Author Archives: Lou Fancher

Alvin Ailey’s genre-stretching adventure back in Berkeley

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Is the juice worth the squeeze?

It’s the unexpected question Robert Battle, now in his third year as Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, asks himself every day. The “squeeze” is the hard work of running a dance company and the dollars an audience spends to attend a performance. The “juice” is the legacy-upholding, future-building, legendary output of the company’s indelible dancers and choreographers.

Inheriting the heavy mantle of a dance company founded in 1958 by choreographer and activist Alvin Ailey, Battle succeeded former Ailey dancer Judith Jamison’s 1980 to 2011 term of leadership. As the troupe’s third artistic director, Battle says that during the first season, audiences showed up to see a spectacular season already fine-tuned by Jamison, a signature Ailey dancer. The second year, they were simply curious about the new leader’s imprint. In 2014, record numbers during the company’s New York City performances in December, have given him courage. … Continue reading »

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Magical, misfit marriage of Ira Glass and dance

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Dance is primarily show, don’t tell. Radio is tell, can’t show. Put them together, you get the magical, misfit marriage that is “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host,” coming to Zellerbach Hall on Saturday, Mar. 29, presented by Cal Performances.

Mysteriously blending the talky talent of Ira Glass, host and creator of the public radio program This American Life, with the devastatingly beautiful, humanistic choreography of Monica Bill Barnes and her longtime collaborator, dancer Anna Bass, a miracle arises. Both genres get a leg-up: elevating the no-talk, all-talk mediums to something one might find in a dream. A sort of surreal landscape where anecdotes are inscribed with arabesques and the moral of each story is mired in marvelous muscularity. Imagine a dichotomous duet as sweet as the chocolate-peanut butter pairing of a Reese’s, but better for your health.  … Continue reading »

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Trey McIntyre Project: Farewell tour comes to Berkeley

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Sometimes, “goodbye” is also “hello.”

Billed by Cal Performances as “The Farewell Tour of the Trey McIntyre Project,” the contemporary dance company’s Berkeley performances on March 21-22 at Zellerbach Hall are as much about starting anew as they are about ending.

From the beginning of its now-ten-year history, founder and artistic director Trey McIntyre had every intention of not grasping perpetuity — an arts organization model he calls “false” and capable of “squashing” a company. Instead, TMP was designed very much like its creator: fluid, rebellious, ambitious enough to tower or topple, and simultaneously ephemeral and mercurial. n 2014, the company announced it would enter a new phase; largely dissolving the current structure and allowing McIntyre (and a small handful of his dancers) the freedom to pursue future passions. … Continue reading »

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Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet: Creating a fearless art

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Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, which has just marked its tenth anniversary, brings its fierce, unforgettable dancers and repertoire to Cal Performance’s Zellerbach Hall for performances on Feb 22-23.

Founded in 2003, the New York-based company was given early financial wings by the billionaire backing of Nancy Laurie, niece of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. The troupe’s fearless dancers were led, beginning in 2005, by the Parisian artistic director and former Alvin Ailey dancer, Benoit-Swan Pouffer. Modeled on European dance companies, the elite fleet enjoyed year-round salaries, health insurance, well-sprung rehearsal spaces and — oh double joy! — bold choreographers with time to explore. … Continue reading »

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Martha Graham Dance Co. serves up 3 classic feasts

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Janet Eilber, Artistic Director of Martha Graham Dance Company since 2005, knows what all chefs, farmers, architects, engineers, scientists, philosophers — really, what anyone knows. The key to a delicious, sturdy, profoundly pleasing creation is all in the ingredients. On Friday Jan. 31 and Saturday Feb. 1 at Zellerbach Hall, Cal Performances and the 77-year-old modern dance company will serve up three classic feasts, with live accompaniment provided by the Berkeley Symphony.

Like the way that jazz and blues defined American music, Martha Graham swept through the 20th century; absorbing, exuding and transforming the collective experience of American modern dance.

She wasn’t alone in her pioneering career that spanned nearly a century and resulted in 181 works. Others, like Lester Horton, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp (the latter three trained by Graham) also propelled the field in unique ways. But Graham’s themes and frequent collaborations with equally visionary composers, writers, filmmakers, and costume and set designers, matched the grand scale of America’s ever-evolving landscape from an agricultural to an industrial to a technology-driven society. As the country breathed, so did her dances. … Continue reading »

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Tristan and Yseult: Sublime tour de force at Berkeley Rep

Andrew Durand is the warrior Tristan in the West Coast premiere of Tristan & Yseult, Kneehigh’s best-loved and most critically acclaimed show.

