Vladislav Kozlov and Ami Yuki – as no longer being part of the company.)
That isn’t to say it’s bad, but it comes off as more of an exhibition. All three pieces feature wonderful work by the company, but Sandpaper Ballet lacks the fire so easily apparent in the two pieces that precede it. Although it does share one unique trait with Let’s Begin at the End: both archival videos end with the final bow being blocked by the head of an audience member.
I’ve made it a point to cut a certain amount of slack to theatre companies navigating their new digital waters – we’re all in the middle of an unprecedented learning curve. Still, I don’t see the harm in the SF Ballet moving away from rudimentary titles like. “Digital Program 2”. The show itself boasts two incredibly strong pieces followed by one-not-as-strong, with no discernible connection between the three, other than that they’re all the work of the SF Ballet.
It’s an okay demo reel for the company, but it just makes one long for a more-carefully-programmed show put on live. Hopefully, with fewer obstructive heads.
The SF Ballet’s “Digital Program No. 2” is scheduled to stream until the 3rd of March on the SF Ballet website.
The stream runs 1 hour 25 minutes with no pre-programmed intermission.
For access and information on how to stream, please visit the production’s official site here.
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