SFDanceworks
Garrett Anderson and Dana Genshaft in James Graham's Two Dimes and a Nickle. Photo by Alexander Reneff-Olson

SFDanceworks

ODC San Francisco
James Sofranko, Artistic Director
Choreographers: Christopher Bruce, Alejandro Cerrudo, James Graham, José Limón, Danielle Rowe, Penny Saunders
Jun. 22-24, 2017; reviewed Jun. 22, opening night
SFDanceworks.org

In the works of Christopher Bruce, there is never the slightest whiff of the counterfeit. Pieces he creates tend to circumnavigate a family of themes whose touchpoints include abuse of power, loss, or simple-seeming but significant transformations—comic or tragic–within a configuration of intimates. Steps, gestures, and music selection, are profoundly germane to each character and situation in a distinctive and particular way that you don’t encounter in other choreographers’ work. Each carries forward a mood of original specificity that unites both audience and dancers in shared awe of the story that committedly astute restraint in theatrical interpretation allows the dancing to reveal.

His 2014 work “Shadows,” short and power-packed, mournful in its conclusion, brings another treasure to this storied oeuvre. Set with caring yet insistent scrupulousness by Dawn Scannell and Tracy Tinker, it opens by unleashing the spitfire energy of Steffi Cheong, whose work has left an indelible imprint locally as a member of ODC San Francisco and Opera Parallèle. She dances the role of the girl child in a modest family of four, gathered ‘round a kitchen table in the shadowy niche of a set where the only light, as is de rigeur in Bruce pieces, is the itinerant spot on those in motion. When the desperate father and obdurate son (Garrett Anderson and Kendall Teague) tangle in a fraught duet, or the exquisite Danielle Rowe as the mother and family’s heat exchanger, radiates the now-potential, now-kinetic glow of energy that assembles and disperses the others, a universal cry wells up within us. “Shadows” is dance theatre in its finest contemporary hour, brought to life masterfully by a movement-sentient ensemble.

Sofranko invites José Limón’s 1942 “Chaconne” solo into the program, staged by Limón trustee, Gary Masters. It is danced by the ever-virtuosic Pascal Molat. Molat, a retired San Francisco Ballet principal dancer, is fully in league with his violin accompanist, René Mandel as he is present for his public. He dances a flawless adagio to Bach’s title work, pacing with compass-like precision through en croix or a pulsing promenade, while mediating a hot connection with his audience as he synchronizes each marvel of a phrase with Mandel.

In keeping with its mission, announced last season, the company’s first in San Francisco, Sofranko brings something old and something new to San Francisco dance audiences. The “new” here is the world premiere of “Two Dimes and a Nickel” by James Graham. If you’re unfamiliar with the genre called Gaga, this work is as good an introduction as you can find, and Graham’s name is becoming something of a dance culture hashtag because he is poised on the leading edge of it.

Gaga parries elements of Contact Improv, and in this instance deconstructs movement, sound, and medicinal vibrational voice techniques to elaborate theatricality that would otherwise go missing in the athletic steps themselves. “Two Dimes and a Nickel” opens with one, then two more dancers splayed on the floor. The first is Dana Genshaft, with Anderson and Teague as her seeming swains. The pyrotechnic gymnastics are scaled symmetrically, with burpees from floor to tremulous relevés stealing the trade from conventional dance combinations. With respect to authenticity, a comparison with “Shadows” is a hovering temptation. Though the Graham piece works hard to effect a certain rawness, in doing so, it loses ground to the now-subtle, now-dense layers of social sensibility that Bruce brings.

The three dancers work on a spatial plane where all valves remain open throughout, and so it loses traction when it shifts from no-plot to being self-consciously all about the boyz. In a semi-athletic, semi-erotic, semi-psychotic men’s duet, Genshaft (presumably as the Nickel) is sidelined. To squander the considerable talent that earlier in the piece draws the eye to her exclusively, only to now have her capering about the edges like a moving frame and witness to a snapshot of a drama between two men, would have to be ironic, or else sardonic. Anderson’s character ultimately loses it, and Teague’s rescues him from unspecified demons.

An appetizing opener to the program is Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Never Was” to a score by Purcell and Handel. It opens in darkness to sonorous drumbeats. Brett Conway and Danielle Rowe bring a partnership seasoned at Nederlands Dans Theatre to manipulations of the spine, and isolations of other body parts that bound into elastic jumps or handstands. Cerrudo turns the action upside down in Conway’s solo. Rowe’s port de bras are as persuasive as her torso. As the music changes from andante to allegro, the same combinations we saw earlier surface again as aerodynamic adaptations.

Rowe contributes her 2016 noir-ish composition, “For Pixie,” set to the Nina Simone classic, “Wild is the Wind.” It’s a duet danced steamily by Laura O’Malley and Brett Conway. O’Malley opens it running in place. She shimmies up the torso of her partner into a lift that she reshapes with turned in feet that slip over his flanks. An upright clinch introduces a poignant note of intimacy where the two dancers consume each other as if they were storming heaven. The storm becomes a maelstrom as the music reaches a crescendo that resolves by sending O’Malley back to where she began, running in place.

Penny Saunders’ “Soir Bleu,” a set piece inspired by the Edward Hopper painting of the same title, closes the evening. Elements of a mirrored wall and window (in Mario Alonzo’s set design) impel cast members (Steffi Cheong, Dana Genshaft, Danielle Rowe, Garrett Anderson, Brett Conway, Jaime García-Castilla and Kendall Teague) to recreate private moments in the lives that surrounded Hopper and his celebrity. Hopper’s wife Jo’s, for example has been subordinated to the artist’s ambitions. Outstanding costumes by Mark Zappone drape the women in urgently contemplative red, blue, and gentian from Hopper’s palette. Genshaft slithers up and down the end segment of the mirror wall, alone with a passion that has plenty of heft, but is given no quarter except this outer edge of a wall. Rowe and Conway have a duet on either side of a window pane to a metronome cadence where, in contradistinction to its exactitude, they connect only via mime, and not directly. All dancers line up as if at a barre to work in syncopated sets, until they release themselves to distort their mouths to piano themes. Then the three women move onto the floor in gentle yet powerful exercises that look like pledges of support to the representations they effect. The work’s concept is stirring, but coming as it does—the longest piece at the end of a program of five pieces with two intermissions—makes for too much of a good thing.

SFDanceworks invites and deserves all manner of generous support. Intelligent direction by Sofranko that sets aside ego and instant gratification in favor of curating programs consciously, and with an eye cultivated by the past but cast toward the future, should be prized and appraised with heartfelt enthusiasm and commitment. Bravo!

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.