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First-rate theater lifts our well-cushioned minds and derrières out of life’s doldrums, challenging us to contemplate the great mysteries of human existence: love, hate, honor, betrayal, death, and why zippers always get stuck when we are in a hurry. It also titillates our bawdier senses, tickles our funny bones, threatens our presumptions and steals our breath away with unexpected brilliance and beauty.

Berkeley Rep’s Tristan & Yseult, running now through Jan. 18, is first-rate theater. Spoiler alert: the show’s only downside on Dec. 8 was the cold air pouring into the lobby, as smokers slipped outside during intermission. The rest was sublime.

Directed by Emma Rice, Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre returns with the West Coast premiere of their popular show after their previous Berkeley Rep hits, The Wild Bride and Brief Encounter. There’s little point in laying out the production’s synopsis without briefly illustrating its unique evolution in the wildly exuberant hands — make that bodies and imaginations — of Kneehigh.

Rice and joint artistic director Mike Shepherd originally created the play ten years prior to its current revival. Designed to be performed outdoors in a ruined, Cornwall castle, writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy wrestled iambic pentameter, medieval edits and a fascination with Quentin Tarantino-style end-comes-first, fiercely noir structures into a working script. Meanwhile, Rice and the actors explored key concepts and themes of the ancient Celtic tale. … Continue reading »

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Berkeley Lab’s Carl Haber: A genius in our midst

Carl Haber and Earl Cornell, Berkeley Lab researchers, digitally recovered a 128-year-old recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice.
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What does winning sound like? The definition of winning for MacArthur Genius Award recipient and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicist Carl Haber is surprising.

“Winning” is not the unrestricted $625,000 the Berkeley scientist will receive over the next five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for his revelatory IRENE/3D Project. And Haber’s “winning sound” is not even the miraculous audible recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice he and his colleagues, Earl Cornell and Peter Alyea, pulled from a 128-year-old, wax-and-cardboard disc.

What rings Haber’s bell, is bounding out of his office chair to inscribe arcs, arrows, “x’s” and wavy, snakelike lines on a nearby whiteboard in an all-out-effort to explain his project to a visitor. … Continue reading »

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Shanghai Ballet produces gorgeous classical dance

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Less than two weeks after Cal Performances brought the Nederland Dance Theatre’s exquisite dancers to Zellerbach Hall, Bay Area balletomanes reveled in the Shanghai Ballet’s 50-member, classically gifted company.

The Butterfly Lovers, a four act story ballet choreographed by Artistic Director Xin Lilli in 2001, showed-off the technical brilliance of the 34-year-old company and left no doubt that Chinese culture can be found in buoyant jetés and perfectly-matched arabesques.

The ballet’s synopsis dates to a fourth century Tang dynasty tale and suggests comparisons to Romeo and Juliet. Ill-fated lovers, secret identities, familial opposition, and more than one death provide obvious, but easy to comprehend concepts through movement and mime, drama. In this case, the final scene is not a funeral; it is resurrection, as the two lovers rise from the grave as shimmering butterflies. … Continue reading »

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NDT: Supernova dance technique, dismaying choreography

The upstage box in Sehnsucht. Photo: Nederlands Dans Theater
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If it’s possible for a dance performance to cause tears of joy and dismay, shed simultaneously, then Nederlands Dans Theater’s Oct. 23 appearance at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall did it.

Under the cyclonic force of former artistic director Jiri Kylian from 1975 to 1999, the Dutch company expanded to three entities (NDT I, II and III) and developed a breathtaking arsenal of more than 600 ballets choreographed by the likes of Hans Van Manen, Crystal Pite, Ohad Naharin, Mats Ek, William Forsythe and Kylian. Renowned for their exquisite, age- and curriculum-defying dancers (NDT II features young dancers; NDT III was a showcase for those over 40) the company swallowed classical ballet’s rigorous form and modern dance’s instinctive earthiness with equal command. The result — stunning performances that left audiences gulping and dance critics swooning — established an NDT performance as an opportunity to worship the infinite possibilities of the human form, bent into mesmerizing works by contemporary dance masters.  … Continue reading »

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The Moth: A storytelling phenomenon comes to Berkeley

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Thank goodness for boring, sappy poetry. Without it, there might never be The Moth.

