Author Archives: Lou Fancher

A ‘Swan Lake’ inspired by an English Royal love triangle

Joined by Berkeley Symphony and conductor Nicolette Fraillon, The Australian Ballet makes its Bay Area premiere at Cal Performances with Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (choreography: Graeme Murphy), Thursday–Sunday, October 16–19, 2014 in Zellerbach Hall. 

PHOTOS: Jeff Busby
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If ballet is a matrix, Swan Lake is the matriarch of all matrixes.

Structured to follow rules of expression, manipulated according to form and line, the classic equation of good-versus-evil equals tragic ecstasy premiered as a four act ballet in 1877. Since then, choreographers have torqued the score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the ballet’s synopsis in countless ways, although classical ballet audiences are generally most familiar with an 1895 version staged for the Imperial Russian Ballet by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

Twenty-first century film buffs may have migrated to 2010’s Black Swan, a movie starring Natalie Portman. Regardless of the medium, Swan Lake is largely a physical battle involving honor, love, betrayal and mortality.

Enter choreographer Graeme Murphy and the Australian Ballet, making their first Bay Area appearance since 1971 with five performances of Swan Lake at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall on Oct. 16-19. Murphy’s rendition, created for the Australian Ballet’s 40th anniversary in 2002, will feature the Berkeley Symphony with guest conductor Nicolette Fraillon, Music Director & Chief Conductor of The Australian Ballet. … Continue reading »

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Looking intently: The James Cahill legacy at BAM/PFA

Man and Servant Beneath Trees by Shen Shichong
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The dualities of life and art are never more apparent than they are in “Looking Intently: The James Cahill Legacy,” an intimate exhibit with boundless implications running now through December 21 at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.

Even the exhibit itself is binary: the Chinese, Ming and Qing period paintings organized by Julia M. White, senior curator for Asian art and currently on display, will be “refreshed” in mid-October. It’s a bonanza, a two-for-one, as an entirely new set of mostly 15th to 16th century works from the late Professor Emeritus James Cahill’s “Ching Yuan Chai” collection is presented in the museum’s upper gallery for the exhibit’s “second rotation.” The unusual maneuver is both good for visitors—they get to see more of the exquisite collection—and for the paintings. By limiting the over-400-year-old paintings’ prolonged exposure to light and curtailing gravity’s pull while they hang; their delicacy and endurance are respected.

Cahill, born in Fort Bragg and a Berkeley High school graduate, went on to become a Fulbright Scholar, an award-winning author, a sought-after curator and guest lecturer, an acclaimed art history educator at UC Berkeley, and a widely-respected collector of East Asian art. … Continue reading »

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Ambitious Ojai North Music Festival returns to Berkeley

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Storm large and Storm Large: the words serve double duty at this week’s Cal Performances Ojai North Music Festival, running June 19-21 on the Berkeley campus.

“Storm large” could be considered emblematic of the fearlessly ambitious annual contemporary music festival that drew the storied tradition of experimentation begun in Southern California in 1947 to Berkeley in 2011.

This year’s festival is curated and directed by pianist, writer, and 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Jeremy Denk, who promises “screwing with the canon” and related barrier-crashing, ear-burning musical endeavors.

Notably, the mighty laboratory of modern-day composers and artists gets its most-local kick from the remarkable growl-to-purr, rage-to-ravishingly melodic vocalist, Storm Large. The Oregon-based actor/singer lived and performed in the Bay Area during the 1990s, before relocating to Portland. … Continue reading »

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‘Acis and Galatea’ promises to be a grand, sensory delight

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Musical morsels become masterpieces in the hands of composers like George Frideric Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Spring forward 200-plus-odd years and find dance and design have their modern day monument builders as well.

When choreographer Mark Morris and designers Isaac Mizrahi (costumes) Adrianne Lobel (sets) and Michael Chybowski (lighting) unleash their collective talents in a Cal Performances presentation and world premiere of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, arranged by Mozart, you might think there’s no cause for frosting on the proverbial cake.

But buttercream aside, there’s more: the Mark Morris Dance Group will be joined by the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale and guest soloists Sherezade Panthaki (soprano), Thomas Cooley (tenor), Zach Finkelstein (tenor), and Douglas Williams (bass-baritone). Conductor Nicholas McGegan will lead the musicians, rounding out the star-studded team. And that’s not even mentioning Morris’ uniquely and collectively talented dancers.

In sum, the originally tiny work, written in chamber form in 1718, is likely to be a grand, sensory explosion of sight, sound and movement, during three performances at Zellerbach Hall, April 25-27. … Continue reading »

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Bay Area Dance Week: A smorgasbord of offerings for all

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From shoulders shimmying at Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center on San Pablo to couples tautly tangoing at Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue — Bay Area Dance Week (April 25-May 4) is an opportunity to get moving.

With over 600 classes, demonstrations, open rehearsals and performances throughout the greater Bay Area, events in Berkeley offer a small United Nations of dance experiences.

The ten-day festival is an invitation to drop the body barrier and banish the protest: “I’m not a dancer!”

Offering judgement- and entry fee-free exploration, everyday folks can test their affinity for traditional forms, like classical Indian, ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop and tap — or brave the lesser-known waters of belly, aerial, fire, improvisation and other dance genres. … Continue reading »

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Michael Ray Wisely: Grand dramas on everyday stages

Michael Ray Wisely. Photo: courtesy Alter Theater
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Known in local theater circles as a deep-thinking actor’s actor—and by fans of the DIY Network as host of the ever-practical Home Transformations—Michael Ray Wisely has built himself a DIY career.

Wisely is inaugurating the Aurora Theatre Company’s new second stage performance space, Harry’s UpStage, as the predatory “Director” in a fully staged production of John W. Lowell’s The Letters, which opened on April 17 and runs through June 1.

The 51-year-old veteran of stage, film and television has always gravitated to grand dramas on everyday life stages.

Wisely’s first theatrical platform was the town he grew up in: Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, a deep South tobacco and bible-belt town of barely 4,000 people. His hometown’s fancy French name labeled a rural location named after a white man who co-opted native American Indian land and bewitchingly adopted a local woman’s nickname to complete the hyphenated moniker. “We weren’t very poor, but we were close,” Wisely said in an interview. … Continue reading »

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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.

Photo by Steve Tanner
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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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Science

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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