Kyle Abraham (“The Serpent and the Smoke”) 2013
Joshua Beamish (“Conditional Sentences”) 2015 World Premiere
Brian Brooks (“First Fall”) 2012
Alejandro Cerrudo (“Ego et Tu”) 2013
“Restless Creature” is an hour-long intimate dance recital of works by four very different leading choreographers, all of whom have created specific dances for prima ballerina Wendy Whelan. The gents are all accomplished dancers themselves and perform these dances with Whelan, becoming both a handsome ensemble and makeshift company. Yet, because they aren’t actually a company and therefore don’t have the leisure to develop these works in a consistent fashion over a preseason rehearsal schedule in one studio, the choreography frequently feels like works in progress. In fact, “Conditional Sentences” (2015) by Joshua Beamish was created sometime during the past two weeks replacing “Waltz Epoca” from its world premiere at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (2013). Still, this somewhat-still-figuring-it-out presentation doesn’t ultimately matter since the caliber of dancing is so captivating.
In what appears indirectly to be a role reversal in both, Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Ego et Tu” and Joshua Beamish’s “Conditional Sentences” the men are the fluid emotional sexual element in these works, with Whelan holding to precise technique, articulated lines and sinewy masculine consistency — frail as it may be. With Cerrudo her lithe body is nearly swallowed in his robust structure as she dances in a ballet slip and slippers against his casual grey T-shirt and slacks. Here she is still the ballerina to his modern dance style. The stage is stark and the contrast between these two conspicuous. With Beamish, she is almost background to his flamboyant, head-swirling pimping (a la Mark Morris in his early years) as if the piece is all about him. Beamish is superb and fills up the stage naturally just in his embodied sensuality to her thin stoic line.
When Whelan literally lets her hair down, in Kyle Abraham’s “The Serpent and the Smoke,” while dancing in and out of the stage’s shadows, she disappears into the choreography for the first time. No longer the prima ballerina but a liberated anonymous dancer, she and Abraham become perfectly matched partners. Which, is ironic since hip-hop superstar Abraham (known for his streetwise, cutting-edge choreography) has publicly talked about his fears and intimidation of working with the celebrated Whelan. Yet, it never shows in his dramatic piece, beautifully set to the music of Hauschka and Hildur Guonadottir and strikingly lit by Joe Levasseur. Abraham not only liberates and transforms Whelan into a sensual creature, but also manages an intimacy between the two of these unlikely matched partners.
Brian Brooks’ “First Fall” is a contact improv, nonstop intermingling pas de deux that has Brooks sheepishly keeping up with Whelan. This beautifully fluid stream of dancing produces stunning iconic images with Whelan often leaning into him or pushing against him to create odd angles and occasional, slow motion movement — as if she were moving a boulder underwater or dancing on wet sand.
“First Fall” is performed on a stage that has been stripped opened to the furthest recesses of the back of the stage with props lurking in the shadows. The openness of the set creates the impression of a rehearsal space or dancer’s lab, as if the piece is being created live. Whelan, often with her arms straight out from her shoulders at her sides, moves like a cross as this sequence makes references to the Stations of the Cross. She falls into Brooks and lands them both repeatedly on the ground — like the falls Jesus made on his journey to resurrection. And, resurrection is what this performance is ultimately all about, as Whelan moves from the shackles of classical ballet into new creative turf. “Restless Creature” is Whelan’s first time in San Francisco and for many San Franciscans their first time to take in the evolving legend that is … Wendy Whelan.