And thank goodness for the third annual Bay Area Science Festival, which brings marvelous scientific minds to the masses with ten days (Oct. 24-Nov. 2) of interactive events throughout the Bay Area.

Thirdly, you may thank your lucky stars (especially if you hold a ticket) for five storytellers and an underground gang of directors and hosts bringing epic insights to Berkeley with “The Moth: The Big Bang” at Zellerbach Hall as part of the science festival on Monday, Oct. 28.

The Moth is a 16-year-old storytelling phenomenon founded by poet and novelist George Dawes Green. Once tortured by listening to a poet whose “aesthetic screen” he believed was in serious need of lowering, Green’s urge to simply hear a story — a true, soul-shifting confession or a comic collision of self-awareness spoken aloud — became overwhelming.

“That was it — that was the germ,” he writes, in a forward to The Moth, a collection of 50 true stories selected from the live shows and recently released by Hyperion. … Continue reading »

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Cal Fall Free for All: Choreography on a massive scale

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Cal Performances’ fourth annual Fall Free-For-All is choreography on a massive scale. The all-day arts sampler spins into action on Sunday, September 29 with vivid expressions of creativity accompanied by everything from Body Music to 13th-century French pop tunes to a Duke Ellington tribute to Beethoven and more.

Adding to the dexterity, people attending this year’s event will navigate new routes due to construction near Zellerbach Hall. Spiraling from the Sproul Plaza hub, a perfectly timed, event-filled day of dance (and music, puppets, theater) will have the community flowing from the Cal Band’s Opening Fanfare to the final cascade of Theatre of Yugen’s stylized, Japanese comedy.

The dance within the metadance provides something-for-everyone counterpoints and a terrific opportunity to celebrate the universality of bodies in motion. There is no society or culture on earth that does not at some time, dance. Allowed the grand ballroom of an open field, the vast stage of an empty gymnasium — or even the narrow hallway between a living room sofa and Barcalounger — no child can resist a pirouette or a ferocious sprint climaxed by a final cartwheel or leap. As adults, we learn to tame our wild bodies and exuberant physical impulses for decorum’s sake. And yet, who among us will not smile at the sight of young souls whose inner ballet/jookin/modern dancers know no such boundaries? … Continue reading »

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Berkeley’s Christian Burns: Drawing with his dancing

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The Bay Area dance world presents an embarrassment of riches: from ballet to modern, embracing street, jazz, tap, flamenco, ethnic — and pretty much everything else — along the way. Tucked away amid this bounty is a quiet, but dogged gem: Berkeley resident Christian Burns.

Burns’ career has alternatively leapt and lingered according to his internal sundial. Periods of intense growth find their genesis in his formative years, spent training at The School of American Ballet in New York City.

From such well-laid grounding, Burns stretched ballet’s structured posture into novel forms as a member of Minnesota-based James Sewell Ballet, San Francisco’s Alonzo Kings LINES Ballet, and as a guest artist with The Forsythe Company in Dresden, Germany. Since 1998, when he moved to the Bay Area to co-create the dance duo company The Foundry with former San Francisco Ballet dancer Alex Ketley, Burns has delved most deeply into investigations commonly referred to as “dance improvisation” or “contact improvisation.” … Continue reading »

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Berkeley Alvin Ailey camp teaches more than dance

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Like characters in an ancient Roman frieze, eight young boys assume motionless poses, then spring to pumping, rolling, spinning life in front of the Zellerbach Playhouse on the University of California, Berkeley, campus.

It’s a rehearsal, but in light of the fierce pride and near-divine determination in their expression — and exploding from their agile bodies — it impresses as so much more. They are AileyCamp dancers, they are men-to-be, they are special.

AileyCamp, organized in Berkeley by Cal Performances every year, is a national program based on the principles of Alvin Ailey, an African American son of a single parent who made his way to the pinnacle of the dance world as a performer, choreographer and founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Along the way, he developed an ambitious philosophy: circumstances do not define the human spirit, and children are often the best place to look in order to learn life lessons. Expanding on his ideas, and using the Horton technique — the modern dance methodology behind the fearless, muscular physicality of the Ailey style — he focused AileyCamp on communication.

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